God and Me
Hardy called it 'dimmity', the moment when the certain shapes of the world dissolve. In the emptiness of the Wessex marshlands, against the twilit mass of Glastonbury Tor, the air begins to quiver, to fill with dark scribblings. More than a million starlings are homing in on this ancestral swamp for their nightly communion. They stream in from every direction, joining, breaking ranks, floating free, like some black aurora. Suddenly, they become plasmic. They are one immense organism, pulsating like a single cell. They swing up to the sky and then skim the reeds in folds and falls of black. They fill out great parabolas and helixes, with a symmetry you do not expect from living things. Then, birds again, they fall into the reeds.<
It is experiences like this that are supposed to fill us godless folk with intimations of the spiritual. A glimpse of the universal geometry that lies behind the chaos of life, of the workings of a group consciousness outside anything we can imagine—surely this must bring on feelings of immanence, a sense of some order beyond the surface of things. The trouble is, I know these birds away from their dusk rites. They are a long way from being aerial ectoplasm. They're urchins, opportunists, prodigious mimics. Mozart had a pet starling, which famously learned a theme from his G Major Piano Concerto, but jumped it forward a couple of centuries by changing the G natural to a G sharp. And, like all living creatures, they're victims, too. I once saw, too close for comfort, a starling being dismembered by a sparrowhawk. Its beak was wide open, not to utter a G sharp or even a scream, but because it was being slowly squeezed to death. No moral context for these birds, no more blame on the hawk for being what it is than on the starling for being weaker and slower and so very edible. No sacrifice of the self for some higher significance—unless joining the great chain of dependence is itself a kind of sacrament.
It's always been like this for me with spirituality. I catch a whiff of the numinous, and it turns visceral in a moment, part of the digestive process. The first time was when I was a teenager. I fell into a state of thraldom to the hill above our house. It wasn't a particularly special hill, just a chalk swell that looked out over a wooded valley and a thin winterbourne that, according to local legend, was a woe-water, which flowed only in time of trouble. But I thought it was the most achingly beautiful prospect I had ever seen. It haunted me with some not quite graspable meaning, like the image of the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was an unsettling feeling, edgy, indefinable, a mixture of exquisite pleasure and butterfly discomfort. At times it turned into an actual physical sensation that made the backs of my legs clench, as if I was peering down from a great height. I experienced the same ethereal feelings singing medieval carols with the school choir in the lamplit porches of the big houses at the edge of our town, and then at the ritual reading of Chapter 13 of St Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians at the end of term: 'When I was a child I spake as a child…but when I became a man, I put away childish things.' I hadn't the slightest interest in the religious content of these ancient texts, but they seemed like a bridge across time, a fleeting glimpse of something inexpressibly bigger than the shackling routines of school, perhaps a first intimation of the continuity of life. If any of these blurrily romantic feelings had depths beyond that, I guess they were in Deep England, which was beginning to cast its dubious aura over me.
Then about ten years later, something different. I was trying to navigate my way through the last stages of a long anxiety attack, to get through the 'glass wall' such states erect between you and reality. I was suddenly struck by a piercing moment of heightened perception, as if a lens had been clamped over my eye. I was convinced I could pick out the minute physical details of the world nearly a quarter of a mile away: individual bricks, the ears of a man, the discrete eddies in a plume of smoke. Of course, I'd simply become aware of part of the sensory processing that I did unselfconsciously every second of my life. But it seemed, in that moment of hypersensitivity, to be some inexplicable, supernatural gift. It looked as if 'the beyond', for me, was always going to be just a few hundred yards away.
But the eye ought to have made me pause. For the religiously inclined it's not only the mirror of the soul but a kind of portal to the mysteries beyond evolution. For decades it was thought to be the blind spot in Darwin's theory. How, even over thousands of millions of years, could any living structure of such extraordinary complexity have been developed by chance mutations? How could it all, the light-sensitive iris, the nerve-transmitters in the retina, the lens, the lids, the tears…how could it all be coordinated as well? Anne Stevenson's poem about a new baby ponders the origins of 'the distinct eyelashes and sharp crescent/fingernails… Imagine the /infinitesimal capillaries, the flawless connections/of the lungs, the invisible neural filaments…' She calls the poem 'The Spirit is too Blunt an Instrument'. And God perhaps too exact a watchmaker. What is clear from the increasingly remarkable revelations about the intricacy of the living world is that Intelligent Design is a logical impossibility. It's not that God isn't clever enough, but that life isn't that kind of process. The Reverend Paley's celebrated vision of the living world as an exquisitely engineered watch is as inappropriate as seeing Creation as a symphony unfolding from a written score. What it is like is a vast piece of musical improvisation, unpredictable, free-form, exuberantly bodged, yet melding exquisitely with what already exists. And, of course, like all such music, quite without meaning, just gloriously itself.
Isn't this something to have faith in? The stuff of life, the astonishing, resilient, surreal inventiveness of it all? The extravagant iridescence in the wings of butterflies. The minute convolutions of Henle's loop in the human kidney, 'like the meanders in a creek'. The song of the Albert's lyrebird, which takes it six years to learn and segues the phrasing of every other bird in the Queensland bush. At times the gratuitousness of creation, its sheer wild playfulness, can only understood only as a kind of unscripted comedy.
Long before I knew much about the fantastic domestic arrangements that are the norm for life in the tropics, I learned about the transactions of Britain's rarest butterfly, the large blue. Its larvae feed for a while on wild thyme, and start producing honey on their abdomens. They also produce a pheromone that mimics the scent of ant grubs. The adult ants gather up the butterfly larvae, take them off to their nests and look after them as if they were their own offspring—drinking their honey in return. All the while the larvae are singing to the ants, echoing the rhythmic noises of the grubs… Wouldn't it have been simpler, Annie Dillard enquires in her rodeo-ride of God in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,
'just to rough in a slab of chemicals, a green acre of goo?… The lone ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo, was so unthinkable, violently radical, that surely it ought to have been enough. But look what happens. You open the door and all heaven and hell break loose'.
Wouldn't it have been easier, for that matter, to have nothing at all, no lone hydrogen atom, no first cause? The fact that there is anything is the one impenetrable mystery. Once there was, the eventual emergence of the planet's grand comedy of manners was pretty well inevitable.
Once in an interview, trying to sidestep the queries about spirituality that are always beamed at those who confess a more than scientific fascination with nature, I suggested that I could be described as a 'transcendental materialist'. It wasn't a very creditable answer, and I should have had the guts to call myself a straightforward materialist. But beyond the posing, I was trying to say that, for me, the physicality of the living world—its veracity, its anciently involved intelligence, its wit, its refusal to be pinned down—transcends itself, not into the realm of the supernatural, but into that of the hyper-real. The true Transcendentalists in nineteenth-century America believed almost the exact opposite of this, arguing, anthropocentrically, that the material world was a product of some mystical, ideal force. 'Nature is the incarnation of thought,' wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, their guru. 'The world is mind precipitated'. Emerson's friend Thoreau called himself a Transcendentalist, but was altogether more grounded. His epic climb up into the desolate wilderness of Mount Katahdin is the seminal statement about the absolute authority of the physical: 'Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature—daily to be shown matter, to come into contact with it—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! The actual world! The common sense! Contact! Contact!' In Walden, less frenziedly, Thoreau writes about measuring the depth of his pond. It's a passage which is both literal and metaphorical, about reality and responsibility: 'The greatest depth was exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which it has risen since, making one hundred and seven. This is a remarkable depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the imagination… While men believe in the infinite some ponds will be thought to be bottomless.' The imagination, he is suggesting, needs detail and finitude, not abstraction, for its full flowering.
My one bottomless pond is the mystery of self-consciousness, a phenomenon which I suspect is no more open to 'explanation' than the fact that something came to exist. Pondering it when I was young was another vertiginous experience. If the sense of self was a product of the processes of the brain, could there be another 'me', somewhere else, where the immense possibilities of the universe had thrown up an identical physical being? And if I couldn't be a self in two places at once, could I be so in two different times? Might brain chemistry be the answer to reincarnation?
Thankfully I grew out of tormenting myself with unanswerable questions, but the self remains the chink in the materialist's armour. And on a very few occasions I've had the feeling, which I suppose is the one thing common to all so-called spiritual experiences, that its boundaries are relaxing a little. One May night especially, listening to nightingales in Suffolk, was something close to a moment of communion. The setting was narcotic. A full moon, mounds of cow parsley glowing like suspended balls of mist, the fen arching like a lustrous whaleback across the whole span of the southern horizon. The nightingale was a shaman, experienced, rhetorical, insistent. I sank into its charms, a willing initiate. A shooting star arced over the bush in which it was singing. As I edged closer, its song seemed to become solid, to be doing synaesthetic things with the light. I was aware that my peripheral vision was closing down, and that I had no sense of where I was in space. And then, for just a few seconds, the bird was in my head, and it was me who was singing.
Conventionally, one is supposed to feel awe and humility at moments like this. Not a bit of it. Awe would seem to me an appropriate emotion for God, viewing the exuberance of the living world from a distance. But not for a creature caught up in it. I was part of the home team, on the winning side, fist in the air, cheering in solidarity. Nor did I feel that my self had shrunk, or grown insignificant, but rather that bird and landscape and I were at that moment part of a larger being.
It's telling how often music is the agency for such experiences, and a metaphor for what they mean. The great American biologist Lewis Thomas wrote often of the sensory communications which keep the planet working harmoniously, of signals 'informing tissues in the vegetation of the Alps about the state of eels in the Sargasso Sea'. He once imagined what it might be like if we could hear the planet's 'grand canonical ensemble', if we could make out vibrations of a million locusts in migration, the descants of whales, the timpani of gorilla breasts, termite heads, drumfish bladders. The combined sound might be a sacred oratorio that would lift us off our feet.
Granta 93: God's Own Countries