When we think about experiences of awe in our lives, we’re often drawn to big, unforgettable moments. Perhaps we remember being confronted with some powerful natural scene, like a view of a mountain range or the Grand Canyon. Or, maybe we think of some remarkable achievement, as when an Olympic athlete breaks a world record. In the most common sense of the word, to be “in awe” of something usually constitutes some special and memorable experience, one associated with strong feeling and that we may believe is especially meaningful. But what gives rise to that feeling? What is it about the relationship between the awed and the awesome that produces this affect?
Awe typically mediates between the feeling subject and some object which exceeds or overwhelms that subject (the “awesome”). This affect can either be felt in relation to some object that is physically greater or more powerful—in an explicitly bodily sense—or in relation to another subject whose action is considered great or virtuous. In either case, the effect on the subject is a feeling of being diminished or overpowered by the object of their awe. Depending on the situation that elicits the feeling of awe, it can be helpful to think of awe as accompanied with other affects, such as terror or admiration. The first combination, that of awe and terror, tends to refer to sublime experience when a subject is in awe at some thing (as when a person is awed by a view of the Grand Canyon). The latter pair, when awe is supplemented by admiration, applies to situations in which a subject is in awe at the actions of some other subject (as when a person is awed at seeing an athlete break a world record).
In traditional aesthetic accounts of the sublime, awe is accompanied by terror. The experience of awe and terror together in the sublime can be seen as a mediation between the experiencing subject and the objective world in which the objective world overwhelms the subject. For example, Lee Rozelle discusses what he calls the “ecosublime” in American literature as “awe and terror that occurs when literary figures experience the infinite complexity and contingency of place” (1). In the situation that Rozelle describes, literary figures marvel at the world around them and are affected with a sense of awe as this world overwhelms them. Still, while Rozelle suggests the subject feels awe in a sublime experience of place, the source of the affect is often displaced and attributed to an experience of divine presence. Here, awe and terror seem more distinct as awe tends toward a kind of reverence for the deity.
Although upholding the distinction between these two affects may seem unnecessary, the two are regularly kept apart discursively. We can see this opposition clearly in Emerson’s formulation for the sublime—“glad to the brink of fear”—where Emerson’s elation while “crossing a bare common” is associated with awe and opposed to (while it paradoxically complements) his sense of terror (10). The example of Emerson demonstrates the connection between divine presence and a species of the sublime, as Emerson describes his being as “part or particle of God” (10). Emerson’s felt experience of coming into contact with nature is a classic example that joins awe and terror in the sublime, showing how a subject ebbs ontologically in the face of an awing object.
We might also consider awe’s connection to admiration. In this case, awe and admiration commingle in when one subject feels that another is greater in some way. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith theorizes this relationship between admirer and person whose action is worthy of admiration. According to Smith, an individual whose reaction to a given situation—say, the sorrow at the death of a close friend—is worth of approbation if their reaction matches what others would see as a reasonable response to that feeling. If, however, the one experiencing sorrow somehow exceeds our expectations in reacting to the situation, for instance by being especially courageous and emotionally contained, that person’s actions are seen as superhuman and thus worthy of our admiration. To draw on a striking example of Smith’s, we may find it appropriate for a victim of torture to cry out in pain, but we are in awe of the victim who has been able to remain quiet and calm despite tremendous pain. As these examples reveal, the affect pairing of admiring awe often has to do with self-possession or containment of excess emotion. Thus, while we may couch our awe in terms of courage or virtue, ultimately the feeling arises from a recognition of power, force, or fortitude that exceeds humanity’s typical strength.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: Library of America, 1983. 5-49.
Rozelle, Lee. Environmental Awe and Terror from New World to Oddworld. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2006.
Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin, 2009.