Thursday, June 10, 2010

Religion and the Sublime

In the movie Contact religion features prominently.  In the movie, Ellie, the main character meets Palmer who is a religious man.  She as a scientist cannot understand his perspective on God.  His claim to have had an experience that he cannot verify aggravates her as her scientific discipline wants everything to be verifiable and quantifiable.
Later in the movie, she to has an experience that is beyond her comprehension and which changes her when she goes through the device that has been built to contact aliens (sorry for the bulgarian subtitles):

This is what we might call her conversion experience.  As a part of the film there is no proof that this journey occurred, the transition is instantaneous even though she has experienced hours. She is in the position of defending an experience for which she has no proof, just like Palmer was in before:

By exploring this issue, Contact comes very close to the issue of the sublime.  The sublime is by its very nature not possible to describe, only to feel.  One who has felt a particular aspect of the sublime may speak with someone else who has also and be understood more clearly, but it not always possible to convey our experience.  This ties in very well with religion, religion is often about the very personal element of our experience, without the proof to show to someone else.  So perhaps the better word to describe this aspect of the sublime is faith.

Emily Dickinson also examined some of the conflicts of religion.  To say that Emily Dickinson was not religious would be false, but she did not necessarily respect institutionalized religion:

"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along."

In this poem Emily Dickinson "actually divinizes the earth," according to an entry by Susan Rieke in An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia.  This is much like in Contact, where the experience of the conversion moment is deeply involved with the idea of beauty in nature.  Religion in this sense loses to structure and formal institutions because they do not offer the power that nature offers.  This idea of direct communion to God through the world is in contrast to not only the religious institutions of Emily Dickinson's life, but also the scientific discipline of Ellie.

Andrew Morris

This article is part of a continuing theme on Emily Dickinson, modern media, and the sublime, if you would like to know more read here.

No comments:

Post a Comment