The Supernatural and the Sublime

There are other portions of this project that explore and study the sublime, but this section is focused on viewing the sublime through the particular lens of the supernatural. Textual examples, when paired with the work of Otto, Burke and Todorov, display a rainbow of responses, from religious awe to mortal terror.


From The Monk, 154-155.

While I sat upon a broken ridge of the Hill, the stillness of the scene inspired me with melancholy ideas not altogether unpleasing. The Castle which stood full in my stight, formed an object equally awful and picturesque. Its ponderous Walls tinged by the moon with solemn brightness, its old and partly-ruined Towers lifting themselves into the clouds and seeming to frown on the plains around them, its lofty battlements overgrown with ivy, and folding Gats expanding in honour of the Visionary Inhabitant, made me senseible of a sad and reverential horror. Yet did not these sensations occupy me so fully, as to prevent me from witnessing with impatience the slow progress of time. I approached the Castle, and ventured to walk round it . . . I looked up to the Casement of the haunted Chamber . . . I fancied I perceived a female figre with a Lamp in her hand moving slowly along the Apartment . . . She advanced towards the spot where I stood. I flew to meet her, and clasped her in my arms.


Peter Brooks, "Virtue and Terror: The Monk," English Literary History 40 (1973): 249-63.

Lewis carefully and progressively makes his world receptive to the solicitations of the supernatural; the first half of the novel moves toward creation of an imaginative framework within which these forces can have a real existence. This movement is evident from the start, in the play of false appearances and dark realities, in the use of dreams as premonitions and, more, as discoveries about the true nature of things. But the most decisive representation of passage into a realm where the rational and social self must renounce its claims to the mastery and interpretation of life comes in the episode of the Bleeding Nun . . . Raymond and Agnes assume the posture of mockery toward the world of spirits. And as happens more than once in The Monk, the forces which we deny, mock, put down, are precisely those that assert their reality and smite us. . .

It is in fact possible to specify within this episode the point of intersection of the natural world and the supernatural, the moment at which the natural yields, cedes, gives way to the imperative solicitations of the supernatural. The moment of passage comes as Raymond waits for the stroke of one o'clock and the appearance of what he expects to be Agnes, and will in fact be the ghost . . . The natural world has given birth to something else; and after this point, the rest of Raymond's adventures--the nightly visitations of the Nun, the revelation of her bloody history, the exorcisms of the Wandering Jew, the mystic rites to lay the Nun's bones to rest--follow with perfect appropriateness and plausibility . . . After the Bleeding Nun episode, the world has expanded to accommodate itself to shadows from without this world, and the consciousness of both characters and reader must expand to encompass this new dimension of experience.


S.L. Varnado, "The Idea of the Numinous in Gothic Literature," The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, (Washington State University Press, 1974): 11-21.

Otto begins The Idea of the Holy by distinguishing conceptual from nonconceptual statements about religion. Theistic religion, he believes, characterizes God by various conceptual statements about his nature, for example, his spirituality, power, and unity. Such conceptual statements Otto terms rational, and he makes it clear that they are of first importance in religious discussion. On the other hand, the nature of God is such that these rational attributes do not fully comprehend Him. "For so far are these 'rational' attributes from exhausting the idea of deity, that they in fact imply a non-rational or supra-rational Subject of which they are predicates." This nonrational element, however, must be apprehended in some way "else absolutely speaking nothing could be asserted of it." To characterize this nonrational element or "unnamed Something" as he calls it, Otto coins the word numinous, from the Latin numen (a god or power) . . . "This mental state is perfectly sui generis and irreducible to any other; and therefore, like every absolutely and elementary datum, while it admits of being discussed, it cannot be strictly defined. . . We must once again endeavour, by adducing feelings aking 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" . . .

In attempting to suggest these numinous states of mind, Otto uses an ideogram the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum. "Conceptually mysterium is merely that which is hidden and esoteric, that which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar" . . . A final element suggested by the ideogram tremendumis termed by Otto the "urgency" or "energy" of the numinous object. This element is sometimes projected symbolically as the "wrath of God," and in qualities of vitality, passion, emotional temper, will-force, movement, excitement, activity, and impetus . . . Otto distinguishes three distinct, but related, moments suggested by the ideogram tremendum: awfulness, majesty, and energy . . . The mental reaction to this "moment" in the numinous consciousness is best described analogically by the word "stupor." . . . "it signifies blank wonder, an astonishment that strikes us dumb, amazement absolute." Its objective concomitant, the mysterium, suggests that which is "wholly other."


From The Monk, 432-433.

A loud burst of Thunder was heard; The prison shook to its very foundations; A blaze of lightning flashed through the Cell; and in the next moment, borne upon sulphurous whirl-winds, Lucifer stood before him a second time. But He came not, as when at Matilda's summons He borrowed the Seraph's form to deceive Ambrosio. He appeared in all that ugliness, which since his fall from heaven had been his portion: His blasted limbs stil bore marks of the Almighty's thunder: A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form: His hands and feet were armed with long Talons: Fury glared in his eyes, which might have struck the bravest heart with terror . . .

Terrified at an Apparition so different from what He had expected, Ambrosio remained gazing upon the Fiend, deprived of the power of utterance. The Thunder had ceased to roll: Universal silence reigned through the dungeon.


From Confessions of a Justified Sinner, 224-225.

The scene that ensued is neither to be described, nor be believed, it it were. I was momently surrounded by a number of hideous fiends, who gnashed on me with their teeth, and clenched their crimson paws in my face; and at the same instant I was seized by the collar of my coat behind, by my dreaded and devoted friend, who push me on, and, with his gilded rapier waving and brandishing around me, defended me against all their united attacks. Horrible as my assailants were in appearance, (and they had all monstrous shapes,) I felt that I would rather have fallen into their hands, than be thus led away captive by my defender at his will and pleasure . . .

"If you will not pity yourself, have pity on me," added he: "turn your eyes on me, and behold to what I am reduced."

Involuntarily did I turn round at the request, and caught a half glance of his features. May no eye destined to reflect the beauties of the New Jerusalem inward upon the beatific soul, behold such a sight as mine then beheld! My immortal spirit, blood, and bones, were all withered at the blasting sight.


S.L. Varnado, "The Idea of the Numinous in Gothic Literature," The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism, (Washington State University Press, 1974): 11-21.

Throughout his book, Otto continually emphasizes that the numinous is not identical wtht he fully developed sense of the Holy. The concept of Holiness must of necessity include theological and moral elements. The numinous may thus be seen as bearing intrinsic relationship with and even providing a definition for a number of works, both literary and artistic, which might not generally termed religious . . . the numinous experience in itself is not an ethical manifestation and may exist without any relation to morality . . . When the numinous is commingled with moral and rational elements it becomes somthing different--namely The Holy.


Jack G. Voller, "Todorov among the Gothics: Structuring the Supernatural Moment," Contours of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Eighth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. Michele K. Langford, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 197-206.

Traditionally, the sublime depended for its power upon the fact that it intimated the greatness and omnipotence of God, but this is not the case with the Burkean sublime, which understands sublimity to be a more purely physiological and aesthetic experience . . . Burke found that the sublime generated a 'state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force.'


David B. Morris, "Gothic Sublimity," New Literary History 16 (1985): 299-319.

It is a vertiginous and plunging--not a soaring--sublime, which takes us deep within rather than far beyond the human sphere . . . the terror of the uncanny is released as we encounter the disguised and distorted but inalienable images of our own repressed desire. . . For Freud, death and supernaturalism are the two main themes to which the uncanny obsessively returns, and they are also clearly recurrent themes within the Gothic novel. . . Death in the Gothic novel is not absorbed into the beauty of sentimental fictions about natural goodness but rather invested with contradictory emotions of desire and loathing. It is sublime because it remains a terrifying mystery, not simply unknowable but linked with human desires that we wish to keep unknown.


From The Monk, 159-161.

Restless in my mind, in spite of the fatiqe of my body I continued to toss about from side to side, till the Clock in a neighbouring Steeple struck 'One.' As I listened to the mournful hollow sound, and heard it die away in the wind, I felt a sudden chillness spread itself over my body. I shuddered without knowing wherefore; Cold dews poured down my forehead, and my hair stood bristling with alarm. Suddenly I hear slow and heavy steps ascending the stair-case . . . With trembling apprehension I examined this midnight Visitor. God Almighty! It was the Bleeding Nun! . . . Her countenance was long and haggard; Her cheeks and lips were bloodless; The paleness of death was spread over her features, and her eye-balls fixed stedfastly upon me were lustreless and hollow. I gazed upon the Spectre with horror too great to be described. My blood was frozen in my veins. I would have called for aid, but the sound expired, ere it could pass my lips. My nerves were bound up in impotence, and I remained in the same attitude inanimate as a Statue . . . Her eyes were fixed earnestly upon mine: They seemed endowed with the property of the Rattle-snake's, for I strove in vain to look off her. My eyes were fascinated, and I had not the power of withdrawing them from the Spectre's. In this attitude She remained for a whole long hour without speaking or moving; nor was I able to do either . . . Till that moment [of her departure] the faculties of my body had been all suspended; Those of my mind had alone been waking. The charm now ceased to operate: The blood which had been frozen in my veins ruched back to my heart with violence: I uttered a deep groan, and sank lifeless upon my pillow.


David B. Morris, "Gothic Sublimity," New Literary History 16 (1985): 299-319.

Gothic sublimity . . . cannot be adequately explained on the basis of Burke's theories . . . As he summarized his theory unconditionally: "Terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently the ruling principle of the sublime." . . . Burke proves deficient for an understanding of the Gothic novel because he rests his theory of terror on a narrow, mechanical account of bodily processes. For Burke, terror derives simply and directly from whatever evokes in us "an apprehension of pain or death". He means that we fear whatever threatens to injure or to kill us. This explanation may be correct, as far as it goes, but it greatly oversimplifies the complex nature of pain and fear.

Jack G. Voller, "Todorov among the Gothics: Structuring the Supernatural Moment," Contours of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Eighth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, ed. Michele K. Langford, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1987): 197-206.

This is a near-perfect example of the supernatural sublime. The intensity of emotion which the supernatural is confronted generates a moment of hesitation and uncertainty, a Burkean suspension of the motions of the soul. Raymond tells us his mind had remained 'waking,' but this means only that it avoided unconsciousness. No intellection occurs during the encounter; there is only rudimentary sensory awareness. . .

Todorov's study provides a useful point of departure because the Gothic supernatural experience is structurally cognate with the Todorovian moment of hesitation. Both involve a movement from mental equilibrium and epistemological security to a condition of profound uncertainty, to a moment of emotional and intellectial trauma that is followed by either validation of the original theory of knowledge or explosion of it. Todorov explains the process thus:

"In a world which is indeed our world, the one we know, a world without devils, sylphides, or vampires, there occurs an event which cannot be explained by the laws of this same familiar world. The person who experiences the event must opt for one of two possible solutions: either he is the victim of an illusion of the senses, of a product of the imagination--and laws of the world then remain what they are; or else the event has indeed taken place, it is an integral part of reality--but then this reality is controlled by laws unknown to us."