Thursday, December 24, 2009


People have mystical experiences that convince them of a powerful source of inspiration, an awareness of power that is entirely “other” whether it’s another mental/emotional state or a supernatural dimension. The question we used to visit at seminary was whether “the Holy Spirit” could be “called” by devotion or discipline. (We didn’t count drugs.) Can you MAKE it happen? Recently a poll in the United States (the United States loves to ask itself about religion) said that institutional religion is shrinking but individual mystical experience is growing. It was suggested that religious institutions usually try to suppress mysticism because obviously it encourages people to go off on their own and ignore dogma, much less the building fund.

There’s a parallel here with art and schools. Conventional art schools are institutions, like it or not, and they always tend toward orthodoxy, the endorsement of a “right” way to do things, which can become confining. On the other hand, if an artist plunges off in pursuit of his or her own vision, their work can become inaccessible to others, impossible to market. So what is the right balance between the individual and the institution?

Possibly it is something we could call community, which is people together out of common vision but not hardened into an institution exists for its own sake rather than for the participating individuals. A community will form spontaneously among people who share interests or goals. A friendship circle, we might say. Or maybe a cluster of disciples around a charismatic person. Then the next person who is visionary will be received according to his relationship to that community: Jesus’ vision is the whole point; Judas’ vision is an anti-vision in the terms of the group and they will try to discredit it. Herod, the baby killer, is the institution personified.

This country tends to see art as an individual gift that is unrelated to either community or institution and yet it values “art school.” Most of us don’t trust ourselves to work out what materials to buy, how to solve practical problems of construction or procedure, or what sort of subjects to portray. We WANT to be told that if you work in oils, you should lay in the dark shapes first and then work towards white with final impasto while in watercolor you should start with the most pale areas and then get darker with thicker paint. It saves a lot of time to be told such things. And then you’ll have something to react against.

There is a puzzling phenomenon of the person who simply wants to be seen as an artist for the glamour of it all -- forget about having to stand in front of an easel all day. That’s quite a lot like the person who wants to be seen as a religious figure, but is not interested either in personal devotion or the improvement of other lives. Institutional schools can be useful in pointing out humbuggery in either art or religion, so long as they are responsible about certifying their students. But there is a sort of feral talent for art or even religion that institutional schools simply can’t see and always interpret as rebellion. Why would such a person stick around anyway?

Institutions lean to bureaucracy and hierarchy, which I tend to see as necessary evils. Bureaucracy, to my mind, is largely record-keeping and organizing for the sake of efficiency and a sort of group memory. It’s valuable when it provides clarity, guidance and some kinds of restraint for the greater good, like permitting systems or budgets. Hierarchy is also a move towards efficiency, but one even more prone to being subverted as the higher authorities get more and more out of touch with the lower levels and fringier functions. Dogma, when it really works, helps to hold the point of focus to prevent what has come to be called “mission drift.” An institution that supports both community and individuals is making their lives easier, more pleasant and more productive. An institution that uses bureaucracy and hierarchy to simply preserve the institution has betrayed the cause that founded it. (Yes, I’m talking about my seminary. And the U.S. Congress.)

Mysticism breaks out of all categories, escapes all institutions, accounts to no one. It goes beyond talent or desire and doesn’t always stop on this side of madness. By its very nature it is mysterious and unaccountable, belonging to that fourth pane of the Johari window where nothing is known -- not even ways to describe what has been touched. Some individuals seek it and some fear it. Institutions and communities may talk about it, but mysticism as an experience is individual, which makes it easy to burn mystics at the stake in medieval times or contemporaneously just ignore them.

I’m intrigued by the writing of S. Brent Plate, partly because he works on film and material culture, both of which interest me. In today’s “Religion Dispatches” (an automated aggregator) he quotes:
“The witty classics professor Norman O. Brown, in his brilliant little essay from 1960, ‘Apocalypse: The Place of Mystery in the Life of the Mind’ . . .[says]

“’I sometimes think I see that civilizations originate in the disclosure of some mystery, some secret; and expand with the progressive publication of their secret; and end in exhaustion when there is no longer any secret, when the mystery has been divulged, that is to say, profaned.’

“Brown is playing on the roots of the term apocalypse as a “re-vealing,” an “un-covering.” When all is revealed, when we are out of secrets and the sacred totally profaned, the world comes to an end.

Norman O. Brown continues his discussion, offering some suggestions:
‘ And so there comes a time (I believe we are in such a time) when civilization has to be renewed by the discovery of new mysteries, by the undemocratic but sovereign power of the imagination, by the undemocratic power which makes poets the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the power which makes all things new.’”

In, one of my favorite blogs (an interpretive aggregator of genetically based studies), it is remarked that it has been 1500 years since the birth of a new major world religion, which happened to be Islam. In some ways it was a return to Old Testament theism and the claim that “God” is an unknowable mystery that ought not to be depicted or interpreted because it CANNOT be.

Plate cautions: “. . . New media enable reformations by publishing, or making public, what was once private. In this way, new media act to reveal what was once hidden, and thus enable the world to continue to end.” This is the doctrine of “continuous apocalypse,” otherwise as known as housekeeping. (One of his examples is Gutenberg revealing the Bible to the masses.)

We must “acknowledge our need for the poet and the prophet, potentially some crazy-haired, locust-eating maniac who comes in from out of the wild to reveal something to us—a monster who de-monstrates.” Bring ‘em on.


Art Durkee said...

Terrific stuff. Speaks to me very directly, both as monstrous artist and mystic. All of it.

Unknown said...

My son could have been such a wise, wild poet and prophet, but today that's called schizophrenia.