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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...

Saturday, March 30, 2013


For others, the advent of spring means cleaning out the house.  For me, it means yet more terminological revisions to my previously advanced terms regarding the experience of sublimity.

First, prior to any such revisions, a quick revisit to the cognitive and affective conditions that describe my trinity of phenomenalities.  In NOTES ON NORTHROP FRYE AND THE NUM-THEORY I defined the three phenomenalities in terms of their relationship to "causality," insightfully defined by Roger Caillois as "the changeless everyday reality."

“the marvelous”— cognitive and affective aspects of phenomena both exceed causality
“the uncanny”—causality cognitively preserved, but affectivity exceeds causality
“the naturalistic”—cognitive and affective aspects are both contained by causality

In ODDLY OR STRANGELY SUBLIME, I advanced these terms for the differing operations of the sublime within these phenomenalities.

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 They do, however, depict worlds in which "the typical" is frequently superseded by "the atypical."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.
I later decided that I didn't think "oddity" worked as well as "atypicality," and without otherwise revising this aspect of my system made a one-on-one substitution in NUM-INOUS CONFRONTATIONS, VIOLENT SUBLIMITY, the first essay in which I applied my evolving concept of "the sublime" to three phenomenologically-distinct works.  Of my naturalistic example, the character of "Dirty Harry" from the film of the same name, I wrote of this form of naturalistic sublimity:

At this point, if no other, Dirty Harry takes on a transcendent quality. I would call this particular quality (revised since I last wrote of it here) as the "atypical-sublime." In a naturalistic world, even the most extreme actions by hero and villain can never be more than atypical occurences in a world dominated by typical events.
I undertake the revisions of the currently reigning terms-- "atypical-sublime" and "strange-sublime"-- because I've decided that my terms ought to be able to reflect the phenomenological difference between the types of "strange-sublime" in the uncanny and the marvelous.  I've protested Tzvetan Todorov's totalizing tendencies, wherein he views an "uncanny" story as one subsumed by Freud's "reality principle:"

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.
Nevertheless, though a work like HOUSE OF USHER is not subsumed by causality and the reality principle, unlike (say) Poe's PURLOINED LETTER, it also does not share the exact same relationship to causality as that of Walpole's CASTLE OF OTRANTO.  In order to keep the distinctions of that relationship to "the real," I've devised three terms to reflect the causality-relationship of each phenomenality.

In NUMINOUS CONFRONTATIONS, I used the heroes of three adventure-films to contrast the different phenomenalities of each film.  These respective heroes can also be used to define the relationship of the sublime in each film to the causal order.

Again, 1971's DIRTY HARRY is entirely defined by a naturalistic phenomenality.  This phenomenality is not "real," any more than any other fictional production.  However, because all the forces and presences within DIRTY HARRY attempt to be identical with the causal order that we perceive in our shared cultural existence, any sublimity generated by the film-- in particular, by the conflict between the hero and his opponent-- must be termed an "iso-real" sublimity; that is, one limited to the forces and presences that are "the same" as what we know in "the changeless everyday reality."

1973's ENTER THE DRAGON breaks with this "everyday reality" not in terms of the cognitive aspects of causality, but with the affectivity appropriate to a purely naturalistic universe.  Of one metaphenomenal detail of DRAGON I wrote:

A hall of mirrors certainly does not violate our ideas of causality, so it is not metaphenomenal in any cognitive sense, but because it does suggest the metaphenomenal in an affective sense-- pushing [the villain] Han more toward the domain of the supervillain proper-- this scene in particular captures violent sublimity in one of its two metaphenomenal modes, both of which I still designate as "the strange-sublime."

All of the tropes I've designated in my critical writings on film *can* be expressed within a purely naturalistic phenomenality, where both the cognitive and affective aspects are "iso-real."  But uncanny works always push beyond the boundaries of the naturalistic in an affective sense.  This more exaggerated, perhaps more improbable form of affectivity generates a different manifestation of sublimity, one that is rooted in "the real" but transcends it partially.  For this reason I term this manifestation a "supra-real" sublimity.

Finally, with 1977's STAR WARS audiences manage to combine the two most famed genres of the marvelous: "science fiction" and "fantasy."  There are significant phenomenological differences between the two genres, which come down to a different approach to the nature of reality.  In science fiction an apparent "marvel" results from some discovery of a hitherto-unrecognized principle or application of science, while in fantasy,, the "marvel" results from some transcendence of all principles of reality.  Thus most of the characters in STAR WARS use "marvelous" devices like droids and ray-guns without regarding the devices as marvelous, though of course they remain so for the audience.  In contrast, the Jedi powers of Luke Skywalker and his fellow Jedi, though given a smattering of science-fictional rationalization through the concept of the Midi-chlorians, has far more in common with ideas of magic as promoted in otherworldly magical fantasy-fiction. 

Despite all the quarrels between exclusivist fantasy-fans and SF-fans of the same stripe, in a narrative sense the marvels of science fiction and fantasy work the same way: they invoke forces that are not commonly explicable within the domain of "the real."  For that reason, the type of sublimity I discern within the marvelous-metaphenomenal I'll term an "anti-real" sublimity.

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