Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Walking wary

Virginia Woolf called them "moments of being," those unanticipated encounters with something in nature (including, of course, human nature) that sets one back on one's heels, drops the jaw, sends chills up the spine. I use clichés, but the experiences are anything but clichés. What makes them special is the way they break through and illuminate what Woolf calls "the grey cotton wool" of everyday experience.

Sylvia Plath describes these rare and precious encounters in her poem Black Rook in Rainy Weather. "Spasmodic tricks of radiance," she calls them. A "celestial burning" that takes possession of an ordinary object, setting the sight on fire. A wet black rook, arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain: Something utterly ordinary that suddenly flares out as miraculous.

We are not talking about rooks alone, of course. We are talking about the self in interaction with the world. The flare flows both ways. The rook is illuminated by mind. The mind is set afire by rook. Don't go to psychologists or neurologists to explain what is happening; they are a long way yet from understanding. Go to the poets and mystics, who can't explain but do describe.

"Hallowing an interval otherwise inconsequent," says Plath.

And so it is that we walk blind and deaf through a world that by and large seems commonplace, inconsequent, and mute, whereas in fact even the most ordinary thing -- a leaf, a cloud, a face -- is miracle enough to exhaust our analytic powers, waiting, hoping, for the touch of grace, the breaking through.

I am aware that the two writers I have quoted, Woolf and Plath, were ultimately overwhelmed by the "dull, ruinous landscape." A particular sensitivity to the contrast being light and dark was surely part of their genius; it would seem that their savage gods demanded the ultimate sacrifice as the price of their Promethean gifts. As for the rest of us, we live without their depths of darkness, but also with the minor lights, those treasured moments of being when we are gifted with the understanding that the apparently ordinary is blindingly special.