The Call of the Deep

“The sacred is that which reminds us; the secular is that which bids us forget.” 

Stephen Graham, A Tramp’s Sketches (1912)

The sacred is anything that makes you wonder if you might be likewise sacred.  The secular is everything that calls this silly moonshine and idle applesauce.  The sacred is anything that suggests that life is more than Houseman’s “long fool’s errand to the grave.”  The secular is everything that snorts and says stick to your errand and wipe that fool grin off your face.

Anything can be sacred if it occasions the sublime.  Sublime means on the boundary or at the limit, and it denotes an experience of being at the outer edge of  the everyday world, of standing on the threshold of a profound mystery. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quotes a man who describes it this way:

“I felt on these occasions . . . an illumination which revealed to me a deeper significance than I had been wont to attach to life.”

It seemed on these occasions that there was more to life than this man had formerly supposed, and this naturally caused him to think that there might also be more to himself than he had formerly supposed.  The Psalmist described sublime experience when he wrote,

Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls

The mystery beyond the waterfalls calls to the mystery deep within a man’s soul.  From its depths, the soul responds.  And the man who is conscious of this exchange between deep mysteries is thereby reminded that he is a sacred being, and that his errand is neither foolish nor to the grave.  His errand is to that deep mystery that calls from beyond the outer edge of the everyday world

Stephen Graham heard this mysterious call from all natural beauty, and so called all natural beauty sacred.  Describing the countryside he and a companion passed through on a walking tour, Graham wrote:

“It seemed that we were surrounded by mysteries just about to reveal themselves.”

* * * * *

Imagination is the power to see mystery beyond the limit of everyday experience, and it therefore entails a capacity to be reminded by the sacred, to be called by the sublime.  In Plato’s Symposium, the Arcadian prophetess Diotima says that a human mind is “pregnant” with “spiritual children,” but that  these children cannot be delivered without beauty to induce labor.  What Diotima calls beauty, Graham calls sacred, and both are identical with the Psalmist’s deep that calls to deep.

“When the pregnant mind meets beauty, it is filled with happiness and overflows in joy and is delivered of what it bears.  But if chance brings it to ugliness it shrivels into wry-faced grief and turns back and shrinks away and bringeth not forth, but distressfully retains its pregnancy.”

What Diotima calls ugliness, Graham calls the secular, for as the countryman Graham tells us:

“The town is dangerous in that  it has little beauty.  It causes us to forget.”

* * * * *

Charles Darwin wrote an Autobiographical Sketch when he was seventy-two years old, and in it described a dolorous spiritual change he had suffered some forty years before.  Until he was thirty, Darwin said that poetry, pictures and music had afforded him exquisite delight, but in the years that followed, his taste for these things shriveled into “wry-faced” grief, and he at last found them unbearably dull or positively repellant.

“I retain some taste for fine scenery,” the great naturalist wrote, “but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it once did.” Darwin explained the shriveling of his “higher tastes” as a consequence of  his scientific lucubration.

“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.”

Perhaps turning the mind into a machine for grinding out general laws shrivels the higher tastes because, as Graham said, the secular is that which bids us forget, because the roar and clatter of powerful mental machinery prevents a man from hearing or answering the call of the deep from within the roar of the waterfalls.

6 thoughts on “The Call of the Deep

  1. Pingback: The Call of the Deep | Reaction Times

  2. Thank you for this post. “Deep calls to deep.” Awesome and beautiful!

    Darwin’s story is very sad; I had not heard of his condition before. Very sad. Why did it happen? In August, I offered a guess, I suppose, in a comment on one of Dr. Charlton’s blog posts about experiencing the animated world (where I incidentally referred to one of your entries earlier this year):

    “A few months ago, Professor Smith wrote a post at the Orthosphere where he pondered about the alienation between him and the natural world. I understand the idea in the abstract, but I don’t understand it intimately. Perhaps, there is a diversity of human constitutions, and people experience fundamental reality differently. That seems obvious enough when you listen to others talk about such matters. Education and upbringing probably play a role. Modern scientific formation, I suspect, instills a mechanical understanding of the world. I don’t know how we might better teach students what we know sub specie causae efficiendi without also severing them from their natural relationship with the world. Liberal study doesn’t seem to be the problem, but intensive scientific training appears to require this reduction . . . Descarte’s mastery, Bacon’s torturing nature to yield its answer, and, to use a brilliant literary example, Saruman’s change of colors (from white to the rainbow) as he turned from a friend of the forest to having a mind of metal and wheels. Perhaps, a complementary approach is not obvious because losing such a path — or willfully obscuring it — is a defining mark of our age. I’d like to believe that we can keep the secrets (of Newton’s laws, of subatomic behavior, etc.) that we have discovered without blinding ourselves to other (true) perspectives of the world. Contra Kuhn, I want to sublate these shifting horizons, greedy as I am! But that hasn’t yet been the case in our modern world. Perhaps, your Romantics desired the same. Perhaps, some even succeeded. The effort failed, however, to change the dominant way in society at large. Where is our Merlin today?”

    Forgetting and blinding are the effects of (exclusive reliance upon) mechanistic models. Perhaps those are the desired results by certain parties . . . powers unseen.

    I sometimes sympathize with the post-modern Christian / traddy crowd who hope that the breakdown of the “Enlightenment” intellectual consensus throughout the disciplines will reopen a space for forgotten wisdom. Instead of chucking reason, though, cannot we rather recover its treasures beyond qualitative calculation? I want rationality — just not the stingy, near-sighted rationalism of the moderns.

    • I think you are quite right to say that human constitutions vary, so we should not universalize our own complaints. This cognitive differentiation is at the same time part of our predicament, since it causes intense personal loneliness, increasing social violence, and a degraded culture that can create a semblance of commonality only with symbols that extremely vulgar. But I’m wandering from the main point. There is a generation gap at work here, so that young people (60) symbols of cultural and social critique. Growing numbers do not miss God, because they never knew him, and growing numbers also do not miss community or nature. With respect to nature, most have been fully converted to the mechanistic and utilitarian symbol of “environment.” Under the symbol of “environment,” nature becomes an extension of the department public works. Deep cannot call to deep when nature is construed as “environment” because there is no mystery behind what they now call “environmental services.”

      Like you, I had some hope that postmodernism would open a space in which pre-enlightenment reason could survive. I didn’t wish to adopt anti-foundational nihilism, but thought anti-foundational nihilists would leave us alone because they were committed to relativism. Obviously, I was very wrong about that. One could formerly resist power with an appeal to “truth,” but postmodern relativism destroyed all that. So now there is nothing but power and its sidekick “justice,” which does anything power tells it to do.

  3. Two or three years ago I landed the “Writing about Literature” course – for freshmen and sophomores who had declared English as their major. The course was designed not so much to teach the students how to write about literature – or more broadly about the arts – as to engender in them, precisely, the openness to beauty that Diotima invokes in her dialogue with the young Socrates. (At least, that is how I saw it.) I have told the story previously about how, in the first week of the semester, I tasked the students to read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” write up their reaction to it overnight, and share their response with the group at the next meeting. None of them read the poem. Instead, they all googled it, clicked on the first line that came up, and then plagiarized the canned analysis. No more “homework” after that – everything must be done in class. But the undergrads remained stone-faced in response to poems or passages of prose that I brought to class because they had once moved me. I became determined to move them somehow.

    I had on the shelves in my man-cave a staged performance of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff on DVD. The Burana songs, written by medieval monks in Bavaria, run to the bawdy and scurrilous – they celebrate wine, food, and sex. The staging was quite literal. The opening scene, after the famous “O Fortuna” introduction, depicted a medieval German ceremony of spring, where the young men and women of the village carve sapling pine-trees into simulacra of the phallus. The ceremony expresses – in its pagan way – the divine exhortation to be fruitful, as in the harvest, and to multiply, as in connubiality. As the enrollment watched the screen, I watched the enrollment. The facial expressions were a combination of lurid interest and embarrassed embarrassment. In other words, the presentation of symbols moved them by drawing them out of their determination not to be moved, but against all social approval. As Carmina Burana needed a class-period and a half to screen, I followed it up with a CGI animation to Marin, a tone poem by the Danish avant-garde composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen, which growls, snorts, and ululates in a seventeen-minute crescendo given to a large orchestra full of exotic instruments. This too provoked a response.

    Carmina Burana draws on the archaic sacred. Marin, both in its score and in its accompanying animation, does the same. Both Orff and Borup-Jørgensen pull out all the stops, musically. They are deliberately provocative. And what they seek to provoke is the sense of sublimity. The COVID shut-down took as its rationale the need “to flatten the curve.” Modern education takes as its rationale its perceived need to flatten the response to all and everything that transcends the routine of a materialistic worldview. (And yes, for it to prevail, it must flatten the response.) Emotional flatness is the tabula rasa on which modernity (or “postmodernity” or whatever it calls itself) writes its slogans. I had lucky experiences in growing up: I saw a wing of B-52s taxi out to the runway and take off at Edwards Air Force Base when I was nine years old; in the tenth grade at Santa Monica High School, Mr. Johnston the quirky English teacher, told us to relax and listen to Ein Heldenleben by Richard Strauss; and I have seen the vista from atop Mt. Whitney. College students no longer climb the Sierras; they “do” what they call “summer internships.” I hope that you will pardon me for rambling…

  4. I think youth is naturally shy of sharing its emotions with age. Some of this intergenerational reticence comes from shame, some from a fear of ridicule, some from the well founded belief that their joy is none of our business and our joys are incomprehensible. I think food provides a good analogy. A healthy youth naturally enjoys food, and he can take great pleasure in a fairly rude diet. The gustatory pleasures of age are often artificial, and sometimes obscenely so. Youth is right to smell the scent of death in the fussy opinions of the aged gourmet. An old man may have many sound notions about how to enjoy life, but a young man is not interested in his notions because a youth is quite capable of hugely enjoying life without them.

    So much for my defense of the obtuseness of youth. This remains a great sorrow for anyone who has undertaken to offer a humanistic education, since it means most students will be bored or embarrassed by what the humanistic educator has to say. In my ideal world, humanistic education would be primarily offered to adults, since adults have acquired the experience to understand great literature, but have also partly lost the capacity for untutored feeling.

    I am also puzzled and disturbed by what you describe as the “emotional flatness” of today’s youth. Some are obviously notable for their political passions, but most appear to be devoid of great enthusiasms. In thirty years, I have met only one student who had independently mastered a difficult subject, and a great many who lacked the motivation to dependently master the relatively easy subjects of their classes. My theory is that this is a consequence of leading lives stocked with abundant but frivolous pleasures–more or less what Neil Postman described as “entertaining ourselves to death.”

  5. Pingback: Birds of One Feather Flock Together | Σ Frame


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