This morning Evelyn Dunphy of West Bath, ME, USA wrote, “Some time ago you wrote about the experience of feeling an overwhelming emotion in the presence of beauty. There was a principle named after the man who identified this feeling of awe. Who was it and what was the name of the principle?”
Thanks, Evelyn. You’re probably thinking about my letter on January 18th, ‘The Stendhal Syndrome,’ where I talked about looking at beautiful art and having rapid heartbeat, dizziness and confusion. In 1817, the French writer Stendhal was discombobulated after visiting the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. It was a similar discombobulation I was to repeat in the same place in 2010. Fact is, most of us have had wobbly legs in public galleries when suddenly confronted with art we may have previously only seen in books or online.
Or you may have been thinking about my letter of March 29th, ‘Spinoza and me,’ where I wrote about one of my favourite Dutchmen. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) felt that “all things are worthy of interest and study, including the tiniest animalcule or flower, and the universe itself.”
Spinoza and Stendhal were not the only ones to be in awe of everything. “The world,” said the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, “is full of magic things patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
That’s it. As we sharpen our senses the world becomes a more awesome place. Artists of all stripes are particularly favoured to develop a high degree of awe. Our profession demands that we see more than others and apply our love and talent to exploit it.
On our recent painting ventures into the magnificent Bugaboo Mountains, artists would step out of the helicopter and start screaming. We called these involuntary outbursts “Boogasms.” Only the seriously jaded were not having them.
A dictionary definition of awe is “an overwhelming feeling of reverence and admiration produced by that which is grand, sublime or extremely powerful.” In modern times, a great deal of awe centres on the field of science. “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable,” wrote Richard Dawkins. “It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music, art and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”
PS: “The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle and much more elegant.” (astrophysicist Carl Sagan, 1934-1996)
Esoterica: Psychologists have studied the inspirational qualities of awe. When asked to say something while viewing a brontosaurus skeleton, test subjects were more likely to speak in grandiose terms: “I, too, have been a fellow traveller on planet Earth.” When confronted with something less awesome like a stuffed domestic rat, they spoke in baser terms: “I wonder where I can get a beer.”
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
This summer a public piano was placed in my neighborhood in Montreal. I decided to play it and returned every day, weather-permitting. I can only say that what made me go back was that Stendhal had struck. Imagine playing Debussy, Chopin, jazz standards under the rustle of the trees, a cobalt sky, chirping sparrows, a full moon, the gently flowing Lachine canal. I was overcome by rapid heart-beat, dizziness and, yes, the occasional orgasm….. I was in love with our universe, in awe of the wonders of creativity, of being consumed by beauty and, as people came and went and the leaves began to scatter, I was reminded of the eternal passage of time.
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The Responsive Chord
by Brad Michael Moore, Perrin, TX, USA
I grew up equating, “Awe,” as in unison with, “The Responsive Chord.” All at once, experiencing something magnificently turning myself whole, inside and out, as a beautiful perfectly pitched tuning fork — rung by a pounding — like a kiss of lightening struck within my soul. Really, it’s hard to describe — even for a poet.
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Dawkins’s quoted passion
by Lisa Chakrabarti, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Based on Richard Dawkins’s quote: “The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable.” Its ardor seems a bit misplaced. The Arts and science are both constructs of man, and both seek to understand the nature of things, just from differing points of reference. One seeks to express, the other to explain. In the process of explanation, science disrobes nature’s mystery, and is ever questing to define the whole of it. By comparison, the arts exalt the essence of being and the nature of things without necessarily prying into the nuts and bolts of their existence. And if the arts do manage to explain, it is by implication rather than proof. His claim that science has a “deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that art, music and poetry can deliver” is subjective and hardly a scientific statement.
It might be worthwhile here to point out that Dawkins is an avowed, albeit strident, atheist. Ironically, his singing such high praises of science has an almost religious ring. While somewhat agnostic myself, I will admit that art is almost a religion to me; Dawkins seems to use science to fill a similar vacuum in his life. Dawkins’s quote implies that there is no higher entity than man, since man has created both science and art. Such arrogance! It could be argued that Dawkins means to refer to ‘nature’ rather than science. But he is too educated to make that kind of mix-up. I wonder if Dawkins himself really believes what he wrote – or was it just to appeal to the masses to further his agenda?
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Delicate perfection of nature
by Joanna Finch, Cumberland, BC, Canada
I feel these “boogasms’ fairly frequently when I am in nature or when I listen to music that touches me, or quite often when I eat delicious food. Then I call these: GO’s. Gastronomic orgasms.
The sense one gets when in the presence of perfection, enraptured by the simplest wonders of nature, is that joy and awe are intermingled with grief. I feel slight misery when I behold the delicate perfection of nature, because I know I will move onto something less interesting in a second and that moment of perfection is fleeting. I would like to have that bright-eyed awareness/wonder awakened in every passing moment. I guess that would mean my mind would have to stop looking inward and instead be fully conscious of the moment.
I sang the Blake poem, “Auguries of Innocence,” when I was in the Christ Church Cathedral choir in Victoria when I was 16. It stayed with me. I am thrilled regularly by awesome observations of art and nature. I am still sharpening my senses and noticing the world is truly an awesome place.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
Children can relate to beauty
by Ronni Jolles, Great Falls, VA, USA
When I go to MOMA in New York, and see the huge Monet water lilies piece in one of those rooms, I literally have to sit down. I find it so moving, and so beautiful, and it totally envelopes you as you sit in front of such a huge piece (like 20 feet wide?). I could totally relate to that kind of awe. And when I see a beautiful sunset or a view that just makes me have to stop and look and look and look, I figure it’s just a gift from above to those of us who see it. All of my kids are in the arts–none are visual artists, but at least I have had some effect on them because they’ll say they saw something beautiful and think of me, and I think…”Hmmm. At least they’re seeing it!”
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by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Nature demands no attention or compliment, just as W.B. Yeats eludes to in your letter; the magic is therefore us to discover and savor — or not. This other-worldly sand-shaped cone was formed by changing tides and strong winds, was one of many unique shapes found only for about one mile along a particular beach in Oceanside, Oregon. Some shapes were more interesting as groups, where the progress of the phenomenon could be speculated. Without the camera I could never describe the sophisticated beauty of each, but the multi-dimensional experience could never be captured by camera, or any other medium. I return occasionally, when new ones have formed, but they are never as spectacular as the first day, and I have never seen another cone.
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by Diane Voyentzie, CT, USA
Reading your letter today about our finite time and awe, reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Shelley. Nothing here on earth lasts forever.
Reading your letter today about our finite time and awe, reminded me of one of my favorite poems by Ozymandias
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
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Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Luc Poitras of Montreal, QC, Canada, who wrote, “The Canadian artist David Milne called this awe: aesthetic emotion. He didn’t invent the term but used it often.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Awe…