Thursday, December 26, 2013

Worlds of the Imagination

In a post in her Anthropocene Mind blog in Psychology Today "Our Myopic Imagination," Michele Wick reported on a study that concluded we generally fall for "The End of History Illusion" and assume that although we see ourselves now as different from ourselves in the past, we also see ourselves as a stable product of that past experience, unlikely to change much in the future. Wick's particular concern is how that illusion would affect our ability to cope with the kind of personal change we must envision and enact to cope with global warming. Leaving myself open to the when-you-have-a-hammer-everything –looks-like-a-nail criticism, I see a place for literature as a tool of evolutionary adaptation, like Kenneth Burke's assertion of "Literature as Equipment for Living."

Not to realize we have changed would be a failure of memory; not to realize we will change is a failure of imagination. The most ecologically efficient way to exercise the imagination is one person telling a story to another, an activity that consumes no external resources. With current technology, stories can be recorded and sent to many people, consuming some bits of resource. The least efficient way to tell a story right now is to make a film: hundreds of people consume staggering amounts of resources. A book, especially an electronic one, is the work of primarily one person with editors and publishing company people supporting it. The reader takes care of the actors, the scenery, and the special effects. So with a few additional resources, a shared act of the imagination in the form of an MP3 or a book can engage many people. An important characteristic of the book, too, is that it is private: one author talking to one person at a time. No peer pressure from the reaction of fellow audience members becomes an inextricable part of the experience so the individual imagination has a chance to build up muscle before confronting the Captain Bringdowns of the world.
I have another self-serving suggestion. To encourage our imaginations to break the shackles of the world view of the culture that surrounds us, we might look to literature from the past. There have been some wonderful modern reimaginings of the world in film—The Matrix, Inception, The Adjustment Bureau—but they all have their roots in the present and reflect extrapolations from our current fears and wishes. The past, however, is beyond our experience. The past has never heard of us. When we look at the way storytellers from past ages imagine another world, we can see the constraints they impose and the freedoms they allow themselves.
The story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a Middle English poem from the turn of the 15th Century, plunges Gawain into a bizarre adventure when he accepts the challenge to deliver a blow with an axe and then a year later to receive one back. He beheads the Green Knight who recovers his head, and, after reminding Gawain of his obligation, rides off. As a result of this beginning, Gawain ends up in a castle where he discovers himself enmeshed in a set of three interlocking games. The anonymous poet who wrote the story was immersed in a world so saturated with meaning that there were no random events or meaningless objects. Deus's organizing Logos reached to the bottom of creation. Gawain's shield contains a pentangle and the poet spends many lines, admitting that he is delaying the story, to describe the "five fives" the shield symbolizes. Whatever bizarre thing happens, it will be part of a plan. The medieval poet could casually dispense with realism, but he did not imagine a world without ubiquitous meaning.
Such cultural constructs remind us that we understand our experiences within a frame of reference that on some levels seems inevitable. Climbing into the past (or another culture) suggests ways to step outside our tidy sets of assumptions. Even if the past is entirely wrongheaded, it may suggest a crack in our own thinking that we may be able get some purchase on, so we can see what happens when it starts to break apart. Sometimes all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put our old thoughts together again, and we need to make something new of the pieces.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Mysticism and Migraines

Hildegard von Bingen, the 12th Century German nun, wrote of her transcendent mystical experiences with such clarity that modern doctors (Oliver Sacks for one) have been able to diagnose them as migraines. Within the last few years I have been getting ocular migraines, whose dominant feature is not the severe pain, so much as the way the vision is disrupted. As with all things migraine, there is a great deal of variation, but those admitted to the order of the migraine understand each other's experiences in a way not available to outsiders.

I had misunderstood what my daughter meant when she said she could not read with a migraine, since I thought it related only to the pain making it too uncomfortable to read. When I had my first ocular migraine, I discovered I could not read because what I looked at on the page made no sense. Print began as squiggles, and as the episode passed, they became individual letters. Then they became individual words that I could not string together into phrases. Within an hour, having worked my way through all the intermediate steps, I found the sense effortlessly flowing from the page again. Once I was diagnosed, I also realized I had been having symptoms for years, instances of disorientation, faintness, and difficulty seeing that had disturbed me but had spontaneously disappeared.

I am not trying to dismiss Hildegard's experience; there is no reason why her god should not use the migraine to communicate with her. Even a mild migraine attack for me has the skeleton of a transcendent experience. As with the letters, I will notice that the world around me is changing. Individual objects seem to glow from within and begin to stand out so that things don't seem to be connected with each other or at least their relationships are slipping. The bathroom disassembles itself into sink, window, toilet. The last square on the toilet paper role attached by its perforated edge hangs down and seems to tremble almost imperceptibly; its irregular stubby fringe, sometimes with a small triangle that did not rip properly, makes it clear that something is gone that was a part of the whole. My life falls apart as each perceivable thing demands center stage. The fabric of interwoven events that make up my day separate into threads, and at some point I realize I am going to die. I too am going to fall apart. Because I am alive, I cannot get out of dying. I begin to feel weird, light-headed, unsteady on my feet. I wonder how I will stay vertical all day, talk to people when they ask me questions.

My response is to do what is in front of me, moment by moment. Considering even a few links in any chain of events that could bind me would be too overwhelming. I stagger along one word at a time, and eventually, I realize connections are reemerging, and I am steady on my feet without thinking about it. My faith grows stronger; though the world is still composed of bits and pieces, the irrational faith that the pieces fit together into something begins to recover. And when I realize that has happened, I feel joy and relief. From the outside I am engaged in routine activities, but on the inside, I have been passing through an ordeal. It is not a realization of something new, but a rebirth of the sense of wonder at the constructive experience of being alive. It would not take much to turn that into a religious experience if the faith that holds life together involves a god.