second letter on the sublime (150 years later)


This month, you can read the second letter on the sublime. You will notice it still bears the familiar voice of a romantic type of sublime. Although, the tone and urgency of the idea of the sublime is changing. By the third letter (next month), the tipping point will have passed and the idea of the sublime will venture into our age.

For now, enjoy a bit of melancholy, especially since the work of Olmsted is included! Ah! Olmsted….



California, United Sates of America, Mariposa Big Tree Grove, May 5, 1889[1]

Dear Mister Venturous, dear Victor,

This response to your letter is rather late, many apologies for that. My sincerity is, however, far greater than the loss of time. My forebear Professor Criterion died on December 5, 1739, about the time your letter arrived in London. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Edward Jameson Criterion and although I am of British origin I am currently occupied in the United States of America. My family noticed in me a similar disposition and interests as displayed by my great grandfather and so they left me his most personal possessions. Of his possessions I received his books, notes and correspondences concerning his studies on human judgement and natural scenery. Now, precisely 150 years after you wrote about your remarkable sublime experiences in the French Alps, I feel it appropriate to continue this ‘correspondence across time and space’.

Your letter only revealed itself when I was in the US, working as an assistant to Frederick Law Olmsted. Ever since my childhood in Kent, South England, I was fascinated with the relationship between poetry and the land. Kent is blessed with fine natural scenery of delicate farmland and manorial estates. At the same time I have always felt that the interest of London citizens is pressing and almost resistant to any ‘real’ sublime that is present in the land. Most of these people are rich enough to possess a piece of Kent as a luxurious backyard and tend to mistreat their perceptions by imposing their all too personal needs. In the work of Mr Olmsted, an eloquent and concerned journalist with an agricultural interest, I read about values and desires that went beyond Kent and its beautifications.

Mr Olmsted is a travelled man and possesses a fine ability to observe any situation without hindrance of societal display. I accompanied him on his travels as a correspondent for The New York Daily Times. through the Southern states of the US to report on the influence of slavery on this region and the nation. He critically opposed slavery, yet nevertheless went through the effort of understanding this human enterprise. In that respect, I learned about a different type of ‘sublime’: that of a human sublime which is negative, destructive and at the same time fascinating in a morbid manner. To study this sublime is not to enjoy it, but to deeply understand it. There is a breathtaking measure and power present in this human sublime that is similar to an immediate exposure to the French Alps, as in your case.

In your letter you introduce the ‘real’ and the ‘tragic’ sublime. I can see the point in doing that. However, I wish to doubt your statement that the ‘tragic’ stands for the practical human style that better conveys the ‘real’ or ‘true’ sublime. The way I have witnessed reality has made me aware of the fact that humans are quite capable of instigating a ‘real’ sublime themselves. Through abominations such as slavery humans have proven that even the most ‘tragic’ theatricalities do not withhold them from the act of inhumane slavery. On the contrary! It seems to be crucial in understanding the irresistible force that pulls a man into such a deed. If you believe that people will become aware of their wrong while reading a book or ‘enjoying’ a tragic play, let alone become aware of this while doing wrong in the moment, then you underestimate the position human beings have in the nature of things.

As an illustration of this, you mention in your last paragraph the differences of opinion you had with your native French guide. Making a concise analysis of such differences is Mr Olmsted’s specialism. He would have enjoyed the native mind you so ‘effectively opposed’ and judged as ignorant. I share with Mr Olmsted the opinion that the native mind may be ignorant of civilized manners, yet at the same time contains more abilities and insights for dealing with the consequences of being part of nature. The ‘native’ mind instead seemed to peek right through this situation. Mr Olmsted has discovered an equally native mind in the original people that once occupied the lands of what are now the United States of America. The local tribes we have met travelled the Sierra lands for generations and adopted a way of living that served both their people and the environment. We can learn from these people and rid ourselves of the societal display that only clouds any ‘true’ understanding and action. These tribes exhibit an equal understanding of themselves and that which lies beyond the view of the mountains: a world of spirits, forefathers and ghosts that mirror our human existence in a universe that we share with all living creatures, and even non-living rocks and sand. The idea of owning a piece of the earth is to them an utterly insane idea. Humans are part of this totality and cannot separate themselves from it in order to own part of it. There is no need to feel shame in identifying the deepness beyond the mountain view.

In your letter you seem to oppose this irresistible force and even consider this resistance the mark of civilization. However, we must give way to this irresistible force that anticipates our reasoning and societal display. By doing so we are able to analyse our reasoning and display. We can be young children again, learning about the world instead of being mature and pretending to know at a distance. I believe that this is what drives Mr Olmsted and certainly holds my devotion.

After his career as a correspondent, Mr Olmsted had a chance to reveal his competences in a much more practical manner. No doubt driven by a desire to stimulate dormant ‘modern native minds’, the conception of Central Park arose in the expanding city of New York in 1858. After his travels and critical texts, he could finally create something so revealing and at the same time humane that all his former words and opinions seemed to be carved in stone, planting and water bodies. Mr Olmsted was originally trained as a scientific farmer and turned out to become a farmer of emotions and meaning through the construction of natural scenery. This park is meant to educate and ease today’s busy minds by a selection of natural arrangements. And it is now rapidly becoming the heart of an expanding city.

Throughout the design and materialization of this immense project, Mr Olmsted was in continuous communication with some ‘true’ sublime. His modern mind benefited from an inborn natural curiosity (an almost native instinct) and an undisputed talent as an organizer and manager. He employed thousands of people to construct a new landscape that would ignite the souls of hundreds of thousands of citizens. His style is not that of a ‘tragic’ sublime expressing noble ideas that would otherwise be unutterable. His style is to organize natural scenery that speaks and is expressive according to a striking ‘natural density of meaning’. He gave the people the right to be filled by their own inner ability to communicate with the ‘true’ sublime, as well as the opportunity to do so. The time and space between your letter and mine, 150 years, has made clear to me that mankind has learned to deal with the ‘true’ sublime without a necessary ‘tragic’ style that only clouds our immediate responses. Such a notion fills me with pride and hope for humanity.

In the last twenty years we have been busy gaining yet another step towards a ‘true’ sublime. We explored the Sierra lands with the whole Olmsted family, the geologist and expert on fossils William Ashburner, his wife Emilia and an African-American guide who understood the language of the local Miwok tribe. The wilderness landscape was ‘of a very peculiar character and much the grandest that I have ever seen, as Mr Olmsted himself wrote. We met three young artists who spent the summer of 1865 in Yosemite Valley: the landscape photographer Carleton Watkins and the landscape painters Thomas Hill and Virgil Williams. Along with the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, their artistic work has contributed much to publicize the grandness of Yosemite. The three youngsters were commissioned to advise on the landscape as the debate rages on protecting these potential mining grounds by creating the first National Park. In terms of its economic value as a tourist destination, Yosemite should be considered at least equivalent to the Swiss Alps. The broad exploration of this ‘true’ sublime landscape from personal, scientific and artistic viewpoints is very striking to me. It convinces me that people need all their faculties and abilities to engage with such an ancient land and future prospect.

Although the act to protect Yosemite ‘for public use, resort and recreation’ was signed June 30, 1864 by president Lincoln, at this very moment, a National Park is not a fact of life. I still doubt whether Yosemite and Mariposa Grove will ever become part of a National Park, despite all our efforts and Yosemite’s outstanding natural beauty. We had not foreseen that the protection of a true sublime source would be that much harder than creating an artificial park. In our opinion, science, art, politics, societal circumstances and economy all gain by this true sublime source. However, the general reluctance to establish a National Park is what motivated me to write this letter and hide it in a remote granite crevice in the heart of Mariposa Grove. I hope that in the next 150 years humanity will have gained another level of sublimity. It is to be hoped that scientists, artists, bankers and politicians will equally value the protection of natural sources and will jointly endeavour to create sublime parks and urban facilities that will compensate for the loss of ancient sublime sources. I am confident that ordinary citizens in that future will still consider Central Park to be a pure and true style of the sublime.

Maybe another 150 years of practice will perfect the art of creating landscapes to an extent that could even surpass the original conception of the park. Humans no longer live in valleys like Yosemite and Mariposa; we are not dependent upon them in the same manner as some tribes were once dependent upon the shelter and abundance of plants and wildlife they provided. To my mind, humans become more human by exploring their independence from ancient sublime sources, allowing them to create more ‘human’ sublime environments. However, without some original sources as well, they will forget about the mother of their inspiration. I have no doubt that human creations add to what nature provides, but every new generation needs an example of the harmony and intricate interdependences that ancient nature has produced in its million years of probing and adaptation. We cannot expect to create in a lifetime what life has been developing over such a long time. The ‘true’ value of an ancient sublime such as Yosemite is therefore as a frame of reference, awe-inspiring example and proof of a possible atmosphere of interdependences.

Long live natural creativity and long live the density of meaning present in both a grand view of Yosemite Valley and a microscopic inspection of the bark of a tree in Mariposa! And long live human creativity and a density of meaning that can be contained in a small box – the size of Central Park, or the size of a book on a shelf. Our busy world could easily contain thousands or millions of such boxes, thus multiplying a once hidden sublime source to a quantity that can easily be shared with all of the children of this earth. They would feed authentic minds that critically investigate all of the irresistible force driving us onwards.


Yours truly,

E.J. Criterion


[1] Sources used for this letter and persona: (Olmsted 1995) + (Olmsted 2003) + (Martin 2011)