In one of my favourite literary vignettes, Edmund Burke, in the mid-18th century, contemplated the meaning of “the sublime” in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. He described it thus:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
Burke deduced that the term applies to whatever makes “the human creature” fearful, especially the natural world. Whenever we see huge waves crash onto the shore, lashings of rain in a winter storm, a powerful ocean swell: these things invoke a feeling of awe, terror, and sublimity.
Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), added:
Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.
Burke, especially, finds much evidence of the sublime in literature and poetry, citing the work of Homer, Milton and others. Indeed, literature was my first love; it connects me to something within myself that’s always existed, since the moment I could read. It was this feeling, helped by the storied streets of the French capital, that propelled me towards exploring another part of the country in search of this sublime that I kept talking about. My being in France in November and December, visiting small coastal towns during the off-season, could have something of the sublime about it – or at least, I like to think so. After spending 11 days in Paris, finishing the final touches on an academic paper, I felt a desperate need to be by the sea.
And so, I took a four-hour bus to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. I enjoyed a day exploring its pretty town centre and Christmas market.
On the day with the best forecast, I awoke early to take the train to Le Mont-Saint-Michel, the medieval monastery that was built atop a rocky island over 1,000 years ago. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it really is awe-inspiring – as the coast comes into view from the road, you see the abbey’s spire pierce the sky, made all the more dramatic for the flat land surrounding it and the fact that it’s the tallest thing for miles around.
You can take a shuttle bus or walk 40 minutes from the public bus drop-off point to get the the island itself. I’d recommend walking if you can; you get to watch the monument slowly rise out of the sea as you come closer, giving the most fantastic views. When the tide is out, as it was when I visited, it looks like this:
When the tide is in, it is possibly even more majestic, looking something like this:
It was a cold and windless day, and I sat on some rocks for a long time, just absorbing the view.
“Ni français, ni Breton, Malouin suis” – Saint-Malo proverb, meaning “I am not French, I am not Breton, I am Malouin” (demonym of Saint-Malo)
After leaving Rennes, I set out on a journey to the place I’ve been excited about visiting for months: the medieval city of Saint-Malo. I arrived on a sunny Monday morning. I had passed through miles of flat, green countryside on the 40-minute train journey from Rennes, and could feel the excitement tickling the pit of my stomach as the sounds of seagulls drifted through the air. I had been looking forward to seeing the sea for ages.
I walked out of the station and straight down a main road towards what was signposted as the intra-muros, meaning the historic walled part of the city that sits so iconically on a peninsula. I felt a smile spreading across my face as I came closer, feeling the diluted winter sun warm my skin and stopping to look at some quite majestic sailing ships that were reflected in the still, calm water, looking as though they were suspended in the sky. I could smell the sea air.
Saint-Malo today has a population of around 44,000 and is visited by many tourists. My personal interest arose after I read Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See (2014). Set in World War II and revolving around two main characters, both children, the novel took him years to write and resulted in a slew of awards and attention, including the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. In beautiful prose, Doerr slowly builds a magnificent image of the life of a blind girl and her father who escape Paris to live in Saint-Malo during the War. One of the reasons I liked this book is because of its exploration of the father-daughter relationship, one I wish I saw more of in literature and art.
Walking past the city’s impressive ramparts (I had hoped to see a storm, but had arrived on the calmest of days), I headed to the expansive beach. Something I am really starting to love about Brittany is the wide, sweeping, flat beaches; the tides are huge and powerful, and there’s certainly something of the sublime I hoped to find here.
The tide looked to be completely out on this calm day in Saint-Malo; the low sun made mirrors of the rockpools, reflecting that particular low, golden light of day that you only see in winter. My heart soared as I spotted these rockpools, reminded of countless days spent on Pembrokeshire beaches as a child, collecting crabs and shrimps in buckets, playing cricket, and building sandcastles. I looked out across the English Channel – La Manche, or ‘the sleeve’, in French – realising that Cornwall and Devon were on the other side.
Ever since beginning to learn French properly, and intensified by Brexit, I have taken a more active interest in this neighbour across the water. I thought about the name of this region of France, Brittany, and how similar to Britain it sounds – and there’s a reason for that. Britain used to be inhabited by Celtic peoples, and to this day Wales, Ireland, Scotland, and Cornwall still have strong links to their Celtic roots. Many of the Celtic people of England (called Britons), however, fled across the Channel to north-western France to live in Brittany, or Bretagne, during the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries. This explains why the name is so similar (Britannia means “Bretons’ land” in Latin).
Breton, the language of Brittany, is still spoken by many in this region, and has produced some fabulous music. Brittany also remains a very popular tourist destination for Brits today.
Of course, the connections between France and Britain, much as the two might grumble and pretend otherwise, are undeniable. French was actually an official language of England for about 300 years. After William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror, invaded the isle in 1066, French quickly replaced English in all areas associated with power, including in the royal court, the clergy, the aristocracy, and in law courts. English survived to evolve into its present-day form, absorbing many, many French (or Latin) words in the process – in fact, as many as one-third of words in English share a common root with French; this amazed me when I first started learning, but in fact even someone who knows no French would recognise so many similar words, especially if they saw them written down. An amalgam of Germanic, Romance and even other languages, English has such a vast vocabulary in large part because of its ability to adopt new words in this way. (I learned much of this from the fantastic History of English podcast.)
As I was looking out to sea across the Channel, I felt a sense of sad calm fall over me as I realised I am still capable of fleeing Brexit Britain, just as the Celtic Britons fled all those centuries ago in the face of danger and instability. Far from being invaded, my feeling is that Britain today is shutting down, closing itself off from outside influences. Thinking of the richness of just this region’s shared history with Britain, the absurdity of the Brexit situation crashes down upon me once more.
Still, I passed the most tranquil of afternoons atop a rock in the dilute winter sun, perfectly warm due to the absence of wind and my decision to wear several layers. Checking my phone, I saw that it was 12 degrees C. I tucked myself onto a flat, high rock shelf with a view of the beach swimming pool (unfortunately empty for winter) and gazed out appreciatively as I ate my lunch. Afterwards, I settled into reading my hefty copy of Risingtidefallingstar by Philip Hoare, which contains many stories about the sea – and who I also saw speak at the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.
Walking to my hostel later, I felt full of ocean air and literary Romance, happy to have finally arrived in the city I’d envisaged many times while reading Anthony Doerr’s novel earlier this year.
When I finally left Saint-Malo, after extending my stay by two days, some of that famous stormy weather was finally starting to whip up along the shore. I was sorry to be going; I could have stayed a week. My next stop took me to Deauville, which is actually in Normandy, but has the same wonderful wide beaches that you see in the film Dunkirk – itself not far from Deauville.
This time, though, the weather was near zero degrees. Cosied up in my warm Airbnb studio, looking out over the sea, I pondered the latest in the Brexit negotiations saga. I had arrived the night before, struggling uphill through the stormy, hailing, windy, frozen elements to arrive in the darkness. Thawing with my hands over the electric hob, my heart sank as the reality of the situation seeped into my tired bones.
Forcing myself out of my downward reverie, I layered on every piece of clothing I had with me and walked along the expanse of beach at the edge of the town. The tide was out, and the wind whistled along the edge of the beach like a child zooming a toy car along the ground.
I think it must have been that day, in such low temperatures, as I looked out on the Dunkirk-esque sweep of the beach, as I ate macaroni gratin in a warm cafe, as I tried to follow the conversation of French people around me, as I drank my latte, as I pondered my lonesome independence and the precarity of Brexit, that I decided to commit myself to the project of making France my home – at least for now. I just cannot face being in Britain, to watch as the country and its people are led to ruin.
The sublime is that which scares us, which brings out the most powerful and intense of emotions; it transcends beauty. There’s nothing beautiful about Brexit. But perhaps there is something sublime in starting this new life, in indulging the pain that I feel in this moment. Out here in Brittany and Normandy, I feel connected to this small corner of the world and whole in my own fragmented way, even as I spend my days alone, and struggle to anchor myself. Taking one day at a time – I think that’s enough for now.
Other great quotes on the sublime (thanks to Good Reads):
A friend to kill time is a friend sublime.
― Haruki Murakami,
Love is the suspension of reality in favor of the sublime.
― Jeffrey Fry, Distilled Thoughts (2017)
For thousands of years, it had been nature–and its supposed creator–that had had a monopoly on awe. It had been the icecaps, the deserts, the volcanoes and the glaciers that had given us a sense of finitude and limitation and had elicited a feeling in which fear and respect coagulated into a strangely pleasing feeling of humility, a feeling which the philosophers of the eighteenth century had famously termed the sublime.
But then had come a transformation to which we were still the heirs…. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the dominant catalyst for that feeling of the sublime had ceased to be nature. We were now deep in the era of the technological sublime, when awe could most powerfully be invoked not by forests or icebergs but by supercomputers, rockets and particle accelerators. We were now almost exclusively amazed by ourselves.
― Alain de Botton,