Being and Perception

Being and Perception

I have a line of thought for this post that will require a bit of a roundabout way to get to the subject of poetry, but I shall arrive there, I promise.

Being is ensconced in Perception, but it is not identical to it in its entirety. At every point, it is perceiving every other point, but there is no bird’s eye view from which one can take in the entirety of it, for one would remain in Being at whatever point one was perceiving. The Perceiver is empty, inasmuch as it is merely the receptacle of every other point in being: the entire plane converging into a point, or all the sphere collapsing into a zero-dimensional center. The Perceiver is fundamentally alike, whatever the differing center one finds it; yet, it is different inasmuch as its viewpoint may differ from another position. And we, who are centers of Perception, are members of Being likewise. We are not the entirety, but we are the only kind of center into which Being nestles, at home in itself.

But we do not experience it so, surely, are existence is loud, an agony of exile rather than a belonging. Yet, we do sometimes experience belonging by many ways and by many names. Beauty is one manner in which we rest. Consciousness is paradoxical, since it is so various, yet so unified, like the cosmos itself. It can be ugly and yet wonderful (literally, as in “full of wonder,” in the subjective sense), the source of all joy and the cause of all suffering. The center of perception seems to wander in the mind; our consciousness is like a fluttering moth around a flame, constantly being burned by the lights of its attraction. We are not steady nor one within, we are not centered.

It has long been the goal of all humans to come to rest. Rarely has any one of us put the matter so well as Augustine:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.1

Confessions, book 10

The rhetorical training that Augustine possesses is manifest here: this is pure poetic prose. And it is probably the furthest from casually pleasing as one can manage; it thuds deep, like a landside into a lake, it can displace one’s whole inner world, if one could only enter into the experience Augustine is speaking about.

In what must be a striking example of general revelation for the Christian theologian, we read in the Upanishads:

The Lord is enshrined in the hearts of all.
The Lord is the supreme Reality.2


Hidden in the heart of every creature
Exists the Self, subtler than the subtlest,
Greater than the greatest. They go beyond
All sorrow who extinguish their self-will
And behold the glory of the Self
Through the grace of the Lord of Love.3

And in a strikingly Augustinian maneuver:

The Self cannot be known through study
Of the scriptures, nor through the intellect,
Nor through hearing discourses about it.
The Self can be attained only by those
Whom the Self chooses. Verily unto them
Does the Self reveal himself.4

There are stark differences between these two sources, but there is likewise a remarkable overlap. We shall dwell here mostly upon the overlap. The Hindu authors seem to presume there is a center into which the wandering ego can fall and be at peace, seeing all things from a single point, as God himself does from every point, as it may be. Augustine is more troubled, of course, because God is at his center but is not his center, on his view. In some manner, he is meditating on the same experience, but without the same interpretation. At an outlook, the vista is the same while the viewers are not.

For both, though, Being is hidden within though it is not wholly within. And to find it is the experience of beauty, “the glory of the Self,” the “Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.” The motion of perception towards the center – from which all becomes clear as the image in a properly adjusted telescope – is the experience of beauty, of awe, of true delight. This is the wonder which Aristotle said is the beginning of philosophy5. We are ignorant because we flit between points of perception and we do not occupy the place of Perception at the center. When we fall nearer to it, we feel joy and bliss and love. This is essentially the “felt change in consciousness” that the English philosopher Owen Barfield refers to.6

And now that we have come to Barfield, we have come back to poetry, for he was trying to explain why it is that there are remarkable tectonic shifts in consciousness at times when reading poetry, or literature in general. And his answer is that as we come to see some meaning, some quality of perception, that we did not prior, by the reading of a poem, by the reception of its metaphor, precisely then we are lifted into a new state of perception, a new position from which we see the world. This motion towards the center, as we have imagined it, is experienced as some kind of aesthetic or even mystical experience. The reading or recitation of poetry can be, thus, what the Asian spiritual traditions have called an upaya, “a skillful method,” for reaching new awareness and knowledge of Being, by shifting one’s chaotic perceptions into stability, into an underlying unity in which we see, from every point into every place the magnificence of Being.

There is much to say on these things, but I cease here, from my own wanderings in thought.

Featured image: ‘Beatrice Meets Dante from the Carriage,’ William Blake (1824), image in the public domain.

  1. Augustine, Confessions: Book 10 []
  2. The Isha Upanishad, v. 1 []
  3. The Katha Upanishad, v. 20 []
  4. Ibid., v. 23 []
  5. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 982b []
  6. Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction. Surely in Barfield we have an example of a philosopher whose importance is inversely related to their fame if not their reputation. []

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