Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ODDLY OR STRANGELY SUBLIME

Does one necessarily *need* "arresting strangeness" to convey a sense of the marvelous? It would seem not, but at the same time there must logically be a coherent asesthetic governing these very different approaches to enchantment... -- from this essay.

As much as I admire the deductive reasoning behind C.S. Lewis' introductory essay in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- analyzed here and in my other essays referencing Lewis-- one might criticize Lewis for broadly implying that the "awe of the numinous" could be associated only with those things that suggested a "mighty presence," i.e., gods or God, while things of the ordinary/isophenomenal world could only imply "fear."  Clearly Joseph Conrad could find both wonder and terror in the "marvels and mysteries" he creates in his stories, most if not all of which take place in an isophenomenal world of naturalistic presences.

What can save Lewis' insight, however, is a closer look at the the terminology employed by Rudolf Otto, whom Lewis quotes briefly but does not explore in depth.

Quoting myself once more:



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.



Lewis' trinity of fear, dread, and awe-- which I've paralleled to my Todorov-derived trinity of the naturalistic, uncanny, and marvelous-- works quite well as long as one is considering only the *mysterium tremendum,* which seems to be the only aspect Lewis regards.  But Otto's other formulation, the *mysterium fascinans,* suggests a less antipathetic attitude toward whatever-it-is that inspires the sense of something beyond ordinary experience. 

For instance, regard the opening paragraph of Chapter 3 of Conrad's LORD JIM:

A marvellous stillness pervaded the world, and the stars, together with the serenity of their rays, seemed to shed upon the earth the assurance of everlasting security. The young moon recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon. The propeller turned without a check, as though its beat had been part of the scheme of a safe universe; and on each side of the Patna two deep folds of water, permanent and sombre on the unwrinkled shimmer, enclosed within their straight and diverging ridges a few white swirls of foam bursting in a low hiss, a few wavelets, a few ripples, a few undulations that, left behind, agitated the surface of the sea for an instant after the passage of the ship, subsided splashing gently, calmed down at last into the circular stillness of water and sky with the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.


Plainly, in contrast to the TYPHOON passages I cited earlier in my Conrad analyses, this is Conrad picturing a naturalistic scene with just as much "sense of wonder" as anything in fantasy or science fiction.  In AGE OF WONDERS David Hartnell centers his definition of the term "sense of wonder" in an awestruck fascination with strange phenomena that does not suggest the aspect of the *mysterium tremendum:*


Any child who has looked up at the stars at night and thought about how far away they are, how there is no end or outer edge to this place, this universe – any child who has felt the thrill of fear and excitement at such thoughts stands a very good chance of becoming a science fiction reader. To say that science fiction is in essence a religious literature is an overstatement, but one that contains truth. SF is a uniquely modern incarnation of an ancient tradition: the tale of wonder. Tales of miracles, tales of great powers and consequences beyond the experience of people in your neighborhood, tales of the gods who inhabit other worlds and sometimes descend to visit ours, tales of humans traveling to the abode of the gods, tales of the uncanny: all exist now as science fiction. Science fiction’s appeal lies in combination of the rational, the believable, with the miraculous. It is an appeal to the sense of wonder.
Now, I've also gone on record as comparing the affect of the "sense of wonder" to the affect identified by Burke and Kant as "the sublime."  Burke and Kant do not make any distinctions as to whether the sublime affect arises from a phenomenon or a fictional work that has either isophenomenal or metaphenomenal characteristics, and as I pointed out here, Burke is as apt to find the quality of the sublime in works as far apart in phenomenality as HENRY IV and THE FAERIE QUEENE.

I have not previously referenced Arthur Schopenhauer's concept of the sublime.  Most of his meditations on it oversimplify its character due to his focus on its antipathetic, *mysterium tremendum* characteristics, as noted on this site:

For Schopenhauer, the sense of the sublime is attained by the aesthetic contemplation of an object that is inherently hostile to one’s will (or to human will in general).


This focus upon hostility, like Lewis' focus upon similar antagonistic states of mind, makes no allowance for the more "fascinated" state of sublimity.  However, in THE WORLD AS WILL AND REPRESENTATION, the gloomy philosopher does conceive one notion of the sublime not found in Burke or Kant: the idea that the sublime can appear in differering *degrees.*

I won't quote Schopenhauer's particular examples of sublimity's degrees, since they are all predicated on what I deem an incomplete vision of the concept.  But the notion of such a concept having different degrees proves very useful for my investigations of the sublime in fiction, for I too conceive that there are differing degrees of sublimity according to the phenomenalities of a given work.

Since works of an entirely naturalistic phenomenality are always defined by limitations, in which it is deemed impossible to transcend the cause-and-effect universe, such works do not evoke "arresting strangeness" in Tolkein's sense.  They do, however, depict worlds in which "the typical" is frequently superseded by "the atypical."  This may include anything from an anomalous event, such as a bank robbery, to a personal epiphany, such as Conrad's narrator describes by catching a ship at sea in a mood of sublime repose.

This kind of sublimity/sense of wonder, which does not break with the order of causality, I term the "odd-sublime," in that whatever takes place in the naturalistic world does not transcend either the cognitive or affective aspects of that orderliness.

Works in the sphere of the uncanny and the marvelous, however, fall into a category best termed the "strange-sublime."  Marvelous works break with both the cognitive and affective aspects of normative order, while uncanny works break with the affective aspect appropriate to causal relations but largely stay within the cognitive sphere of causality.

And of course, it should go without saying that the aspects of the *tremendum,* which Lewis's schema captures so well, also fall in line with this division, so that his "tigers" can be repositories of the "odd-sublime," whether they inspire fear or fascination, while his "ghosts" and "gods" incarnate the "strange-sublime" in all its aspects of dread, awe, and fascination.

I should note in passing that "the odd-sublime," where it occurs in naturalistic fictional works, sometimes has such a strong familial relationship with the "strange-sublime" that it can cause makers of film-compendia to incorrectly associate the two.  Many isophenomenal films by Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, are listed in such film-compendia as belonging within the sphere of metaphenomenal works.  But a film like 1972's FRENZY carries none of the "strangeness" of 1960's PSYCHO, even though the two films share a basic subject matter (the actions of a psychotic killer).  If FRENZY is sublime at all, it is only "odd-sublime," and shares more kinship in its phenomenality with LORD JIM, while affectively speaking PSYCHO is a phenomenal kissing cousin to THE LORD OF THE RINGS.





  


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