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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, November 15, 2010


One of the most intellectually stimulating online essays I've encountered in the last year is CRWM's 5-24-10 essay, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Uncanny," which excerpts passages from C.S. Lewis' 1940 book THE PROBLEM OF PAIN and applies said passages to modern concerns about the conceptualization of horror-fiction.

Here's the relevant passage that deals with three possible situations in which a subject experiences the emotions, respectively, of fear, dread, and awe:

"Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous."

To recap: Lewis provides three possible entities that might excite these related emotional states. The idea of a tiger provokes fear in the subject. The idea of a ghost provokes dread, which lies upon "the fringes of the Numinous." And the idea of a "mighty spirit" provokes awe, awe of "the Numinous." Lewis' use of this term is derived from Rudolf Otto-- who is quoted in a later passage-- who popularized the term in his 1917 book THE IDEA OF THE HOLY. Otto's "Numinous" is meant to convey a sense by the subject of experiencing some divine-seeming spirit before which one feels fearful, and yet at the same time fascinated. I've quoted Otto myself in relation to making a distinction between horror-stories and suspense-thrillers:

The "suspense" genre, I said in a related post, was oriented not on seeking to scare the audience, but to "startle and disorient." In my own conception the pure horror film doesn't necessarily need the element of the supernatural, but it does need the element of the *mysterium,* which is my shortened form for the two Latin phrases invoked by Rudolf Otto is his classic IDEA OF THE HOLY, where he explains the numinous experience in terms of the *mysterium tremendum,* the overwhelming mystery that compels fear and trembling in the viewer, and the *mysterium fascinans,* which compels the viewer to be attracted to the fascinating mystery.

I've known about Otto's work since my college years, but I may've started thinking about ways to approach his insights in the last year or so thanks to other bloggers, such as Curt Purcell, who also cited Otto in relation to the horror-genre, like in this 12-11-08 essay. I wouldn't mind crediting CRWM in this respect as well, since I've been meaning to link to his Lewis essay all year given the right circumstances, but as it happens THRILLER KILLING was written a little before CRWM's piece.

"The right circumstances," in this case, relate to my own trinity of concerns as to establishing the phenomenal nature of narratives: the A*U*M* formula of "Atypical," "Uncanny," and "Marvelous," as derived in part from the writings of Tzvetan Todorov. I find it quite pleasing that my trinity lines up with Lewis', whether I was subconsciously thinking about his insights or not.

Lewis' "tiger," being that it is unquestionably an entity of the real, causal world, signifies the narrative world of The Atypical. Of course not all Atypical narratives are about physical danger. It is merely that within Atypical narratives, the source of the narrative disequilibrium is something that is easy to understand within the realm of what Todorov calls "the rational."

Lewis' "ghost" is an entity that hovers, as Lewis says, on "the fringes of the Numinous." In other sections of his essay Lewis is careful to avoid the reductive view of ghosts: he rejects the notion that they must be spectres conjured up purely via the subject's wishful thinking or some similar delusion. At the same time, Lewis admits that for primitive man ghosts may have simply been viewed as a mundane source of danger:

It is therefore theoretically possible that there was a time when men regarded these spirits simply as dangerous and felt towards them just as they felt towards tigers.

For me, then, this ambivalence as to the ghost being mundane or quasi-Numinous lines up well with my adaptation of Todorov's category of "the uncanny." Todorov believes that once a narrative reveals that the Hooded Phantom is really just Mr. Hawkins using his handy-dandy slide projector (now known far and wide as the Scooby Doo Ending), the narrative was thus reclaimed for "the category of the real." But as earlier essays should make clear, I don't agree. For me, even narratives in which the metaphenomenon of, say, a ghost is proved to have no cognitive truth, the fear of the spectre renders the narrative *affectively* metaphenomenal, as against, say, a more mundane thriller where ghosts are not even worthy of consideration.

Finally, Lewis' concept of his "mighty spirit" unquestionably compares well with the category of "the marvelous." Far more than in his consideration of the ghost, Lewis, though not a Kantian, takes a quasi-Kantian view as to whether reductionism explains the Numinous experieces of "the mighty spirit":

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous.

One need not conceive of the "mighty spirit" in precisely the same way Christian-apologist Lewis may have, in order to see its relevance to the narratological category of "the marvelous." Where "uncanny" aspects stand on the borderline between the real and the unreal (if only affectively), "marvelous" aspects are all about invoking the sense of the sublime; of things that unquestionably go beyond the boundaries of time, space, and causality in one way or another. In horror the "mighty spirit" might be a vampire; in fantasy it might be a wizard; in science fiction it might be Jules Verne's Center of the Earth. All are narratologically similar even if the precise nature of the phenomena described take different forms.

In closing I'll note that many, many concordances on "fantastic film" have fallen victim to a tendency to lump all sorts of films that invoke "fear" of the distinctly mundane type with films of the uncanny and the marvelous. One of the worst offenders is R.G. Young's ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FANTASTIC FILM, which is valuable in terms of chronicling many obscure British fantasy-shorts but muddies its concept by including all sorts of genres peripheral to fantastic film, such as film noir, swashbucklers like CUTTHROAT ISLAND, and what a back-cover blurb calls "heavy melodramas." I sympathize with the desire to reference all these lesser evocations of fear and danger-- but one ought to draw the line SOMEWHERE.

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