Back in the 1950's a woman wrote a book about ecstasy: her point was to argue that there really is such an experience (since descriptions of it ranging from religious to literary to erotic texts were all strikingly similar across all ages and cultures) and that, presumably, there must be a brain mechanism responsible for its generation.1 Though she did not say it, the book's one possible implication was that, if we only learned to manipulate that mechanism...
The book passed without an echo. (It was the fifties, after all: too early to talk about sex; and ecstasy does not seem to interest anyone unless it be sexual).
I have forgotten it, too: the experience which interested the author did not interest me. It seemed too tiresome: it was too intense sort of thing for me. Who wants to writhe with pleasure? (Don't get me wrong: pleasure is fine, but I am not such a great fan of writhing).
What interested me in her book was another experience of pleasure. This the author did not discuss at great length -- only long enough to define it and to say that it is not the subject of her book. She termed it "The Adamic Experience" (that is, that of Adam in Eden, before The Fall). She also called it the Oceanic Experience, from the way it feels: the experience of utter and complete calm, like looking at the ocean from a great height, gently undulating beneath us.
Milosz has a poem which captures it:
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
I became intimately familiar with the experience during the six years when I lived by the sea. And I have done well to tame it since; at times seem able to just turn it on at will.
(Alas, un-philosopher-like, this ability to do so depends entirely on the circumstances in which I find myself: the place must be both beautiful and -- quiet. You see, the oceanic experience enters, so to speak, through the eye but escapes through the ear).
But my last several days have taken me away from the oceanic calm and back towards ecstasy.
I don't have Laski's book with me here, so will make a literary reference I can recall: Lawrence Weschler's Vermeer in Bosnia. In one of its essays a man recalls: "it was soon after I returned from Japan... I was driving on [some freeway in Southern California] and these waves of intense pleasure just rolled over me one after another."
Well, that's what happened to me yesterday while I lay on my terrace in the afternoon and looked up at the sky through the trees:
Intense waves of pleasure, like waves of heat emerging from a kiln, washed over me.
I stared up hungrily, insatiate.
It was no doubt a malfunction of the brain.
Ecstasy is bad for us. It upsets us. It makes us greedy. It makes us grasp. We want more. We fear it may stop.
And happiness is not built on fear and desiring.
But I was OK with it for a day.
A little writhing is good every now and then, I suppose.
At my age and all.
1 Marghanita Laski, Ecstasy: a Study of Some Secular and Religious Experiences