Case Study IV. The Experience of Doubt and Totality in Art

Study of the way in which the experience of doubt and totality are expressed
in the various types of art.

In his book Lof der scepsis, the Dutch classicist Rein Ferwerda discusses, among other things, the work of the two American and Jewish painters Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and Mark Rothko (1903-1970). After Auschwitz – a very explicit experience of doubt according to the school of maieutics – Newman distances himself from tradition and starts to paint abstractly. The ideal of pure beauty has become a strange ideal after the horrors of World War II. Ferwerda quotes Newman as follows:

“In those days [the postwar years] it was impossible to make the kind of paintings we used to make: flowers, reclining nudes and people playing the cello. We had to start all over again, as if painting was not only dead but had never existed” (Lof der scepsis, p. 85).

Barnett Newman, Untitled 1946 (foto G. Starke)

Newman essentially describes how the artist’s world has been totally disrupted by a horrific experience of doubt. He interprets this experience by making use of abstract symbols which only express his personal feelings and thoughts. After all, overall harmony has given way to the chaos experienced by the individual. ‘The postmodern painter,’ Ferwerda explains, ‘con-fronted with the horrors of mankind’s own making (concentration camps, atomic bombs), can only create his own ideas, without beauty, and pass them on to the viewers in this way’ (Lof der scepsis, p. 86). With Rothko we see the same development. He too begins his career as a figurative painter, but ends it as an abstract artist. Both Newman and Rothko are skep-tical of traditional standards of beauty. Both try to give a place to the unsettling and the chaotic in their artworks.

Mark Rothko, Red 1968 (foto G. Starke)

The development of people with a totality experience proceeds in a completely different way. It is known that during their experience they sometimes hear very special sounds and/or music and/or see extraordinary colors. After their experience they try to find these sounds and colors again on earth, for example through their own artistic expres-sions or in nature. Here are some of their testimonies:

“I heard very beautiful music. Formidably beautiful music, I had never heard that before.”

“I heard some kind of beautiful flute music.”

“I heard a kind of choral music. It was all voices, very distant. They weren’t singing words, but a long sustained ‘aaah’ tone.”

“Then I heard a new sound: a living sound, as if it was the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music I had ever heard. As the volume increased like a pure white light descending, the monotonous, mechanical beating that, it seemed for an eternity, had been my only company until then, disappeared.”

“Turning to the nurse, she [the I-character’s sister] asked, ‘Do you hear that music too?’ And she received the answer, ‘I don’t hear anything.’ At exactly that same moment, I rushed into the room and asked, ‘Where is this paradisiacal music coming from?’ The chords echoed so loudly that they had awakened me from a deep sleep! As we talked about this, the music gradually got softer and finally stopped altogether. I looked at my mother: she had died! Her spirit had left her body, while the last note of transcendent music could be heard.”

“When my mother died in a hospital, I was told by the nurse – it was the middle of the night – to go wait in a waiting room, because I was upset. I sat there alone and heard incredibly beautiful music, choirs singing. At one point I ‘saw’ my mother being fetched by two angels; they were bringing her upstairs. They were holding her under her arm-pits. I knew then that she had died and I didn’t hear the music anymore. A few minutes later my aunt’s sister and father came to tell me that she had died. But I already knew. I was never into paranormal stuff and didn’t really believe in it at all. I thought everyone who believed in it was crazy.”

According to some experiencers, the music of Greek composer Iasos (*1947) resembles what they heard during their totality experience. Below is a music excerpt:

“Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was standing in a huge lawn with infinite flowers in countless shades of color; colors you don’t see here on earth. Everything was trans-lucent with ivory white […]. Everything was bright light, but it did not hurt my eyes, because the light was also in me; I WAS the light.”

“Because of the intense experience of the light of love during my NDE, I am moved by skies for the rest of my life. The light that penetrates the clouds, making the clouds shine, gives me something back from the other side, from the total. I look for the beau-tiful colors in the flowers that the sun shines on. No color makes it to the colors I saw during my NDE and yet I am always touched!”

Researchers can identify this theme through the study of works of art and literature, through conducting interviews and other research methods. Art can be seen as a revealing expres-sion of our deepest souls. Possibly it reveals aspects of the experiences of doubt and totality that cannot or can hardly be expressed through normal language!

Another fascinating question is whether and to what extent mainstream art can be com-pared to the artistic expressions of people with a totality experience. Can general properties be discovered in works of art in this context? Do these characteristics subsequently reveal something about our reality? To what extent does love actually play a role in art? These and many other questions are addressed in case studies like this one.