The Ephemeral Sublime vs The Triumph of Death

"The Triumph of Death," Pieter Bruegel, The Elder

“The Triumph of Death,” Pieter Bruegel, The Elder

Though I’m elevating a reply to Bob on his notion of the “ephemeral sublime” (much of his comment derives from a post at Atomic Geography, his blog/site), I will continue to resist the temptation to philosophize.


“Sublimity” refers to the dimension of height – Latin sublimissub “up to” + limen “lintel, threshold, sill” – while ephemerality refers to a particular time scale. Though “ephemeral” apparently comes into English via medical uses, referring to the type of fever that lasts only for a day, the other typical usage is in the astrological “ephemeris” that plots the changing positions of the stars diurnally, the ancient belief being that the celestial bodies, in addition to being imbued with life and intellect of their own, directly influenced Earthly events, so a peculiar intersection of the two dimensions, if one in which, however, even many who still consult astrological advice columns and other readings no longer believe. Further in the etymology of “ephemeral” – epi” (on) + “hemera” (day) – we encounter one of the Greek words for “men”: ephemeroi, literally “creatures of a day.”

The difference between the two axes, spatial and temporal, which the Theory of Relativity asks us to question but which daily life herebelow re-instates, points to a certain kind of deceptiveness or suppressed understanding, or maybe the running joke or basic mechanism of “ephemeral art”: that its minimization in duration produces an apparent or relative subjective maximization in elevation – the dimension of “lofty” sentiments and “higher” meanings – though the idea of the ephemeral act retains an ideality or conceptuality never reducible to any particular moment in time or to a physical event. The art of the ephemeral act seems as much in discussions and imaginary reconstructions of the act as in the act itself – or in the supposed or in some sub-genres the proposed but unlikely or impossible, in others the easily repeatable, so-called “act itself”: permutations of the irony or paradox embedded within the familiar phenomenological problem of the eternality and all-encompassing universality of the in another sense entirely non-existent present moment, or, roughly in Hegel’s terms, the problem of immediate experience as pure abstraction: There is only the present – there is no present – or there are different ideas of the present or presence, none more or less fictitious or real or certain or obligatory than the notions of a vast forest of cosmic time in which stars shoot with no one to track their trajectories, of the passing away of all things into that void, and of their unimaginable “ephemerality” or temporal exiguity in relation to it. Bob notes that “[s]een from the perspective of cosmic time, all of human existence is ephemeral.” From the perspective (as though) of non-existence, even a single moment of existence would constitute (and imply) an infinitude or an absolute. We might imagine (if idly, or pre-philosophically, since the statement will be made up of terms we like to pretend to understand or understand only conventionally) a mind so quick and so penetrating that a single nanosecond of existence for it would comprehend more raw experience than gathered by any of us over the course of an entire human life or even by all of of us over the entire history of the human race.

John Berryman put the philosophical rescue of meaning against immortal annihilation poetically: “not we one instant die, only our dark does lighten.” Kierkegaard was dramatic:

If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all — what then would life be but despair? If such were the case, if there were no sacred bond which united mankind, if one generation arose after another like the leafage in the forest, if the one generation replaced the other like the song of birds in the forest, if the human race passed through the world as the ship goes through the sea, like the wind through the desert, a thoughtless and fruitless activity, if an eternal oblivion were always lurking hungrily for its prey and there was no power strong enough to wrest it from its maw — how empty then and comfortless life would be! But therefore it is not thus…

Peirce’s relevant observation on the presumptions of any inquiry and the social embedding of logic, connected to his theory of agape or agapasticism, offers a somewhat Kierkegaardian position, which in the above lines is an explicitly Abrahamic one, that the presumption seemingly everywhere supported by experience, of the passing away of all things into insignificance, or what can be called the proposition of the universal and final victory of death, or of the simple ephemerality of life and all works, is a neither sustaining nor sustainable presumption, nor a provable thesis or a possibly true proposition. It would be provable only after and as the end of theses and propositions, or of proofs and truths. Under the same structure as the paradox of the eternal present or immortal ephemeral, the universal or supposedly universal experience of death is by definition never actual experience – “not we one instant die” and “therefore it is not thus…” We have all always already taken the leap of faith, and this always-alreadiness of having leapt is more certainly and securely a universal and as far as we can know an eternal than the fantasy of death, whether of the individual or of the universe, so an eternalization of the evanescent that ephemeral art or Bob’s ephemeral sublime evokes, and that also happens to be evoked in the central Christian mythologem: ideal transfiguration of death as essential eternalization of life, also known as “salvation,” the saving and salvaging of life that would otherwise constitute a dreadfully merely mortal, fateless fate.

I will offer speculatively rather than philosophically that our idea of the present is of appearance as always constant disappearance into the past, but, restricted to the present or any given present, we cannot know that such “appearance of disappearance” is more than mere appearance, that it has any sway at all over realities once real but thought – or presently perceived or merely perceived – no longer real for us. To treat the past as nothing because it is or seems inaccessible to us is to imply the nothingness of every present destined to fall into it next – to make the substance of life the triumph of death… and therefore it is not thus. The most striking fact about the great cinematic painting by Breugel the Elder – surely deserving of a re-make – is its hilarity (I recommend you right-click on the image above or this link to it, and choose to view in another window or tab, at maximum size): how busy, how varietously lively, how gaily and creatively those skeletons go about their deathwork, and how much of a suicidal triumph by death over itself completion of that work would finally have to be – the triumph of death also implying the end of death. As painted there is no “triumph” at all – since “triumph” refers to the celebratory commemoration of an achieved event, while the painting depicts a very ongoing task, one whose completion in any other time, exactly as far as any of us knows, or in our knowing, has always been successfully resisted. The title of the painting should be spoken derisively, as a question answered by the painting in the negative, by what it depicts and by the fact of its having been painted.

detail triumph of death

Eternally Ephemeral

2 comments on “The Ephemeral Sublime vs The Triumph of Death

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  1. Certainly, the phrase “ephemeral sublime” evokes at least on this occasion  the “eternalization of the evanescent”, but it’s not what I meant.  This undoubtedly results from my rather sketchy thought, and subsequent rendition of what I did mean, even with my autocommentary.

    But still I did at least gesture toward a different meaning in my reference to Emptiness.  Indeed, I mean ES to be pretty much Emptiness.

    So the appearance of the ephemeral I see as an opportunity to meditate at turns analytically and experientially  on the idea that “causes and conditions supporting an object or process are all always changing, are ephemeral, as is their result – the object or process.”

    If this suggests only eternalization  , then it is poorly stated.  I hope it also suggests negation, and then the impossibility of both the eternal and the negated as the points of focus.


    • Wouldn’t ( and didn’t) say it suggested “only” eternalization, but perhaps did say or meant to suggest that its reference to eternity was always implicit, however much we exert or successfully refrain from exerting ourselves or our minds. The vanishing points of emptiness and eternity may not be distinguishable, since in another sense they are not at all, or, in language bound to being, are identically non-sensical.

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