“… Emily seemed to have arisen in another world, and to have left every trifling thought, every trifling sentiment, in that below: those only of grandeur and sublimity now dilated her mind and elevated the affections of her heart.”
– The Mysteries of Udolpho, Vol 2 Chapter 1
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823)
The sublime is my neverending Valentine. I seek it constantly. So during February’s dark winter days, when some folks are tripping over red roses and romantic verse, I am walking through wilderness to rejoin my one true love: that indescribable mystery that has embraced me ever since I learned how to wander in hope. For, to hurry is human, to meander is sublime.
And, the sublime arrives – or my awareness of it is sharpened – when I let go of what I fancy in favour of my heart’s desire: the force that finds me in the hours of my erring to and fro. Far beyond the little glowing screens that chatter about things like ruby chocolate Kit Kat bars https://nerdist.com/pink-chocolate-kit-kat-ruby/ (now on sale in Japan to encourage consumers to try something new for Valentine’s!) and crimson bouquets, is the power that I feel pouring into my soul when I reach the barren space at the end of all my busy ways.
In Nova Scotia on winter afternoons I often went trudging up a hill near my home. I climbed the slopes in every kind of weather. Snow as high as my hips didn’t deter me. Still, I was at some kind of frontier one stormy February eve when the sensations of chill and solitude gave way; I was not alone. First I recognized the tracks of the girl I left behind me the day before. She rose up in my imagination on the trail ahead of me. Well, you might be thinking, perhaps I just needed to come in from the cold. But that is one of the reasons I walk so far and for so long. I yearn for those sublime moments at the edges of my own experience: The stillness, the darkness, the lack that brims with potential.
At the crest of the hill, as the light was fading, stars began to glitter in the freezing air. I noticed there were coyote paw prints nestled inside my own day-old footprints. For a good mile as I retraced my path, I wondered why this animal would want to follow in my footsteps – literally? Wouldn’t it have a better understanding of this landscape than I could ever hope for? Or was it just being practical, availing itself of trodden, packed snow? These thoughts gave way, as I ascended our trail, to a feeling of quiet union. Where once I had been afraid, hearing howling coyotes on my walks, now I sensed a kinship. At the limit where the snowy path met the highway’s tarmac, both our tracks disappeared.
On another February afternoon, here in Paris, I walked through falling snow along the Boulevard Raspail towards an exhibit of paintings by George Michel. Apparently he was a painter who influenced Van Gogh. The Custodia Foundation museum here is presenting the first major exhibit of his works in 50 years. The theme is the sublime.
I smiled, as I trudged through the sad slushy streets, at the pathetic fallacy I was experiencing. The thing is, I wasn’t feeling cold or grim – the way some might describe a soggy winter day. I was feeling a sense of wonder at the way the elements were decorating Paris’s architecture. The manmade facades were more beautiful dusted by snowflakes even if the roads were already filthy with melting ice. I passed through familiar neighbourhoods, ending up at the Seine River. There I saw trees submerged and roads disappeared under floodwaters. The churning river’s surface was illuminated by blasts of white light piercing the clouds. More of the sublime: the experience beyond what is peddled to us as a Valentine…. The love that is always arriving to make silver and shining what winter has tarnished. Awed by the beauty of the day, I never did get to see Mr. Michel’s canvases. They are on display until the spring. So I still have something to look forward to as I wend my way through the painting that is Paris. And isn’t that the best part of a real Valentine’s design? Anticipating the arrival of something sublime?
Magdalena Randal is an artist and filmmaker from Nova Scotia who is currently studying in Paris.