When Asked to Meditate Lyrically on the Relevance of Theory to Everyday Life


"It is the nature of grief to keep its object perpetually in its eye, to present it in its most pleasurable views, to repeat all the circumstances that attend it, even to the last minuteness; to go back to every particular enjoyment, to dwell upon each, and to find a thousand new perfections in all, that were not sufficiently understood before; in grief, the pleasure is still uppermost;"

—Edmund Burke

My History of Literary Criticism midterm asked me to meditate lyrically on the relevance of theory to everyday life. I turned first to my Notes app and the catalogue of things that triggered the cute, the zany, the heavy-with-aura and the sublime for me personally. In class, our professor mentioned that childhood is a series of sublime experiences. Are aesthetic categories innate, developed or a combination of the two?

Theory emerges from lived experience. But it can also possess blindspots that are born out of unexamined privileges. While Burke notes “the eye is not the only organ of sensation by which a sublime passion may be produced,”  his theory of the sublime and the beautiful still heavily privileges the visual over the verbal and other sensations. Of smells and tastes he posits they “have some share too in ideas of greatness; but it is a small one, weak in its nature.” On the differences between the beautiful and the sublime Burke writes “they are indeed ideas of a very different nature, one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure.” How does our understanding of aesthetic categories change when we think about accessibility and power? What would a disabilities studies reading of Burke’s theory look like? What triggers the sublime? According to Burke, it is the obscure, the vast, the infinite, that which causes emotional distress. It’s the precipice at the edge of a cliff on an overcast day or the crack of lightning in the middle of the night. But what about the ordinary?

What struck me the first time I read Burke was the feeling that the sublime is something that happens to you. That you’re without agency when faced with these triggering sensations. The sublime is happening all the time. When I’m on the bus and experience a bout of climate anxiety, that is the sublime at work. When I read a WhatsApp message from a relative in Guyana about Exxon’s oil crimes, the eco-grief it triggers is sublime. When I google aerial view photos of the Mazaruni River, a giant dark snake of a thing that winds its way through the green, that too is sublime.

I wonder what my response to the midterm would look like had I sat down to write it today. News headlines are triggering the sublime: NY Cases Near 40K, 385 Dead; ‘Almost Any Scenario Will Overwhelm Health System: The amount of different types of punctuation in that headline alone is enough to trigger the sublime. The sobering meaning of the letter ‘K’ attached to a number feels like something rotten. Because “words do not affect simply by their sounds, but by means altogether different” I close read shopping bags and storefronts for the sublime. My cousin, a first-year medical resident working at Elmhurst Hospital, texts me about dwindling supplies and hospital bureaucracy, and that triggers the sublime. Any text notification is sublime. I see a close-up shot of a ventilator and hear my dead grandma panting for breath. I look at anything she’s ever touched—the plants lining her windowsill, the faux flowers living in huge vases, the belna she used to balay roti—and I confuse it for the sublime.

If theory is a schematic, is poetry also a kind of theory? Too often I mistake the ordinary for sublime.

“A sudden beginning or sudden cessation of sound of any considerable force, has the name power.”

—Edmund Burke

The underbelly of the FDR drive is purple like a pigeon’s neck, purple like when the sun hits an oil spill. Are pigeons called pests because there are too many of them? I’ve seen strangers feed the pigeons that flock to the pause of concrete that separates Queens Boulevard from Kew Gardens Road. Pigeons in flight remind me of parentheses with wings. Of an airborne sentence, a run on. Of anger and its tendency to agitate the dust around it before settling near our feet again. If prayer is a bird, then a flock of pigeons circling the half-eaten crust of last night’s dollar pizza must be god. Flying is just a confrontation between feather and breeze. I keep trying to locate god in flight, in things that fly away. Is it still ordinary if I find it sublime?

It is always spring in my dead grandma’s house thanks to Jamaica Avenue’s faux flower shops. She collected them. Lipstick red, canary yellow, royal purple. They are longer than the length of my arm with heads as big as my own. The oversized vase the bunch live in have sculpted swan heads for handles. Seasons slip and slide. They settle into their own, but these blooms are frozen in a manufactured spring. Frozen too in that they were last arranged by her hands and left untouched after her death. Would it still have the same aura if she lived?

“Excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror. The noise of vast cataracts, raging storms, thunder, or artillery, awakes a great and awful sensation in the mind, though we can observe no nicety or artifice in those sorts of music.”

—Edmund Burke

I sat at the bus stop waiting for bus one of two en route to train one of two. It made sense that I would lose my headphones the day before. A blind person sat a seat away from me on the bench, spat on the seat between the two of us, and proceeded to sing a song in a voice that sounded like sermon. I am sure it wove its way down Avenue C until the M9 arrived. The lyric they kept repeating was this: “and then you’ll know the storm rolling through your home.” Their voice shifted seamlessly between notes that sank low and notes that reached high, mapping longing, grief, hope, conviction. Earlier, when they spat on that seat between us, and their companion told them to stop, they replied: “I didn’t know there was a seat there—now I know.” I am thinking about that sentence structure: I didn’t know, now I know.” Is it still ordinary if I find it sublime?

Guyana means the land of many waters. Traditional wooden houses stand on stilts, assume that (manageable) floods will be a fact of life. Beneath these structures is what’s called the bottomhouse. Life unfurls here, gossip flies. According to the internet, almost 80% of Guyana’s population lives in low-lying coastal regions, some of those regions were already below sea level before the sea started its rapid rise. I never knew what the word stelling meant growing up in our concrete corner of Queens. I did not have the same relationship to water my father has. Did not know that rivers have mouths, did not ever have to consult a river tide chart on any of my commutes. Parika Stelling is both terminus and beginning—the end of land and the beginning of journey by ferry or speedboat. It is the edge of, the precipice. It is both arrival and departure. Can it be called diaspora if it doesn’t feel sublime?

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