Incorporating the Sublime:
Burke, Kant, and Freud on the Sublime

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 2d edition (1759).

Sect. VI. Of the passions which belong to SELF-PRESERVATION.

Most of the ideas which are capable of making a strong impression on the mind, whether simply of Pain or Pleasure, or of the modifications of those, may be reduced very nearly to these two heads: i>self-preservation and society; to the ends of one or the other of which all our passions are calculated to answer. The passions which concern self-preservation, turn mostly on pain or danger. The ideas of pain, sickness, or death, fill the mind with strong emotions of horror; but life and health, though they put us in a capacity of being affected with pleasure, they make no such impression by the simple enjoyment. The passions therefore which are conversant about the preservation of the individual, turn chiefly on pain and danger, and they are the most powerful of the passions.


Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (1791)

He entered what appeared to have been the chapel of the abbey, where the hymn of devotion had once been raised, and the tear of penitence had once been shed; sounds, which now could be recalled only by imagination--tears of penitence, which had long since been fixed in fate. La Motte paused a moment, for he felt a sensation of sublimity rising into terror--a suspension of mingled astonishment and awe! He surveyed the vastness of the place, and as he contemplated its ruins, fancy bore him back to past ages. "And these walls," said he, "where once superstition lurked, and austerity anticipated an earthly purgatory, now tremble over the mortal remains of the beings who reared them!" (15-16)

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. 2d edition (1759).

Sect. VII. Of the SUBLIME

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. Without all doubt, the torments which we may be made to suffer, are much greater in their effect on the body and mind, than any pleasures which the most learned voluptuary could suggest, or the liveliest imagination, and the most sound and exquisitely sensible body could enjoy. Nay I am in great doubt, whether any man could be found who would earn a life of the most perfect satisfaction, at the price of ending it in the torments, which justice inflicted in a few hours on the late unfortunate regicide in France. But as pain is stronger in its operation than pleasure, so death is in general a much more affecting idea than pain; because there are very few pains, however exquisite, which are not preferred to death; nay, what generally makes pain itself, if I may say so, more painful, is, that it is considered as an emissary of this king of terrors. When pleasure or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience. The cause of this I shall endeavour to investigate hereafter.


Marshall Brown, "A Philosophical View of the Gothic Novel." Studies in Romanticism, 26 (Summer 1987): 275-304.

It seems superfluous to demonstrate that gothic novels in general and Frankenstein in particular also explore the categories of modality, namely possibility (and impossibility), existence (and non-existence), necessity (and chance). But it is at least worth mentioning these for the sake of the antithetical form in which all six dynamic categories appear in [Kant's] Critique of Pure Reason. This form is not intrinsic to the transcendental analytic, for in the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, Kant designates the categories simply by the first term in the pair. Rather, the antithetical form of these categories is the first manifest sign of a threat that is evident all along in Kant's imagery and in his lawless and terrifying prose style. The antithetical categories pave the way toward the famous antinomies of pure reason in the later section called the "Transcendental Dialectic"--four pairs of theorems, all demonstrably true and all reciprocally contradictory. At the heart of the Critique of Pure Reason we find a philosophical madness and delirium more cold-blooded than Hume's; the parallel page-formats of the contrasting pairs make even a normal reading sequence impossible. Kant's proofs in the antinomies are not all equally strong, and his system consequently domesticates the contradictions without apparent difficulty (one antinomy of each pair relates to experience and understanding, the other to an ideal of reason). It is not evident, therefore, why his text should slide into such turbulence, unless we learn to recognize how the gothic life-force of creation has been at work from the beginning.

It is hardly necessary to do more than quote the antithetical principles in order to suggest how uncompromisingly the gothic explores them; they are gothic propositions as much as they are Kantian ones. From here we can proceed to what seems to me the heart of the gothic enterprise.

I.1. "The world has a beginning in time, and is also enclosed in boundaries with respect to space" (A 426). Think of the traumatic and claustrophobic nature of the gothic experience. Yet

I.2. "The world has no beginning, and no boundaries in space, but is both in consideration of time, as of space, endless" (A 427). "It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being; all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct," says the monster (367). With respect to time, Frankenstein dates the monster's existence to a dark moment of creation "in a dreary night of November" (318), but we can antedate the wellsprings of creation almost without limit, to a sudden moment of revelation, to a long period of preparation, to a disposition of character, perhaps even to a melancholia inherited from Frankenstein's maternal grandfather, the ill-fated Beaufort. With respect to space, the victim's imprisonment, in all gothic novels, stands in a rigorously antinomic symmetry with the demon's freedom to range across the earth.

II.1. "Every composite substance in the world consists of simple parts, and nothing exists anywhere but simples or that which is compounded from them" (A 434).

II.2. "No composite thing in the world consists of simple parts, and nothing simple exists anywhere in the same" (A 435). The creation of the monster demonstrates both propositions. He is made up of elemental parts, and the parts have complex properties.

III.1. "Causality according to the laws of nature is not the sole element out of which manifestations of the world overall can be derived. It is also necessary to assume a causality via freedom to explain them (A 444).

III.2. "There is no freedom, but rather everything in the world happens solely according to natural causes" (A 445). How indeed, are we to explain Frankenstein? As we have already seen, Introduction, frame, Frankenstein's narrative, and monster's narrative all circle around this, the greatest of the antinomies. Is it "an accident," "some fatality," or "on of the caprices of the mind" (299-300) that leads Frankenstein on the path of destruction? How can we fathom the workings of the spirit in a book where all the explanations jostle one another within the space of a single page? "I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me," says Frankenstein in the very first chapter (292), using an image that makes both sides of the antinomy, determinism and freedom, again rigorously symmetrical.

IV.1. "To the world belongs something which, either as a part of it, or its cause, is a simply necessary being" (A 452).

IV.2. "No simply necessary being exists anywhere, either in the world, or outside the world, as its cause" (A 453). What, we always feel compelled to ask, is the morality of the gothic? Can religious protestations be taken seriously when the demonic forces seem so contrived? Can protestations of atheism be taken seriously where mysterious forces rule the world? As early as the novels of Richardson talk of angels and devils seems inevitably to render insoluble all questions concerning the grounds of experience and of morality, and gothic fiction becomes obsessively dualistic--or irresponsible--in its approach to transcendental concerns. . . .

Astonishment, suspense, uncertainty, ambivalence, play--such is the axis along which the gothic moves. What we can never know for sure is what stimulates our imaginations. Darkness begets striving: this is the literary discovery that makes the gothic the bridge between the wasteland of graveyard literature amd the exaltation of the great romantic novels, the philosophical discovery that leads Kant from the wilderness of the antinomies to the sublime ideas of pure reason. In the middle lie Tantalus and Job, the most cosmic of jokes. From the time of Walpole on, the gothic novel and the gothic novelist rarely seem to take themselves seriously. "I shall not be supposed as according the remotest degree of serious faith to such an imagination," we read in the 1818 preface that Mary shelley's husband wrote for her. (267); "Swift as light and as cheering was the idea that broke in upon me," she remembers the horrific moment of inspiration in her 1831 introduction (264). The greatness of the gothic--inseparable from the seeming frivolity of all its greatest exemplars--is not that it plays with terror and insanity, but rather that it plays with these things, that is, that it imagines them.


David Morris, "Gothic Sublimity." New Literary History (Winter 1985)

"The Uncanny" is especially relevant to the Gothic novel because it is not only a theory of the sublime, but also, simultaneously, a theory of terror. The specific subclass of terror which Freud describes as the uncanny differs strikingly from the Burkean catalogue of wild, exotic, and overpowering dangers. For Freud, the uncanny derives its terror not from something external, alien, or unknown but--on the contrary--from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it. In an autobiographical example, Freud describes how he accidentally wandered into the bordello district of a foreign town. "Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses," he wrote, "and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning." In a near imitation of Gothic flight, where branching corridors and circular passages transform forward movement into endless repetition, three times Freud's increasingly frantic efforts to escape simply return him--by devious paths--to the same street, to the identical scene of forbidden sexual practice. Such terror for Freud has nothing to do with fears of physical injury. it does not require mountain scenery or barbaric violence. As he summarized, the uncanny "is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.