Other People’s Craziness

In a Facebook group dedicated to Julian Jaynes, I was talking to a lady who is an academic and a poet. She happened to mention that she is also a ‘Manbo’, something like a vodou practitioner. She made the admission that she sees and hears spirits, but she qualified it by saying that her rational mind knew it wasn’t real. I found that qualification odd, as if she were worried about maintaining her respectability. She made clear that these experiences weren’t make-believe, as they felt real to her, as real as anything else, and yet one side of her personality couldn’t quite take them as real. So, two different realities existed inside her and she seemed split between them.

None of this is particularly strange in a group like that. Many voice-hearers, for obvious reasons, are attracted to Jaynes’ view on voice-hearing. Jaynes took such experiences seriously and, to a large degree, took the experiences on their own terms. Jaynes offered a rational or rationalizing narrative for why it is ‘normal’ to hear voices. The desire to be normal is powerful social force. Having a theory helps someone like this lady to compartmentalize the two aspects of her being and not feel overwhelmed. If she didn’t qualify her experience, she would be considered crazy by many others and maybe in her own mind. Her academic career might even be threatened. So, the demand of conformity is serious with real consequences.

That isn’t what interested me, though. Our conversation happened in a post about the experience of falling under a trance while driving, such that one ends up where one was going without remember how one got there. It’s a common experience and a key example Jaynes uses about how the human mind functions. I mentioned that many people have experiences of alien contact and UFO abduction while driving, often alone at night on some dark stretch of road. And I added that, according to Jacques Vallee and John Keel, many of these experiences match the descriptions of fairy abductions in folklore and the accounts of shamanic initiations. Her response surprised me, in her being critical.

Vallee also had two sides, on the one hand an analytical type who worked as an astronomer and a computer scientist and on the other a disreputable UFO researcher. He came at the UFO field from a scientific approach, but like Jaynes he felt compelled to take people at their word in accepting that their experience was real to them. He even came to believe there was something to these experiences. It started with a time he was working in an observatory and, after recording anomalous data of something in the sky that wasn’t supposed to be there, the director of the observatory erased the tapes out of fear that if it got out to the press it would draw negative attention to the institution. That is what originally piqued his curiosity and started him down the road of UFO research. But he also came across many cases where entire groups of people, including military, saw the same UFOs in the sky and their movements accorded with no known technology or physics.

That forced him to consider the possibility that people were seeing something that was on some level real, whatever it was. He went so far as to speculate about consciousness being much stranger than science could presently explain, that there really is more to the universe or at an angle to our universe. In this line of thought, he spoke of the phenomena as, “partly associated with a form of non-human consciousness that manipulates space and time.” Sure, to most people, that is crazy talk, though no more crazy than interacting with the spirit world. But the lady I was speaking with immediately dismissed this as going too far. Her anomalous experiences were fine, as long as she pretended that they were pretend or something, thus proving she wasn’t bat-shit loony. Someone else’s anomalous experience, however, was not to be taken seriously. It’s the common perception that only other people’s religion is mythology.

That amused me to no end. And I said that it amused me. She then blocked me. That amused me as well. I’m feeling amused. I was more willing to take her experiences as being valid in a way she was unwilling to do for others. It’s not that I had any skin in the game, as I’ve never talked to spirits nor been abducted by aliens. But I give people the benefit of the doubt that there experiences are real to them. I’m a radical skeptic and extreme agnostic. I take the world as it comes and sometimes the world is strange. No need to rationalize it. And if that strangeness is proof of insanity and disrepute, there are worse fates.

* * *

As for my own variety of crazy, I’ve always felt a kinship with Philip K. Dick. Below is what he what he wrote in justifying himself. Some people feel compelled to speak truth, no matter what. If that truth sounds crazy, maybe that is because we live in a society gone mad. Under such unhappy circumstances, there can be great comfort in feeling validated by someone speaking truth. So, maybe be kind toward the craziness and truths of other people. Here is what PKD has to say:

“What I have done may be good, it may be bad. But the reality that I discern is the true reality; thus I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis. I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art, but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or exploration. Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive and troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps; they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, & for them my corpus of writing is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an investigation & presentation, analysis & response & personal history. My audience will always be limited to these people.”
(In Pursuit of Valis, p.161)

Quotes: the Gothic, the Gnostic, and the Rational

The Secret Life of Puppets
by Victoria Nelson
pp. 18-19:

At the same time, however, this demonology is the only avenue open to the transcendental.  “You can raise issues in the horror genre that you can’t raise so easily in other types of films,” a Hollywood screenwriter once ingenuously explained, adding, “Characters can talk about the existence of God in a horror movie, whereas in other films that would be incredibly pretentious.”  Ironically, beacause of the old Reformation link between Catholicism and the supernatural, the only means for defending oneself against the Devil in these narratives is always represented as a potpourri of faux rituals rendered in Latin or Greek and always erroneously attributed to the Catholic Church, to the unending aggravation of that church’s worthies, who might be less upset if only they reflected on the unavoidable implication—that the Protestant mainstream unconsciously perceives its own rituals as utterly inadequate for warding off demons.

p. 19:

Lacking an allowable connection with the transcendent, we have substituted an obsessive, unconscious focus on the negative dimension of the denied experience.  In popular Western entertainments through the end of the twentieth century, the supernatural translated mostly as terror and monsters enjoyably consumed.  But as Paul Tillich profoundly remarked, “Wherever the demonic appears, there the question of its correlate, the divine, will also be raised.”

p. 28:

Far from being mutually exclusive, nous and logos share this common denominator of human consciousness, a field that remained constant while its content and focus have swung like a pendulum between the two modes.  For the gnosis-oriented authors of the Corpus Hermeticum tractates, consciousness was not only humanity’s distinguishing characteristic but the special feature that connected us with the divine.  This position  was counterbalanced by the materialist views of their contemporaries the Stoics and Skeptics; indeed, many Greeks and Romans of the time openly mocked graven images.  And, as Susanna Elm argues, far from being a “decline into belief” as is usually supposed, the radical iconoclasm of Judeo-Christianity, learnedly argued first by the rabbis and then by the early Christian fathers, represented a scientific revolution of rational discourse that supplanted the gnosis-dominated cults and religions of Late Antiquity analagous to the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation, which performed a similar function in relation to the Catholic Church a millennium later.

Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film
by Eric G. Wilson
p. 26:

Gnostic films understandably migrate toward the gothic genres—science fiction pictures devoted to ambiguous relationships between humans and machines; fantasy movies exploring blurred boundaries between dream and reality; noir movies hovering on the boundary between psychic projection and brute fact; horror films fraught with ambiguous meldings of monstrosity and miracle.  There are historical reasons behind this connection between the Gnostic and the gothic. As Victoria Nelson has shown, ever since the early modern age, esoteric ways of knowing including Gnosticism, Cabbala, and alchemy, have been pushed to the margins of culture.  There on the edges these heretical visions have attracted the aesthtic mediums rejected by mainstream institutions.  This confluence of occult religion and underground expression reached full force in the pulpy sub-world of the twentieth century, the lurid realm of weird tales, comic books, and gothic movies. These historical connections are valid and interesting.  However, as I have been suggesting, there are also deep epistemological reasons for the merger between Gnostic vision and gothic cinema.  Both modes are dependent upon mental failure: the inability of the rational mind to reconcile opposites and of the physical world to transcend dualistic conflict.  However, these failures offer success: the possibility of the mind finding knowledge beyond reason, of the world dissolving into a unity beyond time.