No one knows whither and whence comes the sublime. That’s part of the sublimeness of the sublime. It comes on its terms. It rewrites the conditions under which we understand the word ‘terms’ in the first place. The sublime upends terms. It shifts boundaries. It displaces the previously existing concepts and contexts. Or shakes them to the ground. Or obliterates them completely. Or, at the very least, reveals the possible otherwiseness of that which seemed so-wise. Having a genuine experience of the sublime is to be stripped down to the core and then to be shown that the core itself dissolves. There is no core. Just nothing. The absolute. Everything. Nothing. All. One.
I’ve had a version, or maybe more like a reminder of this experience quite recently. It came because of a student. This student showed me an article about a new development project in the Saudi Arabian desert. It is called The Line. The Line is the brainchild of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman, who created something called NEOM, which I suppose is some sort of company, or brand. Does it even matter? Many rich and powerful people got together, is the point. They, in turn, assembled a group of experts, as such things happen. An idea was hatched. The idea is The Line.
I still haven’t said what The Line actually is. So I will tell you: it is a city. The city will be built, is actually right now being built, in a straight line going from the middle west of Saudi Arabia and ending at the coast of the Red Sea. It’s basically two giant 170-kilometer-long, skyscraper tall buildings built 200 meters apart from one another, covered in a glass-mirror surface on the outside, and enclosing public space, gardens, transportation infrastructure, etc., in the space between. It will allow for no cars. It will, purportedly, be a zero emissions city with a density of 250,000 people per square kilometer, several times the density of any currently existing city. We are building it, but also AI is somehow building it.
It is astounding. I mean this neither as praise nor condemnation. Simply astounding. Full stop.
The mind-blowing astoundingness of The Line has led, unsurprisingly, to an explosion of frenzied commentary. A recent piece by Adam Greenfield at the architecture and design magazine Dezeen is as good an example of this as any. Greenfield writes his piece as a kind of open letter to the designers and architects employed on the project. His advice to these people is the following: “What should weigh most significantly in your calculus is whether the satisfaction of working on this project, and the compensation that attends that work, will ever compensate for your participation in an ecological and moral atrocity.” There are, of course, many reasons to think that The Line is an atrocity. It may very well be a project morally reprehensible in every way. Or be a complete failure. Or be a terrifying dystopian hellhole if successfully built. I don’t pretend to know.
In further considering the calculus that must be at play for those working on such a project, Greenfield brings up the physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Greenfield writes, “We do know what happened with Oppenheimer’s project, though. And we know what became of him. He could only look on his work and solemnly reflect: ‘Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds’.”
The implication here is that Oppenheimer uttered those famous lines from the Bhagavad Gita in shame and regret. But this, of course, is not what Oppenheimer meant by those lines. In his own explanation of what happened at the exploding of the first atomic bomb at the Trinity Test Site in New Mexico in 1945, Oppenheimer mentions that everyone present that day, suddenly, with great clarity, “knew the world would not be the same.”
Thus the reference to the passage in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the place in the story where the prince Arjuna is having trouble making decisions. There isn’t time here to tell the full story. Arjuna is, suffice it to say, prevaricating. He doesn’t want to fight a battle. Admirably so, you could say. He doesn’t want to be the agent of death and killing. He asks the god Krishna, who has been playing something of an advisory role, for a little more help in this difficult matter. Krishna obliges. He reveals his more true and terrible form as Vishvarupa, or Vishnu. Vishnu The Destroyer. Vishnu the obliterating, all-consuming oneness of all creation. Vishnu as time itself, the inevitable passing away of all things. Vishnu as the unseeable face of the Sublime. In the presence of Vishnu there is no morality as we generally understand it. There are no decisions. Arjuna is enlightened. He fights the terrible battle that he did not want to fight.
Oppenheimer also, and also famously, quoted another line from the same passage in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the description of what it is like to gaze upon the divine as all-being, as Vishvarupa. It is an attempt to describe, in other words, the experience of the sublime. The lines go, “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One.”
We thought that we were doing something, Oppenheimer seems to be saying, but instead, it feels more as if something has been done to us. The ground has shifted beneath our feet. The world has changed. And in changing, a glimpse at the vast churning incalculable pulsing reality-beyond-reality of change itself. Beyond, also, good and evil. The ground for the possibility of any moral calculation.
It happens sometimes, these dizzying blinks of experience when one sees clearly, for a passing moment, that everything could be otherwise, and that with certainty, at some point, it will.
Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, The Virginia Quarterly Review and is a contributor at The New Yorker. He won the Whiting Award for non-fiction in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan’s selected essays can be found here. His books from Slant are The Drunken Silenus. and (just published) The Fate of The Animals He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.