10. Genius loci. Birth of a Shrine

It may perhaps be doubted whether the lakes and the hills are better fitted for the education of a poet than the dusty streets of a huge capital.

Thomas Macaulay.

The guiding worldview of our days is based on the belief in mechanism. Man and life are understood mechanically… Unpredictability, freedom are almost removed from such a worldview. The very fabric of human relations (fundamentally irrational) wants to be replaced by a set of ‘reasonably justified’ rules… The goal, in fact, is not new. This goal was set recently (by historical standards) by the Russian revolution; now it has been set by the ‘advanced West’.

The difficulty is that the universe does not care how it is understood, but life and human nature resist mechanistic understanding, and their resistance can only be overcome by intimidation. Life flows along its own winding course and, no matter how much you straighten it, it stubbornly turns sideways. Its paths can be straightened only by violence: threat, denunciation, terror. Life wants to be unreasonable, this is its greatest desire.

In contrast, man wants reasonableness in everything, fears more than anything else to lose his reason and personality, and in spite of this he is always looking for a way out of them. After all, what does it mean to experience ‘fullness of life’? To step outside of oneself, one’s all too familiar self, as often or constantly as possible. Travelling, love, the creative gift, wine intoxication — all for this purpose. We know ‘within ourselves’ but are not ready to say out loud that the path of greater rationality is the path of less animation. More reasonable is less alive, full-blooded, creative, whether we are talking about society or the individual.

It is as if the personality is given to us as a means of acquiring some strange capital, not for its own sake… This capital is not acquired by the efforts of reason, but also not by ‘feeling’, in the sense of irritation, joy, fatigue or contentment. The value of the beyond-reason is exceptionally great, though it is dismissed in our days as indifferent or downright sick.

Beyond pure thought means in the department of psychology, if not psychiatry. It is generally agreed that man is ‘mind plus everything else’. This is where life takes its revenge on the simplifiers, since the most important sources or, let us say, stimuli of our behaviour lie in the realm of ‘everything else’.

Let’s talk about one rather rare, but much giving to the ‘soul’ and insignificant for the mind’ experience: animation of the external world. Those who have been alone for a long time know what a strange vividness, coloured by feeling, the streets of cities acquire, through which we walk, not wishing to return to an empty house. The external world acquires, under certain circumstances, the features of a personality with which we are connected by some kind of relationship; sometimes even a love relationship (as confirmed by numerous testimonies of mystics).

From the point of view of psychology, it is a manifestation of anxiety, a reflection of an underlying tension of mind and feeling. For the sake of tranquility, this experience must be rationalised, neutralised, if not killed. But there are other values besides tranquility, such as meaning. The meanings, the values of things are not contained in them inherently, but are attached to them by experience. Where psychology does its job conscientiously — there will be none. There will be a calm, measured, utterly meaningless life. Is such a goal good?

I’m not talking about abandoning reasonable scepticism. Conscientious mysticism, I’m afraid, is no longer possible these days. We cannot believe our sensations; we can only believe that there is something more behind them than electrochemical processes. The ‘mystery’ itself is cheap…

So, we have said that some spiritual entities are created from the material of our passions and our longings — and perhaps need a certain strain of all the forces of personality to be experienced. The more intense and acute the gaze, the more meaning is dissolved in what it sees.

Music and shadows, rustling drops, alien and beautiful buildings; unquenched and therefore permeating the whole fabric of being, vague, not particularly directed at anything love… In moments of despair or joy or sweetly inseparable but piercing feeling, in which there is something of both; when soul and world form a meaningful intense unity; when the content of mind and feeling is inseparable — out of them is born the genius loci, the spirit of place or, at any rate, its living touch — the root of religion.

All great religion grows out of such scattered and private sensations; temples, rites, ‘power and glory’ — all this comes later. Religious is not the one who always experiences these sensations (that would be impossible), but the one who does not forget these moments of all-understanding and all-abandonment.

Our ‘sacred groves and oaks’, if religions were to arise today, would be in the streets of cities. Here our soul makes its imprint on the world and experiences a burning unity with it. By the way: it is not only love, generally ‘warm and light’ that gives this feeling of all-unity. Terror, abandonment, feeling of irreparability of things — also.

Our ancestors were able to remember and appreciate such sensations; to us they seem like inner, private experiences. We have so forgotten how to deal with our souls; we have so forgotten how to be religious (unless we are talking about already ‘ready-made’ varieties of cult) — that we do not recognise a religious feeling even when we encounter it. It’s not just the work of the machine of forced secularization (which is also dehumanisation). It’s also about the power of habit. ‘Religion’ for us, as for that Lieskov’s character, is ‘in the church’; inner experiences seem to be something of little importance…

However, many of us probably have such memorable places, sacred pavements — where the inner and the outer came into contact, where a personal revelation appeared; where the spirit of the place spoke to us (as the ancients would think and say).

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

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