Could you talk about these two words that you just used, “transcendent” and “numinous”? Those are two words are favorites of mine.
Well, this would probably be very embarrassing, if you knew me. I can’t compose or play music; I’m not that fortunate. But I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by hand.
But, to me, that’s the nearest I’m going to get to being an artist, which is the occupation I’d most like to have and the one, at last, I’m the most denied. But I, think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff.
You know, I think that that might be a religious impulse that you’re talking about there.
Well, it’s absolutely not. It’s a human one. It’s part of the melancholy that we have in which we know that happiness is fleeting, and we know that life is brief, but we know that, nonetheless, life can be savored and that happiness, even of the ecstatic kind, is available to us. But we know that our life is essentially tragic as well. I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.
Those terms don’t have to be attached to God. But I think a religious impulse is when you’re just all of a sudden filled with the sense of thankfulness for something beautiful or for someone or perhaps—I use the word “numinous”—or when you’re struck with some sense that there’s something beyond you. It is a human phenomenon.
I wrote a short book about the Parthenon and the sculpture of the Parthenon, the history of the building and so forth. Without that building, I would feel rather lost. If it were destroyed, for instance, I would feel that something really terrible had happened to the human species. But, I’m able to appreciate the various symmetries and, um, magnificences of the Greek style without at all caring about the cults of Pallas Athena, the goddess in whose honor the building was erected or the Obsidian mysteries that were celebrated there or Athenian imperialism, in general—all those dead beliefs as Christianity will one day be. It’s a big cultural task for me to separate the cultural achievement that religion laid claim to from the claims of religion itself. No one’s going to deny the role of religion in, for example, architecture or devotional painting (which, actually I like that the least). In music, even though Verdi, it turns out, was not a believer, under that stimulus he could produce a pretty good requiem. The poetry of John Dunn or George Herbert strikes me as having been produced by people who probably really believed what they were saying. I have to be impressed.
You write, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and the soul.” You use the word “soul” there as metaphor. What is a soul for you?
It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.
I wouldn’t argue with you about the immortality of the soul. Were I back in a church again, I would love to have you in my church because you’re so eloquent and I believe that some of your impulses—and, excuse me for saying so—are religious in the way I am religious. You may call it something else, but we agree in a lot of our thinking.
I’m touched that you say, as some people have also said to me, that I’ve missed my vocation. But I actually don’t think that I have. I would not be able to be this way if I was wearing robes or claiming authority that was other than human. that’s a distinction that matters to me very much.
You have your role and it’s a valuable one, so thank you for what you give to us.
Well, thank you for asking. It’s very good of you to be my hostess.