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The Apocalyptic Sublime by Morton D. Paley (Yale University: $35; 196 pp., illustrated)

November 23, 1986|George J. Leonard | Leonard, a Simon & Schuster novelist, teaches in the interdisciplinary Humanities Department at San Francisco State University

The 18th Century knew a lot about art, but it didn't know what it liked. Officially, it admired the beautiful and the useful, as would-be men of reason should. Unofficially, the men of reason took irrational joy in tree-smashing waterfalls, giddy precipices, raging seas.

And so do we. Which raises an aesthetic question: Why do we like to look at pictures of scenes we'd hate to be in the middle of? Dickens, Eric Solomon reports, later wondered at--and exploited--what he called "the attraction of repulsion."

S. H. Monk, Albert O. Wlecke and many others have described how the 18th-Century British explained away such perverse preferences as a noble taste for the "sublime." In 1756, the statesman-philosopher Edmund Burke stretched that old rhetorical category to encompass all sights that "rob the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning. . . ." Whatever amazes or terrifies is "therefore . . . sublime, too."

The distinguished Morton D. Paley of Berkeley is more respectful of what he calls Burke's "new, psychological sense of the word" than Monk is, or than I am. By 1805, Richard Payne Knight was already objecting that if Burke were to walk through London without his breeches, carrying a loaded blunderbuss, he would amaze and terrify but fall short of the "sublime."

Happily, Paley's book steers through this Sargasso of aesthetics in one admirable chapter. What interests Paley is not this hoary controversy but a splendid mode of painting. For a century, Burke's sanctioning theory encouraged artists to explore on canvas their most terrifying fantasies.

Paley documents a growing British obsession--as the French Revolution nears--with images of "the crack of doom," a final, dumbfounding Deluge bursting the columns of Augustan temples, Death on his pale horse trampling children; the ravished women, whirlwinds, storm clouds and skeletons galloping on horseback, often supported by auxiliary forces of lions with bat wings, giant fish vomiting hell, flying eels with ears like bassets.

In the hands of a Blake, this mode (Paley's "apocalyptic sublime") could produce disturbing, uncanny figures like the Great Red Dragon and the Beast From the Sea. One sees such images (this was Blake's genius) with jolts of uneasy recognition: like recognizing something from dreams your conscious mind had wisely suppressed.

Turner contributes holocausts of light. Benjamin West, John Martin and P. J. de Loutherbourg imagine scenes that predict Wagnerian stagecraft. The book contains 92 large illustrations, many rare, seven in color.

Paley's important point is that British fascination with the mode starts about the time of the French Revolution and dies out shortly after Britain steered past the continental revolutions of 1848.

"Tell me what you like," John Ruskin once wrote, "and I'll tell you who you are"--and what frightens you, too, it seems. Paley observes: "After it became clear that England would not have a violent revolution but would, however slowly, institutionalize change," artists and audiences alike dropped the apocalyptic sublime. Even works originally potent lost their dreamlike power: By 1935, three of Martin's masterworks sold for a combined sum of seven (yes, seven) pounds.

This book belongs on the literary scholar's bookshelf as well as on the art historian's. Like Millard Meiss' esteemed "Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death," Paley's book convincingly uses art history to reveal how deeply a culture has been shaken. "The Apocalyptic Sublime" reminds us that paintings come out of a culture just as writings do and are sometimes an even more useful window back onto that culture's obsessions.

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