A friend texts requesting recommendations, works he could assign describing consciousness — particularly works that identify variable “dimensions” and “states.” I recommend Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Abraham Maslow’s Toward a Psychology of Being. Reflecting afterwards on the exchange, I note down in a notebook, “Consciousness is something we grant or presuppose — based on our being here amid others in shared dialogue and shared study. Consciousness is Being as it comes to attention of itself as autopoetic subject-object — soul in communion with soul, each the other’s love doctor and angelic messenger.”
“If the texts that students and I have been studying this semester are best referred to as ‘portal fantasies,’” thinks the part of me that persists here in the future, “then that, too, is the term to use in discussing the new AppleTV+ television series Severance. Characters in the show pass quite literally through one or more doors between worlds, living two separate lives.”
The show’s title refers to an imagined corporate procedure of the near-future that severs personhood. Those who volunteer to undergo this procedure emerge from it transformed into split subjects, each with its own distinct stream of memory.
As unlikely as this dystopian premise may seem, we can’t fully distance ourselves from it as viewers, given our severed personhood here “IRL,” or “AFK,” as the kids are fond of saying. “Others may not be quite as manifold as me,” admits the Narrator. “But each of us is Janus-faced. Each of us houses both a waking and a dreaming self, with each incapable of full memory of the other.”
And as the show advances, of course, we learn through a kind of detective work that the severance procedure isn’t in fact what it seems. The work-self (or “innie”) battles the home-self (or “outie”) — as do Superego and Id here at home.
Noting my views regarding consciousness, a friend recommends I read the computer engineer Bernardo Kastrup. Kastrup and I both reject the idea that physical reality exists independently of the minds that observe it. Ours, we agree, is a “participatory” universe, involving interplay between mind and matter.
Mind is the one thing, I would say, that is not of this world. Nor is it a static substance. It identifies, it disidentifies; it remembers, it forgets. It undergoes changes of state.
And by “mind,” I mean something more than just the ego. Local, individual, waking consciousness is but one part of what Kastrup calls “mind-at-large.” (The same phrase, by the way, used by Aldous Huxley in his book The Doors of Perception.)
What I like most about Kastrup, though, is his explanation of how “mind-at-large” becomes reduced or fragmented into semi-autonomous parts. “Kastrup’s answer,” writes Martel, “is that we are all ‘alters’—fragmented, amnesic parts—of mind-at-large.”
Awaiting the evening’s discussion, I return again to Octavio Paz’s book Alternating Current, a collection of essays written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 1967, with an English translation released by Viking Press in 1973. For Paz, the fragment is “the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are” (Foreword). What might we learn from these essays — especially “Paradises,” on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception? We would be reminded of the myth of the Teotihuacán paradise of Tlaloc. Huxley finds in the mescaline experience, says Paz, a “universal myth” of “an enchanted garden” where “birds, beasts, and plants speak the same language” (90-91). Light and water are special presences in accounts of paradise. The “instant of equilibrium” formed between these presences is what Paz calls “the precious stone,” by which he means not just earth or the ground of being but rather jewels, emeralds, minerals that sparkle and behave like water in the presence of light. Other essays in Alternating Current point us to Henri Michaux, the French surrealist who, like Huxley, published books in the 1950s about his experiences with mescaline.
Re-reading The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic “trip narrative” about a mescaline experience at his house in Los Angeles, I’m struck by Huxley’s disdain for modernism and his admiration for artists of earlier eras: Goya, Vermeer, William Blake. Huxley is a proponent of the “Perennial Philosophy.” He finds across time a convergence of teachings, a shared wisdom in the visionary or mystical strains of each of the world’s religions. There is for him a “universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence” and a “need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). One of the most remarkable aspects of The Doors of Perception, however, is the fact that it’s a book about vision and visionary experience by a man of poor vision. Huxley’s eyesight was damaged; an illness at the age of 16 left him thereafter severely impaired. Huxley claimed to have overcome some of this impairment through an experimental technique known as the Bates Method, about which he wrote a 1942 book called The Art of Seeing. Huxley is thus a modern incarnation of the “blind prophet,” in the tradition of figures like Tiresias, the seer from Antigone and Oedipus Rex.
Huxley’s “reducing valve” metaphor renders the self or the Ego porous through a kind of sense-awakening, like the opening of a third eye. Growth of a new organ, as the Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson said, “to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions” (Postmodernism, p. 80). Jameson’s visit to the Bonaventure Hotel reads like a trip report — an account of an anabasis, with its ascent up the Portman building’s remarkable elevators. These elevators grant their riders the ability to cross realms, as Jameson does. After traveling up from the building’s interior atrium, one is launched out, in a glass-windowed capsule, up the building’s exterior shell. The ride allegorizes space flight. Riders shoot upward and land safely upon return into a dizzying postmodern hyperspace connected only by way of ascending escalators to the streets of Los Angeles. The pools at the base of the elevators simulate NASA’s trademark “splash landing.”
What does it mean to conceive of the five senses as Blakean “doors” or “windows,” mediating variables capable of description as “cleansed” or “closed,” on the other sides of which lie “immense worlds of delight”? Such a conception is predicated upon some prior fracturing of the cosmos, is it not? The outer material realm on one side, the interior infinite expanse of the Heavens, i.e. “consciousness,” on the other. Is it, as Blake suggests, only by delivering ourselves more fully to our senses that we reenter the Paradise from which we imagine ourselves banished? What would the implications be in terms of life and death?
“The Door in the Wall,” a phrase in The Doors of Perception that Aldous Huxley admits to have borrowed from an H.G. Wells story of that name, suddenly opens for me as I read the gloss of it in acid communist Mark Fisher’s final book, The Weird and the Eerie. In anticipation of watching “Exo,” Sean Curtis Patrick’s short film with Bana Haffar, I imagine a panpsychic narrative involving pulsing battle stations, secret earthy enhancement materials, sorcery.
Up from out of these, I tell myself, rises the specter of the nation-state. Fracture, faction, hauntings, Illuminati. Books turn up in this murk advertising themselves as beacons. “Independent,” “verifiable”: terms like those are bound to anger those of us who pass effortlessly, daily, revolving door style, between monist and dualist convictions. Triangulate, the speech-act tells itself. With fewer voices, more certainty. What we want is not a reversal of thought so much as a jazzed up merry go round, words rapidly unfurled onto the page in the style of 70s fusion, with trebly guitar and trumpet. “I ought to go back and reacquaint myself with Derrida,” I tell myself as I survey the houses of my neighborhood and war internally over their merits, trying to suppress the voice inside me thinking none of them need carry over into my Utopia. Over it prevails my Superego: a humbling voice, a voice of caution reminding me that, like all others, I, too, see through a glass darkly. Trapped in the planet’s gravity well, stuck to the walls and slid to the ceiling of the Gravitron, we easily lose our bearings. We become standpoints, Subjects. We ontologize the historical. And yet, to wish oneself free of one’s determination by History: is that not the great Gnostic temptation, the dream of transcendence?
We live in the time of the last, tiniest bit of light. So it seems, this moment in history. Exhaustion conspires with hunger. Together, they guide me through an exchange with a robot, navigate me into position for receipt of a hovel-shaped sign on the table of a booth in a McDonalds: “Archways to opportunity.” Is an archway to opportunity an example of a Door in the Wall? Not if opportunity just means arranging “skills” and “artifacts” in an online portfolio and marching at capital’s behest. Again, that always and forever tragic phrase, “so it seems,” dehumanization being the apparent inclination of the universe — unless we scheme, dream green, swap beans, gather heads together. Carve doors out of space-time. Launch what Aldous Huxley called “chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). Let these vacations arrange constellations, trails of clues, destination unknown.