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Saturday, February 5, 2011


In Kant’s preface to the first edition of CRITIQUE OF JUDGMENT, he makes a distinction regarding those things that can be the proper subjects of “cognition” and those that cannot. This distinction largely parallels the modern terms I’ve been using in my discussions of phenomenality: the “cognitive” and the “affective.” In essence the JUDGMENT is devoted to showing the extent to which humanity’s affective propensities have universal philosophical relevance, despite the fact that said propensities are not subjects of cognition . The first half of the book deals with how human affects apply to the idea of universal taste regarding “the fine arts.”

Section 210 of JUDGMENT is the first time Kant schematizes three of these affects (my word), which he calls “the three sorts of liking.” They are the “agreeable,” the “good,” and the “beautiful.” Later, however, Kant also distinguishes the “sublime” as something of a development from the beautiful. Kant was far from the first to theorize on “sublimity,” as will be seen from this essay on Longinus. But Kant’s cogitations on the matter have become among the most influential on literary studies.

The world that Kant presents as a subject for cognition is one I have termed “isophenomenal,” in that everything in it is subject to laws of reason and causality. To an extent this sounds much like Tzvetan Todorov’s “category of the real,” of which he writes in THE FANTASTIC:

“It is therefore the category of the real which has furnished a basis for our definition of the fantastic.”

But there’s actually a substantial difference between the ways in which Kant and the Freudian-influenced Todorov view this “reality,” and it inheres in their handling of affects. Todorov explicitly rejects theories of fantastic fiction that embrace subjective feeling, while Kant attempts to deduce which if any universal laws may be found in or suggested by the affects.

As an example, here are Todorov’s remarks on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” from “The Uncanny and the Marvelous,” a key chapter of his book:

“Although the resurrection of Usher’s sister and the fall of the house after the death of its inhabitants may appear supernatural, Poe has not failed to supply quite rational explanations for both events.”

Because these explanations are within the limits of the rational, Todorov calls “Usher” an example of “the uncanny bordering on the fantastic,” the latter being his term for fiction that seems to leave unresolved the question of whether the events of the story are marvelous or not. However, a Kantian system might have more to say about the affective aspects of “House of Usher” than Todorov cares to.

It’s interesting that in Todorov's brief examination of “Usher,” he does touch on its affective nature, as he notes: “the sense of the uncanny [in the story] is not linked to the fantastic but to what we might call ‘an experience of limits.’” Todorov takes this observation no further than the bounds of doctrinaire Freudianism, saying that “The sentiment of the uncanny originates, then, in certain themes linked to more or less ancient taboos.”

Kant also deals with limits in his description of the affects he calls “the beautiful” and “the sublime,” but in a more thoroughgoing philosophical manner. Unlike the categories of “the agreeable” and the good,” the other two are relevant to judgments of universal taste:

"The beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in its being bounded. But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness..."-- Section 245.

Though this and similair statements demonstrate that Kant understood that boundaries or the lack of them could be crucial to an understanding of aesthetics, Kant does not give specific examples of artworks that incarnate either the beautiful or the sublime. He does devote considerable space to how nature, even though it is not truly unlimited, can create the effect of illimitability, which in turn invokes in the human mind the experience of sublimity:

“…consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piling up in the sky [and other examples of furious nature]... Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an insignificant trifle. Yet the sight of them becomes all the more attractive the more fearful it is, provided we are in a safe place. And we like to call these objects sublime because they raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range..."-- Section 261.

This, far more than predictable twaddle about Freudian taboos, explains why generations of Poe’s readers have taken pleasure in the macabre events of the story. The facelike façade of the Usher House, the brooding tarn, and Madeleine rising from “death” to strangle her brother with supernormal strength—all of these are perilous presences which readers can contemplate from afar, with mingled pleasure and displeasure, because they do not threaten us directly.

Todorov thinks that the rational order, Freud’s “reality principle,” has won out in the Poe tale because Poe does not literally have the house smitten by the hand of God, after the fashion of more marvelously-oriented Gothics like THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO. But I believe Poe only includes these realistic devices as a means of showing that even with those sops to rationality, the affect of sublime terror remains undiminished.

I titled this essay “parallel paths” to make it clear that I am not suggesting a one-to-one correspondence between Kant’s “sublime” and the "Phillipsian" version of “the uncanny.” I’m simply demonstrating that Kant’s concept is a fit vehicle through which one may understand the process by which uncanny works can be cognitively isophenomenal yet affectively metaphenomenal. It’s certainly no less possible to experience the sublime in works that are overtly marvelous, like OTRANTO, or even in works that simply evoke the sublime against an isophenomenal background, such as Maugham's novel THE RAZOR'S EDGE. But a work like the Maugham novel is merely "atypical" in that the sublime mental states of the character do not override the realistic concerns of the narrative, as I believe they do in "Usher" and in other true works of the uncanny. Thus RAZOR'S EDGE is both cognitively and affectively isophenomenal at the core, making it the obverse of a marvelous work like CASTLE OF OTRANTO.

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