Between the Shabby and the Sublime

My speculation is that we ought to acknowledge the low or shabby aspects without dismissing the high or sublime, and we ought to hold up the high or sublime aspects without disdaining the low or shabby. And the sublime that we seek or find is usually gifted to us as an outcome of a lot of work that can feel shabby.

For the title of this post, I’ve riffed on an idea of the great Polish poet Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021.) I will use his splendid essay “The Shabby and the Sublime” from A Defense of Ardor to frame my thinking about aspects of vocation. Zagajewski meant “shabby” and “sublime” in tight correlation with “low” and “high” poetic styles. I will use “shabby” and “sublime” more loosely to refer to a range of applications to vocation.

Please read his original essay if you’re interested in his thoughts about an ontological requirement of poetry not to exclude high style. Zagajewski offered a pointed critique of modern poetry and of our time’s preference for low style over high style, for a simplistic style that excludes expressions of the sublime in favor of shabby chatter. His diagnosis when comparing a thing in poor condition from hard use or lack of care and a thing that is beautiful or good beyond measure may surprise you.

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