Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Summer of the Sublime

This summer was one of "terrible beauty," to borrow a phrase from W. B. Yeats.  One moment, I'm photographing the most beautiful flowers I've ever seen, utterly transfixed by their weird architecture, their alien and exotic anatomy. 
Yellow Lady Slipper, past its prime, Munger Trail

The next moment, I'm walking down a hot, humid Memphis street, in an economically-depressed section of town, turning the corner and looking up at the iconic Lorraine Motel sign that marks the spot of one of our nation's greatest tragedies. 

Not long after that, I'm looking through the window into the very room Martin Luther King, Jr occupied before he was killed.  
Room 306, Lorraine Motel, National Civil Rights Museum,
Memphis, TN

I'm a very visual thinker, so the clash of images was not only sudden and extreme, it was sublime--that particular mix of beauty and horror that has long fascinated the philosophers.  As I took pictures of the Lorraine Motel, I was aware of many things: 

Lorraine Motel sign, National Civil Rights Museum,
Memphis, TN
  • One, that I was trying to get good shots of the Motel, just as I had tried to get good shots of the flowers; that I was thinking like an amateur photographer about composition, framing, lighting, etc; that I was trying to produce beautiful images; 
  • Two, that trying to produce beautiful images of a tragic place might be inappropriate, might even be sacrilegious, might ultimately soften the viewer's consciousness of the horrible events that took place there;  
  • Three, that I was in Memphis to attend a conference for educators and while the schedule of events included a party on Beale Street, there was no mention of the National Civil Rights Museum; that the exhibits are clearly designed for school-groups, and they directly address teachers, asking them to reflect on their civic and social responsibilities (the NCRM is a member of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience that helps turn memorial sites into springboards for positive action);  
  • Four, that museums and educators alike must face the question of how to produce attractive (or engaging) exhibits and lessons about horrific histories; that beauty draws us in to look and learn, and then horror asks us to question our comfortable assumptions; that maybe it's those collisions of beauty and horror that stick with us the longest.    
    Small bee inside Yellow Lady Slipper, Munger Trail
I don't know…What do you think?  Let me know!  

Students in both English 12 and AP Lit & Comp will explore the concept of the sublime this year, in relation to several texts, but especially while reading Frankenstein.  Beauty and horror, people--that's what it's all about.  And, by the way, those beautiful flowers?  They're monsters who love to capture little insects!  

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