Describe your book
My book sets out to re-sound and review the aesthetic of the sublime through music, especially on what can seem like the sublime’s hometurf of literary studies and aesthetic theory. As a signature aesthetic category of modernity and postmodernity, concerned with astonishment, limits and the illimitable, there is a huge (it’s tempting to say: illimitable) literature on the sublime. But there are still surprisingly few monographs concerning music, although we know composers from Handel to Wagner (and many others) were received as sublime. I show that wrestling with music—as moving sound and as an art of harmony and measure—was integral to the sublime from the classical theory of Pseudo-Longinus through the growing vogue for the sublime in the Enlightenment and Romanticism, with writers such as Dryden, Dennis, Burke, Bodmer and Breitinger, Klopstock, Herder, and De Quincey. The book’s transdisciplinary, transmedial, comparative approach shows the sublime was always already resonant.
What is your favourite book? Why?
I often fall for the first book I read after semester ends. Last year it was The Left Hand of Darkness, balanced in one hand in half-darkened rooms while trying to get my new baby to sleep. I’d never read anything by Ursula Le Guin, in my anti-sci-fi snobbery, and I was captivated by the effortless creation of this heterotopos, by the blend of diplomatic intrigue and saga, and by the imagining of transformative encounter and relationship between alien and local protagonists. This is such an interesting moment for speculative and dystopian fiction, not least for comparatists—the problems of world literature appear in a different light next to ‘off-world’ and interstellar literature.
What is the last thing you read not for research/work?
Now that my little boy is old enough to pull down a pile of books and drag over his selection, I’m rediscovering Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. It’s such a brilliant, elegant prose poem, so fantastic—in Todorov’s sense of keeping you poised between supernatural and psychological/dream interpretations—and yet to my mind so completely avoiding a two-faced address to knowing adults over the heads of children. We particularly return to three pages of Max’s revels as king of all wild things: wordless friezes of howling at the moon, swinging from trees, and a triumphal procession. They really demand improvised sounds of one kind and another—like a breakout space in this perfectly-crafted, succinct text. I love those reminders from children’s literature that books are also prompts and scripts for performance.
Who inspires you?
Mitsuko Uchida. I knew her recordings as an undergraduate in Australia, but I was bowled over when I came to study in London and saw her perform a cycle of Beethoven concertos with the LSO and Colin Davis. She plays with incredible energy, integrity, and intelligence. I was completely star-struck when I saw her in the British Library, where she was studying a manuscript score: I got no work done that day. I later saw her give an illustrated lecture on Mozart and Beethoven in Cambridge and was reminded of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s portrait of the (undead) composer Gluck, playing and singing all the parts as he ‘improvises’ from a blank score of his own works. Artists like her offer, not escapism, but a different sense of the possible. When I hear them, I fleetingly think I know what Spinoza meant about us not even knowing what a body is capable of.
My current work grows from a thread in Resounding the Sublime, about a nineteenth-century contralto called Grassini, who appeared in the role of Andromache at the King’s Theatre in London around 1800. In Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas De Quincey singles her out in his list of top 5 things to do and see on opium (she’s up there with sitting alone in the dark, pretending to share the pleasures of common folk, reading German philosophy, and drinking tea). Why Andromache? I became intrigued with the appearances of this Trojan princess, often encountered as an exiled, captive widow, across Romantic-era Europe. I hope to think, too, about Andromache’s lack of glamour in modernity; her failure to remain a name to conjure with, as she was for De Quincey and Grassini, and what resources (if any) she offers us today.
Miranda Eva Stanyon is Lecturer in Comparative Literature at King’s College London and Research Fellow in English Literature at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of Resounding the Sublime (May 2021), published by the University of Pennsylvania Press.