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Lichtenberg, J. (2015). Awe: Its Bidirectional Power—Veneration and Inspiration or Dread and Inhibition. Psychoanal. Inq., 35(1):95-100.

(2015). Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 35(1):95-100

Awe: Its Bidirectional Power—Veneration and Inspiration or Dread and Inhibition

Joseph Lichtenberg, M.D.

Awe: emotion in which dread, veneration, and wonder are variously mixed: as a. profound and humbly fearful reverence inspired by deity or by something sacred or mysterious; b. submissive and admiring fear inspired by authority or power; c. wondering reverence tinged with fear inspired by the sublime. [Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1977, p. 79]

When I paint the great beginning of a ship I feel the reverence the ship-builder has for his handwork. I am filled with awe, and I am trying to paint as well as he builds, to paint my emotion about him. [George Bellows: Commentary on Shipyard Society, 1916 oil on panel, National Gallery of Art]

In the play Wit (Edson, 1997), Vivian, the main character, an isolated professor of philology, reminisces during her hospitalization for a fatal cancer. She looks back at an inspirational moment in her childhood as her father teaches her about words. He tells her she looks sleepy and then adds “soporific.” Awestruck by this large important sounding new word, the little girl attempts unsuccessfully to pronounce it. The father tells her to say it phonetically: so – po. In a voice filled with veneration, she says so – po – rif – ic several times, savoring the delicious sounds as she looks admiringly at her father. The play makes clear that for this tragic, super-intellectual, lonely woman, her awestruck love affair with words was a major source of self-cohesion and vitalization.

My awe was triggered by a beautifully illustrated book of Old Testament Bible stories.

[This is a summary excerpt from the full text of the journal article. The full text of the document is available to journal subscribers on the publisher's website here.]

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