Compendium of Horror, Fear, and the Grotesque

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Edmund Burke

While Otto speaks of the numinous, the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke speaks of "the sublime." Burke might describe the effect of the cathedral on susceptible believers as a sublime experience. In Burke's essay called A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [7] Burke looks at natural aspects of the world that contribute to a sublime experience:

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 [8].

The sources that he examines include obscurity, power, privation, vastness, infinity, difficulty, magnificence, and loudness.

Obscurity is not defined by Burke as precisely as are his other terms. The concept includes ideas of both physical and mental obscurity, such as darkness, fogginess and confusion. It is the element most frequently found in the ambiences of gothic stories. Power is the representation of a superior force that by its sheer strength is capable of producing fear in the mind of the perceiver. Privation is comparable to isolation in that it is associated with 'Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude and Silence.' These first three concepts relate closely to Otto's theological concepts of mysterium and tremendum. The obscurity that overcomes the perceiver with its pervading sense of mystery and the feeling of power that oppresses him with the psychological energy isolate him from complete control over his senses. The vastness that Burke describes has to do with what he calls 'greatness of dimension,' and obviously shares in the quality of Otto's tremendum, as do the remainder of Burke's concepts--infinity, difficulty, magnificence and loudness--which serve to overcome the perceiver with greatness of size, force or quality. The particular concept of vastness finds expression in that central image of gothic literature, the cathedral [9]:

"An hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower an hundred yards high, or a rock or mountain of that altitude. I am apt to imagine likewise, that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than at looking up at an object of equal height" [10]. It is clear from Burke's own description that his views are incorporated in the kinds of castles found in traditional gothic literature. It is also clear that the castle is merely a transformation of the cathedral and no longer associated with the worship of God. Just as the cathedral's architecture does, the castle of gothic fame features contrasting elements: towering battlements and buried dungeons. This is where Philip Hallie picks up his argument that the castle dungeon is critical to gothic victimization [11].

See Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful presented by Lilia Melani, English Department at Brooklyn College.