Into the Morass, Part I

It’s time to begin talking about language, philosophy and Zen. Hence the morass. This is a huge topic which, if approached straightforwardly, has the promise of being transcendental quicksand. I will try to be clear, a hopeless task. But lack of clarity is only to be expected when journeying into a verbal swamp. The real challenge is to avoid a numbing boredom. So I’ll start with a story.

In an Easterly part of Oregon’s Diamond Peak Wilderness lies Fawn Lake, pretty in the summer, but with a much nicer ambiance in the winter. Naturally Fawn Lake is a popular cross country ski destination. Some time ago I was there with friends resting at the shore of the lake on a pristine winter day. The lake was hard frozen, covered with sparkling white snow while in the background behind the sides and back of the lake, with their dark, partially snow-covered firs and hemlocks, rose snow covered mountains, Redtop and Lakeview. These were not huge, impressive mountains, but just large enough to be an esthetic setting for the lake. As we sat there, we heard voices. A party of five or six young folk was approaching the lake via the main trail which comes to the lake fifty or sixty yards from where we were sitting. This trail for the last hundred yards or so runs straight at the lake, surrounded by trees and brush with no view whatever. Then it descends a final slope to the lake shore. We could hear the voices, but could not make out what they were saying, though there was much merriment and banter. One voice was that of a young woman. With my male imagination I visualized her as attractive, witty, but possibly a little empty headed and definitely absorbed with the social situation. As the party descended to the lake there was silence as they concentrated on the final downhill run. Then the female voice came distinctly, “But it’s beautiful.” As she said “beautiful”, her voice faltered and broke. She was clearly in tears.

I’m interested here in the experience she had just before she spoke those words. And interested also in my reaction at the time. I did not break out into tears, but felt a great joy at realizing that a fellow human being had had a wonderful epiphany, had truly seen the scene, and had been overwhelmed by the experience. Where language comes in is that the actual realization experience of both of us here, in the moment this experience happened, was beyond words. Language, the greatest of all human inventions, can talk about this experience but cannot, in thought, re-create the actuality.

I will give further examples of epiphanies and their relation to language. But first I’ll talk a little about the word “epiphany” itself and the related, “mystic” and “enlightenment”. When I use the word “epiphany” I refer to a basic experience of wordless meaning or understanding. The experience may lead later to an expression in words; for example, “But it’s beautiful.” On the other hand, it may be a silent realization of meaning or understanding. The experience may be of different intensities, weak or overwhelming and may or may not be accompanied by emotion. I use the word in a rather abstract way as implying nothing about the world, there is no connotation about “being on a road to Damascus”. For that I would use the phrase “mystic experience”. For me, and I think also in common usage, “mystic” carries often with its intensity an illogical confirmation of a metaphysical, religious, magical, or supernatural reality. Whenever I use “M” word my meaning will include an exposition of the accompanying myth; however, I will not consider the experience as confirming a belief. (More later on this topic.) The word “enlightenment”, the big Buddhist word, is unfortunate in the sense that it may well be meaningless. It can be considered perhaps as some kind of ultimate epiphany. Following the Soto Zen point of view of “gradual” enlightenment, I’ll stick to “epiphany” and let enlightenment take care of itself.

Now to examples of epiphany. Examples obvious to me are the appreciation of music and fine arts. I enjoy lots of music and this everyday enjoyment, I suppose, may be called epiphany lite. A “real” epiphany for me occurs only occasionally mostly listening to classical music in what I would naturally call a great performance. In fact, often I hear a performance that is note and rhythm perfect, as far as I can tell, but I have no deep response. Is it the fault of the performance or of me? Whatever the case, when an intense epiphany does happen with music it is a case where I doubt anyone would claim that the epiphany is not real because it cannot be put into words. Similarly with the fine arts. In the Prado museum, in Madrid I can look at what is perhaps its most famous painting, Las Meninas, with admiration, but without any emotional spark. However, when I walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York I’m immediately “blown away” and walk from one painting or sculpture to another in a daze of continuous epiphany. Again the actual experience cannot be called up by words or recollection.

With music and fine arts things are simple. With language things are more complicated. One may get into ideas about the “two cultures”, the humanities and sciences, and things get interesting. (With language we’re getting near the quicksand which I’ll try to avoid.) For my first language example, let me introduce the great 20th century physicist, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, often referred to as PAM Dirac. Stories about Dirac abound and I will tell one. If you are a non-mathematical reader, you should know that even people with a great aptitude for math and theoretical physics often find themselves at sea. Such happened to a physicist attending a conference during a lecture by Dirac, who, incidentally was a master of clear exposition when it came to technical matters. In this case the confused physicist at the end of the lecture during the question period, raised his hand, stood up, and said something to the effect of “Professor Dirac, I didn’t quite understand the part of your lecture where you talked about ‘blah, blah and blah.’” He then sat down and awaited an answer. There was a very long silence. Finally the moderator said, “Professor Dirac, aren’t you going to answer the gentleman’s question?” Dirac, always very polite and speaking simply to the point, replied, “That was not a question, but a simple statement of fact.” This story is amusing because it shows a genius blind to the conventions of common language. It hints, however, at Dirac’s gift, an ability to see a deep, meaningful structure in the midst of insanely complicated mathematics. With quantum theory, on the one hand, there is linear algebra with its matrices and vectors having an infinite number of components, and on the other, partial differential equations operating on functions, whose arguments are real, but whose expression contain “imaginary” numbers. These two ways of doing quantum mechanics are called “representations” which express different “points of view”. They resemble one another seemingly about as closely as marmalade resembles taco sauce. Dirac, after switching to math and physics from electrical engineering in the early 1920’s, finally made it to Cambridge University. As a student there in 1925 his adviser passed on to him Heisenberg’s first great quantum mechanics paper. (See Paul Dirac in Wikipedia). This paper expounds the matrix-vector representation. Dirac soon saw how to strip away the complex particulars and go to a deeper, simpler, more abstract level, which allowed transformations among the different points of view. The deeper abstract theory in a way is easier to see and understand than all of the more complicated points of view that lead to it. After encountering it, at some point, I came to see it as profoundly aesthetic, simply as a great work of art. Never mind the mathematics. This was my epiphany.

Let me turn now to poetry and its epiphanies. I start by making a muddy, but useful distinction I came up with around my senior year at Stanford. The distinction is between aspects of language. The syntax of language and the semantics. Structure and meaning. Syntax concerns the rules of grammar how sentences are put together. Semantics concerns the meaning carried by language. This distinction is muddy because it does not really hold up. Consider the last epiphany example, the abstract expression of quantum mechanics. The beauty and hence the meaning (semantics) lies in what could be called pure syntax, the structure. However, much of the power of the epiphany came to me from the partly unconscious realization of the underlying “concrete” (sic) mathematics underlying the theory as well as the idea of moving among different points of view, all equally true: marmalade is no better or worse than taco sauce, each is valid with its own joys.

With poetry we have a similar sort of thing going on. When poetry works well a new kind of syntax merges with the words and meaning emerges. Consider a few of the lines from Wallace Stevens’s masterpiece, Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction. Incidentally, before he wrote this poem Stevens thought deeply about the idea of a supreme fiction, an idea we will take up when we again consider myth at some point. Start with the end line of the stanzas I consider.

Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

A straight prose line that seems to make little sense. However, after reading some of the lines that precede this one, this and the preceding lines become totally mind blasting. The stanzas begin

The poem refreshes life so that we share,
For a moment, the first idea… It satisfies
Belief in an immaculate beginning

And sends us, winged by an unconscious will,
To an immaculate end. …

Stevens goes on… then

We say: at night an Arabian in my room,
With his damned hoobla-hoobla-hoobla-how,
Inscribes a primitive astronomy

Across the unscrawled fores the future casts
And throws his stars around the floor. By day
The wood-dove used to chant his hoobla-hoo

And still the grossest iridescence of ocean
Howls hoo and rises and howls hoo and falls.
Life’s nonsense pierces us with strange relation.

Just reading and copying these lines the epiphany happens to me. However, we cannot program epiphany. You, dear reader may find these lines are simple nonsense without any relation, strange or otherwise. Although as a practice I favor Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen with its Mondos, has an aim similar to that of modern poetry, the aim of inducing a deep epiphany. Getting back to Dirac, once more, he did consider poetry and with his peculiar mind came up with this quote

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible.”

Was Dirac unaware he was writing great poetry? Actually I think not. He simply discounted his “mystic” (sic) insights, wrote them down in mathematics and was unaware that they had anything to do with his genius. Such is the false dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences that our culture preaches. More about that in another post.

I’ll bring this post to an end by noting that epiphanies are where you find them; not only in nature, life, athletics, the arts, science, history, engineering, but everywhere, everywhere. The aim of religious practice is to sensitize oneself to their presence, experiencing them in the proper way, seriously, with total openness conscious of their wordless meaning.

One thought on “Into the Morass, Part I

  1. I have been thinking alot about what you wrote, mainly, ” epiphany”. I’ve been trying to figure out, have I ever had an epiphany? I wasn’t sure if I had….but then when you wrote about music, I remembered. I had gone to a John Hyatt concert in Rutland, Vt. And he had two guitarists, a base, and a drummer with him. One of the guitarists, he did a solo. It was so good, it was if the music you could see floating out from his guitar and into the air. I was stunned. Never before had I actually seen the music.
    Then thinking of art, I went to the Boston Museum of Art to see the exhibit of Monet. It was the first time for me to go to an actual museum of art and I was in my early 40’s. There I stood, looking at the different paintings of Haystacks. It took my breath away. Same haystacks, but different time of day, different season, every one, everything different. So much color, so much paint, layer upon layer, turning each into works of pure enjoyment.
    Poetry…..Bill writes poetry….and his words are written down on anything he can find to write on. Cardboard to yellow legal pad. I guess I have an epiphany when I read his poems too. They express so much of his soul, again, his heartfelt words take my breath away and i am in awe. Those so far as I can think through, are my epiphanies.
    I am so grateful that, little by little, I can have these experiences. I don’t look for them, I have no bucket lists, ( don’t care to think of lists to do before I die) I live for the moment and when something wonderful happens….an epiphany! Awesome!!!


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