Tag Archives: mind

Thoughts on “Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace – Part 9

Nosferatu

Nosferatu

As a musician, I have always been intrigued at the way sounds and rhythms can be used to stimulate parts of the subconscious mind and cause hidden aspects of the psyche to surface. I believe this is why chanting and drumming are integral parts of ritual, the goal of which is to alter the consciousness of the participants.

There is a great passage in Infinite Jest where a recovering addict is sharing an experience he had where he was playing violin and the notes blended with other vibrations resulting in a sudden shift in his consciousness. This shift allowed a dark, primordial aspect of his psyche to surface, an experience that was terrifying and traumatic.

‘The direction of flow is beside the point. It was on, and its position in the window made the glass of the upraised pane vibrate somehow. It produced an odd high-pitched vibration, invariant and constant. By itself it was strange but benign. But on this afternoon, the fan’s vibration combined with some certain set of notes I was practicing on the violin, and the two vibrations set up a resonance that made something happen in my head. It is impossible really to explain it, but it was a certain quality of this resonance that produced it.’

‘A thing.’

‘As the two vibrations combined, it was as if a large dark billowing shape came billowing out of some corner in my mind. I can be no more precise than to say large, dark, shape, and billowing, what came flapping out of some backwater of my psyche I had not had the slightest inkling was there.’

‘But it was inside you, though.’

‘Katherine, Kate, it was total horror. It was all horror everywhere, distilled and given form. It rose in me, out of me, summoned somehow by the odd confluence of the fan and those notes. It rose and grew larger and became engulfing and more horrible than I shall ever have the power to convey. I dropped the violin and ran from the room.’

(p. 649)

In this scene, the addict experiences the emergence of what Jung termed the shadow.

The shadow, said celebrated Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, is the unknown “dark side” of our personality–dark both because it tends to consist predominantly of the primitive, negative, socially or religiously depreciated human emotions and impulses like sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage, and due to its unenlightened nature, completely obscured from consciousness.

(Source: Psychology Today)

Throughout my life, I have experienced instances where music or sound caused my consciousness to shift, sometimes dramatically. But it can be particularly unsettling when the shift is unexpected. It’s one thing to experience this while meditating and actively seeking to unlock hidden realms of the psyche, but when it occurs for no apparent reason, it can have a devastating effect on a person.

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Doctor Strange: Issue 04

DoctorStrange_04

This issue is very deep, and for a short installment in a comic arc, it addresses some profound concepts related to mysticism and the occult. There are two sections I want to discuss. The first relates to the physical toll of practicing the magical arts.

You threw the punch successfully, but you hurt your own hand. So what have you learned here today? …

The harder you punch, the more it hurts you. This is the most important lesson of being a sorcerer…

If a normal punch takes a physical toll on the one who throws it, what do you imagine the price of casting a spell to be?

The mental, spiritual, and physical are all connected. Whatever happens to one aspect of your being impacts the others. When we become physically sick or injured, it affects our mental and spiritual wellbeing also. When we engage in rejuvenating meditation, our mental and physical health benefits as a result. If we become mentally stressed through work, then we will experience a spiritual and physical exhaustion directly associated with the mental stress. Essentially, every thought or action affects every part of our being, sometimes in ways we can discern, and other times in ways that we do not immediately sense. It can be summed up in the laws of karma.

The second passage addresses the conflict between magic and technology.

This place has been drained of magic. What kind of sorcery could possibly… No. Not sorcery at all. Machinery. A machine that disrupts magic? That’s… That’s impossible.

I would like to think that science and technology can work with mystical practices to help move humans toward the next stage of evolution, but I am so naïve that I fail to recognize that technological advancement caused the rift between science and the magical arts. The Industrial Revolution did much to drain the spiritual from society, disrupting the flow of magic in the world. I think this will change soon. The latest ideas in theoretical physics are certainly supportive of the mystical arts.

I have to say that the more I read this latest incarnation of Doctor Strange, the more I enjoy it. The creative team is doing an amazing job of putting forth thought-provoking topics, but doing so in a whimsical way that is fun and engaging.

Cheers!

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“The Sniper’s Rifle” by Jim Morrison

Image from Film: American Sniper

Image from Film: American Sniper

I confess that I have not seen “American Sniper” yet, but I am certainly aware of the controversy surrounding this film and plan to see it at some point. I try not to judge something based upon others’ opinions or media hype, but all the publicity made me think of a snippet of poetry from Jim Morrison’s The Lords and the New Creatures:

The sniper’s rifle is an extension of his eye.
He kills with injurious vision.

(p. 17)

This idea has haunted me for years. I think that it is impossible to act, no matter how impulsively, without envisioning the act first in your mind’s eye. This may just be a split second in some cases. We may not even be aware that we are envisioning an act before we commit it. But I firmly believe that every act and every event begins with a thought, and thought is creative, internal visualization. We can choose to have injurious vision, or healing vision, but make no mistake; reality is a direct result of our vision.

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“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Exposing the Hidden

JekyllHyde

We are all familiar with the story, even if we have not read it. The image of Dr. Jekyll drinking a potion and transforming into the hideous Hyde has become part of our collective psyches. I confess that this was the first time I had actually read Stevenson’s novella, and even though I was familiar with the general story, I found the text itself to be enlightening.

While I noticed quite a lot of interesting symbolism in the text, I figured I would focus on the one that really stood out for me: the hidden part of the human psyche. This is symbolized by Hyde. I do not think it is a coincidence that Hyde is pronounced “Hide.” He represents that part of our consciousness that we want to hide from others, and which we would also like to hide from ourselves. He is the primal part of our being that drives our urges. Try as we may to suppress that part of ourselves, it is always there, just below the surface, waiting for its chance to surge upwards and wrest control.

Early in the story, Mr. Utterson, Jekyll’s friend and lawyer, senses that there is something that Jekyll is hiding something.

And the lawyer set out homeward with a very heavy heart. “Poor Harry Jekyll,” he thought, “my mind misgives me he is in deep waters! He was wild when he was young; a long time ago to be sure; but in the law of God, there is no statute of limitations. Ay, it must be that; the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, PEDE CLAUDO, years after memory has forgotten and self-love condoned the fault.”

(p. 19)

In our youth, we have less control over our primal instincts. We are more likely to succumb to our urges and desires, whereas in our later years, most of us have learned how to control that part of our consciousness.

After Hyde commits murder, Utterson confronts Jekyll and asks whether he is concealing Hyde.

“One word,” said the lawyer. “Carew was my client, but so are you, and I want to know what I am doing. You have not been mad enough to hide this fellow?”

(p. 31)

I love this passage because it is essentially a triple entendre. There is the obvious meaning of hide as concealment. Then there is the homonym connection between hide and Hyde. Finally, there is the alternate definition of hide as skin. Jekyll’s skin, or hide, conceals the darker aspects of his consciousness as embodied in Hyde. Considering all the interpretations, it’s a brilliant metaphor.

The transformative potion which Jekyll drinks is referred to as “transcendental medicine.” As I read this, I couldn’t help thinking that this was some form of psychotropic or hallucinogenic drug. Hallucinogens are believed to unlock the hidden parts of our consciousness, or as Blake would have said, open the doors of perception. I suspect that Jekyll’s potion was intended to represent a mind-altering drug that allows the hidden aspects of our consciousness to rise to the forefront.

“It is well,” replied my visitor. “Lanyon, you remember your vows: what follows is under the seal of your profession. And now, you who have so long been bound to the most narrow and material views, you who have denied the virtue of transcendental medicine, you who have derided your superiors—behold!”

(p. 68)

As the dualistic aspects of human consciousness are explored, the assertion seems to be that the primal subconscious is essentially evil and should be subjugated by reason.

…all human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.

(p. 75)

The following passage incorporates two of my favorite symbols: the crossroads and the doors. Here, the crossroads represent the intersection between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the intersection between good and evil, the two contradictions that are embodied within us. The doors represent the passageway to that hidden part of our psyches, where the darker regions of our consciousness exist.

That night I had come to the fatal cross-roads. Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend. The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prisonhouse of my disposition, and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth.

(pp. 75 – 76)

I think the scariest thing about this story is it forces us to recognize that the potential for evil exists within all of us. We like to deny it is there and hide it away, but it is always waiting for the doors to open, to surge up from the depths of our psyches and overthrow our reason. Sanity is fragile, and once it cracks, the hidden crawls forth.

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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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