Pain does not emerge as a topic of philosophical interest until the work of Michel de Montaigne in the late sixteenth century, claiming “that which sharpens our pain and heightens our sensual pleasure results from our brimming imagination” (in Rey, 1995: 68). While the British empiricist philosophers Locke (1690) and Hume (1739) carry this interest in pain further, it is not until the appearance of Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1757 that pain becomes a focal point of discussion. A new interest in the concept of pain emerges, therefore, around the middle of the “philosophical century” of Enlightenment, and this appearance is inseparable from an aesthetic discussion that takes place in Britain and Germany at roughly the same time (the appearance of the first volume of Alexander Baumgarten’s Aesthetica in 1750 marks the establishment of aesthetics as an area of rational enquiry). As with Burke’s Enquiry, the discussion of pain in this new field of aesthetics is advanced under the heading of the sublime (in German: “das Erhabene”).It is to this German discussion that I now wish to turn.

The sublime appears as a central issue in the third Critique of Immanuel Kant, theCritique of Judgement of 1790, a study devoted to the question of aesthetic production. Kant was led to the importance of aesthetic production as a result of his two earlier studies of consciousness set out in the Critique of Pure Reason of 1781/1787 and theCritique of Practical Reason of 1789. In these earlier studies, Kant’s aim was to turn around the traditional idea that thought somehow imitates or follows the objective world and, through increasing attention, can perfect an understanding of it. On this view, the “objectivity” of the material world is established incrementally through the accumulation of empirical evidence. This empirical account of the world, popularised by thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei and René Descartes from the late sixteenth century, is nowadays followed by science and, indeed, has been reified by it. In the eighteenth century, however, by pursuing a new principle of subjectivity, Kant was concerned to move away from such a view. In fact, the act of turning away from the usual idea about how we know something was so significant that Kant referred to it as constituting a “revolution” similar to that of Copernicus’s discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. Kant’s “Copernican revolution” made thought follow the principles of thought itself, that is, it made the categories governing the process of human thought more important than what we think we absorb about the world we when apprehend it through the quality of our experience. Indeed, Kant, who felt the significance of Hume’s attack on the rationality of human beings, made an even more radical point: in deference to Hume’s sceptical position that we actually know nothing directly of “things in themselves,” Kant now held that we only know that part of a thing that “appears” to us when we turn our attention to it. Knowledge, according to Kant, was about apprehending that part of the appearance of objects that is “given” to human understanding. If the object is abstract and does not appear to us in any concrete sense, such as is the case with God, Kant said that such an object could not be known empirically, but only as a transcendental idea. Kant wanted to show how a subjective principle could be established as a basis for the reasoning of individuals without any reliance on theological premises.

While Kant was successful in ending the theological argument about God’s existence—inaugurating what Nietzsche later was to call “the death of God”—he was less successful in resolving the philosophical issue that he had set out to answer. That was to show how the subject was somehow “in” the objective world and could truly know it, even as that subject appeared to have a circumscribed knowledge of that world. Kant, working at the height of the eighteenth century excitement about science, wanted to show how subjectivity could be its own foundation, and still did not have to give up the objective world. Yet in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant had effectively demonstrated that the “I” of the subject is not knowable in any final sense. This failure to demonstrate an objective foundation for subjective knowledge was repeated in the area of ethics. As with thought itself, Kant’s project, which had set out to overcome Cartesian dualism, in fact deepened the fault-line between objective knowledge and what is incumbent upon the subject when acquiring such knowledge, which is to say, it actually widened the gap between subject and object.

Kant, nevertheless, refused to relinquish his project altogether. In the third Critique, theCritique of Judgement, Kant turned to the sphere of “reflective judgement,” whose activity appeared to move precisely between practical reasoning based on empirical fact highlighted in the second Critique and the pure reasoning of abstract thought of the firstCritique. Kant even felt that reflective judgement, when exercised on matters of beauty, could effect a reconciliation of pure and practical reason, and he staked a great deal on the claim that the allegedly “disinterested” judgements of aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful gave rise to a sensus communis that would be felt by all people to be compelling. If beauty gave reflective judgement its content, the sublime gave it its form. This Kant took from Burke, adding the sense of urgency about unifying the project of knowledge that had emerged in the intervening period and especially with the French Revolution. The sublime, therefore, took on great importance in grounding consciousness in the subject and enjoining that subject to embrace the proposition that aesthetic judgement could lead to shared human life-experience. Such human experience, which was predicated on what was predictable and knowable about the human condition, was to be conducted, according to Kant, below the level of ideas that could not be presented to human consciousness. The sublime, accordingly, provides for both elevation (from Latin “sublimare”) to transcendent consciousness – that is, consciousness that seeks experience of the endless progression of ideas without a limit – and a threshold level (from Latin “limen”) below which governable human experience was to remain (“sub” + “limen”). The sublime, following this twofold Latin derivation, has come to signify both endless transcendence as well as the invocation to stay within outer limits above which consciousness loses the capacity to represent infinite ideas. Taken together, these twin aspects of the sublime—transcendence on the one hand; staying within the bounds of immanent experience on the other—conjure an idea of repeatable cultural experience that can be transmitted to and shared with others in the domain of the secular.

In Kant’s hands, the sublime therefore became much more than the measure of magnitude it had been for Hume. For Kant, the sublime rather resembled Burke’s treatment of it as “productive of a passion similar to terror” (1757: 121). In hisPhilosophical Enquiry of 1757, Burke had argued:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling (1757: 36).

Pain—although of a fundamentally different order to pleasure, since the reduction of pain did not increase pleasure—was ultimately a positive notion productive of immediate and sharp feelings that functioned to inform judgement and action and to preserve life. For Burke, pain issued from the object, though it was also keenly felt by the subject as an emotional response. It was mainly encountered in natural events, and helped enliven a purposive idea—that of the need for human society and its maintenance. The sublime, for this reason, was to become important for the humanist project in the century of Enlightenment. Kant, too, saw the sublime in certain awe-inspiring effects of nature, and linked the apprehension of these to the possibility of subjective consciousness, which it seemed to address. Curiously, these awe-inducing effects of nature worked in a negative way by decentring the subject. As soon as the subject witnessed the vastness of nature, or its wildness, or indeed any aspect which suggested the unreachable infinity of the world-out-there, the terror it occasioned operated as an instructive tool, enjoining the subject to accept the limits prescribed for mature subjectivity under the terms of Kant’s critical philosophy . The instructive moment for the emotions was an idea of formlessness that existed on the other side of human awareness. The formlessness of nature, Kant held, would force the subject to turn back on itself. This was a moment of excessive being that would tutor the emotions in the essentially unknowable nature of nature itself (as object) (1790: §27). So, if we know nothing of what exists beyond this threshold, we do embrace with relief the benefits of our cognitive state, for “the feeling of the sublime […] renders intuitable the supremacy of our cognitive faculties on the rational side over the greatest faculty of sensibility” (ibid.). Nothing other could be known about this moment of excess than that its terror issued from a sort of violent rape of the emotions—powerful precisely because it was a threat of untold pain that was never carried out.

Both Burke and Kant are clear that the sublime is found only in outer physical nature. Nevertheless, both consider the extent to which the sublime can be constructed and manipulated into being through human agency. Burke speaks of the “artificial infinite” in the greatness of a building and in the power of great words, without unambiguously conceding either to be truly sublime. In the case of a great building, Burke (1757: 69-70) observes that “the want of proper dimensions” can actually inhibit the work of the imagination. He therefore calls for “a generous deceit” on the part of the artist in engendering sublime effects (ibid.). Kant sees certain sublime effects in the striving of a work of art to go beyond the givenness of its form, as with the pyramids of Egypt and the cathedral of St Peter in Rome. His argument in these passages seems to rest on the idea that a work of great architectural construction is at some level an object, however much it issues from the contrivance of human imagination. This argument gave rise to the radical attempts of Caspar David Friedrich in painting and the German Romantics in prose and poetry to conjure some idea of unknowable outer nature, although it is equally clear that the unboundedness of these forms of art ends as soon as human interpreters make it accord with the finite categories of human understanding. Art, therefore, can do no more than suggest through analogy aspects of an emotional experience whose true power rests on a terror-inducing encounter with the objective nature of nature itself.


Although the sublime can be traced back to the disquisitions of Longinus in Roman antiquity, it is discussed with increasing urgency in the second half of the eighteenth century and is used as an important reference point for theories of the subject on the threshold of modernity. One might even say that the sublime is the basis of modern subjectivity, because it suggests the limit to human understanding (of the objective world) that the emerging subject is called upon to observe and stay below. The violence inhering in the sublime images the subject abhors, however, is never dispelled. Indeed, it is crucial for this view of modern subjectivity that it remains forever implicit in subjective awareness, where it exercises a powerful moral force over human subjects. Its effects are suggested in the thought of Schopenhauer, who made the severe disappointments that attend the ceaseless desiring quality of the subject, which strikes upon the unforgiving nature of nature, so central to consciousness that he turned to eastern philosophy in an attempt to alleviate them. As Lacan has pointed out, the view that the subject’s desire conflicts with whatever the subject imagines it wants, might even go back beyond Schopenhauer to the writings of the Marquis de Sade. The works of de Sade in the late eighteenth and Schopenhauer by the mid-nineteenth century already rendered problematic that notion of subjective experience articulated by eighteenth century theorists of the sublime from Burke to Kant, including Rousseau.

For Freud, too, human experience subjected the subject routinely to so many will-induced sufferings that he made “Triebsublimierung”—sublimation of physical desire—the centre-piece of human attempts to forge civilisation. Indeed, Freud’s entire model of self rests on the notion that human beings are shaped by a deeply antagonistic inner nature against which, as emerging subjects, they find themselves cast. The Oedipus complex, from this perspective, represents the first sublime story of subjective experience, and the violent transgressions against the father and the mother it suggests are so awe-inducing they must be pressed down to the deepest levels of the unconscious self if civilisation as a project is to be successfully constructed. The price for the establishment of bourgeois subjectivity, which constitutes the improbable achievement of civilisation, as Freud notes in Civilisation and its Discontents, is possible only because the untamed objective nature of subjects gets displaced onto the most profound levels of consciousness. Freud’s theories of self, accordingly, may be understood not only to be “about” the sublime, but suggest how the sublime erupts upon the self in forms of “sublimation” that in turn occasion instances of pathological behaviour. As Cooper (1999: 78) observes: “For Freud, sublimation means converting desire that is originally and (therefore) naturally low – meaning, for him, lawless and lustful – into higher feelings – specifically, into love of such things as beautiful objects and abstract ideas.” Freud’s theories, which were enunciated in close correspondence with the German philosophical tradition of thought from Kant to Nietzsche, therefore adduce an incipient moment of sublime experience similar to that of the Romantics in order to remind us of the costs that the project of Western civilisation—enshrined in the love of beautiful objects—has wrung from us. Unlike Kant, who was optimistic that mature subjectivity would harmonize the subject with the objective world and deliver us a binding form of community through the operation of reflective judgement, Freud’s account of the self highlights the damage done by such reflective judgement. For Freud, the sublime, as subjective pain sublimated, erupts in unpredictable ways on the human emotions and exacts an ever higher price for the process of civilisation. The victory of the principle of subjectivity over the—ultimately unknowable—objective world that lies at the heart of modernity is for him very much a Pyrrhic victory.

If this argument about the costs of civilization—implicit in Freud’s early writings and explicit in his later work—led Freud to assign importance to the sublimation of pain, he equally became interested in the question of pain alleviation—even quite literally, experimenting with cocaine before its addictive effects had become known. The idea of relief from pain in fact became increasingly central to his thinking. “Leidabwehr” or pain avoidance, accordingly, is a theme of the later work Civilisation and its Discontents, and seems to be linked to the old idea first advanced by John Locke that minimising pain could somehow increase pleasure (although Burke opposed this notion). I quote from the second section of Civilisation and its Discontents in my own translation:

The life which is imposed on us is too oppressive for us, it brings too many pains [“Schmerzen”], disappointments, insoluble tasks. In order to bear it we cannot do without means of relief.… There are perhaps three types of these: powerful distractions, which make our misery seem less pressing, substitute satisfactions, which reduce it, and drugs, which make us insensitive to it. Things of this nature are indispensable (1929: 73).


Forms of pain avoidance, minimisation or artificially induced alleviation are not, therefore, to be seen as non-essential attributes of modern life. On the contrary, they are a central part of the dialogue about the principle of subjectivity on which our version of modernity is established. Pain arises as an issue for modern subjectivity, I have argued, because it is an essential aspect of the sublime. The sublime, in turn, was advanced at the beginning of the modern period as a mechanism to encourage human subjects to accept the particular form of subjectivity that could figure forth moments of consensual response to the world in aesthetic judgement, and, as a corollary, figure forth moments of conditioned consensual behaviour before the establishment of liberal government. Kant’s achievement was to make aesthetics central to the question of political power. Art, from this standpoint, has always been on the side of the regime of government, however much theories of the avant-garde have enjoyed creating a sense of opposition to it. Martyn’s notion of an “ethics of failure” (2003: 136), following Kant, further underscores the indebtedness to the sublime that lies behind modern constructions of the self.

It is evident that Freud’s typology of the self was founded on what Kantian theory left unaddressed, namely, what would arise for modern subjectivity when the sublime, defined as the creation of elevated feeling through an awareness of that which escapes it, was sublimated—as indeed it was meant to be. This is nothing other than the question of what happens to desire when the object of desire is unpresentable. Freud’s answer is that sublimated forms of desire, displaced onto deeper levels of consciousness, internalise the very moment of violence that constitutes the operative power of sublime images. This involves the assumption that desire is not dispensed with when its objects fail to present to rational consciousness. Freud’s conception of the Oedipus complex is tantamount to the discovery of an incipient moment of internalised violence that both shapes our emerging subjectivity and propels us along the path of civilisation (the moment of consensual agreement Kant was keen to inaugurate from the beginning). Freud suggests that this Oedipus complex, however much it is addressed through the sympathetic activity of the psychotherapist, is an unholy alliance of subject as self and subject as citizen, which is literally “subjected” if not “subjugated” to a social contract it is called upon to embrace by virtue of its conditioned aesthetic behaviour. Freud describes in great detail, if not to say relish, the pessimistic outcome of this path of civilisation followed under the conditions of modernity. As he states throughoutCivilisation and its Discontents, we feel a sense of “unease” about modern life. Max Horkheimer advanced an argument along similar lines to Freud in his Eclipse of Reason:

The principle of domination, based originally on brute force, acquired in the course of time a more spiritual character. The inner voice took the place of the master in issuing commands. The history of Western civilization could be written in terms of the growth of the ego as the underling sublimates, that is internalizes, the commands of his master who has preceded him in self-discipline (1947: 106).

What has remained unaddressed in the emergence of modernity is a second unholy compact, suggested in Freud’s enumeration of ways to make civilisation bearable. This is the idea that experimentation in pain alleviation has become an increasingly important aspect of civilisation, and indeed is coeval with the emergence of modernity. While narcotics have been known to human beings since ancient times, they attained a new importance in the early nineteenth century. This importance can be related to the discovery of the aesthetic response as a pivotal aspect of the principle of subjectivity, and gave rise quite logically to a new interest in anaesthetic responses. So the idea of aesthetic production and the discussion of the beautiful and sublime which underlies it, while central to rational discourses in the century of Enlightenment, also grounds the idea of anaesthetic production, and it comes as no surprise to learn that the first widespread users of anaesthetic drugs and narcotics were the poets. As Marcus Boon notes in his history of writers on drugs, many Romantic poets, among them the German Novalis, felt that wine and opium could open out directly onto the imagination, or “our inner world” (2000: 30). By such artificial means, the world of the imagination—whose cultivation the Romantics saw as the true goal of subjectivity—could, it was thought, be directly accessed and made real. In this early discourse of anaesthesia in the modern period, however, there is no reference to the mind-numbing effects of narcotics that would appear precisely to close off that “inner world.” That the very opposite of this goal of exalted subjectivity might result from artificial stimulation, appears as a later discovery in Romantic literature. Thomas de Quincey (1821: 2) referred to his opium addiction, for example, as “the accursed chain which fettered me.” Furthermore, the German poet Heinrich von Kleist seems to have reached an even stronger conclusion in his essay “About the Marionette Theatre” of 1810. By referring to the goals of Romanticism as directed either towards “endless consciousness” or the consciousness of the lifeless puppet, Kleist’s essay would appear to point out what the Romantic account of artificially induced states of subjective consciousness otherwise obscures—not only overfull consciousness (the declared aim), but a consciousness entirely absent.

Pain remains the undiscovered “other” of modern subjectivity for much of the nineteenth century. The neglect of a theme to which pain relates, namely illness, moved Virginia Woolf (2002) to remark in the twentieth century that its exclusion from literature was quite inexplicable. Nevertheless, illness has indeed received attention in literature, in particular in the literature of Romanticism, and specifically inheres in forms of madness about which Romanticism is not at all silent. The madness that results from the quite spectacular journeys of the Romantic subject into self in the work of Ludwig Tieck and E.T.A. Hoffmann describes moments of profound mental anguish that make mental awareness impotent. These works may be understood as encounters with the sublime inner nature of the self to the exclusion of any real idea of the self. And it is significant that Romanticism, as an ultimately conservative rebellion against the tyranny of wakeful reason propagated in the Enlightenment, was ultimately to fall in behind Kant’s model of aesthetic understanding—another “sublime failure” in David Martyn’s (2003) sense.

It was left to the material sciences in the nineteenth century to forge ahead in forms of alleviation of objective pain—with considerable success. Already in the 1820s ether was used by doctors to alleviate pain. In all cases where nature had provided for physical pain in natural processes, however, no anaesthetic was countenanced. This remained the case even after the powerful narcotic effects of chloroform were discovered in 1832 and introduced across a range of treatment regimes. A turning point occurred in the use of anaesthetic in obstetrics. Chloroform was initially used in childbirth only when illness or some other complicating factor had interrupted the process of natural labour. Since the pain associated with natural labour was thought to be productive of maternal feelings, lessening or abolishing pain was held to inhibit the development of the maternal instinct. For this reason, the use of all forms of anaesthetic in natural labour was long resisted. Nevertheless, the beneficent effects of anaesthetic use in medical procedures were widely appreciated. As early as 1847 the Edinburgh surgeon, Dr Simpson, had made the discovery that ether could be used for the purposes of facilitating a delivery. His experimentation with chloroform, which, unlike ether, rendered the patient unconscious during a medical procedure, revealed that phantom pregnancies, that had long baffled medical physicians, in fact had a mental origin, since the observable tumescence of the stomach vanished after the application of an anaesthetic, yet reappeared when its effects wore off. The breakthrough to the widespread application of anaesthetic to relieve the painful effects of natural labour was not made until 1853, when Queen Victoria consented to the administering of chloroform during the birth of Prince Leopold in her seventh labour. The significance of this moment when the annulment of pain was publicly advocated in the face of all arguments that would see it as part of the process of”natural” labour, is recorded by J. C. Reeve: “Nothing could exceed the astonishment with which the announcement was received, and the tone of the leading medical journals showed but too plainly what would have been the sentence passed on Her Majesty’s attendants, Lococh, Grant, and Ferguson, and the administrator, had anything untoward happened (1889: 649).”

Just how extensive the administering of drugs of all kinds had become in the nineteenth century Britain may be gauged form George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, which tells of the arrival of Dr Lydgate in the small town of Middlemarch in the late 1820s. With the financial help of Mr Bulstrode, Lydgate attempts to introduce medical reforms and to build a teaching hospital. Yet a scandal quickly descends when word gets around of the radical treatment regimes that he favours:

one of the facts quickly rumoured was that Lydgate did not dispense drugs. This was offensive both to the physicians whose exclusive distinction seemed infringed on, and to the surgeon-apothecaries with whom he ranged himself; and only a little while before, they might have counted on having the law on their side against a man who without calling himself a London-made M. D. dared to ask for pay except as a charge on drugs (1872: 493).

In Eliot’s Middlemarch, therefore, the prescription of drugs was the fact that alone made it appropriate for a physician to retrieve a fee for service. Whether the drugs the physicians of Middlemarch dispensed had a narcotic effect is not my point here. Rather, I wish to highlight how entrenched the culture of pain-alleviation through artificial means had become in the nineteenth century, at least on this literary evidence, and how much it helped promote a vision of complete freedom from physical pain heralded by the discovery of anaesthesia.

This utopia of (objective) non-pain is associated in my reading precisely with the powerful aesthetic effects of the subjective idea of pain that became a key moment in the formation of modern subjectivity. The new notion of anaesthesia not only reverses the eighteenth century discourse of aesthetic production, but it also entails a certain displacement of nature that had been the animating idea of aesthetics (the sublime is the ultimate “lesson from nature”). For what are the plunging ravines and towering mountains of the sublime next to the sublime moment of going under the knife and waking up again on the other side—with consciousness intact and absolutely no memory of the moment when the scalpel was inserted? H. G. Wells celebrated this utopia of non-pain in a short story entitled, appropriately enough, “Under the Knife.” Such lauding of the state of freedom from pain already suggests that Burke and Kant, who had considered the possibility of an “artificial infinity” but rejected it, were—on this point at least—mistaken. We do have it within our power to construe the artificial sublime, and this artificial sublime has helped ground a new and decidedly modern utopia of pain-free subjectivity. Such a utopia, informed not by plenitude but by absence, is the topic of the East German writer Heiner Müller in his playHamletmaschine. Müller’s play suggests a new version of the sublime—the sublime of artificial infinity—in our own time:

Somewhere bodies are busted, so that I can live in my shit. Somewhere bodies are opened, so that I can be alone in my blood. My thoughts are wounds in my brain. My brain is a wound. I want to become a machine. Arms to grip with, legs to walk with, no pain, no thought (1977: 47).



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L.D. Cooper (1999). Rousseau, Nature, and the Problem of the Good Life. (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press)

Thomas de Quincy (1821). Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1990).

Terry Eagleton (1990). The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell)

George Eliot (1872). Middlemarch. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1999)

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Arnold Hauser (1999). Social History of Art. (London: Routledge), Vol. III.

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David Martyn (2003). Sublime Failures. The Ethics of Kant and Sade (Detroit: Wayne State University Press)

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J. C. Reeve (1889). “On the Use of Anaesthesia in Labor,” in A System of Gynecology and Obstetrics., ed. M.D. Mann & B.C. Hirst. Obstetrics, Vol. 1, Part II (Edinburgh: Young J. Pentland)

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