I want to know a word that describes the phenomenon of something being both beautiful and terrible at the same time, like a tsunami or the eye of a tornado.
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It's a bit overused these days, obviously, but...
...seems to me to be exactly what OP is looking for.
The closest word I can come up with is "fascinate." Although it doesn't overtly imply anything negative, it doesn't imply anything positive either. If that doesn't work for you, I'm not sure if "transfixing" is a word, but if it is it might work even better.
I wanted to suggest captivating, with its ties to the Latin word for prisoner. But as TFD and my experience indicate, this word may be too stilted toward the beauty of the disaster and not its fearsomeness. Another word that strikes a better balance is imposing, cited by MW as meaning
Lists of its synonyms commonly include reverential words like majestic or sovereign. But the use of imposing sometimes indicates a sense of foreboding as in this excerpt of Notre-Dame de Paris:
A similar use in Moby Dick unveils another possible word:
The word awe-inspiring is closer to the old meaning of awesome, without the modern baggage.
From the Wiktionary page on awesome:
If a natural occurring disaster's magnitude induces awe and wonder as well as fear and terror, you could talk about its spellbound effect
If you require an adjective say, a spellbinding tsunami.
Sublime was used notably by Edmund Burke to mean just this. It is still commonly used and understood this way in philosophical, art, critical theory circles.
"The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." [Burke, On the Sublime, ed. J. T. Bolton. 58]
Despite other people posting excellent words in other answers, you might want to consider this word in this context as it is specifically contrasted with beauty. As you are talking about disasters, -- just the sort of thing it was coined for, -- sublime might be very useful to prevent you sounding like Hannibal Lecter.
Awesome and awful both started meaning something similar, but very quickly went their own ways (cf. terrible and terrific). Unlike sublime, I think these are beyond rescue.
Father reading: The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, Vol. I. (of 12), by Edmund Burke http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm
Visual Example: Joseph Mallord William "J. M. W." Turner Snow-storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812) http://www.tate.org.uk/art/images/work/N/N00/N00490_10.jpg
protected by tchrist Jan 1 '15 at 15:07
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