Evolutionary Aesthetics

I’ve been wondering how we’ve come to associate aesthetic values the way we do. I’ve been reading that our human nature, our genetic inheritance, has, over the millennia, found beauty in those things that reflect or resemble qualities necessary for basic survival like verdant planes, water sources, food animals in visual representations, the social bonding realized in sharing structured, repetitive rhythms musically and sculptural representations of fecundity and animal nobility.

I get this, you know, but now I’m reading that the impulse to create art was, and still is I guess, a mating tactic, a way to impress prospective sexual partners with the superior quality of one’s genetic make-up and intelligence. The idea does seem to explain, to some extent the artistic temperament, the volatile and delicate ego that seems characteristic of those engaged in art-making.

Being of a reserved nature myself, I’m good with leaving the romantic intrigues to the more flamboyant among us..

The Limitations of Language and Memory

I’ve been thinking lately that language is a limiting and essentially inadequate means of describing experience. (As I think about this it occurs to me I’ve probably thought this very thing before; in fact, I doubt I’ve had a truly original thought anytime recently).

Anyway, language may be the only way of describing experience, but the descriptions rendered no matter the mastery one may have of the written word will fall well short of sufficiently describing the color and complexities of sensual experience.

Roland Barthes, The late French literary theorist, apparently said that man does not exist prior to language. If I might be so bold as to contradict such a noted scholar, my experience suggests to me such an idea is nonsense. Such a statement would have to mean my colorful and complex sensual experiences can only occur to my conscious self in the form of language; that until language supervenes upon my colorful and complex sensual experiences that my most wonderful remembrances don’t exist.

But, then, maybe my memory is going, I am aging after all; brain cells are being lost. Still, the visual imagery is there and doesn’t seem to require captions. I’m thinking language is over-rated. It simply is unable to account for the ineffable.

Nature/Nurture

I’ve been reading lately, about the on-going controversy regarding the development of the human persona. There seems to be, among psychologists, a never-ending debate as to whether we inherit, genetically, the intellectual tools to decipher, through our senses, the world around us or whether we arrive on this earth without a clue.

Those on the ‘nurture’ side of the argument tend to view the human intellect as being formed for the most part by the culture in which we grow up. The values we hold dear, our sense of place in the world, our spiritual nature are written on the blank slate of our being by our unifying culture.

The ‘nature’ folks, on the other hand, site the cross-cultural similarities humankind shares. Western cultures, primitive tribal groups and most all cultures between are amazingly similar in how social relationships function, the significance of spirituality, development of art expression and the use of moral taboos. The cultural commonalities would suggest the pre-natal slate was anything but blank.

On the ‘nature’ side I suspect all of human kind views itself as special beings of superior intelligence within our respective worlds which would seem to suggest a potential unifier; something to bring us all together; to encourage cooperation. I guess it must be the ‘nurture’ aspect of our being that creates divisiveness, religious conflicts, ideological differences, a misplaced sense of superiority over those unlike us.

I guess who we are is a bit of both nature and nurture; it would seem to me a push toward the nature side would be beneficial to all.

The Dangers of Religious Fundamentalism

I’ve been reading that one of the primary drivers of religious fundamentalism is the sense of feeling under siege: the opposition, anyone holding a perspective contrary to the orthodox view, is identified not simply as apostate but as the enemy: immoral and evil.

With the firm belief God is on their side, fundamentalists embrace a world view that may include cosmic battle against the forces of evil.  Fundamentalists convince themselves they are the chosen ones of God which sometimes leads to nationalistic fervor and an aggressive political stance and may even include the idea of replacing secular government and constitution with the tenets of their religious beliefs. They evangelize, convinced anyone not a believer is doomed to eternal Hell, which I suppose might be considered somewhat altruistic ( the evangelizing that is), if the rigidity of their demanded beliefs weren’t quite so outrageous and their methods of conversion less oppressive. These folks take their sacred writings literally, a gift from God, inerrant, any metaphorical allusions lost on their determined black/white perspective. So, the fundamentalists flex their muscles in tense confrontation, waiting for the sign from God signaling Armageddon.

Whew! This all might make exciting TV drama if it weren’t so real.

 

 

 

Spiritual Common Ground

Having spent some time recently visiting a Christian pilgrimage site of some considerable significance to believers (and history buffs as well), it became apparent to me the penitents amongst the crowds stood out. It was pretty clear there is a deep emotional engagement, a heart-felt belief in the Christian dogma many of the pilgrims feel and adhere to.

It got me thinking about the sort of commitment other spiritual engagements require of their followers if their followers can be expected to remain followers. Other than Reformed Judaism which appears to be based pretty much on cultural tradition most other religious endeavors expect, if not an emotional commitment, an intellectual discipline whereby the metaphysical can be approached, the value of which for the honest participant is cultivation of a groundedness that is helpful in seeing through and beyond the petty and not so petty distractions life presents with considerable constancy.

Problems tend to arise when differences in doctrinal beliefs lead followers to deny the legitimacy of other traditions. It would be good, I think, if more adherents would focus on the common rather than the different and set aside the arrogance of an assumed superiority.

 

 

A Richer Existence

I’ve been reading a treatise by the much respected religious historian Mircea Eliade that offers the theory that religious man has a richer existence than someone without religious beliefs.

As Professor Eliade sees it, those who see the physical world as an embodiment of the sacred will more often be able to rise above the profane world to a spiritual plane, basking in and identifying with the sacred. Non-religious man, on the other hand must exist without such a dimension, limited to the hard reality of a profane existence and the anxiety of ultimate mortal extinction.

But, he says, even non-religious man hasn’t completely eliminated the structures of the spiritual from his reality. As religious man may, through ritual passage, be symbolically reborn to greater awareness of the sacred, so too non-religious man will likely transition between life-styles, new living locales and changing occupations, and will experience a sense of newness akin to spiritual rebirth.

I guess we can never completely discount our deeply embedded humanity.

A Deeper Intuition

I’ve been reading that, in centuries past, some very bright and talented men held that within human nature an ‘inborn knowledge’ existed. But, what exactly this inner faculty was, wasn’t so easy to explain or necessarily easy for folks to recognize being housed as it was (and still is, I guess) within the subconscious. This innate psychic potential could, it was believed, foretell future events to those awakened to the ability, and numerous examples of just such occurrences were collected by the true believers, among whom was Johannes Kepler (the renowned 16th century mathematician) who also believed, along with numerous others, that each of us is under the influence of astrological movements that form our characters and behaviors and feed our psychic awareness.

So, before science gained the firm grasp on our sense of reality that it has today, explanations of why we feel, behave and act the way we do had firm bases in the occult. And, lest we dismiss these ideas too quickly we must admit that we do have déjà vu moments now and again and there are times when I’m hard pressed to explain the nature of my sudden psychic discomforts.

I have this nagging feeling I’ve traveled these same roads somehow, somewhere before.

Divergent Narratives

My companion and I have recently completed a three week trip through southern Europe. One might call what we did a vacation, I suppose, but traveling the way we do it involves coordinating train schedules, locating pre-arranged housing, meeting voucher deadlines, acquiring foodstuffs that are compatible with cooking facilities, all requiring miles traveled on foot, all of which is hard work resulting in thorough and complete exhaustion at the end of most days. The rewards, though, are rich in personal encounters and experiences, and, in our opinion, well worth the effort.

Upon completion of such an adventure we are ultimately required by friends, relatives and acquaintances to offer a narrative. The shared experiences, however, don’t translate to a common story, which, I suppose, one could attribute to differing focuses of attention and/or memory lapse, but, it seems to me, the remembered experiences are so varied that one can only assume the unique worlds in which we each exist defy a common reality. We must, I guess, all get along day to day unaware, most of the time that the person next to us is a truly alien presence.

A Sense of the Sacred

So, I was reading that the most hardened atheist more than likely has some sort of sense of the sacred. It may be in the remembrance and contemplation of a personal past experience or as an instance in time and space when an acute awareness of the efficacious natural world transcends the mere physical. I suppose there are all sorts of possibilities.

Anyway, after reading a very convincing tome suggesting the likelihood our universe came into existence from nothing: that’s no space and no matter for that matter and certainly no creative overseer, I’ve nevertheless come to realize a sense of the sacred is and always has been a part of my reality. As exciting as the new theories and discoveries in particle physics are I still, and suspect I always will, relish the enrichments I experience from a cool breeze on a warm summer’s day that often mean more, have a greater personal significance than can be explained by science.

As I sit here surrounded by nature, despite the potential distress the wood tick crawling up my pants leg may cause and the lack of potable water to quench my thirst and the ache in my back due to an unseen mud hole, the sacred, nevertheless is present.

Where the Lions ate the Christians

I’ve recently visited a place, an arena where, around two millennia ago, Christians, who apparently didn’t fit in well at the time, provided great spectacle as prey for very angry and very hungry lions. I must admit this particular place has lost a lot of its potentially grizzly impact since becoming a tourist magnet, you know, cleaned up, no blood anywhere.  Nowadays the pushing and shoving amongst the hordes of Christian visitors themselves suggests a sort of sadistic propensity for pain.

Anyway, the culture in charge at the time, a couple millennia ago, found the minority sect to be disrespectful of the established gods so lion fodder they became. Of course a few centuries later the Christians were torturing and burning those they found to be heretical to their faith.

Considering the religious maneuverings in politics these days one can only be dismayed at how slowly the wheels of evolution turn.