The Double Rainbow of Experience

At times art, a spiritual practice, a political action or a chance encounter moves people out of their everyday routine, opening a portal onto spontaneity and experience, free, however briefly, of the quotidian habits of personality and the social walls that separate us. At times it is nature that so startles. This evening it was a double rainbow that hung over San Francisco that had this effect—people came out of bars in the Mission District, talked in a gas station, stopped in their tracks on busy sidewalks with their children; individuals of various classes talking together, strangers losing their usual mask in the conviviality of this wonderful phenomenon. It lasted for close to half an hour, just before dusk. It felt like a good omen.


It made me think of a discussion of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde I had heard earlier in the day on the radio (KPFA’s “Against The Grain”, by Nicholas Frankel, the academic who has seen through the publication of the uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray (after a 120 years!) Pater was an aestheticist writer and professor who was had a great influence on Wilde. In his conclusion to his book on the Renaissance, in 1868, he wrote the following:


Philosophiren, says Novalis, ist dephlegmatisiren. vivificiren. The service of philosophy, of speculative culture, towards the human spirit, is to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation. Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us, –for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy?


To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes two persons, things, situations, seem alike. While all melts under our feet, we may well grasp at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the sense, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odours, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening. With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy, of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own. Philosophical theories or ideas, as points of view, instruments of criticism, may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us. “Philosophy is the microscope of thought.” The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience, in consideration of some interest into which we cannot enter, or some abstract theory we have not identified with ourselves, or of what is only conventional, has no real claim upon us.


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