Instrumentalization of consciousness. That’s the problem, isn’t it? Rule-based ideology imposed upon the many by the few. Where might we apply agency? How might we change the game or rewrite the narrative? Perhaps Surrealism contains the doorway out of this purblind, disaster-bent assemblage. Described by Roger Shattuck as “a sustained artistic adventure extending from 1885 to 1939 and reaching a paroxysm of public demonstration in the Twenties,” Surrealism warded off instrumental reason by juxtaposing amid the latter’s prison reality dream materials, chance as compositional technique, nostalgic reimaginings of childhood, and “acknowledgement of the essential ambiguity of experience” (The History of Surrealism, p. 13). I read with awe Shattuck’s distinction between “two contrasting ways of grasping experience”: one as a realm of continuity and significance, parts held in place by “lines crossing and interweaving’; the other a mere mechanical temporal sequence, where “any effort at insight or sympathy ends in despair” (19). Surely these are the poles between which we vacillate, “blind chance dogging conscious effort at every turn” (20). Between these poles, the Surrealists charted a middle passage into the hidden order of what they called “objective chance.” Shattuck characterizes this latter as “the most reticent of creatures” (21). Yet out it came, with Breton and crew at the peak of their powers juggling “chance and destiny, passive automatism and active revolution, optimistic faith in man’s future and pessimistic doubt over the disasters of civilization, the conviction that ‘life lies right here’ and the conviction that ‘life lies elsewhere,’ the marvelous and the absurd” (22). In juggling these, Shattuck concludes, the Surrealists succeeded where most of their contemporaries failed. They preserved within life a capacity for love and laughter.
The “Murugan” character in Huxley’s Island is far more a dramatis persona (literally, a “mask for drama”) than the student interlocutors who engage with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Murugan is willful and petty, his every statement an outburst of bitterness and longing. But it would be wrong to read him as an imp borne of Freud’s unconscious. The would-be tyrant — whose wish is to dominate and rule — appears in Huxley’s narration as an identity captured or possessed, rather, by Ego. Or as Huxley says: “an all too familiar kind of psychological ugliness” (Island, p. 48). “A spirit of delinquency” against the Good, or against collective well-being, waging war against traditional wisdom. In the particulars of Murugan’s case, this means hoping to “modernize” Pala through international sale of oil. Modernization means cities, mass media, confiscation and expenditure of social wealth by the false Son, or by all who would imagine themselves above the Given State. Why is this personality structure present as an irritant within Huxley’s vision? Let speak that which profiteth not, a spilling forth, a babbling brook, buzz, chatter, flight, passage, awareness settling experimentally into a great listening to surroundings or environment, other beings. Wim Hof is another of these false Sons. He interpolates and interpellates though application of a method to breathing, converting those who use his method into “alchemists” of their own chemistry. Part of me fears what he might signify. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps — like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Perhaps this danger lurks in all attempts to modify consciousness.
According to the Old Raja, the philosopher-king in Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian society would be a society in which “most good doing is the product of Good Being” (42). Through the fictional persona of the Old Raja, Huxley asks readers to know who in fact they are, while also knowing, moment to moment, who they think they are but in fact are not. We must be aware in every context, the character suggests, at all times, no matter the manner of the particular doing or suffering. The excerpted passages from the Old Raja’s “small green booklet” end with the author championing “Faith…the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are,” rather than Belief, which is absorption in the Word — the projected symbol, the reified name. I see Belief, for instance, as the disposition fostered not just by churches and organized religions, but also by obsessive-compulsive daily exposure to social media. The latter’s “Gestus” of swipes and clicks is a kind of genuflection, is it not? Social media’s economy of “likes” establishes through aggregation of ritual blessings a pantheon of mythic minor deities to whom users then become subject.
To soundtrack my second time through Huxley’s Island, I hit play on World Cup’s new CD-R of “adventure” music, Marsala.
Electronic tones keyed to other eras evoke imaginary videogame daydreams, images paired with sounds. In her first session treating Island‘s protagonist Will Faraday with a form of hypno-therapy, the book’s female lead Susila MacPhail offers him (and us, as we read along) a portrait of “perfect reconciliation”: a veritable church in the wild. “There were daisies in the grass and dandelions, and across the water towered up the huge church, challenging the wildness of those soft April clouds with its austere geometry. Challenging the wildness, and at the same time complementing it, coming to terms with it in perfect reconciliation” (33). The vision continues by imagining “White swans moving across a mirror of jade and jet — a breathing mirror that heaved and trembled, so that their silvery images were forever breaking and coming together again, disintegrating and being made whole” (33). What are we reading at this point? Through the reading experience, it is as if we become spellbound, consciousness led by words to a point of deep satisfaction. “Effortlessly floating,” the book repeats, “Effortlessly floating.” It feels as if one is both here and there, alive and yet already dead, following an echo down a hallway. A masterful bit of indirect suggestion, this chapter! It even announces itself as such by chapter’s end. All pain, all suffering is remade into “A miserable little thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing. There can’t be any doubt as to who’s going to win” (36). And for me, it works: the words become the experience, the image becomes the thing. I imagine all of human history as a kind of “bad trip” caused by the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the famous creation myth — but with the reminder inserted into the trip that it just a trip and that already, outside the trip’s false appearances, outside of the prison-dimension we call time, we are here and now awake and forgiven.
Settle in for some “fun with voices.” Ride lazily. Lean back. Smile a bit. Stretch arms and shoulders. Syncopate the body with easy rhythms. See no damage. See no evil at all. Trace a path similar to Schopenhauer’s in relation to Buddhism and the Upanishads. Familiarize oneself with Raymond Schwab’s Oriental Renaissance, a book about, as Edward Said remarked, “the reeducation of one continent by another.” Said’s Orientalism critiques Schwab’s work for intuiting as the motive for Europe’s late eighteenth and nineteenth century encounters with ancient Indian religious texts a desire to learn from the East, rather than, as Said would say, an urge for mastery over the East. Rather than being revived by eastern spirituality — as had been the hope of the Romantics — Europe instead turned on the latter, framing it as evidence of the East’s “backwardness” and “barbarism.” From this emerges a reading of the blue flowers that appear at the end of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, since blue flowers serve as symbols of equal importance in works by several German Romantics. In his fable Heinrich von Ofterdingen, for instance, Novalis drew on ancient Indian texts like the Shakuntala to posit a blue flower as “at once a symbol of mythic immanence, sleep and mystery, organic flowering and growth, and total reconciliation of all dualities” (Feldman and Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology, p. 350). Art thou caught in a narrative? The end of another phase? How does one who is lost become saved? One way to move forward, perhaps, is by reminding oneself (as Huxley reminds us in his final book Island), “It isn’t anything to worry about. It’s all over and done with.” Breathe and start again.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge “marries” or in a sense “reconciles” apparently contrary images in “Kubla Khan” by way of the latter’s poetic vision of a dome and a bursting fountain. So sayeth the literary critic Harold Bloom. In Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” school of interpretation, poets relate Oedipally to their precursors, each poem thus a demonstration of superiority — a flexing of imaginative muscle, an elaborate brag. Compared to Kublai Khan’s palace, the poet’s is, as enactment into global consciousness, the “finer dome,” the “more abiding paradise” (Bloom, The Visionary Company, p. 219). Bloom reads “Kubla Khan,” in other words, as a poem about poetry’s power. Through use of language, the imagination ruptures the given, allows back the forbidden, the excluded: the knowledge of Paradise. We are that unified, eternal Being — the one that reconciles contraries. Thou are that. Matter languaged. The oboe made articulate. (I classify the above as “notes toward a theory of fantasy.” In the same file I might add topics of conversation from my recent dinner with fantasist extraordinaire John Crowley. Change the stars, and one changes the world. As Above, So Below.)
Like a squirrel pausing on a high branch to admire a nut retrieved from below, I return home from office hours savoring a day well-spent in joyful, growth-oriented dialogue with students. Work in such moments seems capable of being harmonized with utopianism and individual and collective jubilation. My approach to reality coincides with my approach to students: infinite wonder, infinite passion, infinite forgiveness, infinite care. I can do this. I can bring spirited delight to conversations about consciousness, history, reality, and being, and still have time afterwards to recline and reflect. Students and I through study seed each other’s minds with new language sequences, new hopes, new possibilities. “What about plants?” a student and I wonder. Do they, too, possess consciousness? How do I eat with minimal undue suffering, minimal deconstruction of the order of the Oikos? A version of me tells another version of me across a distance of years to compare the “sacred river” referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem “Kubla Khan” with the “stream” metaphor employed in the poem’s preface. Consciousness appears in the work as both non-reflecting pool and mirror. Or more precisely, as Coleridge writes, “The pool becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine). But which the surface, which the depth? I grow frightened of the implications. Suddenly I worry that the poem carries within it a warning about drug use as a sinful act of hubris, God’s creation (the mind, the soul, consciousness) purposed, put to use, instrumentalized, enslaved, the eternal Adam damning himself out of Eden by trying to “finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” — living for an augmentation, a “more,” a heavenly end of time that is always and forever “yet to come.” The infinite deferment or postponement appears mysterious in its implications in the final lines of the poem’s preface — made all the more complicated by annotations about modifications of the text made by Coleridge at different stages in his career — and thus different stages in the evolution of the author’s political sympathies and related worldview. The poem, wistful and tragic in its unreconstitutable, permanently fragmentary form, gestures toward its parent texts, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. I hope students write papers comparing garden imagery in “Kubla Khan” and Pearl. “Kubla Khan” appears equally in this light as ultimate psychedelic metatext and prophetic anamnesis of the destiny of humankind. Gardens and enclosures, experience-bounding laws and hedonistic transgression. Plenty and the desire for more. Drug use is disruption of the stream of consciousness, the sacred river Alph — language, alphabetic reality. The Symbolic. Coleridge likens the altered state of consciousness to “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast,” whereas in Pearl, the dreaming narrator imagines himself as the cast stone, trying to cross the uncrossable stream dividing Earth from Heaven, only to find himself awakened from his dream and returned to the site of his misfortune.