The Sacred

I took this from normblog, who got it from "SC", but it's by the neurologist Oliver Sacks:
Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The non-representational but indescribably vivid emotional quality is such as to make one think of an immaterial or spiritual world. I dislike both of those words, because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly - in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said.

So if music is not directly representative of the world around us, then what's inspiring it? One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings... I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart...

I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.

This goes into the file "thoughts, feelings, and cognitive processes that make believers and unbelievers similar to each other." I'll just say--I like Oliver Sacks.


Martin Cooke said...

Hi Jean,

That's really pretty; but the final "divorced from anything theological" seems a bit naive to me, akin to divorcing one's sense of reality from the theories of physics, or one's feelings of love and friendship from politics and ethics. While one might personally feel that way (I often do:) one surely doesn't have the power to effect such a divorce... I mean, physics is about that reality whether you like its theories or not; and I regard good music as good evidence that this world is part of something bigger and better, which is both theological and akin to what Oliver was saying (or what I thought he was saying:)

Jean Kazez said...

But he does just say "can be divorced from anything theological." He doesn't say it has to be. I don't have any personal experience of deities and the like--not that I'm hostile to it, I just don't. But someone who does doesn't strike me as irrational.

I like the way this passage captures commonalities between people who say "God" and people who say "no God". I'm not fond of the idea that "no God" means some sort of impaired ability to experience "wonder and beauty and mystery" (as Oliver puts it). The whole religion debate is polarizing in bad way... it makes both sides seem like clods of some kind.

Martin Cooke said...

You're right about the polarizing, and about why the passage is good, I think... my point was more about his idea of what "theological" means, about that being a bit naive; almost as bad as the "no God" = "no beauty" thing. It's like how we can divorce our experience of being alive from biology... but can we? We can ignore the theories of biology when we're engrossed in living, of course... but surely biology is the study of life by definition! It's like Oliver thinks of theology as more like a religious cult than the academic discipline that it is by definition (?)