Thursday, December 29, 2005

Sublime and Beautiful Knots

In Paris to the Moon, Adam Gopnik tells about his experience introducing his young son to the concept of the sublime and the beautiful:

I tried teaching sublime and beautiful as categories to Luke the other day He brooded. “Daddy,” he said at last, “an example of the sublime: dinosaur bones. An example of the beautiful: Cressida Taylor.” Cressida Taylor, I have since learned, is a four-year-old girls with a long blond braid in his class at school with whom he is, understandably, in love, and who is in fact perfectly beautiful (177)

I have brooded, as well. An example of the beautiful: a piece of the fancy knot work that appears in Knotting Matters, the quarterly publication of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Examples of the sublime: the Bowline, the Overhand Bend, the Double Fisherman's Knot. Perhaps an example of the horrible sublime is the Hangman’s Noose. The Theodore Knot is an example of the positive sublime, the elevated sublime.

What I find sublime about these knots is the way they look as well as the way they work.

What does sublime mean? Does the element of mystery in a knot contribute to its sublimity? Is the sublimity of a knot a part of the natural sublime, the psychological sublime, the theological sublime? A scholar once noted that the most sublime passage in literature is the Latin phrase Fiat lux, et lux erat, Let there be light, and there was light. Did the creator ever say Fiat nodus? How is the sublime related to the magical?

In some periods, vast and grand things, and objects of great extent or scale have been considered sublime. Can a thing as small as a knot be sublime? Perhaps a clue is to be found in a later passage by Adam Gopnik:

Every epoch has an art form into which all the energies and faiths and beliefs and creative unselfconsciousness flows. What makes them matter is their ability not to be big but to be small meaningfully, to be little largely, to be grandly, or intensely, diminutive (195).

And what does beautiful mean? I have always found something beautiful in the simplicity of a Square Knot, especially the ones embroidered in silk that signify various ranks in Scouting. And the little Overhand Knot tied in doubled wires that dangles from the bottom of the badge of a Second Class Scout. But as I tried to express in my paper “Plato and the Square Knot,” there is also an element of the sublime in the simplest knots.

As Marjorie Nicolson has noted in Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory, people used to consider mountains to be warts, blemishes, and unsightly excrescences. In some periods of history, certain religious apologists had to explain them away as the detritus left from the great Biblical flood. We don’t think of knots in these ways. We usually just ignore them.

What part do elegance, symmetry, asymmetry, simplicity, complexity, and repetition take in our response to knots? What of simple delight, interest, fascination, enjoyment? Something in the structure of knots, the way they work, the way they look, and the way we use them—to me there is something at least fascinating in those things, which verges on the sublime.

What of terror and horror? Toni Kurz must have been terrified as he froze to death on the north face of the Eiger. And the people on the Kleine Scheidegg who watched him dangling helplessly at the end of a knotted rope must have been horrified. But did the horror focus on the knot that prevented his rope from passing through the karabiner? Heinrich Harrer tells the story graphically in The White Spider.

And what of Joe Simpson, who was finally able to tie a knot around a pin, a knot that kept him from sliding off the surface and being lost in a crevasse. He tells about this in Touching the Void. Exhilaration and exaltation despite exhaustion and terror. But the knot itself didn’t feature much in his story. He didn’t say what kind of knot it was that his frigid hands were able to tie in the starlight.

Many of these experiences seem to me to be in the same category as dinosaur bones.