Waggish

David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: religion (page 1 of 2)

Inga Clendinnen: Ambivalent Conquests

The great anthropologist Inga Clendinnen recently passed away. I had greatly enjoyed her speculative yet rigorous The Aztecs: An Interpretation, which was an audacious attempt to get inside the social and ritual processes of the Mexica (Clendinnen’s preferred and more accurate term for those commonly called the Aztecs) around the time of the 16th century. Clendinnen has both a verbal and moral clarity and restraint that is rare among writers of any sort and certainly among social scientists, and I think this was also reflected in the work she did advocating for Aboriginal rights in her native Australia.

Despite the dry title, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570 is a more dramatic and linear book than The Aztecs.  The book centers on the conflict between three Spaniards over colonialist approaches to the Maya in the Yucatan Peninsula, which Clendinnen reconstructs from the memoirs, letters, and other documents of the time. The tale of forced conversion, colonial power struggles, and mass torture is ghastly, but Clendinnen works carefully to contextualize these horrors in such a way that the shifting and conflicting rationales of the Spaniards do not get lost.

What does get lost is the Maya side of the story, which Clendinnen depicts as best she can in the second half of the book. But without any firsthand or even secondhand personal accounts, the overwhelming sense is of a history lost to us forever, and of peoples that can only be seen through the massive distortions of unreliable and uninformed accounts. The tragedy of that loss is palpable. Only one Maya figure, the great resistance leader Nachi Cocom, emerges as an individual, and even then only hazily.

Clendinnen begins with a quote giving one account of the mysterious name “Yucatan”:

When the Spaniards discovered this land, their leader asked the Indians how it was called; as they did not understand him, they said uic athan, which means, what do you say or what do you speak, that we do not understand you. And then the Spaniard ordered it set down that it be called Yucatan….

Antonio de Ciudad Real, 1588

This is not the only origin story of the word and not even the most likely, but it suits the story quite well, and echoes the now-disproven account of Captain Cook thinking of “kangaroo” as an animal when it really meant “I don’t know.” (The Guugu Yimithirr word is gangurru.) These Whorfian tales of linguistic relativism hold a real grip on us for neatly representing more diffuse cultural incomprehensions, and Whorfian modesty can sometimes become its own kind of arrogance, as with the case of Marshall Sahlins, or the Marxist Art & Language collective:

Clendinnen’s account doesn’t depend on theoretical relativism, however, but a very palpable and human fallibility, fueled not by ignorance per se, but by pre-conceived ideas, particularly around religion. For all that colonialism plays into this story, it is the Catholic religion and its doctrine that proves to be the largest shaping force on the three primary figures. Clendinnen’s three figures are the fanatical Franciscan Diego de Landa, hapless mayor Diego Quijada, and the humane, tormented bishop Francisco de Toral. Of these, Landa stands tallest, an overwhelming and terrifying figure of religious conviction and radiance. The Franciscans, an ascetic order ideally suited to colonizing and converting the less lucrative portions of the New World (as Yucatan was), were already a zealous order, aggressively converting the Maya to Christianity “within a context of coercion,” as Clendinnen puts it. Landa was a fanatic even among fanatics, pursuing even small offenses to their end whatever the price, and unafraid to invoke worldly and heavenly authorities alike to make his case. His conviction that he was doing good was so strong it was even able to captivate natives.

Diego de Landa

Diego de Landa

 

Landa’s zeal led him to learn the Mayan language perfectly, and it appears that his conviction of beatitude was able to win over many Mayans, who did not perceive that he would comfortably employ both love and torture as implements to the end of conversion. He somehow managed to befriend Sotuta chief Nachi Cocom, who had long been leading resistance against the Spaniards. Here Clendinnen portrays the two sides of Landa’s insidious personality, which allowed him to gain the trust of the Maya and access to their inner circles for the express purpose of destroying the larger share of their culture and replacing it with that of Christianity.

The intimacy of [Landa’]s descriptions – recipes favoured by the women, the antics of pet animals, the handling of babies and toddlers – imply an acceptance of the young friar into the huts and house-yards of the Maya with an easiness which goes well beyond mere nervous tolerance. He was to penetrate an even more closed zone with his admission into the society and at least some of the secrets of the elders. They trusted him enough to lament the decline in the chastity of their women from the days ‘before they became acquainted with [the Spanish] nation’.

Even more remarkably, he was shown some of the sacred writings preserved in the folding deerskin ‘books’ which were the jealously guarded, secret and exclusive possessions of the ruling lineages of each province. With Nachi Cocom, head chief of Sotuta and for so long a wily and implacable enemy of the Spaniards, he had an especially warm relationship. Landa described him as ‘a man of great reputation, learned in their affairs, and of remarkable discernment and well acquainted with native matters’ who was ‘very intimate with the author’. He recorded that Cocom ‘showed him a book which had belonged to his grandfather, a son of the Cocom who had been killed at Mayapan’. There can be no doubt that this was indeed one of the sacred and secret books of the Cocom lineage, recording its history and its prophecies. The revelation of that treasure – especially to a Spanish outsider – can only be explained as the expression of a confidence and attraction so powerful as to override traditional prescriptions and even conventional caution.

Some years after being shown these sacred books, Landa, in his official capacity and in company with his fellow Franciscans, was to burn as many of them as he could discover, together with any other sacred objects which came into his hands, precisely because they were so cherished. As he recalled in his Relación:

These people also make use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these and by drawings and by certain signs in these drawings they understood their affairs and made others understand and taught them. We found a large number of these books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.

For the early period of his solitary wanderings, eager as he was to reveal the mysteries of his own faith, and clearly distinguishable in dress and behaviour from the Spanish soldiery the Maya had previously encountered, he had probably been identified by the custodians of Maya religion and learning as a fellow expert in those high matters. Committed to the patient accumulation of knowledge from whatever source, they can have had no notion of the exclusivist zeal which both fuelled Landa’s curiosity, and empowered him to abrogate it so decisively.

Landa became increasingly draconian whenever signs indicated that conversions and practices might not be wholly sincere, or worse, that some pagan practices might be persisting in secret. To this end he employed Inquisition methods of torture to extract confessions, hellbent on purging the impurities of his community. Clendinnen gives numbers of over 4,500 tortured and 158 dead.

Although Landa labelled it an episcopal inquisition, the enquiry bore little resemblance to established inquisitorial forms. In Bishop Zumarraga’s inquisition into Indian idolatries in Mexico between 1536 and 1543 procedures had been carefully prescribed and as carefully adhered to, and where torture was employed it was narrowly regulated. Spanish law recognised the danger of that weapon in the hands of a baffled or frustrated interrogator. In Yucatan records of interrogations were rarely kept, only sentences being routinely recorded. The penalties imposed – floggings, heavy fines, and periods of forced labour of up to ten years’ duration, and these only on lesser offenders – were well in excess of the limits laid down by the Mexican ecclesiastical council of 1555. The unashamed violence of the Franciscan inquisition is at once the best evidence for the political domination they had achieved in the peninsula, their anger at Indian betrayal, and their sense of the desperate urgency of the situation. Landa was later to justify his disregard of legal formalities on the grounds that:

all [the Indians] being idolaters and guilty, it was not possible to proceed strictly juridically against them … because if we had proceeded with all according to the order of the law, it would be impossible to finish with the province of Mani alone in twenty years, and meanwhile they would all become idolaters and go to hell …

That final line gives a sense of Landa’s desperate and fanatical sense of urgency, driven by the conviction that all around him would suffer eternal damnation if pagan practices were not weeded out. In such passages one obtains an idea of how terrifying Landa must have been. He was determined to save you, no matter what the cost. Clendinnen reads his memoirs with a searching eye, as he describes the penis laceration and animal and human sacrifice ceremonies of the Maya and how such rituals had convinced him that “only through punishment could such a people be improved.” Landa’s disgust with human sacrifice is clear, yet Clendinnen finds that “nowhere in the text [of his memoirs] as we have it is there any unequivocal indication that Maya Indians after accepting baptism had reverted to the practice of human sacrifice,” in spite of torture-induced confessions at the time presenting many accounts of such. Had Landa come to doubt the veracity of those accounts? He certainly had had none at the time, when his position and self-worth both depended on the righteousness of his cause and his ability to convince others of such.

There is nothing to indicate that Landa had any conscious doubt as to the truth of the confessions his probings had extracted from the Indians. Such cynicism is incompatible with all we know of his lofty and passionate spirit. He had known, and had known with complete certainty, the ‘truth’: the Indians were idolators, blasphemers and murderers. It had been his task and his duty to lay bare that truth. But he also knew that in performing that task he had been forced into moulding the evidence of their iniquities. He had pointed to mountains of idols as proof of the Indians’ idolatry: he knew that some of those ‘idols’ were not idols at all, but odd fragments and shards collected from abandoned sites by desperate men. He had claimed that the tortures were mild, a matter of ‘some vexation only’, but he had lived through those days of blood and anguish, and he knew that the confessions had been wrung from men in the extremes of physical agony. He had presented the confessions as true accounts, but he knew their confusions and contradictions, and what sustained pressure it had taken to get even a limited measure of coherence. Perhaps some individuals were not guilty of every charge laid against them, perhaps the ah-kines had not said precisely what witnesses had sworn they had said, but these considerations were trivial, and could not be allowed to impede him, for he knew children had died, God had been mocked, and that the Indians had betrayed him.

Landa was right, of course; the conversions were, if not insincere, certainly superficial–how could they not be under the circumstances, given that the natives recited their liturgies phonetically with no knowledge of their meaning, and that religious ceremony was taught to them shorn of most of its context? Yet Landa’s zeal interpreted this unsurprising consequence as the highest betrayal: “I save you from eternal damnation, and this is the thanks you give me?”

Mayor Diego Quijada was more or less powerless to change Landa’s course. Soon after his arrival, he wrote to the Crown about just how frightened he was of Landa:

There is in this province a friar called Fray Diego de Landa who, because I have taken this matter up, bears me ill will: he enjoys broils and having a finger in every pie, and he expects to rule in both spiritual and temporal matters. He is a choleric man, and I am afraid he will write to Your Majesty’s Council to my injury: I wish Your Majesty to understand that he has always been inflamed against those who have governed here, as he is against me … may Your Majesty never believe that I harbour ill will against him or any other man of religion, for they I support to the limit of my strength, for in their hands lies the Christian welfare of the Indians, and without them, all is in vain.

A compromising bureaucrat by nature, as well as one terrified of the Church, Quijada eventually buckled to all of Landa’s wishes. Initially trying to stem the power of the Franciscans, Quijada lost any leverage when Quijada threatened to denounce him to the viceroy. Landa then brought Quijada in as his loyal lieutenant, ordering him to torture the Maya on the government’s authority rather than the Church’s. Quiijada obliged.

There is no mention of the other Franciscans taking issue with Landa’s program. They were his men. But the settlers were perplexed and increasingly distressed by the sheer level of violence and coercion taking place around them, and the increasing likelihood of an all-out native revolt against the Spanish. Yet Landa was utterly intransigent and Quijada helpless.

Into this tense situation came Bishop Francisco de Toral, a well-regarded and fundamentally reformist Franciscan. Hardly radical, his main philosophical difference with Landa seems to have been the realization that natives would not immediately see the light and come to Jesus. For whatever reason, Toral very quickly sided against Landa and his portrayal of the natives as monstrous pagans. Toral immediately banned the practice of torture (to Landa’s objections), viewed the confessions with skepticism (to Landa’s objections), and took the colonists’ recommendation to end Landa’s investigation (to Landa’s extreme objections). Clendinnen suggests that Toral’s decision was made primarily on his judgment that Landa was a dangerous fanatic, and that he was manifestly incompetent in his position. Landa did little to contest Toral’s view, immediately marshaling all of his connections to try to discredit and expel Toral from the community. The two engaged in complicated political chess, which Clendinnen chronicles grippingly.

Francisco de Toral

Francisco de Toral

 

Toral came to view the confessions as pure fictions, and that the torture victims had all given the same explanation for them:

they had been speaking the truth honestly before the fathers and because when they did not believe them they ordered them hoisted for the torture, they had decided and agreed among themselves that all should speak of deaths and sacrifices lyingly, as soon as they were asked about it, counselling one another and understanding that by this method they would escape the said torments and prison. And that many of those who went to make their confession came back to the prison they had left and told their imprisoned companions how they had told of many deaths and sacrifices … and that they should do the same …

But Clendinnen criticizes Toral for falling into a tendentious view of the natives just as Landa had done. Where Landa had judged them as sinning pagans, Toral, consumed by historical guilt, paternalistically came to see them as innocent victims, holy children:

Within the passage of time he became increasingly, obsessively concerned with the events of 1562. The local Franciscans had not been really ‘Franciscan’ at all, but men ‘of few letters and less charity’, lacking proper training and proper discipline. And they had suffered because of defective, indeed, criminal, leadership. Toral never wavered in his conviction of Landa’s central culpability, or that Landa’s actions had been motivated by those all-too-familiar sins Franciscans had so long struggled against: pride, cruelty, anger, and the passion to dominate.

His attitude to the Indians went through a slow transformation as his social and psychological isolation increased; as he endlessly rehearsed the injustices inflicted on them. In 1562 and 1563 he had believed the Indians to have been brutally abused by the friars, but he also believed them to have been guilty of idolatries, for which he had penanced them. By March 1564 he had transformed them into pure victims, whose idols had lain buried and forgotten until the friars unleashed their murderous rage. These poor victimised creatures were as forgiving as they were innocent:

the best people I have seen in the Indies, very simple, even more obedient, charitable, free of vices, so that even in their paganism they did not eat human flesh or practice the abominable sin [sodomy], friends of the doctrine and of its ministers even though they have killed their fathers, brothers and kinsmen, and taken their goods and put sanbenitos on them and enslaved them etc., they love them and come to them and built their monasteries and give them food and hear their masses, without reference to things past … even though when I arrived here they fled from the friars, and even though when they knew a [single] friar was going to the village everyone absented themselves from it and ran off to the bush to hide, and others hanged themselves from fear of the friars, saying they did not want to fall into their hands because they were without pity, and recommending themselves to God the poor miserable ones hanged themselves, pitiable as that is to say and to hear.

So Toral constructed the intelligibility of ‘history’ out of the confusion of experience, making unambiguous shapes out of the threatening ambiguities of Franciscians who did not act as Franciscans; of Indians who were tormented victims and yet who also worshipped idols.

Clendinnen is drawing an epistemological equivalence, not a moral one. (I initially felt her to be overly harsh on Toral.) Both Landa and Toral created reductive pictures of the natives that obscured the truth rather than aid in revealing it.

Historians, particularly those of a somewhat rightist bent, have tended to treat the confessions obtained by Landa as legitimate. While not ruling out the possibility of some ongoing sacrifices, Clendinnen concludes that the confessions were generally inflated when they weren’t concocted. She gives several ingenious piece of forensic analysis for her view, of which this is the most impressive:

if each piece of information in each confession is tabulated – a tedious process, although made easier by the formulaic sequence of questions put by the interrogator – an intriguing pattern is revealed. (Here the analysis depends on sequence, and assumes the testimonies to have been taken in the order in which we have them, but internal evidence supports that assumption.) To take the confessions of Indians from Sotuta village recorded on the first day of the enquiry: what we find is a high degree of concordance between the first and third confessions, and between the second and the fourth – although the fourth also incorporates some fragments from the first and the third confessions. This pattern is completely compatible with the Indians’ claim that each witness when returned to the gaol strove to recollect what he had said, which material was discussed by the others, but which could not benefit the next Indian taken immediately for the recording of his confession. Again, in the Usil testimonies we find the same pool of names of victims being drawn on by different witnesses, although ascribed to different sacrifices, while the last witness from Tibolon drew on the names provided by the witness questioned before him, but distributed them differently.

In other words, desperate to extract themselves from the ongoing torture regiment, the imprisoned Maya schemed to give the interrogators what they wanted.

Clendinnen does not mince words about what Maya sacrifices entailed. She recounts the one extant description of such a ritual with an accompanying warrior chant:

A noble war captive, naked and painted blue, the colour of the sacred, was brought with procession and dance to an open space, and tied to a column. An ah-kin then wounded him in the genital area, so that the genital blood began to flow – as it did in the many penis-laceration rituals of the Maya – while circling, dancing warriors shot arrows at him in controlled sequence. Landa claims they aimed for the heart, implying a test of markmanship, ‘to make his chest one point like a hedgehog of arrows’, but the chant suggests rather different actions and intention:

make three fast turns
around the column of painted stone
there where the virile youth, unstained, undefiled, a man, is bound.
Make the first, and on the second turn
take up your bow, fit the arrow to the string.
Aim at his breast. It is not necessary
to use all your force
when you let fly, so that his flesh
will not be too deeply wounded.
Let him suffer little by little

The victim will not only suffer. He will bleed. The intention was not to kill, but to wound delicately, to pierce the skin and flesh so that the blood springs forth. It is likely the Maya understood the whole action not so much as the offering of a human ‘life’, but as the presentation of a noble spectacle; of a substance of great fertilising power, as blood, especially genital blood, was understood to be.

For Landa, such practices demanded salvation for their practitioners by any means necessary, and had no meaning beyond the huge marker of “sin.” For Toral, they were irrelevancies next to the injustices perpetrated on the entire people of this culture.

Mayan human sacrifice

Mayan human sacrifice

 

The Maya had historically tortured their own captives as well, though for ritualistic reasons rather than as a tool for extracting confessions. In the Mayan world, defeated warriors were dehumanized, enslaved, or sometimes sacrificed. I don’t intend to go down the rabbit hole of passing moral judgment on Mayan culture. Any society foreign to our own is likely to have beliefs and rituals which we will find repugnant or even outright evil. Certainly both that of the Franciscans and the Maya possessed them. The ongoing question of where one draws the line of judgment is likely never to be resolved, but Clendinnen deserves great praise for exercising a great deal of perspective and restraint in her chronicle, presenting reasons rather than judgments. Her shaping no doubt evinces a desire to make clear the extent of the barbarous practices of the Franciscans and of Landa in particular, but every side is given space to give their case, even if some are baldly unconvincing. It seems many historians trust readers less to make such judgments these days, prescribing instead the proper views and reactions to the events they chronicle. But loud moralizing will not only look badly dated as views of what is proper evolve further, it also treats the readers as children, and we should not be surprised if people treated as children only know how to act like children. For me, I think that judgments about which society was “better” are meaningless, but also that it is Landa’s heritage, the heritage of the Spanish and the conquered, that won out and which helped birth society as we know it today. It is the one which merits closest examination for what dangers it may still pose, just as the Mayan heritage (what little we have of it) merits examination for the contrasts and commonalities it offers to us.

The Binding of Isaac and the Binding of Symbols

In The Stupidity of Computers, I discussed how computers require rigidly defined ontologies, which are then enforced on us. What happens in the collision between slippery life and a fixed ontology? Here is a case study. Here the fixed ontology is that of video games, and the “life” is the Christian religion.

The Binding of Isaac is an indie game by Edmund McMillen (art and design) and Florian Himsl (programming) about a boy, Isaac, with an insane fundamentalist Christian mother. When she hears the voice of God telling her to kill Isaac (as seen in the opening cutscene), Isaac flees into the basement and fights the terrible creatures therein, going deeper and deeper into the basement until confronting Mom herself (and, later in the game, Satan). You, as Isaac, shoot tears at the enemies to kill them. The enemies, which include all manner of biological horrors (fistulae, fetuses, pinworms, blastocysts, and lots of bugs), all try to kill you.

Bosses include Mom, Satan, Pin, Chub, Fistula, Blastocyst, the Blighted Ovum, Scolex, Loki, the Seven Deadly Sins, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (image c/o Binding of Isaac Wiki)

The game itself is firmly neo-classicist. It is a top-down 2D action game that will look familiar to people who played Legend of Zelda. The basic mechanics are the same: you control a character moving from room to room in a maze and killing enemies. There are multiple levels, with difficult bosses at the end of each level.  You pick up power-up items that increase your character’s skills in one way or another: speed, damage, health, etc. (Some items hurt you, some are a mixed bag.)

The game is extraordinarily difficult, requiring way more coordination and reflexes than I possess, and it is unforgiving: death sets you back to the beginning every time. But for the dextrous it is prodigious, and because of the randomly generated levels and a plethora of unlockable items, secrets, and endings, the game has picked up a well-deserved diehard following. While traditional, the game is far more elaborate and skillful than the norm–McMillen clearly has spent a great deal of time thinking about gameplay construction and balance. (McMillen did the similarly neo-classical Super Meat Boy, a punishing platformer requiring utterly precise split-second timing.)

But the story and the symbols are what concern me, and specifically the mapping of the game’s symbols to the game’s functional roles.

Courtesy of the Binding of Isaac Wiki, which has an exhaustive list of items, enemies, and everything else in the game, consider a few game items (that is to say, symbols) and their functional roles in the game :

ItemEffectInfo
Wire Coat Hanger

Wire Coat Hanger.png

Increases Tears by 2.

Found in the Boss Room.

Isaac gets a coat hanger through his head.
Wire Coat Hanger Isaac.jpg
Stem Cells

Stem Cells.png

+1 heart container. It also heals a half heart.Isaac Stem Cells.png

A fetus grows on the side of Isaac’s face.

Wooden Spoon

Wooden Spoon hq.png

Increases speed by 2.

Found in the Boss Room.

Spoon Isaac.jpg

Isaac has beat marks from a spoon.

These power-up items have perfectly traditional functions, making Isaac faster, giving him more health points, or increasing his tear firepower. What’s left for the player to infer is why the items have the functional effects they do. This knowledge is irrelevant to the game’s function but contributes to the underlying “story.” So the Wooden Spoon, as well as another item, the Belt, increase speed because Isaac was beaten and he runs from them. Stem cells are both anti-Christian and associated with health. The Wire Coat Hanger, a reminder of abortion, would make a good Christian boy cry.

(Sometime the notable inferences are not between symbol and functional role but between name and image. Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Dessert all increase health, but the item images are of dog food and spoiled milk.)

But some links are left vague or underdetermined. Why does the Wire Coat Hanger go through Isaac’s head after you pick it up? Maybe just for gross-out purposes, or maybe because Isaac’s mother wanted to abort him? Very little exposition is explicitly given in the brief story cut-scenes, leaving ambiguous the extent to which all these horrible things actually happened to Isaac.

Also, the symbolism does not seem to be especially organized: Judeo-Christianity is the dominant note, but bits and pieces appear from other mythologies such as an ankh, a tarot deck, Polyphemus, the Necronomicon, and many references to other games. In addition to Isaac, you can play as Judas, Cain, Eve, Magdalene, or Samson. (References to Jesus in the game, however, are exceedingly rare.) These characters are ultimately just Isaac’s alter ego, with Eve and Magdalene contributing to a strong implication that Isaac likes to cross-dress.

So the mappings from symbol to functional role are fairly piecemeal, constructed with an eye toward gameplay rather than a perfectly coherent story per se. For example, Isaac is able to use “holy” and “Satanic” items alike and in combination with little incident:

ItemEffectInfo
The Bible

The Bible.png

Transforms the player into an angel, allowing him or her to fly over obstacles for the current room only.

Isaac Fate.png

Instantly kills Mom, Mom’s Heart, and It Lives.

Satan or Isaac will instantly kill you for using it, even after death (unless you have The Wafer).

The Book Of Belial

Bookofbelial.png

Doubles damage until you exit the room, just like The Devil tarot card. It also gives Isaac an angry face with empty eye sockets with blood running down his face until he exits the room.

Belialisaac.jpg

Unlocked by beating the full game. Can rarely be found in secret rooms and the devil room. Judas starts the game with this item.
Rosary

Rosary.png

Increases Faith by adding 3 Soul Hearts and increases the chance for a Bible to appear in the subsequent levels of the playthrough.

Found in Item Room and Shop.

Rosary Isaac.jpg

Isaac has a cross amulet.

The Pact

Thepact.png

Increases Damage by 1 and rate of fire by 2. The player also gains 2 soul hearts.

If you have Transcendence when you pick up The Pact, you will have a body again, but with demon wings like the Lord of the Pit item grants.

Available by defeating ‘The Fallen‘ or traded in a Devil Room.

The Pact Isaac.jpg

Turns the player’s body black, gives him small horns, and makes him seem more aggressive.

While using the Bible on Satan (or the final final boss, who is Isaac him/yourself) will kill you, this is more the exception than the rule. I’m not sure to what extent it was intended that possessing the Wafer prevents you from dying if you use the Bible to fight Satan, or even what the symbolic import of it is. There are so many items that the interactions between them (such as Transcendence and The Pact, another baffling combination) were probably determined ad hoc, especially as many items were added in several updates after the game’s initial release.

I don’t mean to say that the symbolism is a meaningless mishmash. The story and content are deeply significant to McMillen: in an interview he discussed his oppressive born-again upbringing, as well as the disappointment he felt upon realizing that the entire world of the Bible was not real. The links between games and religion are very real to him: “I think Catholicism is quite interesting. It’s very close to D&D.”

But I’m not sure that aside from memorably grotesque dark humor, the specific symbol set has contributed that much to the game’s popularity. When you are dodging 15 enemies while shooting explosive projectiles at them, it doesn’t matter whether the enemies are spaceships or aborted fetuses, or whether the projectiles are missiles or your own vomit/tears/urine.

ItemEffectInfo
Number One

Shape3061.png

Sets the player’s tears to their maximum rate of fire and minimum range.

Combining Number One with Technology causes the fire rate to increase significantly and turns the beam yellow.

Bug: Collecting The Mark (and maybe other tear-changing items) before collecting Number One increases your rate of fire to max, but doesn’t decrease your range.

Number one!.jpg

Isaac stops crying and smiles while yellow colored projectiles (urine) come from his lower body rather than his face.

YellowTears.jpg

Ipecac

IPECAC1.png

Green projectiles fired from the mouth causing poison/explosive damage. Shots are fired in an arc, so they will fly over enemies unless extremely close (close enough to take damage from the explosion).Isaac Ipecac.png

Isaac gets very sick and he spits his projectiles.

The symbolism is not irrelevant to the gameplay, however. Seemingly incidental details make a difference to how various pieces of the game interact functionally. For example: Cain only has one eye, so if you play as Cain and he picks up the weapon Technology (an eye laser), he can no longer shoot tears out of his other eye. The other characters still can. Here the symbol dictated part of the functional role.

But the symbolism only inconsistently has such functional impact. One can make deals with the Devil himself (before fighting him later in the game), and while you won’t be able to purchase holy items from him, items like Guppy’s Head and A Quarter lack a certain Satanic elan possessed by other Deal with the Devil items like the Pact, Lord of the Pit, and Whore of Babylon.

ItemEffectInfo
Guppy’s Head

Guppyshead 1.png

Spawns 2-4 Blue Flies to damage enemies. Flies won’t spawn if entering a door while using it.Found in Devil Room for 2 hearts, Red Chests, Challenge Room or as a drop from fight with The Fallen.

If you collect any three of the Guppy’s items (Guppy’s Head, Guppy’s Tail, Guppy’s Paw, Dead Cat), Isaac will becomes Guppy. If it’s Guppy’s Paw or Guppy’s Head, you only need to use it once (you can drop it afterward) to make the game counts you as “carrying” the item.

Whore of Babylon

Whore-of-babylon.png

If you have half a heart, a message reading “What a horrible night to have a curse…” appears on the screen and the player becomes the Whore of Babylon. This increases their damage by 3 and speed by 2 and they will stay in that form until leaving a room with more than half a heart.Eve starts the game with this item.

Found in the Devil Room, Item Room or after defeating The Fallen. Might appear in the shop for 2 hearts or 15 coins as well.

When activated while the player has Fate, the Holy Grail, or the Bible activated, the wings turn black.

Whore of Babylon Isaac.jpg

Isaac becomes a spawn of Satan.

The Mark

The mark.png

Increases Damage by 2 and adds one soul heart.

Will kill you if you have 2 or less hearts when you make the devil deal despite giving you one soul heart.

Available by defeating The Fallen or traded in a Devil Room.

The Mark Isaac.jpg

Isaac sports three 6’s in a circular pattern.

We are very close, then, to a world of allegory, except that in relation to Christian allegory, the terms have been reversed. Instead of mapping a world of secular symbols onto a common and uniform religious conceptual scheme, religious symbols are mapped, somewhat haphazardly, onto the firmly fixed conceptual vocabulary of a video game.

Allegory is only possible (and popular) within a community in which there is a shared conceptual vocabulary to allegorize. Religion is ideal for this purpose, providing such an overarching unity of conceptual arrangement that most members of that religious community stand a good chance of decoding the allegory. Mapping the plot and symbols of William Langland’s medieval allegory Piers Plowman onto Christian concepts may not be blatantly obvious, but it is a process firmly enmeshed in the dominant religious conceptual arrangement of the period.

In the absence of a complex religious vocabulary, certain cultural universals like beauty, sex, and death are also manageable for allegorical purposes, but anything more specific, such as politics, poses a problem. If the reader does not feel the allegorical basis of the story, the allegory may just appear empty and contrived, or even incomprehensible.

In a restricted conceptual vocabulary, such as that of a top down 2D game, the problem of a lack of shared vocabulary disappears. Every player knows the conceptual vocabulary of health, shots, power ups, enemies, and bosses. Their significance within the game is indisputable: they amount to how you play and win the game. They form the ontology of a video game.

As for decoding the allegory, the symbolic mapping is made explicit, even if the meaning of the mapping is not. The Belt and the Wooden Spoon increase Isaac’s speed, but one must then infer that they do so because Isaac has been beaten with them. Having the Whore of Babylon item gives you far more firepower, but only if you’re very low on health. And so players begin to use a Judeo-Christian symbology in a very particular and peculiar way because The Binding of Isaac makes use of them in a rigidly allegorical context.

McMillen clearly feels this allegory quite deeply. But what about players, to whom these symbols may have much less powerful associations? The game must have an influence, however small, on how players will think of those symbols. The computer doesn’t care whether the damaging projectiles are bullets, tears, or urine, but because these terms are used in other contexts, their binding to the conceptual realm of the video game has some impact.

This impact was not calculated, nor is it easily grasped. The symbology is based on the Judeo-Christian mythos while not being beholden to it. The Binding of Isaac is striking because it is such an extreme case and uses a symbology that has rarely (if ever) been put to such use in a video game before. But in participating in a mapping from symbols to an ontology, we participate in the mutation of the meaning of those symbols. The individual functional roles of video games bleed into the symbols they use and stay with us every time we see a wafer, a fistula, or a Bible thereafter.

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.

“Jew, Go Back to the Grave!” — A Parable

An abridged tale from Yaffa Eliach’s  Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust:

As Ostrovakas and his people were aiming their guns, Zvi fell into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hit him.

He felt the bodies piling up on top of him and covering him. He felt the streams of blood around him and the trembling pile of dying bodies moving beneath him.

It became cold and dark. The shooting died down above him. Zvi made his way from under the bodies, out of the mass grave into the cold, dead night. In the distance, Zvi could hear Ostrovakas and his people singing and drinking, celebrating their great accomplishment. After 80o years, on September 26, 1941, Eisysky was Judenfrei.

At the far end of the cemetery, in the direction of the huge church, were a few Christian homes. Zvi knew them all. Naked, covered with blood, he knocked on the first door. The door opened. A peasant was holding a lamp which he had looted earlier in the day from a Jewish home. “Please let me in,” Zvi pleaded. The peasant lifted the lamp and examined the boy closely. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” he shouted at Zvi and slammed the door in his face. Zvi knocked on other doors, but the response was the same.

Near the forest lived a widow whom Zvi knew too. He decided to knock on her door. The old widow opened the door. She was holding in her hand a small, burning piece of wood. ” Let me in!” begged Zvi. “Jew, go back to the grave at the old cemetery!” She chased Zvi away with the burning piece of wood as if exorcising an evil spirit, a dybbuk.

“I am your Lord, Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in,” said Zvi Michalowsky. The widow crossed herself and fell at his blood-stained feet. “Boze moj, Boze moj (my God, my God),” she kept crossing herself and praying. The door was opened.

Zvi walked in. He promised her that he would spare from damnation both her family and her, but only if she would keep his visit a secret for three days and three nights and not reveal it to a living soul, not even the priest. She gave Zvi food and clothing and warm water to wash himself. Before leaving the house, he once more reminded her that the Lord’s visit must remain a secret, because of His special mission on earth.

Dressed in a farmer’s clothing, with a supply of food for a few days, Zvi made his way to the nearby forest. Thus, the Jewish partisan movement was born in the vicinity of Eisysky.

Zvi Michalowski as told to Eliach

This story has been quoted in a number of places, sometimes as fact, sometimes as folklore. It so perfectly displays the structure of parable (and an ambiguous parable, no less) that it commands attention and memory.

Is it really what happened? Eliach expresses doubt about some of the stories while having confirmed the unlikely truths of others, and at least a couple of the stories rely on such nonsensical coincidences that they seem to have come straight out of folklore.

This one lands somewhere in the middle. The outlines of the tale are verifiable and verified. As for the heart of the tale, the encounter with the widow: well, it’s one hell of a story. Whether it’s true or a brilliant embellishment, it’s a parable and will live on as such.

(Bizarrely, a very, very similarly worded account was published without attribution in Robert Rietti’s A Rose for Reubenthough he does thank Eliach in the foreword. Did he meet Michalowski too? Or is the tale now common property?)

New Horizons in the History of the Crusades

I was unaware of the somewhat dismaying recent trend of Crusades scholarship that emphasizes the “Holy” part of the “Holy War” equation. Unlike Steven Runciman and other earlier historians, some of these scholars are rather sympathetic to the Crusades and the Church of that time. To read this passage by Thomas F. Madden, author of The Crusades: An Illustrated History, is depressing:

Thomas Asbridge’s Pope Urban II, much like Erdmann’s, is a schemer whose primary motivation is to exert his own power. There was, Asbridge contends, no compelling external reason for the First Crusade. One would think the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world might engender some bad feeling.

Given the frequency with which Tyerman refers to medieval anti-Jewish pogroms, one might well conclude that the purpose of the Crusades was to annihilate Jews. Indeed, he uses these massacres as evidence of the brutal nature of the Crusades and the success of the Church in whipping up hatred for “the other.” Nowhere does he mention that these attacks on Jews were isolated incidents in direct violation of Church law and condemned by churchmen and secular leaders alike. Anti-Jewish attacks were seen as a perversion of crusading, and people like St. Bernard of Clairvaux worked hard to keep them from happening at all.

Thomas F. Madden, “Crusaders and Historians”

[Note the passive “were seen” in that last sentence.]

That would be the same Bernard of Clairvaux who said the following:

‘They shall either be converted or wiped out.’ So Bernard of Clairvaux announced the extension of Jerusalem indulgences to the summer campaign of 1147 against the pagan Slavs, or Wends, between the rivers Elbe and Oder. This decision, reached at the Diet of Frankfurt in March 1147, set the tone for perhaps the most radical and effective association of holy war and territorial expansion.

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

The nuanced and skeptical Tyerman does maintain that colonialization was not the only or even the greatest motivation for the Crusades, but herefuses to jump to Madden’s redemptive stance. And, belying Madden’s whitewash of the Church’s anti-semitism, he cites the words of Bernard and other clergy:

Overt anti-Semitism dominated the academy of western Christendom in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, often expressed by those unmoved by practical or communal resentment or fear. Abbot Peter the Venerable of Cluny argued a point very close to Radulf’s; if it is a meritorious act to fight enemies of Christianity in distant lands why are Jews allowed to live undisturbed in the heart of Christendom? If Muslims were detestable, how much more were the Jews? In profiting from Christians, even the church, through usury, they polluted Christendom. Abbot Peter was careful to follow the theologically orthodox line that Jews should not be killed but, he insisted, they should be punished as enemies of Christ.

Bernard of Clairvaux, ‘a decent priest’ in Rabbi Ephraim’s grateful memory, while rejecting simple and violent analogies, lacked sympathy or more than legal tolerance, stating:

The Jews are not to be persecuted, killed or even put to flight… The Jews are for us the living words of Scripture, for they remind us always of what our Lord suffered. They are dispersed all over the world so that by expiating their crime they may be everywhere living witnesses of our redemption. Under Christian princes they endure a hard captivity… when the time is ripe all Israel shall be saved [i.e. converted]. But those who die before will remain in death. If Jews are utterly wiped out, what will become of our hope for their promised salvation, their eventual conversion?

Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades

While Bernard took a softer line than most, the general view, at best, was that “killing” was a perversion of crusading, but other attacks on Jews were acceptable.

Dismaying.

« Older posts

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑