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Experiencing the Numinous

BOOKS | A chilling, comforting, and divine encounter


Jon Fosse Helge Skodvin / Getty Images

Experiencing the Numinous
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A SHINING (Transit Books 2023) is the latest work from Norwegian writer Jon Fosse, who won the 2023 Nobel Prize for literature for his gargantuan masterpiece Septology. Of that ambitious title, Merve Emre of The New Yorker said, “[It] is the only novel I have read that has made me believe in the reality of the divine.” A Shining, though less than a tenth the length of his magnum opus, carries the same kind of power.

The novella is narrated by a man who, out of boredom, goes on a drive to nowhere. He soon gets stuck on the side of the road as it starts to snow and walks aimlessly through the woods as it grows darker. The book’s title gives us reason to think he will encounter something luminary, which he soon does. A shining “presence” emanates in the dark forest and stops him in his tracks. But the shining outline doesn’t descend from above—it “separates” from the darkness, almost like it was part of it. The narrator’s wonder, awe, and perplexity over this mysterious figure take up a good 10 pages, and the reader feels like he’s right there in the woods too, sharing in the narrator’s sense of holy dread.

A Shining

A Shining Jon Fosse

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis talks about this disturbing, awe-inducing sense that a divine “presence” exists behind the visible world. He calls it the “Numinous,” which throughout centuries human beings have recorded, pondered, and been ever haunted by.

Lewis writes: “Now suppose that you were told simply ‘There is a mighty spirit in the room,’ and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger, but the dis­turbance would be profound. … This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.”

Fosse’s novella throws us headlong into the numinous territory, making us wonder, along with the narrator, whether the shining presence is real or just a figment of his imagination. That leads to the broader question of whether the general experience of the numinous might be mistaken for misfiring brain synapses. His visceral encounter with the shining presence, however, encourages us to assume it’s real. Fosse’s own belief in the divine supports the urge to take the presence at face value, too. But who, or what, is this strange being?

Eventually, the presence vanishes, and the narrator is left alone in the dark under a yellow moon and spread of stars. Suddenly the whole world is packed with beauty. And despite the darkness and silence, he still senses his invisible companion.

“Who are you,” he asks. Chillingly, comfortingly, numinously, the presence replies, “I am who I am.”

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