The Private Sea
6. The dome of many-colored glass
"The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months," Thomas De Quincey wrote in May 1818. "I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes."
The entry is contained in the famous drug addict's autobiographical account, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The passage which follows describes the Eastern nightmares produced by the Eastern drug, and it is worth quoting at length:
I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point; but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England, and to live in China . . . I should go mad. The causes of my horror lie deep; and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it. But there are other reasons. No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed . . . nor can any man fail to be awed by the names of the Ganges, or the Euphrates. It contributes much to these feelings, that southern Asia is, and has been for thousands of years, the part of the earth most swarming with human life; the great officina gentian Man is a weed in these regions. The vast empires also, into which the enormous population of Asia has always been cast, give a further sublimity to the feelings associated with all Oriental names or images. In China, over and above what it has in common with the rest of southern Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze. I could sooner live with lunatics, or brute animals. All this, and much more than I can say, or have time to say, the reader must enter into, before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery, and mythological tortures, impressed upon me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms.... I fled from the wrath of Brahma through all the forests of Asia. Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. I thus give the reader some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams, which always filled me with such amazement at the monstrous scenery, that horror seemed absorbed, for a while, in sheer astonishment. Sooner or later came a reflux of feeling that swallowed up the astonishment, and left me, not so much in terror, as in hatred and abomination of what I saw. Over every form, and threat, and punishment, and dim sightless incarceration, brooded a sense of eternity and infinity that drove me into an oppression as of madness. . . . [And] many times the very same dream was broken up in the very same way: I heard gentle voices speaking to me . . . and instantly I awoke: it was broad noon; and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside; come to show me their colored shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out. I protest that so awful was the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.
De Quincey's attitude might well reflect English provincialism at its best, or worst, but surely he was correct in assuming that some of the causes of his horror are shared by others. Undoubtedly he has summed up very well the reaction of the average Westerner to that nebulous something we have referred to as Eastern ideas. A similar attitude was expressed, for example, by Grecophile Edith Hamilton in her comparison of Greek and Eastern art. The Greeks, she wrote, were the first Westerners, introducing into the ancient world something completely new: the rule of reason and the supremacy of the rational intellect. The Greeks loved order, they loved life, and they embraced with joy the beauty of the visible world. They were the first people to play, and their games were conducted on a grand scale. But this point of view was unique; it did not belong "to the immense expanse and the multitudinous populations of the East." With its oppressed masses and its wretched conditions of life, the East was preoccupied with the unseenand with death. So insecure and unbearable was the visible world that men could find hope only by rejecting outside fact and turning inward to the invisible world of spirit and intuition. Thus a tomb in Egypt and a theater in Greece. "The one comes to the mind as naturally as the other." Thus a grotesquely stylized Hindu bronze of Shiva, its many arms and hands curving outwardand the Olympic Hermes, "a perfectly beautiful human being, no more, no less."
When Egypt ended, the East went on ever farther in the direction Egypt had pointed. The miseries of Asia are a fearful page in history. Her people found strength to endure by denying any meaning and any importance to what they could not escape. The Egyptian world where dead men walked and slept and feasted was transmuted into what had always been implicit in its symbolism, the world of the spirit. In India, for centuries the leader of thought to the East, ages long since, the world of the reason and the world of the spirit were divorced and the universe handed over to the latter.... The mystical artist always sees patterns. The symbol, never quite real, tends to be expressed less and less realistically, and as the reality becomes abstracted the pattern comes forward. The wings on Blake's angels do not look like real wings, nor are they there because wings belong to angels. They have been flattened, stylized, to provide a curving pointed frame, the setting required by the pattern of the composition. In Hindoo art and its branches, stylization reaches its height. Human figures are stylized far beyond the point of becoming a type; they too are made into patterns, schematic designs of the human body, an abstraction of humanity. In the case of an Eastern rug all desire to express any semblance of reality has gone. Such a work of art is pure decoration. It is the expression of the artist's final withdrawal from the visible world, essentially his denial of the intellect.... Again, the gigantic temples of Egypt, those massive immensities of granite which look as if only the power that moves in the earthquake were mighty enough to bring them into existence, are something other than the creation of geometry balanced by beauty. The science and the spirit are there, but what is there most of all is force, inhuman force, calm but tremendous, overwhelming. It reduces to nothingness all that belongs to man. He is annihilated.... The Greek temple [on the other hand] is the perfect expression of the pure intellect illumined by the spirit. No other great buildings anywhere approach its simplicity.... Majestic but human, truly Greek. No superhuman force as in Egypt; no strange supernatural shapes as in India; the Parthenon is the home of humanity at ease, calm, ordered, sure of itself and the world. The Greeks flung a challenge to nature in the fullness of their joyous strength. They set their temples on the summit of a hill overlooking the wide sea, outlined against the circle of the sky.... To the Greek architect man was the master of the world.
In so far as it remains Greek, and therefore rational, the Western mind no doubt abhors Oriental images and the metaphysical concepts they might seem to imply. Indeed, many Occidentals have emerged from a psychedelic experience with the same sense of horror and relief De Quincey felt when he awakened from his opium-haunted dreams to find himself safe again in merry, common-sense England. As we have already suggested, however, those images and concepts are not as remote as they may appear. They are and always have been an aspect of Western tradition, as counterpoint if nothing more, and it would probably be possible to demonstrate their influence in almost every phase of Western history. We have no intention of doing so. The task is beyond us and would serve no useful purpose here; without any attempt at comprehensiveness, however, we shall try to show how this or that thread of Eastern thought has appeared from time to time in the Western fabric.
The earliest of the threads can be picked up in Greece itself. It was Heraclitus who observed that no man can step twice into the same stream. The phenomenal universe is not the secure and dependable piece of real estate our senses suggest; on the contrary, it is in a constant state of flux and chaos. Nothing stays the same. The only thing that never changes, said Heraclitus, is the fact that everything is changing. Thus the visible world of the West was called into question from the very beginning, and philosophical attempts to refute Heraclitus led in turn to the hypothesis of an invisible realm beyond the senses. Parmenides, for example, proposed that reality consisted of pure Being: an eternal One, never changing, which had no describable qualities whatever, except for the fact that it existedand since existence in this sense did not change, what then of that phenomal world where everything changed? Obviously, it did not really exist.
Then came Plato with his eternal Essences or Ideas, which Gordon Wasson has suggested were psychedelic in origin. "The eye and the ear and the other senses are full of deception," said Plato. The soul is a helpless prisoner of the body. It is "simply fastened and glued to the body." Or so it was until philosophy came to its rescue. Referring to the soul in the feminine gender, Plato said that philosophy advised her to abstain from all use of the senses "and be gathered up and collected into herself, bidding her trust in herself and her own pure apprehension of pure existence, and to mistrust whatever comes to her through other channels and is subject to variation; for such things are visible and tangible, but what she sees in her own nature is intelligible and invisible." The soul is "dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is like a drunkard, when she touches change.... But when returning into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives."
Platonism evolved into the Neo-Platonism expounded by Plotinus, who preached a doctrine of mystical union with the Absolute. Both Platonism and Neo-Platonism in turn were assimilated by Christianity, and in fact they provided the metaphysical roots of the early church. This was due largely to the enormous influence of Saint Augustine, who was a Neo-Platonist before he became a Christian. Plato's pure Ideas were interpreted to be the thoughts of God, and as such Platonic philosophy continued as the mainstay of Roman Catholicism until the rediscovery of Aristotle in the thirteenth century. Saint Thomas became the most articulate spokesman for this revived school of thought, arguing the case for intellect, reason, and the interdependence of the spiritual and the material. And so it was that Platonism gave way at last to Aristotelianism, mysticism to empiricism, and Augustinianism to Thomism. Thomism in essence was officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. But the break really was not all that sharp, even within the church, and Platonism has continued to be a major influence in Western theology and philosophy. Today's drug movement might even be described as a sort of Neo-Platonist revival.
The point is that Plato was talking Net of Illusion talk and that this so-called Eastern idea is entirely within the Western traditionthe idea that the phenomenal world does not really exist; or the idea that our truncated senses cannot perceive ultimate reality; or the idea that our intellect deceives us. Take Berkeley, take Hume. Take almost any Western philosopher you would care to name. Take modern physics, for that matter. It seems clear that the West mistrusts the visible world just as much as the East does, and always has. The only real issue has been, in James's terminology: Does some unseen order lie beyond that visible world, and should we seek to adjust thereto?
Platonism also contains other Oriental threads. Plato, too, spoke of a morality based wholly on knowledge. He spoke of reincarnation and of concepts equivalent to nirvana and karma. For example, Socrates in the Phaedo is discussing the fate of the soul after death:
That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible worldto the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she is secure of bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods.... But the soul which has been polluted, and is impure at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant of the body always, and is in love with and fascinated by the body . . . do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and unalloyed?
Such souls are held fast by the corporeal. They haunt sepulchres and tombs. They
. . . wander about such places in payment of the penalty of their former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until through the craving after the corporeal which never leaves them they are imprisoned finally in another body. And they may be supposed to find their prisons in the same natures which they have had in their former lives.... men who have followed after gluttony, and wantonness, and drunkenness, and have had no thought of avoiding them, would pass into asses and animals of that sort.... And those who have chosen the portion of injustice, and tyranny, and violence, will pass into wolves, or into hawks and kites.
If the Greeks worshipped Apollo, god of reason, they were devoted also to Dionysus, the wine-drunk god of instinct and mysticism. The cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries paid homage to Dionysus, and it is believed the Mysteries included a theory of reincarnation. The possibility that the cult utilized some sort of psychedelic host would appear to gain considerable support from a Plutarch fragment, quoted by Edith Hamilton, which is thought to describe the Eleusinian initiation rites: "When a man dies he is like those who are initiated into the Mysteries. Our whole life is a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances and holy apparitions." As we shall see later, this passage suggests a remarkable parallel between the Mysteries and the contemporary drug movement's esoteric interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Reincarnation also was entertained as a doctrine by some of those Gnostic sects that flourished during the first three centuries of Christianity. The sects were Platonist in that they took a very negative view of existence in the world of appearances, and they taught that release could be obtained through a secret gnosis or knowledge of the divine order. They also assumed Plato's concept of the Demiurgean imperfect creator god who made the earth, as opposed to the supreme and perfect god who exists as pure Being. They made of the Demiurge an evil, fallen deity who was responsible for the creation of matter and hence for the curse of phenomenal existence, for the fall from pure Being, for the Net of Illusion. The sects were a curious hodgepodge of Christian dogma, magic, and Eastern metaphysics.
Christianity had to absorb Gnosticism, just as it had to absorb Neo-Platonism, and the early church was plagued in addition by a whole spectrum of Asian-flavored heresies: for example, the Albigenses, the Bogomiles, the Paulicians. These sects adulterated their Christianity with strong doses of Eastern idealism, including the concept of the Demiurge and a hatred of matter. Similarly, Judaism had come under the dualistic influence of Zoroastrianism during the Babylonian Captivity. The precise extent of the East's impact upon the development of Judaism and Christianity is impossible to measure at this point in history; indeed, there is an equally frustrated body of scholarship which has attempted to demonstrate a Western impact upon Eastern religions during some period in the misty past. But there clearly was some East-to-West metaphysical commerce, and this has led to some rather airy speculation that the Bible contains an esoteric teaching along Eastern lines. Much is made of the fact that Jesus spoke in parables, and it is suggested that these perhaps were Oriental abstractions presented in parabolic style for the benefit of his unsophisticated flock. The people were not ready for meat, so he fed them milk. "And with many such parables spoke he the word unto them [the multitudes], as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spoke he not to them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples."
Hidden meaning is thus read into many preachments. "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation." (The senses are trapped in the Net of Illusion.) "Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there? for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." (You are God.) "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (We are a monistic One. ) "Love thy neighbor as thyself." (You and your neighbor are the same person.) "Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?" (We are all the same person.) "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself.... For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it." (You must obliterate the ego to recognize your true Self.) "God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." (God is immanent in matter. ) "A good man out of the treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things." (Karma.) And so on. Small wonder, then, that no man dared ask Jesus any question after he declared, "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God." And the "I AM THAT I AM" of the Old Testament is obviously a Zen statement of pure experience. If nothing else, such conjecture indicates that truly great thoughts are like the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution: they can be interpreted to meet any need in any period.
The thread of pantheism can be picked up again in the monopsychism of Averroes, the Great Commentator who was largely responsible for reintroducing Aristotle to the Western world. His theories fell short of pure pantheism, perhaps, for they included a remote First Cause; but they were both Eastern and heretical in their monistic denial of personal immortality, and they had gained considerable popularity in thirteenth-century Europe before Saint Thomas managed to reclaim Aristotle for the faith. Pantheistic tendencies appeared in the medieval Jewish mysticism of the Cabala, and the latter movement did much to shape the thought of Spinoza in the seventeenth century. The philosophy of the Jewish Dutchman was wholly pantheistic, equating God with creative Nature and creative Nature with God. Spinoza also denied the possibility of personal immortality. He did, however, speak of the immortality of the mind in language which might well set psychedelic bells to ringing: "Nevertheless we feel and know by experience that we are eternal.... Although, therefore, we do not recollect that we existed before the body, we feel that our mind, in so far as it involves the essence of the body under the form of eternity, is eternal, and that this existence of the mind cannot be limited by time nor manifested through duration." (A hundred micrograms of LSD will make that statement perfectly intelligible.) For his intellectual pains, Spinoza was excommunicated by his temple in Amsterdam. But he had considerable influence on later philosophers, including Hegel. Hegel's system of absolute idealism proposed that the universe consists of a single absolute Mind or Spirit which is attempting to realize and comprehend its own nature through an evolutionary process. Hegel in turn influenced such disparate thinkers as Karl Marx, Teilhard de Chardin, and Thomas J. J. Altizer.
Some of the more fragile nuances of Eastern philosophy perhaps are best caught in poetryand the poetry of the West abounds in Oriental themes or hints of them. We could quote countless examples but will limit ourselves to only a few, offering them in the hope they may serve to sharpen some of these ideas, and to show that the ideas as such have a definite place in Western literature as well as philosophy.
Shakespeare, to begin with, certainly lends himself to an esoteric interpretation. The Delphic injunction, Know Thyself, is echoed in Polonius' fatherly advice to Laertes: "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." That might easily be taken to reflect the Hindu idea that men abuse one another only through ignorance of their monistic continuity, and that knowledge of the true Self therefore will automatically result in a perfect morality. And Hamlet himself sums up that delusion of the rational intellect which gives rise to the dualistic concept of evil: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Shakespeare plainly is a commerce-clause bard par excellence, and nobody has described the Net of Illusion so well as his Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
We must of course include John Donne: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Blake's poetry can be taken as a whole. It rejects the rational intellect and its dualistic perceptions, and indeed it gives the Eden story an interpretation quite similar to that suggested in an earlier chapter:
Serpent Reasonings us entice
Blake had his own term for the Net of Illusion: "the mind-forg'd manacles." He rejected the intellect, the phenomenal world, the God of Theism. He rejected everything but man's eternal spirit, and he looked back with longing to the Universal Brotherhood of Eden, to the Universal Man, to the "Immortal Man that cannot Die." Blake in fact was a Gnostic, and his Prophetic Books revive the concept of the Demiurge. His Urizen ("your reason"?) is that sinister deity who was responsible for the fall from pure Being and the world of appearances.
Earth was not: nor globes of attraction;
Then came Urizen with his ten thousands of thunders, and a shadow of horror was risen in Eternity.
The Eternal mind, bounded, began to roll
That eternal life, the furnace of all creation, was the subject of Blake's best-known poem, which Alfred Kazin has aptly termed "a hymn to pure being."
Pure Being, from which sprang the Tyger.
In what distant deeps or skies
After Blake, as might be expected, the Romantic poets come to mindand one of the best examples would naturally be Shelley, who abandoned rationalism and atheism to become a full-blown Platonic idealist. As for the Passing Parade of Phenomena, compare that fragile speech of Prospero's and Shelley's stark:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Just as our contemporary mystics are dismissed upon the grounds of biochemical imbalance, so too has the Romantic movement been supplied now with a medical interpretation. The poets did not know it, but the source of their inspiration was a bacillus, the mood of that period resulting from the prevalence of tuberculosis. Keats was a victim of the disease, although Shelley insisted the critics had done his friend in, and Shelley's Platonic philosophy finds full expression in his elegy to the dead poet:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Then to Wordsworth, poet of the mescal drinkers. His ode, "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," includes the provocative stanza:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The poem as a whole might appear to support the doctrine of pre-existence or reincarnationan implication which Wordsworth later admitted "has given pain to some good and pious persons." He protested he had not intended "to inculcate such a belief." The poem was concerned with "that dream-like vividness and splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood," and Wordsworth had cast about in his mind for some device to express that vision, deciding finally to picture it as "presumptive evidence of a prior state of existence." He explained further: "I took hold of the notion of pre-existence as having sufficient foundation in humanity for authorizing me to make for my purpose the best use of it I could as a poet."
The argument about this stanza, and about Wordsworth's intentions, is extremely significant. It offers us a key. And that key fits many locks.
It may give us access to the real issues and deeper meanings that are still half-hidden below the surface of Eastern philosophy, the drug movement, and radical theology.
Professor Arthur Beatty, a Wordsworth authority, suggested that the poet really meant to say: "It is as if our birth were but a sleep and a forgetting." And that is the key.
Consider, for example, a comment that Coleridge made about the poem:
But the ode was intended for such readers only as had been accustomed to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture at times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel a deep interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but which yet can not be conveyed save in symbols of time and space. For such readers the sense is sufficiently plain, and they will be as little disposed to charge Mr. Wordsworth with believing the Platonic pre-existence in the ordinary interpretation of the words, as I am to believe that Plato himself ever meant or taught it.
The italics are ours. And the point is simply this: that poets are poets, and they express themselves in the language of poetry saying "is" when they mean "as if." Prophets are poets as well, and so are the great philosophers. And all poets, of whatever kind, have found it necessary at times to express their ideas in terms of symbol; the tools of their trade are the simile, the metaphor, the poetic image, the myth. The Greeks indeed may have held themselves aloof from the formal figures of speech, but they could and did make ample use of myth. So, too, perhaps did Jesus, Buddha, and those faceless authors of the Hindu holy books and the Old Testament. They were poets all. And we can only guess how often their "is" really means "as if." One is tempted to ask, of course, why they couldn't just come out with itsay what they meant and so have done with itand the question is fair enough. In some cases, however, the people in fact may not have been ready for meat. In some cases it may be that the poet himself only half-knew what he meantknew what he felt, all right, but could not quite put his finger upon it. In some cases he may have said what he meant and meant what he said, failing himself to apprehend the deeper meaning. And finally: he knew what he felt, and he knew what it meant; but what he felt and what he knew could not be expressed in conventional language. Such language simply did not apply in those twilight realms of consciousness where the poet explored the modes of inmost Being.
This is not as fuzzy as it may sound. Many of the discoveries of modern physics cannot be expressed in conventional language either; the physicists have been forced to leave language behind altogether, resorting instead to a complex mathematical symbolisma form of myth, if you willwhich cannot be retranslated into words. Many popular books have been written for the general public on the theory of relativity, for example; the fact remains that you cannot really understand the theory unless you have the math. Or so at least the mathematicians tell us, and we are prepared to take their word for it, while we are by no means ready to take the mystics at their word for anything. But the relativity theory is no less valid because it is expressed symbolically, for in fact everything is expressed that way. Expression as such is by definition symbolic: only the thing-in-itself is something more than a symbol of itself. Language and math, therefore, are equally symbolic; they are simply different kinds of symbolism. In any case, it follows that Plato did not necessarily mean that people really return to life as wolves, hawks, and kites; Blake did not necessarily mean that there really exists a deity comparable to Urizen; and "is" does not necessarily mean "is" every time it occurs in the various Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Jewish scriptures. It may in many cases mean "as if," and, when so interpreted, these various scriptures perhaps are closer in meaning than they appear.
Using the key provided us, a case could be made that contemporary developments in theology and psychedelic experience can be explained essentially in terms of two basic myths and the conflict between them: the myth of the Demiurge and the myth of Ulysses.
Let us leave no doubt as to our own meaning. As we interpret it, the Demiurge is a symbol of the rational mindof the cerebral cortex, which separates man from the beasts and (it may be) from much else besides. As for the Ulysses myth, we take it to suggest the presence of an evolutionary purpose in the cosmos: that is to say, an inherent state of Being as yet unrealized.
We shall return to these concepts later. Meanwhile, turning from Wordsworth, we skip ahead a few decades and look across the ocean from Europe to America.
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