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Nicky Gumbel on encounters with the Holy Spirit

NickyGumbelNicky Gumbel is one of the most successful evangelists of his generation. A former barrister, he’s now the vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an Anglican church in South Kensington where 4000 people come to worship each Sunday and which has helped to plant new churches around the country. He also runs Alpha, a 10-week course on Christianity, which over 27 million people around the world have taken, including 300,000 prison inmates. The app, Bible In One Year, written by Nicky and his wife Pippa, has been downloaded 850,000 times. Despite this success, he still lives in a vicarage, rides around on his bike, and is nick-named ‘Humble Gumbel’ by colleagues.

I met Nicky and Pippa in 2013, when I did the Alpha course. I liked them and admired their devotion to their vision of ‘re-evangelizing the nations, revitalizing the church and transforming society’. I’m also fascinated by the central place of ecstatic experience – or ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ – in Alpha and charismatic Christianity.  Indeed, I’m writing a book about ecstasy in modern secular culture. How important are such experiences, and are there psychological explanations for them?

HTB is famous as the Anglican church which got the Holy Spirit, in the late 1970s, in the early 80s, and again in 1994 at the time of the so-called ‘Toronto Blessing’.

Yes, there have been strong movements of the Holy Spirit, although our theology has never changed. Certainly, since 1982 we’ve regularly prayed ‘Come Holy Spirit’. I see it as like the ocean – there are always waves, but sometimes it’s more gentle and peaceful, and sometimes there are huge waves. I don’t know why sometimes we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and dramatic things happen. We’ve always said that’s not important – sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t. These days things are much more gentle.

Do you miss those earlier days, or would you like to see another big wave?

I don’t feel strongly about it either way. When there’s a big wave it’s often a mixed blessing – it’s certainly a blessing for the people who experience it, and they may go on to do great things in their ministries, but for other people it’s more challenging, because they’re either saying ‘that’s weird’ or ‘why is it not happening to me?’ I’m not pining for those days. We’ll carry on praying ‘Come Holy Spirit’. What strikes me is that even the Alpha weekends when you don’t see anything dramatic, you still hear amazing stories of what happened afterwards. Often the Holy Spirit does its work in gentle ways. Obviously on the day of Pentecost it was a powerful manifestation. But it’s not always like that. What matters ultimately is the fruit, and for people’s lives to become more loving, gentle and peaceful.

Why is the Alpha course so successful?

People know there’s something more than materialism. Materialism is not deeply satisfying, and you can see that. All the people who get to the top say there’s nothing there. However much money you have. I was talking to a friend of mine who is very wealthy. He’s in his mid-70s, and he said ‘money is so toxic, it’s destroyed my life’. It’s destroyed his son – he gave his son too much money and he’s never worked. Fame is the same. It’s very nice for the first year, but then you soon discover it’s quite complicated – you can’t go out for a walk in the park. It doesn’t satisfy. Sex is the same. Yes, there’s pleasure, but actually, people who live very promiscuous lives end up living very complicated lives and it doesn’t satisfy the deeper hunger. So there’s a spiritual hunger, a gap. And people want to discuss that, but they can’t find a forum to discuss it.

There have been efforts to develop secular versions of Alpha or church – secular sermons, philosophy clubs and so on.

I’m sure you could have a happy evening talking about those things with friends. But it would miss that ingredient which is God – it’s something beyond, outside. Alcoholics Anonymous are feeling after that, with the ‘higher power’. There’s such an interest now in spirituality, in prayer, in community. There’s a depth of community in the church that comes from the fact that you’re actually related, you’re brothers and sisters in Christ, not just a random bunch of people trying to have a community. There’s a different level of trust and intimacy. Of course that can be abused, but rightly used it can be an amazing thing.

To what extent do you think the things people might deem as ‘Holy Spirit encounters’ could be accounted for by psychological things like, say, trance states, or hypnosis, or social contagion? It’s striking that similar sorts of ecstatic experiences happen in other religious traditions.

There are three possibilities in the kind of experiences you’re describing. Either it’s demonic, or it’s psychological, or it’s God. Or it could be a combination, particularly of the last two. What matters is the fruit. You don’t know at the time. If it leads to a ministry for Alpha in the prisons, you say I think that was definitely God. If it leads to people coming off heroin and finding peace in their life, you say that looks like it was God. And if it was just psychological, maybe we need more of the psychological. I remember when John Wimber came here, and I and a lot of other people had a very powerful experience of the Holy Spirit, a psychologist friend of mine said ‘what he’s doing is a well-known form of mass hypnosis’.  I said this to Sandy Millar [the head of HTB in the 1980s], to which Sandy replied ‘not well-enough known’. If the fruit is that people are healed, set free, their lives changed, their family lives restored, if they love their neighbours more, if they transform their communities, if it leads to the abolition of the slave trade, that sounds like God.

John Wimber, one of the founders of the Vineyard church movement, popular with ‘Jesus freaks’ of the late 60s and 70s including Bob Dylan

But still, there’s a risk in charismatic Christianity, going back through the Pentecostalists, the Methodists, all the way to mystics like St Theresa, of taking physical sensations as evidence for ‘God’s favour’. But physical sensations are very easy to manipulate through hypnosis and suggestion or auto-suggestion. I’ve been to services where the preacher says ‘you might be feeling dizzy, or you might be feeling warm’ or whatever. It’s not reliable evidence so there’s a risk in putting too much weight on it.

Yes, absolutely. On the Alpha weekend, when we pray for the Holy Spirit, I once said ‘these are the kind of things you might be experiencing, and if you are, that’s OK’. And someone said to me ‘that’s suggestion – people are feeling those things because you said so’. So the next weekend I didn’t say anything about what people might feel, and there were very powerful manifestations, and someone came up to me afterwards and said ‘why didn’t you warn us?’ So what I try to say now is ‘these things don’t need to happen, but if they do, that’s OK, it’s not wrong or weird’. The point I try to emphasise is, that’s not what matters. I use the analogy of falling in love – you might get tingling in your spine, but that’s not what’s important, it’s your relationship. The physical manifestations are not important, but nor are they bad. They’re beautiful in a way, because it’s part of the relationship with God. But pursuing the physical sensations is not what you should be doing.

A 19th century Methodist camp-meeting, where singing, emotional preaching, group dynamics and - perhaps - the Holy Spirit combined to create mass conversions
A 19th century Methodist camp-meeting, where singing, emotional preaching, group dynamics and – perhaps – the Holy Spirit combined to create mass conversions

Back in 2013, after I’d done the Alpha course with you, I went to a Christian retreat in Wales, which was highly charismatic. And in the midst of a very emotional service, the preacher asked if anyone wanted to commit their life to Jesus. This was right after I’d had a powerful ecstatic experience. So I put my hand up. Charismatic churches often do that – the preacher asks, in the midst of very emotional services, if people want to commit their life to Jesus. But I wonder, amid all that emotion, are people really in their right minds to make such a long-term decision? It’s a bit like getting married in Vegas – can people really make deep life-long decisions in the heat of collective passion?

If it’s not real then it won’t continue. If it’s only an emotional reaction, it won’t last.

But why do churches do that – ask people to publicly commit their life to Jesus right in the middle of a very emotional service?

Well, not everyone commits to Jesus in a service. I did it when I was on my own. I don’t think it matters where you do it. On Alpha, we don’t ask people to come up to the front or whatever, we say they can commit their lives to Jesus by saying a prayer in their heart. The reason we do that is because of that verse of St Paul – ‘if you believe in your heart, and confess with your lips’. There’s something very important about confessing with your lips. The confessing with your lips doesn’t have to be a big public declaration – often on Alpha it happens in the small groups, and people tell others that they prayed the prayer. That moment is often the moment that something really happens in their life. Paul says that’s when people are saved.

The first time I came to HTB, what struck me was how well done everything was – the music, the videos, the welcoming, the talk. But that’s precisely what freaks out some skeptics or high Anglicans – they feel they’re being emotionally manipulated. Now, you could say religions have always tried to manipulate emotions. What do you think – should churches try to reach people’s emotions?

We should try and remove barriers. And things done really badly is a barrier. If you give people a plastic cup with rather disgusting tea and a stale biscuit, it might put people off. When they go to anything in the secular world, they get great food. Why not give them what they would get in the secular world? If you go to Glastonbury, they don’t put on ropey music. They make it as good as they can. We also should make the music as good as we can. If you go to a TED or Intelligence Squared talk, it’s very well done. Why would you want to listen to something that wasn’t well done? We’re trying to honour the Lord in what we’re doing. If Christianity means you have to have badly cooked food, rotten music and boring sermons with wonky slides, it’s not a very good representation of how things should be.

Here’s a video of highlights of HTB’s big summer festival, Focus.

One thing I’m a bit wary of in charismatic Christianity is the confirmation bias. Any prayer that’s answered, or prophetic word that comes true, is seized on and publicly celebrated, without necessarily being investigated. All the prayers not answered, or healings that don’t happen, aren’t mentioned.

Yes, it’s a very interesting point. We used to have a newspaper called Alpha News. People used to say ‘this is just full of good news stories, every story is about someone being healed or a church growing – what about the bad news stories?’ Sandy’s answer was to joke ‘we don’t have enough newspaper to fit all the bad news!’. He’d also say ‘let the Devil publish the bad news, we’re going to publish the good news’. There’s plenty of places to hear bad news. Who’s telling you the good news? But still, we have to be very careful with stories. I make a distinction on Alpha – you can tell stories which are illustrations of something, where it doesn’t really matter if the story is true or not. It’s like Jesus telling the story about the Good Samaritan. Did it happen? Maybe, maybe not. Does it matter? It’s a story. On the other hand, if you tell a story about someone that was healed, you’d better get it right, and you better not exaggerate, because you’re telling a story about what God actually did. It’s the difference between the poetry of the Psalms and the history of the gospels.

On the Alpha course we’re not just taught that God loves us, but also that there’s an Enemy – Satan – who is trying to get us. I think that Abrahamic religions’ belief in devils and demons is often quite harmful, particularly if you assume that anyone who opposes you or thinks differently to you is ‘demonic’, or if you assume people with mental illness are demonically possessed (as has often been the case in the past).  I’ve known Christians who think that Hindus are demonic, for example, or that ‘the gay lobby’ is demonic. You can get this paranoid world-view where every place you look you see little pointy horns.

The opposite of wrong use is not disuse but right use. Yes, there are huge dangers with believing in the demonic. The two you highlighted are real dangers and are extremely harmful. Mental illness is like physical illness. You could be healed miraculously but most people would get medical treatment and get healed. And yes there’s always a danger of demonising anyone who disagrees with you. You need a healthy appreciation of our own sinfulness, and the fact we don’t have the truth. No one has the truth except Jesus, who is the truth. The main issue though is, how do you explain evil in the world? Look at what’s going on in the world – the beheadings, the crucifixions, people throwing bombs into hospitals. It’s so evil. There’s a lot of evil in the world. I don’t want to think there’s demons or devils or evil in the world. But there is bad stuff out there. Part of it is free will – we choose not to love. But Jesus seemed to believe that there were demonic forces around. Paul also talks about how our battle is not against flesh and blood but spiritual forces. Occasionally, when I was working as a lawyer, I came across people who were sheer evil. Only twice. When you come across real evil, it suggests something more than you see here. We’re very protected in this part of the world, you don’t see much of it.

When I wrote about going on Alpha, some of my readers unsubscribed because they thought HTB was homophobic. Let’s say I have a gay friend who wants to find God but also wants to celebrate their sexuality, would they be welcome at Alpha?

We welcome everyone at Alpha, no matter what their lifestyle or sexuality. There’s no one that’s ever been turned away. We want everyone to feel loved, welcome and accepted here. That’s our philosophy.

But you still think homosexuality is a sin?

We are an Anglican church, but we’re also part of a global church. If you look at the teaching of the Orthodox church, the Catholic church, the Pentecostal church, the Anglican church, it’s pretty much on a par. HTB’s view on all these things is no different from the global church. You can not like it or disagree with it. But what you can’t say is ‘HTB has this view’ – it’s not HTB’s view, its the majority view of the global church.

Your work has touched a lot of people’s lives, and when that happens, they can sometimes idolise you, or demonise you, or both! They can project a lot of emotional neediness onto you. How do you handle that?

Anyone who’s married has a fairly healthy view of their own weaknesses and shortcomings. I try and tell stories that show my own vulnerability and weakness. If they didn’t know it already they soon discover it. Anyone who works at HTB knows we’re very far from perfect. At the same time you have to try and live an authentic Christian life. Paul was always trying to be a model, while also being aware of his own sinfulness and weakness. I’ve never been conscious of anyone idolising me, there’s a bit of demonizing. There probably are some who get idolised – the big figures like Billy Graham. On the other hand, they are amazing, they made a big difference in the world.

What do you think is the biggest barrier for modern people to God?

That’s an interesting question. What do you think?

Firstly, that we’re a very rational empiricist culture now, and only believe in things we can touch and measure – matter, in other words. And secondly, we don’t like kneeling. We don’t want any authority higher than us.

I think you’re right. I think the rationalist barrier is shifting. There used to be a lot of Dawkins followers coming along to Alpha quite a lot, but it’s totally gone now. I think the Dawkins thing is too depressing and too dark. But I think the second barrier is the one that’s beginning to dominate. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do, or any authority outside of ourself. That’s why we’ve changed the order of the Alpha talk. It used to be the Bible first, then prayer. Now, people love prayer, but they’re deeply suspicious of the Bible because it’s an authority outside of ourselves.

Feel free to leave thoughts and responses in the comments section below, and please don’t be rude if you disagree with someone’s position.

For another piece on ritual and spiritual healing, check out this interview I did with Paul Dieppe, medical professor at Exeter University.

Mind Palaces: the art of psycho-technics, or soul-craft

42be11b56059d244f573bac445e722aaThis week, I’ve been researching an ancient mnemonic technique called ‘the mind palace’, where people imprint a real or imagined building onto their memory – a palace, a mansion, a church, even a whole street – and then fill it with striking images, to which they attach bits of information they want to remember.

The Greek poet Simonides is supposed to have come upon the technique in around 400 BC and used it to memorize poems. It became popular with Greek and Roman orators including Cicero, who used it to memorize speeches and to remember evidence for cases. It flourished in the Renaissance, when magi like Giordano Bruno and Ramon Lull memorized incredibly complex systems of words, symbols and hieroglyphs in an attempt to become a sort of World Wide Web of occult knowledge. And it survives today: Derren Brown and other memory-prodigies use it, as does Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series. [So does, er, Hannibal Lecter, a reader informs me!]

Daniel Levitin, in his new book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, suggests that the technique works because our memory-system for images and places is older and more reliable than our memory-system for names and words. So if you want to remember something, convert it into an image and store it in a familiar place in your mind.

How does this memory-technique fit into my research into transcendence?

Well, in my research I’ve noticed certain metaphors of the mind re-appearing in the literature on transcendence. And one of the most persistent is the metaphor of the mind as a palace, castle, or ‘many-roomed mansion’. Explorers of transcendence, from St Augustine to St Teresa to Thomas Traherne to Keats, often use this image to suggest the awesome vastness of the soul, and to urge the reader to journey within.

The metaphor isn’t just suggestive, it’s also creative. As Julian Jaynes noted, we construct the soul through the metaphors we use to describe it – so the metaphor of the soul as mansion is a form of soul-craft or psycho-technics, a way of structuring and expanding the psyche.

So here’s the question: how did an ancient memory-technique become a mystical exercise?

The key is Pythagoras, the magician-philosopher of the sixth century BC. His followers believed that Memory was the mother of all the muses, including philosophy. They memorized maxims, incantations, poems and emblems or symbols as a way to fill their souls with wisdom and connect them to the Divine.

A similar idea appears in Plato and in the Stoics (although the Stoics tend to be more verbal than symbolic): the soul is malleable, or plastic, and we can train the memory by repeating certain ideas. In Plato, a more mystical note is introduced – the reincarnated soul already knows everything, if it could but wake up from its slumber, so new insights are really a form of recollection of Who We Really Are. If we wake up, he says in the Phaedo, then our soul will return to the mansion of its divinity.

commandingcosmosorigIt is Aristotle, however, who sees the imagination as key to soul-craft. In some elliptic remarks in De Anima, he says that it’s impossible to think without images. So the imagination, or phantasia, is crucial to all forms of thinking. The imagination is a two-way ladder – it takes sensory information from the material world and spiritualizes it into the ideas of the spiritual or intelligible world. It also takes ideas from the spiritual realm and materializes them into symbols and stories which rouse our emotions. Memory is central to this spiritual alchemy – it is the storehouse from which the imagination constructs its stories or movies. Aristotle’s conception of the imagination would be hugely influential on Christian and Sufi mysticism.

The mystical visualization of the Mind Palace

St Augustine, who’d studied the mind-palace memory technique when he was an orator, develops the mystic metaphor of the soul as mansion in his Confessions . ‘Narrow is the mansion of my soul, oh Lord’, he declares. ‘Enlarge it, that you may enter it.’ He is connecting, of course, the Greek tradition of soul-as-mansion with the beautiful image of Jesus: ‘In my father’s house are many mansions’ (John 14:2).

For Augustine, the interior journey into memory is central to this expansion of the soul-mansion. In Book X of his Confessions, which I think is one of the most beautiful things in all western culture, he writes this – it makes me think of Morpheus and Neo in their white room:

I come to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things perceived by the senses…When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought forth, and something instantly comes; others must be longer sought after, which are fetched, as it were, out of some inner receptacle; others rush out in troops, and while one thing is desired and required, they start forth, as if to say, “Is it perchance I?” These I drive away with the hand of my heart, from the face of my remembrance; until what I wish for is unveiled, and appears in sight, out of its secret place.

This is a wonderful description of the mind-palace as used by Greek orators (Augustine was trained as an orator). Man is the curator of his soul-mansion, which he fills with priceless images. But this could lead to pride – we are the lords of our self-made mansions, we are the masters of interior design! But St Augustine warns us not to be proud – we didn’t make the mansion, we’re a guest in our own souls. We need to seek the Lord in our minds and memories, which is not easy, because He is transcendent to our human imagining.

And our soul-mansion is not in great shape, in Augustine’s imagination. It’s ruined, locked up, covered with cobwebs, filled with trash, crawling with vermin. In his memory-journey, Augustine goes back generations to Adam’s original fall, when humans were expelled from the Edenic central courtyard of the mansion. We need to repair the mansion and tidy it up to make it an abode fit for its maker once again. But attempts at DIY are not sufficient, says Augustine. We need Jesus to repair our wonky mansions.

Around this time, Jewish mystics begin to use the metaphor of a journey through mansions as a form of occult visualization. There’s a whole body of Jewish mystical literature from the first century AD (when the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Army), called hekhalot or mansions, in which the mystic imagines an inner temple, and journeys through seven mansions until they come to the throne-room, the deepest part of the soul. This method is passed down into the medieval tradition of Kabbalah – the Zohar, for example, is a visualized journey through the seven palaces of heaven and the seven palaces of hell.

A similar method appears in Sufi visualizations, in the mystical treatises of Ibn Arabi and others, who picture heaven as a garden with seven courtyards. Ibn Arabi, following Averroes and Aristotle, sees the imagination as a spiritualizing faculty which converts the memory of sensory data into ideas and symbols. Sometimes that alchemy happens passively and involuntarily, as in dreams (I don’t know about you, but I often find myself wandering through a dream-city in my sleep). But we can develop an ‘active imagination’, learn how to dream consciously, as it were, using visualization.

This technique and the metaphor of the mansion passes into Christian mysticism, where its most beautiful expression is St Teresa’s Interior Castle, in which the reader moves through seven mansions before meeting the Lord and uniting with Him in ecstasy. For a Renaissance magi like Giordano Bruno or Ramon Lull, meanwhile, the ‘mind palace’ is both a memory-technique and an occult method for connecting the soul to God (Frances Yates’ The Art Of Memory is a useful resource for this).

Soul-craft in the arts

Now, you recall that the ‘mind palace’ technique is first associated with a poet, Simonides. His genius, it was said, united the arts of philosophy, poetry and painting, because he painted the soul with poetic images, in a way that ethical philosophers would find useful as a means of character-building. From the Middle Ages onwards, we find the idea of crafting the soul with imagination and symbolism appearing in poetry, painting and architecture.

As the historian Frances Yates puts it, this idea is the key to so much of the greatest western culture. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, could be seen as a form of soul-craft – a visualized journey through the nine circles of Hell, the seven terraces of Purgatory and the nine circles of Heaven, with various striking emblems of vice and virtue to memorize along the way. To read it is to expand and encode one’s soul. The poem is what Ted Hughes called a ‘big dream’ – psycho-technics for the tribe.

The Divine Comedy is the greatest example of this sort of soul-craft, but there are many others, like the Pearl poem, where the poet, in a dream, travels to see the New Jerusalem, and connects his tribe to that vision.

Many of the greatest Medieval and Renaissance paintings can also be seen as a form of imaginative soul-craft. Raphael’s School of Athens, for example, is imprinted on my soul (through endless gawping at the poster of it on my wall). It’s a portal between the sensory and the spiritual world, connecting us to Raphael’s ideal city, where the philosophers stay in our memory as emblems of virtue. My favourite paintings of the Renaissance are pictures of ideal cities in which angels descend to communicate with us – this is a symbol of the imagination itself, the daemonic messenger between the sensory and the spiritual realms.

The Seven Virtues, from the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Medieval and Renaissance architecture is also a form of psycho-technics. The Venerable Bede speaks of how a saint travelled to Italy, sees a beautiful church filled with images, imprints it on her memory, and then gets masons to build a copy in England, painted with colorful images of the saints and Passion. ‘Thus all who entered the church, even those who could not read, were able to contemplate the dear face of Christ and His saints, even if only in a picture’. It’s not surprising there is an association between masons and magic: churches and cathedrals expand the souls of those who frequent them.

Psycho-technics in the modern era

In the early modern era, I’d suggest, we lost the ancient concept of phantasia as a key cognitive capacity. Fantasy became delusion, the enemy both of Scripture and the scientific method. But the idea of the soul as mansion survived in some poetry, in the Metaphysicals for example, like Thomas Traherne, who describes the soul as ‘a cabinet of infinite value’; or Keats, who compared the soul to a ‘mansion of many rooms’, and who suggested the universe is a ‘vale of soul-making’; or Blake, who spoke of cleansing the ‘doors of perception’, and who devised his own unique graphic poetry to engrave on his audience’s souls.

The idea of the close link between imagination and memory is particularly rich in Wordsworth’s Prelude. Where in the Middle Ages people would imprint the memory of palaces or cathedrals onto their soul, Wordsworth imprints the memory of peaks and vales, and creates an inner Lake District which he can visit.

743913More recently, Ted Hughes strived to preserve the ancient tradition. He wrote, in his essay Poetry in the Making, ‘In our brains there are many mansions, and most of the doors are locked, with the keys inside’. Imagination unlocks these doors, connecting the outer world of sense with the inner world of spirit. Hughes spoke (in an essay on Keats) of poetry as a form of medicine, a ‘healing energy’, which acts on the auto-immune system. He’s quite right – what science calls ‘the placebo response’ is really the imagination, it connects the mental or spiritual world with our nervous and auto-immune system, and it can cure or kill us.

Hughes also understood that myth, metaphor and symbolism are ways of organizing the psyche’s otherwise inchoate energy – psycho-technics, in other words. The Big Dreamers, like Dante and Shakespeare, are psycho-tects who expand human consciousness, creating vast mythical structures to give our souls shape. Yet we are losing the myths, Hughes warns, and our inner lives are becoming impoverished as a result. The doors are closing. We’ve become overly-reliant on empiricism and rationalism, we equate the material with the real, and the invisible with the unreal.

Perhaps, though, one still sees signs of the spiritual conception of phantasia in pop culture (intelligent culture is far too intellectual and contemptuous of the spiritual). I see glimmers of it in fantasy and comic book culture, particularly the work of Allan Moore, whose series Promethea is a comic book exploration of Kabbalah, in which stories, ideas and archetypes exist in a spiritual realm called the Immateria. When we read or imagine a story, Moore suggests, we connect to this realm and channel the archetypes. Art is a form of magic, bringing down ideas and symbols from the Immateria and actualizing them in the material realm.


I see the idea of the soul as a memory-mansion or memory-theatre in cinema too, particularly the films of Christopher Nolan like Inception, or Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Birdman, and particularly What Dreams May Come. I see it in some of the incredibly immersive virtual cities found in games like GTA V and Assassin’s Call, and the virtual palaces of Minecraft.  And in general, the internet seems to me an enormous virtual city,  a Psychopolis or Infopolis, in which we construct vast memory-palaces of information and dreams.

The Utopian Imaginary, or Castles in the Sky

Finally (well done for getting this far), let me just talk briefly about phantasia and politics. What we’ve been discussing, this art of mnemo-technics and psycho-technics, has a political dimension too. It’s not just an interior exercise – some magi attempt to bridge the interior and exterior, the spiritual and the political.

You remember how the mind palace technique was originally used by poets and orators to memorize poems and speeches? Well, a similar sort of visualization-technique is at the heart of Utopian rhetoric – the prophet visualizes an image of an ideal city, and then inspires people to build it. In this sense, rhetoric is a sort of mysticism turned outward. This is the Utopian Imaginary, the use of phantasia in politics.

There is a close connection between the mind palace memory technique, and Utopian political philosophy. The poet-philosopher imagines an ideal city, a ‘castle in the air’ as Ernst Bloch put it – Plato imagines the Republic, for example, or Jesus imagines his New Jerusalem, or St Augustine imagines his City of God, or Tomasso Campanella imagines his City of the Sun, or Martin Luther King imagines his multicultural future-city. And then they describe this city in speech, paint a picture of it, plant the seed of it in the febrile imaginations of their followers, so they sacrifice themselves to make it real. ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, as Christians put it.

It can have beautiful results, but it can also be horrific – because people get so entranced by their vision of the future, they lose all reason, and all compassion for those in their way. We only have to look to Syria to see how murderous the Utopian Imaginary can be.



Here’s my newsletter round-up of interesting links (you can sign up in the box on the top right of the homepage)

Last newsletter I moaned that the BBC never has any programmes about religious ecstasy. Well, the cosmos loves to laugh at us – two days later, radio 4 broadcast this excellent programme on, yes,  ecstatic experiences. It was made by John McCarthy, the journalist who spent several years in captivity in Lebanon, and who had an ecstatic experience while imprisoned. He interviews psychiatrists, ecstatic joggers, and considers the near-death experience of the lead-singer of Spiritualized. Fantastic stuff.
Last week’s guest on Desert Island Discs was the incredibly gifted actor Mark Rylance, who turns out to be a Jungian animist with a fondness for the I-Ching.
John Gray is speaking on freedom at the LSE on Wednesday, if you’re in London.
Poignant article from Oliver Sacks, facing terminal cancer, and still working on ‘several books’. He’s written five since he was diaognosed. What a lovely, lovely human being. Here he is as a wild young biker.
Should first-world humanitarian agencies bring in therapy services for crisis-hit populations in developing countries who might be suffering from PTSD, or is that an inappropriate export of a western medical construct? The Guardian considers.
Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s music critic, considers the avant garde influences on Bjork.
Also on the music tip, here’s a marvellous documentary about Carole King.
Here is a Radio 3 Free Thinking programme about mindfulness and Zen, with Mark Vernon and Chris Harding among the guests.

Has psychiatry silenced God? Here’s a discussion from Edinburgh’s book festival, including members of the ‘Hearing the Voice’ research project at Durham’s Centre for the Medical Humanities.

Adult suicides in the UK in 2013 were their highest level for 10 years.  And a new report looks at hundreds of suicides by mentally ill people confined in prisons or mental health facilities, and concludes most were easily avoidable if staff were better trained in mental health.
And finally, best moment of the Oscars last night – Graham Moore, who won best adapted screenplay for the Imitation Game, used his speech to talk about how he tried to kill himself when he was 16, and to reassure those teenagers watching, if they also feel weird and like they don’t belong, that they do.
See you next time,