Monday, March 18, 2013

That Oceanic Feeling


"I remember once, coming back from Italy, half an hour after Gibraltar, and just as we were passing the coast of Spain, with a vista magnificent and ever changing, how most of the passenger list had hastened below decks to see Jackie Coogan. There is no proverb about the ears and eyes of people being the ears and eyes of God." (Stark Young, "Greta Garbo", 1932)


Since the surprise announcement last month of Pope Benedict's abdication and the Vatican's bustle to elect Pope Francis, I have been once more amazed by the attention it has received from the international press. Watching St. Peter's Square fill up with people is commonplace. It's a popular tourist destination for anyone in Rome. But watching how much live coverage of it could be found on all the major TV news channels was surprising.

However "historic" the abdication of Benedict was, it isn't quite the same as a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event that some people choose to observe or to sleep through. As a lapsed Catholic (since 1978), I am much less interested in the arcane goings-on in the Vatican than the average person. If the joy expressed by the multitudes in St. Peter's Square last week seemed a little more spontaneous this time than it did in 2005, or even those strange back-to-back Papal elections in 1976, it may have more to do with the anxiety that the Vatican's recent history has induced in the faithful.

I felt impelled, as perhaps I always do by such spectacles, to recall the words of Sigmund Freud in the first chapter of his magnificent book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Freud addressed the comments made to him by one of his correspondents, the French dramatist Romain Rolland, about one of the most important qualities of religious experience, namely the "oceanic" feeling that it brought about in its practitioners (Rolland was also a follower of Hindu mysticism.)

"I had sent him my small book that treats religion as an illusion, and he answered that he entirely agreed with my judgement upon religion, but that he was sorry I had not properly appreciated the true source of religious sentiments. This, he says, consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of 'eternity', a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded - as it were, 'oceanic'. This feeling, he adds, is a purely subjective fact, not an article of faith; it brings with it no assurance of personal immortality, but it is the source of the religious energy which is seized upon by the various Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless also exhausted by them. One may, he thinks, rightly call oneself religious on the ground of this oceanic feeling alone, even if one rejects every belief and every illusion."

Freud then goes on to state that:

"The views expressed by the friend whom I so much honor, and who himself once praised the magic of illusion in a poem, caused me no small difficulty. I cannot discover this 'oceanic' feeling in myself. It is not easy to deal scientifically with feelings. One can attempt to describe their physiological signs. Where this is possible - and I am afraid that the oceanic feeling too will defy this kind of characterization - nothing remains but to fall back on the ideational content which is most readily associated with the feeling. If I have understood my friend rightly, he means the same thing by it as the consolation offered by an original and somewhat eccentric dramatist to his hero who is facing a self-inflicted death. 'We cannot fall out of this world.' That is to say, it is a feeling of an indissoluble bond, of being one with the external world as a whole."

Freud spends the next several paragraphs examining what the term 'oceanic' could possibly mean to an individual who experiences it, from whence the feeling may derive in psychological terms, and its possible value. He concludes, in what I think is one of the most revelatory paragraphs ever written about the importance of scientific exploration of the inner and outer universes (italics mine):

"I can imagine that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on. The 'oneness with the universe' which constitutes its ideational content sounds like a first attempt at a religious consolation, as though it were another way of disclaiming the danger which the ego recognizes as threatening it from the external world. Let me admit once more that it is very difficult for me to work with these almost intangible quantities. Another friend of mine, whose insatiable craving for knowledge has led him to make the most unusual experiments and has ended by giving him encyclopedic knowledge, has assured me that through the practice of Yoga, by withdrawing from the world, by fixing the attention on bodily functions and by peculiar methods of breathing, one can in fact evoke new sensations and coenaesthesias in oneself, which he regards as regressions to primordial states of mind which have long ago been overlaid. He sees in them a physiological basis, as it were, of much of the wisdom of mysticism. It would not be hard to find connections here with a number of obscure modifications of mental life, such as trances and ecstasies. But I am moved to exclaim in the words of Schiller's diver: -

' . . . Es freue sich,
Wer da atmet im rosigten Licht.'

('Let him rejoice who breathes up here in the roseate light!')

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