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Samvega: The Great Unsettling

Each of us can think of a handful of moments in our lives when everything dramatically changed and there was no going back to what we were in the previous moment. We experience these irrevocable transitions as simultaneously feelings and cognitions: disturbance, shock, sadness, euphoria, a profound unsettling both of our emotions and our understandings. It is an “unsettling” precisely because afterwards we can no longer take for granted that we are at home in our lives; we have been uprooted, and now feel lost. While this experience of loss is always uncomfortable and often painful, it is also essential to our emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth — and continued growth means staying attuned to the agitation and shock of the breakthrough moments.

Anton Chekhov’s very short short story, “The Beauties” (1888), gives exquisite expression to what happens when a sensitive soul meets beauty for the first time. The speaker is a teenager who, accompanying his grandfather on a trip through the dusty countryside, sees an unattainably beautiful Armenian girl at a farmhouse and feels the encounter as something like a blow that then becomes an open wound:

At first I felt hurt and abashed that Masha took no notice of me, but was all the time looking down; it seemed to me as though a peculiar atmosphere, proud and happy, separated her from me and jealously screened her from my eyes.
“That’s because I am covered with dust,” I thought, “am sunburnt, and am still a boy.”
But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table.
I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again. My grandfather, too, grew melancholy; he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha.

Even the grandfather is not immune to the contagion. Neither desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment: in other words, the feeling has nothing to do with what we normally think of as Eros or the Romantic, but is more like the otherworldly rapture felt by Confucius when, having heard the music of Shao for the first time, he forgot the taste of meat for three months. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table. Yet what he feels is not “ecstasy” or some stereotypical spiritual bliss. It is the transcendental sadness of a cherished veil being torn away to reveal an emptiness where the familiar face had been. After this, one can no longer be “happy,” because something essential is always missing and will not be restored through time or the wisdom of age: he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha.

Chekhov offers no resolution to this. His deep insight in these few pages is to include both teenager and grandfather, impressionable youth and hardened age, in the experience. The sadness envelopes both the beholders of beauty and the beauty itself, because everyone sooner or later finds himself and herself engulfed in a yearning that cannot be satisfied.

In “The Beauties,” Chekhov is giving modern voice to an ancient discovery. Plato describes this yearning several times — for instance, in the Symposium, where Alcibiades laments Socrates’ destruction of his peace of mind:

For when I hear him I am worse than any wild fanatic; I find my heart leaping and my tears gushing forth at the sound of his speech, and I see great numbers of other people having the same experience. When I listened to Pericles and other skilled orators I thought them eloquent, but I never felt anything like this; my spirit was not left in a tumult and had not to complain of my being in the condition of a common slave: whereas the influence of our Marsyas here has often thrown me into such a state that I thought my life not worth living on these terms. [215e-216a]

Compare this to the effect on the protagonist of Chekhov’s masterpiece “The Kiss” of a fleeting encounter with an unknown woman in the dark:

And the whole world, the whole of life, seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest. . . . And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless. . . .

Although this experience most commonly occurs through the powerful smiting of Eros, it can happen in an encounter with art, the holy, or both together. Eric Gill in his Autobiography (1940, p.187) describes the effect of hearing Gregorian chant: “At the first impact I was so moved by the chant … as to be almost frightened … This was something alive … I knew infallibly that God existed and was a living God.” This response articulates powerfully one important aspect of the experience: the sense of becoming painfully open to something more real, more alive, than life itself — in the face of which everything in our lives shows up as insufficient. We are dealing here with no mere passion — a passive reaction to some stimulus — but an emotion that is at the same time an insight, just as the cracking of an egg is at the same time sound and fracture.

There is a word for the experience I have been trying to describe: in Pali as well as Sanskrit, it is samvega. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great Indian writer on art, explores the idea of Samvega in an essay called “Aesthetic Shock” (1943): Samvega is a state of shock, agitation, fear, awe, wonder or delight induced by some physically or mentally poignant experience. It is a state of feeling, but always more than a merely physical reaction. The “shock” is essentially one of the realization of the implications of what are strictly speaking only the aesthetic surfaces of phenomena that may be liked or disliked as such. While it is part of a deep aesthetic response, the range of samvega encompasses all experiences that have power to jolt us into estrangement with our lives. Coomaraswamy traces the word through a selection of Sanskrit and Pali texts:

The Pali word samvega is often used to denote the shock or wonder that may be felt when the perception of a work of art becomes a serious experience. In other contexts the root vij, with or without the intensive prefix sam, or other prefixes such as pra, “forth, ” implies a swift recoil from or trembling at something feared. For example, the rivers freed from the Dragon, “rush forth” (pra vivijre, Rg Veda X.III.9), Tvastr “quakes” (vevijyate) at Indra’s wrath (ibid. I. 80.14), men “tremble” (samvijante) at the roar of a lion (Atharva Veda VIII.7.15), birds “are in a tremor” at the sight of a falcon (ibid. VI.21.6); a woman “trembles” (samvijjati) and shows agitation (samvegam âpajjati) at the sight of her fatherinlaw, and so does a monk who forgets the Buddha (Majjhima Nikâya, I.186); a good horse aware of the whip is “inflamed and agitated” (âtâpino samvegino, Dhammapada 144); and as a horse is “cut” by the lash, so may the good man be “troubled” (samvijjati) and show agitation (samvega) at the sight of sickness or death, “because of which agitation he pays close heed, and both physically verifies the ultimate truth (parama saccam, the ‘moral’)1 and presciently penetrates it” (Anguttara Nikâya II.116). “I will proclaim, ” the Buddha says, “the cause of my dismay (samvegam), wherefore I trembled (samvijitam mayâ): it was when I saw people floundering like fish when ponds dry up, when I beheld man’s strife with man, that I felt fear” (or “horror”), and so it went “until I saw the evil barb that festers in men’s hearts” (Sutta Nipâta, 935938).

A scholar of the Pali Suttas, Thanissaro Buikkhu, puts it thus:

Samvega was what the young Prince Siddhartha felt on his first exposure to aging, illness, and death. It’s a hard word to translate because it covers such a complex range — at least three clusters of feelings at once: the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle. This is a cluster of feelings we’ve all experienced at one time or another in the process of growing up, but I don’t know of a single English term that adequately covers all three. It would be useful to have such a term, and maybe that’s reason enough for simply adopting the word samvega into our language. (“Affirming the Truths of the Heart”)

Thanissaro shrewdly notes that samvega is usually felt as threatening to individual or societal life, and strategies are in place for suppressing it or rendering it innocuous: you are unhappy because you are being unreasonably idealistic, and you need to find contentment by lowering your expectations; stop worrying so much and let yourself have fun and enjoy life; go to therapy and have yourself adjusted back into functionality; understand that everything is made by God and is all good; live in the Now, find a way to enjoy doing the dishes, and don’t allow yourself to be distracted by an intellectualized Big Picture…All of these are familiar and complex strategies for anaesthesia: we can numb the pain by obscuring and fuzzing up the insight — make the pain smaller by making the heart smaller.

Buddhism gives a discipline and a path in which we can drink our samvega straight. Thanissaro argues that it is important not to forget the feeling that brought us onto the path; indeed, we need to keep it alive and stay in touch with it. But it needs to be balanced with a positive emotion — in this case, pasada, another complex set of emotions usually translated as “clarity and serene confidence.” Without something like pasada, one can become mired in a turbulent dismay of samvega — whereas pasada without samvega would be a hollow cheerfulness that only looks like courage.

In “The Beauties,” Chekhov doesn’t give us any solutions or resolutions: the encounters he describes open up a big hole in life, and once it is open it cannot be closed again. Samvega is the discovery of this hole; its shock and agitation are what impel us into the strenuous quest for truth and for the beauty of truth, and after its tremors it is difficult to repose any longer in comfort or pleasure. This is a good thing: we are given a standard that prevents us from ever being content with the merely pretty or pleasing. In my own life as a reader, writer, lover of art and music, and educator, I remember clearly the samvega moments that pushed me over the threshold, and have seen that my students and colleagues in the Liberal Arts nearly all have known samvega too; that is why we get along so well! The danger for us lies in our occupational habituation to deeply moving texts of all kinds, so that we become dulled to samvega — taking small daily doses of the poison, as it were, until it becomes harmless to us, even pleasant. If samvega ever becomes “safe” — something that we can calmly contemplate without a hint of disturbance — if we can read “The Beauties” and only recognize the sadness conceptually without being perturbed by it, then we will find that we have been drugged back into thinking that the realm of manure and oats is the only one there is. If there is one emotion that needs to be attended to and nourished throughout a philosophic or literary life, it is samvega — because it is what brought us here and what keeps us honest.

Chekhov’s “The Beauties”:
“The Beauties” read by Philip Pullman:
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart”:
Ananda Coomaraswamy, “Aesthetic Shock”:,%20A.K.%20-%20The%20Essential%20Ananda%20K.%20Coomaraswamy%20(2004)_djvu.txt