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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...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


As I admitted in ENERGY EXCHANGE, when writing of the work of Rudolf Otto I have depending on partial excerpts of his most famous work, originally published in 1917 as The Holy - On the Irrational in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational, but currently published under the title THE IDEA OF THE HOLY.  I'm now reading the 1923 English translation by John W. Harvey, who also wrote a preface which provides a brief biographical overview of the German scholar.

My principal, though not exclusive, source for Otto was the C.S. Lewis essay in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN.  In an earlier essay, though I praised the quality of Lewis' intellectual schema, I rejected Lewis' Rationalist outlook.

In part 2 I also noted the problems Kant addressed with both Empiricist and Rationalist arguments, and that C.S. Lewis was essentially in the Rationalist camp, as one who tended, in Kant's words, to "intellectualize phenomena." Nevertheless, the schema Lewis depicts in THE PROBLEM OF PAIN-- the Fear/Dread/Awe affects that he invokes to explain the range of human responses to the Numinous, as well as what only seems like the Numinous (i.e., mundane danger)-- possesses an internal consistency not seen in most of his proselytizing arguments. I find it interesting that Lewis' argument, like many of his other insights, seems to apply better to literature than philosophy as such.
Otto, too, is of the Rationalist party. Harvey, though he describes Otto as "international and liberal in grain," describes Otto as a devout Lutheran who hoped to see a renaissance of German Christianity and was aghast to see the growth of Nazi ideology in his native country prior to his death in 1937.  In the second chapter of HOLY, Otto refuses to characterize the experience of divinity as the result of mere psychological factors, as his contemporary Freud would famously claim.  He cites as his first example of this mental state the attitude of Abraham in Genesis 18:27:

Then Abraham spoke up again: "Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes...
This attitude is what Otto styles the "mysterium tremendum," and views it as an affect that extends beyond the bounds of the Christian revelation, though he shows, like Lewis, a marked preference for the Judeo-Christian tradition.  He asserts that one cannot use the term "holiness" for this mental experience, given that the word has become dominantly associated with "the perfectly moral will."  Thus he coins the term "numinosity" to describe the subject's response to the "tremendum:"

This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely primary and elementary datum,while it admits to being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined.
 As recounted in Lewis' essay, the state of simple physical fear is distinct from that of "dread," which Otto, following the Greek concept of the daemon, refers to as "daemonic dread."  The aforesaid marked preference for Christian "purity" over pagan "crudity" appears in Chapter 4:

Before going on to consider the elements which unfold as the
tremendum develops, let us give a little further consideration
to the first crude, primitive forms in which this numinous
dread or awe shows itself. It is the mark which really
characterizes the so-called Religion of Primitive Man , and
there it appears as daemonic dread . This crudely naive and
primordial emotional disturbance, and the fantastic images to
which it gives rise, are later overborne and ousted by more
highly-developed forms of the numinous emotion, with all its
mysteriously impelling power. But even when this has long
attained its higher and purer mode of expression it is possible
for the primitive types of excitation that were formerly a part
of it to break out in the soul in all their original naivete and
so to be experienced afresh.
Not having read the full text of THE HOLY, I cannot say as yet how pervasively Otto's religious preferences affect his argument.  The provincial attitude of this passage is fairly typical of the period, though not universal: in this essay I showed how Ernst Cassirer was fully able to describe the processes of archaic mythico-religious systems without deeming them "crude" or "naive" in comparison to later cultural "forms" like organized religion, formal art and science.

But regardless of Otto's religious sentiments, they do not necessarily undermine his philosophical arguments any more than they did with C.S. Lewis.  It's significant that one of the phrases Otto uses to describe daemonic dread is the feeling of "something uncanny," which as noted earlier is the exact same term Sigmund Freud used two years later in his essay, "The Uncanny."  However, Otto perceptively regards the early "uncanny" state of pagan mankind as "the starting-point for the entire religious development in history." Freud the Empiricist simply uses the "uncanny" ("unheimlich" in German) to signal the presence of concealed psychological states.

In general we are reminded that the word heimlich is not unambiguous, but belongs to two sets of ideas, which, without being contradictory, are yet very different: on the one hand it means what is familiar and agreeable, and on the other, what is concealed and kept out of sight. Unheimlich is customarily used, we are told, as the contrary only of the first signification of heimlich, and not of the second.-- Freud, THE UNCANNY.
I've stated before that Todorov's adaptation of "the uncanny" to his system of literary hermeneutics is unquestionably Freudian, though it's not clear if his other category, "the marvelous," may have been borrowed from Northrop Frye, given that Todorov devotes a section of THE FANTASTIC to tearing down Frye's ANATOMY.  I abjure Todorov's Freudianism, of course, but I also reject Otto's tendency to group the religons of "primitive" man with the level of the merely "weird" and "eerie," particularly revolving about "the fear of ghosts."  I've expressed in TIGERS PART 3 my reservations about lumping "ghosts" with "gods," since both are manifestations of what Frye and Todorov call the "marvelous."  But I do agree with Otto that "daemonic dread" is at least one aspect of a mental state, the other half of which I term "fascination" in this essay. In my system I associate this binary mental affect with phenomena that do not quite break with causality, as does "the marvelous," but still evokes the experience of Tolkien's "arresting strangeness."

More to come.


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