As an addendum to « Mystical Aesthetics », I wanted to publish some additional material that I had forgotten to elaborate on in that article. I mentioned, at least, art forms and styles of media through which the aesthetic engenders the mystical, and I’d like to add to that dance, modern and contemporary visual art, and some philosophical observations…
I touched on dance with the inclusion of the Mevlevi sema, exemplified by the dervishes of Turkey. The essence of Sufi achievement, the experience of the Absolute, was extracted from the trappings of Islam by the Universal Sufi movement, which is (as the name, in a way, implies) universalist in its philosophy, pertaining to no particular religion—rather embracing the mystical-spiritual heart of all great religious experience.
The Mevlevi sema. (From UNESCO.)
Dance also undoubtedly affected another, much more distinct spiritual system, one which some of the aforementioned Sufis (notably Idries Shah, an important modern mystic) claimed had borrowed some of its concepts from their tradition. (Some have also claimed an Orthodox Christian, Hermetic, and/or Kabbalistic influence.) This practice is called the Fourth Way. The system (which I am reluctant to deem a religion or philosophy, as it doesn’t neatly fit into either of those camps), ironically also called “the System”, as well as “the Work”, was developed by the Greek-Armenian, Russian-born mystic George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (also known as G.I. Gurdjieff). Gurdjieff was interested in the methods whereby humans could achieve their greatest potential, and saw the aim of his methods as waking individuals from a state of “waking sleep” into a higher, more fully-realized mode of consciousness that embraced the complete nature of being and self-awareness. Gurdjieff noted his school of thought was a kind of “esoteric Christianity,” and introduced the idea of “self-remembering.” The Fourth Way was further developed by Gurdjieff’s student, the esotericist P.D. Ouspensky, who wrote much on the subject and popularized it.
The Fourth Way is represented by the enneagram, developed (in this context) by Ouspensky, and symbolizes and systematizes the method[s] Gurdjieff and Ouspensky had elaborated. The points of the Fourth Way enneagram correspond to certain numbers, archetypes, or properties of life and nature.
Gurdjieff’s legacy of sacred dance—perhaps more appropriately deemed choreography, or “movements”, as he called them—and the co-composed music they were later set to, figures into the Fourth Way as a method of self-realization.
I’ve yet to experience one of these performances for myself, although, in any case, I’ve been raring to attend one of the “movements” since learning of Gurdjieff’s philosophy. (Granted, public performances of this kind seem very difficult to locate.) I first encountered the concepts of the Fourth Way through Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, undoubtedly one of the outright weirdest movies of all time. (And one that I highly recommend!) That movie also spurred my reading of the incomplete novel Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal. (Also highly recommended.)
Returning to the visual arts, and not in a particularly religious sense, we find that the quiet reflection involved in appreciating a painting, for instance, can be meditative and, perhaps, ineffable.
The surrealists have always struck a chord with me: they could take us to other worlds, and imbue the mind with strange modes of understanding. Magritte has long been one of my favorites. I vaguely remember seeing his The Palace of Curtains, III in the MoMA, several years back, not far from Dali’s The Persistence of Memory and a Van Gogh painting. (Starry Night?)
Anyway, I like his The Son of Man (French: Le fils de l’homme) very much in particular. This piece is haunting, mysterious, and (like many of his paintings) plays subtle tricks on the mind, and causes us to reevaluate our own consciousnesses and the way they relate to familiar objects and symbols:
The Son of Man (Le fils de l’homme) by Magritte. (1964.)
Schopenhauer, whose aesthetics (here as in the philosophical discipline or study) were elaborate and sophisticated (Cf. The World as Will and Representation), divided aesthetic appreciation into different types based on their effects on human consciousness and humans’ relationship to an overarching Will. (This is a topic I won’t elaborate on here.) He noted that a state of tranquility and will-lessness (maybe a sort of quiet, ineffable absorption or contemplation, free from immediate cravings and striving) followed from the appreciation of “the beautiful”, for instance.
A definite mystical aesthetic comes out in the work of psychedelic and visionary artists. This is sensible: Few phenomena (other than religion and spirituality) are as closely associated with mystical experiences (and religion and spirituality, for that matter…) than hallucinogenic drugs. Now, while I don’t personally partake in yagé or peyote or any other mind-bending entheogens, I am vastly intrigued by their potential, not only as tools for the promotion of psychological and spiritual well-being, but also as catalysts for artistic inspiration. (Cf. McKenna’s The Invisible Landscape, etc.) In this way they are invaluable aids for some who wish to plumb and probe the greatest depths of the mind in order to retrieve powerful creativity.
One visionary artist, who deserves nothing less than a standing ovation for the absolutely meticulous detail and sublimeness of his work, is Alex Grey. He’s maybe best known for his collaborations with the band Tool, for whom he has produced album artwork and some stunning visuals for their music videos.
While Alex Grey and other psychedelic and visionary artists are not as highly regarded among the bohemian circles as many of their high-brow contemporaries, they have carved out a unique niche in the world of painting, collage, illustration, and so forth.
Ecstasy by Alex Grey.
… Pablo Amaringo, a Peruvian native who incorporates shamanistic and other indigenous elements into his works, is also well known in this regard:
Ayari Huarmi by Pablo Amaringo.
… Similarly psychedelic, and yet also very different by impression and method, are the collages of Eugenia Loli:
Three Minutes to Nirvana (“Minute One”) by Eugenia Loli.