When looking at the above video today, I thought of Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” (in which Ginsberg eulogizes a soot covered dead sunflower). And it made me think: what makes this UFO-like cloud (seen last Wednesday over Moscow) beguiling? And it occurred to me that it has to do with the distinction, long made in aesthetics, between the beautiful and the sublime.
The Moscow apparition, when seen as a cloud, is merely beautiful, like a single gray sunflower, but when seen as a UFO it takes on qualities of the sublime (awe, incomprehension, terror). In other words, the explanatory triumphs of science have made many things that were once wonder and horror generating (and therefore sublime) comprehensible. And this, in turn, has made many sublime things into beautiful things.
Like a flower in a meadow, which we see as nonthreatening to us and merely beautiful, so a large cloud formation (for modern people) carries little of the weight of the sublime. It no longer scares us quite the way that it might once have done, nor does it reflect the mysterious moods of the gods. Instead, it can be reduced to being just a large carrier of vaporized water that we scarcely look up at while driving our cars.
But wait a minute. If we look at a cloud and imagine it to be a UFO mothership, all of the feelings we associate with the sublime are suddenly restored. We feel a sense of threat, of incomprehension, of wonder. The idea that just above us, in the Earth’s atmosphere, UFO motherships sometimes make their presence felt, is one way that modern people attempt to recover the sense of the sublime lost to the numerous triumphs of reductionist science. UFO motherships may not be the carriers of aliens, but they may be the carriers of sublime aesthetic emotions. Much as the face/alien image below alternates and takes on different characteristic “feels” (depending upon which way you look at it), so the Moscow cloud/UFO alternates between the nonthreatening beautiful and the horror-generating sublime.
There is, afterall, more than one way to see a cloud: