Today I read Lionel Corbett’s chapter on the numinous in his book Psyche and the Sacred. Corbett uses Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous, and since I will utilize Otto’s discussion of the numinous exerperience in my dissertation, I thought I’d read Corbett, as he is faculty at Pacifica, and writes about an experience of the sacred beyond traditional religion.
Otto argues that the word holy has lost its meaning, and that a new understanding of our experience of the sacred is necessary in order to salvage soul for humanity in the modern world. While his point is well taken, it got me thinking about environments that are consciously contructed for the purpose of creating a numinous experience (a subject that has been front and center in my mind for quite a while now anyway).
The thinkers who have written about numinosity have often related it to a breakthrough…something that happens as a result of either pious reflection, or a liminal experience such as illness and/or trauma. Can an experience be called truly “numionous” if it is the result of social and cultural manipulation as Disneyland is? I believe that it can. Not only do I believe that Disneyland is an environment that encourages the breakthrough of numinosity, I also suspect that most human created sites devoted to mythic/imaginal/sacred connection with the divine are in some ways manipulated and controlled.If numinosity is God/the unconscious/whatever you choose to call it breaking through mundane moments in favor of an experience of the mysterium tremendum, as Otto calls it, it seems to me that the environment matters only insofar as it creates an atmosphere, which leaves cracks in the psychic plaster big enough for divinity to break through.
In other words, Disneyland may be an environment controlled ad nauseum, but there is one thing that neither the imagineers nor the CMs can control–the patron’s experience. That’s where numinosity is at Disneyland.
I’ve seen it in my nieces’ faces as they watch a parade. And, they aren’t the only ones. A Disney parade is the perfect example of the unique kind of numinosity that is created through the experience patrons have when they visit Disneyland. It is what Van Gennep and Turner called Communitas, a kind of liminal experience which, when experienced by an entire group, allows for freedom from societal constraints, and the kind of awe and wonder consistent with traditional religious experiences of the sacred. The lights are pretty, the balloons shine in the dark against the neon, the dancers make your breathe catch, and it’s all for you! You feel tiny, insignficant, yet you are the center of the universe at the same moment….well, you and everyone else watching the parade, that is. And, you share it…happily…And it works…It works through the emotion swimming in the eyes of both man and woman, adult and child who encounter it.