On reverence

Many people have a very strict definition of reality: only that which exists as a physical entity in the real world may be considered real. Turgenev’s Bazarov may have agreed: twice two is four, and everything else is nonsense, he gleefully proclaimed, though it may be worth asking the Bazarovs of this world (and there are many) if, given that definition, “two” and “four” can themselves be considered real, given that, when not attached to objects – e.g. “two trees” or “four cars” – numbers do not have a physical presence either. But if this is indeed an adequate definition of reality, what are we to make of our emotions – those things we all feel, such as fear, anger, joy, contentment, anxiety, apprehension, delight, and so on? I’m sure that the definition of reality is a complex philosophical issue, and one that I, as a layman, am not qualified to comment upon, but if our definition of reality does not accommodate our emotions, then, it seems to me, such a definition doesn’t come close to describing our real lives as we live them.

So let us grant that, however we choose to define reality, our emotions are “real”. Let us, for convenience if nothing else, cut through the various philosophical subtleties and complexities, and proclaim that what we feel must be real. For, without such an assumption, our thoughts, our actions, our very lives, would be based merely upon illusions.

We may describe most of our emotions by ascribing to them labels: we may label certain emotions as “anger”, or as “fear”, or as “contentment”, and be confident of being understood when we use these terms, since these emotions have been felt, we can be fairly certain, by most, if not all, other humans. There’s no point trying to formulate definitions when a general understanding already exists.

But what about those emotions that one has felt for which there is no handy label, no descriptive term or word? And which we cannot even be sure have been universally experienced? I mean those experiences that, for want of universally understood terms, we tend to refer to as “spiritual”, or as “transcendental”, or something similarly vague. Those experiences that, in Wordsworth’s words, give us a “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. Such emotions may be straying too close for comfort to religious experience, but even diehard atheists often admit to having felt this kind of thing. We may feel these things in the presence of a resplendent sunset, say; or on viewing some majestic vista from atop a mountain; or on viewing the glory of a star-emblazoned sky on a clear and cloudless night.

We may, indeed, describe the experience of these emotions as “sacred”, but here we run into difficulties: the sacred is usually defined as that which is related to divinity; however, though belief in divinity has declined sharply over the last few decades (at least, in the western world), our capacity to experience those feelings that we may describe as “sacred” hasn’t. And neither, I’d argue, has our need to experience them. So, if the concept of the “sacred” continues to hold meaning for us even if we have stopped believing in God, or even if, like myself, we’re agnostic, we must question whether the “sacred” need necessarily be tied to religion. But how can we define “sacred” otherwise? If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything. To Félicité in Flaubert’s story “Un Coeur Simple”, even a stuffed parrot becomes “sacred”.

However, if what may be deemed “sacred” is not purely objective, it is not, I think, purely subjective either. For what gives rise to these feelings are generally not stuffed parrots, but, rather, resplendent sunsets and mountain-top vistas and the like. And, also, certain works of art. This last I know for a fact, because I have felt this emotion myself when I have come into contact with certain music, certain poems, certain paintings. And, if we deem emotions to be real, then this emotion, too, must be real.

And these emotions are, I’d argue, very precious emotions, whether we feel them in the presence of starry skies, of Michelangelo’s Pietà, or even, for that matter, of stuffed parrots. Towards the end of Flaubert’s story, Félicité, her mind never too strong to begin with and now further weakened by age, as she breathes her last, has a resplendent vision of a gigantic parrot hovering above her. It is utterly absurd, yes, but at the same time, this passage has about it a sense of gravity, of solemnity, that, given the ludicrous nature of the image, is hard to account for. I find it hard to tell whether Flaubert intended to debunk the very idea of religious experience, or to elevate Félicité’s absurd vision into something significant, something that gives a meaning to her otherwise meaningless life. Perhaps there are elements of both: literature can signify many things, even contradictory things, simultaneously. But either way, the sense of rapture Félicité feels is real, even if the gigantic parrot hovering above her isn’t. That sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused exists even here, and is precious, even though there is nothing here interfused, far more deeply or otherwise.

I think this accounts for the often quasi-religious zeal many of us feel for the arts: the arts provide, or, at least, are capable of providing, experiences generally considered to belong to the realms of religion. The idea that art can, or should, give rise to such feelings remains, however, hotly disputed. There are those who insist, often quite aggressively, that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure. The arts, we are told, traditionally existed for no other reason, and that we only started to become precious about it in more recent times. For instance, Alan Bissett, in the article linked to above, solemnly tells us:

Stretching back to oral folk culture, stories were democratic in their nature, bonding communities in a shared experience. Everyone had a tale to tell around the fire; the audience could decide for themselves if it was good or not.

Tempting though it may be to picture our distant forefathers seated around a communal fire and entertaining themselves, purely for pleasure, with recitations from The Book of Job, it doesn’t seem to me an image that rings particularly true. From even the earliest of our surviving literature, it is obvious that the creators, even when they set out to entertain, had set out also to achieve more.

Bissett starts his piece by telling us that there is “art appreciation” and “art worship”, and while he allows the former to be acceptable, the latter he doesn’t. Which would be fine if he could at least explain to us what the difference is between the two, but he doesn’t. And since he doesn’t, I can only guess at what he means: I’d guess that what Bissett refers to as “art worship” is the reverence that some of us may feel for a work of art. And that, according to Bissett, is a Bad Thing. For the purpose of art, he solemnly informs us with all the earnestness of a conscientious hedonist, is to provide pleasure. Nothing more.

The claim that there can be no other point to art than to entertain and to provide pleasure, and that, by implication, anyone who claims to have obtained from art anything other than that must either be fooling themselves or are lying, strikes me as, frankly, gratuitously insulting. Even if one does not feel certain things in the presence of art, the contention that no-one else can or should feel these things either, is presumptuous, to say the least. It also strikes me as boorish and ill-mannered.

The idea that the arts can give rise to certain feelings that are close to religious emotions has long, I think, been acknowledged. Religion itself has recognised this: various religious institutions have either outlawed the arts from the act of worship, considering the quasi-religious feelings derived from art as unwanted rivals to true religious feelings; others have done the opposite, and have incorporated the arts into the act of worship, welcoming the quasi-religious as a legitimate means of approaching the religious. And in recent times, with religious beliefs receding in the West, the arts have in many cases become a sort of secular religion in themselves – a replacement for religion, providing experiences that we can no longer obtain from religion, but which we nonetheless require to prevent our lives from sinking into triviality. For a mortality in which there is nothing serious, in which all is but toys, is, we instinctively realise, a sort of hell.

Yet this hell of triviality is what many seem to recommend to us. Here, for instance, is pianist Charlie Albright, who tells us in a well-meaning article that to bring audiences back to classical concerts again, we must make it fun, and take the seriousness out of it.

Breaking down such “classical” rules will kill “classical” music — and thus save it. It will make the artform more accessible, more entertaining, and more disinhibiting … It will welcome those of us who are interested yet apprehensive about making the leap to buy a ticket to a concert.

But could it not be the case, I wonder, that the “seriousness” of classical music may well be the very reason why so many of us are drawn to it in the first place? Albright is not gratuitously offensive, as Bissett is, but interestingly, he too conjures up a picture of music once being fun, until we unnecessarily burdened it with all our deplorable seriousness. But once again, this does not ring true. The oldest music I know is the choral music of medieval composers such as Josquin des Prez, or Hildegard of Bingen, and I can’t say it is music that makes me want to get up and boogie. Beethoven wrote above the score of Missa Solemnis “From the heart – may it go to the heart”; the piece itself is eighty minutes of very knotty and immensely demanding music. Some may disagree, but I do not get the impression from this that Ludwig had set out to give his audience a bit of fun. What the music does give us, however, is something I do not have the words to describe, and for which I need once again to borrow from Wordsworth – that “sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused”. I feel, indeed, a reverence. And if anyone tells me that I am but fooling myself, and only imagining that I feel this; or even that I shouldn’t feel this; then, frankly,I don’t know that we need take this person too seriously.

I do not know how to describe these emotions, but since I can feel them, they are real. If these emotions I feel aren’t real, then no other emotion I feel can be real either. And yes, the music – or the painting, or the poem – that can give rise to such emotions is indeed something to which we owe reverence. And if that is a definition of the sacred, then yes, it is sacred, and will continue being so, no matter how many Bazarovs there may be in our world telling us that twice two is four, and all else merely nonsense.

18 responses to this post.

  1. You’re not fooling yourself and you’re right. Art is part of humankind’s quest for something more than the quotidian and Bissett is WRONG WRONG WRONG! (Sorry to use such shouty capitals on your blog!)


    • I agree. And you are undoubtedly RIGHT!!!


    • Since my initial response to Bissett’s piece was a hasty and none-too-coherent reply, I felt I should write something a bit more considered. I know it’s a piece written 9 years ago, but it states in concentrated form a lot of the nonsense that is spouted regularly – so I felt it was worth countering it!

      I feel very uncomfortable with this “intellectuals and the masses” dichotomy. Merely to pose matters in such terms is to imply that there cannot be intellectuals among the “masses”: it’s incredibly patronising.

      I, for one, am one of the “masses”. My background isn’t a particularly cultured background, and I attended comprehensive school, and then redbrick university. But why should any of that prevent me from at least aspiring to get to know high culture? And if those who are acquainted with high culture form a closed elite, then how did a pleb like myself get a foothold in it?

      There’s an awful lot of guff out there that presents itself as democratic, but is, in reality, insultingly patronising.


  2. Wonderful. And I am now, too, lost for words – but will come back and read this again when more compos mentis. Anyway, in lieu of something new, here are some recent ones from my last review of Doctor Faustus at the RSC: which go some way to explaining why I go to concerts and plays; read books and poems, etc.. They may well, also, be nonsense.


    I appreciate that many simply go to the theatre to be entertained; or [snobbery alert!] to vaunt the intellectual prowess that is evidenced by managing – just the once, Mrs Wembley – to sit through three hours of Shakespeare, or seventeen of Wagner (even if they arrived ten minutes late for their mid-row seats; drifted off occasionally; coughed and whispered in all the quiet bits; increasingly gazed at their watches in despair; fanned and/or dropped their programmes; rustled in their handbags for sweets; fired off a few Tweets; applauded, or worse, joined in with, a famous quotation, mid-soliloquy; nipped out to the loo; or appeared to be attempting several different yoga positions per scene…). I don’t.

    I go to be challenged. I go to have my mind opened; my heart broken; my soul riven. I go to be educated. I go to weep; to grow – emotionally and psychologically – to laugh; to discover my place in the world that is created in front of me, as well as its relevance to the troubling complexities that exist beyond its literal and figurative bounds. I go to be absorbed into that new interior world; to escape from the old exterior one. I go to be distracted from my constant pain with an injection of a different sort of masochistic agony. I go to retain my sanity. I go to witness and admire deities transform themselves beyond the ken of us mere mortals; to mark miracles. I go to be shocked; to have my opinions and beliefs confirmed, or challenged and transformed; to see and hear and feel things that I have never seen and heard and felt before. And may never see and hear and feel again. I go because it is incredible, unreal: but also because I know I will still believe. I go because I know that, each and every time, I will emerge transformed. In other words, I go to connect to everything I am not; to have my life enriched. I go because it is Art; because Art is humankind’s greatest invention; its saving grace; its redemption; and because it speaks to me so directly, as only Art can. I also go, because, to be blunt, it is so bloody awesome!

    And if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have experienced some of the greatest plays ever written, performed by some of the greatest actors ever born – the pinnacle of which, of course, is Doctor Faustus, about to end its long run in one of the greatest theatres I know. And my life would be so much poorer for that lack; and I would not know that, in the blackest depths of my despair, there could be – there was – salvation. So I will – I must – continue to go: to discover yet more reasons for going. And – of course – to be entertained…!


    • Thank you for posting that – I agree entirely.

      Experience with drama, music, poetry, etc. really can and do generate passion – of the kind you display in your post above. Why are so many people so keen to deny this? I really don’t get it!


  3. Posted by H.D. on August 18, 2016 at 7:39 pm

    I think you’d enjoy Pound’s ‘This Constant Preaching To The Mob’ (Poetry, 1916) by the sounds of things! https://archive.org/stream/jstor-20570826/20570826#page/n1/mode/2up I know later Pound can be very problematic, to put it lightly, but I do agree with much he says here. His point about The Seafarer is very close to yours about Job!


  4. Your post raises many questions which have long interested me. Skipping quickly past the nature of reality (although that is one of the questions and probably the most basic, I want to talk about “the sacred.” You say,

    If we decouple the “sacred” from religious experience, and describe it in more secular terms as anything to which we feel we owe reverence, then the concept of the “sacred” loses all objectivity, and, can, indeed, be anything.

    So why cannot it be anything? Let’s not preselect an acceptable experience, but base our definition on that experience, whatever it is. Rather than seeing certain emotions as emanating from a religious connection, I think it is the other way. We have – many of us – certain perceptual and emotional experiences, which many have interpreted as religious. The origins may be otherwise, but have led to a religious interpretation. I’ll accept the parrot, either as a parrot or as a living symbol of some other reality.

    You also report that some say “that the arts exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to give pleasure” and any other role is a recent development. Tell that to the Greeks who read Homer! Nor is pleasure the same as fun. It gives me great pleasure to work out the solution to a tough problem. It is far better than fun, and certainly not the same thing. Otherwise, why work at anything? Just eat, drink and be merry.


    • Indeed – why can it not be anything? I think Flaubert was posing this question as well. Why not a stuffed parrot?

      But in reality, the things that give us such experiences as those we have been discussing are not stuffed parrots: they are usually things of beauty. That we do, on the whole, respond similarly t similar things does indicate to me that everything isn’t purely subjective, as postmodernists would have it. We are not prisoners in our own subjectivity.

      As for “fun” and “enjoyment”, it becomes, as so much, matters of definition, doesn’t it? I suppose one could stretch the definition of the word “enjoyment” to cover even what we experience when we see Goya’s Black Paintings. If so, then we must grant that there are different kinds of enjoyment – since the kind of enjoyment we get from seeing Goya’s Black Paintings is obviously different from the enjoyment we get when we watch, say, Singin’ in the Rain.

      Bissett in his article does not bother to elaborate on what he means by “enjoyment”, but from the context, I’d guess that he means “light entertainment”. It’s very difficult trying to critique a piece when that piece is so badly written that you can’t tell what the author means by certain terms he uses.


  5. The parrot is clearly a mockery of the standard dove iconography of the Holy Spirit with a suggestion of the repetition of unintelligible pieties.

    As to the experience of transcendence which is established beyond the doubt of a Guardian journalist my question would be: what is the nature of the human being such that this experience is possible? Why does it appear to be so necessary to us and that a ‘city’ not having it is a Waste Land?


    • Yes, I agree, Flaubert did set out to mock religious iconography. But if that’s all he did, that ending wouldn’t be so memorable. For Flaubert achieves a sense of gravity, of solemnity; it is a very beautiful ending. It seems to me that there is more than mere mockery going on here!

      (Bissett is not a Guardian journalist, by the way: he is, I gather, a novelist, playwright, and performer. He does write occasional opinion pieces for the Guardian, though.)

      As for what it tells about humans that we need such experiences, I don’t know that I’d like to speculate. Enough for me that we have the need. And I can’t understand why anyone would wish to deny this need – why anyone should be so gleeful that they inhabit an Eliot-esque Waste Land,


  6. William Blake wrote,

    “Prayer is the study of Art.
    Praise is the Practice of Art.”

    Several writers have described their lives as “monastic.” Many more described the creative process as a sort of spiritual possession, someone else directing their pen. They even talk about the books writing themselves. Nowadays they might not speak of Muses, but creative language is still utterly visionary and deeply spiritual, even if the author is a dyed-in-the-wool atheist.

    I have yet to find an artist describe the creative process in purely logical, objective, quasi-scientific. Writes constantly talk about stumbling on ideas, of a chance incident sparking a work. Even that most unartistic of artists, Duchamp, basically recreated the concept of being visited by divine inspiration when he discovered the readymades. What else were they if not gifts from beyond?

    It’d be very interesting, peculiar even, to see a writer discussing creativity in a language that didn’t smack of spirituality, of quasi-religiousness in fact. How would that be? “I wrote 3000 words each day for one year, seven hours a day, and in the end a 300-page novel came out.” How factual and utterly empty.

    I’ve thought quite a bit about this matter, and recently I read a poet called Janet Hirshfield who’s noticed the same inclination in writers to sneak in spirituality when they least expect it:

    “Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry… Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears — paradoxically — at the moment willed effort drops away… At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present — a feeling of joy, or even grief — but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.

    This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in.” We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery and revelation. And however much we may come to believe that “the real” is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if “truth” is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.”


    The language of criativity is ultimately a language of reverence, not of entertainment. But how could Mr. Bissett understand that when does not seem to revere anything?


    • Mahler once famously said “We don’t compose – we are composed.”

      Not being a creative type myself, I have no idea what creativity involves. But so many captive artists have spoken about this mysterious process, that it becomes hard to dismiss it as affectation, or as self-dramatising. Of course, there’s a lot of fanciful nonsense spoken about this as well: contrary to popular belief, Mozart’s music did not come straight out if his head on to the paper: many of his manuscripts show evidence of immense toil on his part. There is also the well-attested osborn of Beethoven composing the gigantic fugue that occurs towards the end of the Credo section of the Missa Solemnis: he had locked himself into his room for days, pacing around, singing madly to himself like a man possessed, the meals passed on to him unbeaten, his chamber-pots unemptied … Whatever muses inspired him, he had to work tremendously hard to fashion it to his will. And, even when one does not know them story of its composition, the music itself conveys a tremendous sense of a titanic struggle. Although how much f this is willed effort, and how much ofit came when, as Janet Hirshfield puts it in the passage you quote, the willed effort dropped away, I am, of course, in no position to judge.

      I do agree with you that’s”the language of creativity it a language of reverence”. Ours is an age of scoffing and of cynicism, but if we lose our capacity for reverence, we lose. Aso our capacity to take in the most exalted of aesthetic experiences. That is surely to do ourselves an injury. Somerset Maugham once said that the cynic can always see through the fraud, but cannot always identify the saint; however, the modern brand of cynicism seems to me to lead us into the worst of all worlds – it prevents us from recognising where reverence is due, and leads us also into acclaiming all kinds of frauds and impostors.


      • I do create – however badly. As do you – however goodly?! These fascinating blog posts don’t just appear out of thin air (or do they?)! [I do like the idea of the “captive artist”: especially alongside your description of Beethoven…. And I think the creative process can all too easily feel like that, when you’re enmeshed in it.]

        As Edison said: “Genius is one percent inspiration, and ninety-nine percent perspiration…” – and it’s only a cliché because it’s approximately true (although I would never claim to be anywhere approaching “genius” status…). I may get the first line of a poem fully-formed; and then have to climb a steep cliff of trying to make those that follow sound just as “inspired”. It is easier to walk away. And can take weeks: even for a sonnet. (How do you – as with a fugue – make the “inspiration” fit the strict rules you are working to…?)

        Similarly, with music: a melody/sequence of notes, harmonies or rhythms… may sprout out of nowhere (and you then go through the whole Paul McCartney ‘Yesterday’ rigmarole: wondering if it’s truly original, truly yours…). But what do you do with it?

        If you’re composing a set of variations [on two themes, just to be difficult – as I am (both)) – then it’s probably little use: unless you want even more counterpoint (or to lead the listener astray…)]: so it sits on an ever-growing pile of sketches (which are useful – as Elgar certainly knew – when the inspiration would not come; and you could not grab the “music in the air all around us”). Sometimes, it will fit words that you’re already trying to set (because those ineffable thought processes have been going on in your brain, unrecognized). But still, the rest is slog (Hamlet was wrong…) – and, of course, there’s all the previous slog of training, experience and expertise that you rely on.

        But there can be magic! I remember Philip Pullman telling my son that he never quite knew where his characters would lead him, when writing his novels; and that the endings were often a surprise (he was ranting against the educational insistence of outlines for essays, etc.). And it does happen. Sometimes.

        Every time I sit down to write one of my long-form reviews, I stare at the screen (think of the Monty Python Thomas Hardy sketch…) for ages: surrounded by the programme; orchestral scores, etc.. And then – eventually – a first sentence will form. And then a paragraph. And I honestly don’t know where they are coming from. (I will, of course, have studied those works – or, if it’s a play, the text… – but my reaction is honestly spontaneous.) I also haven’t a clue how I remember the individual interpretations I detail; or sequences of delight; or tiny fraction-of-a-second instances that bring meaning. It just happens. (I don’t make notes at all. I just let the performance of music/words sink in.)

        And, yes, I know 50-odd years of reading/writing/absorbing music and literature is at the basis of this. But I will always have ‘blank-page neurosis’ before the words start. And I will always worry that I will rapidly go ‘dry’. And yet – poetry and music are much more more difficult… – something will always happen. (And then this will be followed by ‘full-page neurosis’ – not being able to attain anything other than subjectivity; so not knowing if what I have created is any good. All I can do is finesse whatever is there within the bounds of my own limited capabilities….)

        So… what I’m really trying to say is that, yes, creativity is (should be?) a magical, sometimes sub-, even un-conscious process. But it requires a foundation of knowledge, however acquired/built. If you’re lucky, what you create may also be given value by those who experience it… – although I have no idea how that works/happens.

      • Hello, and sorry for having taken so long to respond.

        I honestly have no idea how the creative process works. Seemingly, it is a mystery even to those who really are creative – so what chance do I have? Verdi, having looked through the score of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, dais that he found it impossible to understand how a mere human being could even conceive of such a thing. And this is Verdi – no stranger himself to creativity at levels I cannot even begin to imagine. When faced with works of the highest level, I too feel this sense of incomprehension. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Michelangelo’s Pietà … how can mere human minds even conceive of such things, let alone execute them? I have often been accused of being “over-reverent” in these matters. Maybe I am. Better than passing these things by with an indifferent shrug of the shoulders, or with dutiful lukewarm praise.

        My own efforts here are really a consequence of that scribbling habit which I cannot quite overcome, despite my knowing I do not have the creativity to create anything worthwhile. But at least I can record my responses to some of those things that are worthwhile! Especially in a world that seems increasingly to think that it’s all merely to provide a bit of entertainment.

  7. Posted by ombhurbhuva on August 20, 2016 at 5:21 am

    The etymology of reverence goes back to wer to be, to be aware of, to perceive, to watch out for.
    This suggests that ordinary perception has in it the seeds of what we normally only recognise at heightened moments often triggered by aesthetic experience. The death of Bazarov was that for me – ‘breathe on the dying flame and let it go out’ (from memory)


    • Yes, I agree that our “heightened” emotions are part of the range of our natural emotions, and not outside it. I suppose that, by definition, nothing that occurs in nature can be outside it. The denial in some quarters of the validity or the importance, or even for that matter, the existence of these emotions is to take a very restricted, and, I’d argue, an impoverished view of ourselves.

      The ath scene of Bazarov is indeed magnificent.


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