At the beginning of one of Freud’s most perceptive works, Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud discusses what he calls that “oceanic feeling,” or sense of connectedness to something larger than ourselves. He had borrowed the phrase from his cherished friend, French writer Romain Rolland, who while accepting Freud’s rejection of anthropomorphic religion, still retained a notion of kinship with an enervating source permeating all existence.
Freud hadn’t ever experienced it and derisively equated it with notions of a deity serving as an avatar need for a surrogate father. In doing so, I think he erred in narrowing its limits. I’m not religious, but I’ve experienced this sense of connectedness, and found it both transforming and moving in the mystery of that sudden moment when I am become clairvoyant, my hand on the pulse of all things.
I would use the word mystical, despite its usual religious context, to describe it; that is, an intuitive moment in which one comprehends a reality normally denied to the senses. Perhaps epiphany gets at it as well, or immediate apprehension of the essence of an experience. I think this is how James Joyce employed the latter term so central to his notion of artistry as defined in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
It happened for me many years ago in the Indian state of Kerala, bordering on the Arabian Sea. A place of velvet green mountains and palmed jungle laced by myriad canals, it smacked of Venice, howbeit, in tropical mode. I had come to India to give a paper at the University of Delhi, but allotted extra time to see a bit of its wonderfully different culture. I chose Kerala simply because I had worked with a colleague who came from there and my Lonely Planet guidebook abounded in promises. Unwittingly, I wandered into a good choice.
One of the things I wanted to do in Kerala was visit a tiger sanctuary in the hill station countryside famed for its sprawling tea and coffee plantations. (This is where the Brits hung out to escape the heat.) I had been staying in a humble hotel in the port city of Kolchi. That first evening I hired an Indian lingering at the door, hoping to glean some earnings from tourists and businessmen as a guide. Since he had a small boat, I asked if he could take me across the bay that evening so that I could take in one of India’s most exotic traditional dances, the Kathakali, in a town on the other shore. I marvel now how brave I was back then, perhaps governed more by naïveté than any wisdom. He waited for me after the dance as he had promised. Otherwise, I don’t know what I’d have done. As it was, we returned to Kolchi in total darkness–no stars, no compass.
He asked if I had any plans for the next day, so I shared my thoughts about the tiger sanctuary. He offered to take me there, only we would need to leave before dawn because of the long journey it entailed.
I pulled myself out of bed in the wee hours accordingly and found my waiting friend outside. Again, we would have to cross the bay before catching a bus into the hill country. This time, he had a fifteen year old boy with him to help with the oars. I wish I knew their names still, but no matter. I see them before me as I write: the one, a slender man perhaps in his early forties with five children at home; the youth, dark haired, good natured, eager to please.
As we moved across the bay, suddenly we passed long hulled fishing boats, their crews singing rhythmically as they stood, flinging their large nets into the water. Behind us, the western sky with its tenacious blackness; eastward, the groping soft fingering pinks of dawn.
Here we were: the three of us, specks silhouetted against the early light, one of us a Christian; my guide, a Hindu; our young man, Muslim, and yet we were one, diverse in creed and culture, linked by the humanity we shared. In that moment, a peace descended and I was at one with the universe, transcending time and space; a seer granted entrance into that “oceanic feeling,” knowing that we are all parts of a Whole, or like individual leaves upon a tree.
How petty our quarrels, the enmity fostered by individual ego, that annuls our linkage and with it, our duty to each other as finite creatures sharing the same dreams for love and peace and joy in this brief interval of light.
I haven’t experienced any occurrence of oceanic feeling since, but it doesn’t matter, for I have sampled its existence and drunk its wisdom and its peace abides with me still.