You don't have to be religious to experience inexplicable moments of epiphany, argues Laurie Taylor
“I don’t know how to explain what happened.” “It was a most unusual experience which I can’t put into words.” “It felt as though I was briefly outside reality.” It’s surprising how often I’ve encountered phrases like these in my interviews for New Humanist over the last four years. In most cases I haven’t included such remarks in the final draft because people have rarely been able to add anything substantial to their initial vague formulations.
My interviewees, well-known literary and cultural figures, are far from being alone. As I discovered some years ago in a study I carried out with my sociological colleague Stan Cohen, such unusual experiences, such reality slips, are well documented in literature and everyday life. William James, whose writings on psychology at the dawn of the twentieth century still have more subtlety and insight than the several thousand textbooks subsequently devoted to the discipline, talked about them as “unaccountable invasive alterations of consciousness”, sudden breaks in reality in which we have a vision of an alternative world or of the mysteries which lie behind this one.
No doubt the immediate response of some die-hard rationalists would be to dismiss such moments as examples of shallow mysticism or as the typical delusions encountered by those who have spent too long fasting, chanting or ingesting hallucinogenic drugs.
But this does harsh justice to the way in which such breaks have often engendered wholly original visions of alternative realities. Here, for example, is how one of America’s most eminent literary critics, Roger Shattuck, used just such moments to inform his reading of Proust and the surrealists:
“Normally we dismiss them, laugh them off, or at most mention them to a friend as a curiosity and then forget them. The tiny epiphany of involuntary memory around which Proust spun out the three thousand pages of his novel bears a considerable resemblance to these occurrences. The difference is he did not dismiss it but faced around and entered in like a secret opening in the fabric of ordinary experience. The surrealists went much further. Driven by extreme inquisitiveness and self-imposed daring, they dropped everything else and affirmed those moments as the only true reality, as experience of both the randomness and the hidden order that surrounds us.”
Whereas Proust’s reality slip was involuntary, other artists and poets have recommended a course of visionary training in order to achieve the same dislocation of the customary world. The poet Rimbaud wrote: “A drawing room at the bottom of the lake, mosques instead of factories… the poet makes himself a visionary by a long, immense and reasoned derangement of all the senses.”
In other versions of reality slippage it is not so much the derangement of the senses which is recommended or obtained as the loss of selfhood, the memorable moment in eastern based-philosophy when the ego disappears and one begins to have doubts about the substantiality of one’s own existence, let alone one’s power to influence the world as a subject.
It would be easy to cite other examples of how such momentary slips through the fabric constitute a prelude to new novels, poems, works of art or philosophical treatises. But what is more interesting to humanists and rationalists is the frequency with which they are viewed as the stimulus for religious conversion. The moment itself may not contain any intrinsic meaning: it is, as several of my interviewees claimed, “inexplicable”. But it is that very lack of meaning which demands a mode of interpretation, a release from incomprehension. And religion neatly fills the gap.
Here is William James’ account in Varieties of Religious Experience of the peculiar events that befell a certain Alphonse Ratisbonne in Rome in 1842:
“The church of San Andrea was poor, small and empty; I believe that I found myself there almost alone. No work of art attracted my attention; and I passed my eyes mechanically over its interior without being arrested by a single thought. I can only remember an entirely black dog which went trotting and turning before me as I mused. In an instant the dog had disappeared, the whole church had vanished, I no longer saw anything... or more truly I saw, Oh my God, one thing alone. Heavens, how can I speak of it? Oh no! Human words cannot attain to expressing the inexpressible... I did not know whether I was Alphonse or another. I only felt myself changed and believed myself another me; I looked for myself in myself and did not find myself.”
Now, although Ratisbonne does not seem to know where he is, or indeed who he is, he quickly recognises the religious significance of what has occurred to him. He has not had a blackout, a perceptual distortion or a fit. He has been “converted”.
Despite the fact that James is specifically concerned with the special nature of religious experience, he is unwilling to allow that what happened to Ratisbonne in the church of San Andrea is intrinsically religious. Instead he reaches for a generalisation.
“If abstracting altogether from the question of their value for the future spiritual life of the individual, we take them on their psychological side exclusively, so many peculiarities in them remind us of what we find outside of conversions that we are tempted to class them along with other automatisms.”
This is a mundane but valuable conclusion. James does not for one moment wish to deny the validity of the experience, the genuine feeling that one has slipped through the normal fabric of life. This strikes him as a psychologically established phenomenon. But he is anxious to insist that the interpretation of that moment depends upon the context in which it occurs.
And this is where we come back to my interviewees. They were not at all hesitant about admitting to their reality slips. These still retained some force and vitality. They were only concerned that in the absence of any other available interpretation they might be seen as inclining towards the most popular cultural interpretation of such experiences, towards some sort of vision of the transcendental.
All of which suggests that even extreme rationalists might take a more sympathetic view of those who claim that their religious affiliation derives from a sudden and dramatic conversion experience. There are, after all, good psychological and sociological reasons for accepting that from time to time we may all be subject to the sense that the taken-for-granted worldm lacks reality and density.
We might even wish to say that those who have never experienced such satori moments are far too comfortable for their own good. Religious believers can be allowed their special moments. All that remains to be confronted is what they choose to make of them. ■