Featured Post


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...

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


“Suppose you were told that 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–described as awe.”

Technically, the three entities C.S. Lewis employs to describe the responses of Fear, Dread, and Awe-- the trinity of human responses which Lewis deems relevant to the matter of "the Numinous"-- are not (as in my title) tiger, ghost and god.  For the last Lewis describes only a "mighty spirit."  However, given that Lewis was, in his most significant works, an unstinting apologist for the Christian faith, I don't think I'm reaching to hazard that for Lewis, that "mighty spirit" could be only the Christian God.  And in the PROBLEM OF PAIN essay from which the above quote stems, Lewis is far from shy about proclaiming his good news.  Indeed, he shows a curious ambivalence about non-Judeo-Christian religions like unto that of early Christian polemicists.  When Lewis wants to show the universality of the concept of "the Numinous" (first named as such by Rudolf Otto), he has no problem quoting examples of awe-filled responses from Ovid and Virgil alongside examples from the Old Testament. Nevertheless, it's clear throughout his screed that no mere pagan religion can possess its own validity.  There's only enough room in town for One Revelation.

Nevertheless, Lewis is insightful enough to invoke not only "virtuous pagans," but also modern philosophers like Otto in service of his creed.  I have not read Otto's IDEA OF THE HOLY, and so can't comment fully on Lewis' use of him.  Thanks to Google search, though, I can say that Lewis substantially uses the term "the Uncanny" substantially in accord with the way Otto uses it:

"...this expression [of unfamiliarity] is popularly used for a thing of which no one can say what it is or whence it comes, and in whose presence we have the feeling of the uncanny."-- HOLY (1917), p. 197.
I'll note that this usage is entirely the opposite of Freud's use of "the Uncanny" in the 1919 essay of that title.  As an empiricist Freud emphasized that what appeared to be unfamiliar, "umheimlich," was actually that which was too familiar, and could be glossed by the concept of the Oedipus complex, as opposed to being genuinely ineffable.  As I pointed out here, Todorov is on the same page as Freud when he claims that his version of "the uncanny" is also all about glossing the Fantasy with the Real.

All that said, the main assertion in Lewis' essay-- entitled simply "Introductory," though the essay stands on its merits without depending on the other essays in the book-- can be summed up in these two quotes:

The spectacle of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been ground for religion: it must always have been something in spite of which religion, acquired from a different source, was held.

There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.
 As a neo-Kantian I part ways with both Empiricist Freud and Rationalist Lewis; I don't believe in the least that religion stems either from the purely materialistic causes Lewis is refuting, nor from the "different source" Lewis uses to explain religion's provenance.  In THE CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON Kant contrasts and dismisses the problems with both Empiricism and Rationalism:

In one word, Leibnitz intellectualized phenomena, just as Locke, in his system of noogony (if I may be allowed to make use of such expressions), sensualized the conceptions of the understanding, that is to say, declared them to be nothing more than empirical or abstract conceptions of reflection. Instead of seeking in the understanding and sensibility two different sources of representations...--   CRITIQUE, p. 174.
Nevertheless, even though Lewis's principal project is to justify the Christian narrative of Revelation-- thus committing Leibnitz's fallacy of "intellectualizing phenomena"-- Lewis's logical deduction of a "sheer jump" that takes one from simple fear to more complex emotions of dread and awe is even more meaningful in neo-Kantian terms.  Here's Cassirer once again, emphasizing the growth of the expressive function in human beings as the Great White Way to understanding existence in a manner far beyond that of "dogmatic sensationalism:"

"Whatever we call existence or reality, is given to us at the outset in forms of pure expression. Thus even here we are beyond the abstraction of sheer sensation, which dogmatic sensationalism takes as its starting point. For the content which the subject experiences as confronting him is no merely outward one, resembling Spinoza's 'mute picture on a slate.' It has a kind of transparency; an inner life shines through its very existence and facticity. The formation effected in language, art and myth starts from this original phenomenon of expression; indeed, both art and myth remain so close to it that one might be tempted to restrict them wholly to this sphere."-- Cassirer, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, p. 449.
Interestingly, another Google search using the terms "Cassirer" and "jump" yielded an essay asserting that Cassirer often regarded poetry as a case where "the spark jumped the gap" between real experience and cultural expression. 

Having drawn Lewis into a neo-Kantian corpus which would probably have horrified him about as much as being associated with Freudians, in my next essay in this series I'll explore a few more aspects of the interaction of the Meta-Iso Wars as expressed by Lewis' figures of "tiger," "ghost," and "god."

No comments: