Isn’t it incredible how sometimes beautiful-sounding words happen to mean something even more wondrous? Think of ‘sublunary’, ‘sublime’ and ‘crepuscular’. The one that’s caught my attention most recently is the word ‘numinous’. But when I looked it up, for utmost clarity, on the Oxford dictionary, I found something disappointingly antagonising. The definition, according to Oxford, goes like this:
Having a strong religious or spiritual quality; indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.
Why should religion have the better half of a duopoly on the word? Being a happy, contented, pleasure-loving unbeliever I feel a turgid sort of rage at the implication that only the religious can feel numinosity. I’ve done my time in religion, having been raised Catholic, I know the numinous splendour of gold-laced churches and heaven-hounding hymns – but being free of belief is like going on a safari of the numinous!
You don’t need religion, or be religious, to feel spiritual beauty. We unbelievers – atheists, agnostics, apostates, call us what you will – can appreciate a wider spectrum of the sublime than a one-trick-pony religious person can. And thus came the inspiration for this small dictionary of all the things in the world (and beyond) that I find numinous, spiritual and yes, transcendent.
Along with music architecture is the most powerful art-form mankind has ever conceived. Whilst I find a lot of churches impressively immersive I don’t need to subscribe to the superstitious myths behind them to appreciate their wonder. Architecture is mankind being house-proud of his civilization.
From one art form to the next – these are the things that make you proud to be human. Again, the religious here have quite a say, but only because of the not-so-numinous fact that religion has for centuries maintained a political, militant monopoly on art. But most of the art I find numinous comes from the post-superstitious age.
The long-lived, long-celebrated natural history broadcaster has spent a lifetime bringing us close and personal to the wonders of the natural world, and seeing a documentary of Attenborough’s – such as his latest masterpiece, BBC’s Planet Earth II – is as humbling an experience as the Sistine Chapel could ever hope to be.
The writings of American, Chicago-born novelist Saul Bellow are an orgiastic experience for anyone lucky enough to have read them. Whilst it makes me feel envious of his supernatural gifts, I can only bow in awed admiration.
“I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And then? I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed. And what next? I get laid, I take a short holiday, but very soon after I fall upon those same thorns with gratification in pain, or suffering in joy – who knows what the mixture is! What good, what lasting good is there in me? Is there nothing else between birth and death but what I can get out of this perversity – only a favorable balance of disorderly emotions? No freedom? Only impulses? And what about all the good I have in my heart – does it mean anything? Is it simply a joke? A false hope that makes a man feel the illusion of worth? And so he goes on with his struggles. But this good is no phony. I know it isn’t. I swear it.” Herzog
Can something so grotesque be numinous? For the sake of irony, it can be. A rich sport/art/perversion that unites music, sombriety, art, skill and a man’s willingness to face horned death.
“All supposed exterior signs of danger that a bull gives, such as pawing the ground, threatening with his horns, or bellowing are forms of bluffing. They are warnings given in order that combat may be avoided if possible. The truly brave bull gives no warning before he charges except the fixing of his eye on the enemy, the raising of the crest of muscle in his neck, the twitching of an ear, and, as he charges, the lifting of his tail.” Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway
For me some of the most mysterious, elegant, touching natural wonders anywhere on planet earth. These sunken caves scattered all over Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula are more rich in history and discreet beauty than a million Jerusalems!
The dawn of man’s first intellectual revolution are plain to see in the earth’s very belly. To gaze on these haunting, ghostly works of art in the dark cave walls in places like Altamira and Lascaux is to commute with the very birth of art, wedded as it is with sunken nature.
The man who made the modern world possible, the ur-philosopher of our time, the man who gave the Enlightenment it’s scientific rubber stamp – and the man who legitimised unbelief. He stole away the fire of creation from the Promethean clutches of religion and gave it back to its rightful owner: self-sufficient nature.
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” The Origin of Species
Something we daily under-value. The mother that made possible all our freedoms, our culture, our health, our relative peace. Born in Ancient Greece, refined by France and the United States, for all its obvious flaws, we owe it too much to discard!
The tamed wolf – an ode to man’s gift for artificial selection. Now a household companion the likes of which we can’t ever hope to find outside our species. And to have that level of intimacy with an extra-species being is numinous in itself.
Like Democracy, the Age of Enlightenment is, more than any holy book or ancient screed, the fount of our civilization. The philosophies of Locke, Spinoza, Hobbes, Voltaire, Jefferson and so many others, though conceived a few centuries ago, still feel as modern as anything written today. They are truly timeless, and if we should teach the values of the Enlightenment in our schools rather than the holy books, we’d all be far better off.
“To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.” John Locke
Epicureanism is often mistaken to be a love of excessive food and drink. It isn’t that at all, though I don’t mind the misunderstanding, personally. Epicureanism is the philosophical notion of putting pleasure first and foremost in your life. Pleasure is the ultimate good and pain the ultimate ill. It is the origin of what would later be known Utilitarianism.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”
A base desire common to all life on earth made into art and euphoria by the human spirit. The thing that unites us all, inspires us and defines our cultures better than borders ever could.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Virginia Woolf
Like bullfighting before, perhaps a bit superficial. But even the superficial has its role in combatting the darkness, the chaos out there, and all around us. Be there in Anfield, say, when the teams walk out, and hear 40, 000 odd people singing You’ll Never Walk Alone, and tell me that isn’t sublimely spine-tingling.
“All that I know most surely about morality and obligations I owe to football.” Albert Camus
It is incredible to think that the earth is a cemetery of animals and plants that have died hundreds of millions of years ago. To hold a 500-million-year-old trilobite or ammonite in your hand is to, sans cliché, travel back through time and admire the hard-boiled age of the earth!
Not, perhaps, my favourite city – but certainly the most numinous. An open-air museum, it was as if the gods of art, wine and sculpture were all binging on the cobbled streets. Streets full of Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Dante and of course tripe and bistecca!
Fado and Flamenco:
The indigenous music of Spain and Portugal, to be found in some of the darkest, oddly joyful bars anywhere in the world. Music full of longing, passion – a bullfight fought with guitar – you’re ever likely to find.
No other writer is filled with such joie de vivre, such grab-the-bull-by-the-horn bravado, that makes you want to do things you never thought of doing, seeing places you’ve never seen, and whilst you’re there, don’t be a tourist, never a tourist, live hard, beautifully and honourably.
“You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person died for no reason.” A Moveable Feast
You thought fossils were old? Look through the Hubble telescope, or see the images it has captured and… I’ll say no more. How can I?
I am, you are, we all are addicted to comedy. Comedy that is subversive, destructive, creative, addictive and life-affirming. Comedy is the greatest gift bestowed upon a truly free society. It is the be all and end all of democracy. And it is fucking brilliant!
The art that brings us closer to our inner selves, by the mere stringing together of words the wildest, most beautiful, disturbing, enlightening images are conjured up in our minds. We are a storytelling animal just as we are a social animal. How wonderful to think that a species of ape needs imagination as much as it needs food and sex. It really is up there.
“Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
I’ll leave this in the most capable hands possible, the Bard’s:
“Love is like a child, That longs for everything it can come by.”
The legendary (or so it should be) photograph of dawn on another planet, our neighbour, our mysterious cohabitant in the solar system, the red planet. Don’t rush through this photograph. Stop and try to think about the infinite wonders it opens up in the mind! Plus, doesn’t Martian Sunrise sound like a brilliant name for a cocktail?
Our home. Our neighbourhood. A slice of heaven, but real, fantastically real. It has inspired so many myths and fables, but the truth is more than enough, and its aesthetic magnetism needs no caption.
From classical music like Bach and Beethoven, to more modernist classics ranging from Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, to the contemporary symphonies of Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer – there is no art form that besieges the human senses more aggressively. Nor, I’m sure, can there ever be.
From molecular biology, to the peaks of Everest and the depths of the Mariana Trench – the natural world is a constant, potent source of the numinous. Think of towering volcanoes erupting the earth’s guts, think of hundreds of miles of misty rainforests and imagine waterfalls as tall as skyscrapers – still think the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah and Eden are numinous?
The most dazzling display of nature’s power and beauty anywhere on earth. A reminder, however, of the fragility of earth, how the sun’s lethal waves are constantly besieging out earth’s magnetosphere. It is all the more numinous when you consider that on other planets, like the great gas giant Jupiter, there are similar light-shows taking place!
The music of the soul. The apex of human language. Some of the greatest thoughts and the most exquisite beauty have been expressed and depicted in poetry. It is the climax of the evolved mind which somehow manages to touch our most primordial sensations.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Holy Sonnet 10: Death Be Not Proud, John Donne
The David Attenborough of the cosmos. The broadcaster, author and scientist who made the billions and billions of cosmic measure feel down to earth, sensual and irresistible. To hear Carl Sagan speak, or to read his words on the functioning of the universe, it’s to hear the universe’s greatest poet. Watching Cosmos or reading his books is a fantastically enrichening, humbling experience.
We always tell children, “when a man and a woman love each other…” and there is a great element of truth in the saying. Though indulging in the most primordial of pleasures (remember all of life has the need to reproduce, only we have turned it into an addiction) is numinous whatever the situation – a dose of love makes the tincture that much more grandiose.
“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” Richard Feynman
Every single human being on every corner of our earth has found his or her own way of dealing with the problem of existence and survival. To see that in action, in its own endemic habitat, is not only a pleasure, but a responsibility for us all. I have always favoured a socialistic model for travel: travel should be a free right the state provides for its people the way it provides free health care and education (there is no better education than travel).
When you look out at the night sky you are looking into a 14-billion-year old infinity, full of black holes, pulsars, red dwarf stars, intertwined galaxies, dark matter, star clusters, star nurseries: it is impossible to ponder with our hominid brains, but the fact that we know so much is a miraculous feat in and of itself.
Reading this human incarnation of wit is an intoxicating experience, every single time. The unwilling martyr to gay rights before it even existed and the green-tongued critic of bourgeois superficiality, he has bequeathed humanity some of the most beautiful sentences, plays and poems ever conceived. We should all jointly declare his genius.
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!”
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
When else can human beings feel three-dimensional (except maybe when sky-diving)? To dive, flow, and sleep with the sound of the crackling oceans in your ear – it beats Yoga or any proto-Eastern pseudo-mumbo jumbo any day! I feel privileged to be an aquatic ape living on a tiny, beach-rich island like Malta.