Psychosis/Enlightenment 2

MT, we started by talking about Plato, and you pondered what would happen if we stripped away our illusions. Would we end up as the Dalai Lama or as Meursault in Camus’s The Stranger? Would we spiral towards madness or find serenity?

So I pondered Plato. Reality is a manifold, with some layers more illusory than others. Plato found the sensory layer most illusory (as do the Buddhists I presume), but he didn’t see it in black and white terms (illusion bad, reality good). Even the sensory layer is an important first step, a pointer to the next layer, which then seems “real” to us until we get one step deeper, etc. MT, you’re becoming a Platonist despite your own resistance.

Note Plato’s assignment of sensory data to the lowest level (most illusory) of reality/truth seems to pit him against the empiricist epistemology that dominates our current Age of Science (late 17th century to present); however, one of the foremost thinkers of the emerging Age of Science, David Hume, who carried empiricism as far as it could logically go (much to the consternation and inspiration of Kant), concluded much the same – that following the truth of sensory data (empiricism) leads us to conclude that sensory data tells us nothing about the objective world “out there” but only tells us about the imprints some presumed world out there makes on our personal sensory registers. The only difference between Hume the empiricist and Plato the rationalist is that, after they’ve both deconstructed the idea of gaining knowledge about the world-as-it-really-is via sensory data, Plato seeks a deeper layer through rational inquiry while Hume says that’s the end of it and goes out for a pint and a game of backgammon (and my Scottish friends can take that as an insult or a compliment, as you will).

I like your Dalai Lama or Meursault reverie, but I’d go a step further and say that these are the utopic and dystopic outcomes, respectively, of stripping away our illusions.

Although at first glance it seems cute but false to say that madness equates to “stripped of illusions,” it seems believable when I think of illusions as filters. To lose all of your filters would seem a form of psychosis. Someone — was it Aldous Huxley in Doors of Perception? — suggested that consciousness itself evolved not as a way to increase access to the world but as a filter for limiting access to the world, for blocking all the “ambient noise” as it were, so we could focus on a smaller zone of input more efficiently. And if the Huxley/Doors reference is right, I think he went on to say that hallucinogenics remove filters, quite literally expanding the scope of consciousness (and he struggles with whether the output is more akin to psychosis or enlightenment).

For the psychosis side of the equation, see psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan and his sometime follower, Julia Kristeva. In my primitive understanding of Lacan, we pass through three “orders” in the formation of the psyche (or rather we build up three layers, like rings in a tree). The “real” order is the hidden kernel to which we have no analytical access. Like the noumenal world in Kant’s metaphysics, it is merely a logical assumption that we must make in order for later stages to make sense. We enter the “imaginary” order when we one day see ourselves in the mirror, so to speak (maybe around a year old), see an entity with clear boundaries, and come to imagine ourselves as separate individuals surrounded by external people and environments. Later, we enter the “symbolic” order with the formation of language skills. We begin to process the world through a symbolic overlay (e.g., the sound “tree” symbolically represents the concept “tree,” which isolates and defines a whole range of sensory inputs, the sound “me” represents…, etc.). We now define our personhood relative to that symbolic overlay. We have entered the symbolic order.

In trying to access the “real,” we can only “imagine” it as an undifferentiated flux, or conceptualize it via the symbolic order (as a logical presupposition, an object of psychoanalysis, etc.). Either way, our view is mediated through imaginary or symbolic orders – we have no direct, unmediated access.

Kristeva followed Lacan in theory and focused in practice on “borderline” patients, patients whom I think she found permanently stuck between imaginary and symbolic orders, with perhaps some tantalizing glimpses of the “real” (alas, I’ve lost my original notes on Kristeva and Lacan to Hurricane Katrina).

Back to Huxley’s inference about hallucinogenics, he might say that they strip away the layering of the symbolic order, the webs and webs we have thrown over the flux of original experience, dividing it up into regions we can name and render intelligible. If you strip away all that layering, all those illusions, and get back in some fashion to the lived experience of the “imaginary” order or even the “real,” is the result more akin to psychosis or enlightenment? I think Huxley tentatively concludes that it can give you isolated moments of personal enlightenment but that it is inconsistent with everyday life; it inhibits your ability to function successfully in the workaday, social world (which seems consonant with my personal LSD experiences). In other words, you can strip away the illusion and dip into those pre-symbolic levels of experience, but you have to come back up to sustain your everyday life, since the very enlightenment you feel on the personal level renders you psychotic relative to the social order within which you must live.

Then again, there’s always the Dalai Lama.

Prequel:  Psychosis and Enlightenment

Camus’s Stranger: Hero or Sociopath

Probably the most important hurdle of reading Albert Camus’s The Stranger is to resist the temptation to see Meursault as hero or villain. We’re not “supposed” to identify with him or against him. He just demonstrates in every thought and action the absurdity of the world. The trial puts this in perspective. The prosecutor creates one narrative about Meursault’s murder of the Arab. The defense attorney creates an entirely different narrative about Meursault’s murder. Both create logical narratives, but both are completely wrong – there is no logical narrative that explains any of Meursault’s actions (not his homicidal outburst, nor his passive agreement to marry Marie even though love explicitly “meant nothing” to him [52], nor his passive agreement to help Raymond lure his girlfriend back for another beating after he’d already bloodied her once [38]). The oft-noted comment that he is absolutely honest is strikingly true at times, as in his discussions of his mother’s death and of marriage and of his case, but oddly untrue at other times, as in the totally motiveless deceits he perpetrates with Raymond (luring the girlfriend back for another beating and then attesting to Raymond’s blameless behavior at the police station [60]). Another oft-noted comment is that he comes to terms with his life once he fully realizes the absolute indifference of the universe. This one seems true enough at the end. But I detect a misguided inclination among readers to treat him as a role model or absurd hero, an admirable rebel against society and its phony ways. This, I think, is a mistake. He did, after all, randomly kill “an Arab” without the slightest thought before or after to the human consequences of that deed, he did quite nonchalantly agree to help Raymond brutalize a woman he’d never met, he admittedly feels little or no emotion for his mother or for the woman he sleeps with, etc., etc. Even if intellectually you are the most hardened existentialist, this is not the kind of “hero” you want your daughter to bring home for dinner.

If you want an absurd hero, you might start with the existentialist dilemma. Recognize that the universe is irrational, amoral, and utterly indifferent to human life. Your own life is meaningless and your death will not ruffle the cosmic indifference. Now what do you do? Meursault brings us to the question but he gives us no model for how to respond. The Fool in King Lear might be an absurd hero in that he does seem to recognize the irremediable indifference of the universe and yet tries to inject some clarity and empathy into Lear’s world, not because this will make the universe more meaningful or morally intelligible, but merely because of the local comfort it may give to Lear. Or the Dalai Lama might illustrate the path of the absurd hero in his injunction to act with compassion even though our actions will never alter the fact that suffering is built into the human condition. Although Meursault’s character is a perfect vehicle for bringing the absurd (existentialist) world view into focus, his utter lack of compassion, his complete indifference to suffering caused by his own actions, may illustrate a kind of human predicament but cannot seriously be called a “heroic” response to the existential dilemma. At least the Fool makes the absurd choice to behave morally in a world where moral behavior makes no sense. Meursault’s indifference is, if anything, a logical response to the indifferent world, and does not warrant the badge of absurd hero.

Perhaps then Meursault is the exemplar of life after the age of God. Nietzsche pronounced God dead, opined that this placed at least the most thoughtful of us beyond good and evil, and found this to be a liberation of the human spirit. Dostoevsky and more recent Christians agree that the absence of God places us beyond good and evil, but they are far less upbeat about it, fearing a dystopia where we can do anything at all to our fellow human beings without scruple. The humanist stakes out a third position by denying the shared premise of Nietzsche and the Christians (the premise that without God we are beyond good and evil and all things are permissible). The humanist finds great moral value in human actions even in, or especially in, the absence of God. Treating people kindly and attending to the human consequences of one’s actions have their own intrinsic values irrespective of divine rewards or punishment. In this tripolar scheme, I’d say that Camus’s personal philosophy tends toward the Nietzchean and his personal actions in life tended toward the humanistic, but, ironically, The Stranger seems to best illustrate the Christian point of view – that without a belief in God or any traditional morality, we, like Meursault, become detached from our own lives and indifferent to others, incapable of compassion but quite capable of brutalizing women and killing others on a whim without any sense of wrong-doing. It is easy to see Meursault in this sense as an exemplar not of the human predicament en masse but merely of the sociopathic mindset (not deliberately evil but just wholly indifferent to the human consequences of one’s actions – more a descendant of Dickens’s Harthouse than of Shakespeare’s Iago).  And what better theme for the contemporary Christian than the sociopathic dystopia of life without God?

Darkness and Melancholia

Romantic and Existentialist: Two Forms of Melancholia and Two Forms of Darkness

I had to expedite this sequel to Von Trier’s Melancholia after a pleasant give-and-take with Paul Adkin in the comment section. There is certainly a romantic lacing to Melancholia, which Paul finds in the soundtrack and which I find in the lyrical beauty of the visual imagery, especially in the early sequences. To me, the romantic elements counterpoint rather than shore up the existentialist elements. The romantic lyricism, however fleeting, leaves an eternal mark of beauty, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn, even when the people involved are long gone. The melancholia of the Romantics traces back not to the Blake/Byron line (where I placed Coppola’s Dracula) but to the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which were drenched in a kind of melancholia that I find largely absent in Blake and Byron. But the melancholia of Wordsworth and Coleridge, unlike that of Von Trier and Camus (to use Paul’s reference), comes from the heaviness of too much meaning, an overload of emotional content, not from the anemia of life without meaning and emotional content. As Wordsworth says at the end of the Intimations Ode, “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” That to me is romantic melancholia, and (at least to me) it is fundamentally different from, though perhaps genetically related to, existentialist melancholia.

The darkness of Romanticism, unlike the melancholia, does trace to the Blake/Byron line. It comes from a passion so excessive that it becomes morally dark and dangerous (witness Dracula’s treatment of Lucy in the Coppola film). The darkness of existentialism, on the other hand, is married to the melancholia (at least as Von Trier presents the concept). It’s the empty darkness that is left when all meaning and emotional content are drained. It is the suicidal depression that Camus tries to escape by imagining Sisyphus happy. It’s different from the darkness of an emotional content so overloaded, a passion so excessive, that it becomes wildly destructive in terms of its human toll.

So the melancholia associated with existentialism (at least in Von Trier’s film) may find a historical antecedent in the Wordsworthian branch of Romanticism, and the darkness associated with existentialism may find a historical antecedent in the Blakean/Byronic branch of Romanticism, but both the melancholia and the darkness settle into completely different values in the symbolic economy of existentialism.