Thursday, November 29, 2007

Peak Experiences and Moments of Radiance

Elizabeth Zelvin

If you look up “peak experiences” in Wikipedia, you’ll read that psychologist Abraham Maslow, the same guy who gave us the concept “hierarchy of needs,” used the term in a 1970 work to describe transcendent moments of intense happiness and wellbeing. I heard the term a lot earlier than that, as an undergraduate at Brandeis in the early 1960s. Maslow taught there at the time. I never took a course with the great man, who was reputed to be rather dismissive of his female students. But the phrase was already in circulation. And of course, we all wanted one.

A few years later, any college kid who wanted a peak experience would go for sex, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll. In my day, those who tried the first two did so behind closed doors and kept their mouths shut about it for the most part. And as for music, a lot of us were still sitting on the grass with our acoustic guitars and singing folk music. I remember sitting in the Brandeis gym listening to a scrawny little guy named Bob Dylan singing off key in a hoarse voice. The kids around me were yelling, “More! more!” and I remember being baffled. I thought, “More?”

I have had one or two musical peak experiences, though not at rock concerts. When I was in seventh grade, I got to play my cello on the stage at Carnegie Hall as part of a student orchestra. I remember having the illusion that the tiered horseshoe of balconies was so embracing that its sides leaned together, almost touching. And I remember that someone, I’ve forgotten who, said afterward that I looked radiant. That’s how you get when you’re having a peak experience: radiant. I had another transcendent moment a few years back, performing my song about September 11 to the perfect audience—about a hundred veterans of the Sixties who live in Woodstock—and singing better than I ever have before or since after a day spent warming up with a supportive group of “vocal visionaries.” A sense of connection distinguishes some peak experiences for me. I’d include the four or five times in my life when I’ve managed to get an audience roaring with laughter. At Carnegie Hall, it was the sense of awe at finding myself in that particular place. Great art does it for some people, religious or spiritual experience for others.

As a writer, I have probably had a few radiant moments when a poem or a character’s voice came through me without effort or volition. I gave my protagonist Bruce a peak experience at the end of Death Will Get You Sober. It has nothing to do with the solving of the mystery. It’s just a moment of transcendent joy on a perfect day in a beautiful spot among friends who love each other. That sounds simple, but it’s remarkable considering that Bruce starts the book waking up in detox on the Bowery, cynical, sick, alone, and hopeless.

I don’t think you can engineer a peak experience, regardless of what, say, disciples of Timothy Leary might have thought about it. It creeps up on you. An old friend of mine was visiting from France recently. We caught up on 15 years’ worth of news, including the fact that my mystery is finally getting published. She said, “This is a good time for you. You look—épanouie.” I said, “I know that word, but I can never remember what it means.” We discussed it—she taught English in Paris for many years—and finally agreed on the best translation. She meant I look radiant.


Rebbie Macintyre said...

Nice post, Liz. Got me to thinking, which is a major feat! Congratulations on your publication contract!

paul lamb said...

I had a college instructor who spoke of this same thing as writing with all eight cylinders firing.

I have these peak experiences periodically, when all is right with the world and I can't move my fingers fast enough across the keyboard. Nearly always I can attribute it to a caffeine high coming from the iced tea I've been guzzling. But I still have to be open to it: quiet and alone, reflective and still.