HUMS 059, Why the Sublime? Or, The Meaning and Value of Transcendence through Theory, Poetry, and Art

Meeting Time: 
TTh 2:30pm-3:45pm
Fall 2022

Course Description:

Have you ever experienced something so powerful you couldn’t possibly describe it? Have you ever felt both strongly attracted to and repulsed by something in a way that defied all logic? This course explores the role, structure, and value of the Sublime as an essential mode of human experience through a variety of theoretical writings, poetic expressions, and artistic outputs, in order to think through not only what the Sublime is but also why we need it. The essential claim of the Sublime, writes Thomas Weiskel, is that we can transcend the human. The etymology of the word suggests moving beyond limits. To study the Sublime, then, is to confront what it means to be human at and beyond our limits, whether those limits are constructed individually, socially, intellectually, emotionally, perceptually, or otherwise. The writers and artists we examine in this course show us that the affective registers of a confrontation with the Sublime include fear, confusion, humility, weakness, despair and (often at the same time) such opposites as courage, clarity, strength, wisdom, and ecstasy. Together we interrogative the conditions and significance of all of these Sublime feelings, and then take what we learn and attempt to investigate the role of the Sublime in our contemporary moment, and through our own personal experience.

Enrollment limited to first-year students. Preregistration required; see under First-Year Seminar Program.

Led by:

Riley Soles's picture

Professor Riley Soles

Riley Parker Soles is currently a Lecturer in the Humanities Program where he works on poetry and religion in a variety of cultural contexts. Previously, he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (2019-2021). He attended Harvard College (BA, 2005) and Harvard Divinity School (MTS, 2008) and earned his PhD from Yale’s East Asian Languages and Literatures Department in 2018. His dissertation, titled The Ecstasy of the Text, won the Marsten Anderson Prize for exceptional work in the field of East Asian Studies. At Yale, Soles has taught a variety of courses across several departments and programs, including Religious Studies, East Asian Studies, Comparative Literature, the Humanities Program, and Directed Studies. His book manuscript, based on his dissertation, traces the influence of ecstatic experience on a variety of literary and religious texts, both Western and Eastern. Soles has written and lectured on the relationship between literature, religion, and philosophy using a wide range of materials, from classical Japanese poetry, Buddhist scriptures, and Chinese Buddhist commentaries, to the works of Franz Kafka, the poetry of John Milton, and philosophical treatises on the Sublime. He is particularly interested in the ways poetic tropes transform between poems over time, and in the ways poetic texts create their own ontologies. 

Soles reads, understands, and teaches poetry as if the stakes were life itself. He believes it is essential both to possess and to be possessed by poems, and his students are usually required to memorize and recite some amount of poetry in his classes. His most recent offerings include courses on religious ecstasy, visionary poetry, and the Sublime.