Questions such as 'Why are we here,' 'Who are we' are integral human questions. They are part of the human prerogative. Humans feel an intimate need to ask them. Lacking concrete explanations, humans mythologise their existence and offer imaginative interpretations of what it means to be human.
Though now we live in an era of easy answers and lazy logic. People like Richard Dawkins say that 'Asking what the meaning of the universe is is silly question.' (Isn't he thereby discrediting most philosophy? Incidentally, not only is Dawkins a rubbish philosopher, he is a rubbish scientist. As a scientist, you are never meant to assert 'truth' or complete evidence as such. You posit your findings as hypotheses.)
The universe is a large, cold, mechanical place. To assign some sort of meaning to it might seem futile. The human body is mechanical. Yet inside the human body lies a teeming imagination - therein lie dreams! We have the gift of the imagination, something other animals do not really have. We can conceive the universe whatever way we like.
In this post I will consider ways in which humans have tried to explicate nebulous feelings. 'Transcendence,' being taken to a higher spiritual state, has been a major human preoccupation. (Though, for better or worse, 'God is dead' now and it has lost its zeal.) The term is used a lot to describe a process wherein you feel larger than your finite surroundings. In this sense, the term should not be confined strictly to a spiritual sense. I'll also look at 'The sublime,' a termed coined by The Romantic movement about feeling awe at the vastness of nature. Finally, I will consider a kind of divine force present in two films I love (though these 'forces' are not religious, nor are they necessarily 'God').
Although many people see the Italian Renaissance as a secular movement, one has to bear in mind that the Enlightenment movements elsewhere in Europe were deeply religious and in some cases were bound up to the Church. Regardless, the art that resulted from the Italian Renaissance eulogised divine providence. In most of the rich paintings that resulted from this period, the need to spiritually 'connect' with a higher power was a recurring preoccupation. Needless to say, there are plenty of Biblical passages represented in these works.
There are plenty of paintings from this period which depict an apocalypse (many credulous believers perhaps sensed it to be imminent.) Such as the painting below:
The Resurrection by Matthias Grunewald
I especially love paintings which depict a confrontation between Heaven and Hell. Do the painters secretly relish the temptation of Lucifer? John Milton certainly did in Paradise Lost. What's interesting in these kind of paintings is that they amalgamate two diametrical opposites. There is a sense of catharsis and drama, too. Whenever I run into this kind of painting in a gallery I certainly feel very excited. It seems to evoke passion, temptation and carnal desires overcoming piety.
Stories of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli
Here's a painting you most certainly are already familiar with:
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
This signifies a major preoccupation of the times: the loss of virginity. Venus is soon to get married, thus bringing her pristine innocence to an end. She is soon to pass onto a stage of life where procreation and reproduction are crucial. There is, of course, plenty of Biblical symbolism in the painting. Additionally, there are touches of sexual innuendo. The red cloth on the right is folded in such a way so as to come to represent a woman's sex. Venus resembles the Virgin Mary in such a way that it suggest that the loss of innocence is is like a passage into another stage of life.
Right, that's painting. Let me get into territory which is very, very dear to me. Music. The most spiritual of all music has to be from the Baroque period. The supreme master of that period is the inimitable Johann Sebastian Bach.
His St. Matthew's Passion sounds like he has transposed music from the Heavens into musical notation. I found it quite jolting to see a video performance of it. Those sounds cannot emanate from humans!
One of the most splendid things about Bach is that he is a craftsman who writes the most complex, contrapuntal music yet it is suffused with emotion and warmth. You certainly get that with most of his organ music. At a more advanced level, you could write a PHD thesis on one of his fugues. On another level, you can listen to it and be transported to a heavenly realm. When I hear many of his organ pieces, it is so mysterious that I almost feel compelled to reach out and grab a hold of something. And I don't know what it is exactly. Music is the form that elicits those kind of mysterious feelings. You could not possibly give a logical explanation as to what it is about it that gives you so much joy (it is after all a subjective judgement). Yet, it is still very mathematical and technical!
Here is one of his organ pieces, Toccatta, Adagio and Fugue. The Adagio movement is a special favourite of mine! It is especially demonstrative of what I was blathering on about above:
Whenever I get drunk, I listen to Bach. I prefer getting drunk on my own. I feel too oppressed and flustered when I'm drunk with others. I can drink a whole bottle of red wine, listen to Bach ad nauseum and I feel as though the whole world around me has being banished.
My favourite wine is Carmenere. It is a grape which is now mainly grown in Chile. With minimal rainfall in growth seasons, it was able to be preserved there.
Alcohol diffuses my consciousness. Add Bach's music and I feel strangely transcended.
The ultimate sense of connection, of being made to feel 'larger,' comes from visiting a cathedral. The enormity, the stained-glass windows, the numerous embellishments! As a non-believer, to visit such a place, one can feel a kind of elevation. It is not necessarily spiritual (I, for one, do not believe in spirits!). You certainly feel humble, finite, impotent in the face of a much greater presence. It is down to ingenious architecture, sure! But it totally works!
Nature. To many, a corn field, a spot of woodland, a pond, a meadow are decidedly ordinary. Wouldn't you rather see tantalising skyscrapers, uber modern buildings and grand high-ways? Or if you do want some nature, isn't Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyons preferable?
I may be foolish, but I feel far greater satisfaction in an ordinary meadow than I do in the Grand Canyon. What I love about the woods is that it is pure substance. It is devoid of human inventions. That's why I feel far greater serenity there than I do from a bustling city centre.
The Romantics certainly shared this sensibility. The apotheosis of such a sentiment is expressed in my favourite painting of all time:
Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich
Everything that means to be human is contained here! The sublimity of nature, the innerness, feeling supreme!
What I like about the Romantics is that they looked away from realism. Literary romanticism also shares the love of nature described above, epitomised in the poems of Wordsworth. They drew from Hindu mysticism and oriental religions. Most of their poems, stories and novels were set in strange, ominous lands. They are populated by seers who voyage into foreign, dream-like territories. You certainly get this with Coleridge and his poems Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Blake is especially exciting. He is definitely a seer! He is a crazed prophet, reporting from oneiric landscapes. In the real world, he is an acute observer of hues, trees, bird life and all the wonders of nature.
Morning by William Blake
To find the western path
Right thro the gates of Wrath
I urge my way
Sweet mercy leads me on
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day
The war of swords & spears
Melted by dewy tears
Exhales on high
The sun is freed from fears
And with soft grateful tears
Ascends the sky
I will write concisely about two films which have a kind of ambiguously 'divine' presence: 2001, a Space Odyssey and Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
In the former film, alien life is the source of 'divine connection.' The astronaut goes into 'the unknown' by plunging into Jupiter and merging with this celestial body.
To begin with, humans have scant resources and limited intelligence. They are not the dominant species, either. With no tools, they are unable to hunt and assert their dominance. Alien life gradually assists them (via a 'monolith'). With the guiding light of this alien life, primates learn to develop weapons, learn to hunt and steadily come to establish their own civilisation.
This alien life is the inscrutable divinity which humans vie for. The presence of a monolith in the moon give them a glimpse of a higher power. The presence of alien life perturbs the computer on the ship (HAL) and corrupts it. Eventually, the astronaut enters the monolith and is born anew. This alien species is the genesis and origin of human existence.
2001, a Space Odyssey dir. Stanley Kubrick
Watching this film is indeed a transcendental experience. It is a science fiction film and the divinity which one is 'enlarged' by is alien life, not some kind of spiritual body.
In Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a group of conquistadors head into the amazon forest to capture 'El Dorado,' an invention deployed by the Incans to derail the Spaniards.
The film is certainly about obsession and the darker impulses of the human psyche. Initially the leader, after encountering difficulties, decides to pull back. Aguirre, though, mounts a coup and insists on continuing with the expedition.
The jerky camera frames, the abiding shots of the sluicing currents and the ominous synthetic Popol Vuh sountrack all have a divine quality to them. Yet it is the promise of riches and success that convinces Aguirre to prevail. The possibility that his obsessions will be wrought to realisation is what convinces Aguirre to stoically continue throughout this onerous journey. In the end, his entire crew has been disposed of by Indians and Aguirre is left alone in the raft. He continues to believe in the realisation of his dream. 'Who else is with me?' is his final averment.
Aguirre, the Wrath of God dir. Werner Herzog