Hark, how the night grows fluted and hollowed... da Vinci, Duino Elegies, the Kantian sublime

Da Vinci's The Annunciation shows the angel Gabriel speaking the divine will to the Virgin Mary. As the exemplar of Rilke's mother figure, she touches the noumenal and phenomenal worlds, both communing with something sacred beyond and protecting from the terror that lies there. The terror of the eternal, the terror of the night, the seduction of its horror, the sublimity therein. Taking a Kantian notion of the sublime, we are getting close to Rilke's night-time world, growing fluted and hollow. For Kant the sublime had to be overwhelming, but only intimate terror, rather than actually embody it. To be in a situation of real fear or danger would render impossible a true feeling of sublimity, wherein our imagination is subordinated to our supersensible faculty of reason. 

The third stanza gives a distinctly Rilkean sublime, though its universality and eternality are made quite clear. Loved his interior world...that primal forest within... where his tiny birth was already outlived... descended, lovingly, into the older blood... And every terror knew him.... Yes, Horror smiled at him... immemorial sap mounts in our arms... That our interior world has already outlived our personal history, our tiny birth, gives us a sense of the Kantian forest within. Within our faculties, we border a world that transcends our sensuous existence. We can never know it objectively, but we can feel it, sense it. It is terror and delight, the holiest kind of pleasure that moves us into the beyond. We are protected from it in various ways; the safety of childhood, of the mother, who forms a sort of blanket of comfort, whose movements are our most familiar. Too, without courage, we can fear, but it is never a sublime fear, it never reaches, branches out, touches the eternal. That lesser fear is destructive only; it neither liberates us nor extends itself - rather, is an inhibitive loop that weakens our souls, our capacity for movement. It is selfish in its circularity, its single-mindedness. It revolves around us, and us alone. We posit ourselves at the centre of a solar system and are crushed by the burden of our own metaphysical weight. We are Dostoevsky's Underground Man; actionless, neutered. Such a great burden to be the prime focus of the world! And yet, in the sublime we recognise something greater, some transcendent universality, and, at the same time, our place within it, for the experience is ours. Ah, we are liberated from ourselves! We realise that we are not so very important, but that we are sublime; we are freed. 

In the Kantian mathematical sublime, we are overwhelmed by our imagination's inability to comprehend the infinite, though our reason, as a totalising faculty, steps in and allows us to grasp the infinite as a totality, though a kind of unfulfilled one. The fact that we can hold as a totality what is objectively impossible to grasp is an indication of our higher calling as rational beings. We are in touch with both a humanity that is universal and our ability to transcend sensuous experience. The dynamical sublime is the confrontation of nature as might, which gives us a sense of our physical destructibility. As long as we are not in real physical danger, we can feel an overwhelming fear at the power of nature that is not tied to our immediate physical situation but to our concept of our sensible selves as insignificant compared to it. Immediately (or in a kind of whirring oscillation) we seem to sense something higher in ourselves, indeed a kind of humanity, a transcending of the physical world by our supersensible faculty. That we are in touch with some kind of eternal essence, whether (as it was for Kant) God or (for the atheists) a sense of rising above the individual self to feel a part of a universal humanity, indicates a higher vocation, that of our rational moral selves.

Leonardo da Vinci; The Annunciation, c. 1472-5