Showing posts with label Sublime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sublime. Show all posts

The Apocalyptic Revelation of John:

A Sublime Text According to Aesthetic Tradition?


John of Patmos was a writer and a seer; also rumoured to be the Apostle, the Divine, and later the Saint. Whoever he really was — it is apparent from most accounts that no one really knows with any surety — ‘he’ was and is the author of the Apocalypse known as Revelation. It is a distinctive piece of religious doctrine, different and distant in tone and brevity from the other works contained in the Old and New Testament, making it ironically one of the most quoted and read books of the Bible. Its apparent prophetic nature and strange twists of style and image figuratively transport the reader to a world of imaginative and spiritual possibilities. ‘Cleaved’ between realms of belief and amazement, most readers, religious or not, become mesmerised by the violent ‘vision’ of John. It is according to the text itself a divinely inspired apocalyptic version of human existence, which, ultimately, defies any definitive interpretation of meaning. It does however invite a non-theological literary or aesthetic estimation of its value, because of its highly evocative rhetorical style, according to principles and theories known to a student of literature and the arts. The contention of this essay is to discuss certain aspects of Revelation and the King James Bible, [1] with the aid of relevant literary perspectives, both modern and classical.
This essay does not attempt an interpretation of the meaning of the text, as this is rather pointless in terms of my own limited biblical knowledge and the vast screeds of criticism already available on the subject. Nor do I intend to give a biographical account of the authors’ lives to contextualise meaning, due largely to the doubtful nature of the authors’ identities of the two main texts I use. The fact that understanding the text in terms of meaning is difficult, leads me to look at the style and technicality of such an artefact, in order to understand its value as a literary work. Aesthetic criteria or a technical analysis applied to the text of Revelation reveals that its most noticeable feature is its ‘sublimity’ in accordance with various theories of rhetoric and the sublime from classical through to modern times. Despite its religious nature, obvious allegiances to rhetorical principles make it both an aesthetically appreciable work of literature, and a mystically devout theological transcript.
Similarly, like Revelation, the question of authorship has been a point of conjecture by critics regarding another classical text: Peri Hypsous or On the Sublime. [2] Originally, thought to be written by Cassius Longinus, and then later regarded as the work of an unknown Greek author in the 1st Century BC. It is the first real treatment of the concept of ‘hypsous’, otherwise known as the sublime. Saint John the apostle and evangelist is regarded as being the writer of Revelation and, like Longinus, his authority has also been called into question by scholars and historians alike. [3] Aside from the confusion about the authors of the texts, they both appear to be written about the same period by ‘cultured Greeks’ as D.H. Lawrence calls them. [4] Rhetorical antecedents inform both texts: On the Sublime follows traditional lines of Greek literary criticism from Homer through Aristotle and Horace to Longinus. [5] Revelation is the apocalyptic pinnacle of prophetic verse. The use of metaphor, symbol, and analogy making it a rhetorically proficient and profound text.


To say that Revelation is sublime is to pose a hypothetical argument, as well as an aesthetic value judgement, which is exactly what this essay intends to do. The fact that rhetorically aesthetic criterion from antiquity like Longinus’ can be applied to a religious 17th Century text like the King James Bible, reflects the timeless nature of certain fundamental principles of literary excellence, and also the literary appeal of the KJB to 18th Century aestheticians and writers like Edmund Burke. The tone and didactic confidence of the voice of John, combined with the depth and omnipresence of his subject, makes for strong verse, well within the range of most theories of the sublime:
Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand . . . Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. (Rev 1:3-8)

The difference between a classical theory of poetic language like Longinus’ and an aesthetic theory like Burke’s is that the latter post-dates the former which as a consequence is relevant to the author’s (John’s) use of literary device. Because it may predate John’s work, Longinus’ theory quite possibly could have been an influence on his method, whether by direct contact or just a temporal culmination of traditional, cultural and contemporary literary practice and theory. Certain aspects of Longinus’ ideas, his regional location and era, and his own treatment of Genesis puts his work in the context of John’s literary and social knowledge. However, Burke’s treatise is applicable in discerning sublimity within the text, from an 18th Century perspective of psychological and aesthetic understanding. The other obvious difference is that one concentrates on linguistic function, whereas the other’s focus is on artistic and physiological effect.
Whether Longinus has any direct bearing on Revelation is purely hypothetical and debatable, yet as far as literary tradition goes, every work (divine or not) is logically influenced by a genealogy of ideas, linguistics and inspirational textual precursors. To ascertain the sublimity of Revelation in a literary context, I will apply select aspects of Longinus and Burke’s individual theories of the sublime, providing two different perspectives of the primary text. The interesting facet of my discussion is that both interpretations, using precepts divided by a millennium and a half of Western literary tradition, have essentially the same conclusion. That is, Revelation is interpretable as a text that uses a concept of the sublime, similar to Longinus’ and Burke’s, as a literary mode.


Longinus suggests in his treatise On the Sublime that art is the mediator of the innate ability to perceive, convey, and utilise the sublime. There are five sources of the sublime, the first two being innate, the last three the ’product of art’. They are: “the ability to form grand conceptions . . . stimulus of powerful and inspired passion . . . the proper formation of two types of figure, figures of thought and figures of speech, together with the creation of a noble diction, which in its turn may be resolved into the choice of words, the use of imagery, and the elaboration of the style. The fifth source of grandeur, which embraces all those I have already mentioned, is the total effect resulting from dignity and elevation.” [6] The first two of these precepts is characteristic of Revelation and to most of the other apocalyptic works of the Bible. These two aspects are almost stereotypical character traits of the religious prophet also; John reveals himself to have these ‘innate’ abilities in his writing. This divine aspect of Longinus’ theory connects the sublime via literature to religion, as David Norton points out in A History of the Bible as Literature:

Longinus pushes both these sources towards divinity. Sublimity is not just ‘the echo of a noble mind’ (Ch. 9, p. 109); it ‘carries one up to where one is close to the majestic mind of God’ (Ch. 36, p. 147) . . . Sublimity bespeaks divinity. So too does the Bible. It was [and still is] difficult, following Longinus, not to think of the Bible as sublime, especially as he himself, in a famous passage, had taken one of his examples of sublimity from the Bible. [7]

One passage from Longinus almost describes exactly John’s reaction and mimetic experience, as a noble vessel for Christ’s spirit and the ‘word of God’:

certain emanations are conveyed from the genius of the men of old into the souls of those who emulate them, and, breathing in these influences, even those who show very few signs of inspiration derive some degree of divine enthusiasm from the grandeur of their predecessors. (Ch. 13, p.119)

John’s own inspiration to write, stems from the direct influence of his religious idol Christ, and his sublime experience of the ultimate artistic creator — God:

I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet, Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book. (Rev. 1:9-10)

The ability to conceptualise and vocalise the grand thoughts of Christ and God is echoed in this passage from Revelation. According to Longinus, this very act characterizes ‘nobility of the soul’.
John’s descriptions of ‘beasts’ with “seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion”(Rev. 15:1-2); are typical of the imagery he uses to induce a sense of the sublime, in order to convey the severity of God’s judgement and to emphasize the horror of hell and its minions. The ‘inspired passion’ of the narrator is obvious enough. The symbolic imagery, vigour of speech, intensity of vision and hyperbolic emotion, pervades the text. For example: “And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength. And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead” (Rev. 1:16-17).
For Longinus, rhetorical figures invoke the sublime when their utility is well hidden; the fact that John’s text is one complete metaphor makes it sublime in its simplicity and in its technical covetousness. The phrasing of the verse is neither too alliterative, unless to impress the sound of the sense, or too plain as to be mediocre. There is an economy of words that enforces the repetition of images and ideas of a profound nature on the mind of the reader. Sections throughout have a bard-like quality to their diction that seems to lull the reader into a trance-like state, with the hypnotic (over) tones of a satanic tempter:

And the angel said unto me, Wherefore didst thou marvel? I will tell thee the mystery of the woman, and of the beast that carrieth her, which hath the seven heads and ten horns. The beast that thou sawest was, and is not; and shall ascend out of the bottomless pit, and go into perdition: and they that dwell on the earth shall wonder, whose names were not written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they behold the beast that was, and is not, and yet is. (Rev. 17:7 -8)

As the last book of the KJB, Revelation needed to be special — to be able to impress upon the mind of the reader the severe consequences of faithlessness and the words and miracle of John’s ‘vision’. It serves to heighten the sense of Christian beliefs by describing, in vividly imaginative terms, the antithetical options available to the unrepentant.
Whether written in terms of a-priori aesthetic or doctrinal ideals, Revelation inspires an imaginative interpretation in the literary-minded reader, rather than a spiritual awakening or re-enforcement of belief from a theological perspective. However, even from an aesthetically focused viewpoint, the most ‘disinterested’ objectivity of an art critic sways with the imagination’s subjective metamorphosis of the mystical symbols of the Apocalypse. The power of evocative images, prophetic language of a delusional seer, combined with the wrathful plans of a despotic God, causes the reader to fall back on either their logical beliefs or imagination to make sense of it all. Caught somewhere between these systems of mind, is the nagging doubt that this strangely compelling narrative is too fantastic to be factual, or too profound to be fiction. In other words, it leads us to believe in something or to question the text’s validity as a work of literature.
In terms of Longinus’ ideas of rhetoric and sublimity, Revelation could well have been an example in his treatise if it had been written a few centuries earlier. In order to understand the sublime, if we ever can, we must have some notion of what exists beyond our physical world. Longinus explains that this “beyond” is metaphorical, the sublime—illusion, a human construct designed to extend the imagination and the limits of our world. The sublime is that which defies logical sense and the imagining of what the ethereal sublime actually is. What is God, what is hell? It is that whose infinite presence reduces all else to disillusion, a force that affects the individual’s own system of values and beliefs in relation to their existence. This consideration produces prophets, seers, and artists like John. This thing called the sublime, whether by Longinus or Burke’s definition, is only a name applied to a feeling one gets when encountering something beyond the grasp of our words. Whatever it is can really only be described in literary terms, as Ludwig Wittgenstein suggests:

That the world is my world, shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world. [8]

These limits of expression, these experiences of the sublime feeling, are what Burke attempts to harness by literary definition; beginning where Longinus left off and where John had already gone in Revelation.


Given Burke’s criteria for the sublime in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, parts of the Revelation at the end of the New Testament are sublime. It is an example of a text that emphasises the sublimity and grandeur of a supernatural world and an omnipresent God. Burke’s account of the sublime, places importance on the perception of subjects in relation to physiological senses. This notion of Burke’s differs from the concept of the sublime established by Longinus. Burke notes physiological states and sensory experience as a-priori conditions for the sublime, whereas before, the experience lay in the interpretation of the word image.
The primary source of the sublime, for Burke, is ‘power,’ with its main effect being ‘terror’ or ‘astonishment.’ The sublime, according to Burke, is “an idea belonging to self-preservation”(Enquiry, p. 79) that produces terror, fear, pain, and is characterised by obscurity, danger, power, greatness of dimension, vastness of extent, infinity (eternity) and magnificence. Further features of the sublime are loudness (of sound), suddenness (of movement or sound), intermittent light (and sound), darkness, confusion, and dullness in colour. The most important passion caused by the sublime, is that which is described by Burke under the heading of “Terror”:

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too. [9]

The self-realisation of human mortality and frailty, in the face of the immortal and numinous ‘idea’ of a wrathful unseen God, is what instils fear in our hearts, with the result that we experience the sublime sensation of terror or horror. Therefore, anything that is sublime for Burke inspires fear or inflicts pain upon our senses. As pointed out earlier these are what he calls “the passions which concern self-preservation”, (36) and these passions are what Burke considers, “the most powerful of all the passions”. In Revelation, these passions of fear operate in tandem with what Burke terms ‘astonishment’, the state when “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it” (Enquiry, p.53). This passion of fear is caused by the overwhelming vastness of dimension and sublimity in nature, in contrast to human powerlessness and inferiority in the face of its power and majesty. Revelation has twice the sublimity of a response to nature; it is an emotional response to God, nightmarish in its imagery and effect:

And they of the people and kindreds and tongues and nations shall see their dead bodies three days and an half, and shall not suffer their dead bodies to be put in graves . . . And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them. And they heard a great voice from heaven saying unto them, Come up hither. And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud; and their enemies beheld them. And the same hour was there a great earthquake, and the tenth part of the city fell, and in the earthquake were slain of men seven thousand: and the remnant were affrighted, and gave glory to the God of heaven. (Rev., 11:9—13)

As Burke points out (in the section on vastness), things of “magnitude” are sublime, and so too is the “last extreme of littleness”. He sums up by comparing it to the “still diminishing scale of existence” (Enquiry, II, VII, 66). The obscurity of God’s presence and the clarity of his wrath are enough to render him near entirely sublime, in accordance with Burke’s account, as is his power and ability to inspire in most creatures “the passion of self-preservation”. The figure of God (because of his great power) is the most sublime and all-powerful character of Revelation. Burke states in the Enquiry, “power is undoubtedly a capital source of the sublime” (II, V, 64). It is this section on ‘Power’, which is the most relevant to this discussion of Revelation as a sublime work:

And indeed, the ideas of pain, and above all of death, are so very affecting, that whilst we remain in the presence of whatever is supposed to have the power of inflicting either, it is impossible to be free from terror. (Enquiry, p.59)

The power of God, over Satan and his legion of sinners, is emphasised by John. The superiority of God’s power is what makes pain and redemption possible for all things inferior to his hierarchical force, i.e. us (humans), apart from the unredeemable Satan of course. As Burke points out, “wheresoever we find strength, and in what light soever we look upon power, we shall all along observe the sublime and the concomitant of terror “ (II, V, 61). The terror in Revelation is in the fear of God’s power. After all, the wielding of redemption by death has to be the most sublime way to enter the ‘temple’ of heaven, which is also a place so sublime it is beyond human imagining:

And the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from his power; and no man was able to enter into the temple, till the seven plagues of the seven angels were fulfilled. (Rev., 15:8)

Given Burke’s account of the criteria for the sublime, Revelation is an example of a sublime work. The representation of power is the most significant characteristic of the work’s sublimity. Similarly, the depiction of terror, fear, power, darkness, depth, vastness, privation, and obscurity, all come together in the text to fulfil the criteria of what Burke considers the sublime.


Either the reader who comes to the Book of Revelation is a scholar, a Christian, or just curious as to how it all ends (the Bible and the world, as we know it). The non-Christian reader might look at the Bible because it is a book. Flicking through the lucid and profound chapters of Genesis, maybe appreciating some of the Psalms or the Book of Job, noticing the ‘poetic’ qualities of the text as they proceed. By taking the Aristotelian shortcut of a traditional ‘speed-reading’: perusing the beginning, the middle, and finally the end, the reader is shocked out of a conventional reading by the violent confusion and sublimity of Revelation. It has the effect of making one reflect on what they have read prior, in order to understand its complex and quite surrealistic images and density. It also turns the reader around, driving them back to the other books of the Bible, to cross-reference the highly symbolic words and events.
Of course, such a reading presumes that the Bible is a complete narrative and not an anthology of religious texts from different eras and peoples. If Revelation itself were read separately, it would be no harder or less difficult to read, than say The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. On its own, Revelation is probably more appreciable as a literary work without the detritus balance of the hefty Bible. What is unavailable to the imagination is what makes it such a sublime text according to Longinus and Burke. The variations of interpretation extend its range beyond a factual account of “the word of God”, to the unlimited possibilities of human creativity and existence. Whether this effect is caused by the passionately obscure ‘apocalyptic’ style — the English translation of a Greek text — or the possibility the literary mode of the Longinian sublime was used to provoke aesthetic and/or spiritual reaction, is beyond definition. What is not beyond recognition is the fact that the reader brings to the text, much in the same way as the writer does, influences and contexts from the sphere of their own experience and expectations.


[1] The Holy Bible, The King James Version, (Cambridge: Cambridge) 1769. 12:7-11. From hereon all references to the Authorised King James Version of the Holy Bible will be referenced with the abbreviation KJB.
[2] See Aristotle/Horace/ Longinus, Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch (London: Penguin Books, 1965) pp. 97-158.
[3] All historical and factual data given henceforth, regarding biblical characters, authors, events, places and times, is from: William Smith; revised and edited by F.N. and M.A. Peloubet, Smith’s Bible dictionary [computer file], electronic ed., Logos Library System, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1997.
[4] See Apocalypse and the Writings on Revelation, by D.H. Lawrence, ed. by Mara Kalnins (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), p. 66:18-19. An interesting, lively, subjective and comprehensive account of Lawrence’s beliefs and studies about Revelation. Provides an account of commentaries and conjecture regarding aspects covered briefly in this essay, i.e. authorship, literary attributes and attitudes.
[5] Hereon, for the sake of convenience, I shall use ‘Longinus’ as the author’s name of On the Sublime as no other name is forthcoming.
[6] See Aristotle/Hrace/ Longinus, Classical Literary Criticism, translated by T. S. Dorsch (London: Penguin Books, 1965) p. 108.
[7] See A History of the Bible as literature: Volume Two, From 1700 to the Present Day, by David Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp.6—7.
[8] See Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd, 1933), p.151.
[9] Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Beautiful and the Sublime, ed. Adam Phillips, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 53. From hereon, the abbreviated title Enquiry, will be used for this edition.

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