The Mind at Large

(Craig Campbell)– I’m a pretty introspective person. I explore in great detail every mystery and inconsistency of my character. And that’s been something I’ve been encouraged to do more of since I’ve been at Amherst. But, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing…

I’ve read two books recently that make my point much clearer than I currently can. The first is Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren:

“…But I realized something. About art. And psychiatry. They’re both self-perpetuating systems. Like religion. All three of them promise you a sense of inner worth and meaning, and spend a lot of time telling you about the suffering you have to go through to achieve it. As soon as you get a problem in any one of them, the solution it gives is always to go deeper into the same system. They’re all in a rather uneasy truce with one another in what’s actually a mortal battle. Like all self-reinforcing systems. At best, each is trying to encompass the other two and define them as sub-groups. You know: religion and art are both forms of madness and madness is the realm of psychiatry. Or, art is the study and praise of man and man’s ideals, so therefore a religious experience becomes just a brutalized aesthetic response and psychiatry is just another tool for the artist to observe man and render his portraits more accurately. And the religious attitude I guess is that the other two are only useful as long as they promote the good life. At worst, they all try to destroy one another. … I just don’t want to get all wound up in any systems at all.”

We all identify ourselves with these systems. The world wouldn’t function if we were all anarchists. But so many people spend so much time ruminating on polemic arguments, preaching that their “truth” is more intrinsically valuable than someone else’s, when it’s all just the same. Mathematics, for instance, is based off a few accepted principles (numbers, magnitude) which theory infinitely expounds upon. Don’t be silly, Panda, math is logically accurate, and logic is order and man inherently seeks order. But logic is also a function of an imperfect language made by imperfect humans, and is not necessarily accurate in determining truth.

Religion works the same way: just a few accepted principles (God, a sacred text) that people subscribe to, find faith in, and lose themselves. Science is as much of a religion as Scientology. Xenu, dictator of the Galactic Confederacy, brought billions of people to earth in a spacecraft 75 million years ago, stacked them in volcanoes, and killed them using hydrogen bombs. Sure. That’s no more ridiculous than believing that Joseph Smith found and translated gold tablets revealed to him by an angel, and that Jesus visited America. (And we could very well be talking about our next president.) Which is no more absurd to believe that a burning bush communicated to Moses, or that Jesus walked across the surface of the water. It’s just a matter of perspective.

Hail Xenu!

A few days ago, I finished Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, which opens with a quote from a poem by William Blake: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, things would appear to man as they are: infinite.” In this book, Huxley describes in detail his hallucinogenic trip on mescaline. The drug deprives the brain of the natural flow of glucose which fuels the sensory filters that hide from conscious perception the information our species has deemed biologically irrelevant. But by removing these filters, one experiences spiritual and aesthetic stimuli in the environment that the sober brain naturally blocks. Huxley writes:

“To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large — this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual.”

Too often we get caught up in the meaning of all the with which symbols we interact. I think that sometimes we forget why we use symbols in the first place. The symbolic elements in art, the numbers in math, all language; they serve the same purpose. They are a way of making sense of an overwhelming (as Blake puts it, “infinite”) world in a way that we can communicate and understand. But frequently we forget that the symbol is just that: an abstraction of what’s actually there. Huxley continues:

“Literary or scientific, liberal or specialist, all our education is predominantly verbal and therefore fails to accomplish what it is supposed to do. Instead of transforming children into fully developed adults, it turns out students of the natural sciences who’re completely unaware of Nature as the primary fact of experience, it inflicts upon the world students of the humanities who know nothing of humanity, their own or anyone else’s.”

There is a danger of thinking of symbols as truth. Like when we think that certain words in certain contexts amount to a necessary world of difference in meaning, or that duct tape left accidentally on a ceiling around a light bulb is a Neo-Dada artistic statement, or that an artichoke reference in a book contains some deep literary significance…

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But, as Freud himself put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Sometimes, words are just words. Duct tape is just duct tape. And people just say dumb things.

Huxley concedes that we need systems of belief to survive. But, while they carry value, we have to appreciate them as social constructions, not identity. In any case, both Delany and Huxley believe that we should be more tangential. And not the tangent of distraction, but tangent as it is defined in math: the instantaneous rate of change. Not the past or future, but the very nowness of the present. Our systems, though we may think of them as truth, are too subject the present moment and context of the era to be held as inherent.

So should everyone take mescaline to appreciate the raw reality that exists? Probably not. The point of my esoteric, pseudo-philosophical ramblings is just a reminder to readers (but mostly to myself) not to get caught up in a contrived set of beliefs when there is so much else going on all around, all the time.