If I told you “that meal was sublime” you’d think I was simply saying it was good, even great. A valid, if simple, interpretation. If I said “that meal was beautiful”, you’d infer the same thing. “Sublime” has undergone the opposite of being hyperbolised. It’s been played down to have an understated meaning. This is a pity, because Edmund Burke went to some trouble in 1757 to establish a difference between the beautiful and the sublime. The beautiful is just nice to look at, but the sublime invokes feelings of awe, fear, danger, terror, and wonder.

“WHATEVER is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful

Let me help you imagine this. As an apex predator, the shark is a masterpiece of Nature that you can readily admire. But if you find yourself on a surfboard on the ocean and a large black silhouette swims under your slender platform, you will experience the sublime.

As you’d imagine about anything relating to aesthetics, art and beauty, this gets talked about a lot by art critics. When you are done here, wander over to The Tate for a longer read. You’ll discover the genre of the romantic sublime, in the poetry and paintings of the English Romantics. The painting of the wild landscape or the poem about the ruined abbey had to go beyond literal and rational depiction, and transcend into the realm of the awesome thoughts that it could evoke. For the earlier Romantics like Wordsworth, it was enough that it was “felt in the blood, and felt along the heart”. The later Romantics, like Shelley and Keats, would carry on to look for the terror within. They sought out the simultaneous sense of beauty, harmony, tragedy, and horror. They were in line with Schopenhauer, that greatest of über-miserabilists, in that to consider the sublime is to look at forces so vast and so powerful that they could crush the human thinker like the mere speck of dust you are. From the awesome to the awful.

This all means something to me because for a while now I’ve been trying to talk about Cancer not as some battle to be won or (usually) lost, but as a force of nature that is, in it’s way, beautiful. But this never seemed quite right, and talking about Cancer in the context of beauty and pleasure sounds like a sort of reality denial. I was trying to capture this in 2012, when talking about the essay in Kathleen Jamie’s “Sightlines”, and again last year in 2015 when I talked about the beauty that makes you shudder.

I just lacked the correct philosophical framework, and now I think I’ve found it. Cancer is not a thing of beauty, it is sublime. Cancer is Nature, and Nature is sublime.

Cancer is the shadow of a shark under your raft.