Articles & Reviews

R.M. Bucke and the Spiritual Dimension

By Stephen Morrissey
CVII, vol. 6, no. 1 & 2, winter 1982

The spiritual dimension in Canadian literature: where does it begin and what is its future?

The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is ... a consciousness of the cosmos ... of the life and order of the universe ... there occurs an intellectual enlightenment or illumination which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence—would make him almost a member of a new species.

This passage from Richard Maurice Bucke's important work, Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, proposes that the experience of cosmic consciousness radically alters the individual. Richard Bucke was born in Montreal in 1837, studied psychiatry at the McGill Medical School, and lived in London, Ontario until his death in 1901. Bucke's importance as one of the first explorers of the mystical dimension of the mind is indisputable. But Bucke has one further claim to honour in the spiritual movement of our own generation: he placed the mystical experience as pivotal to the evolution of the human mind. For Bucke, as for Teillard de Chardin, Abraham Maslow and others, the consciousness of mankind is moving from being centered in the self which is inherently an isolating phenomenon, to being a consciousness without an ego-defined center.

Another facet of Bucke's work is that of the literary critic, and here, too, he was an explorer whose importance has been almost totally overlooked. For Bucke placed the religious experience at the center of art. It was his contention that many people have had a cosmic conscious experience, an experience of mental and physical well-being and an intuitive "knowledge" that all is well in the world and that the great drama of human affairs is working itself out as it should. While Freud later was preoccupied with the sick and neurotic, Bucke's main interest was defining the various aspects of what makes an individual healthy-minded. The artist who epitomizes this healthy-mindedness is the one who perceives that one may " ... see the world in a grain of sand/ And a heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour."

This type of artist, such as Blake and Whitman, not only possesses cosmic consciousness, but is also helping to further the "evolution of the mind". This is crucial to Bucke, for the artist who ultimately has importance is the artist who studies his own life and lays the right foundation for cosmic consciousness. With this new consciousness the individual moves away from the divisiveness of provincial and national concerns, racial and class prejudice, and sexism; it is a movement away from self-consciousness to an awareness of the importance in the community of all its members, and to interdependency of nation upon nation, individual upon individual, and all of mankind upon the biological community in which we live. William James, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes:

... our normal consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

One is reminded of Blake's statement that "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is, infinite." For Bucke the highest value of art is its visionary aspect: through the artist whose work is a manifestation of the cosmic conscious faculty the average person can perhaps gather a first glimmering that there is something other in life than his own narrow concerns. Krishnamurti, in Ojai California in 1976, said that "the culture of the future will be based on religion," not on any organized religion but on the definition of the religious person as one who is "sensitive to reality." This religious sense is a "gathering of energy" to meet the really serious problems of our age: the religious, the cosmic conscious, is not an escape from reality but the plunging completely into reality and understanding it, finding order where there was formerly disorder and chaos. The "infinite" is not an airy abstraction but a concrete reality.

Art, when considered from this perspective, is radically altered, for we must now shift art from being a decorative, intellectual and elitist object to something much more fundamental and basic. As D.H. Lawrence writes,

The essential function of art is moral, Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral ... a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.

The central emphasis of art when it is spiritually centered is moral, for the great art of today is ultimately a quest of self-discovery and the moral intention is explicit in the quest. As a by-product of the quest there is the creation of new moral values as well as the ending of our habit of boredom and triviality. The creation of a foundation that may lead to the cosmic conscious experience is moral in essence and undivided in its very being. Louis Dudek writes,

It comes to this, then: the personal dilemma, or isolation of the individual self in a world of meaninglessness, can be resolved only in the opposite idea, in the total universality of myth and religious belief ... the liberation of the individual self, to face alone the great issue of existence—working always for this time and this place, this self, to find the hidden meaning of all things—that is the great adventure. It's not a dark prospect, but an infinite horizon of possibilities, for those who are strong enough to bear it. And for the great majority of modern artists it is the only road.

The foundation, then, for the cosmic conscious mind is the illumination of self-understanding, and this is an ordering process, allowing things to find their own place and therefore the creation of a moral life. The true "advance guard" of artists are those who are on a quest of self-knowledge, the spiritual quest. It is a quest that goes back to Socrates and before and yet is still the adventure of our own age ...

The spiritual in literature is also discussed by Robertson Davies who writes,

The Canadian voyage, I truly believe, is this perilous voyage into the dark interior ... It is a voyage in which many are lost forever, and some wander in circles, but it is the heroic voyage of our time ... But why Canada? ... Because, I think, the Canadian travels very light; he can strip off the cast offs and the lendings of the other nations more readily than they can rid themselves of garments that have taken on the quality of skins ... the opportunity and heart—if he has the courage to trust it—is that of one who may be a hero, and a new kind of hero, a hero of conscience an spirit, in the great drama of modern man.

The Canadian hero, then, viewed in the light of R.M. Bucke's writing, is also Joseph Campbell's "hero with a thousand faces"; he is the eternal mythological hero ... It is Rimbaud asking rhetorically:

Then shall we go beyond the mountains and the shore, to greet the birth of new toil, of new wisdom, the flight of tyrants, of demons, the and of superstition, to adore—the first to adore— Christmas on the new earth.

My aim in this essay has been to suggest the importance of R.M. Bucke's work in articulating a new area of consciousness that is just opening to the mass of society. There is a spiritual dimension in poetry and prose and this element needs to be explored and written of. To do this is to revolutionize our own lives as well as the spiritual life of society. This calls for a major conscious realignment of our thinking and of our concept of what a writer is; consequently it means a realignment of our perception of contemporary and historical Canadian literature, the articulation of what is merely entertaining and what challenges our being, what makes us vibrate in anticipation of some important discovery. primarily we need writers who will take up the challenge given by Joseph Campbell when he writes,

Moreover, if we could dredge up something forgotten not only by ourselves but by our whole generation or our entire civilization, we should become indeed the boon-bringer, the culture hero of the day—a personage of not only local but world historical moment. In a word: the first work of the hero is to retreat to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case ... and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what C.G. Jung has called "the archetypal images."

Copyright © 2007 The author