Unknowable

While reading up on some recent theories on evolution and reading for the first time (other than in excerpts) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex by Charles Darwin, I have returned to mulling over the problem of consciousness. What fascinates me is how this topic (consciousness) overlaps with philosophy, physiology, evolution–how and why we developed the brains we have with their attendant egos, theory of self, what-have-you–and with human constructs such as art and religion and morality, which I value for complicated reasons.

And out of curiosity, I took up Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, which seemed to me a departure from her books until I realized that I was unfamiliar with her earlier work.

Ehrenreich’s book stems from her inquiry into a period of her own late adolescence when she experienced a kind of awakening that defied expression. For another sort of person, this might have been a spiritual encounter; but she was a self-described solipsist atheist who wanted explanations. The why of the world mattered to her–she was headed toward an education in science at Reed and Columbia University, though she did not know that yet when she had her ecstatic sensation. Reading Living with a Wild God reminded me of watching an animal tear and tear and worry at a carcass, not quite able to let go. The author fumes at her younger self for being so unforthcoming with details and suggests she may have been having a dissociative event, a small psychological break. Yet there were no symptoms of such a problem in her diary or in her memory.

She writes a bit about psychology, human consciousness, adolescent daydreaming, rational thinking versus imaginative beliefs, systematic or otherwise. After considerable wrestling and intriguing memoir, she admits that all she can do is speculate about what she felt:

There were no visions, no prophetic voices or visits by totemic animals, just this blazing everywhere. Something poured into me and I poured out into it. This was not the passive, beatific merger with “the All” as described by the Eastern mystics. It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once, and one reason for the terrible wordlessness of the experience is that you cannot observe a fire really closely without becoming part of it…you will be recruited into the flame and made indistinguishable from the rest of the blaze…the only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.

In the Bhagavad-gita, when Arjuna sees Krishna-manifest-as-All, the experience is not beatific, any more than Moses’ encounter with God as the burning bush relates an enmeshing with the One; the sense of merger with the energetic being remains absent–there is awe and a sensation that the human consciousness has been irrevocably rattled, altered, changed, but not that the human consciousness melds with that unknowable and indescribable Other.

What drew me to this book is that I had similar, though briefer, experiences when I was young. They tended to occur in flashes, and I associate them now with daydreaming and with a “losing of self”–I really have no words for it, though Ehrenreich’s “overflow” seems about right…one reason Bachelard’s writings on childhood and reverie resonate with me. It’s heartening to find another person, a well-known author, who also has found the experience impossible to formulate in language. I especially appreciate her suggesting “that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria, that it participates in the anguish of loss and can resemble an outbreak of violence.” I identify deeply.

Some meditative practices aim to erase, temporarily, the boundaries that keep us from being truly in the world. Some religious practices aim to make the faithful “one with” the deity. Ehrenreich does not possess the kind of mind or personality that seeks answers in those ways. She’s frighteningly intelligent, well-educated, worldly, scholarly, sensible, socially and culturally aware, fiercely atheistic. Yet she cannot quite believe that what she felt, saw, knew, in her body and in her mind, was “simply” something her brain invented. After 50 years, she continues to wonder. I sense she is still tearing obsessively at the unresolved.

Maybe that is enough, to wonder. At any rate, wondering may be as far toward why as any of us human beings will ever get.

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Beauty & awe–briefly

I have been reading lately (currently Leonard Shlain’s Art & Physics and Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye), but not much inspired to write. Instead, I work in the garden or sit on the porch and listen to birdsong.

I muse upon beauty. Partly such musing falls under the pursuit of aesthetics: the world of my garden becomes especially beautiful in spring. The sounds birds make seem beautiful to my ears. Water droplets on emerging leaves appear beautiful in the morning light.

japanese mapleThese are phenomena. The world of things I can take in with my senses, process through my body and brain, and create–out of whatever “mind” may be–a concept of the beautiful. The phenomena are not physically affected by my categorization. It is I who am changed, I suppose, by virtue of my aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful.

I am reminded of Kierkegaard:

“Love does not alter the beloved, it alters itself.”

Aesthetic appreciation does not alter the thing-in-itself, it alters the person who finds beauty in the thing-in-itself. If this is so, I am altered by my love of what I deem beautiful.

~

While I was searching the web to find the quote above–I couldn’t quite recall it exactly–I found the Kierkegaard quote on the blog of pastor Jonathan Martin, whose theology I can’t completely get my mind around but whose words (below) reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita:

The most beautiful thing a person will ever see may well also be the most terrifying.

Is this not the nature of true beauty? To not just be soft and delicate, but to be so powerful, so overwhelming, so altogether other from ourselves as to threaten? Beauty does not intimidate, but it can overpower. Beauty is a coup to our senses. It holds an unruly power over us. Beauty can move us, haunt us, carry us, compel us. To feel ourselves beholden to the raw power of something beautiful is to be upended, not just inspired but assaulted.

On the lines of such thinking, we might find beauty in a tsunami, hurricane, earthquake, meteor strike the same way Arjuna feels paralyzed by the awesome beauty of the revealed godhead Krishna.

Perhaps that is why we often find ourselves fascinated by photos of natural disasters. Having lived for a couple of years along the northern end of Tornado Alley in the USA, I fear tornadoes. But they possess a kind of beauty in their awesomeness, if we can remove ourselves from the anguish we feel for people whose livelihoods, homes, and lives are destroyed by the big winds.

I wonder if human beings can ever bear that kind of awe; Martin says it transfigures us, Kierkegaard implies something similar, the Mahabharata and other sacred literature suggest that our bodies and our minds can withstand such revelation but cannot describe or truly comprehend it. It seems to me a kind of spiritual post-traumatic stress disorder! This is the “fear and trembling” of the psyche, whether the mind decides the experience is physical, mental, spiritual, or religious.

And that manner of beauty is not aesthetic.

Martin later writes, “Objectively speaking, the beauty of God is already present in our beloved, whether we recognize it or not. Rather, when we encounter beauty in another person, we are changed–we are transfigured…[those we love] do not become beautiful because we recognize their beauty; rather their beauty makes us beautiful.”

Is this experience awesome or aesthetic? Does the beauty of the azalea, the lilac, make me beautiful because I recognize it as such? Am I altered, fundamentally, in my admiration for an artist’s work, a poet’s words?

~