Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Last month on this blog, I remarked on the cognitively dissonant revelations that sometimes break into our daily quotidian lives regarding collective, global, or cosmic concerns. I described in that post how some scholars view our efforts to manage this dissonance through personal meaning absolutely absurd, while others offer ways of countering it through personal conviction and familial relationships. This month, as my final contribution as an intern for the Humanities Center, I would like to take a different tack on the issue—this month, I would like to consider not how texts remark on this divide, but rather how media can present experiences that initially  increase this dissonance yet simultaneously function as tools to help us to manage it.

Looking back over my undergraduate experience, I can pinpoint specific personal instances of literary and artistic transcendence—situations in which my experience with media has been wholly indescribable in words—untranslatable. I use the word transcendent here not only in a strictly religious sense (although those experiences are completely valid), but instead in a mode of taking me out of myself, reminding me of the world outside of my mind, connecting me to spheres that seem greater than my own life and even greater than my own language. In doing so, I realize the complicated position in which I’ve placed myself: language isn’t enough to describe these experiences, and yet in order to evidence my own interactions in this vein, I will have to attempt that very thing. I beg your patience as I do so, drawing upon your own personal experiences to supplement my inadequate renderings. I also recognize that scripture is explicitly meant for these very transcendent purposes; in this post, however, I hope to focus on how my humanities education has provided a fitting companion to those experiences, functioning in a slightly different, while still compatible, way.

Perhaps the first of these experiences occurred when I was a freshman. While having no idea what “The Humanities” were as a discipline, I opted for IHUM 101 to fulfill a required general credit (it fit my schedule the best, if I remember correctly). At the time, I had no idea that the humanities would become so important to me—had no inkling about the Humanities Center, for instance, and my eventual role in its functioning. And the course itself didn’t actually lead me here; many other intermediary steps were needed. Regardless, the course did become quite meaningful to me. One class in particular stands out. It was towards the end of the course, as we were culminating our education about many of the art forms we had learned through opera. Our instructor, a dedicated graduate student, played for us a clip of the “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute. Something about the intersection of malicious intent and beautiful, light, high notes transfixed me. It all seemed grander than my own personal life, something of great importance that I was normally too busy to attend to. I felt myself changed, transformed, in a way that no one else in the class was (I looked around to see if anyone else felt the same way, to no avail).

Over the course of the next several years, I would come to experience this same feeling multiple times: a performance of Symphonie du Hanneton in a course on theater history; William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in a British Literature class; Sergei Polunin’s routine set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”; Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op 7 No 1”; Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day; Viriginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Each of these media provided me with a way of escaping my own limited cognition and interacting with something external, something of greater importance. They introduced me to grander concerns. They expanded my visionary horizons. While providing an untranslatable experience, they simultaneously seemed to connect me with other people, or at least to give me the desire to do so.

Some might say that what I was experiencing wasn’t quite “transcendent” in a spiritual sense—that I was only experiencing heightened emotion and that I imagined the more expansive, connecting elements. They may not be far off, but I don’t find that problematic in the slightest. David Brooks of The New York Times has described how it might be time for a return to emotion as a viable and sophisticated response to life. Drawing upon what he sees as a systemic problem, Brooks asks why politicians—the most “socially attuned people on earth”—are “dehumanized when they think about policy.”1 He traces blame back to what he calls “the great amputation”: the severing of emotion from rationality in the Enlightenment. In response, he calls for a “new view of human nature,” a “new humanism” a “new enchantment.” With the help of current cognitive and behavioral science, this new perspective would entail a renaissance of emotion as a respected mode of intellectual interaction. After all, according to Antonio Damasio, “emotions are not separate from reason, but they are at the center of reason because they tell us what to value.”

So my personally transcendent experiences might be wrapped up in emotion, but that emotion can tell us something quite powerful. Perhaps it is a confluence of emotion and intellect (perhaps it is only that confluence) that can expand us past ourselves and connect us to collective, global, and cosmic spheres of existence. In this way, media may be able to present us with the same cognitive dissonance with which I opened this post. At the same time, though, media may help us to negotiate personal and other concerns by mediating the distance between the multivalent spheres of life.

Let me close by offering one more transcendent piece of media. This one comes by way of Robert Hass, whose “Meditation at Lagunitas” might itself provide a comment on emotion as a valid intellectual mode:

All the new thinking is about loss.

In this it resembles all the old thinking.

The idea, for example, that each particular erases

the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-

faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk

of that black birch is, by his presence,

some tragic falling off from a first world

of undivided light. Or the other notion that,

because there is in this world no one thing

to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,

a word is elegy to what it signifies.

Since words are arbitrary, the speaker worries that nothing can truly matter, that feeling is just a stand in for an absent meaning. However, the speaker goes on to explain how he met a woman and felt “a violent wonder at her presence.” This experience signals to him that meaning persists despite loss; that presence matters in spite of our inability to fully encapsulate it; perhaps that transcendence is possible within mortality:

There are moments when the body is as numinous

as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,

saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.2

Presence yet persists. Things still mean. And although presence may sometimes only realize personal meaning through emotion, such configurations don’t take away from the meaning itself. The speaker of the poem can still transcend himself and commune with others through such words as “blackberry.” Words still connect rather than divide. They expand existence.

I am grateful for the presences in my life. For the texts and artworks that provide me with emotion and intellectual fodder. For the professors, classmates, and students who introduce me to such transcendent materials and commune with me over them. I count myself incredibly fortunate to have had the myriad opportunities I have been given since I first entered BYU that help me to negotiate personal and collective, cosmic concerns. And I hope to carry that light forward: to teach others to say with me, blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.


[1] Brooks, David. “The Social Animal.” TED, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGfhahVBIQw&t=921s.

[2] Hass, Robert. “Meditation at Lagunitas.” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47553/meditation-at-lagunitas.

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