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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...

Sunday, April 14, 2013


To follow up on an observation I made in Part 1, Otto does indeed use the term "the uncanny" as a specialized term, just as did Freud in his 1919 essay "The Uncanny."  It's tempting to imagine Freud coming across Otto's Rationalist usage of the term prior to writing his own essay, and determining to claim the selfsame term for the forces of Empiricism in his own quasi-scientific endeavors.  However, if there's any proof of this influence, I have yet to come across it. 

From the end of Chapter 6, Otto (as translated by Harvey) quotes one version of a famous line from Sophocles' ANTIGONE:

'Much there is that is weird ; but nought is weirder than man.'

He then justifies this assertion of man's essential "weirdness" (or "strangeness," if one prefers the more standard translation of Sophocles) in terms of his beliefs about the nature of "the numinous."

'This line defies translation, just because our language has no term that can isolate distinctly and gather into one word the total numinous impression a thing may make on the mind. The nearest that German can get to it is in the expression * das Ungeheuere (monstrous), while in English weird is perhaps the closest rendering possible... The German ungeheuer is not by derivation simply huge , in quantity or quality ; this, its common meaning,is in fact a rationalizing interpretation of the real idea ; it is that which is not geheuer , i. e., approximately, the uncanny in a word, the numinous. And it is just this element of the uncanny in man that Sophocles has in mind. If this, its fundamental meaning, be really and thoroughly felt in consciousness, then the word could be taken as a fairly exact expression for the numinous in its aspects of mystery, awefulness, majesty, augustness,and energy ; nay, even the aspect of fascination is dimly felt in it.All of the qualities Otto lists in the final sentence are qualities he has apprehended in the experience of "the numinous."'

Since I'm simply making notations as I read the book, I can't be sure whether or not this passage is the only one where Otto conflates his version of "the uncanny" with "the numinous."  I noted in Part 1 Otto seemed to be applying the adjective "uncanny" specifically to early, "crude" forms of religious awe characteristic of pagan beliefs, which he characterized as "daemonic dread."  In neither use of the word is he giving "the uncanny" the status of an interstitial category, as Todorov did in THE FANTASTIC and as I have done on this blog with my phenomenological rewriting of Todorov's (clearly derivative) categories.  However, earlier in Chapter 5, Otto does suggest such a "neither fish nor fowl" state of being.

'In accordance with laws of which we shall have to speak again later, this feeling or consciousness of the wholly other will attach itself to, or sometimes be indirectly aroused by means of, objects which are already puzzling upon the natural plane, or are of a surprising or astounding character; such as extraordinary phenomena or astonishing occurrences or things in inanimate nature, in the animal world, or among men. 
But here once more we are dealing with a case of association between things specifically different-- the numinous and the natural moment of consciousness-- and not merely with the gradual enhancement of one of them the natural till it becomes the other. As in the case of natural fear and daemonic dread already considered, so here the transition from natural to daemonic amazement is not a mere matter of degree. But it is only with the latter that the complementary expression mysterium perfectly harmonizes, as will be felt perhaps more clearly in the case of the adjectival form mysterious . No one says, strictly and in earnest, of a piece of clockwork that is beyond his grasp, or of a science that he cannot understand : That is " mysterious " to me.'

The relevant sentence is this one:

'But here once more we are dealing with a case of association between things specifically different-- the numinous and the natural moment of consciousness-- and not merely with the gradual enhancement of one of them the natural till it becomes the other.'

Todorov does not have a phenomenological conception of an interstitial state where the phenomenality of a fictional work is not either subsumed by "the real" or characterized by an avoidance of "the real."  In contrast, the NUM theory uses the category of "the uncanny" to take in those narrative works in which cognitive reality (what Otto calls "the natural") appears to be upheld as it is in within the naturalistic phenomenality, but the sense of "strangeness" (Otto's "wholly other") prevents the "enhancement" of the naturalistic on the plane of the affects.  Otto's idea of "gradual enhancement," in which either "the natural" subsumes "the numinous" perfectly describes the phenomenological approach of all naturalistic works, while in all marvelous works the progress goes the other way, whether the numinous takes the form of a literal divinity, as in Milton's PARADISE LOST, or something on a lower plane, like a miraculous submarine in Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.  An example of the latter subsumption was noted here, when I showed that even the naturalistic wonders in Verne's work were tied to the fantastic resources of Nemo:

Without the marvels produced from the genius of "superman" Nemo--  the diving-suits, the Nautilus-- this richness of imagery would be inaccessible to the eyes of humankind, at least in this fictional universe.  Thus even naturalistic details within a marvelous cosmos might be said to take on "the strange-sublime."
Once again, I am encouraged to see that Otto, despite his Rationalist tendencies, prove far more insightful than those of Empiricists like Freud and Todorov.  It doesn't quite make me want to join the party of Rationalism, however.

More on the way.

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