Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
With such questions in mind, I recently read a book called Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, by Malcolm Guite, which brilliantly explores these topics. Guite is himself a poet, a priest, and also a songwriter. He was kind enough to chat with me about poetry and ecstasy.
Jules Evans: You’re a poet, a priest and a rocker. Which came first?
Malcolm Guite: My love of poetry goes back a very long way. Both of my parents liked poetry and quoted it unhesitatingly in their natural conversation. My mother in particular had a great fund of it, and I’ve inherited from her the ability to remember it. Poetry never occurred to me as a child in a bookish context, it was always more incantatory. We used to travel by sea a lot, and on the way my mother would almost automatically begin ‘I must go down to the sea today, to the lonely sea and the sky’.
I got more seriously and personally into it when I was 16, and I discovered Keats. I was dragged by an improving aunt to Keats’ house in Hampstead, not knowing anything about Keats, expecting some boring old fart, and I was utterly amazed. The Ode to a Nightingale was written on one of the walls. I stood in the room looking out through the french window to where the nightingale had been, and read this poem, and had a kind of epiphany. Keats wrote:
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown;
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
The same that ofttimes hath
Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Around the same time, I was in the process of rejecting my parents’ Christianity, and adopting a more reductive scientific view. When I read Keats’ Ode, I suddenly felt there was mystery again. I didn’t want it to be God, because I had a lot of issues with the Bible at that time. I convinced myself for a while that I could simply enjoy poetry on the side, without challenging or disrupting the increasingly narrow or materialistic view of the world which I was adopting. And I eventually realized I couldn’t do that. Deep within me, I knew when I read that poem that it wasn’t ultimately going to be enough to say ‘I know exactly how the world works’ with one side of my mind, and then just read poetry as a consolation.
JE: So poetry brought you to faith?
MG: Maybe it was the other way round. It was only when I had become a priest, and had a more formal sacrament, that I started writing poetry – because then I was freed to let poetry be its own sacrament in its own way, rather than being a substitute for religion.
I was ordained as a priest in 1990, and for seven years I was very busy working as a parish priest on a demanding estate in Huntington. I got fully engaged in it, loved it in some ways, but it was very draining, and I didn’t write any poetry during that time. Then I was offered a sabbatical for three months. And I thought, what do I want to do with it? And suddenly, rising from the depths, I thought, I’ve got to read poetry again. So I sat down and re-read all the poetry that’s referred to in Faith, Hope and Poetry. And I experienced it as a kind of life-saver.
I realized my faith had become, if not threadbare, then very functional and works-oriented, very much a practical faith to get me through the week. I’d lost my sense of those infinitely receding depths and hinterlands. And what happened as I re-read a huge amount of poetry was that, even when the poetry wasn’t about my faith, it simply opened up my access to this intuitive and imaginative way of knowing. That open way of reading flowed back into how I read the liturgy and Bible. So in that sense I can say there is poetry, even secular poetry, that gave my faith the kiss of life again.
JE: In the book you explore the idea – which one finds in thinkers like TS Eliot and CS Lewis – that reason-thought and imagination-feeling have become divorced in western culture since the Scientific Revolution. Could you summarize that argument?
MG: One of the questions being asked at the beginning of the Scientific Revolution was about exactitude and quantity, about being able to know and predict the way the world behaves. In order to achieve that, in order to do rigorous experiments, the first scientists and philosophers found it necessary to exclude from their minds the whole affective and mythological way of thinking. If you’re trying to find out whether air contains oxygen, you may have to exclude from your mind the intuition that it’s also the breath of God. Having set certain things aside temporarily, we forgot we’d set them aside. Having chosen to concentrate on the purely material causality of things in the world, we then became so intoxicated by the apparent accuracy of our results, that we thought that was the only type of causality. We didn’t realize there could simultaneously be other kind of things.
Thomas Sprat wrote a history of the Royal Society, and he prefaces it by saying he must specifically exclude what he calls the delightful deceits of fancy. That conscious purging of language of its metaphorical content, that desire to approach ‘mathematical plainness’, strikes me as necessary for a certain kind of scientific technique, but it’s absolutely deadly if it’s mistaken for a total picture of the whole sum of reality. And that I think is the great error into which we fell.
JE: You described how various poet-seers saw this danger happening, and tried to prevent this split from happening. You put forward a wonderful reading of the argument between Theseus and Hippolyta, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, as an argument between these two ways of knowing. Theseus gives a Platonic account of various forms of ecstasy, only to dismiss these experiences as ‘tricks’ of the imagination:
Hippolyta: Tis strange my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
Theseus: More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
Hippolyta: But all the story of the night told over
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.
JE: It strikes me that the arguments Theseus puts forward are precisely the sort of Skeptic arguments put forward today by thinkers like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jesse Bering and Derren Brown – that our inference of some agency or presence behind ecstatic experiences are really just ‘tricks’ of ‘strong imagination’.
MG: Yes. What’s interesting is the pair of terms that Theseus uses. He says ‘if it would but apprehend some joy / It comprehends some bringer of that joy’. I think the distinction between those two ways of knowing – apprehend and comprehend – is actually very helpful. The ‘prehend’ part of both words is about picking things up, like a prehensile tail. The idea of ‘comprehend’ is that you comprehend something by completely surrounding it, so that your mind completely understands it. But perhaps there are some things we can’t comprehend. In the King James Bible version of St John’s Gospel, it says, ‘The light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not’, which I don’t think means the darkness didn’t understand it, but rather there was something about this primal light which could not be surrounded by the totality of the mind, because it is bigger than the mind. Therefore the mind can’t come to a final conclusion about it.
‘Apprehend’ is something else. When you apprehend something, you’re not saying you’ve completely got a hold of it, you’re saying you’ve grasped something of it, and are moving towards it. One of the best opening lines of a poem ever is from ‘The Forge’ by Seamus Heaney. The opening line is ‘All I know is a door into the dark’. Taken as a statement by itself, it’s wonderful. We get to the end of what we know, and what we find is a door. To go through that door, we need imaginative apprehension.
JE: I was reading your book while also reading a book by a psychiatrist called Iain McGilchrist.
MG: Oh, The Master and the Emissary? I haven’t read it yet, just bits of it.
JE: It’s very much about these two ways of knowing, embodied (he argues) in the two hemispheres of the brain. He also thinks they have become increasingly divorced since the Enlightenment, with the left hemisphere’s rationality becoming dominant and tyrannical. He ends by suggesting poetry might be one way out of left-brain tyranny back to a more harmonious marriage of the hemispheres. Anyway, I thought of it when I came across the quote from CS Lewis in your book:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow ‘rationalism’.
Your book, like McGilchrist’s, suggests that there were various poet-prophets since the Enlightenment – Coleridge, TS Eliot, CS Lewis, Tolkien – who have tried to prevent this great divorce of reason and imagination from happening (McGilchrist would include various continental philosophers like Heidegger, Nietzsche and Hegel). Do you think they failed?
MG: I think it’s too early to say. The jury is still out. CS Lewis, Tolkien and Owen Barfield, three members of the Inklings, they may be outliers or forerunners, who got a little ahead of us. It’s ironic, as they’re mainly dismissed as being reactionaries. I think they may be harbingers of a change that’s to come. The other thing is that obviously I’ve concentrated on poetry as the imaginative art form that is the most transformative, which can genuinely change your opinion of life, but also your whole mode of knowing. I quote Owen Barfield’s description of the moment that you ‘get’ some poetry, as a ‘felt change of consciousness’.
But if I look at the way the imagination is at work in contemporary western society, for example in the students in my chaplaincy, it’s clear that music and film are as important for them as poetry is for me. Look at the success of the Lord of the Rings films, for example. The real question to ask is, are they going to consume music and film simply as another consumer item, as a private consolation for a materialist world-view that remains unchallenged. That would be a worst-case scenario, where the arts, far from healing, contribute to the divide by marking out their own territory. Or, are they going to encounter film and music that has a transcendent effect which transforms all the other areas of their life.
JE: You’re a big fan of rock music, and are in a rock band. Do you think that some of the greatest rock artists took up the baton of being poets for their society, like Bob Dylan, or David Bowie, or Morrissey?
MG: Absolutely, particularly Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who are still producing really fine work. Cohen’s most recent album, Old Ideas, really addresses some of this stuff quite strongly. Also the album Ten New Songs. There’s an amazingly transcendent song on that called Alexandra Leaving, which is about an epiphany in a moment of sorrow. The singer acknowledges something transcendent and beautiful, which puts his personal sorrow into a different perspective. There’s a great line in it:
And you who had the honor of her evening,
And by the honor had your own restored
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving
Alexandra leaving with her lord.
Very simple language, but pointing to a very different way of reading the situation to the basic ‘who’s the winner and loser here’ attitude.
JE: So, going back to poetry, I used to read it at university, I even wrote it a bit. But I haven’t written it or even read it since I graduated. What I enjoyed about your book was it gave me a way to enjoy poetry again, a way to find meaning in the practice of close reading. It’s almost like the return of close reading to its sacramental origins after decades of arid literary theory.
MG: Exactly. One of the things I got very frustrated with in coming back to poetry was a lot of the secondary reading. The high-end literary theory ends up distancing you from the text rather than opening you up. You’ll notice there’s almost no reference to the immense secondary literature on these poets. Instead, I try to open up why these poems are transcendent and sacramental to me, in the hope the reader will get the same thing.
JE: You tie that search for the transcendent in poetry to a very old Christian practice called lectio divina. Could you tell us a bit about that?
MG: Lectio divina is about a slow savouring of the text, almost a tasting of it. One of the classical expressions of it talks about tasting the word. The Latin phrase is palatum cordis – the palette of your heart. The medieval Catholic practice of it survives into Anglicanism, in a famous collect by Archbishop Cramner: “Blessed Lord, which hast caused all holy Scripture to be written for our learning; grant us that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them’. So even though the book is a collection of symbols and words, there’s the idea that you nevertheless receive them into you almost as a substantial thing, and the deepest nutrient elements of it become part of who you are. It’s very different from simply processing information.
JE: It reminds me of the Stoics, who talk about digesting philosophy and making it ‘a part of oneself’ as Seneca put it. They would memorize fragments of philosophy and of poetry and make it a part of their inner logos. (It also reminds me, by the by, of Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, about the art of spiritual reading).
MG: That Greek tradition obviously informs St John’s Gospel, and the idea of Jesus as the Logos made flesh. So when Jesus says ‘man does not live by bread alone’, and says ‘The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life’, there’s something extraordinary going on.
JE: So you talk in the book about some of the ways we can learn to savour a poem – its twists of meaning and perspective, its images and metaphors, how the words relate to each other, and also how the poem relates to other poems in the past.
MG: Yes. TS Eliot had this great phrase, ‘the auditory imagination’, by which he meant that certain words and phrases, by their cadences and rhythm, summon up the echoes of others. Particularly when you’re reading within a great literary tradition, where the masters of that tradition are themselves consciously drawing on their predecessors, and engaging in some kind of dialogue or conversation, then a very beautiful and complex web of allusion and connection becomes possible. Eliot turned that into an entire technique. The Waste Land is really an assemblage of allusions to other writing.
JE: It’s a bit shamanic, isn’t it, it’s the poet channeling the spirits of the tribe.
MG: Yes – he used to refer to The Waste Land as ‘He do the police in different voices’.
JE: He’s a voice-hearer.
MG: He’s a voice-channeler.
JE: But it’s quite an artful form of shamanic channeling, it’s not like some of the awful automatic writing that came out of the spiritualist movement in the late 19th century.
MG: Yes. It’s a balance of the conscious and the unconscious. There’s a great phrase in one of Coleridge’s essays on Shakespeare, where he says Shakespeare was ‘directing self-consciously a power and an implicit wisdom deeper than consciousness’.
And Eliot also says a wonderful thing in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, where he says all poems compose a ‘simultaneous order’ in the mind of the reader. Whether you’re reading Seneca or McGilchrist, for a moment they can all be in conversation in your mind. And when that happens in poetry it’s particularly fruitful.
JE: So there’s a speaking with shades, with spirits, that you get in a lot of poetry, in Heaney, or Eliot, or Dante. And it’s a trip, because it’s messing up your sense of time and causality, of what happened when and how people and events are connected.
MG: Exactly. One of the problems with 19th century reductive mechanistic science was that it wasn’t playful enough with time and space, whereas modern physics is. There’s a curious way in which science has caught up with poetry, and its shift in perspectives and sense of everything as being connected to everything else. There’s a lot of that playfulness with time in Eliot. In ‘Little Gidding’, for example, he walks through the ruins of London during the Blitz, and he meets the figure ‘of some great master’, who you realize is Dante. This character has come to him at an intersection of time – there’s something about London in the Blitz that connects to Florence during an earlier war. And they have this conversation about the nature of poetry, how it urges ‘the mind to aftersight and foresight’.
I had this experience reading Eliot myself. I read The Waste Land when I was a teenager and absorbed the line ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’, about London commuters. Many years later, I read Dante’s Divine Comedy, and came across that very line, which Dante uses to describe the souls in limbo. And I thought ‘wow, great use of an Eliot quote!’ even though of course Dante came first. The Divine Comedy shapes how we experience The Waste Land. But it’s also the case now that The Waste Land shapes how we experience The Divine Comedy.
JE: There’s a hope that the practice of lectio divina won’t just help us read a work of art, but also to read the book of life. A hope that the cosmos is a work of art which we can learn to appreciate.
MG: Absolutely. Because we tend to read books in a rather literal way, we assume that’s the way we should read the cosmos too. There’s a wonderful passage in Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, where he imagines his son’s future, and he says:
so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
It’s a notion that the phenomena, the appearances we observe, might have the character of being logoi themselves, filled with meaning and intimately connected to one another in a semantic web.
JE: The skeptic in me would say, is life really like a work of art? Is it so ordered, patterned, and full of meaning? Maybe that’s why we turn to art, to poetry or novels, because life is much messier and more random and chaotic than that.
MG: To turn to that extraordinary word Logos, if we think there is some kind of meaning both ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, then there has to be a Mind which gives structure or meaning. So it leads to some notion – and I’m not rushing here to a Biblical or Christian God – some notion of Logos or Mind behind things. Now obviously we could look out at the world and think ‘well, it’s a completely chaotic mess’. But we should be hesitant – you can think that about a poem sometimes. It takes time for its meaning and shape to emerge. The chaotic, puzzling or even frankly repellent aspects of existence may be things we need to think about more.
JE: One of the things poetry seems to do, then, is to help us transcend time and space and perhaps feel closer to God. It can be a sort of ecstatic vehicle.
MG: Yes. A poem that leaves you in exactly the same place that it found you, knowing neither more nor less, isn’t a particularly successful poem. A poem must always in some sense bring you to what Keats calls ‘the magic casement’. But that doesn’t mean it has to be a gushy Romantic poem. The classic example of a modern poem which does that, by a pretty bleak poet, is Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’.
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
It doesn’t tell you what you see through the high windows, or whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it just suggests this quality of transcendent more-ness. And instead of leading you through a series of increasingly beautiful things, he actually leads you through a series of increasingly degrading things, and then suddenly opens up.
JE: Which is something Eliot and Baudelaire do too – finding transcendence in the banal and ugly.
MG: Yeah, I think he owes something to both of those poets. The danger of the kind of Romantic poetry that I love is that it ends up like being endless reams of William Morris wallpaper that people can paper over things with. It has to deal with terrible things too, which the best of it does, like ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’.
JE: OK. Perhaps poetry can open a door or window onto the Other. But we can’t always be sure what Presence we’re meeting. It’s true that Coleridge found ‘haven’ in Christianity at the end of his career. But that wasn’t necessarily the case when he was at his most creative, when he was writing ‘Kubla Khan’, for example, and imagining a woman ‘wailing for her demon lover’. Think about how many poets say their ultimate inspiration is not the Holy Spirit, but something very different – for Ted Hughes and Robert Graves, for example, the Muse seemed to be more a chthonic earth-goddess.
MG: I take that point. I might want to play a bit with the word ‘ultimate’ – I obviously would want to make the case that, in so far as I have a theology of Logos, I do think there may be a single ultimate source of all these things, but I’m very interested in how it’s mediated and incarnate.
‘Kubla Khan’ or Hughes’ work are really good examples – I don’t want to rush to presume upon an explicit Christian meaning in a non-Christian poem. But I do want to suggest that, if it’s the case that Christianity is true, then it’s a truth that needs to accommodate the power and beauty of what is going on in this poem, without defacing it or opposing it. At the deepest level, the Christian idea that there is a profound transcendent backdrop to everything helps us to account for the consistency with which poetry and other art forms – Christian or non-Christian – have pointed to such a backdrop. But that’s not to say the individual poet is persuaded of the Christian case.
In fact, I would go further – one of the problems with people who are persuaded of the Christian case is that they then just read ‘safe Christian writing’. If they’re really persuaded of Christianity, then they ought to be able to read anything, even the apparently hostile stuff, and think how does this fit into the Christian cosmos. There is a problem with rushed transcendence in Christianity, it’s not sufficiently engaged with the world which it claims God so loved or with the flesh which it claims Jesus became. So I understand and empathise with the radical critique of it made by Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials, where he says the gaps of transcendence have to be closed so people can learn to love their own world, to love the dust. There are deep resources in Christianity for that, but they’re not used. It takes a poet like Ted Hughes to make us realize how like a goddess the Earth is, how deeply she gives, and with what mutuality and feared love one should return to her.
JE: OK. I’d ask a similar question about rock and roll, which I think was also a ‘vehicle for ecstasy’ in the second half of the 20th century, a really important one. But many of the great ‘rock-prophets’ (as it were) would say that if their inspiration came from anywhere, it wasn’t from a Christian God, it was something altogether more pagan – think of Jimi Hendrix’ ‘Voodoo Chile’, or the Stones’ flirtation with Satanism, or Led Zeppelin’s fondness for magic, or Jim Morrison’s self-identification with Dionysus. These artists were into the Beyond, into the unconscious, and the supernatural, but not Christianity.
MG: This relates to Blake’s comment about Milton, that he was of the Devil’s party, without knowing it. What he’s saying is, in Milton and others, the supposedly non-Godly is the thing which is actually represented with most power, energy, excitement and engagement, and God is increasingly represented as this state of completely detached passivity and stasis. There’s a complete failure in some Christian theology to show dynamis, or power, which is actually all there in the theology of the Holy Spirit, but which had completely fallen into abeyance in the West.
And then it was revived in the culture which ultimately produced rock and roll – the African-American Pentecostal and Baptist churches, which utterly emphasized the dynamism of the Holy Spirit, and reclaimed that fire and energy as of God. But it has to be said that this was not happening in the average English parish church in the 1950s. If you went to an English church then, and you were of the generation of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, you would not say ‘wow, the mysterious powerful ever-present Dynamis of flame is here!’. You’d say ‘this is just another bloody jumble-sale’. Then you’d tune into Radio Luxembourg, and you’d hear great music that has come out of the Pentecostal tradition and become soul or blues. That’s where the power is. I’m not sure how deep the Stones’ flirtation with the Occult was. I think it was that ultimately it sounded more transformative and transcendent to them.
JE: I think part of rock music’s flirtation with the Occult is, firstly, a rejection of authority – this is partly why people get into magic and the shamanic, because they don’t want to get into any hierarchy. And also, the thing about operational magic is that it’s often a power-trip.
MG: Sure. I’ve given a very generous construction of it. But I do think there is genuinely a dark side of it. The difference between sacramental ritual on the one hand, and magic on the other, is a fundamental difference about the orientation of the soul. In sacramental ritual, the soul is giving glory to the Other, worshiping the Divine and becoming most itself – but a transformed self. Whereas I understand magic, in its worst sense, to be a power-trip – it’s an attempt to use the Holy or the Divine as a stream of power with which to get the stuff your ego wants you to get.
JE: In that sense, quite adolescent.
MG: Very. The divine pattern in Christ is death and then resurrection. There has to be a letting-go. In black magic, people think they can just wander into the realm of the sacred, and grab stuff for themselves and use it to manipulate other people. That’s purely a power-trip, and ultimately self-defeating.
JE: What do you think of contemporary Christian worship music?
MG: I don’t know a huge amount of it. There’s some of it that’s very good. There seems to be a bit of an obsession…it’s sort of like the Jesus equivalent of ‘beats per minute’ – how many times can you mention Jesus in a song, so everyone is reassured that it’s Christian. I understand there are some Christian radio stations that do that – if there aren’t three references to Jesus in a song they don’t play it. There’s a Canadian guy called Steve Bell who did an anti-jingly Christmas album called Keening for the Dawn. I notice among younger American evangelicals a real desire to re-discover depth, resonance, tradition, and waiting in darkness. What I don’t personally like is saccharine music which is one long series of highly personalised love-songs to Jesus, as though my private relationship to Jesus, my knowing how much He loves me, makes everything so good that I don’t even need to consider what’s happening in Syria. We need a Christian music which actually says ‘if the cross is true, then he’s being crucified in Syria right now, what are we going to do about it?’
JE: OK, thanks for the interview Malcolm. I love the revival of Lewis / Tolkien’s theology of imagination, and their sense of the power of story, metaphor and myth to transform us. But it seems to me that way of thinking can end up in the postmodern idea that everything is a story or metaphor, that the gospels are just another inspiring myth. We just need to find some ‘sacred fiction’ that works for us, whether that’s Star Trek, Doctor Who or Lord of the Rings (which by-the-by was voted the most popular book of the 20th century, and is obviously much loved by non-Christians.)
MG: That’s the opposite of what Lewis and Tolkien were saying. The point is, it’s about the re-marriage of the divorced parents – Imagination and Reason. It happens that it was our mother, Imagination, rather than our father, Reason, who’s been absent, and who we need to get to know again. But the point of bringing them together – the reason, for CS Lewis, why coming to Christ was so transformative – was that he loved myth, but as long as it was just myth, however moved by it he was, he didn’t feel he could re-connect it to Reason. The problem with Reason by itself was that as long as it was devoid of resonant story, it was just facts without meaning. The point about the Christian story was not simply that it was mythically resonant, but also that it was (they believed) historical fact. Tolkien said Lewis should think of the Gospels as a great myth written by God in the material of history. The previous poets had used language to tell a story, while the Author of the cosmos was able to tell a story in and through the actual material fabric of what happened.
JE: But it sounds like Lewis was saying ‘there’s various different myths, of Dionysus, Oedipus, Balder the Brave etc but my myth is true’.
MG: Well he’s not simply saying it’s true, he’s also saying it’s the truth of all the other myths as well, it’s the one that gives the other ones their grounding. It would not be sufficient to say ‘we all need a story to live by’, because someone could come back and say ‘you’re just making it up’. If you can show that something actually happened, which seems to make sense of all these other myths….There’s a great essay of Lewis’ called The Grand Miracle, in which he refers to the life, death and resurrection of Christ as like a missing chapter in a great work, the great work being the Cosmos. He says ‘if someone proposes to me that there is a missing chapter to a book I know very well, they’d have to show not only that it’s in the style of the rest of the novel, but that it makes sense of otherwise puzzling episodes’. And that’s exactly what he thinks the resurrection did.
Here’s a wonderful talk Malcolm gave on JRR Tolkien.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
How did you get into psychedelic research?
It all started when I was studying psychoanalysis at Brunel University. I was in a seminar where the seminar leader raised the different methods for accessing the unconscious mind. It seemed as though the methods used by psychoanalysis were very limited – free association, dreaming, hypnosis, bungled actions, slips of the tongue. They never really convinced everyone.
So I thought if the unconscious is real, could drugs reveal it? I must have had psychedelics in mind. Then I found that there was a book by Stanislav Grof called Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, it was a light-bulb moment really. I realized there is all this literature from the 1950s and the 1960s, and the rationale was the drug lowered ego defences such that you could gain privileged access to the unconscious mind. Especially in the early days, that was the idea – that people on LSD might get spontaneous insights into memories or relationships that are causal of whatever symptoms they have. So that’s how my interest started.
What did that first phase of psychedelic research establish?
Unfortunately, I’d say it established nothing. To establish something, you need a robustly designed study, with outcomes that are valid and replicable. A lot of those ingredients were missing. It was certainly highlighting the unique potential of psychedelics.
How long did that phase of research last for, and why did it stop?
The first English language paper on LSD was in 1950, that was by a couple of Americans. Then the 50s was a busy time, by 54, 55, there were a significant number of papers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It peaks around the late 50s. By the time we hit the 1960s, the drug has crossed over and is being used recreationally. So that’s the period of controversy, with negative media reports on LSD, and individuals like Timothy Leary becoming a kind of figurehead, and saying arguably irresponsible things.
I suppose it did have a huge cultural impact.
Yes. One way to look at it is that Timothy Leary’s loud mouth turned a lot of people on to LSD. However, it also turned off the legitimate scientific research.
Can you blame Leary alone?
It would be easy and unfair to blame one individual. People do. But it’s probably unfair. He was stoking the flames. People were saying ‘tread carefully, don’t spoil the party’. And his vision became something other than scientific research, it was about a social and psychological revolution. People were taking LSD without sufficient knowledge of its effects or sufficient caution. So LSD became illegal in 1967, and the illegality made it so much harder to do research.
But there was still some research in the 70s and 80s?
Not really. It’s just barren, in terms of high-end research. In the US and UK it entirely dried up.
When did it restart?
The first modern human study was I think in the mid 1990s, by an American researcher, Rick Strassman. He had a simple study where he gave people DMT (from ayahuasca) intravenously, and he reported on the effects. He had a larger grand theory, that DMT occurs spontaneously in the brain and is responsible for religious experiences. But the study was quite simple. What was odd was he didn’t really do many more studies after this.
But then Franz Vollenweider, who is a Swiss psychiatrist and pharmacologist, started doing research with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and he did some interesting brain-imaging studies of the effects. People started to consider the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics again – there was an early study looking at the impact of psilocybin in OCD. And since then there’s been a psilocybin study for reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients.
Was that Roland Griffiths’ team at Johns Hopkins?
No that was Charles Grob at UCLA, although Roland is doing this too now. However, Roland Griffiths’ big papercame out in 2006, and he reported on giving high doses of psilocybin to healthy, psychedelically naive people, who’d never tripped before, and lo-and-behold, they had the experience of their lives. It was a very clever study, because it communicated to the man in the street, who doesn’t know anything about psychedelics, that these are drugs that can produce experiences that are among the most meaningful in your life, comparable to things like childbirth for example.
Has there been research on using psychedelics to treat alcoholism?
Yes, there is American research on using psilocybin to treat alcoholism. Some people have argued that perhaps the strongest evidence base for psychedelics is for LSD to treat alcohol dependence. There were a number of studies in the 60s, and some of their design wasn’t that bad. Outcome measures were improving. And with alcoholism, you have a more concrete measurement. A meta-analysis of the old research was carried out quite recently, and they looked at those studies which had the most rigorous methodology, and they found that the better-designed studies were showing good efficacy, comparable to the leading treatments today.
When did research start again in the UK?
I went to see David Nutt [former UK government drugs advisor] in 2004 / 2005 [when he would have been 24]. I was finishing my masters in psychoanalysis at Brunel, and wanted to do a PhD. I found a flyer on consciousness research, and contacted somebody who told me about David Nutt and Amanda Fielding at the Beckley Foundation. So I went to see both, and told them that my dream was to do a brain imaging study of LSD, and my hypothesis was that the psychedelic experience is like a REM experience, so you’re dreaming while awake. David said you have to walk before you can run – I didn’t have any experience in neuroscience at that stage – and I ended up doing a PhD on something vaguely related: MDMA, sleep and serotonin.
I still had these ambitions to do a brain imaging study about LSD. Amanda Fielding shared them – she runs a charity that does drug policy work and consciousness research, and after I’d finished my PhD, David said she had money to pay for a brain imaging study of psychedelics. At that point I designed the study of the effects of psilocybin.
Was that the first psychedelic research in the UK for a long time?
Yes it was. I don’t think there had ever been a published study on psilocybin in the UK.
How strange that no one else did a study in all that time.
Yes, it’s tricky to do.
Why were you able to do it?
Because a number of critical ingredients came together, like David Nutt, an established pharmacologist at the top of the tree; and an independent philanthropist funder, because mainstream funders wouldn’t fund it; and then I guess a young researcher who had the energy.
Tell me about the study.
We gave psilocybin intravenously to people, so the effects are almost instantaneous and will last 45 minutes, rather than five hours. Rick Strassman referred to such trips as a ‘businessman’s trip’. Then we did an fMRI scan of their brains. And that’s when we saw a decrease in blood flow to certain parts of the brain. That was a bit of a revelation, as no one had ever shown that before. Some people had shown the opposite. So it was a bit of a head scratcher. We spent a good duration of time checking our results. But then we replicated what we found using a different modality – again an fMRI measure – and we again found drops in the fMRI signal after we infused the drug, in a particular area.
The decreases were in regions of the brain that have very dense connections – they’re like hubs in the network, centres of high interconnectivity. It was these regions that were showing the largest decreases. That got us thinking, when you have decreases in centres of information-integration, what happens to the system. The natural inference was, you’d have a more chaotic system that operates in a less organized and constrained way.
Do you see similar kind of activity during REM sleep?
You see decreased blood-flow in association cortices at least posteriorly, so yes, you seem some correlation. So it’s possible that if these association regions have a constraining influence on other regions in the brain, that you may take the lid off the system and cause some dis-inhibition in other areas. In fact, that’s one of our most recent findings – there are regions that show elevated or at least more erratic activity after psilocybin. And the regions that show the increase in signal amplitude are particular subcortical regions like the hippocampus. And in REM sleep, brain imaging has also found increased activity in the hippocampus and the limbic region.
Which are more associated with memory and emotion?
What’s your hypothesis of what’s happening?
It brings me back full circle to the Freudian model. It’s no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions you associate with psychedelic experience is ego disintegration. When people talk about ego disintegration, it isn’t cliquey Freudians smoking their cigars, it’s psychonaut kids.
So what does that mean at a physical and biological level? The networks that are the strongest candidates for the sense of self and the personality are precisely those that are ‘knocked out’, for want of a better word, under psychedelics. The puzzle is starting to fit quite neatly in my mind. If you’re decreasing the function in this particular network, then I offer the explanation that it’s a correlate of ego disintegration. In a further study using MEG – which measures brain waves – when we looked in one of the regions that showed the marked decrease in oscillatory power, its magnitude correlated positively with a subjective rating scale of ego disintegration (people were asked ‘Did you experience ego disintegration?’ and people answered on a scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’.) Those who rated that very highly also had the biggest decreases in oscillatory power in this region which is part of the self network – the posterior cingulate cortex.
The unconscious that people seem to discover through psychedelic experience – is it closer to the Jungian unconscious than the Freudian model? People don’t seem to go into a savage Freudian jungle where they have sex with their mother and kill their father. It seems more like the Jungian wonderland – a more positive model of the unconscious, where people encounter not just dissolution and monsters, but some bigger cosmic Self.
I agree. Freud’s great merit was his mechanistic approach, he talks about systems – the ego system and the unconscious or id system. However, when he came to describe the quality of what the unconscious is, what you see under psychedelics isn’t really that, as you say it’s more consistent with Jung’s description of the unconscious. It’s tricky, because potentially at low doses, it may be more subtle, interpersonal insights and one’s self and relationships, whereas when the dose is higher, things might start becoming more archetypal, and be more about the history of the human animal.
What are the effects of psychedelics on memory? Freud suggested (like Wordsworth or De Quincey) that we never fully forget anything, experiences are always there in the unconscious. Do psychedelics unlock those memories?
You’ll find this in the literature – there are reports of vivid recollection. You sometimes see age regressions, people go back to being a child. Or they go back to what Stanislav Grof called ‘systems of condensed experience’ – experiences of particular salience and personal importance that the mind will go back to, and which you can sometimes re-live. This tends to happen spontaneously. It may happen when the drug is given orally rather than intravenously. A tricky issue is that when you give psychedelics, people seem to become hyper-suggestible. So there’s the question of whether this spontaneously occurs or if it’s being suggested to them.
Can psychedelic experiences be healing for people, and if so how?
Yes. There are a couple of different models. There is an idea that psychedelics can allow personal insights – if one has a disorder or some symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might experience facilitated insight into the causes of these symptoms. That’s the classic idea of psychedelics to assist psychoanalytic therapy. Other models are more pragmatic – if, under the drugs, you induce a plastic state where people are hyper-suggestible, you might have a window of opportunity where you can address fixed behaviours which probably rest on fixed connections in the brain. For instance, with depression you might have a patient who is stubbornly pessimistic. What if you give them a psychedelic drug where all of a sudden you allow them to think differently and more fluidly. You might be able to start working with their cognitive biases and to get them to question their fixed schema about who they are.
Can you do that sort of CBT approach while someone is tripping?
I don’t think you could do it while someone is in the throes of a profound hallucinogenic experience. But it does loosen people up. What Roland Griffiths says is that often the most important work happens after the experience – it increases openness to new associations.
To what extent do people have spiritual experiences on psychedelics?
The literature is rich in reports of spiritual experiences. In our own work with psilocybin, we haven’t seen it to an impressive extent, maybe because the experience is short-lived, maybe because it’s not our participants’ first time tripping, so it perhaps is less new and revelatory.
You get people like Terrence McKenna who suggest you’re not encountering something within, but also something ‘out there’ – spirits, God etc. I’m interested if people are encountering similar things out there.
Well, there is the collective unconscious, so if they experience similar entities, it might be appealing to a collective aspect of the unconscious which is about entity. Maybe it has a maternal presence. Also the wide eyes that people report around extra-terrestrials – Jung wrote about this, and suggested it might be related to memories of the mother looking down with big eyes. I find that appealing. For a materialist scientist, I don’t believe the theory that people gain access to a metaphysical or spiritual realm, I think what they have access to is the vastness of the human mind, which includes their entire history – which isn’t just human. It’s very easy to become less than objective, to believe that things are really happening, that the walls are breathing…but they’re not.
Still, I wonder if the beauty and healing of those experiences change one’s view of the unconscious – if you open up and let go of control, it can be a positive experience.
That’s probably true. My view of human nature has been changed not just through my limited research but through reading the psychedelic literature. But one thing I would say – when Freud wrote about the unconscious, one thing he emphasized is there’s no right and wrong in the unconscious. That’s why people get the ability to experience contradictory things simultaneously, like heaven and hell.
Have there been any studies of people tripping together?
Yes, I think so, in the fifties. I’d be skeptical of that sort of work, way too many confounds.
Usually people do it collectively – I’m just thinking of the setting of studies now, people on their own in hospitals.
It’s an interesting thought, it’s difficult to know what you’d infer. I recall a study where people are not talking, they’re looking each other, trying to communicate telepathically. And post-experience, they compared notes, and found they weren’t thinking about the same thing at all.
Yes, exactly, it would be interesting to test out whether people’s feeling that their minds somehow get entangled or extended is really true. But I guess mixing psychedelic research with paranormal research might be a step too far for most funders!
There are a lot of people interested in psychedelics within the research realm who are interested in that. They’ll tell you they’re skeptics, but I know they’d be very happy to find evidence of that. Of course, it would be a momentous discovery. My concern is that there’s a very strong potential for a bias around the fact that we get excited by the prospect of a complete paradigm shift. It’s a very seductive possibility, and it can cloud reason.
So it’s still difficult to get government approval for psychedelic research. What would you like to see changed?
It would be nice if they based their policy decisions on scientific evidence, and if they gave that primary consideration rather than secondary. Now they try and fit scientific data into their policies. Also it seems as though it’s relatively unproblematic to have these drugs as Schedule 1 – the idea is that shouldn’t affect research. You need a Home Office license to store and administer these drugs. The reality is these licenses are very expensive. Funders aren’t willing to pay for it. And they take a long time to set up – over a year. And there are more and more controls on the license. Things that should be relatively easy, like transferring a drug from one centre that has a license to another centre that has a license, are incredibly difficult. It’s harming the research. If this is a particularly exciting area of research, with huge potential, then these bureaucratic burdens will hold us back and handicap us.
And what, in a nutshell, is the potential?
To discover exciting things about consciousness and the brain, and to explore a truly novel therapeutic approach.
So do you think there could be psychedelic treatments of things like depression and alcoholism?
If the evidence supports it, it would be unethical not to pursue them.
There was a recent meta-study suggesting there are no harmful impacts from psychedelics. Do you really think that’s true? It doesn’t seem to be in my experience and among my friends.
I’d have to read the paper. I think it’s the same team that did the meta-analysis on LSD and alcoholism. Other meta-analysis which have looked at the potential for harm, and also surveys we’ve run, and also meta-analysis of modern research, suggests that these drugs are certainly not without potential risks. However, the risks of adverse effects are relatively small, especially compared with other drugs. It’s a tricky one, which is difficult to summarise. There are certainly potential harms.
If we think they are dissolving the ego…
You have to ask why the ego is there at all.
And if people resist that dissolution, that might freak people out.
Exactly. That may be what ‘freaking out’ is – if people hold on to their ego while it’s dissolving, that could feel like dying.
In other news:
I did a TED talk yesterday! In Breda, in southern Holland. Look, photographic proof. It will be online in a few weeks, I hope. While there I picked up a copy of this fantastic book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Published in 1972, it seems ahead of its time in its discussion of being ‘in the zone’ and of the two systems of thinking (a la Kahnemann). Great book.
Tomorrow I’m doing another talk at the Heffers classics festival in Cambridge, at 10am.
And this evening you can hear me talk about ecstatic experiences on Radio 3, at 10.45 pm. It’ll be online after that.
Here is a good review of Ronald Dworkin’s new book, about Religion Without God.
Have higher rates in anti-depressant prescriptions led to lower rates of suicide?
Here’s a study suggesting growing up in poverty affects our minds’ ability to regulate emotions (which is obviously a challenge to Stoic philosophy).
DARPA, the US Army’s research centre, has an interesting new project called SUBNETS, to research PTSD through brain-implants that can do ‘deep brain stimulation’. Bet they’re secretly making telepathic super-soldiers!
Here’s a good NYT blog on medicine’s search for meaning, and the role of emotions in healing.
As you know there’s a great event on Stoicism for Everyday Life coming up on November 30. You can see the programme and register here.
Finally, check out this mad account of the violent feud in the heart of the Karimov ruling family in Uzbekistan. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos.
See you next week,
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
It’s a pivotal book for my own research – I’m trying to make sense of revelatory experiences, those strange moments when one feels communicated to by some Other, through voices, dreams, visions, intuitions etc. I want to know if we can hold such experiences to critical, rational account, because it seems to me that such experiences can sometimes lead to flourishing, while other times they clearly don’t.
At present, psychiatry more or less entirely pathologises such experiences as ‘psychosis-like symptoms’ and fails to see the positive in them. So it seems to me that western psychology and psychiatry need to return to William James to try to rehabilitate such ‘out-of-the-ordinary experiences’. This is already beginning to happen – this study by a team at KCL led by Emmanuelle Peters, for example, found that such ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experiences are quite common, and that people who are hospitalised for admitting such experiences typically have a worse outcome than people who find a supportive community like the Hearing Voices Network to help them make sense of and integrate such experiences. Eleanor Longden also has a fascinating story to tell about how she recovered from psychosis by learning to talk calmly to her voices.
James’ work is not perfect by any means but it provides a brilliant platform for a new contemporary exploration of spiritual experience. Let me outline five aspects of his definition of religious experience – four problems with it, and one brilliant aspect of it – before seeing if we can find a more comprehensive definition of spiritual experience.
1) James rightly connects religious experience to the unconscious
This is what I think is really wonderful about James’ approach. It’s where he was a huge inspiration to Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and later religious innovators. He declares that the great revolution of psychology is the discovery of various levels of the self, including ‘whole systems of underground life’ beneath ‘consciousness of the ordinary field’. He says: ‘we cannot, I think, avoid the conclusion that in religion we have a department of human nature with unusually close relations to the trans-marginal or subliminal region.’ That is why so many religious leaders were subject to ‘automatisms’ like trances, visions, voices and hallucinations.
James brilliantly analyses conversion experiences with reference to these unconscious levels of the self. New emotions, new beliefs, new attitudes and habits may build up beneath our everyday consciousness, he says, and then suddenly break out into our consciousness in moments of hot excitement. A new self is born, as our personality coalesces around a new centre. What was merely thought before is now known and felt.
Because such apparently sudden transformations come from the unconscious, it may feel to us as if they come from an external power, something separate and bigger than our conscious everyday self, which we call God. James leaves open the question of whether God is in that broader Self or not. He says: ‘IF THERE BE higher spiritual agencies that can directly touch us, the psychological condition of their doing so MIGHT BE our possession of a subconscious region which alone should yield access to them.’ Some pioneering psychologists, like James, Jung, and Frederick Myers, believed in a higher power or spirit which communicates to us through the unconscious, while others, like Charcot and Freud, didn’t.
It’s interesting to think of conversions in charismatic church services as something akin to electro-shock therapy – they heat up the self, softening its rigid habits through intense emotional excitation, and then zapping it into a new configuration, new habits, a new centre in God. Drug experiences likewise involve a sudden dilation of the self and an opening up to new levels, and they can also involve sudden conversions or switches into new configurations (the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, was saved from alcoholism by a religious vision while on psychedelic drugs).
2) James mistakenly defines religious experience purely in terms of emotions, and disregards beliefs, dogma and daily practice
James defines religion as a series of passionate experiences. His book explores the most emotional moments in the religious life – moments of mystic expansion, dark nights of the soul, blissful moments of conversion and reconciliation to the Divine. He dismisses theology as utterly secondary to these hot moments of religious passion.
The problem with this approach is that emotions always contain beliefs – even if the beliefs are as basic as ‘God loves me’ or ‘things will be OK’. After such moments have passed we are faced with the task of making sense of them, and turning them into a coherent daily practice, which probably involves turning to older authorities (including written authorities like scripture) to try to cobble together some sort of philosophy or theology as a trellis around which the young sapling of our spirituality grows.
Defining religion by focusing entirely on peak (or trough) experiences is like defining marriage by focusing on the experience of falling in love. We should remember that James never himself joined a religion and remained a sort of dilettante in such matters – he’s more interested in religious experiences than the daily religious life. His approach is entirely modern, it seems to me: these days, many of us have occasional spiritual experiences (whether we interpret them as supernatural or natural), but we fail to integrate them into a coherent philosophy or daily practice.
3) James bizarrely defines religious experience as solitary
His definition of religion as the experiences of ‘individual men in their solitude’ betrays ‘an almost comical Protestant bias’, as Wayne Proudfoot puts it. Religion comes from religio, meaning ‘to bind together’, and many of people’s religious experiences are collective experiences – praying for each other, healing each other, singing or dancing together, worshipping together, discussing scripture or philosophy together, and so on. James make the opposite mistake to Emile Durkheim, who focuses entirely on the communal aspects of religion and its function as the glue for social cohesion. Durkheim (and, recently, Jonathan Haidt) ignores the solitary, individualistic and socially disruptive aspect of religious experience, while James ignores the communal, cohesive aspects of religious experience. A better approach would take both aspects into account.
4) James tries to evaluate religious experiences pragmatically, in terms of whether they lead to human flourishing and fit with ‘common sense’. This is interesting but raises problems
James tries to reconcile religion to empirical pragmatism, by looking at its impact on people’s lives. He tries to assess it, in other words, by asking if it leads to human flourishing or not. Does a religious revelation make a person happy and healthy, does it lead to socially useful things like charitable activity, loving community or great art?
He decides that, basically, religious experience does lead to a lot of human flourishing. He highlights all the healing that religious experiences can cause, looking in particular at the Mind Cure moment, which was a big thing at the beginning of the 20th century. He looks at instances of conversion helping people to kick bad habits like addiction He looks at asceticism, how it has helped inspire people to endure hardships. And he looks at how revelatory experiences have inspired people to new heights of charity, expanding our sense of love for our fellow beings and helping to create a more humane world.
He also looks at some of the more poisonous fruit that religious experience can lead to: excesses of asceticism and self-mortification, or excesses of other-worldly devotion to God. He decides that we need, in an Aristotelian sense, to be moderate in our religious passions, and to use our practical discernment or ‘common sense’ to make sense of such experiences and to decide if a message from God / the subliminal Self should be followed or not.
I am broadly in agreement with this pragmatic approach to religious experience. Revelations need to be held to rational account and to social account. The pastor Pete Greig spoke recently of a friend of his who was in a terrible relationship, and then one day in the bath he heard a voice saying he should marry his girlfriend. His friends, including Pete Greig, thought this was clearly a terrible idea, but the guy decided this was a message from God and must be obeyed. The marriage lasted about a year. I also have a friend who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, who hears voices that give him commands, including that he must always walk on the outside of parking meters. We need to be able to hold messages from the Other to account, as they may not be from God.
But there are two problems with this pragmatic approach. Firstly, James is too generous in his assessment of the fruits of religious experience. Religious experience leads to much more poisonous fruits than merely excesses of asceticism – it can lead to violence, demonization of people different to us, pogroms, even genocide. James dismisses this by focusing on individual experiences rather than collective or corporate experiences, and saying blithely that evil things like pogroms are really evils of our tribal nature and shouldn’t be lain at the door of religion. But that lets religion off too lightly. Such evils should be lain at the door of our unconscious – there are dragons down there, as well as treasures, and religions have a historical record of releasing the dragons. Atheist philosophies may also tap into such ‘religious emotions’, such as the millenarian hope for a perfect tomorrow, by the way, and may also inspire people to kill others in pursuit of that utopia.
Secondly, while I broadly agree that we should hold revelations to rational account, it’s also the case that sometimes revelations fly in the face of common sense. For example, James says that one of the fruits of saintliness is a sort of reckless charity that seems stupid at the time but which is vindicated through its salutary effect on human history and culture. How would Jesus’ message hold up to the ‘common sense’ of the time? Or Socrates? The point about revelations is that they are often the eruption of something radically new and scandalous. They don’t necessarily fit with common sense – they may challenge it. As John Wimber, pioneer of the Vineyard church movement, put it: ‘If there is ever a choice between the smart thing to do and the move of the Holy Spirit, I will always land on the side of the Spirit.’
James’ pragmatic approach to religion needs to grapple with Kierkegaard, who pointed to the story of Abraham and Isaac to illustrate the essential irrationality of religious faith. If God told us to kill someone, should we obey Him? I personally think that James is right and Kierkegaard is wrong: Abraham should not have obeyed God. This is not a purely theological question, by the way – people suffering from paranoid psychosis often hear voices telling them to kill other people. We need to find a way to reason with the commands that come from our unconscious self, and not be fundamentalist in our relationship to them.
5) James wrongly tries to separate religious experiences from similar but non-theistic experiences
James defines religious experiences as experiences of man in relation to ‘whatever they consider divine’, and further defines that as a belief in an unseen metaphysical order with which we can have a relationship. However, people have experiences very similar to those he describes – feelings of expansion, awe, wonder, surrender, ecstasy – without believing in an unseen moral order or Almighty Being.
To take five examples of such ‘non-supernatural spiritual experiences’:
a) Art: Jesse Prinz has discussed how art makes him feel ‘wonder’, how he goes on ‘pilgrimages’ to cathedral-like galleries and feels expanded; likewise, Brian Eno has spoken of how music creates a feeling of surrender similar to religious ecstasy; the music journalist Peter Guralnick has brilliantly described soul music as ‘secular ecstasy’. I’ve written about dance music, and the experience of dancing together, as a spiritual experience. Clearly, as Roger Scruton has discussed, art gives us access to emotional experiences which people used to feel mainly through religion.
b) Sex: James tries to dismiss the Freudian suggestion that religious experiences are really sublimated sexual experiences. He counters that religious experiences ‘have nothing to do with’ sex. But that’s clearly not true – just this Sunday I heard a lady at church having an encounter with Jesus that sounded very much like an orgasm. Religious ecstasy is not the same as sexual ecstasy, but they are similar. Our love-lives likewise involve sudden conversions, sudden expansions into new worlds, and ecstatic surrender to the Other. DH Lawrence beautifully described this sort of sudden unfolding into new selves through sexual experience in books like The Rainbow, which for me was a very important book in my nascent spirituality.
c) Nature: James examines moments where people feel close to God in Nature, like Emerson or Thoreau in their forests feeling connected to the Over-Soul. But people can also have intense experiences of awe and wonder in nature without believing in God. Atheists might argue that watching a David Attenborough documentary, or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, is a spiritual experience, or they might feel a sense of peace and awe while trekking or sailing. Epicureans would say that star-gazing is a sort of spiritual exercise for them, although they were materialists. A lot of the popularity of walking books like Ross MacFarlane’s The Old Ways come from people’s desire for spiritual experiences in nature – whether they believe in God or not.
d) Sport: In discussing the unconscious, James talks about those moments when a player switches from his conscious everyday self to a more unconscious level and ‘the game is played through him’. Modern psychologists would call that flow. It can feel wonderful and spiritual. A famous instance of such a moment is Liliam Thuram scoring two goals in the World Cup Semi-Final, a game he has no memory of playing. The coach of the French team says he was in ‘some mystical state’. More broadly, playing sport and supporting a team gives us a sense of collective endeavour in which we’re lifted out of the individual self and surrender to a collective identity. Playing together, we feel passionately connected to our team-mates. We also go through dark nights of the soul (i.e English football in the last 40 years) and moments of ecstatic deliverance (ie British tennis in the last year).
e) War: As Chris Hedges has written, war is a force that gives us meaning. It’s dark to admit it, but many people find war a spiritual experience – they’re lifted out of their individual self and surrender to a collective identity, they feel passionately fused to their comrades, even mystically connected to them like hunters in a pack. They get a deep sense of heroism and righteousness from their sacrifice. But, like drug experiences, war can also wound us at profound levels of our consciousness, and reset our personalities in new and darker configurations.
f) Drugs: As James explores in the Varieties, drugs take us beyond ordinary consciousness and open doors to deeper levels of consciousness. He says: ‘I know of more than one person who is persuaded that in the nitrous oxide trance we have a genuine metaphysical revelation’, and if he’d lived longer he’d no doubt have written interestingly on psychedelic experiences, as Aldous Huxley would do. As Sam Harris has recently insisted, we may have very ‘spiritual’ experiences on LSD, MDMA, DMT or other drugs, without believing in a higher power or invisible moral order.
So we need to broaden the investigation of such experiences and recognise that one can have spiritual experiences without believing in ‘the Divine’.
6) Towards a better definition of spiritual experience
Here’s my attempt towards a better and more comprehensive definition of spiritual experience, which can incorporate both materialist and animist conceptions.
a) Spiritual experience involves an expansion beyond the confines of ordinary consciousness, into a broader Self, a dilated Self, in which the walls between deeper levels of consciousness become porous.
b) Spirituality typically involves an optimism that, although there are dragons in the unconscious, there are also treasures. The treasures of the unconscious include healing power, imagination, and moral sentiments like wonder, awe and ecstasy. If you’re materialist, you can understand the healing power as being the power of suggestion and hypnosis.
c) Our encounters with these deeper levels of the Self are mediated and shaped by beliefs and culture. Religious traditions, and religious beliefs, practices, art and institutions, are storehouses for explorations of this broader Self, and they shape our experiences in different ways. There are toxic aspects to just about every religious tradition, moments when the dragons of the unconscious take charge and lead to intolerance and violence. Nonetheless, religious traditions can also lead us to the treasures of the unconscious. These traditions are there to be used, like Virgil in the Divine Comedy, as guides to the underworld. But they have to be used skillfully.
d) Our broader Selves are connected to one another, and in moments of spiritual dilation we have a deeper sense of this interconnection with others. You can interpret this connection naturalistically – as a intuitive sympathy that can arise between people (between musicians when improvising or team-mates playing sport for example) – and put forward an evolutionary explanation for it as an adaptation that improved hunting and social bonding. Or you can interpret it in animist terms, as William James or Rupert Sheldrake do: we are connected to one another through non-material networks of sympathetic consciousness, which is why prayer works, and why a prophetic word for one person can come to another person.
Theists would then go one further and say
e) Our broader Selves are connected to God, and draw their power from God, and within our broader Selves is an immortal soul.
At which point of course materialists and animists part company. But there are still many steps on which I hope materialists and animists can agree.
In the meantime, here is a song I wrote a few years back, exploring some of these same questions of the difficulty of knowing if a message from ‘beyond’ is from God, the Devil, aliens, the Unconscious or what-have-you. It’s called Messengers.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
He’s thus one of several English philosophers (AC Grayling, John Gray, Alain de Botton) currently trying to re-invent religion for a secular age. I’m not certain his attempt will be more successful than these earlier attempts, but before we criticize the project, let’s first outline his argument, because it’s certainly interesting.
1) Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology
Firstly, Critchley argues that all modern political ideology involves a reformulation or metamorphosis of the sacred. In this he follows the German philosopher and ardent Nazi, Carl Schmitt, who wrote in an influential 1922 essay, ‘Political Theology’, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts”.
The Age of Reason might have congratulated itself on doing away with the old superstition of Christianity and the Divine Right of Kings. But Enlightenment political philosophies simply created new ‘sacred fictions’ to put in the old gods’ place: The People (or Volk), the Fuhrer, Representative Democracy, the Free Market, the Invisible Hand, and so on.
So, for example, American democracy is built on the strange Deism of the Freemasons / Illuminati. The Invisible Hand, meanwhile, was taken by Adam Smith from Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus – at the end of the play Oedipus is carried up by an invisible hand to the Gods. Sophocles took the image from the ancient fertility myth of Demeter. So an image that originally symbolised the divine power of Nature over human affairs came to be used to symbolise the divine power of the Market.
In seeing Enlightenment politics as competing ‘sacred narratives’, Critchley follows John Gray, who made a similar critique of neoliberalism as a Utopian religion in his 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. It’s also, interestingly, in line with the recent work of the social scientist Jonathan Haidt, which has looked at how different political narratives of the sacred push different emotional buttons within our psyches. Haidt wrote last year:
The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.
2) Rousseau’s civil religion
The Enlightenment philosopher who best understood the irrationalism of politics and the need for a conscious reformulation of the sacred was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau understood, better than most Enlightenment philosophers, that man “consults solely his passions in order to act”. The challenge of passionate politics (as Rousseau sees it) is how to transform a handful of alienated and selfish individuals into a mystically fused whole, in which no citizen is subordinated to any other, because all are united in the General Will. How can this mystical transformation happen? Rousseau writes in his Considerations on the Government of Poland: “Dare I say it? With children’s games: spectacles, games, and festivals which are always conducted ‘in the open’”. As Critchley notes, this idea “had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fetes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution”.
Rousseau was also the only Enlightenment political philosopher to follow Plato in seeing music as absolutely crucial to the formation of the national soul. In his ‘Essay on the Origin of Languages, Melody and Musical Imitation’, he blamed the decay of melody for the loss of political virtue, and expressed some hesitant hope that music might be revived and once again used as an organ to shape the national genius. Again, Rousseau’s Romantic nationalism was prescient, anticipating not just the importance of the Marseillaise and of national anthems in general to 19th century Romantic nationalism, but also the zenith of Romantic nationalism in the Nazi regime’s use of Wagner.
The crucial ‘fiction’ in Rousseau’s civil religion is the fiction of the legislator, an almost superhuman Leader who will guide the people to their mystical oneness in the General Will. The Leader is a ‘superior intelligence who saw all of man’s passions and experienced none of them, who had no relation to our nature yet knew it thoroughly” – not a man, so much as a God.
While one can applaud Rousseau’s prescience in understanding the power of the passions in politics, his plan for a civil religion is also a little chilling, bringing to mind Robespierre’s Dictatorship of Virtue and, even more, Goering’s Myth of Hitler, which likewise relied heavily on grand festivals, parades, games, music and cinema. Critchley admits: “It would seem there is little to prevent the legislator from becoming a tyrant, from believing that he is a mortal god who incarnates the General Will. Such is the risk that is always run when politics is organized around any economy of the sacred”.
Another risk of this politics of the sacred, of course, is that the politics of national ecstasy quickly turns into a bad trip of paranoia and bloodletting: Woodstock mutates into Altamont. To keep the people ‘high’, to keep the national festival going, at some point you need to start finding scapegoats to murder.
Critchley recognises the risk of bloody totalitarian dictatorship is a bit of a problem with Rousseau’s politics. He notes that the French philosopher Alain Badiou is happy to follow Rousseau and advocate violent dictatorship. Badiou writes: “Dictatorship is the natural form of organization of political will.” But Critchley, noble fellow, decides this “is a step I refuse to take”. So if a cult of the Fuhrer doesn’t appeal, what other models are there of passionate politics?
3) John Gray’s passive nihilism
Critchley’s search for what Wallace Stevens called an ‘acceptable fiction’ – some myth we can believe in even when we know it’s not true – brings him onto similar terrain as John Gray, whose new book, The Silence of Animals, also quotes Stevens heavily and is also a search for a myth we can believe in. But Critchley wittily rejects Gray’s sacred narrative:
[Gray’s pessimism] leads to a position which I call ‘passive nihilism’…The passive nihilist looks at the world with a certain highly cultivated detachment and finds it meaningless. Rather than trying to act in the world, which is pointless, the passive nihilist withdraws to a safe contemplative distance and cultivates his aesthetic sensibility by pursuing the pleasures of lyric poetry, yogic flying, bird-watching, gardening, or, as was the case with the aged Rousseau’ botany. In a world that is rushing to destroy itself through capitalist exploitation or military crusades which are usually two arms of the same killer ape – the passive nihilist withdraws to an island where the mystery of existence can be seen for what it is without distilling into a meaning. In the face of the coming decades, which in all likelihood will be defined by the violence of faith and the certainty of environmental devastation, Gray offers a cool but safe temporary refuge… Nothing sells better than epigrammatic pessimism….
4) Mystical anarchism
So what form would Critchley’s more positive and optimistic politics take? He looks to medieval Millenarian anarchist movements, like the People’s Crusade of the 11th century and the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit of the 14th century. He uses Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium as a source, and notes the power of various self-proclaimed Messiahs – Hans Bohm, Thomas Muntzer, John of Leyden – “to construct what Cohn calls…a phantasy or social myth around which a collective can be formed”.
Once again, there are some risks to such Millenarial movements: like the French Revolution or the Nazi regime, the fires of political ecstasy were stoked by identifying scapegoats and declaring a Holy War on them. Violence, Critchley notes, “becomes the purifying or cleansing force through which the evil ones are to be annihilated”. But Critchley hopes to build an ‘ethical anarchism’ that rejects such violence, or rather, than seeks to violently annihilate the self, rather than the Other. He looks to Marguerite Porete, a mystic and author of The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls, and how she tried to annihilate herself to become one with God. He’s also interested in Christine the Astonishing, who also tried to annihilate herself: “she threw herself into burning-hot making ovens, ate foul garbage and leftovers, immersed herself in the waters of the river Meuse for six days when it was frozen, and even hanged herself at the gallows for two days”. Astonishing indeed.
We might simply reject such movements as Medieval nuttiness, but Critchley sees them as anticipating modern anarchist movements, particularly the Paris Commune, and the Situationism of Paris 1968. He doesn’t discuss the Occupy movement, but it also struck me as having something of the Millenarial uprising to it, not least in its occasional Woodstock-esque emphasis not on process reform but on a radical transformative politics of love. This is what Critchely is groping towards. He writes: “love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty and engage with its own annihilation”. Mystical anarchism, then, is an annihilation of the self and an attempt at the ‘infinite demand’ of love – not of God, but of one’s fellow men.
Critchely also explores St Paul’s writings at length, partly through the interpretations of Heidegger and Alain Badiou, and sees in Paul a role model of sorts for the Utopian anarchist in late capitalism, longing for another world which is not present, and suffering in anguish in a fallen world that is so alien to one’s desires. And yet Paul somehow manages to hope, to believe and have faith in the not-yet, which is an attitude that the mystical anarchist also clearly needs.
6) Critchley’s spat with Zizek
The last chapter summarises an argument Critchley has been having with Slavoj Zizek, who is supposedly one of the top ten thinkers in the world, according to Prospect magazine’s new poll (if anything exposes the limits of representative democracy, it is that assertion). Zizek sees Critchely’s politics of anarchist protest (for example, his advocation of protest against the Iraq War) as simply playing into the hands of the ruling regime. It makes the protestors feel better, and even helps the regime by giving the appearance of lively liberal disagreement.
Zizek by contrast, in Critchley’s words, asserts that “the only authentic stance to take in dark times is to do nothing, to refuse all commitment, to be paralyzed like Bartleby”. Go to bed, like John and Yoko. However, Zizek also dreams of “a divine violence, a cataclysmic, purifying violence of the sovereign ethical deed”. Yikes. Stay in bed Slavoj!
Critchley rejects this position, arguing it involves a misinterpretation of Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence. This seems a weird reason to reject it: surely one can reject it simply because it’s evil? Why is Walter Benjamin suddenly granted biblical authority? Critchley can sometimes get lost in critical theory’s jargon and guru-worship, and not see the ethical wood for the semantic trees. I’m glad he rejects Badiou’s call for a Maoist dictatorship, for example, but why does he still quote Badiou so reverently? He called for a Maoist dictatorship! Why quote Carl Schmitt at such length, without fully spelling out quite what a book-burning Nazi anti-Semite he was? Critchley comes across as a sympathetic and decent voice (I have no idea how the man actually lives) but the philosophers he looks to (Rousseau, Heidegger, Schmitt, Badiou, Lacan) hardly inspire confidence in the ethical authority of philosophers. You sometimes feel Critchley is too reverent before charlatan bullshit merchants like Lacan, that he lacks common sense, lacks Orwell’s ability to see through intellectual bullshit and to recognise a scoundrel when he sees one.
7) Problems with Critchley’s politics of the sacred
My main problem with Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless – similar to my problem with Gray’s new mythology – is that, for an attempt at a ‘passionate politics’, it is far too intellectual, tepid and, well, theoretical. Take this passage, where he attempts to formulate his faith of the faithless:
Faith is a word, a word whose force consists in the event of its proclamation. The proclamation finds no support within being, whether conceived as existence or essence. Agamben links this thought to Foucault’s idea of veridiction or truth-telling, where the truth lies in the telling aloe. But the thought could equally be linked to Lacan’s distinction, inherited from Benveniste, between the orders of enonciation (the subject’s act of speaking) and the enonce (the formulation of this speech-act into a statement or proposition). Indeed, there are significant echoes between this idea of faith as proclamation and Levinas’ conception of the Saying (le Dire), which is the performative act of addressing and being addressed by an other, and the Said (le Dit), which is the formulation of that act into a proposition of the form S is P.
How is such airy-theory ever going to inspire an ecstatic popular uprising? The problem, I think, is that both Critchley and Gray are trying to construct a faith or myth and give it sacred power, but for a myth to have that power, you have to really believe it. You can’t just suspend your disbelief. This is the major difference between Critchley and St Paul or Christine the Astonishing. The latter two were perfectly happy to risk their lives for their sacred narratives, because they really believed in Jesus and in the after-life and so were happy to give up the world, even to see the world destroyed. And, crucially, they didn’t think it was possible to meet the ‘infinite demand’ of love without God’s help. They are weak, but God is strong. Critchley embraces Paul’s sense of human weakness, but is not capable of accepting the idea of God’s strength, which renders the ‘infinite demand’ of love even harder to meet. This, to my mind, is a problem with humanism in general: how to meet the infinite demand of ‘love thy neighbour’. I think Tobias Jones may be right: it is much easier to love thy neighbour when you have a common God above you and within you. Beneath modern cosmopolitanism, after all, is the Stoics’ sacred belief that we are all citizens of the City of God.
More broadly, do Critchley or Gray really believe their myths, or are they just playing? What are they prepared to sacrifice for them? Likewise, what are the followers of De Botton’s Religion for Atheists prepared to sacrifice, other than the occasional Sunday morning? It all seems very post-modern, very cafe-cosmopolitan, ironic, safe, non-committal, and a million miles away from either medieval Millenarianism or modern fascism or Jihadism. It seems like cafe chat. Talk is cheap.
My second issue with this new postmodern embrace of religious myth is this: let’s say you succeed in creating a Supreme Fiction which people really do believe in, which pushes their sacred emotion buttons and mobilises a mass movement. How can you be sure that your new religion doesn’t veer into the orgy of scapegoat-sacrificing that previous ecstatic politics have veered into? How do you make sure your Woodstock doesn’t turn into Altamont? How do you make sure the leaders of this movement don’t start believing, as Hitler started to believe, that they really are the Messiah, the embodiment of the national genius, Wotan? As I said in my review of Gray’s book, myths are slippery things – they take hold of us and use us as vessels, like the alien face-suckers in Prometheus.
My final concern is that it seems like the Two Cultures are getting further and further apart. On the one hand, philosophy (and perhaps the humanities in general) seems to be rejecting the Enlightenment, rejecting liberal humanism, and looking to irrational and often violent religious myths for consolation and inspiration. On the other hand, the social sciences are informing a new ‘evidence-based politics’ – what Carl Schmitt would perhaps say as the deification of the Randomised Controlled Trial. The Two Cultures seem more and more incapable of talking to each other.
We need both! Critchley looks out into a bleak future likely to be characterized by “religious violence and environmental devastation”. In such a future, I am certain we will need good myths. But we also need a way to preserve scientific literacy and a respect for scientific evidence. That’s why I find Stoic and Aristotelian virtue ethics one optimistic meeting ground, bringing together both philosophers and social scientists. I think we should be wary of entirely rejecting Socratic humanism and completely embracing an irrationalist or Dionysiac politics. We are a generation that didn’t experience Nazism, and so have a more optimistic attitude to the politics of ecstasy. I like Dionysiac ecstasy as much as the next man, but I prefer it in church to a nationalist Fuhrer rally. As Eric Voegelin put it, don’t immanentize the eschaton.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Right at the end of my book, I talk about a strange experience I had on a mountain in Norway a decade ago. It was, you might say, a religious or mystical experience. I tucked it away at the end of the book for a very important reason: I wrote the book for theists and atheists, and I didn’t want to put off any atheists (at least, not until the very end). Ancient Greek and Roman philosophies are a meeting ground for theists and atheists, a common drinking-spot in an acrimonious time, so I was tempted to leave my own God-thoughts right out of it. In addition, I wasn’t sure whether to talk about such a private experience, and risk commodifying it. It fact, I only put the account into a very late draft, when my publisher said the book was too short…and I was still in two minds whether to do it.
When I was promoting the book in Holland last week, some interviewers asked me about that moment as their very first question, which showed at least that they’d read the whole book. So, today, I’m going to talk briefly about what happened, and explain why I still haven’t joined a religion, why I remain ‘spiritual but not religious’, and why I think science is the friend of God and not the enemy.
Back in 2001, I had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for roughly five years. It was caused by a couple of LSD bad trips when I was a teenager, which left me scarred, withdrawn, socially anxious and uncertain of reality. For five years, I became more and more lost and paranoid, a stranger to myself. Then, in February 2001, my family travelled to Norway, to the Peer Gynt region, where my great-great grandfather built a hytte. We share it with the extended family, and my family usually goes there once a winter, mainly for the cross-country skiing. Here is a photo of our hytte:
This year, we decided to do some downhill skiing on the first day. We also, for some stupid reason, decided to go down the black slope first. Oh fateful choice! It was snowing up there at the top of Valsfjel, visibility was poor. There was an ill wind from the north. The owls were restless in the trees. We set off down the slope, down the particularly steep slope at the beginning and….I smashed through a fence on the side of the slope and fell…
I fell 30 feet or so, broke my left femur, broke two vertebrae in my back, and knocked myself unconscious. Then, I’m not sure if it was while I was unconscious or after I had woken up, this happened: I saw a bright white light, something like this:
….and felt completely filled with love, and a knowledge or gnosis that there was something in me and all of us that cannot be broken, that cannot die. Everything was OK.
I realised where I was and what had happened, and I immediately tried to wiggle the toes on my left foot, to see if I was paralysed. I could wiggle them. So I also knew that the worst that had happened was I’d broken my leg, and that, on a more terrestrial level, everything was OK. It was funny how calm and detached my mind was as it checked out the injury – I think that often happens in a bad accident, before the shock kicks in.
My uncle skied up and I heard him say ‘Oh God’. I tried to tell him that it was fine, that I’d had a remarkable experience, a peak experience (or should that be ‘off-peak’) but the words came out as gobbledy-gook, either because I was speaking in tongues, or I’d knocked myself silly. Then a motor-sledge came towing a stretcher, I was taken down to a hut at the bottom of the mountain, and put on a table while they staunched the bleeding. My father came in to the hut at that point. Here’s a picture of my father:
My father and I had not had a great relationship for the years immediately preceding the accident, because I was so uptight, anxious, and defensive towards the world, particularly the world of work. And, to a large extent, my father represented the world of work to me – the world of the office, the city, the career. My failure in that area of life (I was a business journalist, struggling with social anxiety, and very bad at getting on with co-workers and banker-contacts) felt to me like I was failing my father, who was very good at his city job and very charming with everyone he met. So I was quite defensive around him, which came across as hostility. It didn’t help that my father endlessly offered me advice on how to do things better, from clothing to shaving to even opening a tin of beans, which made me feel a Grade A Dufus. So, we had a somewhat strained and antagonistic relationship at that point.
Well, it was a strangely beautiful moment when he came into that shed – beautiful for me anyway, probably fairly horrifying for him. All that antagonism left, and I was simply his son, who had hurt himself. We’ve had a great relationship pretty much since then (we had a great relationship when I was growing up too, there was just four years in the middle which were a bit tricky…he had no idea I was internally miserable from drug-related trauma. None of my family or friends did. I was a master at hiding my feelings).
So, back to the story. A helicopter came and carried me away. I was taken to Lillehammer hospital, and went straight under the knife. I still have the metal pole in my leg that the surgeon put in that day. I spent a week in Lillehammer hospital, my father visiting me every day. I was very weak and whacked out. I remember I read Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, but to this day I can’t remember a single detail of the plot. Anyway, I felt fantastic – not physically, but spiritually. I felt like the crash had re-connected me to myself, to my heart and soul. For five years, I had felt completely detached from my feelings, or at least, from any good feelings. I hadn’t been able to love, or to relate to other people – all those pro-social feelings had been frazzled by the trauma. And now, for some reason, they came flooding back. I went from paranoia to eunoia. My inner Furies were transformed into the Eumenides. It was like spring after a long winter.
Of course the euphoria died away. But I retained an insight into my condition. I realised what caused my five years of suffering was not necessarily a drug-induced chemical imbalance in my brain, as I had feared. There was nothing permanently wrong with me. In fact, even if the drugs had triggered my trauma, what sustained it was my attitudes – specifically, my fear of others’ judgement of me, my fear of being labeled a failure or outcast. I looked to others’ judgements for self-validation, and this raised other people above me like a God, and made me permanently anxious and afraid of what that God might say. It also created a feedback loop between my idea of self and the reactions of other people. My defensive expectations became a self-fulfilling prophecy, like this: (I have spared no expense with this graph…)
And I realised, on that mountain, that I didn’t need to look to other people’s approval for self-worth. It seemed to me, in that moment, that we all have an immortal and invaluable soul within us, worth far more than any fleeting public approval. It’s always there, it never deserts us, its value does not rise or fall with the approval or disapproval of the world. The Gospel of St Thomas says: ‘The kingdom is like a man who had a hidden treasure in his field without knowing it.’ Rumi said: ‘Why are you so enchanted by this world, when a mine of gold lies within you?’ Experiencing that directly, and trusting in it, I could relax, and not see others as judges or executioners, but simply as fellow humans, as brothers and sisters.
When I relaxed and accepted myself, many of my ‘demons’ calmed down and became friends. By demons I mean parts of ourselves that we can’t accept, that we push away and demonize because they don’t fit our public image. If we learn to accept them, they become allies and give us strength – the Furies become Eumenides. But sometimes we have to let go of our false public images and stop trying to live up to worldly expectations, to accept and placate the demonic bits of the psyche (getting a bit mystical here, forgive me!)
Alas, even that insight faded after a while. I went back to work, hobbling on crutches, and before long I was depressed and anxious again ( I was in a job I disliked, after all). The bad old mental habits came back. And that’s when I discovered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and recognised that it fit the insights I had gained on the mountain. I realised the connection between CBT and Greek philosophy, and the Greeks’ idea of trusting in the God within. CBT gave me a systematic way to change my habitual beliefs and actions – that’s what I needed.
Why, you ask, did I not become a Christian after that experience?
Well…I’m still not sure what happened on that mountain. It could have been my unconscious, engineering a situation in which I could be wounded and could go through the healing process I had denied myself. It could have been God…but which god? My own guardian-daemon? Some local mountain spirit? In fact, the mountain I injured myself on, Valsfjel, is famous in Norwegian mythology for being the home of the Mountain King in the myth of Peer Gynt. Peer knocks his head on a rock, goes to see the Mountain King, and learns the essence of the Troll way: “Be true to yourself and to hell with the world.’” Perhaps the Mountain King helped me!
To be honest, I do believe I was helped by something outside of me, and I do think there are benevolent non-human forces in the multiverse that sometimes help us when we need help. But alas, they don’t appear to be all-powerful. The universe is a messy, chaotic and imperfect place, closer perhaps to the Olympian universe than the monotheistic one, and in that universe people can suffer terribly, and unfairly. But I believe, as the Stoics did, that there is a higher law that roughly shepherds gods and men, and that law is connected to consciousness and compassion. It seems to me that humans’ idea of God has never stayed still, it is always evolving, as we discover more about the cosmos. We must be prepared to give up our definitions, and follow the discovery wherever it leads.
Of course, you may think it’s strange that my philosophy should be so much about control, and self-knowledge, and self-mastery, when it emerged from an experience beyond my control, beyond my knowledge, beyond my power. Well, such paradoxes are in Greek philosophy too – it emphasises reason and self-mastery, yet its word for happiness is eudaimonia, which literally means ‘having a kindly daemon within’. The daemon within us appears to work hand-in-hand with reason. Perhaps in some ways it is reason, although it also talks to us in dreams and visions. I don’t know where those insights on the mountain came from – but they made sense to my reason long after the white light had faded from my memory. And you don’t need to believe in God to apply them. In that sense, I don’t see science and spiritual experience as enemies, I see them as allies in our exploration of reality.
If you live in the North of England and are interested in community philosophy, the charity SAPERE is looking to train some people in community philosophy facilitation in a course this January. Details here.
This Tuesday in London, Natalie Banner of Kings College London is giving a talk at Pub Psychology on mental illness. Details here.
Here’s a good Slate piece on Petr Kropotkin, anarchist prince, prison-escapee, and prophet of the evolution of cooperation.
I chaired an event at the RSA earlier this week, where I met the film-maker Stephen Trombley and one of the RSA’s delightful events people – Mairi Ryan. Mairi told me about a competition the RSA organised for young animators to animate their talks. Here’s one of the winners, animating Susan Cain’s talk on introversion.
Well done Obama. For the Republicans, however, it was a rude collision between faith-based politics and evidence-based politics. A clash, if you will, between the geeks and the bible-bashers. And the geeks (ie Nate Silver) won. Here’s Jon Stewart failing to hide his glee.
I gave a talk today at the British Arts Festivals Association, on philosophy at festivals. Here are the slides.
The School of Life is opening in Australia!
Here’s a nice Guardian piece by Alok Jha (journalist and one of the presenters on the Science Club on BBC 2) on how science became entertaining and grass-rootsy.
Here is a sweet letter from William James to his 13-year-old daughter when she was suffering from low spirits, as he often did (thanks to Francesca Elston for sharing this one).
See you next week – and thanks to the person who did the 24th review on Amazon, I was stuck on 23 for ages! The more the better. Not that it matters, at a cosmic level.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>