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Something I Can’t Explain | The Numinous & The Bizarre

It was a rainy day in the midst of Spring. The sky was of a uniformly dull colour, somewhere between light blue and grey. The sidewalk glistened dimly as faint ripples sprung up across its surface, as if to remind me that the drizzle, though diminished to near invisibility as the weather had worn on, had not yet died away. It was surprisingly bright for how little one could make out the Sun through the thin blanket of clouds that so totally obscured the heavens, and one could have almost mistaken it for morning, despite the fact that it was nearing midday. The trees swayed gently as the cool breeze washed over them, the vivid green of their leaves contrasting with the dull greys and browns of the weathered brick buildings that lined every block. An unearthly whistling sound echoed through the streets and all around me in a dull euphony, and I can only assume it was the result of a distant train sliding along its metal track, the harsh tone ever softening as it reverberated through the open air. I was in the most haunted town in the state, so they say, yet it was not ghosts that I felt the presence of. Something was almost whispering, as soft and imperceptible as the wind and the rain, but it was there, and it was not a spirit of the dead.

It was All Hallows' Eve, and it was deep in the witching hours. The night was dark, of that there can be little doubt, but the sky…The sky was tinted in a manner so peculiar, I have never seen it before or since. The horizons showed only black, and the stars were far from bold, but the sky…I fear I can never truly describe it. Above me was a deep violet-blue, that looked somehow…orange? It was as if mutually exclusive hues were laid atop one another and blended together so neatly that they formed a composite, some unique colouration found nowhere else in all creation. I know it to be impossible, I believe it to be impossible, but there it was. I couldn’t reconcile it with the known laws of vision and colorimetry, but that’s exactly how it looked. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, or perhaps it was the contrast between the shades in the center of my vision and my periphery, I don’t know. But that’s how it appeared to me.

I couldn’t explain it. I still can’t explain it. I want to write it off as sleep deprivation, that my brain was just processing things incorrectly, but this was far from the first time I’d been sleep deprived, or the last, and I’d never seen anything like it. As my gaze lowered from the strange colour, it fell upon the road. This road was familiar to me, for I knew it well, but something was different. It called to me, it beckoned for me. I could feel the horizon reaching out, begging to envelop me. So I went. I don’t recall thinking about it. I don’t recall ever making a decision. I simply went. Step by step, I went further into the darkness, seemingly not of my own accord. I don’t know what was waiting there for me, out in the inky blackness of the impenetrable night, but I know what it wasn’t. It wasn’t nothing, it wasn’t all in my head, and, of this I am most sure of all, it wasn’t good. Not as far as I can reckon.

There have been many times in my life when I have encountered something that cannot be explained. Not merely something that cannot be proven, or understood, or believed, but what something that cannot be explained, cannot be expressed. Not properly, anyway. Not in clear terms. If you look back over your life, perhaps you’ve had them too. At the core of art and at the center of human experience lies something beyond us, beyond the very world itself. Something so beautiful and terrible, and unearthly that it moves you in a way quite unlike anything else. Something weird and strange and incomprehensible that it defies your very understanding of the world. We put it in our art, we see it in our dreams, and, on occasion, we feel it in the waking world. What is it? Why is it? No one knows. Everyone has a theory, everyone has a conviction, but no one has knowledge. It is beyond us. You could go mad pondering the nature of it all. So let’s do exactly that. Today, we are going to delve into the very depths of madness. We’re talking about the numinous and the bizarre.

The Numinous

We must begin by examining mankind’s predilection towards higher powers. Indeed, mankind has long been convinced that some force, entity, or design exists which far exceeds us. No society yet discovered, present or past, was free of such concepts. Typically, these notions form an explicitly religious framework, in which some manner of spiritual beings are posited to be responsible for the creation and ordering of the physical world. Theological postulations are not the entirety of the supernatural, however, and a multitude of folk beliefs and intuitions are often integrated into the general worldview. Even in the modern era, a time in which religion is often relegated to nothing more than intellectual questions and ethical duties, and some eschew the thing altogether, belief in the supernatural has in no way diminished. Peculiarly, despite mainstream science staunchly opposing the veracity of paranormal experiences, the belief in ghosts is often approached from a scientific angle. (Although the methodology is usually lacking, often to the point of pseudoscience, I will say.)

To summarize, people have a natural inclination to perceive some sort of higher power, even under the framework of naturalism. This manifests itself most obviously as ghosts, but more pervasively, and subtly, as the belief in purpose or meaningful destiny. That is, people are apt to believe things happen for a reason, even when they can’t articulate why. And it’s not that I’m claiming this idea to be false; rather, that people often believe in this idea despite having no conscious reason to. Some individuals may give a halfway reasonable justification of this idea, and others may give justifications more convincing still, but I remain firmly convinced that the origin of these beliefs is innate to man and ultimately irrational.

Having said that, I do believe our rational faculties do more to confirm these innate suspicions than to deny them, as synchronicity refuses to utterly disappear from the equation, even when adjusting for human bias. Sure, many events are certainly exaggerated in the human mind, and correlations are drawn post-hoc from the comfort of hindsight, but there are some coincidences which remain unlikely in a random universe. I’m not going to insist that happenstance itself is sufficient reason to conclude that our lives are the product of design, but I do believe it more than warrants keeping an open mind.

This brings us to the concept of the numinous. Although the term was coined by Randolf Otto, I’m more concerned with the works of Carl Jung and C S Lewis. The simplest way to describe it might be divine awe. When one describes having a religious experience or a paranormal encounter, this is most always the feeling evoked. If you’ve ever wondered why people dose themselves with entheogens or run around a dark house looking for ghosts, it’s often to experience this very feeling. There’s nothing else quite like it. It reminds me of a song by Aviators.

That doesn’t mean every experience of the numinous is authentic, however. If it’s a sense like vision, then a false experience might be something akin to a numinous hallucination. Perhaps a state of altered consciousness may play tricks on this part of your mind, the same way it does your eyes. Drugs or stress might cause you to sense a supernatural presence that isn’t really there. And that’s not even getting into infrasound.

If it’s an emotion, like anger, then a false experience may be something like misguided numinous. Our attitudes are often unfounded, with us angry at those who don’t deserve it, or afraid of things that pose no danger. When we misunderstand a situation, our emotions may not line up with reality. Perhaps we might sometimes be in awe of things that are really just mundane.

I think we should pay more attention to how the numinous interacts with not only paranormal activity, but also the experience of art. Like beauty, the numinous is not reducible to physical components, and the two often go hand in hand. The Greeks believed that art did not originate with the artist, but that it was delivered by entities beyond this world. Maybe they were onto something.

The Weird VS The Eerie

On the topic of the bizarre, I find no better place to start than with the work of Mark Fisher, specifically The Weird and the Eerie. His career touches on a number of topics completely unrelated to this blog, but I do find his analysis of weird fiction and how its components are found in other works to be extremely interesting. I’ve added this book to this list of things I’m definitely totally going to read someday, I just haven’t got around to it, don’t rush me. I’m sure we all know what that’s like.

Anyway, he talks at length on the nature of the bizarre, or, as he puts it, the strange. (I find myself more inclined to use the term bizarre, but I suppose that can be attributed to my general preference towards francophonie.) He posits that the strange is not a subset of fear, but rather an exploration of something unfamiliar to us. It often overlaps with fear, but not necessarily. Something frightening can be totally mundane, while a comforting experience might be nigh incomprehensible.

So far as I can gather, Mark Fisher divided the strange into two varieties. The weird is marked by the presence of something inherently inexplicable, something that in-itself violates our perception of normality. (Like the impossible architecture of an Usher painting, for example.) The eerie, on the other hand, is marked by an inexplicable arrangement of elements that would otherwise be mundane, either with the presence of something that should not be there, or the absence of something that should. (Like seeing a children’s toy in a place where one would not expect children, or seeing a conspicuous lack of toys in a place that children ought to be.) Thus, the weird is driven by content, and the eerie by context.

Keep in mind that these are technical definitions, and do not necessarily describe the everyday use of the same terms. In casual conversation, weirdness refers to anything out of the ordinary, and eeriness refers to anytime things seem unsettling but it’s not exactly clear why. Some commentators make the mistake of assuming academic distinction into a lay context, even if the lay use of the term predates the technical definition. A prime example is toxin versus poison. In biology, a toxin is a subset of poisons; in medicine, a poison is a subset of toxins; in common usage, the two are interchangeable. So the next time someone tells you that spiders are venomous, not poisonous, remind him firmly on the finer points of register, and that which definition of a word is implied depends largely upon context.

With that out of the way, I find this to be a fitting lens through which to view not only fictional media, but our own experiences as well, for truth is often stranger than fiction. In fiction, a character often comes to accept a belief in the inexplicable only because he has seen an event which leaves no doubt as to its veracity. In real life, we are inclined to believe in the inexplicable regardless of whether we actually encounter it or not. And I find that fascinating.

In Conclusion

Have you ever experienced the numinous or the bizarre? Rather, I should ask when you have, and how often and how profoundly, because I have little doubt that everyone has become acquainted with these feelings in at least some way. It seems they are universal to the human experience. While I cannot explain them fully, and I rather suspect that to be much of the appeal, I can analyze their impact. These experiences can change people, and they can certainly capture one’s fancy.

Whether it’s the presence of a being that doesn’t physically exist, or something that doesn’t fit into our preconceived notions of reality, we ought always be open to the possibility that we might learn something. The next time the wind whistles in a way that uplifts your soul, or you see a new path that looks uncannily interesting, pay attention. You might just experience something wondrous.

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