Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

"Valley of the Yosemite" (1864) by Albert Bierstadt

April 2, 2020

SIMS | Shortness of Breath

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Shortness of breath, usually, is not something that phases me. I’m too accustomed to her ways, her demands, her presence. Shortness of breath comes with me when I visit the homes of dust bunnies and dogs, and she shows up uninvited accompanied by searing stomach aches if I eat macadamia nuts.

The whistling and rumbling that comes at the ebbs of my allergic inflammation and congestion remind me of all the complexities that makes me real. Sometimes, when I’m wheezy, I like to breathe as deeply as I can to listen to the way air weaves its way through constricted pathways, and feel where it meets resistance.

My breath is the hardest to apprehend when I’m lying down, about to fall asleep. Having to take, collect, abduct the breath brings it to the forefront of my attention, as I labor to get enough air in and out. When breath stops coming automatically, our attention is shifted to one of the most critical, consistent and unnoticed aspects of our life.

When experiencing something strikingly beautiful, it’s not uncommon to say it’s “breathtaking.” A landscape, an album or a spectacular feat are often “breathtaking.” The word has taken on a meaning that is primarily metaphorical, but what about the actual experience it points to?

There is a real human experience in coming upon something and becoming so excited or inspired or impressed by it that, momentarily, the aesthetic experience supersedes breathing. The rhythm of being alive is put on hold for the moment of being with this beauty. The scene, unliving but so full of life, is everything. Then the breath comes back; living resumes. It’s not just a metaphor or nice adjective — it’s more vital than that.

Formal chatter and critique of art has been, and still often is, far over my head. I don’t have a strong theoretical background; the only trick I’ve managed to learn is looking to my body for reactions to art. My subconscious physical reactions — breathing, pulse, tingles, tremors, tensing — can evaluate art in more interesting ways than my brain can, clarifying and expounding upon the experience.

We are muddling around in a world that’s chronically short of breath. Breath that is being stolen by a particularly ruthless virus, but whose accomplices are commonplace: going to Temple, traveling home to hunker down, workplaces, coffee dates and who knows what else.

These two takings of breath are strikingly different. One is a — perhaps the — pinnacle of what a joy it is to be alive. The other is death, or at least an encounter with it.

But there’s also the other, lesser used but perhaps more commonly experienced version of “breathtaking.” Shock or horror also takes breath away in gasps while fear suffocates. Things we don’t want to see — but that maybe we can’t move our gaze away from — ake our breath away painfully and acutely.

This is, of course, the breath that is taken if you are watching the unfolding of a pandemic, waiting and wondering how it will envelop you.

It is also, less topically and viscerally, the type of breathtaking which appears in early Romantic portrayals of nature. These landscapes evoked fear, depicting the chaotic terror of tempests and dark unending wildernesses as unforgiving realms. They were motivated by a fear of God’s nature and a sense that civilization and management of nature could bring about the safety and security people needed to survive. The paintings explored the use of art to upset or disturb the viewer, developing the painting of the sublime: “an artistic effect productive of the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.”

"The Shipwreck" (1772) by Claude-Joseph Vernet

Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

“The Shipwreck” (1772) by Claude-Joseph Vernet

Over time, European and Euro-American paintings of nature shifted its focus to the delight of the landscape. Sometimes, painters still pointed to the danger and power of cliffs, mountains and storms, but golden light cascaded through their paintings and discovery and exploration of natural areas (…let’s talk about the colonial ideology behind this soon) was glorified. They represented pleasure, freedom and the grandness of the world that awaits outside of the towns and trudging through daily life.

"Passing Shower in the Tropics" (1872) by Frederic Edwin Church

Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

“Passing Shower in the Tropics” (1872) by Frederic Edwin Church

In just about one century of the landscape painting tradition, the bit was flipped. Edmund Burke, one of the prominent aesthetic philosophers who developed the idea of the sublime asserted that, specifically, the sublime and the beautiful were opposite, non-overlapping experiences. Whether he’s right or not, landscape embodies both, and does so with a severity that is breathtaking in both versions.

In the earlier, disturbing paintings, the image captures you with fright — and a gasp, if it’s truly sublime. It transforms you, inducing a fear and deferential respect of the landscape. Then it releases you, back with your breath, to move through the world with a little more trepidation.

The later paintings lure and hook with their beauty, so much that it supersedes the breath. There is beauty, and so great a quantity of it that you can’t even understand one bit of it and breath at the same time. What a blessing that is. The breath is returned, and the world we know is a little fuller and more wonderful.

I hope that, somehow, sometime soon, we too will generously be given our breath back. Then we go on, with full lungs, a heavy burden of grief and a new sense of the world.

 

 

Katie Sims is a senior in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. She can be reached at ksims@cornellsun.com. Resident Bad Media Critic runs alternate Thursdays this semester.