A Glimpse of the Numinous

Posted: June 25, 2010 by jeffgardiner in Articles

I’m thrilled that Eibonvale Press are going to publish my short story collection and would like to thank David Rix for his encouraging support. All authors want to know that their writing is being read, or even having some kind of effect upon each reader. Whilst still in my excited state I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore the title of the collection – ‘A Glimpse of the Numinous’. It is my attempt to express the idea that our world is not just a material world, but one of wonder, mystery and the unknown. Those elements can be frightening or awe-inspiring.

The artist M.C. Escher once said: ‘The reality around us, the three dimensional world surrounding us, is too ordinary, too boring, too common. We yearn for the unnatural, or the supernatural, the impossible, the miraculous.’ Fantasy provides our modern, materialistic and so-called ‘enlightened’ culture with a sense of spirituality or a numinous mysticism. The word numinous implies religious awe inspired by the presence of a deity, and fantasy can be awe-inspiring, stimulating the reader into an imaginative and spiritual understanding of our complicated and mysterious existence. Fantasy has its roots in mythology and, like many religions, is attempting to see beyond the mere physical reality of our world. Two great individuals who have helped us to put these ideas into words and whose works have been invaluable to literary critics are Carl Jung, one of the founding fathers of Psychology, and anthropologist Sir James Frazer, both of whose works lead to archetypal criticism. What both Jung and Frazer show is that ritual, dreams and by extension, fantasy literature, tell us a great deal about the inner workings of our mind and soul. In a sense fantasy is offering us something similar to that of religion: not competing with it, but likewise challenging us to look closer into the realms of imagination and spirituality. Our souls can be touched by the creative arts. Fantastical and imaginative leaps of faith help to give symbols and images to those things most difficult to understand. Myth, art and symbolism are human attempts to understand our incredibly complicated world and existences.

Carl Jung claimed that, “All the works of man have their origin in creative fantasy”. In Modern Man in Search of A Soul (1933), Jung stated that in attempting to understand the unconscious psyche we must also study dreams, mythology, religion and visionary literature, i.e. fantasy. He names particular texts such as The Arabian Nights and Faust, and also cites authors such as H. Rider Haggard and William Blake. For Jung, visionary literature offers “glimpses of chaos” and cannot be easily explained in logical terms, but rather through the profound effect they have upon the individual human spirit. Jung explains at length how the individual’s soul finds a voice in his own imagination and dreams, which then connects him to the “collective unconscious”: the spiritual, primeval bond that unites all human beings together and where we experience the sense of the numinous. If we are to find God anywhere, it will surely be in a creative, emotional realm.

Jung also identified archetypes that exist within the collective unconscious that provide us with mythological symbols to express our deepest fears, desires and emotions: to help explain the inexplicable. These archetypes recur in stories, myths, legends, art and literature and include familiar characters, such as warrior, wise man, mother, saviour and trickster. Jung’s psychological theory of types is a useful way of identifying the deeper mythological resonances within a text and to see that fantasy is not mere child’s play or escapism, but art that speaks to us on a grand and important scale. Michael Moorcock has explained how he employed such symbolism in his own novels, concluding that, “When we read a good fantasy we are being admitted into the subterranean worlds of our own souls”.

Whilst Jung showed the psychological appeal of fantasy, J.G Frazer demonstrated how fantasy has analogies to rituals in his study of magic and religions, The Golden Bough (1890, abridged in 1922). The study shows in detail how the patterns of myth and romance are echoes of rituals, particularly those of fertility overcoming the wasteland, or the death and resurrection of a messianic figure or scapegoat. Frazer makes extensive connections between different cultures, traditions and ages, concluding that similar patterns emerge in responses to the natural world. Fantasy begins with imagination, the primitive depths of the human mind, which has always been fascinated with superstition regarding the world and divine power. Ancient myths and religious belief systems have created pantheons of gods, demons, heroes and monsters to symbolise the origins of creation and explain the workings of the universe; to personify good and evil; and to help moralise and legitimise power. We can also clearly see how myth and religious, sacred writings have created a potent source of fantastic imagery whose influence is easily detectable in much literature and art.

Frazer explores the development from magic to religion, giving useful, if very general, definitions of each. He sees magic as the manipulation of “impersonal forces … by the appropriate ceremonies and spells”, whereas a religion is “a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them”. Then Frazer traces certain myths in order to provide evidence that certain archetypes and ceremonies have always existed and continue to do so. He identifies the messiah archetype as one celebrated in most cultures who need to explain “the fluctuations of growth and decay, of reproduction and dissolution, by … the death and rebirth or revival of their gods”. The symbol of the messiah goes back to early heathen magic, originating in myths that attempt to express the human desire to understand the annual cycle in nature, from the fertility of spring, to the sterility if winter as told in the myth of Persephone and the Arthurian legends. Frazer compares the Egyptian worship of Osiris and the ritual of Attis to the Christian belief in Christ’s resurrection, and claims to have discovered a striking resemblance that would account for the practice of replacing pagan festivals with Christian ones, such as our Christmas Nativity of the Son allaying the winter solstice Nativity of the Sun.

This thesis was expounded further by Frazer’s disciple Jessie Weston in From Ritual to Romance (1920), who showed the link between ceremony and romantic literature more explicitly. She was particularly fascinated by the Grail legends and their similarities to fertility rituals and after convoluted argument concluded that literary romance had its origins in primitive, mysterious cult ceremonies. The romantic pattern she identified is the familiar one of questing knight seeking a redemption that will renew the sterile land and his dying fisher king.

Like Jung, Frazer has identified not only archetypes that work on the level of universal imagination or collective conscious, but also demonstrates the importance to all cultures and individuals the essential place of spirituality and the desire to comprehend the supernatural. In The Golden Bough, Frazer reminds us of the importance of mythology and rituals, warning us not to dismiss them as primitive: “To stigmatise these premises as ridiculous because we can easily detect their falseness, would be ungrateful as well as unphilosophical”. The same warning would be pertinent to anyone who rejects fantasy.

A much more mystical justification for the appeal of romance and mythology is given by the poet Robert Graves in The White Goddess (1948). His theory is that the language of poetic myth is linked to ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess. His book examines romantic poetry and connects Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse mythologies. For him the function of poetry is like that of fantasy – to inspire awe: “the experience of mixed exaltation and horror”, which is excited by the presence of the Muse or goddess. Much of the book is taken up with lengthy study of arcane alphabets, cryptology and numerology, particularly the druidic tree alphabet so full of riddles and hidden symbols. Graves even considers the “Holy, unspeakable name of God” and the meaning behind the number of the beast. His conclusions remain mystical and ambiguous, like the subject he is studying.

Unfortunately, our culture is losing its soul and sense of mysticism, and seems to be suspicious of anything linked with the supernatural or ‘primordial visions’. However, some of the best of world literature can be described as ‘visionary literature’ including great works by such authors as Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, Herman Hesse, William Golding, Michael Moorcock, Robert Holdstock and Ben Okri. Their fantasies are visions that inspire a sense of awe and spirituality on many different levels: Hesse is obsessed with personal mysticism, whilst Moorcock paints on vast canvasses depicting gods and worlds engaged in eschatological battles. Fantasy today plays the same part that myths used to and they contain important truths and statements that we would do well to consider and allow ourselves to be challenged by.

My plea for fantasy to be taken seriously, or even stronger, that fantasy provides us with a more potent art-form than realism, echoes Nietzsche’s call for the reawakening of Dionysus – exciting and dangerous, but also life-affirming, challenging and full of spiritual energy. In the end, literature is not the same as reality, only a response to it, but it should also be a response to the complex reality of the human soul: and this tantalising ‘glimpse of the numinous’ is what fantasy can provide for us in our secular society.

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Comments
  1. Douglas T says:

    Quite an essay, Jeff. I share your philosophy. Welcome aboard. I’m looking forward to your collection. Ever read Bruno Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment”?

  2. jeffgardiner says:

    Thanks for your kind comments. I have read ‘…Enchantment’ but a while ago – an exploration of fairy tales and myths, isn’t it? Doesn’t the author use folk tales to understand children’s feelings and their understanding of the big bad world? I think I have a copy somewhere – probably in the attic … must dig it out

    • Douglas T says:

      Yeah. Shows using showing modern psychoanalysis how very practical and useful fairy tales were for carrying essential messages, sex education among them. Folk tales are often very violent of course, showing that horror is a naff word for something very ancient. You also reminded me of Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Ernest Becker’s The Denial Of Death, two life-changing books. Their point is that materialism and separating oursleves from the natural world around us in our minds, is a modern project and a deeply unsatisfying and unsustainable one. Fantasy does indeed help us to reconceive of ourselves in a secular age, a great point you make Perhaps Science Fiction helps us then place that within the realm of the near-future possible. We can only change our world for the better by coming up with an alternative first.

      • jeffgardiner says:

        I must admit to not being familiar with ‘The Denial of Death’ and will look out for it. Thanks. I certainly agree that our modern, materialistic society appears quite shallow in its inability to get to grips with that ‘ancient’ sense of awe. Some of the best fictional expressions I have read are by Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

  3. jeffgardiner says:

    I have recently reread ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ – inspired by your comments – and had forgotten how powerful it is, both as a philosophical exploration of individual and universal Quality and as a chilling indictment of shock therapy. I was particularly struck by the following passage:

    “Man is not the source of all things, as the subjective idealists would say. Nor is he the passive observer of all things, as the objective idealists and materialists would say. The Quality which creates the world emerges as a relationship between man and his experience. He is a participant in the creation of all things.”

    His concept of Quality expresses a form of monism to which I can certainly relate. For him ‘Quality’ is the source and substance of everything. Interesting.

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