The agreeable eye

an eudæmonistarchives

beside oneself

Ecstatic experiences bring perception of perfection, not of hitherto unnoticed incongruity. Ecstatics find delight in proportion and harmony, not humour in what is awry. Nothing humorous is ever a trigger to ecstasy. In ecstasy there is no fun whatsoever.

—Marghanita Laski (Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences, p. 270)

When I put Marghanita Laski’s Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences on hold at the library, I knew very little about her save that she wrote the egregiously creepy novella The Victorian Chaise-Longue,1 but in addition to her fiction, Laski was also a ‘lexicographical irregular’ for the supplement to the OED and a key player in the inclusion of more quotations from women and non-literary sources,2 as well as a book critic, among other occupations.3 Ecstasy seemed a bit of a step sideways, although as with most passion projects, it really wasn’t.

That it was a passion project is instantly clear from its style and bulk. According to the introduction, Laski undertook the study described in Ecstasy because she was not satisfied that the (possible) time slip (?) occasioned by ‘an experience I believed was known as ecstasy’ in The Victorian Chaise-Longue ‘should be accepted within the bounds of even fictional possibility’ (p. 1).4 From this starting point, Ecstasy examines its topic along the model of Varieties of Religous Experience, although it goes one better in its anatomizing by including an informal questionnaire survey of sixty-three of Laski’s associates (I use the term with all the vagueness one could hope)5 in addition to small corpora of literary and religious texts describing ‘ecstatic’ experiences. Of course, as Laski selected the texts based on her sense of what ‘ecstasy’ means, the resulting definitions are perhaps biased, but one does not necessarily borrow a book with the title Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences published in 1961 with high expectations of methodological rigor.6 It also owes a good deal to Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism, which focuses more particularly on religious ecstasy, and there is always the sense, when the footnotes crop up, that Laski rather resents this fact. On the whole, Ecstasy is reasonable, decently researched, well argued, and, for the general reader, not particularly useful.7

It is not useful because it does not illuminate the types of experiences it is discussing; that is, one could attempt to apply Laski’s criteria to texts not in the corpus and she would probably disagree with the assessment. Lumping big feelings together and categorizing them as up, down, and sidewise (pardon the hyperbole) while saying that this is and that isn’t ‘ecstasy’ based on criteria that seem opaque to someone who can’t get into the spirit of the thing (viz., me) is, well, a bit silly. It is silly in part because ‘ecstasy’ as it is (I think) commonly understood – that is, ‘The state of being “beside oneself,” thrown into a frenzy or a stupor, with anxiety, astonishment, fear, or passion’ (per the OED) does not satisfy as the subject the book, which seems rather to be about where ideas and feelings come from.

Rather than examining ‘ecstatic’ feelings, it seems to be inching towards an answer, in a rather roundabout way, to the perennial question of author readings: ‘…but where do you get your ideas?’ It is also, more interestingly, trying to answer (again, obliquely), why are certain things, certain ‘triggers’ moving to a greater or lesser extent than others.8 These questions (in this form) seem fairly unanswerable, in that any satisfying (or plausible) answer to them is likely to change over time or in different circumstances, although they remain bones well worth gnawing. I think Laski put it best in a review of several works of criticism on children’s books:9

If we rely on the ecstatic response as a source of good, we are relying on a very feeble reed. The best we can say for it is that it sometimes works, and that perhaps it works best (here is my own moral decision) when it sets off creative pattern-making that need have nothing whatsoever to do with the nature, moral or otherwise, of the trigger; and I should like to think that it is for this response that the state gives money to the arts.

But let us suppose, for the moment, that art in fiction does work, does do all that the morally-committed critics, from Leavis to these here, hope for it. Let us suppose that we can identify and agree, more or less, on what fiction is of artistic worth. To confine ourselves to this only, whether we are adults or children, is, if we are addicted readers, impracticable.

  1. It evokes a claustrophobia similar to that summoned up by George Eliot’s ‘The Lifted Veil’, which one could with some honesty (but a great deal of unfairness) describe as an unholy mash-up of William Dean Howells and The Twilight Saga crammed into twenty-five pages (I mean, of course, its depiction of depressive symptoms). []
  2. Cf. Her caustic assessment of marketing copy (PDF version). This also led me to an article on why ‘large historical dictionaries give so much pleasure to their owners and users’ (PDF) from the Proceedings of the European Association for Lexicography, which was very sweet but not actually relevant; it was too good not to share, though. []
  3. Her assessment of Georgette Heyer (PDF) apparently sparked an outcry, though it seems perfectly reasonable and rather tame for a hatchet job. []
  4. For those unfamiliar with Laski’s novella, it is well worth reading; it has a stickiness to it, a gelatinous quality, that unsettles and perturbs the main character (and the reader). Whether the experience is one of ‘ecstasy’ as commonly understood, however, is not clear – even after reading Ecstasy, although one of the ‘literary’ examples Laski cites (L9, a passage quoted from Jung), captures a similar atmosphere. []
  5. The description of the survey method is a charming example of a certain sort of social science writing, before the field was reduced to a perpetual advertisement for SPSS software. []
  6. ‘I may accept, for my purposes, what people believed themselves to have felt as evidence of their feelings; it is not possible to get behind sincere reports of feelings to “true feelings”’ (p. 124). []
  7. Others may find her categories of withdrawal and intensity ecstasies to be psychologically acute, and Laski did publish a follow-up/abridgment aimed at a broader audience. []
  8. Laski’s atheism is probably also important to the ambivalence of the book. Perhaps it comes of reading too much (into) Hamann lately, but rational approaches to irrational experiences seems a dodgy proposition; one cannot argue with a zealot about the object of their zealotry. []
  9. I would, I think, like to read a collection of Laski’s book reviews and criticism, although I am too lazy to try to find them in the original publications. []


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