The Idea of the Holy and the History
of the Sublime
Lynn Poland / Davidson College
© 1992 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Rudolf Otto's Das Heilige has from the outset survived its critics. Found wanting first as theology -Otto's volume, as indeed his career, was eclipsed by the ascent of dialectical theology- it has been judged by sub sequent generations deeply flawed as science of religion. Nevertheless, like other classics Das Heilige exceeds the rules by which any single discipline would claim it. Its peculiar power, one can suppose, lies in part in its curious doubleness: the work is not only about religion; it is also, willy-nilly, religious writing. The numinous must be experienced to be understood, Otto insists; his task is not simply to analyze a religious phenomenon but to produce it in his readers. There is a second sort of duality in The Idea of the Holy, of course, that surely also has to do with its persisting power. This is its subject matter, the numinous: tremendum and fascinans, the holy object is both taboo and consecrated, encountered with mixed feelings of terror and exaltation. Otto's analysis of this "original feeling response" displays II concern with religious experience that he absorbed from Schleiermacher and his own evangelical Lutheran upbringing and on the methodological side from the examples of Wilhelm Wundt and William James.
< For biographical information about Otto, I have relied on Philip C. Almond, Rudolf Otto: An Introduction to His Philosophical Theology (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984)>
Yet the content and structure of the experience also makes The Idea of the Holy' an episode in the history of the sublime-that is, in the history of a notion that has concerned both dualities, the ambivalent experience of the safer and the rendering or provoking of this experience by writing.
<The standard history of the
eighteenth-century sublime is still Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime:
A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth-Century England (New
York: Modern Language Association of America, 1935; Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1960). Another useful over view
is James T. Boulton's "Editor's Introduction" to Edmund
Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of
the Sublime and Beautiful (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1958)>
It is in this light that I wish to consider Otto's work in what follows. We learn from the history of the sublime that terror has its functions: its structure of dread yielding to delight, of crisis to resolution, may serve a number of cultural needs. My purpose in placing Otto in this cultural context -one broader than that to which he usually assigned by scholars of religion- is, first, to reflect on the functions of terror in Otto's idea of the holy, and second, to examine his text's rhetorical power. The art of the sublime is identified by its effect on readers; its distinguishing mark is its capacity to transport, to arouse the soul to "rise above what is mortal," as Longinus put it. It transports by moving its readers through a process of fragmentation and reordering, of undoing and redoing, that mimics the peculiar duality of its sublime content. Otto himself evokes the sublime as virtually identical in structure and content to the numinous, only to demote it to the status of mere, albeit central analogy: he calls it an "authentic schema of the holy.
< Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige (Munich: C, H. Beckschen Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1963), All quotations are taken from John W, Harvey's translation, The Idea of the Holy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), In Otto's description, the sublime and the numinous are alike in having a dual character. Both are "at once daunting, and yet again singularly attracting"; the experience humbles and at the same time exalts uson the one hand releasing in us a feeling analogous to fear and on the other rejoicing us." In addition, both are, in Kantian terms, ideas "that cannot unfolded" (unauswickelbar). See Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 41-42. >
However, the process by which the analogy is produced only to be cancelled makes Otto's use of the sublime itself an instance of sublimity as rhetorical art. The mechanics of this art of transport is the topic of Longinus's treatise the Peri Hypsous, on On the Sublime; rediscovered in the seventeenth century, this fragmented document did much to shape the burgeoning modern taste for the sublime.
< Authorship of this work is uncertain: until the nineteenth century it was attributed to the third-century philosopher Cassius Longinus; contemporary conjecture places it in the first century, the work of a Greek rhetorician, The treatise seems to have been known in Western Europe by the late fifteenth century but became influential only with Boileau's French translation in 1674. On this, and for an excellent commentary on the treatise, see D. A. Russell's edition of the Greek text, "Longinus on the Sublime (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), as well as his English translation, "Longinus on Sublimity (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965). My citations are taken from W. R. Roberts's translation (1899) as printed in Hazard Adams, Critical Theory since Plato (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1971), pp. 76-102.>
Like Das Heilige, On the Sublime exemplifies what it is about Longinus's eighteenth-century readers were therefore wont to observe that he "is himself that great sublime he draws.
< Alexander Pope, "An Essay in Criticism", line 680. Printed ill Adams, pp. 278-86>
I shall suggest that this deserves
to be said of Otto as well.
The nature of the modern sublime is most readily seen in encounters with a certain kind of landscape, The diary of Carl Ludwig Fernow, for example, records an episode on his tour in the Ticino in this way:
'Here is the eternal home of horror. I have not seen anything more terrible We heard the increased thunder of the stream. Astonished, we looked at it, breaking its way through the rocks, cascading deep below us. We rolled large stones into the roaring abyss which were soon crushed by the stream and colored the foam red. With every step, the sublime spectacle became more awe-inspiring. One is unable to speak; the shouts of joy are submerged in this thousand-voiced thunder; all of nature trembles in this valley of terror All this arouses the power of the soul in its innermost depth; it is the image of eternity. Sensible nature shudders in its nothingness, but the free spirit rejoices.
< Diary entry of March 29, 1794, quoted by Karsten Harries, The Meaning of Modern Art: (Evanston, Ill.: North-western University Press. 1968), p. 38, who in turn finds it in Rudolf Zeitler Klassizismus und Utopia (Uppsala: University of Uppsala, 1954), p. 35. >
The sublime provokes in the beholder ambivalent feelings of terror and delight: the crushing power of natural forces, the specter of annihilation as the stones bleed into the abyss, the overwhelming of the human voice by nature's thunder, together arouse in Fernow first terror, then the joyful discovery of a commensurable power within himself-in his soul's "innermost depth" he finds a spirit superior to sensible nature, the image of eternity, In this positive moment, dread gives way, not only to joy, but to an apprehension of transcendence; it is a passage from external nature to internal force, from corporeal to spiritual.
Sublimity concerns passage toward an ideal, whether to God or to the Kantian "supersensible," by means of what the eighteenth century called 'enthusiasm" - by the feeling that one has ascended beyond the merely human.
< For an interesting contemporary adaptation of the notion of "enthusiasm", see Louis Wirth Marvick, Mallarmé and the Sublime (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). >
One of the peculiarities of the
sublime is that this "enthusiasm" has no clear locus
or cause. Fernow says only that "all this" arouses the
soul, including in this "al" the entirety of his experience.
If we look carefully at his account, however, we can discern in
this "all" a sequence of stages that proceed by a blurring
of categories and the transfer of power. We see a shift from hearing
nature to gazing at it in astonishment, as Fernow moves from being
acted upon to acting. This gives rise to a gesture of symbolic
submission, as Fernow allows his bodily substitute to be crushed
by the stream, and then to a mingling of nature's now quantified
"thousand-voiced" thunder with his human voice,
until it is no longer Fernow who shudders in terror, but sensible
nature: "sensible nature shudders in its nothingness, but
the free spirit rejoices," "All this," finally,
is condensed to an "it" that is "the image of eternity,"
an "it" whose antecedent is also nicely blurred - is
"the image of eternity" the "all this" or
the "power of the soul," or the "nothingness"
of sensible nature?
Analyses and theories of the sublime burgeoned in the eighteenth century. While critics were far from unanimous in their articulation of this idea, the structure they discern remains fairly constant, whether they speak of encounters with nature or with painting, literature, or architecture. As Fernow's account suggests, sublime transport turns on an encounter with some "opposition," or "difficulty"; one must first experience the limits of one's capacities, must first feel frozen in terror or astonishment, before the positive moment and movement of transport can occur. These limitations can be intellectual as well as physical: the encounter with opposition can arise from the apprehension of one's powerlessness before nature's force, as it did for Fernow, or instead from a sense of one's incapacity to comprehend what appears vast, difficult, obscure, or infinite. Kant, from whom Otto probably learned the philosophical treatment of the sublime, therefore diagnoses two types of sublimity, the "dynamical," which concerns the encounter with nature, and the "mathematical," an experience of cognitive exhaustion.
<This distinction appears in Kant's "Analytic of the Sublime" in his Critique of judgement. Citations are from the translation of J. C. Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1969). See also Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. trans. John T. Goldthwait (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1960)>
For Kant the experience of both arises, in effect, out of the failure of the beautiful; the notion that nature or artefact can embody or represent the transcendent is exposed as false consolation, an illusion.
<The "sensuous appearance of the ideal" in the experience of the beautiful is now seen to have occurred only by virtue of a certain "subreption" whereby we substitute "a respect (Achtung) for the Object in place of one for the idea of humanity in our own self - the Subject" (Kant, Critique of judgement, p. 106). >
While the beautiful object symbolically presents a "final" correspondence between the ideal and the real, the sublime instead provokes an experience of the immeasurable gulf between them. If nature is home at all, it is an "eternal home of horror." The task of the sublime then becomes that of affording passage between these incommensurable orders. Kant attempts to make sense out of this obscure movement of transport, although his own accounts finally leave as much unexplained as Fernow's diary. If Kant were to analyze Fernow's experience, he would seize on the moment when Fernow sends the stones into the crushing stream. For Kant describes the dynamical sublime as a drama in which the imagination, from a position of complete security, nevertheless "pictures to itself" an act of resisting nature's might. It sees immediately, of course, that it would fail in its attempt, although somehow-Kant does not make this any clearer than Fernow-this imagined futile resistance arouses the forces of the soul, so that we discover "within us a power of resistance of quite another kind, which gives us courage to be able to measure ourselves against the seeming omnipotence of nature.
< Kant, "Analytic of the Sublime," in Critique of judgment, pp. 110-11. My discussion of
Kant in this section is indebted to the important study by Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976); on Kant, see esp. pp. 38-44, 84-87, 92-100. >
This inner power, superior to nature's force, is the "supersensible" faculty, Fernow's "free spirit," Kant's Ideas of Reason.
We have here a stunning metaphor: external power is identified with internal power, the subject's relation to the natural world converted into a symbol of the mind's relationship to a transcendent power within itself. "It," "all this," is the "image of eternity," This act of symbolic exchange also governs the mathematical sublime, for here the imagination, confronting an object of extreme magnitude, fails in its attempt to gather it into a single conceptual unity and intuits it as "unattainable". There is too much or too many for it to comprehend.
< The experience of overloading and extending the mind's capacities has been central to sublimity since Longinus. It is elaborated, for instance, in Burke's notion of the "artificial infinite", where the qualities of "succession" and "uniformity of parts" in an object press the imagination to run along, unchecked, beyond its bounds. See Burke (n. 2 above), pp. 74-76, 139-43. >
This painful moment in which the
imagination is forced to recognize its limitations - it undergoes,
Kant says, a "momentary checking of the vital powers"
- gives rise to positive motion and a "consequent stronger
outflow of the vital powers" as Reason "intervenes and
presents the idea of totality or infinitude," Since Reason's
ideas are also "unattainable"-they cannot be imagined
or presented in sensible form-the mind substitutes one sort of
unattainability for another. Schiller's description makes this
substitution plain: "For the sublime, in the strict sense
of the word, cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather
concerns ideas of reason, which, although no adequate representation
of them is possible, may be excited and called into mind by that
very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous representation.
< Friedrich von Schiller, "On the Sublime," in Essays Aesthetical and Philosophical (London: Bohn Library, 1889), p. 134. Otto also uses the language of "exciting " and "calling to mind" in describing the relationship between the numinous object and the way it is "reflected in the mind in terms of feeling" (p. 12). >
In both sublime modes, then, failure
itself assumes the status of a signifier, "disposing us to
feel," in Thomas Weiskel's words, "that behind this
newly significant absence lurks a newly discovered presence, the
latent referent, as it were, mediated by the new sign" (Weiskel,
What is left unexplained in both Kantian modes is the motivation: why is the soul aroused to its defensive gesture of matching power for incommensurable power? If we look carefully at both Kantian dramas, however, we note that one faculty, the imagination, unwittingly plays the role of sacrificial victim-unwittingly, because the Transcendent has actually been lurking on the scene in a concealed way from the start.
< Ibid., pp. 38-41. Kant, rather surprisingly, uses this language of sacrifice in an otherwise characteristically technical passage. In the mathematical sublime, he writes, we find "the imagination by its own act depriving itself of its freedom by receiving a final determination in accordance with a law other than that of its empirical deployment In this way, it gains an extension and a power greater than that which it sacrifices. But the ground of this is concealed from it, and in its place it feels the sacrifice or deprivation to which it is subjected" (Kant, "Analytic of the Sublime" in Critique of judgement, p. 120). >
It is Reason, after all, that
has commanded the imagination to attempt to comprehend infinitude
in the first place, just as the specter of annihilation in Fernow's
sublime must be only fantasized: if there were real danger, one
would not rejoice in one's free spirit but instead take flight.
Kant insists on the imagination's position of security because
he wants us to see that sublimity is not in the external object,
but in our relation to it. This must be the case since many sorts
of powerful or incomprehensible objects can occasion the experience
of transport. This also implies, however, that the nature of the
transcendent power must be assumed in advance; it is not derived
from the particular terrors that occasion it. If in the sublime
moment, for example, one stands before Fernow's abyss or confronts
a text that exceeds comprehension and experiences not just confusion
or terror but transport to a higher order, what this experience
can be said to mean depends on what one assumes, a priori, to
be the nature of the transcendent: whether some version of God,
or Kant's "supersensible destiny" (On this point, see
Weiskel, pp. 35-44).
There is, in other words, something gratuitous about the scene of the sublime: a fantasy of injury, an imagined terror, so that the existence and nature of the transcendent order that one already knows can be affectively confirmed. It is as though the crisis has been staged so that Reason can arrive in aid; it provides Reason an occasion for its self-recognition.
This is aesthetics in service
of religion, or at least of transcendental philosophy, and indeed
throughout its history the status of the sublime has hovered between
the aesthetic and religious.
< This is, of course, also true of the aesthetic itself. The extraordinarily privileged status of the aesthetic in post-Enlightenment thought is a correlate of the extraordinary transcendental task, it has been asked to perform. For a recent materialist perspective on the tasks of the aesthetic, see Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990). Interestingly, as Almond points out, Otto includes the sublime within the domain of religion in his earlier work. Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie (see n. 60 below), while in Das Heilige the sublime is an important analogy but nonetheless independent of the religious. Almond (n. I above), p. 134, n. 30. >
To literary historians, the intense modern interest in sublimity is most often viewed simply as a symptom of secularization: "the sublime revives as God withdraws," as Weiskel observes. "The sublime was an attempt to revise the meaning of transcendence precisely when the traditional apparatus of sublimation spiritual, ontological, and (one gathers) psychological and even perceptional - was failing to be exercised or understood." (Weiskel. pp. 3-4.) This is surely right: one of the functions of this structure of crisis and resolution was to duplicate, and thus to cure, a culture's anxiety at the waning authority and effectiveness of the Christian economy. To reflect on this cultural func-tion of the sublime it is helpful to step outside the theological or idealist frameworks in which it was cast. One way to do so is to think of the structure of sublimity, with Weiskel, in semiotic terms. In Weiskel's semiotic reading, the negative moment of the sublime is a glimpse at the terrifying arbitrariness of the relation between signs and the world, an aporia safely hidden when ordinary discourse functions normally. Kant's mathematical sublime, for instance, is provoked by disruption of the normal process of representation: there are too many signifiers for the mind to render meaningful; one feels lost in a succession of signs that seems to go on endlessly. In the positive moment, the terrifying procession of signifiers is halted by the making of metaphor, by the act of symbolic substitution that resolves the crisis by making the absence of meaning itself significant. In other words, sublimity both glimpses the arbitrariness of meaning and represses it, gathering the experience of excess into the triumph of the possibility of meaning. "Perhaps," Weiskel therefore speculates, the ontological names we call sublimity "are reifications of the signifying power, spontaneously created by the mind at the zero degree, in the mere reflex of making absence significant" (Ibid., p. 28). One thinks of God's fiat lux in the Book of Genesis - the single biblical passage among Longinus's examples of sublime rhetoric. Although he does not say so, Weiskel's "perhaps" provides an interesting gloss on the relation between Signifying Power and the terrifying face of the deep.
What Weiskel's account suggests,
then, is that "picturing to oneself" cultivates the
terrors of excess for the purpose of affirming that excess can
he mastered and culture sustained, after all. It is perhaps easy
to see why recent theorists have also understood the dynamic of
the sublime as a recapitulation of the Oedipus complex-that is,
of that process through which human beings are produced as cultural
subjects, forms of social and religious authority are transmitted,
and authority inscribes itself in bodies and empowers them.
< Weiskel himself thinks through sublimity in psychoanalytic terms, and there are now hosts "t or her psychoanalytic studies as well. Central is Harold Bloom's version of the sublime and its bearing on literary influence. See, e.g., Harold Bloom, Poetry and Repression (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976), and Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Also important are the essays by Neil Hertz collected as The End of the Line: I 'lays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). >
In these terms, the imagination's fantasy of injury, its picturing to itself, is analogous to castration anxiety-to the self's narcissistic apprehension of the possible loss of its integrity, of the boundaries of its ego. In one psychoanalytic reading, sublime anxiety is provoked by the self's attempt to possess the body of the maternal other, of nature or text. It knows the Law of the Father already, of course, for its attempt at possession is an attempt to seize the power of the Father for itself; its anxiety concerns its relationship to this power. In this light, the sublime concerns the relation of the young to the old, the present to the past. It asks whether the Father's Law will block or instead empower the son's desire for mastery. The moment of this question, the moment of blockage and astonishment, is resolved when the imagination surrenders its desire for mastery-casts the stone into the abyss to bleed-and turns within to identify the Father's power as inside itself. Rejoicing, it ascends to 'Join the great." The Law that comes from outside is firmly reestablished within; culture retains its foundation. This Oedipal reading helps to make sense of the function of sublimity for Longinus-and, in Harold Bloom's scheme, of the modern struggle of poet-sons against their creative precursors as well. In another account, however, sublime terror is a glimpse beneath the symbolic order, beneath the region where struggles between father and son take place. Like Weiskel's glimpse into the arbitrary, on this reading sublime terror glimpses the fluid, boundariless, pre-oedipal state of the infant "before" language and the Name of the Father intrudes-a scene of oral, primordial desires to merge with and to be inundated by the mother's body-and simultaneously of terror at the possibility of engulfment. These wishes and terrors, too, must be repressed, or there would be no bounded ego at all-the ego necessary to the story of the Oedipus and the sustaining of culture. Here, too, then, the Signifying Power, the Law of the Father, triumphs over abjection.
< This "pre-oedipal" reading of the sublime is often Lacanian and sometimes feminist. Set', e.g., Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans, Leon Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), and the intelligent proposals of Patricia Yaeger, "Toward a Feminine Sublime," in Gender and Theory, ed, by Linda Kauffman (Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1989), pp. 190-212. >
If the sub lime exposes the notion of the beautiful to be wish fulfillment, the negative moment of the sublime thus displays the structure of wishing as well. Against the lures and terrors of bodily excess, the subject transforms endless and disorderly succession into the scene of a one-an-one confrontation that finally confirms its unitary status. The crisis, the moment of blockage and "checking of the vital powers" is not so much the inception of the experience of the sublime as a forgetting of it.
These readings help us make sense
of what is specific to the eighteenth century sublime, For as
Neil Hertz has observed, from Longinus through the medieval period
the interest of the sublime lay in the joyful transport by which
one joined the great to transcend the merely human. The negative
moment in the sublime was understood as simply a means-a moment
of rhetorical "difficulty," for example, that stimulated
the soul to interpretive exercise and moved it, obstacle by conquered
obstacle, toward the divine.
(Hertz, "The Notion of Blockage in the Literature of the Sublime," in End of the Line, pp. 40-60. Angus Fletcher's observations on the relation of allegorical reading to its "successor," the sublime, are still provocative here: Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964), pp. 220- 78. 1 have reflected on Saint Augustine's practice of allegorical reading in relation to the experience of sublimity in "The Bible and the Rhetorical Sublime," in The Bible as Rhetoric, ed. Martiri Warner (London and New York: Routledge, 1990.)
In the eighteenth century, however, attention shifted away from the positive moment of transport and ascent to an intensified negative moment; we move from "difficulty" to crisis and terror, to the longing for confrontation. Just what this wished-for crisis resists and masks is too large a topic to consider here, but we could summarize a great number of cultural anxieties by speaking of the welter of sensation, the new abundance of free particulars, that seemed in the eighteenth century to lie beyond the compass of reason in a newly pressing way.
(The literature here is, of course, vast. For very different perspectives on the same territory, see Majorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (New York: Norton, 1959); Eagleton; and Peter de Bolla, The Discourse of the Sublime Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989.)
The sublime-as one mode of the new science of aesthetics-was particularly important to the eighteenth century, then, because it provided an intense, experiential confirmation of the powers of transcendence-powers capable of meeting and mastering the excess of signifiers, the claims of the bodily, the sense bound character of experience.
While the sublime offered the eighteenth century a way of legitimizing new versions of the transcendent, it is nevertheless too simple to call it an aesthetic substitute for religion. Its itinerary is not as linear and unidirectional as literary historians tend to suppose, for if religion gave sacer to the aesthetic, the study of religion took it back again, as the sublime. This was certainly true early on, for instance, where the rhetorical arts of sublimity helped to transform the Bible into a literary as well as a religious classic. Via the sublime, poetry becomes "the natural language of religion," as John Dennis was one of the first to say; while in the hands of Robert Lowth and others, the Bible becomes the paradigm of sublime poetry.
(Dennis adopts Longinus's stress on vehement passion to champion "enthusiasm": "Poetry unless it is transporting is abominable." Among the passions, terror gives the greatest "spirit" to poetry, so that "the greatest sublimity is to be derived from Religious Ideas" since the idea of God's power to "hurt" provides the greatest terror and astonishment. "The Grounds of Criticism III Poetry" (1704), in The Critical Works of John Dennis, vol. I, ed. E. N. Hooker (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1939), pp. 335-64; Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry Hebrews, trans. G. Gregory, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1787; facsimile ed., New Haven, C Yale University Library). Two excellent studies of this early literary criticism of the Bibl Stephen Prickett, Words and "The Word" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) James Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 198
Nevertheless, it is also true
in the early twentieth century; it seems to me, when the sublime
in more or less Kantian form once again revives to impose a gap
between ideal and real, exposing as illusory the romantic faith
in the "translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal."
< In Coleridge's words. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lay Sermons, ed. R. J. White (Lo] Routledge, 1972), p. 30. >
For we see the structure of sublimity, if not always the sublime by name, in the way that terror, discontinuity, and the uncanny are privileged in the early twentieth century and in the way they too serve to reproduce and to cure the anxieties of the period surrounding the First World War. Das Heilige, we recall, was fin published in 1917, a year before Karl Barth's Der Römerbrief (Berne 1918), soon after Freud's Totem and Taboo (Vienna, 1913), and among the great works of literary modernism.
< Karl Barth, Der Romerbrief (Berne: G. A. Bäschlin, 1918); Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1950.)>
Barth's response to the work of h contemporary is therefore telling:
"This week I read Otto's The Idea oft) Holy with considerable delight. The subject has a psychological orientation but points clearly across the border into the beyond with its mom en of the 'numinous' which is not to be rationally conceived since it is the 'wholly other,' the divine, in God Ultimate insights at least begin appear, although the subject does not quite get moving because of the retention of a theological spectator attitude which is not compatible with the high degree of the understanding of the subject"
(This is part of a letter to Eduard Thurneysen, cited by Almond (n. 1 above), p. 3).
What Barth finds to praise in Otto's work is, unsurprisingly, what they have in common: the notion of a transcendent that is "wholly other", beyond reason, but a beyond all human labor, a source of value securely placed "across the border" from a civilization perceived to be in crisis. What makes Otto a "spectator" in Barth's view is not the sublime chasm between the natural a the supernatural but the specific terms in which it is cast and the means which the aporia is to be bridged. (From the perspective of the present, the charge is not without irony since to more scholars Otto has not been spectator enough.) Kant's drama of crisis and resolution rendered the individual's ideas of freedom and infinitude victorious over the excess and disorder of nature. In its twentieth-century guise, object occasioning the experience of the sublime is more often history itself, as the follow able narrative of Western civilization seems to collapse into disarray, into a sequence of events that multiply without end.
(On the twentieth-century sublime, see Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condi, Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): Marvick (n. 7 above): Donald Pease, "Sublime Politics," in The American
Sublime, ed. Mary Arensberg (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986); Suzanne
Guerlac, The Impersonal Sublime (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.)
But if this affords a glimpse of the arbitrary, of discontinuity, of the boundless body, it also finds its sublime defense: it is shaped into a crisis that can be confronted, as the subject's relation to history is converted into a symbol for the mind's relation to the transcendent. And so the imagination "pictures to itself" its failure: for dialectical theology the excess of history becomes the inevitable sinfulness of all human aspiration, an infinite gulf breachable solely by the individual's encounter with the Christian Word. Here, discontinuity comes to signify; it becomes Discontinuity, the shock of the new, the infinitely repeatable, originary moment. The sublime revives now, we could say, so that God withdraws - to be rediscovered with renewed affective power on the other side of crisis.
Otto pictures to himself as well,
converting the "merely natural" fears of his historical
situation into the universal structure of the mysterium tremendum
et fascinans. Unlike his theological contemporaries, however,
Otto also looks long ago or far away for the numinous-to primitive
religions, to the East, to mysticism, to a wonderfully defamiliarized
Bible; indeed, he finds the sublime the way his eighteenth- and
nineteenth century predecessors often found it-by traveling. But
Fernow went only to the Ticino; Otto, like others in the early
twentieth century, looked to culturally exotic and primitive sites
of darkness for provocation. This turn to the culturally Other
may be, as E. E. Evans-Pritchard has insisted, a wish to find
the sacred abroad as antidote to secularization at home.
(E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Theories of Primitive Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965). See also James Clifford, "On Ethnographic Self-fashioning: Conrad and Malinowski," in Deconstructing Individualism, ed. C. Heller, M. Josua, and D. E. Wellbery (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985); and George Stocking's three-volume History of Anthropology (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983-85.)
However, it is also evidence of the way dark continents threatened to confuse the dif-ference between imperialist self and other, blurring the edges of the West's boundaries. For Otto these terrors too become metaphors of the subject's relation to transcendence: the obscurity of blurred boundaries becomes a darkness "of quite another kind," numinous dread. This uncanny, "wholly other" fear becomes for Otto originary: "deeper" than t he filiations and affiliations of natural and cultural history, it is "the starting point for the entire religious development in history the basic factor and basic impulse underlying the entire process of religious evolution (Otto, The Idea of the Holy (n. 3 above), pp. 14-15).
While Otto's language here appears evolutionary-and he does see religion developing into purer and higher forms-he is nevertheless opposed to theories that understand the distinctively religious as evolving gradually out of something prior. Instead, he maintains that, even in its earliest phases, religious experience differs intrinsically from all others: the historical development of religion is therefore the succession of cultural occasions that "excite" new aspects of what has been present in potentia from the beginning. "Progress" has to do with the increasingly rational ways the numinous is manifested, but the same structure of dread and fascination nonetheless governs this history at each of its phases. This repeated structure remains the foundation of religious experience, he writes, even when "primitive" forms of demonic dread have given way to the "higher" forms of worship of "gods" (Ibid., p. 17)
Despite Otto's allusions to a history of progress, then, his aim in The Idea of the Holy is not to tell its story, but rather to uncover the "original" element of the numinous present in every manifestation of religious awareness, early and late. As for Freud, and like many modernist literary works, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny; Otto's "origin" is timeless and repeatable.
(Otto describes numinous dread as "Unheimliche," among other things, although he refers the reader to Wilhelm Wundt, R. R. Marett, and Nathan Söderblom rather than to Freud; as far as I can determine, Otto did not read Freud. Lorne Dawson has recently compared Otto's notion of the numinous, most appropriately, to Freud's notion of the uncanny; Freud's essay, "Das Unheimliche", begun in 1914, appeared in 1919. See Lorne Dawson, "Otto and Freud on the Uncanny and Beyond", journal of the American Academy of Religion 57 (1989): 283-311. We can also compare Otto and Freud on the issue of "origins," however, since both wish for, but have difficulty, isolating a "pure" origin: Freud tries the "bedrock of event" and nature, Otto the a priori category of the numinous. For Freud, origins therefore remain something of an undetectable "case of association," too, because there is never a moment in the life of individual or culture when one finds nature "before" culture has written on it. The Father is always already concealed on the scene. The erotic, for instance, emerges as a kind of swerve from the biological need for food on which it is "propped," while sexuality is imported into the biological order through parental care in a process Freud called "deferred action" (Nachtraglicheit). Otto's attempts to relate the innate numinous "potential" to its "exciting" causes and schema use strategies similar to Freud's notion of "propping" and deferred action. See, e.g.. Otto on the "passage" from magic to religion, in The Idea of the Holy, pp. 32-33. As the origins of sexuality are absent for Freud, so are those of religion, whether one thinks of Future of an Illusion, where the "germ" of religious evolution in infantile helplessness and longing for the Father's protection already mixes biology with parental identification, or Freud's more insistently historical Totem and Taboo, where his search for the bedrock of event gives way to the obscurity of Urphantasie. This is simply to say that Otto's account of religious origins is as much Freud's analogue as its polar opposite. On Otto and Freud, see also J. Samuel Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987).
In fact, Otto has no story to
tell at all; narrative is strikingly absent from The Idea of
the Holy. This is so not only because the same structure is
repeated in each historical phase, and not only because the history
of reli-gion is a succession of "occasions" rather than
causes, but most significantly because Otto's entire endeavour
could be described as an effort to preclude the conditions for
narration. There can be no narrative because there must be no
transitions to narrate. As in the sublime, the natural and the
numinous must remain incommensurable; as in the sublime, passage
between them concerns the individual's shifting relationship to
these orders. As Otto insists, "It is not that the actual
feeling gradually changes in quality or 'evolves', i.e.
transmutes itself into a quite different one, but rather
that I pass over or make the transition from one
feeling to the other". (Otto, The Idea of the Holy,
pp. 42-43) "What we are concerned with," he says,
"is the replacement of the one by the other, and not
the transmutation of the one into the other"
(Ibid., p. 44). And again: "We are dealing with a case of
association between things specifically different-the 'numinous'
and the 'natural' moments of consciousness-and not merely
with the gradual enhancement of one of them-the 'natural'
-till it becomes the other" (Ibid., p. 27). Otto's project
turns on producing this transport in his readers-it is
the reader who must "associate", "replace"
and "pass over". Rather than a story to
tell, Otto has a particular sort of experience to effect.
On one level, Otto is quite clear about this, as he tells
us repeatedly that we must discover the experience of the
numinous within ourselves. But Otto also wants to give an account
of this "case of association" that would
stand on its own, independent of the reader's
participation; he wishes to provide what we could call his own
"analytic of the sublime." If the sublime
functions culturally in the ways I have suggested, it could also
be said that theories of the sublime function in a similar
way: they are themselves attempts to contain the terrors of
excess that generate the experience of sublimity.
(On the way theories about the sublime seek to contain the power of sublimity, see de Bolla (n. 22 above), and Pease. Historically, the sublime is on the scene at moments of important disciplinary transition: under the banner of the sublime, aesthetics supplants rhetoric, while a romantic aesthetic then supplants a neoclassical one. Pease is especially good on the way Kant's sublime begins in aesthetics but displaces the force of sublimity by rewriting it in an ethical framework (see Pease, pp. 24-32)
Kant's analytic, after all, returns sublime excess to Ethics, just as Otto's mysterium tremendum seems both to entertain the possibility of a truly uncanny "wholly other" only to close it again, by finding that the uncanny is "completed" and "schematized" by rational and moral ideas of the Western God. What Otto places at the origin is not the wholly unrepresentable, but the potentially representable. As his critics point out again and again, Otto is not very successful in giving an account of this "case of association": the relation between having a certain sort of experience and calling something Holy remains elusive.
(As David Bastow almost puts it, in "Otto and Numinous Experience," Religious Studies 12 11976): 165. For other assessments of Otto as theorist of religion, see Paul Siefert, Die Religionsphilosophie bei Rudolf Otto (Düsseldorf: G. H. Nolte Verlag, 1936); Robert F. Davidson, Rudolf Otto's Interpretation of Religion (Princeton, N .J.: Princeton University Press. 1947); Herbert J. Paton, The Modern Predicament (London: Allen & Unwin, 1955), pp. 129-45; John 187 Reeder, "The Relation of the Moral and the Numinous in Otto's Notion of the Holy," in Religion and Morality, ed. Gene Outka and John Reeder (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1973). pp. 255-93; Wayne Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).
This is a rhetorical problem as well as a theoretical one, however; Otto's case is solved, if it is solved at all, in the reader. Otto's "analytic," it seems to me, dissolves willy-nilly into rhetorical strategy: in more ways than he would acknowledge, Otto is himself the great sublime he draws.
We find in The Idea of the Holy a striking quantity of explanation-indeed, each chapter seems to begin the task all over again, with fresh announce-ments of the peculiar relation between the natural and the wholly other. But it is equally striking how little these repeated efforts finally explain. Even the chapter devoted specifically to unraveling the case of association, "Analogies and Associated Feelings," simply multiplies illustrations and analogies without telling us any more than the statements we have already seen. Since this chapter is a nicely condensed example of knots and procedures that recur throughout the volume, it is worth looking briefly at the way analysis slides into rhetoric here. Early on, Otto restates his assumption that the numinous is "preconceptual," prior to and independent of the language used to discover and to represent it. He also allows that other "natural" experiences play a crucial role in exciting and expressing the numinous-indeed, he depends on "association" for the numinous to appear. Just as material becomes visible under a microscope when it is stained with dye, so the numinous is invisible-it is, as he said of its "degraded offshoot," the fear of ghosts, no-thing, "a thing that 'doesn't really exist at all'" -until it is brought into view, "schematized," by other feelings.
(Otto, The Idea of the Holy. pp. 28-29. Neil Hertz uses the analogy of the "stain" in his essay on Freud's "Das Unheimliche," "Freud and the Sandman," in End of the Line (n. 19 above), pp. 97-121. I am indebted to this essay for my comments on Freud here and also to Françoise Meltzer, "The Uncanny Rendered Canny: Freud's Blindspot in Reading Hoffmann's 'Sandman,'" in Introducing Psychoanalytic Theory, ed. Sander L. Gilman (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1982), pp. 218-39.)
In this the numinous resembles Freud's notion of the "uncanny," a kind of "numinous dread" experienced when one glimpses behind any particular act of repetition the demonic power of the compul-sion to repeat. Like Otto's category, Freud's "compulsion" is understood as an instinctual force independent of other psychic principles (powerful enough to overrule the pleasure principle), an invisible energy whose eerie operations become visible only when "stained" by particular repetitions. This is even more the case for the "death instinct" that Freud postulated as the drive generating the compulsion to repeat. There is no clear evidence for the existence of this drive, he allows; it is "not visible" except as already colored by the libidinal "life instincts".
(Freud writes, "The difficulty
remains that psycho-analysis has not enabled us hitherto to point
to any l ego-] instincts other than the libidinal ones. That,
however, is no reason for our fail-ing in with the conclusion
that no others in fact exist." Sigmund Freud, Beyond the
Pleasure Principle (1920), trans. James Strachey (New York:
Norton, 1961), pp. 46-47.)
Freud's comments on this difficulty are worth bearing in mind:
"We need not feel greatly disturbed in judging our speculations upon the life and death instincts by the fact that so many bewildering and obscure processes occur in it-such as one instinct being driven out by another, or an instinct turning from an ego to an object, and so on. This is merely due to our being obliged to operate with scientific terms, that is to say with the figurative language peculiar to psychology (or, more precisely, to depth psychology). We could not otherwise describe the processes in question at all, and indeed we could not become aware of them".
(Ibid., p. 54. Compare just one of Otto's many similar statements: "We said above that the nature of the numinous can only be suggested by means of the special way in which it is reflected in the mind in terms of feeling. 'Its nature is such that it grips the mind with this and that determinate state.' We have now to attempt to give a further indication of these determinate states. We must once again endeavour, by adducing feelings akin to them for the purpose of analogy or contrast, and by the use of metaphor and symbolic expressions, to make the states of mind we are investigating ring out, as it were, of themselves" (Otto, The Idea of the Holy [no 3 above], p. 12). Note the way "determinate states" of experience are made parallel to "metaphor and symbolic expressions": both are "stains" of the same kind.)
Otto himself curiously invokes a notion of the erotic to describe what he calls the "intimate interpenetration" of the numinous and the natural, the nonrational and the rational. He proposes that the rational, social domain of personal relationships is "penetrated" by a "thoroughly non-rational and separate element, namely, the sex instinct," to form the erotic (Otto, The Idea of the' Holy, p. 46). Just as the sex instinct "presses up from beneath," he says, so the numinous "infuses" the rational "from above." What prompts Otto to liken the numinous to the sex instinct, it seems-and he makes use of the analogies of music and the sublime for the same purpose-is the way it underscores the status of the numinous as an unrepresentable but independent force, one that ravishes, as he writes earlier on, "'like a hidden force of nature,' like stored up electricity" (Ibid., p. 18). At the same time, the analogy insists that the numinous relies on the coloring of "terms drawn from other fields of men-tal life" to become visible (Ibid., p. 47). Otto has equal interest in both aspects of the analogy, for while he calls on the natural discourse of other fields of men-tal life to bring the numinous into focus, he simultaneously wants to pry them apart. In maintaining that the "visible" words and the nonrational experience are independent and incommensurable, Otto wants to insist as well that the borrowed words are mere coloring and as such are inadequate to represent the force behind them. He therefore goes on to say that one must have already experienced the ravishment of the lover or the "religious-minded man" to know what the coloring words are trying and failing to signify (Ibid., p. 47).
Otto, of course, imagines that his own language functions as mere coloring for an otherwise elusive but nevertheless independent force. Indeed, Otto could have borrowed Freud's comments on his own figurative language: both feel merely "obliged to operate" with the terms they use, since they "could not otherwise describe the process in question at all." What Otto will not see-or have us see-is the way his own language has already "interpenetrated" this "inexpressible" force, But Otto's analogy of the erotic does quite a bit more here than provide a parallel, illustrative instance of the relation between numinous experience and its "associates." Otto, after all, he colors the numinous with the erotic, and in a way more "penetrative" than either Freud's figurative coloring or the biologists' stain would suggest. To say, as Otto does, that like the sex instinct the numinous "presses" and "interpenetrates" is already to ascribe to the numinous a kind of agency - it seems to press toward expression, to seek manifestation. When Otto then directs us to take away the association - to see the erotic as not only mere, but inadequate, coloring, we are predisposed to feel the pressure of this force in the gap formerly bridged by "like", in the space now vacated of specific meaning, We are predisposed, in other words, to sense a presence lurking here rather than sheer absence, a presence, furthermore, that is meaningful, even if no specific coloring is adequate to represent it.
This rhythm of association and
disassociation, of interpenetration and dismemberment, pervades
Otto's text and replaces narrative as the governing structure
and chief rhetorical strategy of the volume. We can see in this
rhythm a mimicking of the dynamics of the sublime and indeed the
production of its effects, Otto time and again presents us with
a familiar, "natural" domain and then stages within
it a crisis, As we are directed to look in the coloring of ordinary
discourse for the invisible presence of t he transcendent, we
are also made to discover that representation fails, that (in
Kant's terms) "nothing which can be called an object of the
senses can be called sublime." (Kant, "Analytic of the
Sublime," in Critique of judgement (n. 8 above), p.
109). In this crisis, as we have seen, this "nothing"
makes its overt appearance on the scene> "disposing us
to feel," to repeat Weiskel's words, "that behind this
newly significant absence lurks a newly significant presence,
the latent referent, as it were, mediated by the new sign".
Otto's rhetorical task is to effect this transport in his readers-to move us through exercises in joining and sundering until we feel the presence of this "nothing" on the scene. And so we are "guided and led on," asked to "cooperate," directed to recall feelings that lie in "other regions of the mind", so that Otto can compare and contrast them with the numinous, staging both a crisis in representation and its affective resolution: "Then we must add: 'This X of ours is not precisely this experience, but akin to t his one and the opposite of that other. Cannot you now realize for yourself what it is?' In other words our X cannot, strictly speaking, be taught, it can only be evoked, awakened in the mind; as everything that comes 'of t he spirit' must be awakened" (Otto, The Idea of the Holy, p. 7). To "realize for ourselves" is a rather complex operation, although Otto conceals the extent of the reader's activity as much as he does his own by suggesting that we are simply "awakened", as though these feelings lie in wait for our passive recognition. But Otto must do more than evoke in us a set of feelings; he must also ensure that what we "realize" is identified correctly. Otto must ensure, that is, that the "nothing" we experience is precisely not nothing, but the numinous. Otto must have us arrive at the juncture of two discontinuous realms: we have, on the one hand, a set of unnamed feelings that can only be evoked by coloring and uncoloring the nameable and, on the other, a term that Otto insists is not a word, an X that "stands for" the category without naming it. Left untranslated, Otto's X, the "numinous," stands out on the page as iconic rather than semantic; as he puts it later, it is "a sort of illustrative substitute (Ibid., p. 19). The reader who is transported is the reader who "realizes for himself" that the feeling and its illustrative substitute correspond.
This reader is an insider, as
Otto admits in his telling, perhaps teasing, request at the outset
of chapter 3: "The reader is invited to direct his mind to
a moment of deeply-felt religious experience, as little as possible
qualified by other forms of consciousness. Whoever cannot do this,
whoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested
to read no farther; for it is not easy to discuss questions of
religious psychology with one who can recollect the discomforts
of indigestion but cannot recall any intrinsically religious feelings
(Ibid., p. 8). It is of interest that Otto appeals to the economizing
of labor to justify his exclusion of certain readers here-"it
is not easy," he says - because he has already demonstrated
that arriving at a proper understanding of the Holy requires a
good deal of work. Indeed, t he first two chapters of Otto's volume
are a laborious linguistic exercise in which Otto finally produces
his "special term" for that aspect of the Holy he tells
us here we should simply "recollect". Just as we are
asked to move through a process of coloring and taking away to
locate the feeling of the numinous, so must we perform a similar
operation on language to arrive at the feeling's "precise"
< The extent to which Otto seeks to "contain" the unrepresentable by naming it and the way this entails a purely linguistic exercise is indictated by Otto's repeated, odd insistence on the "precision" of his "special term". He writes, for instance, that "by means of a special term we shall the better be able, first, to keep the meaning clearly apart and distinct, and second, to apprehend and classify connectedly whatever subordinate forms or stages of development it may show", and after an appeal to the reader to recall an experience of the numinous: "If we do so we shall find we are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, mysterium tremendum" (Otto, The Idea of the Holy, pp. 6, 12).>
In his first chapters, Otto therefore conducts us through a confusing mathematical process of addi-tion and subtraction in which language and meaning are sundered in the same way that "natural" and "religious" feelings, and insiders and outsiders, are made to part company.
In the first chapter Otto sets
out to correct the common misapprehension that "the Holy"
can be defined by rational assertions. This is a mistake, but
an understandable one, he observes: discussions of religion "ill
language" "inevitably" stress the "rational"
attributes of the deity, he say" because "all language,
insofar as it consists of words, purports to convey ideas or concepts";
indeed, "the more unequivocally it does so, the better the
language" (Ibid,. p, 6).
If we have misunderstood the Holy, then, the fault is not ours but an effect (and defect) of language itself. This makes Otto and the reader allies with a common enemy: language is cast aside as inadequate to the task ahead. What appears as an undefinable presence on the scene instead is "Meaning". "Meaning" performs here the role assigned to Reason in Kant's analytic of the sublime, although the reader is involved ill Otto's apparatus in a way that she is not in Kant's intrapsychic drama. As Otto employs it, "meaning" could be described as a reification of the otherwise invisible relationship between author and reader. For Otto now tells us that the "Holy" means more than our use of the word intends - it has "a clear overplus of meaning" and, in fact, originally meant "first and foremost" only this overplus (Überschuß, Ibid., p. 5) Since it is this added "overplus"' that is our concern, we are next asked to take away the rational meanings and to keep the remainder. Otto's sums thus produce the "numinous", a special term to stand for 'the holy' minus its moral factor or 'moment" and, as we can now add, minus its 'rational' aspect altogether (Ibid., p. 5). What remains, in other words, is a mark on the page, a signifier that "stands for an "overplus" that can be neither conceptually grasped nor linguistically represented. It is into this emptied space that Otto invites his readers, for he depends on us to fill it with the content that his term "stands for.
Although as signifier the "numinous" is conceptually empty; says Otto, "what is meant is something absolutely and intensely positive. This pure positive we can experience in feelings, feelings which our discussion can help to make clear to us, in so far as it arouses them actually in our hearts (Ibid., p. 13). Otto casts himself here in the dual role of Awakener and Analist: his "discussion" is meant to arouse feelings in the reader (who simply suffers arousal) and to "make clear" those feelings' precise identity. For an Awakener and Analyst comes after the fact, operating on feelings that, like the "overplus," are presumed to be "original," prior to the derivative concepts that history provides to define it. While Otto to this extent sees himself as actively laboring on behalf of the reader, his labors must be concealed as well as acknowledged; he must be Awakener and Analyst without being Author. Otto must both exercise and obscure his part in the sequence of symbolic exchanges by which terror becomes sublime, the eerie operations by which the failure to signify and the presence of the transcendent come to occupy the same space: if there is transcendence lurking on the scene from the start, it must be the Numinous itself, not Otto 's rhetorical power. On the one hand, as I have tried to suggest, Otto is nonetheless author indeed - the experience of the numinous is as much produced by Otto's discussion as it is aroused and clarified by it. On the other hand, however, Otto may not be author enough, and this must be concealed as well. For if the genesis of sublimity is a glimpse of the arbitrary, and if Otto's writing opens the space where the reader may glimpse this unauthorizable wholly other, then Otto's authority, his signifying power, rests on the extent to which this excess is contained, otherness provided a name, and the reader transformed into insider. For Kant, these exchanges occurred within the individual psyche, a transaction among the faculties that finally confirmed the unitary status of the self. In Das Heilige, these symbolic substitutions seem to occur instead in the passage between author and reader, an exchange that finally yields both "we" and "meaning," and the Signifying Power's "precise" name.
Put differently, the locus of
"enthusiasm" in Otto's text remains obscure - as it
has been in the history of sublime art since Longinus. Longinus
himself was notoriously unclear about t he extent of the orator's
< For commentaries on Longinus, see the introduction and notes to Russell's translation,
"Longinus" on Sublimity (n, 4 above): J. W. H Atkins, Literary Criticism in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934): Charles Segal, "Hypsos and the Problem of Cultural Decline in The Sublimitate", Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 64 (1959): 121-46: George A, Kennedy, Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times (Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, (1980): Neill Hertz, "A Reading of Longinus, in End of the Line (n. 19 above), pp. 1-20; Suzanne Geuerlac, " Longinus and the Subject of t he Sublime." New Literary History 16 (1985): 275-89. >
While his treatise was devoted to t he arts of producing the effect of sublimity, Longinus too located sublimity itself in all innate "origin" that eludes language - in the orator's (and the transported reader's) capacity for elevated thought and inspired passion. "Nature," he wrote, "implants in our souls the unconquerable love of whatever is more elevated and divine than we"; through sublime writing- the reader "realizes" this for himself: "For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.
< Longinus, 35.2: 7.2 (citations to Longinus are by section and paragraph number)>
Yet as Longinus's coupling of "as if" with "instinctively" suggests, the power by which this occurs remains concealed. He observes, for instance, that the best figure is a concealed one, as though the power of the orator to effect this joy and vaunting entails deception: "Wherefore a figure is at its best when the very fact that it is a figure escapes attention (Ibid., 17.1). He also maintains, however, that sublimity and passion themselves conceal, and excuse, rhetorical deception: "sublimity and passion form an antidote and wonderful aid against t he mist rust which attends upon the use of figures (Ibid., 17.2). We could say that Longinus, too, blurs the distinction between Awakener and Author: the sublime works, he says, not by "persuasion but transport." On the one hand, the sublime seems to be effected by rhetorical skill: "At every time and in every way imposing- speech, with the spell it throws over us, prevails over that which aims at persuasion and g-ratification." On the other, the "spell" seems t he effect of sublimity itself: "Our persuasions we can usually control, but the influences of the sublime bring power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer (Ibid., 1. 4). This oscillation between sublimity as "art" and as "nature," as rhetorical skill and "power and irresistible might", runs throughout Longinus's treatise. Perhaps what we see here is Longinus struggling to contain the glimpses of excess that sublime writing itself provokes, to control the power of sublimity by giving it to the authority of the orator and to the ruled rhetorician's art. Longinus, Kant, and Otto each in their different ways want to bring sublime power home to the Father. The instability of Longinus's treatise indicates that he is not entirely successful in this, just as the obscurities in Kant's account and Otto's theoretical difficulties similarly fail. Yet, these failures also seem to be a source of these texts' enduring- power, of their own sublimity. Otto succeeds, like Longinus, to the extent that "we" become brothers, producing for ourselves what we have only heard.
The apparatus of sublimity makes for flawed science of religion. As his critics all in various ways conclude, one difficulty is that Otto seems to think of Das Heilige as an inductive psychological study, while his defense of the sui generis character of religion actually assumes in advance a good deal of what it claims empirically to discover.
< Otto's insistence that the numinous state of mind is conceptually unspecifiable, for instance, makes it difficult for him also to claim that the numinous experience is au fond, the same for all religious persons. past and present. Furthermore, Otto assumes not only that the numinous is intrinsically distinct from all other "natural" feelings but also that it is an "original feeling-response" - an immediate apprehension of a suprarational object, its cause. He claims that the feeling is the result of an encounter with an existent supernatural object and that the nature of this object can be inferred from the nature of the feelings it arouses in response to it. None of these claims can be derived from empirical study but must rest on a priori assumptions. >
Another difficulty is that the particular philosophy on which these assumptions rest-Otto's earlier The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries - does not provide a congenial foundation.
< Otto's Die Kant-Friesische Religions-Philosophie appeared in 1909 (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1909). and in English translation by E. B. Dicker in 1931, The Philosophy of Religion Based on Kant and Fries (London Williams & Norgate, 1931). The extent of Otto's conscious reliance on Fries in The Idea of the Holy can only be guessed at since t he importance of Fries for his work and other later writings is not made explicit. >
Just as Otto's idea of the Holy means to join a non rational "core" with its rational schema, so it appears that Otto expected his empirical investigations of religious experience in Das Heilige to support his deductions in Philosophy of Religion. As he wrote in conclusion to his Philosophy, the science of religion will have "two separate starting points and will follow two paths, at first different, which, however, lead to each other and must meet at last (Otto, Philosophy of Religion, p. 224). I have described why this projected meeting is unlikely to occur by placing Otto in the context of the sublime. Otto's critics state the same difficulties differently: there can be no meeting of starting points, they say, because there is no philosophically necessary route from Fries's neo-Kantian critique to religious experience and conversely, because Otto's understanding of religious experience as mysterium tremendum leads away from rather than toward Fries's notion of Ahndung, its supposed philosophical ground. It is significant, it seems to me, that Otto diverges most sharply from his philosophical foundations on the issue of terror-for the Friesian Ahndung resembles the beautiful rather than the sublime.
< Fries uses the term Ahnung, as does Otto in his Philosophy, while Das Heilige uses the more archaic Ahndung, A follower of Kant, especially of t he Critique of Judgement, Fries nevertheless thought that knowledge of reality in itself is possible - negatively, through "rational faith" (Glaube), and positively, through aesthetic intuition (Ahnung), which immediately apprehends the Eternal in the temporal and the temporal as an appearance of the eternal. On the disjunction between Otto and Fries, see esp. Almond (n, 1 above), pp. 47-54: and Bastow (n. 37 above). 195 >
While Otto, like his philosophical mentor, continues to rely on the region of the aesthetic as religion's chief analogue, he seems to see that the pretensions of the beautiful have been exposed by the natural terrors of his historical moment. Looked at this way, his hope for the meeting of two starting points displays the study of religion as itself an exercise in the sublime, an attempt to test the transcendent powers of the philosophy of religion against the bodily excess of multiplying religious phenomena. It is worth listening in this light to one of Otto's travel letters, written on his 1911 journey to Tenerife and North Africa, that may have been the germ for The Idea of the Holy. Describing his experience at a Moroccan synagogue, Otto writes:
It is Sabbath, and already in
the dark and inconceivably grimy passage of the house we hear
that sing-song of prayers and reading of scripture, that nasal
half-singing half-speaking sound which Church and Mosque have
taken over from the Synagogue. The sound is pleasant; one can
soon distinguish certain modulations and cadences that follow
one another at regular intervals like a Leitmotiv. The
ear tries to grasp individual words but it is scarcely possible
and one has almost given up the attempt when suddenly out of the
babel of voices, causing a thrill of fear, there it begins, unified,
clear, and unmistakable: Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh Elohim Adonai
Zebaoth Male'u hashamayim wahaarets kebodo!
I have heard the Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus of the cardinals in St. Peter's, the Swiat Swiat Swiat in the Cathedral of the Kremlin and the Holy Holy Holy of the Patriarch in Jerusalem. In whatever language they resound, these most exalted words that have ever come from human lips always grip one in the depths of the soul, with a mighty shudder exciting and calling into play the mystery of the other world latent within.
< Cited by Almond. p. 17. The
passage first appeared in Die christliche Welt 25 (1911):
706. Although Almond takes it from Peter R. McKenzie, "Introduction
to the Man", in Harold W. Turner, Rudolf Otto: The Idea
of the Holy (Aberdeen: H. W. Turner, 1974), p. 4. >
Otto's experience as he tells it clearly hears the marks of the sublime we saw in Fernow's account: the experience of excess as he tries to grasp the babel of sound, the attempt to order and its inevitable failure, the thrill of fear with which appears the latent mystery, together with its "name," Kadosh. Yet, it is the juxtaposition of clauses in Otto's finest sentence that most clearly distinguishes this as an act of picturing to himself. While the griminess of the passage in which he stands seems the traveler's gesture toward the cultural otherness he encounters here, that it is "inconceivably" dark and dirty makes this already a passage of another kind-this is not natural but sublime darkness in which he stands. After all, the transcendent is already present on the scene: it is the Sabbath; he knows what latent mystery will appear. If The Idea of the Holy continues to survive its critics, this must have something to do with the capaciousness of this inconceivable dark passage: there is room here for many terrors to become sublime. However, the volume's persistent power must also have to do with its capacity to produce insiders for whom this passage is simultaneously inconceivable and the Sabbath.
Divinity Faculty of University
The Journal of Religion volume 72 aflevering 2
Associate Professor of Religion (A.B., Bates College; A.M., Ph.D., University of Chicago). Teaches in the areas of modern religious thought and Christian theology, with special interests in the history of biblical interpretation, gender, and ecology. Publications include Literary Criticism and Biblical Hermeneutics (1985), and numerous essays on Augustine, biblical interpretation, and the sublime. Serves on editorial board of Biblical Interpretation. At Davidson since 1991.