Ethel D. Puffer – The Psychology of Beauty: The Aesthetic Repose

[Excerpt from The Psychology of Beauty: PART III – The Aesthetic Repose PART II – The Nature of Beauty | PART I – Criticism and Aesthetics]

THE popular interest in scientific truth has always had its hidden spring in a desire for the marvelous. The search for the philosopher’s stone has done as much for chemistry as the legend of the elixir of life for exploration and geographical discovery. From the excitements of these suggestions of the occult, the world settled down into a reasonable understanding of the facts of which they were but the enlarged and grotesque shadows.

So it has been with physics and physiology, and so also, preeminently, with the science of mental life. Mesmerism, hypnotism, the facts of the alteration, the multiplicity, and the annihilation of personality have each brought us their moments of pleasurable terror, and passed thus into the field of general interest. But science can accept no broken chains. For all the thrill of mystery, we may not forget that the hypnotic state is but highly strung attention,—at the last turn of the screw,—and that the alternation of personality is after all no more than the highest power of variability of mood. In regard to the annihilation of the sense of personality, it may be said that no connection with daily experience is at first apparent. Scientists, as well as the world at large, have been inclined to look on the loss of the sense of personality as pathological; and yet it may be maintained that it is nevertheless the typical form of those experiences we ourselves regard as the most valuable.

Jackie Gendel, "Rose Madder and the Ultramarines 2"
Jackie Gendel, “Rose Madder and the Ultramarines 2”

The loss of personality! In that dread thought there lies, to most of us, all the sting of death and the victory of the grave. It seems, with such a fate in store, that immortality were futile, and life itself a mockery. Yet the idea, when dwelt upon, assumes an aspect of strange familiarity; it is an old friend, after all. Can we deny that all our sweetest hours are those of self-forgetfulness? The language of emotion, religious, aesthetic, intellectually creative, testifies clearly to the fading of the consciousness of self as feeling nears the white heat. Not only in the speechless, stark immobility of the pathological “case,” but in all the stages of religious ecstasy, aesthetic pleasure, and creative inspiration, is to be traced what we know as the loss of the feeling of self. Bernard of Clairvaux dwells on “that ecstasy of deification in which the individual disappears in the eternal essence as the drop of water in a cask of wine.” Says Meister Eckhart, “Thou shalt sink away from they selfhood, though shalt flow into His self- possession, the very thought of Thine shall melt into His Mine;” and St. Teresa, “The soul, in thus searching for its God, feels with a very lively and very sweet pleasure that is is fainting almost quiet away.”

Still more striking is the language of aesthetic emotion. Philosopher and poet have but one expression for the universal experience. Says Keats in the “Ode to a Nightingale:”—

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethewards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness.”

And in Schopenhauer we read that he who contemplates the beautiful “forgets even his individuality, his will, and only continues to exist as the pure subject, the clear mirror of the object.”

But not only the religious enthusiast and the worshiper of beauty “lose themselves” in ecstasy. The “fine frenzy” of the thinker is typical. From Archimedes, whose life paid the forfeit of his impersonal absorption; from Socrates, musing in one spot from dawn to dawn, to Newton and Goethe, there is but one form of the highest effort to penetrate and to create. Emerson is right in saying of the genius, “His greatness consists in the fullness in which an ecstatic state is realized in him.”

The temporary evaporation of the consciousness of one’s own Personality is then decidedly not a pathological experience. It seems the condition, indeed, and recognized as such in popular judgment, of the deepest feeling and the highest achievement.

Perhaps it is the very assumption of this condition in our daily thoughts that has veiled the psychological problem it presents. We opine, easily enough, that great deeds are done in forgetfulness of self. But why should we forget ourselves in doing great deeds? Why not as well feel in every act its reverberation on the self,—the renewed assurance that it is I who can? Why not, in each aesthetic thrill, awake anew to the consciousness of myself as ruler in a realm of beauty? Why not, in the rush of intellectual production, glory that “my mind to me a kingdom is”? And yet the facts are otherwise: in proportion to the intensity and value of the experience is its approach to the objective, the impersonal, the ecstatic state. Then how explain this anomaly? Why should religious, aesthetic, and intellectual emotion be accompanied in varying degrees by the loss of self-consciousness? Why should the sense of personality play us so strange a trick as to vanish, at the moment of seemingly greatest power, in the very shadow of its own glory?

If now we put the most obvious question, and ask, in explanation of its escapades, what the true nature of this personality is, we shall find ourselves quite out of our reckoning on the vast sea of metaphysics. To know what personality IS, “root and all, and all in all,” is to “know what God and man is.” Fortunately, our problem is much more simple. It is not the personality, its reality, its meaning, that vanishes; no, nor even the psychological system of dispositions. We remain, in such a moment of ecstasy, as persons, what we were before. It is the FEELING of personality that has faded; and to find out in what this will-o’-the-wisp feeling of personality resides is a task wholly within the powers of psychological analysis. Let no one object that the depth and value of experience seem to disintegrate under the psychologist’s microscope. The place of the full-orbed personality in a world of noble ends is not affected by the possibility that the centre of its conscious crystallization may be found in a single sensation.

The explanation, then, of this apparent inconsistency—the fading away of self in the midst of certain most important experiences— must lie in the nature of the feeling of personality. What is that feeling? On what is it based? How can it be described? The difficulties of introspection have led many to deny the possibility of such self-fixation. The fleeting moment passes, and we grasp only an idea or a feeling; the Ego has slipped away like a drop of mercury under the fingers. Like the hero of the German poet, who wanted his queue in front,

 “Then round and round, and out and in,
All day that puzzled sage did spin;
In vain; it mattered not a pin;
The pigtail hung behind him,”

when I turn round upon myself to catch myself in the act of thinking, I can never lay hold on anything but a sensation. I may peel off, like the leaves of an artichoke, my social self,— my possessions and positions, my friends, my relatives; my active self,—my books and implements of work; my clothes; even my flesh, and sit in my bones, like Sydney Smith,—the I in me retreating ever to an inner citadel; but I must stop with the feeling that something moves in there. That is not what my self IS, but what the elusive sprite feels like when I have got my finger on him. In daily experience, however, it is unnecessary to proceed to such extremities. The self, at a given moment of consciousness, is felt as one group of elements which form a foreground. The second group is, we say, before the attention, and is not at that moment felt as self; while the first group is vague, undifferentiated, not attended to, but felt. Any element in this background can detach itself and come into the foreground of attention. I become conscious at this moment, for instance, of the weight of my shoulders as they rest on the back of my chair: that sensation, however, belongs to my self no more than does the sensation of the smoothness of the paper on which my hand rests. I know I am a self, because I can pass, so to speak, between the foreground and the background of my consciousness. It is the feeling of transition that gives me the negative and positive of my circuit; and this feeling of transition, hunted to its lair, reveals itself as nothing more nor less than a motor sensation felt in the sense organs which adapt themselves to the new conditions. I look on that picture and on this, and know that they are two, because the change in the adaptation of my sense organs to their objects has been felt. I close my eyes and think of near and far, and it is the change in the sensations from my eye muscles that tells me I have passed between the two; or, to express it otherwise, that it is in me the two have succeeded each other. While the self in its widest sense, therefore, is co-extensive with consciousness, the distinctive feeling of self as opposed to the elements in consciousness which represent the outer world is based on those bodily sensations which are connected with the relations of objects. My world—the foreground of my consciousness—would fall in on me and crush me, if I could not hold it off by just this power to feel it different from my background; and it is felt as different through the motor sensations involved in the change of my sense organs in passing from one to the other. The condition of the feeling of transition, and hence of the feeling of personality, is then the presence in consciousness of at least two possible objects of attention; and the formal consciousness of self might be schematized as a straight line connecting two points, in which one point represents the foreground, and the other the background, of consciousness.

If we now accept this view, and ask under what conditions the sense of self may be lost, the answer is at once suggested. It will happen when the “twoness” disappears, so that the line connecting and separating the two objects in our scheme drops out or is indefinitely decreased. When background or foreground tends to disappear or to merge either into the other, or when background or foreground makes an indissoluble unity or unbreakable circle, the content of consciousness approaches absolute unity. There is no “relating” to be done, no “transition” to be made. The condition, then, for the feeling of personality is no longer present, and there results a feeling of complete unity with the object of attention; and if this object of attention is itself without parts or differences, there results an empty void, Nirvana.

Ethel D. Puffer

First published by Project Gutenberg, February, 2003.

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