INTRODUCTION: To set the scene for the launch of my new book of poems, The Price of Transcendence, I got thinking about just what that word meant and how it might inform the impulse that went into the poems. The essay below arose from this meditation, followed by details of the book launches. The book is released as a limited edition by New Orphic Publishers of Nelson, BC. As is most often the case, the poems come first, the speculations later.
1. The Price of Transcendence: Heaven or Earth?
Transcendence. Like so many of our English language terms, it’s a word fraught with baggage. To transcend is to rise above, to go beyond. But what are its implications? Is the trajectory of transcendence heavenward or earthward? What do I mean by transcendence?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the root word for transcendence, transcend, dates to the 14th century, from the Old French ‘transcendre,’ to surpass, lifted directly from the Latin ‘transcendere,’ “to climb over or beyond, surmount or overstep.” ‘Transcendence’ dates to 1600, from Medieval Latin, ‘transcendentia’ by way of classical Latin ‘transcendentem.’
It’s not hard to hear in these root words an echo of the entire history of Western spirituality, particularly the Abrahamic-based traditions, with their emphasis on transcending the material world to the godly or ‘heavenly’ realm. Not hard to imagine where that urge comes from if your culture is embedded in the harsh environment of the desert. Spirituality is thus seen as a need to transcend our animal nature into something ‘higher’ or transcendent. The biblical doctrine of ‘original sin’ reinforces this notion, placing humans in arrears from the moment of their birth. The enlightened person is therefore one who strives to go beyond the body by cultivating mind and spirit.
Not that there’s anything wrong with cultivating spiritual or intellectual traits. To the contrary, doing so confers upon us a great advantage socially and occupationally and is probably part of what is driving the evolution of the species. But it’s interesting to note that the historical progression of Christianity moved from the Medieval concept of the ‘great chain of being’ (of which humans are merely one link) to the more ‘modern’ notion of human mastery over nature, as in a hierarchy, with God and Christ at the top, men below them, women below men, and everything else living beneath them. The bird, animal and quasi-pagan iconography carved into the wooden pews of Medieval chapels becomes subsumed by the iconography of human saints, quasi-human angels and images of Mary.
Ironically, the dawning of the Age of Reason, a.k.a. The Enlightenment, of rationality over religious dogma and mysticism, only served to deepen the split between Man and nature, as John Ralston Saul makes clear in his magisterial work Voltaire’s Bastards. What was intended as a rational liberation by writers such as Voltaire, a logical extension of Martin Luther’s reformist instinct, only ended up driving us deeper into our intellect and, arguably, further away from Nature. The development of the rational sciences and philosophy propelled us further along this path. “(The) renewed and intense concentration on the rational element which started in the seventeenth century had an unexpected effect,” writes Saul. “Reason began, abruptly, to separate itself from and outdistance the other more or less recognized human characteristics—spirit, appetite, faith and emotion, but also intuition, will, and, most important, experience.”
It was this that the poet William Blake was remonstrating against in his works, particularly as articulated in There is No Natural Religion and All Religions Are One. “Man’s perceptions are not bounded by organs of perception; he perceives more than sense (tho’ ever so acute) can discover.” What Blake and the other Romantic poets were sensing at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, the initial belches of warning smoke from the “dark Satanic mills” was ironically a direct outgrowth of the new rationalism. “It has produced a system determined to apply a clean, unemotional logic to every decision, and this to the point where the dictatorship of the absolute monarchs has been replaced by that of absolute reason,” writes Saul. “The judgmental side of Descartes has come to the fore. It is answers we want—simple, absolute answers where, in reality, there is great complexity.” Western civilization went, as it were, from the frying pan to the fire.
The Romantic poets and early transcendentalist movement of Thoreau and Emerson attempted—unsuccessfully—to turn us back toward our ancient impulse to connect deeply with the natural world. Emerson, like Blake, was arguing for a naturalistic approach to spirituality, trusting to intuition and experience as well as immersion in Nature. Mainstream religions continued to preach the path of upward transcendence toward an anthropomorphized God or godhead. Unsurprisingly, early American transcendentalism was viciously attacked by such major literary figures as Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Its emphasis on the individual pursuit of wisdom and knowledge as proposed by Emerson in his lectures and the essay Nature (1836) was a clear threat both to secular and religious hierarchies then dominant.
It would take the social revolution of the 1960s to finally begin breaking the stranglehold of institutionalized religion. Yet even alternative practices such as Transcendental Meditation would continue to emphasize the need to ‘go beyond’ the self, to transcend the body to a state of ‘pure being’ or spiritual light. Despite its Eastern derivation, the impulse betrays an echo of traditional Christian concepts of the inherent corruption of the body. Some of the New Age movements at least attempted to get people back into Nature and explored neo-pagan spiritual practices but were taken so far beyond the rational as to become merely silly in some instances. Attempts to integrate aboriginal spiritual tradition were well meaning but undermined by the legacy of a simmering antagonism held over from native and European interaction. Exacerbating this was two thousand years of Christian theology in Western consciousness, making the gap that much harder to bridge. One doesn’t simply leap whole from one spiritual tradition to another without dissonance. Thankfully this has matured into an awareness that native ceremonies need to be included in our own ceremonies, not co-opted by pretending to be Indians.
Still, it’s a start, the first baby steps in the right direction—a reawakening of consciousness to the sacredness of the natural world. Whether or not James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is true probably doesn’t ultimately matter. Whether or not the aboriginal belief in animals, birds and other living things as having personhood or souls is true doesn’t matter. What matters is that the holding of it all as sacred has had a profound effect upon the behavior of people past and present. We’re far less likely to destroy a mountainside, poison a river, or hunt a species to extinction if we see them as sacred, or ‘ensouled.’
Thus, the ‘direction’ of transcendence, spiritually speaking, isn’t upward toward ‘heaven,’ but the reverse—downward into the Earth, the moss, the stream, the spring. The price of transcendence is therefore our attachment to spiritual abstraction, and to our view of ourselves as the pinnacle of a hierarchy. The price of transcendence is our attachment to our own voice as more important than that of Eagle, Bear, Salmon or Coyote. Our personal narrative becomes just one more thread in a tapestry of voices, no more and no less important than any other. As I wrote in the Foreword to The Charlatans of Paradise, “in the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway.” The price of transcendence is pride of ego, getting beyond ourselves as the centre of the universe. Transcendence arises from connection with the living world around us in all its forms, from the micro- to the macroscopic, and all it can reveal about ourselves and itself, our relationship with the world.
The ultimate irony of this kind of transcendence is that it is both rooted AND transcendent. We start with the Earth and all its creatures, and from there comes transcendence. Not away from Earth, but toward it.
REFERENCES:  John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 15
 Blake, There is No Natural Religion, Second Series, tenet 1
 John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 20
2. Joyce launches The Price of Transcendence
What is the price of transcendence? How do we attain a state of grace within ourselves that will enable us to coexist peacefully with this planet? This poetic question informs a new book of poems by author Sean Arthur Joyce, The Price of Transcendence, published to coincide with National Poetry Month. Poetical questions aren’t meant to be answered, but are written to prompt deep reflection, like a Zen koan or parable. Published by New Orphic Publishers of Nelson, Joyce’s book was edited by Tom Wayman, who calls it “a first-rate collection.”
It turns out that the path to coexistence on our ecologically threatened planet may be to look inward to test our assumptions about the natural world. Poets play a key role in prompting this kind of spiritual reflection. Living in the country setting of New Denver, Joyce says one gets a closer view of the birds and other animals we share this planet with. More than that, by interacting with them to the extent possible, we build a relationship with them. We begin to see them as individuals with their own lives and communities rather than a disposable commodity. This is a potential path to ‘transcendence,’ getting beyond our limiting human perspective with its tendency to focus on humans as the centre of the universe.
Several of the poems in this book have been featured in the New Orphic Review, an independent literary magazine that recently enjoyed the honour of having one of its short story writers win the Journey Prize for fiction. Two poems were featured in the 2013 Nelson ArtWalk. Editor-in-chief Ernest Hekkanen writes of The Price of Transcendence: “This elegant collection of poems left me feeling sweetly melancholic. I was touched.”
Joyce launched The Price of Transcendence at the Cascadia Poetry Festival’s Small Press Fair in Nanaimo April 30–May 3. Other launch dates include Slocan Community Library in Slocan Friday, May 15, 7 pm with Ernest Hekkanen and Owain Nicholson; Knox Hall in New Denver, Thursday, May 21, 7 pm, with special guest Judy Wapp; Booksmyth bookstore in Nelson Thursday, May 28, 7 pm; Nakusp Library Thursday, June 4, 7 pm; and The Langham in Kaslo, Sunday, June 21, 7 pm, with special guest poets Mark Mealing and Robert Banks Foster.
The book will be made available through local independent booksellers, including Otter Books and Booksmyth in Nelson, Raven’s Nest Gifts in New Denver, 1896 Books & Jewelry in Kaslo, and elsewhere for $15. A $20 bill will get it sent directly to your door. Just email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy. This is a limited edition of 100 copies and Joyce is happy to sign it for you.