Is it possible to be touched by something beyond comprehension, something beyond the reach of your mind?
Think for a moment about time. In an abstract sense you can grasp the idea that time has no beginning and no end, but you can't really think about a temporal span with no beginning and no end. You can consider the "big bang," the cosmological theory that time and the universe started from an infinitesimal point, a point with no dimensions, but your mind immediately and independently asks: "What preceded the bang?" and "Where did the bang came from?" With better and better tools we can see farther and farther into the expanding universe, but the mind simply can't grasp infinity or eternity. I almost said "can't arrive at infinity or eternity," but that's exactly the problem. If your mind "arrives" somewhere it's obviously not infinity or eternity.
That's all philosophy 101 stuff. I mention it to make the point that our perceptions of reality are fenced off within the domain of what we can experience through our senses. But beyond that, beyond what our senses tell us, I think there are subliminal perceptions reached directly by what I'll call "the seer." To explain what I mean by "the seer" I'll quote from an essay on poetry I wrote in 1995: "A Crisis of Soul."
Most of us call the dimension of human existence that lies outside the intersection of cognition the soul. I also sometimes call it the "seer" because it seems to me that behind the apparatus of human cognition — the brain and the mind that processes what we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and perceive as the passage of time — lies a still point to which the results of these processes are delivered. It is not brain nor is it mind. Hindus call it something that seems to translate best as "self," but unless you qualify it heavily 'self' in ordinary English usage is too easily confused with "selfish.”
Whence comes that touch to the seer that reaches beyond what you can perceive and beyond what your mind can grasp? I'm not talking about the touch of emotion. I'm talking about perception beyond the senses. I think music, poetry, and visual art can do it. I use the word "perception" in a very precise and very limited sense — the sense of direct contact with the seer, and I know of no word in the English language that describes that kind of touch. "Transcendental" in the sense of "spiritual" and "metaphysical" is as close as I can come.
What results from that touch is nothing I can describe. I think you always sense it in your rearview mirror. You realize that something happened, but you don't know what happened. The encounter leaves you feeling that your place in creation is secure. But that's not all there is to it. There's more, though you can't say what it is because your mind can't grasp it. The encounter is a quiet thing that leaves your spirit smiling for no apparent reason.
I think the kind of encounter I've described is at the heart of great art. There's art that's beautiful, uplifting, that can give you a satisfying emotional flash: a quick happiness. There's art, sometimes depressing art, that strikes you with wonder and helps you understand the world you live in. But art that touches the seer goes beyond these worldly, human things, and does so in a subtle way.
I'll give some examples of art that's touched my seer, along with a warning that since the seer is a very personal thing, arguably the root of your personality, not everyone will have the reactions I've had. On the other hand, I think there are works of art that touch the seer in a majority of people, and I think that helps explain why some are treasured by our society more than others.
Since I'm a photographer let's start with a photographic example. Why did John Szarkowski use Garry Winogrand's photograph "New Mexico, 1957" on the dust jacket of his book: Winogrand: Figments from the Real World?" That black and white picture shows a simple middle-class house, sort of a starter house with a carport behind a driveway. In the driveway you see a small trike on its side, an oil spot, and standing just in front of the carport a baby with a lopsided diaper. Off in the distance is a small desert town beneath low mountains. On the right a single bush and some weeds share a barren lawn.
It's not the kind of picture you'd expect to see on a book's dust jacket. It's certainly not pretty and it's not particularly instructive. It doesn't fire up your emotions. Those of us who were around in the fifties have seen this kind of house many times; probably even lived in one when we were starting a family. But there's something here that touches my seer and that my senses can't reach. Evidently it touched Szarkowski's seer as well.
There are more examples in painting than in photography, mainly I think because a painter isn't constrained as Winogrand was by the real world. I think immediately of John Constable's "The Hay Wain." Most of us would react emotionally to that painting because it's very beautiful. But though there are many contemporary paintings just as beautiful, "The Hay Wain" is an all-time classic. There's something more there than beauty. I don't know what it is any more than I know what makes "New Mexico, 1957" a classic.
A better example, because beauty doesn't confuse the issue, is Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks." This probably is my all time favorite painting, though Hopper's "Gas" and "Rooms by the Sea" are close seconds. In "Nighthawks" we're looking through a large plate-glass window and seeing three people sitting at the counter of an all-night diner. On the right are a man and woman side by side, facing us; around the counter to the left a man alone with his back to us. A counterman in a white jacket and cap is bent forward behind the counter in front of the couple. Behind him are two large coffee urns. In the background, facing us across a narrow, darkened street is an empty shop beneath several upstairs residential windows. The only light seems to come from the diner itself. There's nothing special about this painting. It's a pretty normal scene, but there's something about it that touches my seer with verities my mind can't reach. I'm not the only one for whom this is true since this seems to be Hopper's best known and most famous work.
Like photography, the symbolism in poetry depends upon images of the real world. Yet, as Archibald MacLeish pointed out in Poetry and Experience, a poem's force is carried not in the words themselves but in the interstices between images. One of the most powerful poems I've encountered is Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." My opinion of that poem doesn't stand alone. It was the only poem read during a TV memorial after John Kennedy's assassination. Here's a sample stanza:
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
The words themselves don't make sense, but the imagery goes beyond words and touches something deeper than comprehension, deeper than mind. Poetry is full of examples like this. Thomas's "Fern Hill" is loaded with them. T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is loaded with them. The best poetry always touches the seer.
And finally there's music, which unlike visual art and poetry doesn't depend on imagery. By music I don't mean songs written simply to carry lyrics. I enjoy listening to the crazy stuff Credence Clearwater Revival does, but the reaction doesn't go any deeper than my sense of humor. On the other hand the simple little aria Dai Campi, Dai Prati from Boito's opera Mefisofele touches me in a way that's beyond description. Yes, the music is background for the lyrics, but since I don't understand Italian the words don't mean a thing to me. It's the music, sung by a tenor whose voice to me is simply another musical instrument, that reaches past my mind and past my emotions and touches the seer. If I want emotion that brings me to tears I'll listen to Pavarotti singing César Franck's masterpiece: Panis Angelicus. That does the job, but the job it does is different from the job done by the much simpler, less emotional Dai Campi, Dai Prati.
Yes, it's possible to be touched by something beyond comprehension, to recognize something even though it's beyond the reach of your mind. And that's what the very best of art does.
August 21, 2017