That oceanic feeling


I have just finished reading Darkness at Noon, a novel by Arthur Koestler. In it the protagonist, Rubashov, experiences odd moments when he suddenly feels more connected to the world, more spiritual. He describes this feeling as ‘oceanic’. He can’t explain it with reason and speculates the feeling begins where reason ends.

It is really because of this oceanic feeling that he starts to suspect that he has, in the past, overrated reason. Other experiences confirm this suspicion, like witnessing the failure of Communist Russia. The Communists wanted to rationally remake the world by restructuring society, with no recourse to tradition or religion. What they in fact created was a coercive police state that lacked even basic human qualities like kindness and empathy. According to communist doctrine the USSR should have been a workers’ paradise yet Rubashov sees that this isn’t the case and concludes that ‘there was an error somewhere in the equation’.

I find statements about the inadequacy of reason rather suspicious because once you discard reason and rely instead on irrationality to guide you you are really lost. On the other hand I am happy to admit that our reason is limited and often faulty and experience and tradition often offer better guides to building a good society. It’s like trying to bake a great cake without any reference to how housewives have always made them in the past. You are almost bound to overlook something and it turns out a disaster.

It may also be the case that too much thinking prevents certain pleasant states of mind from arising. This is what Sam Harris and various meditators seem to believe, though I find it hard to say whether or not they are right. Like most people, I am always thinking so I have never really given not-thinking a chance. Neither have I ever felt anything vaguely ‘oceanic’. However, what I have sometimes felt has something to do with what Albert Einstein once said:

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

99.9% of the time I live life as though nothing were a miracle. Then life seems to me the very geometry of obviousness and I take everything for granted. I know some people claim to throw open their windows to greet the morning in wonder but I’m not one of them. My usual feeling is of being neither amazed nor disappointed by the world. It is what it is.

However, just occasionally I am struck by how odd things are: odd that I am alive at all; odd that I am conscious and walking down a street I have known for 50 years; odd that one group of homo sapiens, which not long ago was living in damp caves, has now produced pretty Japanese girls who can do Maths and play difficult musical instruments while also spending a large part of the day giggling.

This is the 0.1% of the time when I don’t take the world for granted and this is perhaps distantly related to Rubashov’s idea of an oceanic feeling.

I don’t think it is any coincidence that these feelings come to Rubashov while he is in prison and awaiting execution. The contemplation of a patch of blue sky seen through prison bars is bound to seem wonderful and almost transcendent to someone who has been tortured and will soon be shot. I have often thought that if I were one of those people unlucky enough to fall into the hands of Islamic beheaders and was about to be decapitated, any reprieve, including being sentenced to live out my life on some lonely, windswept, God-forsaken Scottish island would feel like heaven. The problem is that it is hard to continue to count your blessings once the danger has passed. We quickly grow bored with our surroundings and I doubt that Rubashov could have kept the oceanic feeling going for long had he been granted a reprieve.

After finishing the novel I wondered if reasoning is just our way of simplifying the world. Thinking doesn’t make life more attractive but it does help us navigate safely through it. In the same way a map reduces a complex landscape to a simple two-dimensional representation, so thinking perhaps makes the world comprehensible to us, though it also drains some of the colour and texture from it. If this is indeed the case then maybe it is only when we stop thinking that we really see the world. We then feel that a barrier between ourselves and the world has dropped. Maybe this is what that artist was getting at when he painted a pipe with the words, ‘This is not a pipe’ written underneath. He was suggesting that a representation of an object should not be mistaken for the object itself.

Anyway, if there is such a thing as an oceanic feeling then chances are it is to be accessed through the senses rather than reason and logic. Or maybe there is no oceanic feeling at all and this is all just mystical nonsense dreamt up by a man who could never come to terms with the fact that life is generally a hum-drum affair.

Still, I think Einstein’s wonder at nature was genuine and Rubashov’s feeling of transcendence when contemplating a patch of blue sky probably beats the bored, unappreciative gaze of people who have grown weary of everything. I fall somewhere between the two extremes.


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