Monday, May 24, 2010

Books: The lion, the witch, and the uncanny.

I owe this find to my wife, who hipped me to this passage. Below, C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between fear, which he sees as an apprehension of danger, and dread, which he equates with the uncanny and a religious concept of the Numinous.

Aside from being an unexpected, but lucid voice in the on-going discussion about the varieties of horror, I also find Lewis's insights interesting for calling into question the common "just so" story that horror, as we now conceive of the emotion that fuels of genre entertainments, has some clear lineage to the psychological lives of ancient ancestors. While he doesn't doubt that our ancestors lived in demon-haunted worlds, he raises the question of whether one could conceive of supernatural forces when one hadn't conceived of a "natural" world. If everything is supernatural, isn't that your natural? And, if that's so, is the uncanny a fear of relatively recent vintage (in terms of the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution)?

Here's Lewis from his The Problem of Pain:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told ‘There is a ghost in the next room’, and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is ‘uncanny’ rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room’, and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words ‘Under it my genius is rebuked’. This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

Now nothing is more certain than that man, from a very early period, began to believe that the universe was haunted by spirits. Professor Otto [I have no idea who Otto is – CRwM] perhaps assumes too easily that from the very first such spirits were regarded with numinous awe. This is impossible to prove for the very good reason that utterances expressing awe of the Numinous and utterances expressing mere fear of danger may use identical language—as we can still say that we are ‘afraid’ of a ghost or ‘afraid’ of a rise in prices. It is there- fore theoretically possible that there was a time when men regarded these spirits simply as dangerous and felt towards them just as they felt towards tigers.

. . .

Now this awe is not the result of an inference from the visible universe. There is no possibility of arguing from mere danger to the uncanny, still less to the fully Numinous. You may say that it seems to you very natural that early man, being surrounded by real dangers, and therefore frightened, should invent the uncanny and the Numinous. In a sense it is, but let us understand what we mean. You feel it to be natural because, sharing human nature with your remote ancestors, you can imagine yourself reacting to perilous solitudes in the same way; and this reaction is indeed ‘natural’ in the sense of being in accord with human nature. But it is not in the least ‘natural’ in the sense that the idea of the uncanny or the Numinous is already contained in the idea of the dangerous, or that any perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them. When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them. Most attempts to explain the Numinous presuppose the thing to be explained—as when anthropologists derive it from fear of the dead, without explaining why dead men (assuredly the least dangerous kind of men) should have attracted this peculiar feeling. Against all such attempts we must insist that dread and awe are in a different dimension from fear.


Gene Phillips said...

I'd bet "Prof Otto" is Rudolf Otto, author of IDEA OF THE HOLY. I'm pretty sure Groovy Age has a few essays on the prof.

I agree generally with Lewis about his distinction, though I'm not sure I agree with the way he gets to it. But the idea of "dread" as a more abstract thing than "fear" does parallel the old "terror/horror" distinctions seen elsewhere.

Madelon said...

This distinction is always an interesting one. In my own work, I've ended up drawing a line between horror, terror and expectation (the possibility of being scared).

Being a supporter of Freud's ideas on the 'demon haunted world' of our ancestors, and the fact that we have surmounted those beliefs, I'm not sure I agree with Lewis' ideas on the supernatural being the natural.

It can be said that the supernatural was much more prevalent. However, powers of observation could explain a number of events that could otherwise be construed as supernatural. For instance: if you throw a rock in a pond, this causes ripples, showing a simple cause-and-effect relationship, and many others of these exist where an action leads to some form of reaction. This, then, can be construed as the 'ancestrial natural' (in want of a better term).

In turn, the supernatural existed outside this action/reaction matrix: dark clouds mean rain and (later) crop growth, thus making it 'natural'. The source of the rain, however, is unexplained and supernatural.

CRwM said...


Thanks for finding us an Otto to plug in here. I bet you're correct.

CRwM said...


To be fair to Lewis, I should draw a distinction between my extension of Lewis's ideas and his core idea. You and he actually seem to be somewhat in accord - he's basically saying that an idea of the supernatural must entail some creative leap because you can't draw it logically from observation of the natural world. To use your example, you can evolve a fairly complex view of what rain is and does simply by understanding it in terms of observable causes and effects, but you're not going to ever see anything that logically leads you to Thor.

Lewis's comments about a naturally supernatural world are something he holds out as one possible argument. I harp on it because I feel that, in the absence of any direct observations or records, the assumption that their worldviews must have had some unbroken continuity with ours is just that: an assumption. The fact that we can propose reasonable alternatives should, I think, lead us use more caution when claiming these deep, pre-historical roots for genre we're familiar with.

Gene Phillips said...

Hi, I just made a new essay that references yours above. Hope you enjoy: