It is altogether amazing how little most people reflect on numinous objects and attempt to come to terms with them, and how laborious such an undertaking is once we have embarked upon it. The numinosity of the object makes it difficult to handle intellectually, since our affectivity is always involved.
So wrote Carl Jung in his book Answer to Job, a reflection on the biblical story of Job, in which God appears to torment a blameless and moral man, to win an argument with Satan. Jung controversially and sacrilegiously thought the story showed that even God has a dark side, punishing an innocent to prove a point, and prompting him to send his only son to earth as sacrificial atonement. The figure of Job emerged as a theme of a work by the Unconscious Collective titled Crossing, which was commissioned for Dark Mofo in 2017. The piece was imagined as a pilgrimage from Launceston to Hobart, taking place over 5 days in a succession of Christian churches in communities along the Midlands Highway. It used lighting installations, performance and music to highlight the role of art and participation in constituting journeys and places as ‘holy’ (see https://www.unconsciouscollective.org/crossing)
It should be acknowledged that the route of the present-day Midlands Highway was the main road of colonisation in Tasmania, initially a foot track which partly followed paths well-travelled by First Nations people. Churches sprung up along the way to accompany military garrisons, both of which played a part in the attempted genocide of First Nations culture in Tasmania.
Jung borrows the term ‘numinous’ from the theologian Rudolf Otto who, in his book The idea of the holy, sought a word to describe the primary religious experience of transcendence or the sublime, but without the rational and moral associations of ‘holy’. Numen is a Latin term referring to a ‘spirit of place or thing’. Otto speaks of an experience of something which is non-rational and completely outside the self – the ‘wholly Other’. For Otto, numinous experience plays a central part in the origins of all religious movements while, for Jung, numinous experiences can be important for individual psychological development. Numinosity evokes the collective unconscious – the repository of inborn knowledge, instinct and images common to all humans – with which individuals must come to terms in order to discover a sense of meaning and purpose.
Numinous experience is not the same as ‘liminal’ experience – e.g. ‘half-conscious’ phenomena such as dreams, reverie, hallucinations – although these can be numinous. Numinosity, according to Otto, has a strongly affective aspect, and can be horrifying or sickening or ugly – the mysterium tremendum, as well as fascinating – mysterium fascins. The feeling is of being in the presence of something completely outside one’s own understanding or experience, alien, strange, otherworldly, infinite. It can be induced by powerful natural phenomena – tidal waves, storms, volcanos – or, less dramatically, the stars, animals, and pathological conditions such as during comas, hysterias, psychotic episodes or near-death experiences. Human-created phenomena, such as music, dance, drug-induced trance and hypnosis can also be numinous, as can inexplicable coincidences, deja vu, presque vu and supernatural phenomena which profoundly disturb our view of normality.
Crossing was not intended to provide a religious experience – numinosity emerges spontaneously, and is not something that can be consciously planned. In a sense, an intention to evoke the holy could have been, if not hubristic, at least disrespectful to our partners the Uniting Church. The risks of being associated with the inverted crosses, preponderance of satanic imagery, and perceived anti-Christian branding of Dark Mofo, had been discussed with church staff, but they were incredibly supportive. Even the unexpected announcement of Hermann Nitsch’s public slaughtering of a bull for 150.Action on the same dates as Crossing, with its overtones of ritual blood sacrifice, amazingly did not shake the Uniting Church (although another church group did withdraw two of their churches). At the time this seemed surprising but, on reflection, I believe this tolerance exemplified the strength of their religious faith, and belief that God cannot be usurped by a contrived ritual – numinosity cannot be faked. Those who try to play God, like Satan, will be cast out.
This brings us back to the relationship between art and numinosity. In a society which has lost its religion, can or should art fill the void? Crossing sought to highlight the loss, shining a light as it were on holy places, and experiences of the holy, that are being left behind. Certain architectural and design elements (high ceilings, cruciform layout, high coloured glass windows, religious artefacts and pictures) seem to evoke a numinous atmosphere so that even an atheist can walk into a church and feel a certain presence of the holy. As Jung noted, the equilateral cross itself is a powerful ancient symbol, representing a meeting point, a quaternary image which holds the tension between opposite paths. In Answer to Job he postulates God’s evil side as an unacknowledged fourth element which completes the Christian trinity.
As well as the use of light, Crossing explored some of the familiar ingredients used in religious practices, through food, scent, colour, sonic textures and music organised around the six elements of air, earth, fire, water, wood and space, with a common factor being the use of the pipe organ in each church, accompanying a theremin.
If such images, elements and spaces derive their numinous quality due to resonance with archetypes of the collective unconscious, as Jung suggests, can a similar effect be produced through other forms of artistic practice? While Jung was more interested in creative expression than art as a practice or set of objects, in his paper ‘On the relation of analytical psychology to poetic art’, he offers a hint about the role of art and numinosity:
The creative process, so far as we are able to follow it at all, consists in the unconscious activation of an archetypal image, and in elaborating and shaping this image into the finished work. By giving it shape, the artist translates it into the language of the present, and so makes it possible for us to find our way back to the deepest springs of life. Therein lies the social significance of art: it is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age, conjuring up the forms in which the age is most lacking
The popularity of festivals like Dark Mofo which offer audiences a form of communal ecstatic quasi-religious experience, seem to exactly ‘conjure the forms in which the age is most lacking’. The high demand for such experiences suggests a kind of gap in the market, for meaningful connection and ways of going beyond the self. The interest in practices such as meditation, mindfulness, dream interpretation and the supernatural, especially in the wake of Covid-19 – also suggest a longing to find meaning and connection.
Yet, there is a risk that without understanding the effects, such practices and artworks end up merely playing with, or perhaps even exploiting, the archetypal images and myths which give numinosity its power, offering a false sense of connection to the transcendent. At best, the experience might remain ultimately empty, leaving the lack unfulfilled, leading to a never-ending quest for meaning; at worst it potentially contributes to the one-sided consciousness of cults, and extremism of various kinds, which idealise false prophets and demonise, rather than seek to meet or explore, what is other.
This is something contemporary art in all its forms can offer – not a substitute for numinosity, we don’t need more religious icons or artefacts – but as a space which invites reflection on our continued need for the transcendent, and ways to hold the tension between self and other, good and evil, conscious and unconscious, and to connect with something beyond. This is not to say that some artworks can’t be experienced as numinous, but that art also has a part to play a part in understanding what numinosity means in the present moment, encouraging us to be attuned to what experiences allow us to find our own personal connection to our shared heritage and culture.
Jung, C.G. (1923) ‘On the relation of analytical psychology to poetic art’ in Psychology and psychotherapy: Theory, research and practice. Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 213-231
Jung, C.G. (1953) ‘Answer to Job’ in Psychology and Religion, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung volume 11. Princeton University Press, 1973
Otto, R. (1924) The idea of the holy: An inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational. Oxford University Press, 1924
David Patman is a former psychodynamic consultant to groups and organisations, and co-founder of Tasmanian experimental arts collaboration the Unconscious Collective with Michelle Boyde and Matt Warren.
Click here to read more about Numinosity.