Fearful Beauty

Embracing both the wonder and terror of awe

Jen Wick Studio

Fearful Beauty image


In the scorched New Mexico desert, the summer of 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, a leading physicist in the Manhattan Project, witnessed the first detonation of an atomic bomb. In response to this world-changing event, Oppenheimer quoted from the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

In rare moments when we witness a spectacle of overwhelming force or power that is beyond our control or direction, we experience transcendence. In bearing witness to something greater than ourselves, we move to a different realm of consciousness. Perhaps we do not interpret our identity as divine or demonic as Oppenheimer did, but in a heightened state of self-consciousness, we are aware that the external world has been shattered beyond recognition or healing and the world of our self has been irrevocably transformed. We have crossed a threshold, and there is no going back. Oppenheimer's new identity is not so much hubris as a kind of existential reality.

The momentary self-transcendence experienced by Oppenheimer is complemented by the lifelong reflection of Albert Einstein on the structure of the cosmos. Einstein claimed that true art and science were joined through their origins in the wonder of mystery and the real existence of the inexplicable that is manifested to us through wisdom and beauty. He writes: “He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” Moreover, Einstein says, religion is necessarily intertwined with these sentiments: “This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.” In their fusion of wonder as well as fear, the awe-full with the awful, the “awe” with the “shock” of a nuclear explosion, Einstein and Oppenheimer give voice to what religious scholars describe as the ambivalent characteristics of the human response to the sacred or holy.

Ambivalence is manifested in the myths and rituals of various communities. It is embodied in the shaman, who, through ecstatic experience, accesses an extraordinary realm of power and yet is also viewed by his or her culture with trepidation and apprehension. Also, in the Bhagavad Gita, when Lord Krishna reveals his form to the warrior Arjuna, Arjuna is “filled with amazement, his hair bristling on his flesh,” and he comments, “I am thrilled and yet my mind trembles with fear.” Examples of existential ambivalence to the sacred are prevalent in Western monotheistic traditions, too. The Exodus narrative begins when Moses is invited by Yahweh to stand on holy ground, and “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look upon God.” In Luke, every visitation of an angelic figure who brings “good tidings of great joy” in the Christian testament is prefaced by the comment, “Be not afraid.” Even the shepherds to whom the birth of Christ is announced and who witness the divine glory are “filled with fear.”

Einstein's understanding of wonder and awe in the presence of mystery was unquestionably influenced by his German contemporary Rudolf Otto. He uses the language of mysterium tremendum and fascinans to designate a primal and irrational experience of the holy or sacred. The mysterium, or mystery, refers to an encounter with a reality beyond our comprehension, and our capacity to fully conceptualize and linguistically express, or in Einstein's language, it is “impenetrable” to our cognitive capacities. Beyond our ordinary experience of the “other,” this reality is “wholly other,” extraordinary and radically unfamiliar. Yet, the awful is simultaneously awe-full or fascinans; we are also held fast, captivated and fascinated.

The experience of encountering reality as wholly other is too overwhelming, too much beyond our control, too dangerous to leave unrestrained, as it reveals our vulnerability and fragility. Religious symbols, myths, rituals, and ethical values, such as justice and love are prominent forms by which various communities subject the mysterium to human control. In the political context, we establish treaties and international conventions to try to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are not detonated. At a personal level, spectacles move us to reflect, contemplate, and question our identity, nature, and purpose. We confront the ultimate questions of life and being. The answers are various (including the possibility that there is no answer) and not restricted to religious tradition. The important thing is asking the question.

The elements of the sacralized spectacle cast into sharp relief and critique the nature of spectacles that come packaged for purposes of entertainment or curiosity. Marxist critic Guy Debord asserts in Society of the Spectacle that this is a form of cultural corruption. Debord contends that under the impact of materialism and mass media, commodification and consumption displaces relationships between persons. We are spectators only, as the richness and possibilities of our lives are truncated to commodities to be consumed, to entertainment that purports to illustrate reality. The sentiments we experience through this type of spectacle are not those of transcendence, inspiration, awe, wonder, or beauty, but of revulsion, horror, outrage, and schadenfreude. Even the language of “awesome” has become so popularized that it represents a diluted, banal form of appreciation of the ordinary.

At times, the features of the sacralized spectacle are appropriated for political purposes and consequently corrupted. Most egregiously, American political rhetoric portrayed the relentless bombing that initiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq as a campaign of “shock and awe.”

The “shock and awe” of aerial bombardment, intended to hasten Iraqi capitulation, may have had visual appeal and provided high ratings for the media, but it diverted us from the practical reality of what occurred out of sight: namely, destruction of infrastructure, a terrorized population, and death. Political, communal, religious, and familial worlds were literally destroyed, but we didn't see that onscreen.

Unlike sacrilized spectacle, the spectacle of war creates distance and removal that can lead to the corruption of moral values and ethical rules. For example, in its reporting on April 13, 1861, of the Confederacy attack on Fort Sumter that initiated the Civil War, the New York Times writes, “The excitement of the community is indescribable. … All day every available place has been thronged by ladies and gentlemen, viewing the spectacle through their glasses.” Our national anthem similarly reflects this conception of war, through its language of “the rocket's red glare [and] the bombs bursting in air.” Even today, we incorporate this understanding in our metaphor of various “theaters” of war.

However, J. Glenn Gray in The Warriors probes “the enduring appeals of battle,” including what he describes as a “delight in spectacle.” Gray recognizes that modern weaponry's sophistication and destructive force often permits warriors to become spectators, witnesses who are distanced from the destructive consequences of their actions. This distancing allows space for what Gray calls a “fearful beauty” to become part of the war experience. In the “astonishment, wonder, and awe” that war can elicit, the soldier as spectator can be separated from the spectacle and, especially, the suffering created by the spectacle. If morality in part presupposes a human capacity for identification with the sufferer's humanity, this capacity is diminished when a person is distanced from the actual consequences of his or her actions. Moral distancing is further reinforced by computer-controlled attacks carried out by drones, sometimes with precision targeting and sometimes with indiscriminant devastation.

Moral distancing in war is made possible by our capacity for self-transcendence and even, Gray contends, because of an experience of ecstasy, of “a state of being outside the self.” War is experienced as greater than oneself, and yet there is a tremendous cost to be paid for this delight in spectacle, a cost of moral corruption. Gray observes, “[The spectacle of war] nearly always involves a neglect of moral ideals and an absence of concern for the practical.” If, as Immanuel Kant states, two primary sources of awe are the starry heavens above and the moral law within, those inner moral commitments, so necessary to diminish the brutality of war, can dissipate in the face of the overwhelming power of destruction. Although it may not be a necessary truth, the shock and awe of battle, bombardment, and warfare can also destroy moral worlds; if a person is “outside” one's self, the moral law “within” cannot be accessed. Three weeks after Oppenheimer witnessed the spectacle of awesome power, the United States dropped the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima against what was deliberately chosen as “dual target,” that is, a target of both military and civilian infrastructure. The moral constraints on not harming civilians that have been a longstanding part of the laws of war had completely eroded.

In this way, warfare can become a morally compromised surrogate for the experience of both awe and dread in the face of spectacle. We need only reflect on 9/11 to remember an experience of shock, horror, and “awe-fulness.” Because of the proximity of the attack and the visibility of the suffering, spectators became sufferers and victims. I could only witness the horror for so long, and then sought refuge in the Cascades wilderness.

Few places are more nourishing of the sentiment of awe than wilderness: the delicacy and beauty of lilies and lupines, the cathedrals of forest, the whispers of the wind and enticing sounds of streams, the stunning vistas from the Cascade summits. We find few better reminders of the embodied persons we are, engaging all our senses that renew us into our full humanity again.

And yet, even nature is not always so nourishing of awe; it also can evoke the related sentiments of dread, fear, and apprehension. Consider the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. It was approximately five hundred times the force of the atomic blast witnessed by Oppenheimer. It was an unprecedented and overwhelming natural spectacle that evoked awe in observers in Portland and elsewhere. Even today, when we traverse the blast zone and see the trees in Spirit Lake, we experience a sense of existential smallness in the face of nature's power to destroy worlds. Moreover, danger is still present: certain landscapes are forbidden, and warning signs remind us not to get too close to the mystery.

The natural catastrophe also plants the seeds for its own renewal. Anyone who has hiked through the barren blast zone of St. Helens or the burned forests of the Jefferson wilderness or of Yellowstone will see a different landscape, but also the fragile beginnings of an ecosystem and vegetation. It is much harder for the wounds of war to be healed; conflicts between ethnicities are perennial and seemingly endless. As St. Augustine states, “[The] real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power.” Those evils speak to human dispositions and matters of the heart, which, once unleashed on the world, are especially difficult to undo; their legacy is not only irrevocable in war but often also irreparable in peace. By contrast, the natural spectacle, though it may destroy biological worlds, ecosystems, and landscapes for generations, does not seem to erode or shatter the moral world.

Still, it's not always easy to distinguish human choice and preventable catastrophe from the helplessness before natural catastrophe. Lincoln, compelled by the horrors of a protracted civil war, asks in his second inaugural address whether the war signifies the judgment of the Almighty against the country's toleration of the evil of slavery. The overlap and contrast between human choice and natural inevitability are especially salient as we enter an era of catastrophic present and future consequences of past human choices, particularly regarding global climate change. At a spatial distance, such as the dramatic satellite images of Hurricane Katrina, we are compelled to witness the awesome force of nature. What cannot happen in our era, what we must not by our choices allow to happen, is for the riveting spectacle to induce the kind of moral corruption and neglect of the practical with which Gray is so concerned.

Through the sentiments evoked by the experience of war or nature, we can acquire a more transcendent and self-reflective awareness that imitates our responses to the sacred or holy. These are, of course, not the only ways to experience mystery, awe, and foreboding nor the only ways to witness or participate in the divine or sacred. Rather, in a postmodern world where the gods may be silent and spectacles are packaged and commodified for our consumerist lusts, we do well to follow Einstein's admonition to not close our eyes to the awe and wonder that pervade our experience.


History, Power, Technology, Media and Journalism, Religion


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