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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, April 26, 2014


At the end of Part 1 I said:

In Part 2, I'll deal in more depth as to why such an image should be viewed as "positive compensation," as well as relating this theme further to my formulation of the two sublimities.
To do this, I must first reiterate my conviction that a basic identity exists between two familiar terms. I have argued that the term "sublimity," used with somewhat varying but not conflicting definitions by writers ranging from Longinus to Burke to Kant, is in essence identical to the affect that some fan of science fiction termed "the sense of wonder." According to this Wikipedia entry, I am not the first to make this equivalence, though I don't believe that prior to my first suggestions of this equivalence that I had encountered the writings of any of the authors cited in the entry:

The affinities of science fiction and Gothic literature also reveal a common quest for those varieties of pleasing terror induced by awe-inspiring events or settings that Edmund Burke and other eighteenth-century critics call the sublime. A looming problem for writers in the nineteenth century was how to achieve sublimity without recourse to the supernatural. ... The supernatural marvels that had been a staple of epic and lesser forms from Homeric times would no longer do as the best sources of sublimity. ... writers sought new forms that could better accommodate the impact of science.-- Paul K. Alkon, SCIENCE FICTION BEFORE 1900.

I would affirm that in the circles of science-fiction readers "sense of wonder" probably did connote something apart from other forms of the metaphenomenal, whether in Homeric epic, supernatural ghost stories or the "uncanny" forms of "Gothic literature." However, I don't affirm that this was a legitimate distinction. Those writers who have claimed that "the sense of wonder" must be rooted in a sense of partial scientific believability have simply failed to realize that this "causal coherence," as I now term it, is equally present in both stories which involve real ghosts and stories about Evil Uncle Cadbury dressing up like a spook.

As detailed here, my earliest uses of the term "sublimity" on this blog suffered from my preoccupation with Kant's arguments regarding the "dynamically sublime:"

...since I was primarily influenced by Kant's writings on the "dynamically sublime," at times I attempted to subsume all aspects of "infinitude" under the rubric of "might..."

At the same time, I was aware that it was possible to experience affects of sublimity in isophenomenal works.  An emphasis on "might," though, did not serve me for the example mentioned in the above essay-- "Superman's Return to Krypton"-- than it did in the essay ODDLY OR STRANGELY SUBLIME, where I tried to analyze this Conrad passage in terms of its sublimity-effects:

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.

The most I could do at that point was to compare this state of mind with one that Rudolf Otto called "the mysterium fascinans:"

This focus upon hostility, like Lewis' focus upon similar antagonistic states of mind, makes no allowance for the more "fascinated" state of sublimity

The "hostility" I referenced had to do with a specific comment by the philosopher Schopenhauer. However, my statement might just as easily have applied to the element of opposed energies found in Kant's "dynamic-sublime." That said, in an essay written the following year, I stated that I did not mean to suggest an equivalence between Rudolph Otto's two "mysteriums" and the nature of the energy, be it active or passive, in a given scene:

I'm not saying that scenes of "energy at rest" inevitably correlate with the affect of the *mysterium fascinans,* or that scenes of "violent energy" inevitably correlate with the affect of the *mysterium tremendum.*  On the contrary, it's possible to conceive of being "attracted to a fascinating mystery" that happens to be sublimely violent; the Conrad storm-scene simply is not one such because the audience is likely to feel fear on behalf of the storm's victims.  Similarly, the "marvelous stillness" from the LORD JIM passage could just as easily inspire "fear and trembling" if he were describing the stillness of a desert where a human victim could not perservere.  

Again, the above passage, written on 4-1-13, shows the influence of Kant's argument re: "might." But during the month of April, I finally managed to devote time to a prolonged reading of Otto, which I posted under the series-title HOLY NUMINOSITY. By the end of that month, I had decided that although Otto's dichotomy was useful for talking about sympathetic and antipathetic affects, since he was dealing with affects himself, that dichotomy wasn't so applicable to describing the psychological apparatus that nurtured the affects. Thus in the first of the TWO SUBLIMITIES essays, I went back to reread my previous observations regarding the sublime, and observed that I had been trying to "conflate two distinct aspects of the sublime."

So now I would not invoke Otto's "fascinans" as any sort of explanation for a "sense of wonder" in the Conrad scene above: rather, I would say that any wonder/sublimity in it is better explained by the combinatory-sublime. All the vivid effects of Conrad's description upon the mental "eye"-- the "serenity" of the stellar rays, the moon's resemblance to a bar of gold and the sea's resemblance to a sheet of ice-- combine to create the sense of isophenomenal wonder.

Wonder and sublimity, then, will prove of special relevance in Part 3, where I present a counter-argument to the assertion that fantasy is defined by negative compensation.

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