Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Things in My Cabinet: Musings on the Numinous

Schicksalsbuch - astrolabe
numinous things: astrolabe paper art...
"Numinous (pronounced /ˈnjuːmɨnəs/, from the Classical Latin numen) is an English adjective describing the power or presence of a divinity. The word was popularized in the early twentieth century by the German theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book Das Heilige (1917; translated into English as The Idea of the Holy, 1923). According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy Other. The numinous experience can lead in different cases to belief in deities, the supernatural, the sacred, the holy, and the transcendent.

'Nostalgia for paradise' was a term also used by Mircea Eliade to help bring understanding to the numinous."


I want to build a Museum of Joy. What the heck is the numinous doing here? In fact, what the heck is the numinous, exactly? Well, that's a funny question. I can say how it feels, but I can't define it.

...and real astrolabes..
Let me start by saying that what I call numinousness is an enormous and important part of who I am, but a strangely easily subdued part, one I get oddly distracted from in the movements of everyday life. When I was working on my thesis at Hampshire it was an intense presence for me, because I was crafting a work that sought to both illustrate and spark off the process of evocation -- the word I use to describe the constant, quiet mist of images that rises up in me whenever I glance inwards, a mixture of memory, things seen by or read about by me, imagined places, associations, fragments of dream, all tipping and tilting together like the glass beads inside a kaleidoscope to produce a shifting pattern of ever-changing images of which the character is the same -- that is to say, numinous: old city streets, smears of light on rainy pavement, arched doorways, hidden gardens, snatches of song, night-blooming flowers, intricate toys, tiny keys, attic rooms, alchemical closets, ancient brass instruments, winding stairways, musty and mysterious bookshops: I didn't know Mircea Eliade called it nostalgia for paradise until I looked it up just a moment ago, but that's almost exactly how it feels, if paradise is a place where every single thing is rich in meaning, where each object has a vibrant presence.

...and lamplit alleyways...
My sense of joy and my sense of mystery and my sense of meaning is based on glimpses of this world, the realm where nothing is flat and everything has a life -- the world at the root of the world, the world inside the world, the paradise before doubt. There is a murmuring fountain in me of images coming up from this profound inner place; all I have to do to feel its emanations is think for a moment about a resonant word, the word rain, for example, or amulet, or the color cobalt blue. And up it comes, a hundred kinds of rainstorms, each image translucent, delicate, evanescent, mysterious; endless permutations of amulets, each intensely mystical enough to paralyze me with transcendent longing; blue glass in the sun and in windows and buried in earth and supporting the heavens. It's as if an imp sat deep within me, nestled in a gutter in a peaked roof high up over the numinous city way down inside me, too deep to just be able to glance down and see it down there inside me -- and this imp did nothing but blow bubbles, all day long and into the night, fine iridescent bubbles, each one carrying a faint reflection of something of that profound, mystic, inner world from which it rises, floating gently up into my everyday mind just long enough to let me glimpse the minaret, the alembic, the starry moss before it dissolves, soundlessly, gently, as another bumps it...

...and amulets and old glass beads...
What do you do with all this? This imp does not stop blowing bubbles, and these transparent, shining impressions of a paradise of meaningful things is always present when I go to touch it, like a faint thread of music. But often enough I am not paying attention at all, and somehow I forget, daily, that it is even there. My numinous self needs connection to my surface self: books, conversations, soul-yanking experiences that refresh the wellspring within. This is it, the essence of my being, I know that; when I go down into myself, this is what is at the bottom, and there is nothing underneath it; it goes all the way down. I don't know what there is to be done with it. I just know it's me, this stuff, the underlying essence, the stuff that remains under all the things that change -- what I'm thinking or doing or worrying about or wondering, 24 years of flux and change, the flow of thoughts and emotions and choices made and actions taken, under all those shifting things the fountain patiently bubbles up its marvelous images. I am all the mystery I can hold within myself.

...festivals, toys, bones, altars...
Listen: what I'm saying is that the divine presence is inside all things, a shared core, a poetic substance, a fluid of meaning, a profound and wonderful mystery. And when we feel cut off from the divine it's because we can't get in, somehow, can't get down into things, talk to them, feel their fierce vital strange familiar substance in harmony with ours. My idea of a living hell is a world where things are just things, flat, surface only, nothing inside, unyielding, my attempts at making meaning just sliding off. A lamp only a lamp, with no resonance of warmth, of home, of small sun: just a thing. Numinousness, the way I mean it, is the opposite: the mystery within, the inexplicable and marvelous life of things, presences we don't understand and are grateful for. In the midst of numinousness ordinary things turn into carnivals, festivals, initiation rights. In the lost paradise we were not alone in the world. Everything spoke to us, might reveal a harmony, a truth, a story, a scent, when addressed with the proper reverence.  

But this is easy to forget. Look, it's good to live a life that is mild, pleasant, cheerful, mostly unruffled. That's fine! That's lovely! Just don't let go of the mystery. I think it's harder to go down into it when you're actually relatively happy -- because it makes living on the surface of things much more enjoyable, you're not trying to escape misery or fear or desperation, you can just stay up here where the emotional weather is fair. Why concern yourself with the stuff that's gonna kick you in the kishkas? Mystery means not having it all figured out. It can feel pretty profoundly at odds with stability. I don't think it is, necessarily; I just don't think that we, as a culture, know much about being both stable and steeped in the mystical. Mysticism is old-fashioned -- I mean the kind of mysticism where you don't try to put occult forces to work to determine your future or align your chakras, but simply sit with it, delight in it, the strange and glorious and incomprehensible swell of the world, live a life that moves through it, breathes it, tingles with it. Why is that important? I don't know. It's just what lives inside me, and I feel clearly and firmly that everything I do that is not in connection with the numinous is just getting by. Often pleasantly, beautifully, enjoyably -- but at a couple of degrees of separation from the world as it really is. The world is having a life, steamy and kaleidoscopic and wild, and I can partake or no. But if I don't, it will be exactly -- and I do mean it feels to me just like this -- like passing by a marvelous festival of light and color and strange smells and stomping dancers and bells that has come from nowhere and will be gone forever and going home to read a book because I am too shy to take a deep breath and fling myself into the dance. I like reading alone in the evenings. That can be its own numinous experience -- but not if I have not chosen it but rather turn to it out of some vague fear of getting lost, caught up forever, given up once and for all to enthusiasm -- from en + theos, having the god within. Is that what I'm afraid of, I wonder -- or it is just that living sedately is so much easier?

...and Odilon Redon

L'Oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l'infini (The eye, like a strange balloon directs itself towards infinity), 1878

And here is The Man Who Was Thursday on the secret face of the world:

"'Then, and again and always,' went on Syme like a man talking to himself, 'that has been for me the mystery of Sunday, and it is also the mystery of the world. When I see the horrible back, I am sure the noble face is but a mask. When I see the face for but an instant, I know the back is only a jest. Bad is so bad, that we cannot but think good an accident; good is so good, that we feel certain that evil could be explained. But the whole came to a kind of crest yesterday when I raced Sunday for the cab, and was just behind him all the way.'

'Had you time for thinking then?' asked Ratcliffe.

'Time,' replied Syme, 'for one outrageous thought. I was suddenly possessed with the idea that the blind, blank back of his head was really his face - an awful, eyeless face staring at me! And I fancied that the figure in front of me was really a figure running backwards, and dancing as it ran.'

'Horrible!' said Dr. Bull, and shuddered.

'Horrible is not the word, said Syme. 'It was exactly the worst instant of my life. And yet ten minutes afterwards, when he put his head out of the cab and made a grimace like a gargoyle, I knew that he was only like a father playing hide-and-seek with his children.'

'It is a long game,' said the Secretary, and frowned at his broken boots.

'Listen to me,' cried Syme, with an extraordinary emphasis. 'Shall i tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front --'"

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting. Particularly as I'm reading Nietzsche and Jung. I quite agree, there's more to "reality" than meets the eye !


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