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Fair is Foul: Confronting the Sublate in Lucretius' Plague

Rebecca Moorman

University of Wisconsin-Madison

In a refinement of the aesthetic category of sublimity in Lucretius (Porter 2016; cf. Conte 1966, Segal 1990, Conte 1994, Hardie 2009), this paper advances a new interpretation of the finale of De Rerum Natura by reading the plague as evidence of a “sublate” aesthetic experience founded on disgust. My reading builds on the work of Korsmeyer 2011, who defines the sublate as “aesthetic insight into a bodily, visceral response.” This sense of pleasure and fascination, facilitated by material, sensory descriptors of disgust, maintains the subject’s proximity to the object of disgust. Whereas the sublime involves distance and lofty perspective, the sublate is aesthetic absorption in the mean and gross: leaning in rather than drawing back. The introduction of the category of sublate alongside the sublime marks an improvement on existing approaches to Book 6 which identify the reader’s experience at the end of the poem with the detached viewer of the shipwreck of Book 2 (1-4; Porter 2016) and as a “final test” for the reader (Clay 1983; Gale 1994; Morrison 2013). In addition to the more regularly recognized sublime aspects of Book 6 (e.g., the swift collapse of the earth into itself, 6.596-607), I argue that the plague in Book 6 also facilitates a distinctly separate aesthetic experience in order to address not only the reader’s fear of death from mighty cosmic forces, but also the reader’s disgust at death from slow decay. Each of these aesthetic experiences requires the reader to overcome a separate emotional barrier (fear or disgust) in order to gain philosophical insight and poetic pleasure.

My paper focuses on a single representative passage (6.1147-55) in order to demonstrate the aesthetic and didactic function of sublate disgust in DRN. While the “material sublime” (Porter 2016) eventually leaves behind its materialist origins, the reader’s aesthetic experience at the end of DRN relies on continued proximity to physical elicitors of disgust. Once the disgusting object can no longer be perceived, disgust (and the reader’s aesthetic experience) ceases. Graphic descriptions of plague symptoms ensure readers’ continued disgust: blackened throats, bloody sweat, and choking ulcers that render victims speechless (6.1147f.). The victim’s breath has a foul odor reminiscent of unburied corpses (6.1155), emphasizing disgust’s proximity to death. Such details elicit a somatic spasm of revulsion, as the oozing, leaking symptoms threaten to spill over and contaminate even the reader. At the same time, while fear (the emotional foundation of the sublime) responds to an immediate threat of destruction, disgust reacts to a longer-term threat of infection. The slower scale of disgust enables the subject to contemplate the repulsive object more closely, leading to fascination and aesthetic appreciation. Fear and disgust each respond to a different kind of death – sudden demise (6.598) or slow decay (6.1150; 6.1191f.) – and a different aesthetic category is needed to describe the reader’s experience of overcoming each form of death.

Recognizing the sublate as a distinct aesthetic category enables us to read the plague as an organic progression of Lucretius’ didactic program and an evolution of Epicurean pleasure. Just as philosophical concepts grow increasingly complex as the poem progresses, the kind of pleasure the reader is encouraged to experience becomes more difficult but also more valuable. The successful student, having graduated from easier pleasures of sweet honey (1.936-50), learns to derive pleasure even from bitter wormwood, just as Lucretius takes pleasure in laborious research (3.419). By overcoming their aversion to disease and decay, readers are able not only to surpass their anxiety regarding death, but also to derive pleasure from the actual experience of otherwise negative circumstances. Readers achieve pleasure and Epicurean peace of mind (ataraxia) through the proximity of disgust, gaining a new aesthetic perspective distinct from, but no less powerful than, the sublime.

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Latin Poetry

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