Thursday, December 31, 2015

Mystical Sirens

It’s fine to despise this world as long as there’s another one that you love more.

Say you’re an ancient Christian. To you the visible world is a grotesque play, filled with pointless suffering and gaudy frivolity. But that’s okay, because you are dead with Christ to the world. Since you have a new life in a higher world, you can gleefully suffer a violent death as a martyr, or dismiss food and clothing as pointless luxuries. The knowledge that there is a deeper reality behind the world’s banality can make you happy even in your temporary life of flesh.

But Christian mysticism is just one example of a general phenomenon. Appalled at the grimness of supposed reality, human beings have spent their entire history chasing alternatives. A buddha, for instance, understands that the phenomenal world is illusion, and flees from it into a heaven of tranquility. Moses, an Egyptian prince, was disgusted with the fleshpots of civilization and fled to the empty desert, where he found God in a speaking fire. Odin, leaving his home, crucified himself on the branches of a great tree to be initiated into the higher mysteries of the cosmos. And the Athenians had their yearly feast for Dionysos, which threw off the rigors of agricultural labor for a chance at ecstatic communion with the gods.

“Upwards! / embraced while embracing!
Upwards to your breast, / all-loving Father!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson is the mystic that Americans take the most seriously. He was so convinced of an underlying spiritual reality, and the falseness of earthly pain, that he was able to discuss the death of his son in words as optimistic as these:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. … Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, — no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. (From “Experience.”) 
With this flight into philosophy, the sufferings of life waver and disappear.

Now, the truth is that our world is worth fleeing from. It is a grey prison for almost every creature that breathes in it. If you’re powerless enough to find yourself underneath the world’s heel, there is no profit to be had from taking the light show seriously. Instead of chasing after nonsense, it’s far better to declare everything vanity and find something firmer than reality to hold onto. Mysticism—an attempt to escape the world while you’re still alive—seems like the best way of coping if you happen to be excluded from the lucky few who are safe from suffering and starvation.

Mysticism is really a two step experience: first you renounce this world, and then you find another. First the mystic comes to despise the world, realizing that it’s just dust and shadow. This insight throws him into a cloud of confusion and ignorance, since he has thrown off the only reality he has ever known. But he says to the darkness:
Chaos and ancient Night, I come no Spy
with purpose to explore or to disturb
the secrets of your Realm, but by constraint
wand’ring this darksome Desert, as my way
lies through your spacious Empire up to light.
The Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Transcendentalist mystic finds a brighter world after losing the first one. It is not enough to spurn the phenomenal world: a mystical journey must have its end in a safe spiritual paradise. Escapist mysticism is a healthy and sane instinct as long as you reach that paradise. Once you flee from this world, that is, you must escape into another, truer one. But mysticism is a seductive evil if you find no such higher world. It is possible to flee from the world on tides of mystical feeling, but then to spin off into chaos.

Music can do this to you. Its emotional intensity is enough to lift you away from earthly life, and teach you to despise the real world, which is wan and dull in comparison to music’s awful beauty. If you’ve listened properly to Lohengrin, the subway train you listened to it on seems like a meaningless heap of dust. But Lohengrin takes away your love for real things without giving you anything in return. You will be convinced that reality is stupid and painful—but you will have nothing to replace reality with except passion and anxiety.

(Religious mystics, for their part, have made their own use of music’s otherworldly power. Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli, for example, gives off such a powerful sense of God’s splendor that it forces you to claw at the visible world to have even a chance of hanging on. But when music leads you into nothing but fright and confusion, like Bellini’s, Wagner’s, or Donizetti’s tends to do, it can damage your soul.)

What a fate for the halfway-mystic! He is homeless in the world he lives in, and though charged with demonic restlessness, he knows that this feeling comes from nowhere in particular. His world is unreal, but there is no reality to escape into. Any spiritual flight turns out to be a fairy-dance, which evaporates at dawn. To him, though, everyday life is no less a fairy-dance.

My point is that mysticism is beautiful and perhaps necessary, but it is not for atheists. A believer can fall through darkness into the hands of a loving God; but an atomist materialist can fall only into Chaos and ancient Night. With no prospect of another spiritual home, he should shrink from emotion and stick to the rocky earth. It might be ugly and evil, but it’s at least solid.

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