Anna Laetitia Aikin (1743 – 1825): On The Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies.

—Aristotle, Poetics

Anna Laetitia Aikin in her essay on the sublime of horror ‘On The Pleasure Derived From Objects of Terror‘ (1773) suggested we “rather choose to suffer the smart pang of a violent emotion than the uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire”. She’d go on to say,

This is the pleasure constantly attached to the excitement of surprise from new and wonderful objects. A strange and unexpected event awakens the mind, and keeps in on the stretch; and where the agency of invisible beings is introduced, of “forms unseen, and mightier far than we,” our imagination, darting forth, explores with rapture the new world which is laid open to its view, and rejoices in the expansion of its powers. Passion and fancy co-operating elevate the soul to its highest pitch; and the pain of terror is lost in amazement.

Hence, the more wild, fanciful, and extraordinary are the circumstances of a scene of horror, the more pleasure we receive from it; and where they are too near common nature, though violently borne by curiosity through the adventure, we cannot repeat it or reflect on it, without an over-balance of pain.

This sense of what Lacan-Zizek  term ‘jouissance’ or the bitter-sweet pleasure/pain in apprehension of the  indefinable, unknown and horrific monstrosities of existence underlies the aesthetic appeal and active power of the fantastic over our Mind. The literature of terror, dread, and horror confront us with the cosmic power of an invasive alterity, an impossible and indefinite unknown and unknowable threat from the Outside that cannot be reduced to presence nor absence,  but is situated in that in-between zone of the impossible Real or Gap-Crack where chaos, madness, and darkness seep into our world.

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