Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry”


Burke sets out to define and explore beauty with greater precision than has been done before. He defines taste as the judgment of imagination and art 13. He gives language as a sort of proof for universal taste, and locates sight as perhaps the simplest aesthetic source of agreement: we all prefer sunshine and swans to clouds and geese, he claims 15. Taste is a composite, moving from the senses through the imagination up to the level of understanding – it is not a separate faculty.

Burke argues that our minds are more apt to trace resemblances than differences “because by making resemblances, we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock, but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination” 18. Though knowledge has increased over time, Taste has not changed 19. Aesthetics are common across nations and classes of men through “the pleasure arising from a natural object, so far as each perceives it justly imitated… the sympathy proceeding from a striking and affecting incident” 20. We differ in the degree, not the manner, of our response, either through closer attention to the object or greater natural sensibility to its charms 21.

Bad taste arises from “a defect of judgment” which is either “a natural weakness of understanding” or “a want of proper and well-directed exercise” 23. For Burke, like Kant and Schiller, aesthetic training promises what Kant calls a sensus communis, where the “common sense” that unifies man’s faculties is translated to communal taste.

Curiosity is the first of our emotions, but it is fickle and unfaithful in its pursuits 29. Burke separates pain and pleasure, holding that both are positive – but that the removal of one does not cause the other. Rather, each is something instantly felt as a positive value, not merely something that occurs in the other’s absence 31. Delight is the removal of pain, whereas pleasure is the positive experience.

The passions surrounding individual preservation hover around pain and danger, and they are the ones we feel most powerfully 36. For Burke, anything that excites terror is sublime. The preservation of mankind must be incited by a great pleasure (sexual pleasure), but its absence is not significantly painful 38. Men do not make love in seasons because reason already moderates the frequency of sex. The pleasure of sex is a mixture of love and lust, and the object of this feeling is women.

Burke wonders why beauty, which is separable from the sexual, should inspire feelings of tenderness in us – why God ‘designed’ it so 39. He turns first to sympathy, which is “a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected… it is by this principle chiefly that poetry, painting, and the other affecting arts, transfuse their passions from one breast to another, and are often capable of grafting a delight on wretchedness, misery, and death itself” 41. I’m struck by how this model of sympathy poses it as a form of metaphor or figuration.

But we also take delight in the pain of others, namely when it occurs in artifice, for imitation “is never so perfect, but we can perceive it is an imitiation” 43. Imitation is a pleasure in itself. When the object is something we would otherwise not have interest in, an artwork has its strength mainly in mimesis (form, not content) 45. When the object is something spectacular, then the artwork is mainly about the object itself (content, not form) 46. Burke concludes the section by acknowledging that if he has made mistakes, he at least “clears the way for others” 50.

The next section investigates the sublime and the beautiful. Burke once again emphasizes the primacy of the visual. The sublime must be something we cannot fully know, but this is actually better effected by language than visual imitation 54. “A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea,” since a great idea will appear boundless 58. God, for this reason, is sublime. Burke compares length, height, and depth as modes of the great dimension of the sublime [these are also the visual dimensions of cinema – think Linda Williams on Avatar!] Depth is more sublime (looking down) than looking out or up can be 66. “No work of art can be great, but as it deceives,” and this it does by dimensions that appear boundless, but, paradoxically, not in excess 70.

Magnificence, which is the profusion of things, is also sublime [faceting]. Stars are not beautiful as one, but in their number.

“In works of art, this kind of grandeur, which consists in multitude, is to be very cautiously admitted; because, a profusion of excellent things is not to be attained, or with too much difficulty; and, because in many cases this splendid confusion would destroy all use, which should be attended to in most of the works of art with the greatest care; besides it is to be considered, that unless you can produce an appearance of infinity by your disorder, you will have a disorder only without magnificence” [Jameson, postmodernism, hysterical realism] 72.

“There are also many descriptions in the poets and orators which owe their sublimity to a richness and profusion of images, in which the mind is so dazzled as to make it impossible to attend to that exact coherence and agreement of the allusions” 72.

Smell and taste have a lesser role in greatness than sight and even sound [think of Vivian Sobchack: cinema is not touch itself, but s(t)imulates it]. Burke turns to beauty next. He contends, vs the Greeks, that beauty is not in proportion or measurement. He uses the scientific method to claim that if “two bodies produce the same or a similar effect on the mind,” the properties in which they agree, rather than disagree, should be examined 85. Beauty is varied not just between species of flora and fauna, but individuals of the same species (women). Still, “there is a certain proportion in each species absolutely essential to the beauty of that particular kind,” and “the beautiful in each kind will be found in the measures and proportions of that kind” 90. (This is where Kant will divide beauty and free beauty.)

If beauty were utility – the suitedness of a particular being to “answer its end,” then we would find many things beautiful that we instead find ugly 95. To be beautiful, the imagination must “revolt against the reason” 99. Burke considers that women affect weakness and silliness because “beauty in distress is much the most affecting” 100. We do not love the father’s authority as we do the mother’s tenderness 101. Beauty is “some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses” 102. Thus beauty is the mediated sensual experience of the object. Beauty is usually small, whereas the sublime is usually large (TV/cinema).

Burke then moves on to claim that every lovely thing is smooth: leaves, flowers, streams, “coats of birds and beasts in animal beauties; in fine women, smooth skins; and in several sorts of ornamental furniture, smooth and polished surfaces” 104. (Already underlying this idea seems to be the lack of challenge beauty presents, vs. the sublime – it is facile.) “Any ruggedness, any sudden projection, any sharp angle, is in the highest degree contrary” to beauty 104. He even imagines the suturing of the gaze across a woman’s body – the smooth maze around her neck and chest where the eye wanders 105.

Burke finally turns to touch. He claims that pleasing surfaces “are so by the slightness of the resistance they make” – “bodies which continually vary their surface,” but never “suddenly… squares, triangles, and other angular figures, are neither beautiful to the sight nor feeling” 110. In the end, beauty and the sublime are so explicitly gendered in Burke that to state it is an embarrassment.

Burke admits that many of these are his own personal conclusions. He also writes, in advance of Sobchack, as it were: “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other” 121. Some have periodized this as a loss in postmodernism, but it would be interesting to counter that with “cinesthetic bodies.” Love is one such connection of the mind and the body (beauty and lust) 136. Burke ends by beginning to prioritize poetry, since “words… [are] capable of being the representatives of these natural things… able to affect us often as strongly as the things they represent, and sometimes much more strongly” 161. (Think of Forster and sympathy, as well as how Burke himself makes sympathy a figuration…) Still, the purpose of the treatise, he asserts, was to create a standard of taste across genres.



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