Transcending ‘Transcendence’

Although we all interpret and respond to works of art in our own individual ways, dependent on our unique personalities and circumstances, the more general reactions are regularly shared with others; a ‘sombre’ piece of music, a ‘joyous’ dance, or maybe even a ‘disturbing’ piece of sculpture. But perhaps the most intriguing of these shared responses are those of ‘transcendence’ or ‘numinosity’; a sense that we are connecting with something beyond our material world – timeless, wonderful and deeply enigmatic.

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The South Rose Window, Chartres Cathedral and Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII

While poetry and figurative paintings may often evoke a sense of the transcendental, for most of us it’s the more abstract, multiform experience which arouses these notions and feelings; a full orchestra playing a piece by Bach, or a large choir performing within the surroundings of a magnificent building. For the religious, these experiences are justly reassuring – construed as “a glimpse of the divine” – and for the ‘non-believer’, rather than unsettling, these ‘transcendental’ moments also provide great comfort with promises that life can somehow exceed their mundane, everyday existence.

Humankind (men especially) is not averse to self-aggrandisement, and our ability to create such wonderful art is often taken as proof that human beings – and only human beings – possess a God-given ‘soul’. But whether it be the excitement aroused from reading a thriller, the fear from a horror movie, or even the disgust we may feel towards a particular work of sculpture, who would disagree that here we are using the arts to exploit innate characteristics that have been passed down through our animal heritage? Why then cannot our rousing feelings of ‘transcendence’ not also be a product of our evolved psychology, rather than the perception of a ‘spirituality’, or some other facet of a superior intellect? After all, if we strip this notion of all the cultural contrivances, childhood memories and other detritus of our lives, what are we left with but just another ‘feeling’? And how different is this from our experiences of ‘fear’?

The renowned American psychologists, Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt explored similar questions, and linked these ‘transcendental’ responses with what they believed to be an evolved sense of ‘awe’. In a paper from 2003* they hypothesized that this ‘awe’ had developed in communal animals as an emotional response of low-ranking group members towards powerful group leaders, creating the deference and submission necessary for their systems of hierarchy to function – systems which increase the chances of species survival. Although this may be so, Keltner and Haidt’s rigid concept of ‘awe’ fails to correspond with other animal behaviours also necessary for these hierarchical systems to operate, such as the competitive drives and selective rivalry, the ferocious struggles – not only to achieve positions of status, but also to defend them.

It seems clear to me that a different kind of drive is needed here, and one very much alike to a more familiar psychological mechanism, ‘fear’. Like fear it is excitable, experienced in varying degrees, learned and attached to aspects of the world around from infancy onwards. But while ‘fear’ is an instinct of avoidance, this drive is one of attraction – a sense of ‘specialness’ that can be perceived as being attainable. Ultimately, of course, this drive is an empty illusion; a trick of the mind which has evolved to motivate animals to compete among themselves, or to resign in submissive deference. And as communal mammals ourselves, we too experience this mirage of ‘specialness’ in our own obsessions with status, in the compulsive fantasy notions spawned from ‘envy’, and in our visions of ‘romanticism’ and ‘glamour’.

The highly creative human intellect has embellished this intangible and enigmatic behavioural mechanism into grandiose and glorious concepts, and of course ‘art’ has played a significant role in this. For many centuries, and with many great minds employed, music developed such complex scores and instrumentation to succeed in chiming with this sense of ‘specialness’ most effectively. And at the other end of the spectrum perhaps, minimalist works of painting and sculpture need only imply possession of this ‘specialness’ and we dutifully fill the void of mystique with our fantasies about the almost mystical properties of art and artists; notions which our culture has instilled in us from infancy.

To rationalise the experience of ‘transcendence’ may appear like a form of cultural vandalism – reducing some of humankind’s greatest civilising achievements to basic animal functions – but consider that true civilisation comes through the recognition and harnessing of our evolved animal drives, and not from being duped by them.

* Dacher Keltner & Jonathan Haidt 2003 “Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion”
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