Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: psychology (page 1 of 6)

Benny Shanon: The Antipodes of the Mind

Benny Shanon is an Israeli cognitive psychologist who has taken the psychoactive hallucinogen ayahuasca well over one hundred times. His book The Antipodes of the Mind: Charting the Phenomenology of the Ayahuasca Experience is a scholarly attempt to describe its effects both through a survey of participants and through descriptions of his own extensive experiences.

The book is a mine of information about how the mind processes information, sense data, and concepts under abnormal conditions. Shanon does not disguise his enthusiasm for ayahuasca, but he attempts to maintain a disinterested and naturalistic stance. (Psychiatrist Charles Grob talks more about the specific neurological effects of DMT, ayahuasca’s active ingredient, in this interview.)

I have not taken ayahuasca. It does not sound terribly appealing. The one extensive description of an ayahuasca experience I’d previously read was by Kira Salak, who claimed that it cured her lifelong suicidal depression overnight. Her description of the experience, however, is enough to scare you off the stuff for life.

Shanon, however, comes off as a remarkably equanimous guy of good humor and patience, so his accounts do not dwell so much on the dark side of ayahuasca. (He attributes much of his poise to ayahuasca, but I suspect he was fairly upbeat and fearless going in.) We are 60 pages in before we come to this blithe passage:

Usually, the harshest symptoms of the Ayahuasca inebriation occur during the first 90 minutes following the onset of the effect. During this time, visions can be very strong and the entire experience may be tough and even frightening. Often the feeling is that the drinker has little or no control over what is happening. Thus, the initial phase of the inebriation is likely to present drinkers with moments of intense struggle. At times, the person who partakes of Ayahuasca feels he or she is losing his or her senses and even going mad. Quite commonly, people feel that they are about to die. Furthermore, it often seems that what is happening is irreversible and that one will never return to one’s normal self. With this, thoughts like ‘Why, for heaven’s sake, did I make the mistake of partaking of this drink?’ often cross drinkers’ minds. Naturally, all this is likely to generate great trepidation. With experience, however, the fear can be better managed and the Ayahuasca drinker learns to gain more control over the intoxication.

Fortunately, Shanon’s enviable nonchalance allowed him to continue chronicling ayahuasca’s effects despite the occasional remarks that ayahuasca frequently produces experiences I would consider horrifying and unbearable. Most of the visions he describes are generally rather benevolent, possibly because people who have repeatedly horrific ones stop drinking ayahuasca rather quickly. Grob, who also seems rather enthusiastic about ayahuasca’s possibilities, still remarks, “It can be an eternity in a Hell-realm.”

I will quote and comment on passages that struck me as particularly interesting philosophically. A good chunk of the experiences fall in line with what’s expected from corrupted sensory modalities: distorted vision, time-dilation, dream-like visions, etc. The exceptions, however, are fascinating, and Shanon’s dutiful chronicling makes the material worthwhile.

Shanon divides the material by subject matter and thematic analysis. I’ve sorted the excerpts into my own set of broad categories.

Confusion of the Sensuous and the Conceptual

Many of the hallucinations involve confusions of the (supposed) duality of concept and sense data, and make more intuitive sense if thought of as conceptual manipulation rather than raw internal experience, whatever that may be, as in these two examples:

In still another Daime session the madrinha stepped aside and a man passed a vessel of incense back and forth in front of her. The smoke lifted up and it became perfectly clear to me: It was an act of cleansing, of protecting the woman from potential dangers that may be inflicted by evil spirits. There were no visual hallucinations as such, yet, I would not say that the act was merely symbolic. What I experienced was literally this—seeing the casting of a shield against evil powers. It all seemed to have a very serious and sombre allure, and manifestly, it was all invested with magic. If I were to define what made it all so mysterious I would say that it was the fact that on the one hand everything pertained to another reality, while yet at the very same time it was all real. Again, no hallucination as such was experienced—technically what I was seeing was real, and none the less it was all utterly non-ordinary, and enchanted.

Another pattern of interpreting-as is one I shall characterize as seeing the particular as generic, or rather, seeing the generic in the particular. I have experi­ enced this on a number of occasions. The first, which for me was very striking, occurred during the daytime. It was in a village and I, intoxicated, was sitting on a small verandah overlooking the meadows. A farmer (a real one) was passing by, and I saw The Farmer, the universal prototype of all farmers. Again, as in the previous example, the standard perception and the non-ordinary one are related. After all, I saw The Farmer, not The Fisherman or The King. Yet, while normally I would have seen just a farmer, this time I saw The Farmer. While semantically linked, experientially these two perceptions are totally different. I have heard accounts of the very same phenomenon from my informants.

In both these cases, ordinary sense data is framed by conceptual interpretation that ordinarily kicks in only at a layer of remove from seemingly immanent experience, revealing that conceptual interpretation was there all along.

Similarly, invocation of Platonic forms occurs repeatedly:

The real figure (the trees) and the visualized one (the people) were related, but not by means of any overlapping of lines. In other words, the relationship was primarily semantic. Other instances of this kind I have experienced were seeing an (imaginary) jaguar resting on the branch of a (real) tree and an (imaginary) cow standing on a (real) truck.

Abstract entities may be seen as well. One informant told me he had a grand vision of perfect geometric bodies. Another reported a scene in which he spontan­eously came to the appreciation that the physical world is harmoniously governed by mathematical laws. Three informants reported grand visions in which the manifold of all forms was seen. Several informants, all with an academic education, explicitly commented that Ayahuasca brought them to the world of Platonic Ideas.

Finally, there are visions in which one feels one is encountering the Supreme Good. A major impression these visions had on me is the (Platonic) conclusion that ultimately, the ethical and the aesthetical as well as the true are the same. I have heard similar assessments made by many other people.

A better way to read these perceptions of universals is to interpret them as the conceptual being applied and/or interpreted at a different level than usual. Even in the perception of a particular instance of an abstract concept, we already have the abstract concept in mind. We just don’t believe ourselves to perceive it.

To put it another way: does Shanon have an experience of seeing The Farmer, or does he merely think that he has had an experience of seeing The Farmer? This is a nonsensical question: there is no difference between the two.

The meaninglessness of this question, I believe, points to the effect that ayahuasca is having on him. There is not some raw layer of true/veridical empirical perception that is then getting corrupted by a process of cognition. Classically Cartesian and empiricist accounts are misleading in this regard. The conceptual objects of perception (what I think of as Husserl’s noemata) are themselves corrupted.

Shanon pretty much agrees on this point:

Should we say that what is seen in Ayahuasca visions is to be divided into two: that which is ‘really’ seen, and that which is the product of interpretation? While there might be instances where interpretation may be relegated to a separate, secondary process, I am reluctant to regard this as the paradigmatic, general case. Because of my previous work in both psychology and semantics, I have difficulty accepting the two-stage analysis dividing perception and interpret­ation. My general theoretical stance in cognition is that there is no demarcation line between ‘raw’ perception, on the one hand, and semantic, meaningful interpret­ation, on the other hand. Following the philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1962) and the psychologist Gibson (1979), I believe that it is impossible to draw a clear-cut line dividing between naked, interpretation-free sensory inputs and interpretative processes that are subsequently applied to them so as to render these inputs into meaningful percepts. In the spirit of Heidegger (1962), I maintain that cognition is always ‘laden with meaning’. Applied to the example cited, this view implies that, from a cognitive-psychological point of view, if the figure seen was identified as being Jesus, then phenomenologically this is indeed who was seen.

Does this deflate the claims that Shanon is making of profound, sublime experience? As long as we maintain that any thought has some phenomenological content, it doesn’t have to. That said, prefacing every ayahuasca experience with “I thought [I saw Jesus, e.g.]” certainly makes things sound less impressive. If I were to take ayahuasca and have an experience in which I knew that 2 + 2 = 4 and 2 + 2 = 5, I can’t say that would seem very remarkable in retrospect.

Likewise, Shanon repeatedly has experiences in which he does not hallucinate per se so much as undergo experience that is perceptually impossible by ordinary standards, dealing with the cross-wiring of the “sensuous” with the “conceptual.” A “thought” is not as distinct from a “sensing” as it normally seems. This is not to say that there are no distinctions–there seem to be multiple levels involved–but that concepts play some part at all levels.

Shanon invokes Heidegger, not without reason, as the experience is more or less a fundamental corruption of one’s normal being-in-the-world.

At times, the experience vacillates between one that is primarily visual and one in which the visual is, as ordinary reality, just one facet of one’s being-in-the-world. A scene may begin as one of the former kind, gain strength and reach the characteristics of the latter, and then it may perhaps dissipate and turn into an experience that is again primarily visual. What characterizes very powerful experiences of virtual reality is that they involve no progressive process of immersion.

Except, pace Heidegger, what is produced is not alienation but a sense of integration. I think that this is not because we are being brought down to the level of the world, which normally seems free of conceptual manipulation. It is more because the normally “objective” world is being brought up to our level.

Dubious Reactions and Causal Breakage

While the experiential nature of the content still stands, we nonetheless have good reason to question the exact constitution of the experiences. As an example, consider this grand vision Shanon gives:

I had the vision, recounted in Chs. 8 and 9, of an exhibition presenting what appeared to be an entire, unknown culture. I was thinking to myself: ‘If this is not real, if my mind is creating all this, then the human mind must be much more amazing, much more mysterious than standardly assumed by psychologists. Indeed, if my mind is creating all this,’ my thinking went on, ‘then cognitive psychologists just know nothing about the mind.’ Thus, to the suggestion that the effect of psychoactive substances is, as Merkur (1998) claims, just ‘intense fantasying’ I retort: Perhaps, indeed, this is all that is happening, but this should not be taken in a dismissive, half-derogatory fashion. It may very well be that it is the creative ability of the mind but, if so, the mind’s ability to create surpasses anything we cognitive scientists ever think of.

Here I think Shanon slips. It is the old Wittgenstein beetle in the box problem. The mind, while amazing, is also amazingly good at tricking itself. Shanon had some kind of vision, but he also was in a state in which he was clearly disposed to think of his vision experience as amazing. His brain was probably (we don’t know for sure) putting together all sorts of concepts and sense data in bizarre and creative ways, creating the “all this,” but we have no way of establishing how awesome that assemblage was beyond the descriptions he gives. Here is a representative excerpt:

On many occasions I saw corridors, one hall opening into another, marvellous wall-paintings, sculptures, and reliefs. Architectural details that espe­cially impressed me included sculpted marble colonnades in the form of white elephants, staircases adorned with golden lions, and finely carved gilded wooden ceilings. Several times, I saw most beautiful painted tiles. In the reports of my informants mosaics appear frequently; an example was described in Ch. 6 when serial images were discussed.

No doubt these are remarkable things to imagine, but we fall into a fallacy if we think that he “saw” these things in full detail to the extent we would have to imagine them in ordinary life to feel such an expanse of detail. More likely, the details were all that existed as isolated conceptual objects, and his brain drew a vivid but incomplete implication of an entire landscape of awesomeness, generating individual awesome details on demand, not all at once.

In order to have a reaction to an imagined stimulus X, what was required of that imagined stimulus X? I could have a vision in which I had just read a profound book containing the secrets of life and am left awestruck.  The book need not have existed as a conceptual entity in my mind beyond having loose book-like qualities. Since we already know that ayahuasca throws logic out the window, there is no need to think that there was some causal chain in which an actual, fully-fleshed-out conceptual object caused the reactions he was having, or that the reactions were rationally justified.

I am sure that in Shanon’s vision, many details were generated, far more than in the normal course of imagination, and that these details were experienced more vividly, but that there were still nowhere near enough details to qualify as a fleshed-out “world” by everyday standards.

Consider a more prosaic example. I have a decent auditory memory and can “replay” music that I know well in my head and “hear” with the right timbre, sound density, etc. On the other hand, I do not hear it in any sort of complete way (though I can “replay” it and pay attention to one instrument over another, for example), nor do I have any knowledge about the innards of the music. All I have is some pieces of the audio that are what were salient to me. They are fairly vivid, but they are drastically incomplete, and the same would apply to any vision or hallucination I might have. (My visual sense, however, is in fact much poorer and I have a much harder time summoning up vivid images; this seems to be the reverse of the norm.)

Ultimately, one’s reactions in ayahuasca cannot be trusted any more than they can be externally verified through verbal (or other) reports. One case of such verification is described in the Idealistic Holism section below, but obviously, verification is the exception, not the rule, at least until we invent brain-reading machines that depict what we’re thinking…which, given the overlapping of the conceptual and the sensuous, is seemingly impossible.

When Shanon says:

The philosopher of language Austin (1962) claimed that we do not just say things with words— rather we do things with them (saying being one of these things). My work on ordinary consciousness has led me to posit that with the silent mentations in our minds (i.e. thought sequences) we do not entertain thoughts but rather do things and act in the theatre of our minds (see Shanon, 1998*). I have further argued that what consciousness affords is a kind of virtual reality whereby human beings can act even when actual action in the external world is not possible. My claim has been made on the basis of ordinary consciousness. In the case of nonordinary consciousness the case is even more extreme. I would like to propose that with Ayahuasca the human propensity of world creation is increased manifoldly.

I think he is right to a point, but the other side of the coin is that the criteria for world creation may be drastically lowered. As Wittgenstein repeatedly stressed, we have no way of knowing. By invoking the “theatre of our minds,” Shanon has fallen back into a false specator-spectacle dualism, assuming that what he is experiencing has some kind of existence outside of the experience itself. Ironically, it’s quite similar to the cognition/perception dualism he’s trying to break down.

Specific Neurological Manipulations

Notably, the manipulations involved seem to map onto forms of cognition that are associated with isolated aspects of cognition. For example, face-related experiences seem to relate rather clearly to the neurological disorder prosopagnosia, which is the failure to be able to remember and recognize people’s faces. (It affects Oliver Sacks, Hubert Dreyfus, and, either aptly or ironically, Chuck Close.)

The first small detail I would like to mention is disembodied eyes. These are eyes seen floating in the visual space without there being either a face or a body of which they are part. The eyes may be those of human beings, of felines, or without any particular identity. Often, a great multitude of such eyes is seen. These are reported very commonly. Notably, they are also encountered in the most spectacu­ lar vision reported in the Bible—the prophet Ezekiel’s encounter with the Divine (see, in particular, Ezekiel 1: 18; for a discussion of the motif of disembodied eyes in the context of pre-Columbian Mexican culture, the reader is referred to Ott, 1986). Also commonly reported are detached faces, that is, faces without bodies; bodies without faces are also reported.

If, as prosopagnosia suggests, facial perception is handled by a specific mechanism in the brain (the fusiform gyrus, also possibly associated with synaesthesia), then the commonality of face-related hallucinations would suggest that ayahuasca is hitting that part quite reliably.

Another mechanism Shanon identifies as being crucially affected is iconic (“flash”) memory:

A specific manifestation of the salience of the medium as it pertains to the temporal dimension is the increase in the time span of iconic memory, which consists of the retaining in memory of information in a quasi-perceptual manner, as if a copy of the external perceptual stimulus is maintained. Normally, the span of iconic memory is very brief—it is estimated to be between 350 and 500 milliseconds (see Coltheart, 1983; Baddeley, 1990). With Ayahuasca, the time-span of iconic memory is sign­ificantly lengthened. One closes one’s eyes and an image of what one has just actually seen is retained. The time of retention is much longer than normal. A related phenomenon is that of afterimages (see Ch. 17). These, too, are very pronounced when, during the inebriation, one closes one’s eyes. Both phenomena result in a lengthening of the time that perceptual stimuli (or their derivatives, such as afterimages) are amenable to mental inspection. As a consequence, the scope of the mental transformations that these stimuli can generate is increased.

This indeed seems to fit with the nature of the mental chaos that ayahuasca generates.

Metaphoricity

Since we have eliminated the “rawness” of perception, it follows that we would see metaphors impact the most basic level of perception, and that indeed is what happens. One example of this outside of ayahuasca is synaesthesia, which clearly involves some layer of semantic data.

In a discussion of Thomas Hardy’s synaesthesia four years ago, a synaesthete described an experience of “the concept Wednesday with the experience blue…it’s like my color-seeing bits are being activated but not quite seeing.” Ayahuasca experiences suggest the extension (or derailing) of this kind of process on many levels:

In Shanon (1992) and (1993a) I argue against this common view and suggest that for a metaphor to obtain it is not at all necessary that the semantic features or distinctions encountered in the metaphorical expression be given and fully defined prior to the articulation of that expression. Furthermore, on the basis of both empirical data and conceptual analysis, I claim that rather than being secondary, metaphorical processing is primary and non-derivative. This claim is supported by considerations of speed of processing in normal adults, ontogenetic patterns (it appears that metaphors are very common in the speech of young children), and the so-called primary (sic) processes encountered in dreams (these, note, are highly metaphorical; see Freud, 1900/1953). As I see it, the very essence of metaphoricity is the creation of new features. In other words, when producing or receiving a metaphor, cognitive agents draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things. In this process, features are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made and new semantic features are generated. It is precisely this that makes metaphor cognitively so important—it is one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition.

The foregoing observations highlight the intrinsic affinity between synaesthesia and metaphoricity. As indicated above, in cognitive-psychological discourse, the latter is generally linked primarily with language, whereas the former is regarded as sensory. I propose, rather, that they are to be regarded as the two manifestations of what is essentially the same basic cognitive phenomenon, namely, functioning in a mode that does not differentiate between domains that, from the perspective of normal mature adult cognition, are totally distinct. In metaphor these domains are semantic fields, while in synaesthesia they are sensory modalities, but otherwise these two cognitive phenomena are the same. Together, both may be regarded as manifestations of an enhanced degree of latitude with respect to priorly given, standardly established distinctions; this effect may be referred to as ‘nonfixedness’.

This perhaps is the most important point of Shanon’s book, underscoring the integration of the conceptual and the sensuous while emphasizing the collective nature of those metaphors. What Shanon has in mind here does bear some resemblance to Hans Blumenberg‘s idea of absolute metaphors. To underscore this, Shanon invokes one of Blumenberg’s core metaphors–hell, one of society’s core metaphors–light.

Significantly, language reflects (sic) the special status of light. It is no accident that in English—as in many other languages—words such as those ending the previous paragraph but one are derived from the term ‘light’ (cf. ‘enlightened’, ‘illumination’). In Hebrew, a language not at all related to English, the noun V is light, the noun ora is one of the terms for joy, the adjective mu’ar is illuminated, na’or is enlightened, me’or panim denotes happy welcomingness, and so on and so forth.

Since metaphors are shared and most are collectively generated (some may be native, I believe), it does render the social a core aspect of neuropsychology. I heartily endorse Shanon’s statement to this effect, drawing from Vygotsky:

Against dominant views in contem­porary cognitive science, my own is that the basic capability of the human cognitive system is not to process information but rather, to be and act in the world. Even our most private, most subjective experiences attest to this fundamental state of affairs (see Shanon, 1998*). This being the case, the internal and the external are inter­twined and there cannot be a sharp divide between the two. Specifically, the mental is embodied in the corporeal and individual cognition is embedded in the matrix of social interrelationships. As the Soviet psychologist Vygotsky and his disciples argued, mind is in society (see Vygotsky, 1978). Hence, in a very fundamental fashion, even the most individualistic psychologist cannot ignore the societal.

I don’t have much to add here. This seems to be an obvious point but I don’t feel it’s one often considered in lay presentations (or even technical presentations) in cognitive science and psychology. (It seems that Francisco Varela‘s “embodied mind” approach is one well-known, recent move in this direction.) There is a very long tradition here, probably best exemplified by Merleau-Ponty. But I think Shanon’s specific focus on metaphoricity is accurate and merits application in even the most quotidian studies of “being-in-the-world.” This would then constitute a rejection of Heidegger’s ontological approach, which makes these structures of “being-in-the-world” more fundamental than socially-conditioned metaphors.

There remains the issue of shared content across cultures. I don’t think Shanon provides a huge amount of evidence here to suggest too many universal concepts and metaphors genuinely innate to the mind. Light could well be one of them, but when it comes to snakes and cats, both extremely common in ayahuasca visions, I’m more wary. Snakes I think can be explained fairly easily: snakes are a very simple shape (that is, a line), and so if you’re going to see an animal (which may indeed be something more innate to the mind), a snake is a likely one, just like clouds are likely to look like marshmallows. Cats are trickier, but I’m not quite ready to assign them some innate presence in the brain just yet.

Idealistic Holism

In some ways it makes sense that the breakdown of our reality-processing software would result in a general feeling of holism:

Overall, Ayahuasca induces a comprehensive metaphysical view of things. I would characterize it as idealistic monism with pantheistic overtones. By this view, reality is conceived as constituted by one, non-material substance which is identified as Cosmic Consciousness, the Godhead, the ground of all Being, or the Fountain of Life. Coupled with this is the assessment that all things are interconnected and that in their totality they constitute one harmonious whole. This, in turn, entails an experienced realization that there is sense and reason to all things and that reality is invested with deep, heretofore unappreciated, meaningfulness. By and large, it seems that the metaphysical perspective induced by Ayahuasca is most similar to views entertained in classical Hindu philosophy (see, for instance, Phillips, 1995) 2 as well as by Plato, Plotinus, and Hegel. Remarkably, this view is essentially the same as that characterized by Huxley as the ‘perennial philosophy’ (Huxley, 1944; see also James, 1882); similar observations were also made in the context of LSD (see Grof, 1972, 1998).

Shanon doesn’t make any metaphysical claims for this experience, though he implies them rather strongly.

Thus, many informants have reported to me that the brew made them appreciate that ‘everything is interconnected’, ‘all is one’, ‘every­thing is spirit’, and ‘all is consciousness’. Other recurring expressions are ‘this world is an illusion’, ‘everything has meaning’, ‘the different levels and aspects of reality exhibit the same essential structure’, and ‘I and the world are united’.

It is difficult to know how to interpret these reports. Semantically, these are not impressive statements, but they reflect what must be a very powerful inner experience.

My question is: what other sort of conceptual experience would one expect to have in such a state other than holistic monism? I do not mean this rhetorically, but I want to ask if there may be a causal implication here in which ayahuasca does only part of the work and traditional cognitive functions do the rest.

To explain: What’s happening in such ayahuasca moments is a shutdown of traditional constraints (or categories) the brain imposes on our experience, accompanied by what is presumably cognitive attempts to produce something resembling coherent experience out of what remains. Broadly speaking, I would expect this to produce a sense of non-differentiation and lack of identity. The specifics of the experience may or may not be baked into the brain. At this point third-person accounts seem less helpful than they did with reports of more sensuous experiences.

Accompanied by such experiences is the collapse of time itself, which seems (a) phenomenologically remarkable, but (b) actually not too unlikely, given the other corruptions that are going on.

In front of me I saw the space of all possibilities, that is, all states of affairs that can possibly happen. They were lying in front of me there like objects in physical space. Choosing, I realized, is tantamount to the taking of a particular path in this space. It does not, however, consist in the generation of intrinsically new states of affairs. All possibilities are already there, I saw, but one has the option of choosing different paths amongst them, just as when travelling through a terrain in real space. Further, while travelling in the space of possibil­ities takes time, the possibilities themselves are there, given in an ever-present atemporal space. Thus, I concluded, there is no contradiction between determinism and free will. With this, for the first time I felt I understood the Jewish sages in the Mishna—’Everything is laid out in advance yet freedom of choice is given.’

Shanon reflects on the afterthoughts many drinkers have:

Ayahuasca causes many drinkers to reflect upon conscious­ness and its nature. This is true also of individuals without any prior intellectual interest in this topic. Moreover, in general, the specific ideas that different drinkers entertain with regard to consciousness fall into one consistent picture. As indicated earlier, consciousness is conceived of as the basic constituent of reality and the ground of all Being. Many further say they experience, and consequently conceive of, consciousness as a supra-human and non-individuated phenomenon of which human consciousness is a derivative. Obviously, that different people have and share these ideas proves nothing. Yet, perhaps this has some bearing on the topic being entertained? In other words, perhaps the similarity of these insights does indicate something with regard to the nature of consciousness? I leave this as an open question.

I think that, indeed, there is a shared set of concepts and experiential data that is cross-cultural, but that it falls under the broadly naturalistic rubric of “being human.” The supra-human, non-individuated state is one that could well naturally emerge from the brain when its moorings are loosened, just like in dreaming or schizophrenia. (Louis Sass describes somewhat analogous experiences in The Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber, and the Schizophrenic Mind.)

Again, this isn’t to deflate Shanon’s claim, as consciousness is one damn weird creature, and the fact that our normal state of mind allows us to process reality in a more functional way does not mean that our normal state of mind is somehow more essentially reflective of the nature of consciousness.

Given these changes to the nature of experience, one would expect ayahuasca to generate certain questions about consciousness and experience with some uniformity. There is much room for cultural variation, but I think it’s unavoidable that there are certain basic conceptual areas of human experience that really are universal. (Maybe it’s time to revise Kant’s Categories once more.)

Things get trickier but also a bit more verifiable when Shanon describes experiences that overlap with reality that seem to extend consciousness extra-locally outside of his body:

The non-individuation of consciousness may also be manifested in the blurring of the distinction between the individual and his or her fellow human beings. As a consequence, one may feel that one’s identity is defined not individually but rather in group terms. Thus, strong identification with the other persons who participate in the Ayahuasca session is common. One clear manifestation of this is the communal singing in the rituals of the Santo Daime Church. Many times I have observed how sessions begin—the leading persons start to sing and the others in the hall readily join in, as if tied to them by hidden strings. Furthermore, the singing may be extremely co-ordinated, both with respect to tempo and rhythm and as far as immediate adjustments in tune are concerned. On such occasions, the group becomes a kind of a single organism that acts in a precise and highly concentrated fashion. Once I gave a cassette recording I had made of such singing for inspection to a musical laboratory equipped with high-tech measurement instruments. The experts were astonished at the perfect degree of synchrony between the people singing. In a direct, non-technical manner I have felt this many times as well. As recounted earlier, once I also had a vision that made the notion of group-consciousness even more apparent to me. In the vision I found myself in the midst of an ant colony. I felt the relationship between each ant, as a biological organism, and the colony as a whole. Consciousness was the property of the latter, not the former.

The cassette recording is the key piece of evidence here. The explanation, I gather, is a sub-conscious (a term I mean in a general, generic sense, not a specific one) ability of the body to process and act without the general level of conscious awareness that one lends to such activities, an abandonment of “thought” for “instinct,” but an “instinct” laden with much more cognition than is generally thought possible. (Perhaps this is akin to blindsight, in which there is clear conceptual processing going on despite a seeming lack of cognitive awareness.)

This sort of coordination is possible in everyday life between people as well, though it is often not noticed. One example would be the conjoined twins Abigail and Brittany Hensel, who are able to coordinate activities such as typing and driving, clearly without time for conscious reflection, despite each side of the body being controlled by an absolutely discrete brain. It’s not ESP, but it’s still rather remarkable. Presumably there are plenty of other studies of such sub-aware coordination going on.

Thus it is a question of terminology whether one then says that consciousness extends outside of the brain, or that human unconscious behavior is far more sophisticated and capable of coordination with others than we usually think. Shanon’s interpetation seems to go toward the former, as he ultimately denies the existence of the unconscious in any sense. Instead, he thinks of consciousness as having multiple states:

It could be suggested that human beings have the ability to operate, and exist, in two different states. Metaphorically, these may be conceived in terms of the shifting of gears. The first state is the ordinary one, and it is fully grounded in time. The other, non-ordinary state consists in the freeing of the mind from the ordinary temporal constraints. That such freeing is possible is a major feat of the human psyche. The study of the dynamics of the shift between the two states is, I think, a cognitive-psychological topic of utmost significance. A theoretical frame­work that accounts for it will encompass both ordinary consciousness and nonordinary consciousness and view them as specific cases obtained by means of variations in a common, general structure. Thus, the enterprise in question is, in essence, the development of what may be regarded as a general theory of con­sciousness.

Shanon seems to identify temporality as the distinguishing criterion between regular and non-regular consciousness. I’m not sure why this should necessarily be, or why there would only be two states as opposed to many, or a continuum. Most of us have experienced “bullet time,” the slowing down of perceived time when in some sort of crisis situation (I’ve experienced it in auto accident close-calls), and that seems to fall somewhere in between the two poles. But he’s the one who has taken ayahuasca a hundred times, so if his personal experience strongly suggests that there are just two modes, that’s a point to consider.

Spiritual Experience

People hypothesize some sort of “God module” in the brain that produces mystical experiences. This seems plausible to a point, but isolating a native spiritual aspect to the ayahuasca proceedings is very difficult. These experiences are obviously heavily culturally conditioned and conditioned by empirical experience, both culturally-dependent and universal. Regardless, the spiritual/mystical aspect of ayahuasca is obviously very strong.

As for the general euphoria, well-being, and sense of peace, it seems to be in some ways a coping mechanism. The spiritual side of the experience may indeed constitute a cognitive aspect of this coping mechanism:

I learn to use dissociation as an advantage[,] as a way of escaping from the horror. I am not the person got at; rather I am the disembodied face-presence calmly peering in and watching this other and unimportant me. I watch my other self, safely now. But then this second me, this objective and detached observer, succumbs too, and I have to dissociate into a third and then a fourth as the relation between my-selves breaks, creating an almost infinite series of fluttering mirrors of watching selves and feeling others.

But at this level of complexity and abstraction, comfort is far from the only thing produced. I don’t have a lot of clear thoughts about these aspects of the visions, as they seem the hardest to pin down and describe. I quote these two experiences of Shanon’s more for their vivid portrayals rather than for any philosophical insight I was able to derive from them.

First, a vision that is perhaps an allegory of ayahuasca itself:

I found myself engulfed in infinite blue. [Later I referred to it as ‘the blue place’.] There were beings there. I did not see them but I had communication with them. They offered to reveal the mysteries of the universe to me. There was no question about it, they were benevolent and their offer was genuine and sincere. However, there was a condition involved with it—a payment on my part was to be made. I had to relinquish any further contact with this world. In other words, I would never return. I opened my eyes and I looked around. I saw my living room, my piano, my friend who was supposed to watch over me but who was tucked up in the large armchair sound asleep. I thought of my family and friends, my teaching and writing. I looked through the large window and saw the trees outside. I thought of my sanity. No, I did not want to lose all these! Nor, I reflected, did I wish to lose my regular self, the way I am, the way I think and feel. I sat up straight and spontaneously got my hands moving and energetically slapped my lap. Again and again I slapped so as to break myself free from the spell. Thus, I had forsaken the opportunity to learn the mysteries of the universe.

Afterwards I regretted my decision. Later, I reflected a lot on this episode and have drawn many lessons from it. I shall not dwell further on them here.

Second, a vision about the last king of Judaea, Zedekiah, which Shanon cites as being one of the most significant he ever had:

King Zedekiah was chained and unable to move. He was positioned in front of a large furnace. The fire was ablaze and one by one his sons were consigned to the flames. Then his eyes were plucked out. I was standing on the side, witnessing the scene. What could poor Zedekiah do? He could not help his children and could do nothing to change their awful lot. He could neither resist nor fight. He could, of course, curse and blaspheme but that would have done him no good. The only thing that he could do, really, was praise the Lord. This, I saw, is what he did. The blind man who had just lost both his kingdom and his sons was singing a great Hallelujah. With this, he was both gaining strength to go on living and maintaining his dignity. And as he was singing he also understood. Powerful as the Babylonian tyrant was, he was just a player in a play that was of a still much larger scope. For Nebuchadnezzar was not at the top of the pyramid—still above was the creator of the universe and the ruler of the world. Nebuchadnezzar was playing a role allotted to him and one day his fate too was sure to come.

There is one other, more abstract spiritual experience that Shanon describes many people as having had under ayahuasca, involving visual webs:

Many times, invariably towards the end of sessions and when I was stepping outside into the natural surroundings, there were lines and webs of light that interlaced everything. In time I came to learn that this experience is very common. Indeed, of the many people I have interviewed, only very few have not seen these patterns.

Even more common are visions that reveal what is felt to be the anima mundi—the cosmic energy that permeates all Existence and sustains everything that is. As noted in earlier chapters, this is often associated with the seeing of webs of translucent fibres that embrace the whole of Existence.

Personally, I have come to ideas of the kind just noted in conjunction with seeing the ‘web’ I described in Chs. 5 and 8, that is, a matrix of translucent strings that seem to tie everything together. I have experienced this many times and have heard of the same experience from many of my informants. The description of the visual effect was invariably the same and many persons used the identical phrase—’a web’—to describe it. For instance, one of the independent drinkers told me that the most important teaching she has received from Ayahuasca was the appreciation that the Divine does indeed exist. Asking her how she had arrived at this conclusion she answered by presenting a description of the tran­slucent web that interlinks everything and sustains all existence.

These three passages were striking to me because I’ve had something like this experience twice, years apart, both times fully sober. I was asleep on both occasions, but the force of the experience woke me up. I immediately associated the webs with the Heraclitan logos, but obviously that’s pretty close to the other descriptions Shanon gives.

Upon waking, the “vision” was nothing more than a very strong visual conception of webs in my head; there was no hallucination. But it was also accompanied by an ongoing, immense, unique feeling of ebullience and well-being that I have only experienced on those occasions. I was possessed by the overwhelming, reassuring, and no doubt irrational conviction that the universe as a whole made sense. It was a very visceral experience, unlike any other dream I have ever had or any other state I have ever been in, and bereft of concrete content.

I think of these experiences as having invoked a particular piece of neurological machinery different from those in normal use. I wouldn’t mind invoking it again, but I’m not about to drink ayahuasca to get there.

Conclusions

Shanon’s ultimate methodological conclusion in The Antipodes of the Mind seems to be a plea for a psychological functionalism:

But then, if explanation in psychology consists not in the modelling of mind by means of underlying computational operations, what else can it be? The answer I have come up with is that what is left for the psychologist to do is the systematic study of the surface, so to speak, and the establishment of lawful regularities in it. This is tantamount to saying that for me, the domain of the psychological coincides with that of conscious experience. In this domain, the unconscious does not exist. Like William James (1890/1950), I maintain that mental activities and processes are conscious, and they cannot be achieved outside of consciousness. It is in the light of this fundamental theoretical conclusion that I try to understand the Ayahuasca experience.

I agree with this recommendation wholeheartedly, yet it may come as a bit of a disappointment after his explorations of the inner. Alas, reality can be disappointing. Since whatever internal percepts we have must always be translated into the public language and tested against the collective rationality which we share, we are indeed stuck with the world as most of us perceive it. Any possible uplift will have to be collective. At that point, it won’t even seem that special since by definition it will have become ordinary.

Shanon postulates that the states ayahuasca creates are related to fundamental aspects of consciousness not normally in use:

Thus, significantly, the new types of consciousness discovered with Ayahuasca are not just two new types. Rather, they integrate coherently into the system of consciousness that I have constructed independently on the basis of the phenom­enological inspection of ordinary consciousness. The Ayahuasca experience also introduces one new distinction into the system, namely, mental contents of which the cognitive agent is directly aware but which are experienced as being independ­ent of his or her own mental processes. However, the extension pertaining to nonordinary consciousness does not alter the system of consciousness as such.

Any such construction seems highly speculative to me and requires actual neurological explanation in order to see if the model is tenable. What is notable is the ability to bring on an “egoless” or “agentless” state, one in which the division between self and world is greatly corrupted. Evolutionarily speaking, this function seems maladaptive  on the surface.

Yet I could also believe that conviction of purposefulness, at-home-ness, universal empathy, and integration with the world could be a great booster to a sentient organism. If so, it’s rather ironic that such a condition requires entering a mental and physical state in which one is rendered nearly nonfunctional and completely vulnerable. But in that it’s not so different from many of the best moments in life.

Freud and Nude Psychotherapy for Criminal Psychopaths

One more addendum to the question of Freud and science. The gravest deployment of psychoanalytic theory was in psychopathology, and it’s here that I have the greatest trouble with Freud’s influence. Now, the history of the treatment of the severely mentally ill, in asylums and otherwise, has been generally dismal, and so it is hard to credit Freud with making things any worse on that front. Perhaps he even made them better, and to be sure Freud avoided the area himself, probably figuring it (correctly) to be a minefield. But as psychoanalysis grew, some of his followers were not so hesitant, and the application of psychoanalysis in psychopathology yielded some disturbing results.

There are no shortage of examples, but Oak Ridge recently came to my attention. As Jon Ronson tells it in The Psychopath Test:

Dr. Elliott Barker successfully sought permission from the Canadian government to obtain a large batch of LSD from a government-sanctioned lab, Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto. He handpicked a group of psychopaths (“They have been selected on the basis of verbal ability and most are relatively young and intelligent offenders between seventeen and twenty-five,” he explained in the October 1968 issue of the Canadian Journal of Corrections ); led them into what he named the Total Encounter Capsule, a small room painted bright green; and asked them to remove their clothes. This was truly to be a radical milestone: the world’s first-ever marathon nude psychotherapy session for criminal psychopaths.

Elliott’s raw, naked, LSD-fueled sessions lasted for epic eleven-day stretches. The psychopaths spent every waking moment journeying to their darkest corners in an attempt to get better. There were no distractions—no television, no clothes, no clocks, no calendars, only a perpetual discussion (at least one hundred hours every week) of their feelings. When they got hungry, they sucked food through straws that protruded through the walls. The patients were encouraged to go to their rawest emotional places by screaming and clawing at the walls and confessing fantasies of forbidden sexual longing for one another even if they were, in the words of an internal Oak Ridge report of the time, “in a state of arousal while doing so.”

Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test

Ronson’s book is unfortunately scattershot and unfocused, mostly good for anecdotal pointers. Richard Weisman wrote a far more detailed reflection on the Oak Ridge experiments. In either version, Barker  and Gary Maier and other empathetic psychiatrists display jawdropping irresponsibility..

Granted, this does not seem any worse than what one can read about in Foucault or, more vividly, in the horrific chronicles given by Erving Goffman in his amazing book Asylums and shown by Frederick Wiseman in Titticut Follies. (“Titicut Follies portrays the existence of occupants of Bridgewater, some of them catatonic, holed up in unlit cells, only periodically washed down with a hose and taken out in order to receive force feeding. It also portrays the indifference and bullying on the part of the institution’s staff.”) Humane treatment is a very recent invention and still practiced inconsistently.

If anything, Freud may have helped push forward increasingly humane treatment of the severely mentally ill, as manifested in Barker’s good intentions. But this does not excuse the rampant irresponsibility that was at hand at Oak Ridge, and Barker’s genial enthusiasm (he quotes Buber in “The Hundred-Day Hate-in”!) is in some ways even more frightening than the disdain, malice, and indifference that was historically the rule. The casual certainty that their mental model, derived primarily from psychoanalytic theory, would produce productive results is borne out of the same pool of certainty from which Freud drew capaciously.

Ronson gets one of his most disturbing quotes from one of the Capsule members named Steve Smith:

“I remember Elliott Barker coming into my cell,” Steve told me. “He was charming, soothing. He put his arm around my shoulder. He called me Steve. It was the first time anyone had used my first name in there. He asked me if I thought I was mentally ill. I said I thought I wasn’t. ‘Well, I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘I think you are a very slick psychopath. I want you to know that there are people just like you in here who have been locked up more than twenty years. But we have a program here that can help you get over your illness.’ So there I was, only eighteen at the time, I’d stolen a car so I wasn’t exactly the criminal of the century, locked in a padded room for eleven days with a bunch of psychopaths, the lot of us high on scopolamine [a type of hallucinogenic] and they were all staring at me.”

I obviously cannot lay the full responsibility for Barker’s behavior or psychoanalysis’s influence on psychopathological treatment at Freud’s feet. Yet I cannot fully excuse it either. Freud’s model of the psyche became instrumentalized as an well-meaning institutional cudgel, and it could only have done so had it claimed such a scientific authority for itself.

Regarding that authority, George Makari (an avowed psychoanalyst himself) writes of the fight between Melanie Klein and Anna Freud’s psychoanalytic factions in England in 1942:

A talented member of Melanie Klein’s group named Donald Winnicott protested that Freud would never have wanted to “limit our search for truth.” He too asked the society to adopt language that put the aim of the group as the furthering of “the psychoanalytical branch of science founded by Freud.”

The Kleinians had taken the high ground of science, despite the fact that their leader had been accused of dramatically departing from basic scientific principles. Like the old Freudians, the Kleinians had become defenders of an empirically unknowable belief regarding unconscious mental life. Nonetheless, the Kleinians draped themselves in the principles of free inquiry. Like others before them, they seemed to want the freedom of scientific pursuit without accepting the responsibilities that came with it.

George Makari, Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis

It is a hubris seen very frequently.

Alasdair MacIntyre on Freud: A More-than-Scientific Unification of Concepts

As a follow-up to Ernest Gellner’s attack on psychoanalysis, here is Alasdair MacIntyre with a more charitable critique of Freud.

Up until the time of After Virtue (still a fascinating book), MacIntyre was a fairly keen observer of ethics and social philosophy, as well as an enviably clear writer. I suppose he still is, but since the time of his conversion to Catholicism in the 1980s, his increasing focus on religion and increasingly tendentious positions have had much less to offer me.

But here he is on Freud, speaking like Gellner (but more sympathetically) of how Freud threaded the needle of modernity:

Psychoanalysis need not become the self-enclosed system which it so often is. But how do we avoid this?

Part of the answer is surely obtained by considerting the strain within Freud’s own writings between observation and explanation, between the material he amasses and the theoretical forms into which he cast his presentation of the material. The comparison with Newton misled not only his expositors but Freud himself. What Freud showed us were hitherto unnoticed facts, hitherto unrevealed motives, hitherto unrelated facets of our life. And in doing so his achievement broke all preconceived conceptual schemes–including his own. As a discoverer he perhaps resembles a Prsout or a Tolstoy rather than a Dalton or a  Pasteur. We could have learnt this from reading Freud himself; but the division among his heirs also reveals the fact clearly.

Yet both sets of heirs are legitimate. The sterility and perversity are as Freudian as the perceptive fertility of a Bettelheim or an Erikson. Freud, too, was a victim of the need to explain, of the need to be a Newton. The paradox of the history of psychoanalysis is that it is those analysts most intent on presenting their subject as a theoretical science who have transformed it into a religion, those most concerned with actual religious phenomena, such as Bettelheim and Erikson, who have preserved it as science. The achievement of Bettelheim and Erikson has been to extend our subjection to the phenomena themselves. But in so doing they have not diminished but increased its complexity.

Alasdair MacIntyre, “Psychoanalysis: The Future of an Illusion?” in Against the Self-Images of the Age (1971)

Well, this may be too kind to Bettelheim anad even Erikson, but MacIntyre certainly presents the kernel of Freud’s theory of the unconscious in a theoretically compelling fashion, as well as the problems it means to address.

What problems are these? They are problems of self-knowledge, or rather of lack of self-knowledge, of the nature of desire, and of the relationship of both to our actions. One of Freud’s insights, and here he had been anticipated by both Plato and Augustine, was that these problems are inseparable, that there is no adequate solution to any of them that does not involve a solution to the others.

Alasdair MacIntyre, The Unconscious (1958)

His 1958 critique of the unconscious holds up quite well 50 years on. He gives this pithy summation of the lack of explanatory power Freud gives us, as well as the inevitability of that lack of explanatory power in any understanding of the human. (Here he is clearly alluding to the scientific explanation vs. human understanding dichotomy proposed by Dilthey).

My thesis then is that in so far as Freud uses the concept of the unconscious as an explanatory concept, he fails, if not to justify it, at least to make clear its justification. He gives us causal explanations, certainly; but these can and apparently must stand or fall on their own feet without reference to it. He has a legitimate concept of unconscious mental activity, certainly; but this he uses to describe behaviour, not to explain it. This thesis, that Freud’s genius is notable in his descriptive work is not of course original. G. E. Moore has told us how Wittgenstein advanced it in his lectures in 1931–3. But it is important to understand how much of Freud’s work it affects….

But the grounds on which we ought to be dubious of speaking of the collective unconscious are ones which ought to make us dubious about speaking of the unconscious at all, except perhaps as a piece of metaphysics, an attempt at a more-than-scientific unification of concepts.

This suggestion, that in speaking of ‘the’ unconscious, we have left science for metaphysics is one that should not surprise us. At the beginning we saw that the attraction of the concept was that it seemed to promise a general formula by means of which a theoretical unification might be achieved in the study of human behaviour. It is now time to ask whether such a unification is in fact possible. The model for this project is drawn from physics which as the most advanced of the sciences tends also to be taken as the type to which others should approximate. To explain what human beings are and do in terms of a general theory is no doubt in some sense possible: the neurophysiologists will one day give us their full account, which will itself be reducible to a set of chemical and finally of physical explanations.

But will such an account give us what we want? It will state all the necessary conditions of human behaviour, but it will mention nothing of the specifically human. For this we need a different kind of account, the kind of portrayal that the novelist rather than the scientist gives us. In other words to portray the specifically human as human, and not as nervous system plus muscles, or as chain molecules, or as fundamental particles, is not to explain at all. Or at least it is to explain as Proust explains or as Tolstoy explains. Freud was certainly a scientist: but to remember this is to expand one’s conception of science. For his chief virtue resided in his power to see and to write so that we can see too. Or can we? He sowed also this doubt in our minds.

Alasdair MacIntyre, The Unconscious

In short, we are speaking of a metaphor (and of literature in general) far more than we are of a science.

Christian Hawkey: Ventrakl

I wrote a review of this book, a sort of postmodern engagement with Austrian poet Georg Trakl, for the Poetry Project Newsletter. The issue hasn’t been posted online, and since it can be a bit difficult to get ahold of outside of the city, I figured I would post it here in the meantime. But first, Trakl’s most famous poem, “Grodek,” about his terrible experiences on the front in World War I:

Grodek

Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre,
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

At nightfall the autumn woods cry out
With deadly weapons, and the golden plains
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to the blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great pain feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandsons yet unborn.

(tr. Michael Hamburger)

It is apparently ambiguous whether Weidengrund is to mean “pastureland” or “willow-ground.” This poem was one of the last two that Trakl wrote before his suicide, and while there are signature stylistic tics (the colors, for one), it is far from representative.

On to the review:

______________

Georg Trakl was an Austrian poet who killed himself at 27. Born in 1887, he trained as a pharmacist and became a medical officer in the war. His ghastly experiences on the front lines while treating wounded soldiers caused a psychotic break in his already unstable personality, which led to his suicide not long after in 1914. Trakl’s experimentation with forms and his feverish imagery mark him as a modernist and expressionist, but the absence of psychology and his Dionysian mysticism mark him as a late Romantic, closer to Hölderlin than Rilke. His obsessive use of color, blue and purple especially, is a marker of a poetic language whose meanings can only be grasped obliquely. This aloofness, this immersion in 19th century poetics, challenges anyone to invade his mind.
Christian Hawkey intends to do just this. Ventrakl is a “scrapbook” of “collaborations” with Trakl. Its investigations into Trakl–Hawkey’s personal reflections, imagined interviews with Trakl, manipulated photographs, a biography of Trakl’s sister, and formal and aleatoric manipulations and translations of Trakl’s poems–confront Trakl’s work from multiple angles, usually indirectly rather than head-on. Such a potpourri is bound to be messy, something Hawkey advertises by terming Ventrakl a scrapbook. Yet the humility of that term is contradicted by the deliberate presumption of also calling the work “a collaboration,” underscoring Hawkey’s own ambivalence about engaging with such an elusive figure. Ambivalence and messiness, rather than an elegant falsity, is what is called for.

Hawkey rightly plays up the difficulties rather than obscuring them. The title page of each section in Ventrakl is marked with an obelus, the division symbol. Two individuals–two dots–separated by a literal line of division. There are many such figurative lines in Ventrakl: English/German, present/past, prose/poetry, reader/writer. The book stakes its success on the extent to which the identification of these lines reveals more than merely the failure to cross them. As Hawkey says of Trakl’s great war poem “Grodek”: “the words erasing the line between two worlds.”

Hawkey reveals some of his translation and transformation techniques in the introduction, but is cagey about how and where they have been applied. One of the clearest processes produces some of the most striking joins of past and present, a series of color poems (“Whitetrakl,” “Yellowtrakl,” etc.) that translate and assemble Trakl’s lines containing that color. The color is made to seem arbitrary, and yet the result is a bas-relief map of the color’s tenor in Trakl’s mind, presented in time-lapse.

black angel, who quietly slipped from a tree’s heart,

the black flight of birds always touches

the black dew, dripping from your temples, all roads flow into black decay . . .

Other poems are constructed via homophonic manipulation of the German texts, a technique memorably used by Louis and Celia Zukofsky in their translations of Catullus and David Melnick in his reappropriation of the Iliad. In Hawkey’s appropriation of “Nachtlied,” “Erstaart vor Bläue, ihrer Heiligkeit” becomes “For the blue of error-stars, heaven’s klieg light,” loosely but effectively evoking the efflorescence of the original. Later in the same poem, “nächtlichen” becomes “night-lichen” and “Spiegel der Wahrheit [mirror of truth]” becomes “speech’s warfare.”  It is some work to track down the originals, as Hawkey does not always give clear pointers to his sources, but a good many of his treatments become more evocative when viewed with the originals at hand. As I participated by delving through Trakl, I came to identify further with Hawkey’s position.

Other words and phrases recur throughout the poems, again pointing to a hidden web of connections behind the veil of a different language. “Reasons Why Orphans Wear Stillness-Mittens” picks up on that final word, already used in earlier poems in the book, and gives an ordered list of those reasons. It is strongly affecting, drawing on Hawkey’s ability to take these strange homophones and draw out their emotional juice. It is here he perhaps comes closest to achieving something of Trakl’s own foreboding presence, by way of creating distance from both Trakl and himself through the space between languages. The recurrent use of such words across poems reinforces the effect. A number of poems use the word “sternum,” linking the heart and chest to the stars (the German stern), a link that is a fitting metaphor for the book itself.

There is an inherent element of risk, however. In Hawkey’s idiolect, “Durch Wolken fährt ein goldner Karren” becomes “A duck fart woke the golden Karen,” in a coarse excursion into sub-Silliman space that even apologizes for itself: “how completely your mirror-language / Has failed.” It seems we must take the good with the bad, but it sits uneasily next to the talk of war and insanity elsewhere in the pages.

The prose excursions are more tentative, lacking the focused incandescence of the best poems in the book. The “interviews” with Trakl, in particular, strive for a self-consciously awkward engagement, but sometimes slide into a stilted preciousness. Yet there are still such gems as Hawkey’s thoughts on gazing at Trakl’s manically intense expression: “Your physician in the Krakow asylum reported that you often saw a man with a drawn knife standing behind your back. Even though your head faces forward, your gaze seems directed there, behind you.”

Taken as a whole, these problematic points still contribute to the book’s acutely Midrashian quality. Appropriation becomes a motif, with Hawkey noting his lifts from Spicer, David Cameron, the Zukofskys, and others. Nothing prevented him from adopting more novel techniques, as K. Silem Mohammad has done, for example, in his treatments of Shakespeare. But Hawkey chooses to emphasize Ventrakl’s lack of autonomy. The translations/deformations are littered with contemporary references both serious and trivial. The strangely po-faced introduction drops Bachelard, Heidegger, Agamben, Stein, and Benjamin in its first three pages, encasing the book in a theoretical carapace that stresses its dependency on contemporary poetic discourse. Trakl, in contrast, comes to seem increasingly universal in refusing to provide anything but the barest specifiers of time and place.

Weighed down by its declared lack of autonomy, the book appeals to Trakl as a source of unimpeachable authenticity, only to be overwhelmed by the concept of that authenticity and the inability to contain it across language, time, and place. It throws up beautiful but uncanny images, only to be unable to claim them as its own. (Here the word “collaboration” starts to seem more sinister.) When it now seems depressingly obligatory to cite Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” in any meditation on translation, as Hawkey indeed does, how can a writer and reader escape the theoretical baggage and speak of poetry and war? Ventrakl does not give an answer, but tenaciously refuses to admit success or surrender. It is an ouroboros looking to let go of its tail.

________________

One last note: I really would endorse an embargo on the use of Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of a Translator” when discussing translation. It has become too ubiquitous and its Romantic notion of translation as a gnostic, transcendent impossibility doesn’t strike me as helpful. His idea of “pure language” simply seems wrong-headed. I had real problems with Adam Thirlwell’s book on translation, The Delighted States, but I think he had the right idea in going with Borges’ more elastic and pragmatic conceptions of translation.

The perfect page, the page in which no word can be altered without harm, is the most precarious of all. Changes in language erase shades of meaning, and the “perfect” page is precisely the one that consists of those delicate fringes that are so easily worn away. On the contrary, the page that becomes immortal can traverse the fire of typographical errors, approximate translations, and inattentive or erroneous readings without losing its soul in the process. One cannot with impunity alter any line fabricated by Góngora (according to those who restore his texts), but Don Quixote wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version.

Borges, “The Superstitious Ethics of the Reader”

Nietzsche on the Passions

In detail,  the  following must  be distinguished:

1.  the  dominating  passion,  which  even  brings  with  it  the supremest  form  of  health;  here  the  co-ordination  of  the  inner systems  and  their  operation  in  the  service  of  one  end  is  best achieved-but this  is  almost  the  definition  of health!

2.  the  antagonism  of  the  passions;  two,  three,  a  multiplicity of  “souls  in  one  breast”: very  unhealthy,  inner  ruin,  disintegration,  betraying and  increasing and  inner conflict  and  anarchism -unless one  passion  at  last  becomes master.  Return  to  health-

3.  juxtaposition  without  antagonism  or  collaboration:  often periodic,  and  then,  as  soon  as  an  order  has  been  established,  also healthy.  The  most  interesting  men,  the  chameleons,  belong  here; they  are  not  in  contradiction with  themselves,  they  are  happy  and secure,  but  they  do  not  develop—their  differing  states  lie  juxtaposed,  even  if  they  are  separated  sevenfold.  They  change,  they do  not  become.

Will To Power 778

#1 is Nietzsche’s old saw about how to be maximally awesome, and so not terribly interesting. #2 is a variation on his critique of modern mentality, phrased especially well (with a Goethe quote). But #3 is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, sort of a mercurial Rameau’s Nephew type without the psychology or self-awareness. They aren’t really chameleons though, are they? Just naturally prodigal or adaptable? (It depends on when and where the states show themselves.)

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