Thursday, May 26, 2011

Supernatural and metanatural -- Part 2

"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch in The Voice of the Desert.

The nail. The iron nail. Vermeer is committed to exact observation and description of the natural world, no detail too small to be overlooked. There is no obvious metaphorical meaning here. The painting does not direct our attention to another reality. It celebrates this reality, the one in which we live and breathe and have our being. Vermeer's life overlapped Galileo's and Newton's. He may have known Leeuwenhoek. He is immersed in the spirit of the Scientific Revolution.

But the nail. How can the experience of a nail be -- dare I say it? -- numinous? Not numinous in the sense of the dictionary's first definition -- of or relating to the supernatural -- but of the second -- spiritually elevating, sublime.

Experience is not passive. It is a conflation of an external object and the experiencer's knowledge and imagination. A numinous experience is one that ignites a firestorm in the brain, a thrill, a rush of pleasure, a sense of the mysterious, of beauty, of overflowing fullness.

I hold an iron nail in my hand, cold and hard. There is first of all the tactile pleasure, purely sensual. But there is more, much more, that knowledge brings to the experience. What I hold in my hand is both a human artifact, rich in history -- an object that pierces wood and plaster -- and an element that is unusually common in the universe for a reason that points us to the deepest mystery of what is.

The Earth's core is mostly iron. There is iron in the crust, too, but iron has a propensity to form alliances with other elements and therefore hides in combination. The solar system swarms with iron meteorites. Iron drops onto the Earth from the sky.

All of which takes us into the cores of stars, where the heavy elements are forged from the primeval hydrogen and helium of the big bang.


Without going into detail, here is a graph familiar to any physicist, the nuclear binding energy curve for the elements. (Click to enlarge.) On the vertical axis, the energy required to break apart the nucleus of an atom into its constituent protons and neutrons. On the horizontal axis, the elements, from hydrogen to the heaviest elements. And there, at the very top of the curve, is iron (Fe), mass number 56, 26 protons and 30 neutrons, the most stable of elements.

If a star were to burn to its end, it would become a ball of iron. But before that happens other forces intervene, which can cause a star to explode and hurl its freshly forged elements into space, ultimately to become part of my body, my brain, and the iron nail in my hand.

The key to numinosity is to perceive the commonplace as part of a cosmic drama we only faintly understand, churning with powers that are perhaps beyond our capacity to know, to feel that drama unfolding in every jot and tittle of the ordinary, to be aware of being swept along on a unfolding tide of being, stars seeding the universe with the elements of life and mind -- bread, milk, wicker, brass, cloth, ceramic, wood, plaster, skin.

A nail. A hole in plaster. As Krutch said, it is not easy to live with a continuous awareness of things. We are grateful for the all too infrequent moments of numinous insight.