Test Case – the Numinosity of
Literary Objects

“The objects we so indispensably need are never themselves alone, they combine the mystery of their reality and our fantasy.”
–Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children

3 objects, numinous to varying degrees, occur in these lines from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons:

“a lightning cooky, a single wide open and exchanged box filled with the same little sac that shines.”

Let’s consider each in turn, both from the point of view of their reality and our fantasy.

1. A lightning cooky – (73/100 Nmns)
Like the topic and vehicle of a good metaphor, the distance between ‘lightning’ (associated with speed, excitement, peril, paternal wrath, etc.) and ‘cooky’ (associated with leisure, calm, security, maternal love, etc.) accounts for the charge generated when the two nouns touch. If they weren’t from such dissimilar domains, trailing trains of such unlike associations, their conjunction would produce a feebler spark and the compound object would be merely odd instead of numinous.
Is it purely subjective, a matter of taste, that a lightning cooky convinces as to its authentic numinosity while another construct, let’s say a ‘strawberry alarm-clock,’ 1 although exactly similar in formal terms, does not? Or are there laws to be discovered which might account for the former having garnered a reading of 73 numens on the numinometer, while the latter barely makes the needle twitch?

2. A single wide open and exchanged box – (45/100 Nmns)
It’s not only its contents, (see 3., below), that account for the box’s charge. It exerts considerable fascination in and of itself. How does Stein achieve this? Describing it as ‘single’ isolates the box, renders it unique, other. According to Samuel Beckett, this is a prerequisite for numinosity:

“…when the object is perceived as particular and unique and not merely the member of a family, when it appears independent of any general notion and detached from the sanity of a cause, isolated and inexplicable in the light of ignorance, then and then only may it be a source of enchantment.”

One could argue that this uniqueness is subtly compromised by the characterisation ‘exchanged’ if the latter term is taken in the sense of ‘traded for something of equal value’. This hint of oxymoronic contradiction increases the object’s elusive mystique. Most readers will probably agree, however, that the more likely meaning of the term in this context is ‘exchanged’ as presents are — i.e. the box is a gift. Few of us, even in old age, completely outgrow susceptibility to the allure which gift boxes exert. Out of the vast inane the voice of Julie Andrews wafts, singing “Brown paper packages tied up with string,” a clincher in her litany of Favourite Things.

‘Wide open’ endows the box with a whiff of anthropomorphic abandon, a willing defencelessness or surrender, almost as if it were a female in estrus. And its openness has not been in vain, for it is ‘filled’ with…

3. The same little sac that shines – (98/100 Nmns)
The box was ‘single’, which set it apart. By contrast, the sac which fills it is the ‘same’, but the same as what? Or it’s familiar, evoking a bewildering sense of déja vu. It has a history in which we are or the narrator is somehow implicit. But we can’t remember what that history was. It’s ‘little,’ a word that restores to us the gaze of a child. And, last but not least, it ‘shines’. This may mean merely that it’s made of some reflective or iridescent material, but, given the general tenor of strangeness, I think we can assume that the little sac is inherently luminous. As E. Newton Harvey, in his seminal History of Luminescence observes, “The appearance of light without fire or without heat is immediately imbued with a supernatural significance.” The little sac packs a potent wallop.


1 One of many such band names from the 1960s. Chocolate Watchband was another. Many examples of the construct can be found in the lyrics of that period by Bob Dylan – e.g. rat race choir, magazine husband, mercury mouth. His inspiration was almost certainly the Beats who had “…a childlike appreciation for word-yokings such as ‘peanut-butter cockroaches’ and ‘fried shoes.’ (Try it yourself: shadow juice… sordid egg… lethal marmalade. Kind of fun.)” On the Road Again, Vogue, Oct. ’95. Allen Ginsberg’s ‘hydrogen jukebox’ and Gregory Corso’s ‘firing-squad milk’ ‘owl cheese’ and ‘pipe butter’ come to mind.