Seven Veils – The Varieties of the Religious Experience
Once upon a time, there was a man called William James. He was the brother of one Henry James, one of America’s most famous writers, but he was also quite a striking intellectual figure himself. Often credited as one of the founders of psychotherapy, he was also one of the central figures of the philosophical movement called pragmatism, which became a mainstay not only of American academia, but also American business and social practices in the early stages of the 20th century. His work has influenced countless major philosophers and thinkers and he had correspondence with some of the leading minds of his generation (including Freud himself).
On top of his interests in philosophy and psychology, and more pertinent to our investigations in this essay, James was also fascinated by belief and religion as psychological phenomena. Which is to say, he was interested not in the specific institutions of a religion and their fallacy or veracity, whether this priesthood or that was superior or a certain book more accurate, but rather in what they told us about the human psyche and our “will to believe” (also the title of one of his most famous lectures). Thus, James set out to explore what he called “the varieties of religious experience”, seeking to find the common emotional, psychological, and personal thread which might make religion, well, religion. As James himself wrote in his book titled The Varieties of Religious Experience:
In the more personal branch of religion it is on the contrary the inner dispositions of man himself which form the centre of interest, his conscience, his deserts, his helplessness, his incompleteness […] The relation goes direct from heart to heart, from soul to soul, between man and his maker.William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin, 1990), p.34
James is aware that this definition of religion is a limited one. But, he says, arguing about names and definitions is exactly what torpedoes most investigations into these complex phenomena and therefore, he is willing to accept whatever other name you might want to use, as long as we’re referring to the same thing. This approach, which the shrewd among you might have noticed is incredibly pragmatic, is exactly why William James in general, and his Varieties especially, is so useful for any investigation into religion.
Instead of getting bogged down in endless questions of definitions and crooked genealogies, James sidesteps these issues to focus on the question: “what is the religious sentiment, wherever it may be, and how can we characterize it?” Try reading The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer, a classic in religious anthropology, or the extremely overrated The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. The intros alone, obsessed as they are with being accurate and historical, ambitious and absurd in their desire to capture all of human history in a book, will put you to sleep and James’s economical and intellectually agile style will suddenly seem very precious to you indeed. In his book, James does away with that sort of inquiry and instead posits a solution, as stated above. What if, instead of arguing back and forth on facts which are mostly lost in the haze of time and cultural significance and, thus, “corruption” by interested parties, we instead focus on the source of religion itself, namely the emotions, mindsets, and beliefs that stand at its core?
“OK”, you might now say, “but so far we have not really heard from you what exactly is James’s definition of religious emotion! All we know is what it is not, why we should pursue it, and in what or where it shall be found. But what is it?” The thing is, as with all great philosophers, pinning down James’s exact definition of the religious experience or sentiment isn’t an easy task. There is no “bumper sticker version” of James’s definition of religion. However, for the purposes of this essay, we can point to two closely-residing segments in the Varieties that, put together, gives us a working definition:
For one thing, gods are conceived to be first things in the way of being and power. They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape. What relates to them is the first and last words in the way of truth. Whatever then were most primal and enveloping and deeply true might at this rate be treated as godlike, and man’s religion might thus be identified with his attitude, whatever it might be, towards what he felt to be the primal truth.
Such a definition as this would in a way be defensible. Religion, whatever it is, is a man’s total reaction upon life.William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin, 1990), p.39
James then goes on to say that not every total reaction is religious. Specifically, he edits out the humorous and absurd from being religious, leaving only the somber, the awe-struck, and the serious reactions to the presence or the idea of divinity as religious. Here, we have a distillation, finally, of his idea of the religious experience; it is whatever reaction, given only that it is a serious reaction, to the divine. And that divine? What of it and what is it? Expanding on the definition given above, James says:
The divine shall mean for us only such a primal reality as the individual feels impelled to respond to solemnly and gravely, and neither by curse nor a jest.
Things are more or less divine, states of mind are more or less religious, reactions are more or less total, but the boundaries are always misty, and it is everywhere a question of amount and degreeWilliam James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Penguin, 1990), p.42
And thus, at last, we begin to arrive at the topic at hand: the religiosity of post-rock. Because James’s approach to the definition of religion is so “elastic” and radical (in the academic sense of the word, that is that it goes to the core of something), it is extremely useful when we come to analyze or try to understand areas which aren’t “classically religious”. James’s approach, since it focuses exactly on these personal, non-institutional relationships, wherever and in whatever form they might be found, suddenly enables us to cast our nets that much further into the lives of humans and see the religious in our daily lives and not only “just” in specific practices, contexts, and places. Not everything we do has the potential to be religious but every person, in every place and time, has the potential to be religious since the mental/emotional state of solemnity in the face of a primal reality is open to all.
Now that we have a working, albeit complex, definition of religious sentiment and now that we know that it might be found everywhere, how can we resist looking at post-rock? The solemness of the music, the etherealness of the tones, the grand scope of the gestures which the genre evokes, all hum faintly with sympathetic recognition of William James’s definition of the religious sentiment. And nowhere are these emotions and scales more clearly and succinctly expressed than in the New Wave of American Post Rock. Thus, armed as we are with this intellectual tool, informed by James’s definition of religion which allows us to look in many places for religious emotion, we can turn our gaze to the music itself.
Pale Lights – How the Music of Post Rock Evokes the Divine
“The New Wave of American Post Rock” is an incredibly loaded term. But, much like James’s choice to “be elastic” in his definitions at the onset of his inquiries, we too can defuse this loaded definition fairly quickly. First, we must point out that any claim to lineage hidden in the word “New”, implying that this wave of bands is somehow a continuation of bands like Explosions in the Sky and God Is an Astronaut, is purely coincidental. “New” here is simply meant to denote chronologically recent, as most of the bands which we categorize under this definition have started to release music in this decade.
Secondly, by “wave” we simply mean a group larger than several, not necessarily a well defined set of bands that all share clearly explainable attributes. While there is indeed a common, musical thread running through all the bands we will discuss today, there are also differences and that is fine; in general, we find genres and definitions to be tools rather than truths worth fighting over. And lastly, when we say “American” we are definitely cognizant of the fact that this “wave” of bands expands much further than the continental US, into Europe, Asia, Australia, and beyond. But for this inquiry, and keeping in mind the importance of James to American society and thought, we’ll be mentioning some pretty uniquely, but not exclusively, American permutations of post-rock.
Which brings us to the final term contained within our definition and, perhaps, the most elusive one: post-rock. An oft maligned genre, post-rock is easy to recognize but hard to define. When a post-rock song comes on, you know in your gut that it’s post-rock. But, often, when asked later to nail down exactly what makes it so, you find that the words escape you. This, in and of itself, already hints at one of post-rock’s most important characteristics: it has something of the total, of the larger than life, of the primal, and of the ethereal at its base. The delay-laden guitars, the airy tones, the length of the tracks, the contemplation inherent to the genre, all evoke a sensation that is hard to define, to put into words. It is because of this that so many post-rock track names evoke the lost and the far-away, with emotions like “saudade” and “hiraeth” being extremely common in the genre.
Here’s an example for you; “Seven Sisters”, off of Ranges‘ brilliant The Ascensionist, typifies this style very well. The solemn guitar lines that runs through it, the contemplative drums, the overall feeling of expansion, of your heart growing ever wider as the track goes along, all of these call forth this sensation of being in the presence of something large, of striving for a peak that’s not really in sight but that you know is there; it’s so there that you feel it in your bones. The rest of the album is just as emotional, doubling down on these feelings, sensations, and scenes, with every crescendo and contemplative lead.
If we stop now for a second to consider the mode in which this music lives us, the distance from here to James’s definition of religious emotion is not far. Whether the band intended it or not (and, if you read between the lines, it’s not that much of a leap), their music definitely puts us in relation to “a primal reality” where we “feel impelled to respond to [it] solemnly and gravely”. Post-rock is nothing if not solemn; it invites considerable introspection and handles its subject matter with famous (and ridiculed, at times) seriousness, painting every emotion, state of mind, and idea on as large a canvas as possible. It is also definitely concerned with a primal reality; one only needs to look at the The Ascensionist‘s cover art and read the track names to understand.
While Ranges’ release is a mighty fine example of religiosity in post-rock, it is far from the only one. Indeed, where Ranges leave much to the listener’s imagination, other bands are far less coy about the role which religion plays in their music. Take Old Solar for example, coincidentally (probably not) released on A Thousand Arms music, run by members of Ranges. Their latest album, SEE, evokes God and religion in more ways than one. It’s interesting, and not surprising to note, that both SEE and The Ascensionist both runs their relationship with the divine (again, whatever “primal reality” they communicate with) through nature. This isn’t too hard to explain; what thing is more primal than nature? What evokes the divine more clearly than “the natural book of life” that is the world around us? This also has ties to American culture and philosophy, which we’ll touch on a bit later.
Going back to SEE, while the album is primarily about nature, the religious undertones of both the music and the concepts behind it are clear to hear/see. Even more than Ranges, the grandiose, solemn, and all together awe-inspiring aspects of Old Solar give their particular relationship with nature a divine tint, a sensation of being in the presence of something grander, greater, and more diffuse than yourself. Remember James? “They overarch and envelop, and from them there is no escape”. These sensations, of overarching and enveloping by the divine, are well and truly present not only in Old Solar’s music but in post-rock in general, often placing the listener in the presence of that which is all-encompassing.
In Old Solar’s case, the role of divinity also plays an overt role in their music as well as a subtle one. I happen to be lucky enough to own the absolutely gorgeous vinyl release for this album and what should I find at its back but a dedication to none other than the divine itself? It reads:
Far above all, thank you to our Creator, who spun the earth into motion and set forth every beautiful, inspiring, and wonderful thing that we may see His goodness, know His mercy, and flourish in His love. We are so very thankful
In fact, these very words are what inspired me to write this essay; they are such a succinct, and beautiful, summary of the feelings that I had always felt lie beneath a lot of American post-rock, that I felt that I must set out to more clearly document this sentiment.
At the outset, we can then say that the ties between the religious experience and post-rock seem explainable and vivid enough. Even if not all bands are as clear with their religious sentiments as Old Solar or even as clear as Ranges (many of the bands in the genre don’t mention anything close to the divine even once, not in track name, album title, or elsewhere) what they all share is the relationship with the grand, the out of reach, the both intimately small and infinitely large, a discussion with a primal reality that is immediately knowable to the individual.
These ideas, and the fact that they often run through nature, are so central to the American psyche and culture, as they were to William James’s, that they justify their very own segment of this essay, the last one. It is impossible to understand this wave of post-rock, in its relationship with the majestic, without understanding the role that all of these these ideas, the tension between the individual and nature, the inherent massiveness of existence and its undeniable intimacy, the role of awe in life, play in the creation and maintenance of the American imagination and culture. It is to these ideas and how they fit in with post-rock that we now turn.
The Truth About the Wind – Post Rock and the American Imagination
*Disclaimer: The history of American involvement with the land upon which the United States sits is deeply problematic. Regardless of one’s view as to the ethical, moral, or legal nature of the colonization of the Americas, the simple and truthful fact is that all of the land the United States is situated on today was acquired through a process of total warfare and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples by European colonizers. Any land Americans love was ripped from the hands of others. While this doesn’t have direct connections to the post-rock bands at hand, it absolutely cannot go without, at a minimum, being mentioned and acknowledged.
The wilderness is the caducean core around which both post-rock (and atmospheric metal and metal-adjacent styles writ large) and the American imagination coil serpentine and meet in totality. Understanding this on a surface level is fairly straightforward: the connection is that both the aesthetic of post-rock and a certain segment of the American zeitgeist are deeply, powerfully taken in by a particular conception of the power of the natural world.
However, this straightforward answer unearths far more questions than it answers. Where did this strain of thinking nature come from? Where can we find it most at play? What’s similar and what’s different between the way it’s conceived in the American imagination and in post-rock? Naturally, starting at the beginning seems our best bet, tracing the particular philosophico-religious infatuation with nature back to its origins in Romantic thinking. The Romantic movement, itself a rebellion of sorts against the zealous scientism and overly-rational thinking of the Enlightenment, saw something deeply sublime (a word we’ll come back to in a second) in nature. In its complete independence from human reality, in its primordial and immutable splendor, and its sheer largess, the Romantics, both American and European, saw something deeply religious in the natural world that they saw as more than fit to be venerated.
Understanding the natural sublime is key to understanding this shared religious love for the natural world. The idea of the “sublime” as an experienced feeling stems from the work of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who described a way in which, due to the sheer size, novelty, or completely un-categorizable nature of an experience, one could find themselves in a state where both the rational and non-rational parts of the human mind are, essentially, short circuited, and instead of being completely separated are free to intermingle. (I realize this is a simplification, but it works and is more than accurate enough for our purposes.)
The natural world, then, in the minds of American philosophers like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, becomes a primordial temple to the sublime; it becomes a primal, pre-rational space where what keeps us from accessing our truest and innermost selves is completely stripped away. Although post-rock bands of today would not, perhaps, venerate the wilderness with the same level of anarchic and antisocial sentiment of a character like Emerson or Thoreau, who both advocated for, at times, completely shirking the idea of citizenship within a community and living entirely on one’s own in nature, there is certainly a connection between this way of undertaking a journey into the natural world and the background radiation of nature-as-religious in post-rock.
It is, in fact, almost a given that post-rock bands will invoke the natural world in their aesthetics in a manner consistent with this religious reverence. Album covers have forests, mountain ranges, diagrams of the stars, snow and ice – there is an almost complete saturation of the aesthetic of the natural world into post-rock. The music is spacious, grandiose, adventurous; there is an emphasis on soundscapes that invoke untread, uninterrupted expanses of open land to be explored and uncovered. In the post-rock mindset, the wilderness opens itself up to the human being, not unveiling its secrets but allowing the individual to step across that threshold that separates civilization – the world of laws and communities, of regulations and guidelines – from the natural world – the holy world, the world untainted by our attempts to vivisect the earth into neat little chunks we can understand, categorize, and maintain. Post-rock seeks to emulate that natural sublime, to recreate it in small doses in a controlled environment, something clean and accessible so as to be always available when necessary. Post-rock records are Romantic pocket Bibles.
Peripheral Drift – In Summary
Thus, we arrive at the meeting point of all of the ideas explored above. To summarize it, we might say that, in the New Wave of American post-rock, we find an intricate and fascinating juxtaposition between Romanticism, religion, nature, and the divine. This intricate and subtle list of affinities fits in perfectly with James’ idea of the “religious relationship”; in its emphasis on the totality of nature, post-rock places nature, as many American and non-American literary figures have in the past, in that same area of “primal reality” that we began with. It reacts to that primal reality with solemnity and seriousness. This, in turn, makes American post-rock’s relationship with nature another facet of its religious undertones. These undertones find expression in moving music, majestic passages communicating a Romatinc feeling of elation; while the inner landscapes of the mind and heart are inherently the primum movens of post-rock, they move outside, towards a meeting with nature. In that meeting point does American post-rock often reside, in a liminal space between ideas of nature, divinity, inner exploration, emotion, and the psyche, blending internal and external landscapes into one.
Fittingly enough, this idea of “liminality” figured prominently in the thought of William James and, indeed, would survive him to become one of the most important ideas in modern psychology. While we don’t have enough space in this already-lengthy article to explore this idea of liminality and how post-rock fits into it, further complicating the aesthetic matrix we have tried to describe in this post, we are lucky indeed to have music. Music communicates all of these ideas without the need for words. It runs to the core of these experiences and, especially in the case of the New Wave of American post-rock, focuses on conversing with the inexplicable. Thus, we end this post with a length list of listening recommendations; some of them figured above or were mentioned. Many others were not. All have a sense of the divine to them, whether the bands intended that sense to be present or not. Their sounds and themes are diverse but this core of ephemeral grandeur connects them all, making them into a “wave”, into a “genre”. The ideas described above thus become useful and, by being useful, become all the more real. As James himself said: “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use”. Let the use of this post ultimately be finding new music, connecting with what it might mean, and the varied types of states of existence which it might discuss.