In her Paris Review interview on the sublime, Anne Carson harkens back to Immanuel Kant’s definition of the term by describing it as being a sort of “vertigo of the infinite”, in which the human mind recoils from some kind of dread, and then recovers from it. Based on this description, and the discussions we’ve been having in class about Carson’s novel Decreation, I think one of the best visual representations of this idea comes from a scene in Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin.
The scene consists of two men floating in what appears to be an infinite black abyss. One has just recently been trapped there, while the other, based on his wrinkled and pulsating skin, appears to have been there for some time. What’s immediately striking about this scene is the enveloping darkness that surrounds these two characters. During many of our discussions on Carson, we’ve often been referred back to the fact that she often contrasts color with darkness. Throughout Decreation, there are many instances of short passages of text on a page, which creates its own form of contrast between color and dark. Carson often gives her reader a few lines of black text to keep them from the complete nothingness of a blank page. In Under the Skin, the audience is given a film version of this idea, by only having two figures to focus on and distract them from the complete nothingness that fills the screen, thus giving them two giving them two figures of recognition in this infinite setting.
This applies to the characters in this scene as well, as when the two men notice each other, they seem temporarily distracted by the hopeless setting they’re in. As the human mind is supposed to rise above the incredible dread it faces in the unknown in order to achieve sublimity, the wrinkled man temporarily rises above his situation. In a moment of recognition and empathy, he floats towards the other man, and holds this person’s hand before disintegrating. By reaching out to this new figure, and creating a tiny form of action, the man is able to recover a small mastery over his situation, before experiencing the nothingness of death.
(Fair Warning: The below clip features nudity and an act of violence that may be disturbing to some.)