"The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object....you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest." - Joseph Campbell.
This radiance, the perception of beauty, is regarded as a communication of the hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form. I find this approach to stillness very interesting. What if in yoga, pranayama, and meditation, what we are doing is opening ourselves to the ravishing beauty of life and the universe? What if the stillness we crave comes as a gift from that beauty?
I am happy to see this phrase is finally getting some airplay. The phrase, "Aesthetic Arrest" was first used by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
As opposed to the totally boring idea that in meditation, you are supposed to blank your mind, James Joyce proposed a gorgeous idea: when we are in the presence of great beauty, our minds go still. Think about that for a few days. It's a radical and refreshing notion.
I would go further, and propose a sutra, a replacement sutra for the second verse of the Yoga Sutras. It could go something like this:
Attending to the beauty of the rhythms of nature, the mind enters stillness like the ocean at dawn.
Joseph Campbell helped to make the idea known, in his lectures on Joyce: "The aesthetic experience is a simple beholding of the object....you experience a radiance. You are held in aesthetic arrest." This radiance, the perception of beauty, is regarded as a communication of the hidden power behind the world, shining through some physical form..
From an essay by Joshua Minton:
“Joyce defines proper art as that which does not pull the observer toward it or push the observer away from it, but rather holds them still in aesthetic arrest of the moment.
In this definition, if a work of art is true, it uses the forms of time and space in terms of contemporary life (people, objects, and their relationships to each other) to blow apart the illusory divisions that allow us to exist as individuals who are born from the great blank, grow old through similar stages of life, and die back into the great blank. And here we finally get to the Holy of Holies.
The Great Blank is the space between thoughts and it is what proper art is concerned with--leading the individual observer back to The Mysterious Ground of Being. We are talking about a sublime and complete dissolution of the individual and collective ego into the great void of creative energy from which all life springs. All great art that has moved individuals, and hence the world, along from social epoch to epoch has been rooted in The Great Blank.”
Here is a selection of the dialogue from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
“--Then, said Stephen, you pass from point to point, led by its formal
lines; you apprehend it as balanced part against part within its
limits; you feel the rhythm of its structure. In other words, the
synthesis of immediate perception is followed by the analysis of
apprehension. Having first felt that it is ONE thing you feel now that
it is a THING. You apprehend it as complex, multiple, divisible,
separable, made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum,
harmonious. That is CONSONANTIA.
--Bull's eye again! said Lynch wittily. Tell me now what is CLARITAS
and you win the cigar.
--The connotation of the word, Stephen said, is rather vague. Aquinas
uses a term which seems to be inexact. It baffled me for a long time.
It would lead you to believe that he had in mind symbolism or idealism,
the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the
idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is
but the symbol. I thought he might mean that CLARITAS is the artistic
discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a
force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a
universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions. But that is
literary talk. I understand it so. When you have apprehended that
basket as one thing and have then analysed it according to its form and
apprehended it as a thing you make the only synthesis which is
logically and esthetically permissible. You see that it is that thing
which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the
scholastic QUIDDITAS, the WHATNESS of a thing. This supreme quality is
felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his
imagination. The mind in that mysterious instant Shelley likened
beautifully to a fading coal. The instant wherein that supreme quality
of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended
luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and
fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic
pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which
the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as
beautiful as Shelley's, called the enchantment of the heart.
Stephen paused and, though his companion did not speak, felt that his
words had called up around them a thought-enchanted silence.
--What I have said, he began again, refers to beauty in the wider
sense of the word, in the sense which the word has in the literary
tradition. In the marketplace it has another sense. When we speak of
beauty in the second sense of the term our judgement is influenced in
the first place by the art itself and by the form of that art. The
image, it is clear, must be set between the mind or senses of the
artist himself and the mind or senses of others. If you bear this in
memory you will see that art necessarily divides itself into three
forms progressing from one to the next. These forms are: the lyrical
form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate
relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his
image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form,
the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.
PDF link to an essay by Barbara Swift.
“—Art,” said Stephen, “is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end. The esthetic emotion (I use the general term) is therefore static. The mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing.”
“Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man”
“In his discussion of what he calls “pure art,” James Joyce describes the mind “arrested and raised above desire and loathing.” I have often wondered what causes this arrested state.
Using Joyce’s definition of art as a starting point for exploring both the parts and the whole of the arrested experience, the critical words here, in sequence, are “esthetic,” “static,” and “arrested.” The word “aesthetic” is from the Greek aisthanesthai, “to perceive, to feel.” “Static” is from the Greek statikos, “causing to stand,” and “arrest” from the Latin ad + restare, “to stand still.” In combination, the three words describe a sensory experience that causes an arrested state. The state of arrest is followed by a rising above, or a transcendence.
Are there patterns in this experience, threads of similarity from individual to individual? When asked, “What experiences have caused this arrested state, and how would you describe the experience?” most people respond with a personal story. When these stories are considered in the aggregate, there are discernible patterns. Similarities appear in the elements of the experience, in the sequence of those elements, and in their effects.” - Barbara Swift
The Synapse is Holy
I love this quote from Gretel Erlich:
An intake of breath is not just oxygen, a pulse is not just the rush of blood but also the taking in of divinity through an orifice, and as it moves through, it becomes a spark. To be inspired is to have accepted spirit in the lung and heart, to watch it circulate through miles of blood vessels and capillaries whose tiny fenestrations allow oxygen, nutrients and grace to leak into the tissues of muscle and consciousness, then be taken up again, reoxygenated, and returned.
The synapse is holy. Apse comes from apsis, whose roots mean to loop, wheel, arch, orbit, fasten, or copulate, and the apse of a church is a place of honor. The synapse is the gap where nothing happens. Bodies of thoughts swim in the synaptic lake, sliding over receptors, reaching for the ones that live on the other shore. An interval of between 0.5 and 1 millisecond transpires before an impulse makes its way across the gap . . where we pause between life and death, trading water in the oblivion of a gray sea. What is a thought before it registers memory? . . . Is it like unrequited love, or a lover who is spirit only, who has no body?”
How odd that we walk around with these bodies, live in them, die in them, make love with them, yet know almost nothing of their intimate workings, the ludicrous balancing act of homeostasis, the delicate architecture of their organs and systems, or the varying weathers of their private, internal environments. Up to this point my living and breathing had been an act of faith. I existed but I didn’t know how.
A Match to the Heart, (amazon link).
ps: This page needs editing. I’ve been tossing ideas into it at odd moments.