Saturday, July 23, 2011
An Ecological Approach to Awe
There is a very interesting moment in the narrative of Geerat J. Vermeij's The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything From Seashells to Civilization, when, after laying out some of the basics of his thesis about adaptation, he describes a profound concert experience:
On a cold Thursday evening, Edith and I sit in the cavernous Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden, the Netherlands, immersed in sonic splendor, and move to deep contemplation as the sacred music of Tomás Luis de Victoria and other Spanish late Renaissance masters, performed alternately on the great Baroque organ and a capella by the choir, fills the church. Everyone and everything--the audience, the chords and melodies, the organist and his craft, the singers and their conductor, the artistry of the composers, and even the church with its echoing acoustics--have become one, a three-dimensional edifice of harmony and meaning.
I've been collecting descriptions of concert experiences for as long as I can remember, but this one is different than most. Being moved by a performance is most often described by contemporary Americans in the language of religious faith; the feelings generated by experiencing something greater than oneself most closely recall one's feelings about God. But Vermeij, as a biological scientist, offers a slightly different analogy, using the principles of ecology to account for aesthetic pleasure. In fact, after admitting that the concert is "a transcendent construction, inspired by a fervent faith in God, anchored in beliefs in miracles and creation stories and the afterlife, all doctrines I rejected long ago," he explains his being moved in terms of his own awareness of participating in a complex ecosystem, as a one component among many:
But the magic--the ecstasy created by coordinated complex machines inside a massive box of stone--endures. The components taken singly may be ordinary and undistinguished, but the whole achieves a grandeur and significance, a richness of experience, that transcends the context in which it was created....This is as compelling a demonstration as can be found of parts working together to produce an emergent whole, a unit with properties that none of its components possesses. Water, a molecule consisting of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, is utterly unlike the two component elements. It is a liquid rather than a gas at room temperature, it expands rather than contracts in the solid state, and it is an exceptionally good conductor of heat. The properties of water seem irreducible, much as our complex brain might appear to be irreducible to its many constituent parts; but in fact they arise through the interaction--the working together, or synergy--of components. Likewise in music, chords and melodies convey patterns and evoke emotions that single tones cannot. Sentences, paragraphs, and books have meanings that individual words and letters do not. Living things, too, work together to add dimensions of value, function, and meaning. Survival and propagation are themselves expressions of emergence and synergy common to all life-forms; but we humans are motivated and enriched by more than these lifewide aspirations. We perceive a greater purpose--through love, curiosity, a social conscience, helping others, and perhaps above all, through aesthetics--a deeper meaning that makes our individual lives worthwhile to others. Without that added significance, and without the intentionality that enables us to create a future according to our tastes and values, life would be empty; we would descend into apathy and callousness. Purpose and meaning, however they come into our lives, are as real and as essential as the evolved imperative to survive and reproduce.
It might be productive to place this understanding of a "transcendent construction" next to others that have come down to us over the years from more religiously-minded philosophers (enthusiasm, the sublime, etc.). In fact, I see the beginnings of a bad academic joke: "Plato, Kant, and Darwin are sitting in the audience at a concert...." Seriously, Vermeij's ecological approach to thinking about aesthetic experience recalls early American concert-goers in the 1840s and 1850s. Before reformers insisted on reverence for great works, concert-goers primarily reported being moved--sometimes overwhelmed--by the entire experience of a concert, from acoustics and seating to the sensation of mass applause. I'm not sure their experiences included Vermeij's admiration of "synergy," but they did involve heightened attention to the interaction of multiple and dynamic parts, which was, in a way, a nascent sort of ecological awareness.