One evening in the winter of 1969, the author Philip Pullman had a transcendent experience on the Charing Cross Road. He tells me:
Somewhere in the Middle East, some Palestinian activists had hijacked a plane and it was sitting on a runway surrounded by police, soldiers, fire engines, and so forth. I saw a photo of it on the front page of the Evening Standard, and then I walked past a busker who was surrounded by a circle of listeners, and I saw a sort of parallel. From then on for the rest of the journey [from Charing Cross to Barnes] I kept seeing things doubled: a thing and then another thing that was very like it. I was in a state of intense intellectual excitement throughout the whole journey. I thought it was a true picture of what the universe was like: a place not of isolated units of indifference, empty of meaning, but a place where everything was connected by similarities and correspondences and echoes. I was very interested at the time in such things as Frances Yates’s books about Hermeticism and Giordano Bruno. I think I was living in an imaginative world of Renaissance magic. In a way, what happened was not surprising, exactly: more the sort of thing that was only to be expected. What I think now is that my consciousness was temporarily altered (certainly not by drugs, but maybe by poetry) so that I was able to see things that are normally beyond the range of visible light, or routine everyday perception.
Pullman has rarely discussed the experience, although it left him with a conviction that the universe is ‘alive, conscious and full of purpose’. He tells me: ‘Everything I’ve written, even the lightest and simplest things, has been an attempt to bear witness to the truth of that statement’ — including, of course, His Dark Materials.
What do you call an experience like that? Psychologists have struggled to agree. They have been called ‘religious experiences’, ‘spiritual experiences’, ‘self-transcendent experiences’, ‘peak experiences’, ‘altered states of consciousness’, trance, dissociation, psychosis-like, revelation, possession, flow. I like the term ‘ecstatic experiences’, from the ancient Greek ekstasis, meaning an experience where you go beyond your ordinary sense of self, and feel connected to something greater than you. That Something Greater could be a spirit or…