Lionel Hampton’s Golden Vibes dances through me, my skin resonating like keys beneath Hampton’s mallets. During Tuesday’s performance, percussionist Sandy Blocker stood from his drums and played a balafon. Meanwhile I got bills to pay, roles to play, life pregnant with life. In the Renaissance occult imagination studied by Frances A. Yates, an “umbra” is a shadow formed by the light of the divine mind — light we can only ever seek “through its shadows, vestiges, seals” (The Art of Memory, p. 268). One of these days, I tell myself, I should track down the Nock-Festugière edition of the Corpus Hermeticum along with Norman O. Brown’s book Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. I sit in a dark room for a few moments, in a hat and a cape, observing shadows, thinking about stars and moons, ancient debates between Egyptian and Greek philosophers arising again from memory, debates of great consequence, much of it still hidden. For Renaissance occultists like Alexander Dicson, the roots of the art of memory lie in ancient Egypt, not ancient Greece. “And if it is separated from Egypt,” he writes, “it can effect nothing” (as quoted in Yates 272).
To live allegorically is to juxtapose multiple dimensions of being: this world and another, or this part and that within a single world-system. Records arrive for me at Goodwill, including Charlie Haden’s The Golden Number. I wander around in what feels sometimes like a giant memory palace, reading student essays, some thoughtful, some not. I imagine one adapted into a lush graphic novel confrontation between a psychedelic Plato and a teetotaling Aristotle. From the underground temple of Eleusis we ascend to the Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo.
There’s so much still to learn, I think to myself. Let’s begin by reading a history of Mexican philosophy. Study the works of Emilio Uranga, Leopoldo Zea, and Luis Villoro. Seek information about the latter’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, a book called La Alternativa. Or, maybe just focus on housing. Rethink Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Why, in the mid-20th century, does Maslow wish to reintroduce a naturalized hierarchy into the “science of the human”? What were his fears? The hierarchy of needs is one we’re disciplined into by capitalism — so here I am, fretting about how to finance food, shelter, education, transportation. What Marxists call “social reproduction.” What good is a “hierarchy of needs” to a worker? The only truly humanistic psychology is one able to free workers to self-actualize: one that grants them relief from external structures of domination like debt. Is there a psychology of Being that can grant that relief?
Something draws me to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. For him, the cosmos is governed by processes of combination and disaggregation, incessant exchange between four roots (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) and two forces (Love and Strife). His work is known to us today only in part, through a series of fragments. It’s clear, though, from the evidence we possess, that he was committed to the idea that “all things feel (phronesis) and have their share of thought (noema).” Listen, heed: the whole feels, resonates, sings. Each part co-produces the assemblage, the ensemble, experiencing itself locally as an “appearing-to-nature-as-it-happens” environment or life-world. Out of the day comes a live recording and an opportunity for a charitable offering. Soon I’m reading about Quetzalcóatl and Náhuatl philosophy and finding meaning in songs and flowers.
The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
What would a revolution on the scale of the Copernican look like today? Sigmund Freud, whose works students and I discussed today in class, liked to pat himself on the back for his accomplishments, comparing himself to fellow paradigm-shifters Copernicus and Darwin. He believed the three of them had dealt “bitter blows” to humanity’s “craving for grandiosity.” Copernicus taught humans to de-center themselves, the earth a mere speck in a world-system of vast magnitude. Darwin robbed them of their self-regard — their sense of themselves as special, divine creations. Both figures dealt blows, in other words, to what Freud called humanity’s “Ego.” Why is the marriage of heaven and hell that Blake envisioned recast by Freud as cause for pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity for happiness? What happens when Blake’s “angels” and “devils” become Freud’s Superego and Id?
My imagination roves, like a cursor directed by an unseen, other-dimensional stylus. The one—an abstract, digitally mediated, floating point of view—sits across from and mirrors the other, the active ongoing envisioning of Being. About which, we somehow wish to write. Thus the following. To “project,” in the Freudian sense, is to turn reality into a metaphor. Parts of the object-world are substituted, refashioned, reimagined. And these actions are performed by a subject. Indeed—projective doings are not just done by accident. In the Freudian universe, everything is significant, everything has meaning. Yet the “I” who projects, Freud says, is still largely unconscious of its being, occulted from itself, its thoughts and feelings forgotten as they happen, buried, submerged, stored outside conscious awareness. The party responsible for projection is that preconscious part of us that wishes and dreams, Freud says, not the part of us that remembers afterwards having done so. Freud likened the mind to a landscape, a topography, a surface and a depth, as did precursors like Plato and Coleridge, the former in the Allegory of the Cave, the latter in “Kublai Khan.” What happens, though, when the unconscious arrives into consciousness as a thing? Both are transformed, are they not? Assumption of the unconscious is necessary, Freud says, to explain acts presupposed: acts of dreaming, acts of spontaneous self-governance that happen without any remembered, conscious deliberation. “Our most personal daily experience acquaints us,” he wrote, “with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how” (“The Unconscious,” 573). The happenings of the mind exceed what is known to consciousness—so, upon that excess, we bestow the title “Unconscious.” Energetic, creative, erotic, Dionysian: these are its attributes, this original portion of ourselves, deepest and most essential, guided by what Freud calls “The Pleasure Principle.” The Unconscious is the home of the Id: the pre-socialized self, the “Self in its infancy,” motivated only to seek pleasure and fear pain. This early self is later shackled by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Ego and the Superego; but the Pleasure Principle remains operative throughout our lives, in all subsequent stages of psychological development. The Ego and the Superego enter onto the stage of the psyche through our interactions with our parents. The Ego is the conscious portion of the individual, the part that thinks itself the star of the show, whereas the Superego is the culturing force, the Law of the Father, parental authority as it becomes internalized.