Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Extraordinary Moments in Ordinary Time

Over at her blog Stratego, Jo Guldi writes about a sort-of outer-body experience she had while taking morphine prescribed for a nasty jellyfish sting. And she poses some questions about the appropriate sort of visual culture to respond to these experience, questions that I don't fully understand.

I've never done "drugs," and I'm at least as square as Jo, if not more so. The closest I've ever gotten was reading Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, an extended meditation on his mescalin trip, in which he does spend a lot of time thinking about the contours of a bamboo chair, and for me, I think that's close enough.

Jo asks whether those of us "who never did drugs: whether indeed it was really about respect for one's body and one's elders, as the Nancy Reagan literature preached, or because those people had already accomplished access to a spiritual dimension: if they already paid attention to their dreams, wondered about ghosts, and had experiences in church. And so thought of the spiritual world as accessible to them." I'm not sure that it's really an either-or proposition, at least it's not for me. I've certainly had experiences where the mechanism which filters out the biologically useless seemed to be turned off, and it was my feeling that this profoundly spiritual experience reflected the nature of my brain chemistry. The fact that I was able to feel these things without the aid of drugs meant that it would probably be very bad for me to add anything else to the mix.

What sort of visual culture supports our spiritual experiences? I'm not entirely sure. I believe passionately in the importance of beauty, particularly gardens, but the most profound spiritual experience of my life happened in the Winthrop House dining hall, a submerged basement sort of room. It was a Spring evening, and I was staring up at a tiny, dirty window that was just barely level with the grass of the courtyard above. And for an instant I felt that time had stopped, that the fabric of time had been rent. I felt connected, deeply connected to Chaucer and Shakespeare, and I knew what Pascal meant when he wrote of the God of Abraham, Jacob and Isaac, the God of fire, "not the God of philosophers." It was like a lightning bolt, and that experience of stopped time was the closest I've ever gotten to the eternal. I think that Emily Dickinson must have had similar experiences. How else could she have written poem 800?

Two -- were immortal twice --
The privilege of few --
Eternity -- obtained -- in Time --
Reversed Divinity --

That our ignoble Eyes
The quality conceive
Of Paradise superlative --
Through their Comparative.

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