Tag Archives: awareness

“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

I’ve had this book on my shelf for so long that I don’t even remember where I got it from. But as part of my goal to clear some of my unread books and continue reading more spiritual texts, I figured I would give this one a read.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. There were great insights, it read well, and the language was nicely crafted. In fact, it seemed just a little too polished for someone who was not a native English speaker, but hey, every writer needs a good editor.

Many years ago, I was a vegetarian, and I was so for about 13 years. When I started eating meat again (my body needed it when training for my first marathon), I grappled with the ethical questions of eating meat, even though I made sure to only get ethically raised meats. Then one day, I had a realization that plants and rocks, being comprised of energy, must also possess consciousness, just like animals, but a type of consciousness that we cannot perceive as humans. To survive, we must get energy from other things, living and non-living (in the case of minerals). A passage in this book affirmed this belief that I have.

The telltale charts of my crescograph are evidence for the most skeptical that plants have a sensitive nervous system and a varied emotional life. Love, hate, joy, fear, pleasure, pain, excitability, stupor, and countless other appropriate responses to stimuli are as universal in plants as in animals.

(p. 78)

During times of deep meditation, I have been fortunate enough to experience momentary shifts in consciousness, slipping briefly into states of heightened awareness. These moments are virtually impossible to convey using the limited tool of language, but Yogananda does an excellent job describing that ineffable experience.

All objects within my panoramic gaze trembled and vibrated like quick motion pictures. My body, Master’s, the pillared courtyard, the furniture and floor, the trees and sunshine, occasionally became violently agitated, until all melted into a luminescent sea; even as sugar crystals, thrown into a glass of water, dissolve after being shaken. The unifying light alternated with materializations of form, the metamorphoses revealing the law of cause and effect in creation.

(p. 167)

While I love to read, and I believe there is value in reading spiritual and mystical texts, it is important to not only read, but to practice too. Book knowledge will only take a person so far on the spiritual path.

The great guru taught his disciples to avoid theoretical discussion of the scriptures. “He only is wise who devotes himself to realizing, not reading only, the ancient revelations,” he said. “Solve all your problems through meditation. Exchange unprofitable speculations for actual God-communion.”

(p. 377)

The last passage from this book that I want to share concerns what is important for the sustainability and longevity of a society. We are at a point in human history where wealth, military power, and materialism are the measures of a society’s worth and strength. I do not agree with this paradigm. I believe it is art, the humanities, and how we care for each other that are the true measures of a society’s strength and endurance.

The Biblical story of Abraham’s plea to the Lord that the city of Sodom be spared if ten righteous men could be found therein, and the Divine reply: “I will not destroy it for ten’s sake,” gains new meaning in the light of India’s escape from oblivion. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India’s contemporaries: ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome.

The Lord’s answer clearly shows that a land lives, not in its material achievements, but in its masterpieces of man.

(p. 340)

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“Elevation” by Charles Baudelaire

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Since there are various translations of this poem, I am including the one by Roy Campbell, which is the version in my book.

Above the valleys and the lakes: beyond
The woods, seas, clouds and mountain-ranges: far
Above the sun, the aethers silver-swanned
With nebulae, and the remotest star,

My spirit! with agility you move
Like a strong swimmer with the seas to fight,
Through the blue vastness furrowing your groove
With an ineffable and male delight.

Far from these foetid marshes, be made pure
In the pure air of the superior sky,
And drink, like some most exquisite liqueur,
The fire that fills the lucid realms on high.

Beyond where cares or boredom hold dominion,
Which charge our fogged existence with their spleen,
Happy is he who with a stalwart pinion
Can seek those fields so shining and serene:

Whose thoughts, like larks, rise on the freshening breeze
Who fans the morning with his tameless wings,
Skims over life, and understands with ease
The speech of flowers and other voiceless things.

This is a great poem and has some amazing symbolism woven in. It basically attempts to describe the ecstatic feeling associated with shifting consciousness and then drawing artistic inspiration from that experience.

In the first stanza, the spirit (consciousness) of the poet rises above the earthly confines and floats upward into the cosmos. This represents the psyche transcending its worldly bonds and being freed to explore the vast mystery of the deep subconscious.

In the second stanza, Baudelaire associates the transcendent experience with sexual ecstasy. The spirit moves like sperm toward an egg, the union being the moment of creation. Essentially, when the spirit becomes one with the ineffable form, the result is the spark of creation, just as the sperm reaching the egg is the spark of new life.

The third stanza marks the transition from spark to flame, symbolic of the illumination that one experiences during the state of heightened awareness. It is akin to feeling intoxicated, which is why Baudelaire uses fire and liqueur as metaphors.

In the fourth stanza, Baudelaire acknowledges ennui as his motivation for striving to transcend. It is his boredom and sickness that forces him to seek beyond himself and the mundane. It is his desire to escape what he sees around him that inspires him to elevate his consciousness and explore the realms beyond our everyday experience.

The last stanza is my favorite. As the poet basks in the elevated state, he understands things that are outside the comprehension of ordinary consciousness. It is effortless and it fills him with bliss. “The speech of flowers and other voiceless things” refer to symbols, archetypes, and forms, those things that exist within our subconscious. These symbols have their own language and only one who is elevated above the mundane can comprehend them. The fact that these are described as voiceless implies that Baudelaire will never be able to express them adequately, even through his most inspired verse. At best, he can offer a glimpse of the beauty that exists just past the veil of our world.

The more I think about this poem, the more inspired I feel. I hope you feel the same way. Have a blessed and inspired day!

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Joyce’s “Ulysses” – Episode 9

Raphael's "School of Athens" (detail)

Raphael’s “School of Athens” (detail)

This episode corresponds with Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus has to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. It symbolizes being stuck between two powerful forces, both of which are destructive. The episode takes place in the National Library, where Stephen Dedalus is presenting his theory on Hamlet, asserting that Hamlet’s father in the play is representative of Shakespeare the individual. He tries to navigate between the two extreme views, one that posits that knowing the history of an artist’s life is important in understanding that artist’s works, and the other that art should be appreciated for art’s sake, without focus on the artist’s life. The argument incorporates the conflicting views of Aristotle and Plato on the value of art, whether it is an imitation of life or whether art is an ideal to which humans should strive.

Reading this episode, I felt like I was personally navigating between the two extremes. At times it felt very difficult to stay centered in the flow of the text and not get sucked into the whirlpool or chewed up by the multi-headed beast. I suspect that this was intentional on Joyce’s part and that he made this section difficult in order to instill the feeling of being torn and trying desperately to remain on course.

For this episode, rather than attempting to summarize everything that is addressed in this very dense text, I decided to pick a single paragraph and analyze it closely.

—All these questions are purely academic, Russell oracle out of his shadow. I mean, whether Hamlet is Shakespeare or James I or Essex. Clergymen’s discussions on the historicity of Jesus. Art has to reveal us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is how deep a life does it spring. The painting of Gustave Moreau is the painting of ideas. The deepest poetry of Shelley, the words of Hamlet bring our mind into contact with the eternal wisdom, Plato’s world of ideas. All the rest is the speculation of schoolboys for schoolboys.

(p. 185)

In this passage, George Russell (A.E.) expresses the Platonic ideal that art should be an expression of the ineffable ideal which is formless and cannot be fully grasped by the conscious mind. He criticizes Stephen, who leans toward the Aristotelian. Stephen bases his theory on analysis and criticism and tries to avoid getting pulled into the formless whirlpool of ideals that is the basis of Plato’s philosophy. But I can’t help feeling that Stephen has a little bit of the Platonic in him. He is, after all, a poet, and though he strives to be an academic, he still has an artistic side.

When Joyce writes that A.E. speaks from “his shadow,” he is alluding to Plato’s allegory of the cave in The Republic. Art, according to A.E., is what allows people to view the flame of divine consciousness as opposed to the mere shadows cast upon the cave wall.

The last sentence of A.E.’s quote appears to be a direct jab at Stephen. Stephen is young, essentially a student in Russell’s eyes, just as Aristotle was a student of Plato’s and therefore not as qualified, in A.E.’s opinion. Stephen is also teaching schoolboys. Essentially, he is saying that Stephen is just not experienced enough to fully comprehend the true nature of art, the purpose of which is to communicate directly with the psyche and provide a glimpse of the part of us which cannot be grasped by our normal state of awareness.

While I concede the value of analytical thought, I am a romantic at heart and tend to lean toward the Platonic ideal. Still, I relate to Stephen, trying to navigate between these two opposing ideologies. I suppose that personally, I run the risk of being drawn into the whirlpool and losing myself in the mystic, which is why it’s important to try to stay grounded.

Next week, I’ll cover Episode 10 which ends on page 255 with the phrase “…sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.”


 

Previous Posts on Ulysses:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8


 

References:

http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/ulysses/section9.rhtml

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/530331/Scylla-and-Charybdis

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“The Colour Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft

ColourOutOfSpace

There is so much that could be said about this story, I’m not even sure where to begin. I suppose I could start by saying it’s one of the best works of psychological/sci-fi/horror fiction I have ever read. And honestly, the story transcends all these genres. It’s… amazing.

The story was written in 1927 and is set in Arkham, a fictional New England city featured in other Lovecraft tales. In this tale, a meteor crashes and some strange organism or force infects the surrounding land, causing a slow decay. There is a light of indescribable color associated with the other-worldly thing and this light is what affects the surrounding plants, animals, and humans.

The most obvious interpretation of this story is that it predicts the negative effects of radiation or toxic chemicals poisoning the environment. This is certainly a valid interpretation and easily supported by the text.

It must, I thought as I viewed it, be the outcome of a fire; but why had nothing new ever grown over those five acres of grey desolation that sprawled open to the sky like a great spot eaten by acid into the woods and fields? It lay largely to the north of the ancient road line, but encroached a little on the other side. I felt an odd reluctance about approaching, and did so at last only because my business took me through and past it. There was no vegetation of any kind on that broad expanse, but only a fine grey dust or ash which no wind seemed ever to blow about. The trees near it were sickly and stunted, and many dead trunks stood or lay rotting at the rim.

The next thing about this story that really struck me was the description of the infected plants and their strangeness. As I read it, I had the impression that I was reading an account of someone who had taken hallucinogens. Although this piece predates Albert Hoffman’s discovery of LSD, there were other hallucinogenic substances that Lovecraft could have acquired. Anyway, this next passage could certainly be the description of one who is under the influence of psychotropic substances.

All the orchard trees blossomed forth in strange colours, and through the stony soil of the yard and the adjacent pasturage there sprang up a bizarre growth which only a botanist could connect with the proper flora of the region. No sane wholesome colours were anywhere to be seen except in the green grass and leafage; but everywhere those hectic and prismatic variants of some diseased, underlying primary tone without a place among the known tints of earth. The Dutchman’s breeches became a thing of sinister menace, and the bloodroots grew insolent in their chromatic perversion. Ammi and the Gardeners thought that most of the colours had a sort of haunting familiarity, and decided that they reminded one of the brittle globule in the meteor.

I have read that the effects of hallucinogenic drugs are similar to the visions some schizophrenics experience. When one of the character in the story who had been exposed to the to the luminosity slips into insanity, I couldn’t help but make the connection.

It happened in June, about the anniversary of the meteor’s fall, and the poor woman screamed about things in the air which she could not describe. In her raving there was not a single specific noun, but only verbs and pronouns. Things moved and changed and fluttered, and ears tingled to impulses which were not wholly sounds. Something was taken away—she was being drained of something—something was fastening itself on her that ought not to be—someone must make it keep off—nothing was ever still in the night—the walls and windows shifted. Nahum did not send her to the county asylum, but let her wander about the house as long as she was harmless to herself and others.

There is a very powerful symbol that appears in this tale: the well. I interpret the well as a symbol for the passage to the deeper, primordial areas of the psyche. This region of the unconscious mind is often associated with mystical visions, creativity, and so forth. In this story, there is something lurking in the well, something that is the cause of the strange luminosity. I see this as representative of a dark aspect of our primordial minds, which lurks below the surface of our waking consciousness, always threatening to surge upward and overwhelm our fragile state of awareness.

At one point, someone goes down into the well to search for the remains of missing people. He uses a stick to poke around the bottom. This is symbolic of stirring up the primordial ooze of our subconscious, trying to plumb the depths but unable to fathom how deep our psyches go.

No one replied, but the man who had been in the well gave a hint that his long pole must have stirred up something intangible. “It was awful,” he added. “There was no bottom at all. Just ooze and bubbles and the feeling of something lurking under there.”

In the end, no one is able to identify the “colour out of space,” because it exists beyond the realm of our comprehension. Whether you want to interpret this as coming from our subconscious or from a different dimension of existence, it is ultimately the same. We can only understand that which exists within our realm of ordinary perception. When we glimpse the other realms, whether through drugs, meditation, or mental illness, we are faced with something that is beyond our ability to express and which can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem too vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space—a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity beyond all Nature as we know it; from realms where mere existence stuns the brain and numbs us with the black extra-cosmic gulfs it throws open before our frenzied eyes.

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“Power” by Jim Morrison

WildernessMorrison

I love The Doors and I am a huge fan of Jim Morrison’s writing, but I have to admit that some of what was posthumously published as “poetry” is really nothing more than the scribbled thoughts of someone who was way too stoned for his own good. Much of what is in Wilderness Volume 1: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison falls into this category. The following poem, though, is one of the better pieces in the collection.

I can make the earth stop in
its tracks. I made the
blue cars go away.

I can make myself invisible or small.
I can become gigantic & reach the
farthest things. I can change
the course of nature.
I can place myself anywhere in
space or time.
I can summon the dead.
I can perceive events on other worlds,
in my deepest inner mind,
& in the minds of others.

I can

I am

On one level, Morrison is expressing how his music and poetry has the power to influence the world around him. Art has the ability to speak directly to another person’s subconscious mind. It is also an expression of the artist’s inner thoughts and being. Through the sharing of music and poetry, people are able to catch glimpses of their inner selves, something that is very difficult to achieve by ordinary interaction.

But I think Jim is tapping in to something deeper and more arcane here, whether consciously or by accident. Thought is energy, and when directed and focused, that energy can affect the world around us. The latest discoveries in physics support this. Every one of us has the ability to initiate change using our minds. In addition, shifts in consciousness allow us to perceive other dimensions. In states of heightened awareness, we can tap into the collective unconscious and connect with the thoughts of others, living or dead. Morrison is expressing this power in the poem, a power that not only he has, but which all of us have, whether we are aware of that ability or not. And to become aware of that power, all one needs to do is open the “Doors of Perception.”

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