The Marginalian
The Marginalian

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

Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand 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 — 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. Such experiences leaven the plane of mere existence with Life.

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 writes:

As I lay there, listening to the soft slap of the sea, and thinking these sad and strange thoughts, more and more and more stars had gathered, obliterating the separateness of the Milky Way and filling up the whole sky. And far far away in that ocean of gold, stars were silently shooting and falling and finding their fates, among these billions and billions of merging golden 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. I went to sleep, and in my sleep I seemed to hear a sound of singing.

Previously: The Unphotographable #3: Alaskan Paradise with Rockwell Kent.

Published August 21, 2022




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