“Once religious imagination and yearning have departed from a culture, the lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence becomes not just one of reality’s unpleasant aspects, but in some sense the limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things.” (David Bentley Hart, In the Aftermath (2009)
For years I have had a recurrent daydream. It may have originated as a sleeping dream, but it is now a staple of my waking imagination. This daydream steals over me whenever I feel myself slipping under the anesthetic of a committee meeting, or I am forced to wander through a wasteland of what Hart calls “epic drabness,” or I am closeted with a vampiric atheist who invites me to loosen my collar and close my eyes. With this daydream, my imagination proposes that all of these experiences are, at bottom, one and the same experience. I am of a romantic disposition, so I take the propositions of my imagination very seriously.
In this daydream, I am lying at the bottom of a of rock-walled pit or cellar that is incompletely roofed with a dome of fitted stones. Through a gap in the dome, a patch of blue sky is visible. But silhouetted against this patch of sky, I can also see the upper body of an ogre who grunts and mortars a stone that is fitted to close the gap in the dome. Growing aware that I am looking at him, the ogre lays his trowel to one side and peers down at me; then, with a wry smirk, he lifts the mortared stone into place and seals me in darkness.
This pit I take to be Hart’s “lowest, grimmest, most tedious level of material existence.” The dome is the modern philosophy of “positivism” that nowadays sets the official “limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things.” It is the naturalism that has “disenchanted” our world. The blue sky beyond is what I call heaven, although the masonic ogre disagrees. To me that patch of blue sky is a symbol of everything transcendent and metaphysical. To the ogre with the trowel (who, incidentally, has his back to it), the blue sky is, of course, a sorry superstition and old wives’ tale. Indeed, he built the dome to rid me of it, and by fitting that last stone into place, he aims to complete my enlightenment.
If you have ever come very near to drowning, as I once did, you know the feeling of physical suffocation. This feeling is not agreeable, but like the knowledge that one will shortly be hung by the neck, it does concentrate the mind wonderfully. There is, however, one difference between the prospect of death by drowning and the prospect of death by hanging. Because a drowning man can very often cheat fate and save himself, his mind is wonderfully concentrated on the urgent task of staying alive. When I was sucked into that long black culvert, for instance, my mind was wonderfully concentrated on the urgent task of feeling for the tiny finger-holds whereby I might claw my way back to the blessed air. Death was most certainly “breathing down my neck,” but he didn’t yet “have me by the throat.” I imagine that the mind of a man condemned to the gallows, as in Johnson’s famous aperçu, is wonderfully concentrated on death itself (such was the case, for instance, of the miserable Fagan near the end of Oliver Twist).
When I imagine that masonic ogre sealing me up in that rock-walled pit, I always experience a frisson of metaphysical suffocation. And just as those desperate minutes in the black culvert wonderfully concentrated my mind on finding the means to claw my way back to the blessed air, so the imagined sound of that last stone grating into place wonderfully concentrates my mind on the finding the means to preserve my patch of blue sky.
It is, of course, madness to see that patch of blue sky beyond the dome. On this the ogre and I agree. Our difference is that I follow Plato’s Socrates and say it is a “divine madness” that grants “release from the ordinary ways of men,” whereas the ogre follows Euripides’ Pentheus and says it is an “evil dream” that spreads a “foul contagion.” In Plato’s philosophy a man is overcome by divine madness when something in the rock-walled cellar of this world reminds him of “those things which [his] soul once saw when in company with God.” In the philosophy of Pentheus (and the ogre), a man falls victim to“evil dreams” when he strays beyond the official “limit that marks the ‘truth’ of things” (1).
My patch of blue sky is an instrument of anamnesis, or un-forgetting. My frisson of metaphysical suffocation is, therefore, a lively and desperate horror of metaphysical amnesia. Just as I felt horror when I was sucked into that black culvert where even the memory of oxygen could not long survive, so I feel horror when I imagine the sound of that last stone grating into place and dooming even the memory of my patch of blue sky.
My patch of blue sky is a symbol of beauty and love, as these have been the two principle instruments of anamnesis in my experience. There are other instruments, such as the experience of truth, but I am a man who, in Plato’s words, “when he sees the beauty of the earth, is transported with the recollection of the true beauty,” and maddened by this recollection “would like to fly away, but . . . cannot.”
To shift that last stone into place and achieve his end of “enlightenment” (i.e. metaphysical amnesia), the ogre must therefore prevent my experience of beauty, love, and truth. He must roof me in under a perfect dome of ugliness, hatred and lies. He must lock me in anesthetic meetings, lure me into the wilderness of “epic drabness,” and lull me to loosening my collar and closing my eyes.
I think I may know that ogre’s name.
(These reflections occurred while driving to work through this.)
(1) See Plato’s Phaedrus and Euripides Bacchae.