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Andresen, J.J. (1999). Awe and the Transforming of Awarenesses. Contemp. Psychoanal., 35(3):507-521.

(1999). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 35(3):507-521

Awe and the Transforming of Awarenesses

Jeffry J. Andresen, M.D.

AWE IS AN EXPERIENCE SO EXALTED that religions have found it a mark of the perceiving of manifestations of God. Because patients can speak of experiences of awe in their psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, we have opportunities to study this wondrous state psychoanalytically. This article presents such a study. The view that awe is an experience whose essence is always religious is in no way contradicted by what I present here.

The subject of awe has drawn some study in psychoanalytic publications. (Sullivan's treatment of the subject is addressed later in this article.) Typically, awe has been interpreted as a form of “regression” to some early-life apperception of the mother or father or parts of their bodies. (See Harrison, 1975, and Greenacre, 1956, for representative examples.) But these formulaic, reductive explanations do no more than move the mystery of this remarkable experience back to some putative childhood prototype. There is much more to this experience than such explanations would have us believe, as I show here.

Awe appears as an element of a particular type of relationship; the awed subject perceives some object in particular ways and experiences a unique feeling commonly referred to by terms such as “wonderment” or “reverence” or a sense of the “sublime.” One part of the particular perceptions in awe is a new or recovered experiencing of the object's otherness or separateness from the subject. This comes with the quality of a revelation. The experience also involves distinct senses of the self, and it is because of this that awe offers the opportunity for enlarging reflective self-awareness. Awe can be engendered by objects both human and nonhuman. I here study an advanced form of awe that occurs in human relationships. Awe in this context entails discovery of generative goodness within this otherness of the other. (I return to a description of what “otherness” denotes later.) Tightly associated with this discovery is gratitude.

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