The Numinous Amaryllis

by Erin Lyndal Martin

It started with an amaryllis in the dark. My landlord had given me an amaryllis in a little pot, and I’d tossed it in my pantry, unaware that it could grow there. Until I collided with it in a dark hallway. I turned on the light and looked at it. It was pink and would have been pretty in another context. That this flower grew in darkness and lay in wait for me in my own apartment was a feeling of vertigo and goose bumps and extreme nausea at once.

I have learned the closest word for this feeling is “numinous” and began to notice all the things that brought it on. I still remember that green-black feeling I had about the amaryllis, how I had to cover it up in grocery bags and take it outside wearing gloves. But other things too: the staircase at my mother’s house. The night I panicked in my boyfriend’s dark entryway because I was sure he was now at the back of the house and had left me. I screamed for him and was shocked when he put his arm on me. He’d been next to me the whole time.

Edvard Munch was no stranger to the numinous. In 2012, NYC composer collective PULSE : Part Two used Munch’s Scream to inspire a production titled “Summer Collection.”  Choreographer Takehiro Ueyama and composer Melissa Dunphy dramatized a piece on the deception of vision, the space in art between beauty and terror. When I saw Young Woman on the Beach, an instant realization panged me. There was no depth in the work. The woman and the sea and the grass all occupied a single place in the shallow depth of field. At one time I might have felt disoriented, but in this moment, I knew.

Young Woman on the Beach by Edvard Munch. Burnished aquatint and drypoint in purple, blue, grey and yellow, inked à la poupée, on cream laid Arches paper, 1896.  Photo courtesy of the author.

Like Munch, I’d been born with an eye turn in my left eye. What I didn’t know was that my newfound sense of the numinous has its own word: keratoconus. Several eye doctors had missed it in exams, and it didn’t help that the symptoms are impossible to describe. My doctor laughed when I said that, saying that the inability to describe the symptoms is part of the diagnostic for keratoconus. I’d never heard of the condition until my new doctor told me my corneas were thinning. It’s an irregular astigmatism, she said, and suddenly the numinous was explained away. I’d grown self-conscious about the vision quirks I’d experienced with my eye turn: for instance, I could never cut or draw straight lines. I’ve avoided art where I’d had to, or call a friend to help. The friends would say “Do you want me to teach you how to cut a straight line?” and sweat would form on my brows.

Munch’s painting is also known as “Loneliness.” The other paintings in the series had this same woman there with a young man in various positions. Presumably, she’s lamenting his absence as she stands by the water. But I think the loneliness is more complex than that. It’s also having a vision that works differently and being fundamentally unable to explain how you see the world. One night, I received bad news and walked to my neighbor’s frog pond, the peepers getting louder and louder as I got closer. They put me in a trance. This was at twilight: even now my custom-fitted scleral lenses didn’t know what to do with the shifting light. Again, everything felt glued on top of each other, backlit by a foreboding gray.

Munch had a number of vision problems over the years. I don’t know if he was diagnosed with keratoconus, or even if they tested for that back then. When I see this painting, I wonder if he knew how literally flat it was. Surely his eye disease had posed problems in his life. Was it an artistic choice to leave this uncorrected, or could he really not abandon the deception of his vision? I feel closer to Munch, as if all our conversations would be easy now that we could bond over how much we hated stairs.

Or perhaps Munch could have helped me love my own distortions. Perhaps he would have stood with me at a Christmas tree, vision uncorrected, and fallen in love with the streaks of light, forgetting they were supposed to have boundaries. Artists, it seems, have had ways of making peace with changes in their literal vision. As Monet’s vision worsened, he labeled his paints and kept them in a certain order. In “Monet Refuses His Operation” by Liesl Muller, Monet says to his doctor,

I tell you it has taken me all my life

to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,

to soften and blur and finally banish

the edges you regret I don’t see …

“The horizon does not exist,” Muller writes, and I wonder not just about the sea and sky, but the horizon between woman and water. Lonely girl and frog pond. Seeing and painting. Monet refused cataract surgery to save his own sight: his friends Mary Cassatt and Honoré Daumier both had botched operations. For Monet, the occlusion was worth the risk: “I prefer to make the most of my poor sight, and even give up painting if necessary, but at least be able to see a little of these things that I love.”[i]

I do not love amaryllises. I will never love them, just as I did not love the first. But I do love the tacit care of my friends taking my arm in the dark. And once in a while, I lose myself in the way street lights drip color from white haloes. It’s been two years since my diagnosis, and the keratoconus hasn’t progressed. If it gets worse, I’d get a procedure known as cross-linking to stop the progress. As of now, there is no way to undo it, to sculpt my corneas into whatever shape they abandoned for the numinous.



[i] Wildenstein D.  Monet or the triumph of Impressionism. Köln: Taschen GmbH; 2010.



Erin Lyndal Martin is a creative writer, visual artist, and music journalist. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Rumpus, Diagram, and Seneca Review. Her web presence is at

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: