We can build a new tomorrow from the ashes of today
We can break the chains and grab the reins and boldly storm the gates
And with a little luck, re-write the book and learn from our mistakes
Because all we are is all one and the same.
(It’s a simple and idealistic song from very young people but it’s not schmaltz or schlock. We know we’re living on borrowed time and it’s apparent to most that sooner or later something’s got to give.
Yes, Sagan beautifully ties together the material and the “spiritual” in its broadest meaning. Jung talked about the oceanic sense, though he had a predilection for the mystical which I cannot espouse. I guess my first experiences of that kind were artificially induced (acid, mescaline, mushrooms…), but they now continue to come unaided (though perhaps potentiated by hallucinogens?) and usually unexpectedly and, as you say, fairly fleetingly. I imagine that they can be more sustained through meditation and also triggered by epileptic episodes. I wonder if certain artists like Blake and Stanley Spencer didn’t live much of their lives in such a state. The problem about the conclusions that people draw from these experiences is that, in a sense, the brain “makes” the world, so too many people interpret them as saying something profound about external reality rather than about the brain’s apprehension of that reality.
“While still and always the atheist, I’ve had some powerful transcendent experiences that affect what I value in the world. One result is a reverence for wilderness and a desire to help it survive and thrive against the depredations of “civilization” (too many fucking clueless humans destroying the planet in the service of their cities.)”
While I admire your indignation and agree that we ought to conserve the planet’s resources, I have trouble seeing how you rationalize your frustration from an atheistic perspective. From a naturalist’s view, the planet is fine, with or without your intervention, because there is no ideal state or condition that needs conserving. The planet, unless I’m mistaken, was once a barren wasteland of molten rock. That was just as desirable – again, from a naturalist’s perspective – as our now lush, though perhaps ailing, planetscape. Why do we assume that diversity is inherently good?
Evolution has no telos, and so is purposeless. Whether we intervene or not makes no difference because there is no global, ecological paradigm to restore. If we destroy all other life on the planet, or even ourselves, in the struggle for finite resources, nothing is “lost.” The planet will adapt, or perhaps revert back to molten rock, either of which is perfectly natural.
What is at stake in our relation to the aesthetic? Probably very little, we’d say. Art, once a very serious matter, has lately become trivial, and it’s hard for us today to think that anything great lies at the heart of it.
Beauty is, we are told, in the eye of the beholder, so any effort wasted contemplating the essence of art can only result in a biased, incomplete picture of what is known by all to be a fleeting and relativistic phenomenon. But urbane niceties such as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” immediately strain credibility, and it’s doubtful whether the originator of the phrase took it seriously herself. I’m willing to wager that anyone who has undergone a genuine artistic experience instinctively knows it to be false. Art has too potent an impact upon the mind and soul for it to be exclusively a matter of taste; we cannot chose what affects us so violently. If so, Plato would have had no reason to ban poetry from the republic. That we are in fact so hopelessly susceptible to art is what distinguishes it as a subject warranting investigation. What can our sensitivity to art say about our human nature and the world around us?
There are two possible ways of conducting an investigation into our artistic orientation. The one now favored by theorists and scientists treats artistic sensibility as a survival adaptation and the product of natural selection. Under this approach, our capacity to appreciate art functions as a palliative providing sensual enjoyment and psychological affirmation that countervails the meaninglessness of existence. Artistic faculties offer a survival advantage, scientists claim, because they distract us from the crushing emptiness of life, and are therefore retained by those members of the species who survive on account of the benefit. Reduced in this way to a vulgar biological function, naturalists strip art of its noble qualities.
They unwittingly displace the traditional notion of the Romantic genius, who partakes part and parcel of God’s creativity, with the image of a hapless manipulator who labors, not to elevate humankind to higher moral awareness, but to titillate nerve endings and deceive the brain into enduring life’s hardships. To the naturalist, the artist is a fraud, a peddler of cheap, empty thrills. There can be no genuinely redemptive value to art for the naturalist, only the appearance of meaning reinforced by a biological stimulant. This is a terrifically cynical view, but sadly the only one available to those who reject the metaphysics of religion.
The religious account of art permits of grander possibilities. Once the existence of an extra-material realm of reality is granted, art takes on remarkable implications. Our instinctive suspicion that works of art reflect
something greater than ourselves, something not wholly contained in the work itself, is vindicated by this more generous metaphysical worldview. It then becomes possible to imagine art as mediating between the material realm and the ineffable, and as bearing significance beyond what we are capable of accounting for in our course empiricism. What is more, art testifies to this immaterial realm and invites contemplation of it. Heidegger, an atheist, believed poets gestured toward the immaterial by providing evidence for Being’s withdrawal into absence. We remain unfamiliar with the true nature of art, he argued, because we know nothing of its origins in Being.
Discussing the poetry of Rilke, he writes, “We are unprepared for the interpretation of the elegies and the sonnets, since the realm from which they speak, in its metaphysical constitution and unity, has not yet been
sufficiently thought out in terms of the nature of metaphysics.” Ignorant of its metaphysical nature, Heidegger believes we fail to interpret art’s deeper significance.
Heidegger’s theory might easily be adapted to a Christian theory of aesthetics by substituting God for Being. For Heidegger, art implicates Being, a non-thing which never discloses “itself” in presence. For Christians, art implicates God, who is not currently among us in physical, bodily form. This notion of art acting as testimony is completely foreign to naturalists. Yet I believe, with Heidegger, that art’s powerful effect upon us should give us pause, should force us to consider whether our response to art is merely the result of biological impulses or attests to something more. If one chooses the former, the decision must radically alter the way she thinks of art, and cannot help but attenuate the enthusiasm and passion with which she engages it. The latter possibility, or the religious account, credits art with the full range of qualities that we naturally feel inclined to grant it, and gives art the formal theoretical justification that our already persuasive experience implies.
I see art as playing with the creative force.
One part of art is observance . . . another, putting the observance into physical being. In another sense, an artist is a historian.
As artists , we cannot predict whether others will understand what we’ve done or whether anyone will like anything we create. What we like best ourselves may be what others dislike, and what we consider not that great, others may love.
In the sense of survival, if I personally go too long without being creative, I start falling into a funk.
I like your article, Aaron. Eleanor A. Binnings, MFA
There is much I do not know about the world, but yes, it would seem that all is transitory and that there is no teleos for the whole of nature. Nevertheless, my values — while informed by those conclusions — do not arise from them. Rather, they arise from the same source that would stay my hand lest I drive a knife into a loved one’s heart.
I am a biological creature suited for a niche (a vast set of niches, really, but let’s keep it simple), and my psychology — though heavily acculturated — is still suited to a setting much more wild than the one our civilizations keep producing. The more I have been exposed to wilderness, the more I learn what the city has stolen from me. And I have more than a small suspicion that such is the case for humans generally. What’s more, I happen to agree with Dan Dennett’s intensional stance theory and then take a step further by saying that it is not a mistake to extend intentionality to other forms of life, or even the entire biome. No, I do not think the trees are conscious after the fashion we are, but they do have a form of awareness. I say this while remaining a strict materialist.