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Sublime and Picturesque in American National Parks

National parks of the United States are truly unique places on the Earth, offering breathtaking sceneries that can touch the most sensitive soul. Driven by the desire to preserve the beauty of national natural landscapes, people started to establish a system of national parks. Even though the motive of national parks creation was to save the wilderness in its pristine beauty, nature is no longer sublime in the original meaning of this concept.

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The sublime can be understood as one of the fundamental categories of aesthetics, which characterizes the inner significance of objects and phenomena, disparate in their ideal content with real forms of expression. The sublime is not another kind of pleasure, which a human receives while observing something beautiful. It is rather a distinct feeling of delight characterized by admiration or awe (Brady 84). The sublimity of nature is seen not as the splendor of its physical forms but as the phenomenon “which has qualities of wildness and freedom and, in virtue of these qualities, as something that enables us to become aware of our freedom” (Brady 93). The sublime deals with the truth, the essence, and not with visibility, as the beautiful does.

Concerning the issue of the relation between the sublime and the picturesque, one should refer to the thoughts of William Gilpin, the ideologist of the picturesque movement in arts, architecture, landscape design, and tourism. For him, the picturesque defines the beauty of nature as a person can see it, without any amendments and human interference. Gilpin states that we pursue the picturesque “through the scenery of nature…we seek it among all the ingredients of the landscape – trees, rocks, broken grounds, woods, rivers, lakes, plains, valleys, mountains, and distances” (42). Sublimity as the highest aesthetic ideal “alone cannot make an object picturesque” (Gilpin 43).

The object has to bear at least some degree of beauty in itself or surrounding scenery (Gilpin 43). Some pieces of nature, for example, a river or mountain, cannot be perceived as a beautiful thing in itself; it becomes beautiful in its surroundings. Gilpin’s ideas of pleasure from scenic beauty inspired people to rush in search of picturesque expressions of wildlife, which soon encouraged them to establish national parks as protected territories (Carlson and Lintott 108).

National parks of the United States have become the symbols of the whole nation. Hardly there is a person who will not admire the majestic sceneries of the Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. But are those unique territories sublime in the very essence of this word? If the people admired those places, they would not have created a highly developed infrastructure to get there, and only those who are in awe of nature would manage to make some sacred pilgrimage there.

As Byerly notes, the wildlife in the United States “has gradually been transformed from a sublime landscape into a series of picturesque scenes” (qtd. in Branch and Slovic 108). The tourists no longer feel the awesome power of the steep mountains and rapid river streams; nature in American natural parks is masterly conserved and sold to the tourists desirous to take beautiful pictures and show off to their friends. The landscape was driven into the frame of art and somehow alienated from nature as the ultimate manifestation of life.

The issue of whether the American national parks deal more with the sublimity or the picturesque is debatable. On the one hand, the idea of preservation of nature derived from the recognition of nature’s grandeur and dominance over a man. But at the same time, any adjustment of nature to the aesthetic tastes of a man makes it for the national parks to be perceived as a reflection of the picturesque.

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Works Cited

Brady, Emily. The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2013. Print.

Branch, Michael, and Scott Slovic. The ISLE Reader: Ecocriticism, 1993-2003. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, 2003. Print.

Carlson, Allen, and Sheila Lintott. Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2008. Print.

Gilpin, William. Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; On Picturesque Travel; And on Sketching Landscape: To Which Is Added a Poem, on Landscape Painting – Primary Source Edition. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2014. Print.

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