Until fairly recently this blog was anonymous, and now here I am inviting your questions! The encouragement I’ve received here on WordPress has been instrumental to me publishing Fragments of Perception, so I thought perhaps it was time to open the doors a little more. Apologies in advance for the length of some of my answers; I’m not so good at small talk…
‘One might say that the noumenaut is a philosophical psychonaut – one who navigates through both the human harbour of ideas and out through to the inhuman ocean that is psychedelic consciousness.’
When I saw the subject matter of this collection of essays, I couldn’t wait to read it: so I was thrilled to be sent a free copy in exchange for an honest review. Although it took me a while to read, this was only due to the fact I kept stopping to make notes and contemplate, so it’s safe to say I was not disappointed.
Like most books with a philosophical bent, there is a lot packed into Noumenautics’ 136 pages. It starts out with a discussion on psychedelic phenomena: what the experience of using psychedelics does to our sense of reality and physics, and how we can apply the knowledge gained from it in rational, philosophical thought. It is an area that is surprisingly omitted from most popular notions of philosophy – which may have more to do with our prescribed morality (a topic also covered in the book) than a lack of validity – so I found it fascinating. I am a fan of Aldous Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, and this reads well as a scrutinising companion.
‘To deny philosophers of mind psychedelic substances is tantamount to denying instruments to musicians.’
I lay in the tub scrubbing away all meaning with a flannel and letting the warm water dissolve my worries. So many layers of unnecessary complication are hard on the soul. Surely there comes a time when we tire of it and simply let it all go?
There’s a knock at the bathroom door. I rise from my mountain of bubbles straight away, and open the lock before I’ve even thought of putting a towel around me.
It’s him! He looks different now, but then it has been twenty years. He still wears black but for the white scarf around his neck, and he still has dark shoulder length hair though now it is speckled with grey. With longing I look into his eyes – just two dark and endless craters, pulling me in and taking me beyond.
“I have made my decision,” he croaks. “I want to be with you always. Come with me and stay by my side?”
Hearing the words I have longed for all these years makes me instantly weak, as though I’m melting from the inside.
“That is all I ever wanted,” I say, falling into his arms. “I accept.”
He is cold and expressionless, but I don’t care. I know that he hasn’t reached his decision lightly, and I know that he really means it. I know this is how my myth ends. And so I let out all the water. I watch it swirling and glugging away down the plug hole. Then, with his hand to steady me, I climb back into the empty bathtub to lay down and close my eyes. The very next time I fall asleep must be the last.
I’ve always loved reading non-fiction as much as fiction, and have a particular attraction to all things philosophy and psychology. I always manage to take something away from every book I read and feed it into my worldview, so I thought it would be an interesting exercise to write a little bit about the ones that have had the biggest impact on me over the years. I’ve chosen my top 5, listed in the order I read them.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche – Thus Spoke Zarathustra
When I was 15, I wrote an essay on my typewriter called ‘The Personal God’. It wasn’t for school, and it wasn’t really planned out; it just sort of wrote itself. In it, I set out my reasons for believing that God was created subjectively in the minds of men, and that the concept of a mythical overlord was becoming less relevant as we developed as a species. It wasn’t great: I was 15. But it meant that when I saw a documentary about Nietzsche on TV a few months later – the first time I’d ever heard of him – I was immediately drawn to his ideas. I got a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as soon as I could, devoured it, and covered it in pencil notes.
Apart from the opinions on women he expresses in the book, which frankly seem primitive compared to his other musings, there are many themes that made a big impression on me. The will to power, the bowels of existence; herd morality. His succinct descriptions of the suffering that is so very human and rooted in the self. The idea that the only meaning we can create in this absurdity we call life is that which we make for ourselves. His existentialism set my mindset up nicely to understand the ideas of Thelema a couple of years later, and I have continued to return to this book and his others many times. I think there is an appropriate Nietzsche quote for every situation in life.
2. C.G. Jung – The Essential
Jung’s psychology has had a profound impact on the way I see the world. Generally, a major criticism of his work is that he was swayed too readily by mystical fancies, yet the very fact he was not afraid to face the metaphysical and the unknown is one of the reasons he appeals to me so much. His thought attempts to bridge the gap between science and religion, the rational and the irrational, and had he been around to see modern developments in neuroscience I think he’d have had a lot more to give.
Science or pseudoscience, Jung’s model of the psyche works very well for me. I use it to analyse my mental states, my dreams, my path to individuation (which is remarkably similar to both alchemy and, at times, taoism), and the way I interact with others. His thoughts on the collective unconscious and personal myth constantly feed into my creative work.
I chose this book as the one that shaped me simply because it is the first one of his I read. I borrowed it from my local library when I was about 16 or 17, and was hooked on Jung’s style straight away. Since then I have been working my way through all of his books, including the stunning Red Book, the full folio version of which sits pride of place on my bookshelf.
My mate Jerry is off on a fast-paced wild goose chase with his mind. Seriously man, he’s really going for it this time, grappling with any scrap of information he comes across like its a key to the holy grail. I’m just sat over here on the hill having a smoke, watching him dig deeper underground and burn out all that crazy energy. It’s quite entertaining to be honest, and it’ll pass the time ‘til Sheila comes round later. I’ll have a bath before then probably, if there’s any hot water, and maybe have a tidy round the flat. I’m gonna cook for her: pasta and cheese. I don’t cook for just anyone mind, but I reckon she’s worth more than a packet of 10p noodles, you know? She’s used to being wined and dined, and her Dad’s in the Air Force, so I’ll have to make a bit of an effort or I don’t fancy my chances of seeing her again.
Some people find comfort only in the most complex of situations. They will try to engineer the circumstances under which they believe meaning to arise; often destroying their relationships with others and leaving an ugly trash pile of rejected consequences in their wake.
Life really is much simpler than that. Meaning has never been something to hunt down, for it is everywhere, all of the time. It cannot be detected using instruments and tools and mathematical formulae; what they create for us is at best a map. But meaning can be experienced through the senses, and they are our best shot at being one with the territory.
Of course, meaning itself is a man made concept. It is not absolute. Repeat the word ‘meaning’ enough times and it loses all… meaning. And therein lies the trick. Surrender yourself to your senses, to the here and now, and you will soon find that meaning is in fact meaningless. Furthermore you will laugh at yourself for ever thinking otherwise.
Everything and nothing, wisdom and folly: they’re all the same.
The beach. Where water meets earth. It is damp, flat, open here. There are steep, grassy cliffs leading back up to civilization. I think I’m supposed to feel something in this place: happiness, excitement, or humbleness towards our great planet. I think creativity is supposed to bloom here, born of a new found appreciation of the small things and just being. Of smelling the ocean air, of feeling the sand between my toes. But the truth is, I don’t feel any of that. Instead of beauty I think of soliloquies, Stephen Dedalus and sulking. I feel uncomfortable; my mind awash with greyness and a longing to be Somewhere Else.
I look along the coast to the bustling amusement arcades and eateries. That isn’t the Somewhere either. I’m starting to think the Somewhere doesn’t actually exist.
Children play happily on the beach. They don’t mind the cold wind that tangles their hair into impossible knots or the stony sand that clings to them head and toe. They don’t mind the long walk back to comfort that lies ahead of them, or the grains of earth in their sandwiches that they grip with their seawater-soaked hands. Is childhood the Somewhere? The mind of the child has experiences without the multi-layered analysis we all apply years later. It is a home no one can return to.
Run. Breathe. Centre.
A walk across the rocks. Find the balancing point, make a stack. All the colours, all the textures, all natural. Then the water comes forth; aggressive, ready to swallow up the manmade designs into its chaos. No more sandcastles, no more stone stacks. Keep it random, the sea says. Entropy will always trump empathy.
Before I found my will I was always sleepy and covered in dust. It made me sneeze and i couldn’t see where I was going. Instead I just saw piles and piles of where I had been.
There are millions of others, just the same. Unchanging, unmoving, still people. Gathering layers of waste fibres and allowing something else to live through them. But they are still people.
This is the third of the great existential novels I have read so far this year, and is easily my favourite. It is beautifully written, with real characters the reader can identify with, and contains in a simple story the outline and mood of the existentialist attitude.
The story follows writer Antoine Roquentin through a period of his life in which he questions the validity and authenticity of all he comes across. It is a comment on love, art, ageing, friendship and society as distinct from the individual. It highlights the absurdities of social custom that face us in our everyday lives, and it lets us right into the perspective of a man alone but for his thoughts and his work.
I found the scene in which the protagonist debates (in his mind at least) over dinner with a devout humanist particularly compelling. The conversation highlights the key differences between the two stances, and forces the reader to consider his own thoughts on some specific aspects of the argument. Is a misanthrope actually a form of humanist? Must you know the particular instance of a thing, not just the general qualities of its being, in order to love it? Why would a writer write if not for other people to read? Continue reading “Nausea – Jean-Paul Sartre”