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Monstrous Weather: Meeting the Sublime in the Sky

 

 

I will never forget the feelings of anticipation I experienced as I was growing up in Florida when June approached every year. Any given summer day would give a chance for nature to unleash thunderstorms. The Florida peninsula’s geography creates bicoastal sea breezes that, combined with high humidity, regularly spawn intense tropical deluges. Never mind that summer also signals the official hurricane season, generating huge cyclones in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean; these localized storms, with frequent lightning, slashing and heavy downpours, and even occasional hail and tornadoes, force residents to always “keep a weather eye out.” So much was I entranced by the power of these sky phenomena that I seriously considered a career in meteorology—that is, until I began the study of physics and found out we didn’t get along well.

 

My love affair with extreme weather lasted far beyond my decision about college major and career. As the technology to track and predict storms improved, so did the number of people with video equipment recording them passively—or actively chasing them. I couldn’t get enough of watching both hurricane and tornado footage, at first in documentaries, then on The Weather Channel, and later via YouTube. But I never quite understood my fascination with and attraction for them, especially given the destructive consequences of these storms in terms of both lives and property…until I learned about “the sublime.”

 

The sublime evolution

The concept of the sublime has morphed over the years since its first major introduction in the Greek work On the Sublime, written around the first century C.E. by an unknown author referred to as Pseudo-Longinus. In its most general definition, the sublime is the quality ascribed to something that induces feelings of grandeur or elevation. From the 18th century onward, the sublime evolved to be more descriptive of natural phenomena. It also became distinct from mere beauty in that it included feelings of terror and awe. Beauty, though wonderful, seems more possessable and comforting; the sublime cannot be controlled and thus invokes some fear.

 

In his The Power of Myth conversation with Bill Moyers called “Masks of Eternity,” Joseph Campbell discusses the relationship between epiphanies of the Divine and our aesthetic encounters. Moyers contends that this must be a beautiful experience, but Campbell counters, “I tell you, there’s another emotion associated with art which is not of the beautiful, but of the sublime. And what we call monsters can be seen as sublime. And they represent powers too great for the mere forms of life to survive” (36:57-37:22). Moyers wrestles in this moment between the ethical judgment of beauty as good and the monstrous as bad. Shouldn’t the Eternal (behind the “mask”) be only good?

 

Shouldn’t the Eternal (behind the “mask”) be only good?

 

The word sublime still evokes the connotations of both allure and excellence, and the way in which Campbell elucidates it—drawn primarily from Arthur Schopenhauer—seems jarring at first. However, just as in Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad the old chiefs of Troy describe Helen oxymoronically as, “Beauty! Terrible beauty!” (3.190), I began to appreciate this more complex and even paradoxical definition of sublime when I began to contemplate my love of storms. If someone were to say, “The weather is beautiful,” most people not only normally think of pleasing qualities (comfortable temperatures, clear skies, etc.) but also a sense of calm, i.e. no ominous displays of the overwhelming power of nature. In its deeper, philosophical sense, saying “The weather is sublime” would have to include not just unpleasant qualities but forces that would be dangerous. In fact, when we call someone “a force of nature,” we mean having a relentless and unstoppable character. And sustained, intense power often becomes life-threatening.

 

Fear and wonder in the wind

Witnessing a thunderstorm, a tornado, or a hurricane that instills this realization of how helpless we are in the face of nature can foster a sense of the overwhelming power of Divinity. Moreover, it can deflate our exaggerated sense of self. “Somehow with the diminishment of your own ego,” Campell further explains to Moyers, “the consciousness expands. This is the experience of the sublime…of tremendous power and energy” (37:51-38:08). When the ego senses a threat to survival, the most common human reaction is fear, and anything fear-invoking is labeled as bad. But don’t humans also seek out fear—from horror films to roller coasters? Something in that feeling of ego diminishment and the contact with uncontrollable energy beckons us, and Campbell affirms that it can give us a peek behind one of the masks of eternity.

 

So despite my moral misgivings about enjoying (and sometimes even wishing for) weather events that may cause losses of property and life, this rapture at the sublime is, as Campbell offers, “transcendent of ethics, no didactics.” The very fact that nature can and does destroy helps convey the sublime feeling. Likewise, the dozens of amateur videos I have watched of people filming tornadoes, some within hundreds of yards (which many commenters decry as suicidal and foolish), further indicates the compelling influence of the sublime on people. In these types of phenomena, Campbell suggests in “Masks of Eternity” that “the monster comes through,” something that “breaks all your standards for harmony and ethical conduct” (38:42-38:54), including self-preservation and -protection.

 

I sometimes look back on the twists and turns of my life and wonder what kind of career I might have enjoyed had I pushed through my fear of the study of physics to become a meteorologist. Naturally, the job of storm chaser comes to mind, gathering data on severe weather from the closest of perspectives—on the ground, at least. And while the idea of that activity being “in the name of science” assuages my need for the lost career path to be logical, I can’t help but feel deep down that chasing storms for me would also be chasing the sublime. That realization makes me feel much more connected to humanity than having a purely rational reason.

 

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MythBlast authored by:

 

Scott Neumeister is a literary scholar, author, TEDx speaker, and mythic pathfinder from Tampa, Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of South Florida in 2018. His specialization in multiethnic American literature and mythology comes after careers as an information technology systems engineer and a teacher of English and mythology at the middle school and college levels. Scott coauthored Let Love Lead: On a Course to Freedom with Gary L. Lemons and Susie Hoeller, and he has served as a facilitator for the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s Myth and Meaning book club at Literati.

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