Monday, April 23, 2012


At last it’s happened!  My stubborn attachment to my seminary idea about religious liturgy based on feelings as described and explored by Susanne Langer has come around full circle and here she is, finally praised in Antonio Damasio’s “The Feeling of What Happens.”  I had not understood that she took an academic beating because of being linked to William James or I would have given up all that nonsense about poetic rhetoric and gone straight to James, who is admired by many Unitarians, so often contrarian.  Too bad my thesis advisor, John Godbey, is no longer living so I could tell him about this.  (He thought I was engaging but a little deranged and couldn’t really defend me.)
The problem has been the proper sequence of “feelings” (with a couple of layers missing), an understanding of emotion as part of rationality, and objects as defined by object-relations people.  (None of them mentioned here.)  Damasio is a primary level neurologist -- that is, he does research on the most organic and functional level of the brain/body complex, mostly responding to the consequences of damage.  Yet he is sharply analytic.  But even after revealing distinctions are made, mostly based on the evolution of the brain as it became ever more complex and more abilities became emergent, we have no terms for them.  So Damasio ends up talking about protoself, self, feelings, unconsciousness feelings, “felt” feelings, and feelings about feelings -- the feeling that you are feeling something which is your felt self.  Part of Damasio’s task has been finding names for these stages.  The task of the reader of Damasio is learning the parts of the brain, which is exceedingly complex!  One important thing is that the most vital functions are lower and in the center, while damage in the outer layers at the sides and top are more likely to allow survival in the face of loss of function.
This work complements -- even confirms -- my thinking about Victor Turner’s “crossing the threshold” (entering a mood), feeling a liminal space where one is able to change or reconfirm one’s basic convictions, and then changing consciousness back into the larger world, but now I see that there is work to be done with objects presented as part of liturgy.  Objects in Damasio’s terms are not just 3-D concrete sensory objects, but also concepts and, yes, feelings.  Part of the art of liturgy is investing “objects” in an aura of meaning, which is something we do all the time in our lives, but not so deliberately.  It’s not just the chalice that assumes meaning, not just the flame burning in it, but ANY special concept of significance and perception, like Communion itself.  Or maybe something entirely different, like a bundle of animal skins.  Which objects, what significance, is determined in the realm of ecology and culture.  The enchantment is not powerful through a television screen: we are evolved to deal with the reality of the entire sensorium -- not just sound and sight.  And the entire body, including movement.
Before this book I already understood that there are many small modules in the brain and that not everyone develops the same set -- except for the basics usually present at birth and necessary for survival -- and that some people had “knock-out brains” (like mice with one of their genes "knocked out") in which some modules have gone missing for one reason or another: lesions, infections, fevers, parasites, heredity, environmental lack.  Maybe simply failure to develop.  But I hadn’t thought a lot about what that might mean to the individual.  I’ve known that some people could not learn to read, for instance, could NOT.  And there is a family that has never inherited the ability to speak, to form words of any sort.  But they get along -- they know what things are and how to use them. “Knockouts” might be far more subtle: inability to sort, failure to focus. etc.  Things that might be taken for psychological difficulties.
The way brains handle emotion and feeling may vary enough from convention that behaviors and personalities are troublesome.  We want those people to have “therapy,” to be adjusted.  This includes everything from the inability to sit still to desiring the same gender for sex,( i.e. homosexuality), to getting morbidly obese and maybe to setting fires.  Therapists have been very resourceful about devising ways of controlling such folks, but maybe it’s like trying to therapize a cat into being a dog.  Only a little bit successful.  Maybe we (Who are WE?  What is our entitlement?) have to control them (Are they so Other?) in a special environment, not designed to be punishment but rather to be a support and guidance -- we do that now.  Or maybe there’s something physical that could be done, though that’s a scary and slippery slope.  (Lobotomies and electroconvulsive seizures?  Compensatory molecules?)  Still, maybe some of this is such subtle stuff that the solution is as simple as getting a different job.  
I read that three or four out of a hundred are this or that:  without consciences, or with unformed boundaries or unable to learn to read.  Since this town is a little more than three hundred people, then we must have several of each kind.  Some of them are obvious but they don’t get arrested.  The “holding environment” of peer pressure keeps them from doing what they might otherwise do -- take off all their clothes or punch people.  In a city everyone might just walk around them -- I vividly recall Bob and I walking down a Greenwich Village sidewalk where a man was slashing at the pedestrians with a knife.  Everyone just walked around him and since he was very drunk, he was easy to avoid.  We would not do that here.  We would call his brother to come get him.  Or the sheriff would know him by name, have been keeping an eye on him, and pick him up.  It’s dangerous to depend on peer pressure, of course, and on the rez it can easily turn to real violence or vigilante action like the “stand your ground” guy.
Omar Little and his crowd on "The Wire" would ask (meaning “do you get it?”) “you feel me?”  Feelings.  Emotion.  We’ve been ignoring them except in music.  No wonder the Arabs throw slippers at our heads.  Now suddenly we’re asking,  “What the heck DOES Mitt Romney feel?”  And “Don’t you think Obama is a little TOO cool?”  Everyone likes Gingrich because his little chipmunk face is always FULL of feeling.  We miss Clinton.
Back to the beginning.  Religion is big in the news but everyone thinks it’s about theology, the argument over whether God exists or not.  In fact, that’s not the marker of a soul-changing liturgy, which can transport you to the feeling of sublimity and meaning and then lead you back down the mountain enlightened without ever mentioning God.  We just need to feel ourselves feeling, and then we’ll know what we mean.  Getting you there is the task of the liturgist.  Explaining HOW is what I’m up to.  Of course, the average Sunday morning will not be so grand . . . or grandiose.

1 comment:

Karen Scott said...

I'm sure everyone has had the experience
of familiar things losing their aura when
a loved person dies. Or when the family
home no longer holds the enchantment
of their childhood. But how do you put the
genie back in the bottle or into the bottle
for the first time? To feel transported, or not to feel, that is the difficulty, is it not?