A GLIMPSE OF THE NUMINOUS BY JEFF GARDINER

My first collection of short stories is being published by Eibonvale Press in January 2012. It is entitled A Glimpse of the Numinous and I’m getting myself prepared for all the times I shall be asked to explain the word ‘numinous’. It’s an under-used word which richly expresses the deeper realities of reality itself. It suggests something metaphysical or supernatural, and is useful for denoting those strange experiences that are very difficult to define. The collection employs horror, slipstream, romance and comedy elements – but I prefer to think that my writing is never constrained by genre boundaries.

The term ‘numinous’ was coined by theologian Rudolf Otto in his influential book The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige) first published in 1917. It combines the words ‘numen’ (spirit or deity)and ‘ominous’ to find a way of expressing the experience of being in the presence of a divine power.

When defining the numinous, Otto refers to what he called ‘mysterium tremendum’, which is linked with the idea of awe felt in the presence of the divine: ‘there is an element which may … profoundly affect us and occupy the mind with a wellnigh bewildering strength.’ (p12). Mysterium implies that which is ‘wholly other’ from the self; tremendum connotes an overpowering urgency brought on by ‘supernatural dread’. Otto also comments on the sense of fascination this brings (‘fascinans’); and what he termed the ‘creature-feeling’ of being overwhelmed by a ‘self-abasement into nothingness before an overpowering, absolute might of some kind.’

In summary, numinous refers to the presence of divinity which evokes a personal feeling of both fear and attraction; or in Otto’s words: ‘It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicating frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost grisly horror and shuddering.’

Thus the concept of the numinous has a close alliance with that gothic term ‘the Uncanny’ which derives from Freud’s ‘unheimlich’ (that which is strange or unfamiliar). When Otto attempts to explain ‘numinous awe’, he delves into mystical language and compares it to other more familiar notions: ‘The idea of the sublime is closely similar to that of the numinous’ (p43). Gothic texts are usually analysed through the concept of the sublime (that which produces awe and terror – sometimes linked with nature or creation).

My short story collection begins with an inscription by Rudolf Otto taken from the following extract from The Idea of the Holy: ‘Beneath our own human soul and sense of the personal, lies ‘that “wholly other”, whose profundities, impenetrable to any concept, can yet be grasped in the numinous self-feeling by one who has experience of the deeper life.’ (p208)

In my collection, A Glimpse of the Numinous, my hope is that the reader has some experience of ‘the deeper life’. These glimpses include wonders and challenges, which may be terrifying, fascinating or simply absurd. The hope is to connect on a profound level. I certainly believe there are many things which cannot be explained by rational thought and these stories explore those experiences which defy rational understanding. In fact I’d go further and say that it is those very things in life which cannot be explained that make life much more wonderful, mystical and exciting.

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