The Unphotographable #4: Iris Murdoch’s Portal to Transcendence, from the Sea to the Stars

A painting is sometimes worth 1000 pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — every Saturday, a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.

Every once in a while, if we are lucky and attentive enough, we have an experience that touches the transcendent; that opens up a portal between the ordinary world we move through half-asleep and the wildly extra-ordinary fact that this world exists at all, and we — this fragile fractal of it — exist to move through it. These experiences enrich the world of mere existence by bringing Life into it.

Iris Murdoch (July 15, 1919–February 8, 1999) invokes one such experience with ravishing fidelity to the rapture of reality on the final pages of her 1978 novel The Sea, the Sea (public library), which also gave us her subtle wisdom on the myth of closure and the limits of self-knowledge. She wrote:

The soft sound of the sea slapped me as I lay down, thinking about these strange and sorrowful thoughts. As the Milky Way was dissolved, stars began to gather, filling all of space. In that vast ocean of golden, I could see stars silently falling, shooting, and finding their destiny among the billions and trillions of merging gold lights. And curtain after curtain of gauze was quietly removed, and I saw stars behind stars behind stars… And I saw into the vast soft interior of the universe which was slowly and gently turning itself inside out. After falling asleep, I awoke to hear singing.

Previous: The Unphotographable #3 – Alaskan Paradise With Rockwell Kent

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