Monday, May 05, 2014

More on transcendence

My first post for the Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, which I have joined as a regular contributor, is up this morning. It is an attack on the vulgar understanding of religion as the experience of transcendence. I prefer what William James dismisses as religion’s “dull habit.”

The occasion of my Good Letters post was a review by Alan Lightman, the novelist who doubles as a physicist, in which he advances transcendence as the religious emotion. Transcendence is religion’s “high,” but like a drug-induced ecstasy, it grows blunt and less keen over time. Larger and more frequent doses of the original stimulus are necessary to revive the experience, which will never be as good as the first time. Or, to say the same thing in a different metaphor, the “acute fever” of religion, which James defends against its dull habit, is a condition in which no one can live for very long without suffering hallucinations.

There is a more adequate account of transcendence. The source is Jean Améry, the great Holocaust essayist. (He also wrote unforgettably about aging and suicide.) Transcendence, he wrote in At the Mind’s Limits, first published in 1976, is the “basic quality” of the human mind. Améry means something quite ordinary by this: the mind reveals itself in transcending the brute and unpleasant facts of physical reality. “The mind is its own place,” as Milton’s Satan famously says, “and in it self Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Terminal illness can become the enjoyment of the small pleasures that give life its subtle tam; performing the remunerative but difficult work upon which others depend can become the source of bitterness and complaint.

In the death camps, the German Nazis perfected a system for destroying the mind’s basic quality of transcendence. Améry recalled a winter’s night upon which the prisoners were being marched back from the I. G. Farben factory. The waving of a flag in front of a high-finished building caught his attention, and immediately it reminded him of a favorite poem by Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted it aloud; nothing happened; he quoted it again, louder:The poem no longer transcended reality. There it was and all that remained was objective statement: such and such, and the Kapo roars “left,” and the soup was watery, and the flags are clanking in the wind.The reality of the camp subsumed the poem-fed mind. But the outcome was not inevitable. Prisoners who were committed to a reality beyond the camp—“militant Marxists, sectarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, practicing Catholics,” and of course Orthodox Jews—were more likely to survive or at least “died with more dignity than their irreligious and unpolitical intellectual comrades, who often were infinitely better educated and more practiced in exact thinking.” Believing in another reality (God’s love, the brit olam with the Jewish people, the final victory of Communism) they were able to detach themselves from conditions in Auschwitz that defy the imagination. “The grip of the horror reality,” Améry concludes, “was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea.”

The function of transcendence in the religious life is to lay the foundation of an unalterable idea. The framework, though—the daily commitment to the idea—becomes what Lightman calls the “most persuasive evidence of God.” Transcendence is a glimpse of the reality created and sustained by dull habit.

No one in the literary culture understands this better than Christopher Beha. Without giving too much away—I plan to review it at length elsewhere—Arts and Entertainments, Beha’s second novel, turns on an experience of transcendence, just like What Happened to Sophie Wilder, his brilliant first novel. For Sophie, however, the experience of transcendence mandated a reorganization of life. Eddie Hartley, the hero of Beha’s followup novel, goes through something similar:As a ten-year-old altar boy at his family’s parish in Queens, Eddie had experienced a single unforgettable moment of what adults might call transcendence, when his whole body buzzed with the presence of something other than himself, a moment he had never talked about to anyone and didn’t like to think about now, because it still seemed unmistakably real to Eddie and didn’t make any sense to him.Instead, Eddie tries to find substitutes for the experience in acting (“Something like that feeling had sometimes visited him while he was onstage”), and it remains without religious significance for him: “If asked, he would have said he was Catholic, just as he would have said he was Irish—it was a matter of birth, not of action or belief.”

Everything that happens to Eddie in the sequel is a consequence of his failure to make “that feeling” the basis of action or belief. Like so many of his contemporaries, he prefers the fever to the habit.