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Monthly Archives: June 2014

The literary epiphany as precursor of the New Age

F1.large100 years ago this year, James Joyce published Dubliners, his first book, in which he explored the lives of characters through what he called ‘epiphanies’. He’d been experimenting with epiphanies for some years, and even started to write a ‘book of epiphanies’, which he intended – with customary modesty – to send to every library in the world. You can read some of them here.

Epiphanies were, for Joyce the lapsed Catholic, a way to retain a sense of the sacerdotal in everyday life, while still throwing off the ponderous moralisms and barbarous superstitions of the Catholic Church. And many other writers and readers have found in the epiphany a way to retain a sense of spirituality beyond any institution or dogma. In that sense, the literary epiphany is a precursor of the ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ movement of today. And I think it reveals some of the limits of that movement.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek epi-phanein, meaning ‘to show forth, or manifest’. In Christian theology it usually means a revelation of God – in western churches, the Feast of Epiphany celebrates the recognition of Jesus by the Three Magi, while in the orthodox church, Epiphany refers to the moment St John baptises Jesus and the Holy Spirit comes down and anoints him.

Joyce was particularly influenced by the ideas of Thomas Aquinas, the 12th century philosopher, who described epiphanies as moments of realization, where you see a thing’s claritas (radiance), and its quidditas (whatness). The artist, like the mystic, sees something, hears something, tastes something, and is suddenly struck by its incredible luminous quidditas.

This can happen sometimes when you’re on magic mushrooms or LSD – you become completely transfixed by a packet of crisps, by their incredible crispiness. Or you may suddenly see a mate of yours, Jimmy, and be almost overwhelmed by their extraordinary Jimminess.

However, because we’re not being artists, we would struggle to communicate this sudden epiphany to other people. It would just sound weird. The artist, by contrast, has the ability to describe the thing in all its quidditas and to help us achieve a mini-epiphany too. They can capture the epiphany in language, like a lepidopterist capturing a butterfly.

A famous example is Gerard Manly Hopkins’ vision of a windhover:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king
-dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

An epiphany is not necessarily positive or spiritual – especially not in Joyce. It might be a moment where a person suddenly has an insight into the fatuity and wretchedness of their condition, like a flash of lightening suddenly illuminating how lost you are. This is the negative epiphany, in the sense meant by William Burroughs when he described the phrase ‘naked lunch’ as ‘a frozen moment when everyone sees what’s at the end of their fork’.

Or an epiphany might be a moment where a poor unsuspecting stooge in the street accidentally reveals their true character to the piercing, pitiless eye of the artist. The author and theatre critic Henry Hitchings occasionally posts these sorts of epiphanies on his Facebook page. For example:

Overheard, Shoreditch: “Do I look contained? Man’s gotta look contained if he wants to find sweet connections.” Somehow I’d take this more seriously if the speaker wasn’t carrying a golf umbrella.

or

Brick Lane. The first thing I hear is ‘Yo, Django, is the Moog at your place or Fabrice’s?’

Wordsworth and the Romantic epiphany

But literature of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries is also replete with more positive epiphanies, in which the artist is struck by something, and seems to see in it a ‘point of intersection of the timeless with time’ (as TS Eliot put it). A thing catches the light, and suddenly seems a window to eternity.

That thing might be a wild flower, as it was for Blake, or a cat, as it was for Christopher Smart, or a couple walking down the street laughing, as it was for Marilynne Robinson.

Yesterday I read some of a book called The Poetics of Epiphany: nineteenth century origins of modern literary moment, by Ashton Nichols, which suggests the key influence on the literary epiphanies of modernism was Wordsworth. He tried in his poetry to capture what he called ‘spots of time’:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence, depressed
By trivial occupations and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood

WWordsworthThe revolution of Wordsworth’s poetry was to find epiphanies and spiritual revelations not in the typical epic subject matter of Greek myths or the Bible, but in the everyday objects and encounters of his neighbourhood. The most ordinary and common thing – a cliff, a tree, a leech-gatherer – becomes illuminated and holy when it strikes against his consciousness.

Wordsworth then tried, in The Prelude, to make an epic poem of his spiritual autobiography, by weaving together these epiphanies, like a rosary stringing together prayer beads.

Lev Tolstoy's War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters' consciousness.
Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace juxtaposes the grand history of the Napoeonic Wars with the spiritual history of his characters’ consciousness.

This would inspire 19th and 20th century novelists to try and use the novel as a way of exploring the spiritual history of their characters, and how the kairos of their consciousness intersected with the chronos of history. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, explores both the grand sweep of the Napoleonic Wars, and also the spiritual history of Prince Bolkonsky – his moments of epiphany when wounded on the battlefields of Austerlitz and Borodino, when he looks on the infinite sky or feels the flower of ecstatic pity unfolding within him (Bolkonsky is constantly having epiphanies when wounded – he sounds a most impractical soldier).

Both DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf also tried to make the novel an exploration of the foldings and unfoldings of consciousness.  This is what DH Lawrence explores so beautifully in The Rainbow – the struggles of the souls of Tom, Lydia, Will, Anna and Ursula to come into being, to unfold into fullness, and their struggles with each other, how friendships and sexual relationships can either help our unfolding or prevent it.

Sometimes the novelistic epiphany involves a sudden sense of a hidden pattern behind the characters’ history – they run into an old love (as in Dr Zhivago) or an old enemy (as Bolkonsky does in War and Peace) and think – why them? Why now? Is this a coincidence or evidence that our lives are somehow weaved together, like works of art, if we could but glimpse the hidden pattern?

The epiphany as narcissistic self-glorification

Now here’s the key point. The literary epiphany was in some senses an evolution of a religious idea or experience in a post-religious age. But the epiphany in Wordsworth and his descendants is quite different to religious experiences in, say, Augustine, John Bunyan or John Wesley.

As Ashton Nichols explores, in religious epiphanies, the experience is very much tied to an theological explanation – it is a revealing of God and the nature of God. The theology is the trellis for the flower of the experience.

Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without 'an irritable reaching after fact and reason'
Keats suggested the poet needs a negative capability in which they can experience the Sublime without ‘an irritable reaching after fact and reason’

In the Romantic and modernist epiphany, by contrast, ‘the powerful perceptual experience becomes primary and self-sustaining. Interpretation of the event may be important but it is always subject to an indefiniteness that does not characterize the powerful moment itself’, in the words of Ashton Nichols. He goes on: ‘the visible reveals something invisible but the status of the invisible component is left unstated. Its mystery becomes part of the value of the experience.’

So theology is abandoned and there is the raw experience, the raw emotion, and the encounter with…something, we can’t be sure what. Call it God, or the World-Soul, or perhaps some private deity of one’s own imagining (Blake’s Albion, Graves’ White Goddess, Allan Moore’s Glycon, Philip K. Dick’s Valis).

In fact, one could say that what is revealed in the moment is not God, but rather the God-like mind of the artist. Wordsworth wrote: ‘To my soul I say / I recognize thy glory.’  Shelley said of Wordsworth: ‘Yet his was individual Mind / And new created all he saw.’  There’s a kind of grand narcissism to the Romantic epiphany – it reveals not the greatness of God but the greatness of the poetic imagination. The poet becomes the Creator, the Animator, and all they see in nature is their own beautiful reflection. Where Milton tells the epic narrative of the human race, Wordsworth sings only the Infinite Me.

This narcissism, this pride, goes back perhaps to Petrarch, and beyond that to Gnosticism. Petrarch wrote that he had learnt from the ancient philosophers that ‘nothing is great but the soul, which, when great itself, finds nothing great outside itself.’ Well…how nice for you Petrarch.

This, I think, is the risk of the modern epiphany. Firstly, there is little sense of how to achieve them through practice, prayer and discipline – the Romantic poet scorns all such discipline as deadening routine. Instead they wander around, perhaps on drugs, hoping for the moment to strike.

Secondly, there is little sense that such experiences are only valuable if they genuinely transform you and make you a better and more loving person. They become an end in itself, which culminates in Walter Pater’s dandyish aestheticism. The poet may be a complete bastard, as long as they have the occasional exquisite epiphany.

Thirdly, there is no sense of beliefs and theology as the trellis around which religious experiences become structured. The experience becomes paramount – and the poet may well hang any old theoretical nonsense around that experience. It leads ultimately to the incoherence and banality of much modern spirituality (one thinks of Paulo Coelho and The Celestine Prophecy, and their deification of coincidences as revelations).

Metamorphosis_of_NarcissusFinally, such moments become excuses not to glorify God, but to glorify one’s Self, one’s own incredible Mind. This is the Gnostic tendency – I am God, I am the Over-Soul, I am the Creator of Heaven and Earth – which one finds in Romanticism, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Emerson and Nietzsche, and which blossoms in the New Age movement of today. This is a dangerous error, because it can become a puffed-up egotism which actually cuts us off from God.

We have forgotten how to pray, how to create routines, habits and practices to carry us through the dry spells and to integrate the epiphanies. And we have forgotten how to kneel.

Is pop music bad for your soul?

Cover-ScrutonToday I’m going to a seminar at Queen Mary, University of London, on music and well-being. It’s one of the best things about being a sort-of-academic – you get to hang out for a day with experts in a field. Today, that includes Roger Scruton, who is the British philosopher I most respect, although I have a love-hate relationship with his work.

What I love about Scruton’s writing is that he talks about the importance of beauty, transcendence and the soul, in a way that is sorely lacking in our culture, and especially in humanities academia. Scruton has a deep Platonic sense of the role of beauty in educating our emotions and taking us beyond our little egos. He’s written wonderfully on Wagner, especially, and how art transforms sexual desire.

We don’t talk about beauty and transcendence enough. In the humanities, we either replace Beauty with Theory, and end up obscuring the art beneath our own pretentious neologisms. Or we talk in mealy-mouthed terms about the economic impact of the arts, or its community impact, or its health impact – all of which are important, don’t get me wrong, but they miss the real magic of the arts, which is its ability to take us beyond ourselves and into the mystery of being. It’s the spiritual impact of the arts that is really significant, though very hard to measure.

However, what I don’t like about Scruton’s wiring is that he’s so utterly dismissive and contemptuous of pop music. Here he is in his new book, The Soul of the World:

In disco music, the focus is entirely on repeated rhythmical figures, often synthesized digitally and without any clear musical performance, in which musical arousal is brought to an instant narcissistic climax and thereafter repeated. There is neither melody nor harmonic progression but merely repetition…If you want an example, try Technohead, ‘I want to be a hippy’.

Now first of all, that song is not disco, it’s really bad house. Disco was a music in the 70s and early 80s. Get it right Roger! Secondly, to sum up the entire history of dance music by such an extremely dire example of it would be like summing up Wagner by only referring to his anti-semitism. It’s a Straw Man argument – using an extreme example to dismiss a whole category. Or here Roger is talking about Nirvana, REM, the Prodigy and Oasis in his book Modern Culture:

In the music of such groups the words and sounds lyricise the transgressive conduct of which fathers and mothers used to disapprove, in the days when disapproval was permitted.

Really? What transgressive conduct do Nirvana, REM and Oasis lyricise? Making love, having fun, feeling sad, feeling good – is this so transgressive? What in REM is nearly as transgressive as anything in Wagner’s Tristran, Strauss’ Salome or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?Oasis, Scruton goes on, are ‘trapped in a culture of near total inarticulateness’, which he exemplifies by their lines:

Damn my education, I can’t find the words to say About the things caught in my mind.

Again, no one would hold up Noel Gallagher as any kind of exemplary lyricist, as opposed to say Bob Dylan or David Bowie or Jarvis Cocker, or Morrissey, or Ray Davies. Gallagher is indeed pretty inarticulate, perhaps there’s even something sweet about his attempt to express emotions and his endless ‘maybes’ – but what he is very good at is creating catchy and occasionally moving songs. There’s also a lot of really bad poetry around from the 18th and 19th century – the good stuff is rare, nothing unusual about that. So focus on the good stuff rather than the ephemera.

When he dismisses a century of pop music as totally mechanical, totally soulless, totally without merit, Scruton slips from being a careful philosopher to being basically a Telegraph polemicist, smiling to himself as he imagines the offence his non-PC remarks will cause. There’s a nasty snobbery to it, a sneering at the masses with their bestial pleasures, which perhaps he feels he can allow himself as he himself rose from the working class.

big06716571511-1This sneering at the masses and at pop music goes back to Theodore Adorno by way of Allan Bloom, who like Scruton was a Platonist (he believes the arts have a crucial role to play in educating our emotions and forming our souls). Like Scruton, he thought pop music has basically deformed the soul of western culture since the 1950s. He similarly found a mass appeal by dismissing mass culture in unconsidered generalizations designed to appeal to the prejudices of angry newspaper readers. Take this, from his bestseller The Closing of the American Mind:

I believe [pop music] ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education…Rock music provides premature ecstasy…[If young people listen to it too much] it is as if the colour has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end…Their energy has been sapped and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living’.

Yes, pop music makes zombies of us all! This description reminds me of how the Church used to talk about masturbation, warning it would turn people into hollow-eyed empty shells.

Some pop is better than others…

I am a poster-boy for the Zombie generation. I grew up singing in a choir, then was lured away by indie and hip-hop in the 1990s. Then I discovered LSD and ecstasy, got into dance music, and before I knew it I was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after a couple of bad trips. I was a creature from Bloom’s worst nightmare – the colour drained from my cheeks, my eyes lifeless, expecting no more great things from the remaining decades of my life. Burnt out by 21.

However, I got out of this pit by discovering the great philosophy and culture which Bloom and Scruton think is the heart of liberal education – particularly Plato, the Stoics, Aristotle and others. Pop music hadn’t somehow made me spiritually incapable of engaging in that great conversation. And judging by the popularity of Greek philosophy today with ordinary punters, other people’s souls are still capable of enjoying philosophy.

And I also still love pop music. I still love dance music, even if I don’t take E anymore. I am slowly discovering classical music, beginning with the comfortingly repetitive beats of Ravel, Stravinsky and Philip Glass, before slowly making my way back to Mahler, Beethoven and Mozart. But I still love pop music. I love the folk of Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes and Boniver, I love the hip-hop of Public Enemy or Kanye West, I love the electronica of Orbital or Bjork, I love the rock music of the Pixies, David Bowie, or the Flaming Lips, I love the yearning of Arcade Fire or Kate Bush, the melancholy of Otis Redding and the Smiths. I love the ecstasy and transcendence of it, the sexual vitality of it, the release of it, and above all the beat of it.

Blur-livePop music emerged from the popular traditions of folk, blues and gospel, it spilled out of the Pentecostal and Baptist churches of America, and the Methodist churches of England, Wales and Ireland, and gave ordinary people a window to ecstasy, and a release from the daily grind of work. Anyone who thinks pop music is a hymn to the machine has never listened to Bruce Springsteen. It is a rage against the machine, a desire for freedom, for release, for dignity, for a connection to something bigger than your tiny corner of the factory.

Scruton argued in Modern Culture that high culture became a substitute for religion. Well, only for the tuxedoed few, sitting rigidly in their chairs at Glyndebourne and Bayreuth. Even then, it’s not much of a substitute – where is the community, where is the coming together except in the pure idealism of the music? Where is the caritas, and the connection with the common man which Jesus preached?

For ordinary people, pop music was our equivalent of Jacob’s Ladder. It was our way to climb up and see beyond our lives, to connect with the deeper and darker emotions which the shiny world of capitalism did not allow us to express during the week. Our way to express our loneliness and longing for togetherness, our way to express our hope for a better world. Pop music, not classical music, kept spirituality alive in the dry decades of the 20th century, and (to quote Dylan) it ‘got repaid with scorn’.

And yes, there was a lot of sex in it too, and a fair amount of swagger and booty-shaking. But I imagine there has always been a lot of sex in popular culture, if Chaucer’s poetry is anything to go by.

James_Brown_Live_Hamburg_1973_1702730029Popular folk music has, down the centuries, always been about dancing, It has been music to dance to. As classical music took itself ever more seriously, the dancing stopped, and even energetic toe-tapping would be frowned upon at Bayreuth. But Plato understood the power of dance, as a way of releasing pent-up emotion and getting people into ecstatic trance states. That’s why he legislated for communal dancing (done naked) in his Laws. Dance music helps us shake it out, work it loose, lose our minds, free our souls.

Let me put it as baldly as I can: pop music kept spirituality alive in western culture, when high culture had retreated into arid intellectualism. It tended the flame. And we have African-American music, culture and religion to thank for that, – although African-American culture was itself shaped by Jewish and Christian culture – and rhythm and blues was then shaped in new ways by white artists.

Yet guardians of high culture like Scruton despise precisely the aspects of pop culture that it got from African-American culture – its beat, its syncopation, its emotional honesty, its sexual candidness.

The war between mysticism and commercialism

The_Flaming_Lips_-_At_War_with_the_Mystics-1Having said all that, Scruton is not entirely off the mark that pop music has always had a tendency to commercialism. Debbie Harry said in 1979 that there is a war within rock and roll between mysticism and commercialism. At the moment, the commercial industry is winning that war. The music of the biggest stars at the moment – Rihanna, Pitbull, David Guetta, Calvin Harris, Justin Bieber or that death-vamp Lana Del Rey – reminds me of the line from 1984, about a boot stamping on a face for eternity. It’s so brutal, so materialist, so joylessly hedonistic. It sounds lost. There is no transcendence in it, no mysticism.

Perhaps the problem is that pop music was expected to shoulder an enormous spiritual weight from the 1950s onwards. Pop musicians became the unexpected legislators of the world, and they were just teenagers. Look at Bob Dylan in his London interviews in 1965, being constantly asked what his message is. He looks utterly freaked out by the spiritual expectations thrust upon him.

Pop music was always ‘spilt religion’, as Hulme described Romanticism. And a lot of the young musicians got lost in the spiritual and libidinal energy that their fans directed at them. The medium became the message. The artist – who should be a vessel for transcendence – became the God. That led to a few decades of Nietzschean rock posturing, with David Bowie in particular exploring the ‘rock star as God’ archetype, before various artists died or went mad, and Kanye West ended up screaming ‘I am a God, hurry up with my damn croissants’.

Kanye West: he's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy
Kanye West: he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy

The deification of rock stars was not good either for the rock stars or the music. If pop music is going to return to health, we need to stop expecting it to be our religion, because that puts too much expectation on the rock stars. Let God be God, and let artists be vessels for the Spirit, rather than trying to be gods themselves.

Let them be broken and vulnerable, rather than trying to be 100 foot colossi. Because it’s in their brokenness and vulnerability that the Spirit comes into them and radiates out to us. ‘There is a crack in everything’, sang Leonard Cohen. ‘That’s how the light gets in’.

Another problem, finally, is that pop music has become the background beat to everything – blaring out in shops, in cafes, from other people’s headphones and our own too. There is a danger that it does indeed become the beat of consumer capitalism, the anaesthetic we use to drown out our weariness and pain. Is it possible that, to create a space for new talents to emerge, we need to rediscover silence?

Anyway, I am going to try and convince Scruton of the joy of pop. Come on Roger, you gotta lose yourself to find yourself!