Martin Ryle & Kate Soper To Relish the Sublime? Culture and Self-Realisation in Postmodern Times Verso, London, 2002, 262 pp. ISBN 1-85984-686-6 (hbk) 45 [pounds sterling] ISBN 1-85984-461-8 (pbk) 18 [pounds sterling]
In the current intellectual climate, To Relish the Sublime? can only be read as a bold, and to my mind welcome, assertion of moral and intellectual humanism. The premise of the book, as the title intimates, is a return to Matthew Arnold's conception of culture as the source of 'sublime' experiences from which all people, potentially, can benefit. In taking this initial step, Ryle and Soper's aim is to reaffirm the idea that some cultural works are more rewarding, and therefore better, than others. The principal reward of an engagement with learned culture is the development of what the authors call 'cultural self-realisation'. By this they mean the attainment of a mode of understanding that is both transcendent and self-transcendent--which resists comfortable convictions and less exacting forms of gratification in favour of a grasping of social contradictions, and an awareness of oneself as an incompletely integrated but self-making being.
Focusing their study on literary fiction, Ryle and Soper argue that works which foster self-realisation are those that inhibit the reader's immediate identification with characters, and instead invite 'critical participation in the act or arts of representation itself'. 'The best cultural works are "sublime"', they argue, because they give the reader 'access to a more comprehensive or writerly perspective'. The liberating force of cultural texts thus depends not simply on giving voice to the experience of marginalised or oppressed individuals and groups, nor on confirming the pre-given identity of the silenced outsider. Their value lies, instead, in the way these works can open up perspectives from which readers who identify with them might challenge and transform their victimised position--a process which implies, contrary to the assumptions of cultural particularism, that excluded subjects transcend their experience and are never fully constituted by their social identity. It is, indeed, part of the political power of sublime cultural texts, the authors point out, that they can conjure a world--the sweet, limitless love of Romeo and Juliet, for example--which in our alienated society has never been truly experienced, but in the imaginative light of which our current world stands condemned.
Ryle and Soper recognise that the ideal of the development and enrichment of the self through rational contemplation and reflexive awareness is, with its Cartesian understanding of the self as interiority, a product of European modernity, and one which has only been conceived of as a universal goal from the late-nineteenth century onwards. Thinking of the self as something formed by the individual's own efforts has also brought with it the peculiarly modern notion of the ethical autonomy and accountability of the individual. The self implicit in the notion of cultural self-realisation is unstable and restless, but not fragmented or diffuse in the postmodern sense. The modern self is permanently in search of its authentic essence and, by virtue of this interminable search, is always transcendent to that essence.