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Sublime vs. Pastoral

Humans seem to have a habit of labeling things. We just love to be able to make sweeping generalizations and say, “all this is ________”. There is no better example of this then idea of Sublime nature vs. Pastoral nature. In my experience neither of the two can exist alone. This is to say that in essence they should not be split up into two separate entities. It seems to me that the categorizing nature as either sublime or pastoral helps us feel as if we fully understand a frankly un-understandable force. It is so Ironic that by simply calling “sublime” nature sublime we have succeeding in labeling/understanding the un-understandable force that the “sublime is supposed to be. During the enlightenment period philosophers began to promote the “human potential”. Essentially they argued that with our logic and reason humans could conquer any endeavor, including nature. Scientists began to argue that the natural world was in fact governed by a set of laws and rules that humans could very well understand. Although the idea of the sublime, a force of nature so powerful it cannot be understood, emerged in a response to the enlightenment movement I still feel that the idea of actually labeling nature “sublime” is tremendously ironic. As humans are we simply un-able to accept the fact that there are some things, like nature, that we may never fully understand? Or do we hope that by applying labels and placing nature into categories we can somehow feel as if we do understand?


It seems that for Tom nature often reflects his mood. At the start of chapter thirteen nature is described as a “cold world.” this is right after tom leaves aunt Polly and heads off to nature looking for shelter and escape. however here we see how nature is harsh and at first offers no such shelter. Although this is not the typical “sublime” description of a powerful and awesome force of nature, it is closer to that then a pastoral nature. In chapter ten we also see how the darkness and emptiness of the night scares Tom. this is the scene where tom and Huck witness the murder when they have snuck away from home at night. Again we see how the fear Tom experiences from witnessing the murder is reflected in the mysteriousness of nature. Almost opposite to these depictions of nature is the description of the woods in chapter eight. In this scene Tom runs off into the woods and sits and dreams about pirates and bandits, the rebellious lifestyles he wishes he could take up. Here nature takes a more pastoral role. “Nature lay in a trance that was broken by no sound but the occasional far-off hammering of a woodpecker, and this seemed to render the pervading silence and sense of loneliness the more profound.” Here we see how nature is still and silent almost as if it is sleeping, much like tom who is sitting in the woods dreaming. The passage continues to say “his feelings were in happy accord with his surroundings.” This suggests that it is nature that sets Toms mood and not the other way around. Maybe it is Toms mood that reflects natures mood instead of the other way around.

Natural Influences

People all have different ideas about nature and what it means to them. Some would call nature inviting and playful. Others would say nature is grand and brutal. I think these opinions are a result of both the personality of the writer as well as the object or area of nature they choose to describe. There were many different “versions” of nature is in Lapham’s Quarterly. William Bradford described the ocean off of Cape Cod as a “dangerous and roaring” force that was unforgiving to him and his men. He uses the word wilderness with somewhat of a bad connotation, suggesting the fear it strikes in men. He also talks of how men before him had been taken by the wild, again reinforcing its power over man. Bradford’s description of Cape Cod is very different to Henry Beston’s however, who instead speaks of the wonderful beach, star-lit sky, and changing seasons. We see how Beston and Bradford both describe a similar place in very different. It is only natural that Bradford, a pilgrim, and Beston, a fairy tale author, would view a Cape Cod in dissimilar way. One thing most of the authors did have in common however was a reference to a higher power. Whether it was The Creator or some mysterious power of nature, almost all the authors mentioned it. What is it about nature that is so powerful to use humans? Why can we seemingly not comprehend these powers? Nature can inspire fear and awe as well as warmth and affection.

Reactions to Fantasia

Walt Disney does a great job of mixing pastoral representations of nature with sublime depictions. It seems as if in every scene both exist. For example at Mt. Olympus we first see the different species of animals dancing and playing happily together. The music is upbeat and the colors in the scene are bright and lighthearted. There seems to be no threat to the animal’s existence or there celebration. However in the blink of an eye the sky turns black and the music gets heavy. Zeus, the God of God’s, begins to throw lightning down at the animals creating a panicked frenzy. In the Volcano and Dinosaurs scene we immediately see the sublime side of nature. The gigantic volcanoes explode, gushing molten lava into the sky. In contrast to many of the other scenes in Fantasia, there are no animals shown here. Instead it is only nature, more specifically volcanoes that dominate the landscape. Again the music Disney uses is dark and powerful in contrast to the softer happier tones of other scenes. The darker colors also give the scene a darker mood. However after a while the volcanoes slowly start to simmer down and we begin to see organisms developing at the bottom of the ocean. The music begins to lighten up and the colors begin to brighten. Pastoral nature slowly begins to creep back into the scene. We see a scene of herbivores all eating together and living peacefully. It seems as if Disney is almost suggesting you cannot have one type of nature without the other. In a way he has created a pastoral-sublime hybrid in Fantasia. 

Another aspect of the film that really surprised me was some of Disney’s racial and gender suggestions. The dancing mushrooms are clearly intended to look Asian, the black bucktoothed donkey that carries the god Dionysius, and the same color couples at Mt. Olympus all were quite obvious and somewhat stereotypical. Also the female characters in the film are almost always over sexualized or shown in stereotypical female roles. Fantasia was made in a time where these stereotypes were generally accepted, however the movie acts almost as a window into that culture. I’m not sure what Disney thought about this. Was he a racist, or did he merely wish to comment on the social situation at the time?