31 March 2008

Vertigo and the Sublime

I never read one book, but always have a half dozen or more going at once. I read some books in particular places, and carry others until I’m through with them. I have stacks of partly read books scattered from nightstand to throne room. I read much of Paul Schullery’s Cowboy Trout on several fishing trips last summer, and will finish it during the first or second angling expedition in the next month or so. I read most of Barry Miles, Zappa: A Biography last fall and eventually will read the last twenty pages. I’m in for the long haul on my readings of A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A History of the American People by Paul Johnson, and A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which I’ve read previously. I could finish Dreams from my Father by Barack Obama today or tomorrow, but it might sit unopened for another week or so, as it has for the past several days. Due to my “Reading Challenge,” I’m going through Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions systematically at a page or two per day.

A few days ago, I started William Peden’s critical edition of Notes on the State of Virginia by Thomas Jefferson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982 [1954]). Jefferson writes about a sublime natural feature on some land that he purchased.

The arch approaches the Semi-elliptical form; but the larger axis of the ellipsis, which would be the cord of the arch, is many times longer than the {semi-axis which gives it’s height.} Though the sides of this bridge are provided in some parts with a parapet of fixed rocks, yet few men have resolution to walk to them and look over into the abyss. You involuntarily fall on your hands and feet, creep to the parapet and peep over it. Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache. {This painful sensation is relieved by a short, but pleasing view of the Blue ridge along the fissure downwards, and upwards by that of the Short hills, which, with the Purgatory mountain is a divergence from the North ridge; and descending then to the valley below, the sensation becomes delightful in the extreme. It is impossible for the emotions, arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here: so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light, and springing, as it were, up to heaven, the rapture of the Spectator is really indiscribable! The fissure continues deep and narrow and, following the margin of the stream upwards about three eights of a mile you arrive at a limestone cavern, less remarkable, however, for height and extent than those before described. It’s entrance into the hill is but a few feet above the bed of the stream.}
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 24-25.

This version of the text differs from that found on the American Studies Crossroads Project’s hypertext version, which used an edition printed in Brooklyn by the New York Historical Printing Club in 1894. Notes on the State of Virginia was published without Jefferson’s name in France in 1785, then with his name by John Stockdale in England in 1787. The Stockdale edition became the definitive text, but Jefferson inscribed marginal corrections in his personal copy throughout the rest of his life. This marginalia is the basis for the deviations from the Stockdale edition that Peden enclosed in brackets.

Peden’s notes include Jefferson’s marginal comment.

This description was written after a lapse of several years from the time of my visit to the bridge, and under an error of recollection which requires apology. For it is from the bridge itself that the mountains are visible both ways, and not from the bottom of the fissure as my impression then was. The statement therefore in the former edition needs the corrections here given to it. Aug. 16. 1817.
Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 263.

Peden includes the Stockdale version in the balance of this endnote.

I suspect that Peden’s misspelling of “its” in two instances reflects changes in American English from the 1950s to today.


your brother in VA said...

should i read this book?

James Stripes said...

Yep, just as I plan to read the book you brought to my attention at Thanksgiving, and which has been on my shelf more than a month.

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