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Aldous Huxley on upwards and downwards self-transcendence

Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._43_-_El_sueño_de_la_razon_produce_monstruosLast week, I went to an exhibition on Goya, in Boston. It was filled with his bizarre and fantastic dream-drawings, exploring the strange manias and nightmares that fill humans’ minds when their reason is switched off – as in the classic engraving, the Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.

The museum bookstore had an excellent selection of books exploring this theme, including Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun, which I picked up on a whim. It’s a non-fiction book about a famous case of mass demonic possession among a group of nuns in 16th century France (the book was the inspiration for Ken Russell’s 1971 film, The Devils.)

Huxley uses the incident to explore our urge for self-transcendence, and how this can lead us not upwards but downwards, into the irrational and unhealthy parts of the subconscious. Humans, he says, have a ‘deep-seated urge for self-transcendence’. They ‘long to get out of themselves, to pass beyond the limits of that tiny island universe, within which every individual finds himself confined.’

This urge comes from our sense of boredom, claustrophobia, loneliness and cosmic smallness when we’re stuck in the closed and repetitive loop of the ego. But also, more positively, ‘if we experience an urge to self-transcendence, it is because, in some obscure way, we know who we really are. We know (or to be more accurate something within us knows) that the ground of our individual knowing is identical with the Ground of all knowing and all being…When the phenomenal ego transcends itself, the essential Self is free to realize the fact of its own eternity…This is liberation, this is enlightenment, this is the beatific vision.”

That’s putting it in quite Christian / Hindu terms. An atheist like Sam Harris would put it slightly differently – the urge to self-transcendence is the urge to go beyond our painful self-absorption, self-pity and ceaseless craving, so we realize the blissful non-existence of self and interdependence of all things.

Devils-of-Loudun-06However, here’s the risk, according to Huxley: ‘Self-transcendence is by no means invariably upwards. Indeed, in most cases, it is an escape either downward into a state below that of personality, or else horizontally into something wider than the ego, but not higher, not essentially other [like art, science, politics, a hobby or job]. Needless to say, these substitutes for upward self-transcendence, these escapes into subhuman or merely human surrogates for Grace, are unsatisfactory at the best, and at the worst, disastrous.’

In the epilogue to The Devils, Huxley lists some of these ‘Grace-substitutes’ or varieties of downward self-transcendence.

First, narcotics and alcohol: ‘millions upon millions of civilized men and women continue to pay their devotions, not to the liberating and transfiguring Spirit, but to alcohol, to hashish, to opium and its derivatives, to the barbituates, and other synthetic additions to the age-old catalogue of poisons capable of causing self-transcendence. In every case, of course, what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement.’

Then there is self-transcendence through sex, ‘the perennial attraction of debauchery’, the delicious sense of surrender to an other, a la 50 Shades of Grey. Worst of all, in Huxley’s opinion, is self-transcendence through ‘crowd-delirium’.

He writes:

The fact of being one of a multitude delivers a man from his consciousness of being an insulated self and carries him down into a less than personal realm, where there are no responsibilities, no right or wrong – only a strong vague sense of togetherness, only a shared excitement…Drugged by the mysterious poison which every excited herd secretes [eh?], they fall into a state of heightened suggestibility.

Authority figures in politics often recognize the danger of drugs and debauchery, but are dangerously seduced by the lure of controlling crowds through forms of mass hypnosis: ‘Pilgrimages and political rallies, corybantic revivals and patriotic parades – these things are ethically right so long as they are our pilgrimages, our revivals and our parades.’

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The Devils of Woodstock

Related to these downward self-transcendences through sex, drugs and crowd-intoxication is the downward self-transcendence through ‘rhythmic movement’ and ‘rhythmic sound’, ‘for the purpose of inducing a state of infra-personal and sub-human ecstasy’. History ‘records many sporadic outbreaks of involuntary and uncontrollable jigging, swaying and head-wagging’, which are involuntary means of escaping from ‘insulated selfhood into a state in which there are no responsibilities, no guilt-laden past or haunting future, only the present, blissful consciousness of being someone else’. Huxley was writing in 1951, just before rock and roll would burst onto the scene.

Huxley suggests that the demonic possession of the nuns of Loudun was really an outbreak of these forms of downward self-transcendence. The head nun became sexually obsessed with a hot priest, the contents of her unconscious started to spill out and haunt her consciousness, and then the other nuns gave in to a sort of crowd-intoxication, letting all of the contents of their inhibited sexual fantasies out under the guise of being possessed by demons. This collective orgy was actively encouraged by the exorcist priests, keen to put on a show for the glorification of the Church and the destruction of its enemies (the hot priest was accused of being a sorcerer and eventually burnt).

Here’s the trailer for Russell’s film, which seems to suggest that the excesses of the 60s counter-culture was comparable to an outbreak of mass hysteria:

The way up is also the way down?

The book gives you a vivid sense of the irrational and dangerous power of religion. But what of upward self-transcendence?

Huxley speaks much less of upward self-transcendence in this book, but he explores it at length in The Perennial Philosophy, written six years earlier. He appears to believe this path is only open to a handful of mystics and contemplatives, who use meditative techniques to liberate themselves from their many selves (the ego, the subconscious) until they finally reach the Ground of Being. It’s an individualist, intellectualist and elitist vision of spirituality. He sees all crowds as ‘the social equivalent of a cancer’ – an extreme if understandable position in a world recovering from fascism.

Here’s the Big Question: ‘To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of a descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?’

Huxley admits that ‘a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.’ He writes:

When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being. So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various non-selves with which we are associated – the organic non-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium…and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest.

So all these downward paths out of the ego may become upward paths to the Spirit – people can become awakened through drug experiences (Huxley would of course write a lot more positively about this later in The Doors of Perception, published three years later), through sex (he is a fan of DH Lawrence’s exploration of sex-mysticism) and through crowd-intoxication: ‘Some good may sometimes come out of even the most corybantic of revival meetings’, he says rather condescendingly.

His idea of upward and downward transcendence reminds me of the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s concept of the ‘pre-trans fallacy’: we can mistakenly believe that any journey beyond rationality or beyond the ego is spiritual. However, often these journeys are a reversion to earlier, primitive irrationality – speaking in tongues or uncontrollable giggling could be seen as a reversion to infantile baby-talk rather than spiritual transcendence. We’re not going forwards, we’re going backwards.

This is why the spiritual path is so difficult. I wonder if the way up doesn’t inevitably involve the way down too – to reach the ‘heart’, or the ‘ground of Being’, you journey through the mist of the psychic realm, through the swamp of your unconscious with all its fantasies, resentments and longings. And at every step, your ego can reappear and try to assert its fantasies of self-glorification.

In our skeptical era, we tend to write off both upward and downward transcendence as childish flights into irrationality. But that doesn’t work, because the human urge for self-transcendence does not go away. And there are profoundly positive things we can get from self-transcendence – healing, creativity, group-bonding, self-actualization.

The negative vision shown in Goya’s Sleep of Reason is not the whole story. In fact, the original for the engraving was called The Vision of the Artist, and is arguably a more positive vision. The full title is ‘Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels’. We shouldn’t simply ignore the subliminal self and its gifts, rather, we should learn how to balance them with our critical rationality.

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What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

lrYoDsSIn my review of Sam Harris’ Waking Up two weeks ago, I wrote this sentence: “Spiritual experiences tell us something about the cosmos,…the experience of infinite loving-consciousness is a glimpse of the very ground of being, also sometimes called God, Brahman, Allah, the Logos, the Tao, the Buddha-realm.”

This sentence seemed to surprise some people – one reader asked what it was exactly I believed, while another reader who said reading my blog helped bring him back to Christianity promptly cancelled his subscription!

So what is behind that statement? Well, it’s a classic expression of something called the Perennial Philosophy, which is the belief that at the core of all the great religions and wisdom traditions is the same mystical experience of Ultimate Reality. All the surface disagreements, different names for Ultimate Reality, different myths etc are just window-dressing.

The Perennial Philosophy has its historical roots in the syncretism of Renaissance humanists like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, who suggested that Plato, Jesus, Hermes Trismegistus and the Kabbalah were all pointing to the same God (they were almost excommunicated as a result). Leibniz also championed the philosophia perennis. You can see it flourishing in the transcendentalism of Emerson, Coleridge and Thoreau.

220px-PerennialPhilsophyThe idea then reached a mass-market through Aldous Huxley’s 1945 book, The Perennial Philosophy, and then in the 1960s it became almost the foundational idea of the New Age, spread through centres like Esalen, the California spiritual community that developed the ‘religion of no religion’.

I’d suggest the Perennial Philosophy is in some ways the ruling spiritual philosophy of our time, including in its ranks everyone from Sam Harris to Abraham Maslow to Ken Wilber to Prince Charles – yes, the future defender of the Anglican faith is a devotee of Perennialism (read this fascinating speech he gave about it).

‘One mountain, many paths.’ It’s the philosophy I grew up in, as did all of my friends. We loved the Upanishads, Rumi, the I-Ching, Walt Whitman, Carlos Castaneda, Chang-Tzu, Marcus Aurelius, the Dhammapada (we tended to give the Bible a wide berth, like an ex at a cocktail party).

The Perennial Philosophy is a much more natural attitude to me than the exclusivism and tribalism of Christianity, which I find strange and incredible. While my adventures in Christianity of the last two years introduced me for the first time to Christian wisdom and grace, I still have a deep sense of the richness of other traditions. And when I meet evangelical Christians who believe any other faith is demonic, I think they’re mental.

What I have been developing, this year, is something called the Wisdom Approach, which teaches ideas, practices and values from various different wisdom traditions. I think the idea of healing wisdom – Sophia – connects all the great wisdom traditions, including atheist ones like Epicureanism and Buddhism. The courses I run try to explore this common ground while also exploring the different destinations they attempt to reach.

What’s wrong with the Perennial Philosophy?

This week, I read a book which made some trenchant criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy. The book’s called Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality, by Jorge Ferrer, a professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Ferrer makes three main criticisms of the Perennial Philosophy approach:

1) All religions are not the same

The Perennial Philosophy, by being so universalist and essentialist, ends up doing violence to the traditions it tries to cohere. The Tao is not the same as the Christian God (the Tao cares nothing for individuals, as Lao Tzu says), nor are either the same as Buddhist sunyata or emptiness. The eternal now of Buddhism or Stoicism is fundamentally different to Christianity’s radical hope for the future. The mystics themselves do not agree that all religions are talking about the same ultimate reality.

2) Perennialists tend to rank religions hierarchically

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others. Perennialists tend to rank religions, and even sects within religions. Shamanism is the lowest, then monotheisms like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then mystics within these traditions (Rumi is better than Mohammad, Meister Eckhart is better than Jesus), then Buddhism and Hinduism, and the peak of the mountain is non-dualist philosophies of emptiness like Advaita and Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen.

All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others
All religions are equal, but some are more equal than others

Christianity is usually near or at the bottom – Sam Harris says it has basically nothing useful to say about the human condition, Aldous Huxley said the Bible was an obstacle to evolution – and Tibetan Buddhism is at the top. Look at the Contemplative Studies conference I’m going to in Boston this month – I’d estimate 90% of the speakers are western Buddhists, hardly any are Christians, and the key-note speaker is, obviously, the Dalai Lama.

Perennialists tend to be western and tend to have rejected their Judeo-Christian background, and therefore rank Christianity low in their wisdom rankings. And of course Christianity, like Islam and Judaism, fits uneasily within a Perennial framework, with their tribal eschatologies and their faith in their unique revelation.

3) Perennialism often tends to the tyranny of empiricism and Cartesian reductionism

Perennialists like Huxley, Maslow, Wilber or Sam Harris tend to describe the Perennial Philosophy as a ‘science of consciousness’, providing empirical certainty for some of the claims of the mystics. Your mind is the laboratory, in which you can go and check these facts for yourself. This attitude, while understandable in its attempt to validate spiritual experiences within a hostile scientific materialist environment, tends to reduce such experiences to subjective occurrences in the individual brain.

Towards a participatory spirituality

So what is Ferrer’s alternative? He suggests that Perennialism often succumbs to an outdated ‘mental representation’ model of cognition: Divine Reality exists out there, and we experience it in our minds, like a camera taking a photo. Instead, he suggests a more participatory form of knowing. Our consciousness and imagination helps to create the reality we experience.

solaris-movie-poster-1020293406This is a somewhat trippy idea, but I’ve come across it in the last year through the writings of two interesting religious scholars – Tanya Luhrmann and Jeffrey Kripal. Both suggest that our relationship with Being is reciprocal, it responds to how we relate to it, manifesting in the attitudes or stories we project, playing with them, making them real. This reminds me a bit of Andrei Tarkovsky’s idea of Solaris or The Zone – the magical force that projects our dreams back to us.

Kripal calls the intermediary between us and Being  ‘the Imaginal’ – an idea with its roots in Plato, in Sufism, in the creative transcendentalism of Coleridge and the Inklings (CS Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield), and more explicitly in the psychology of Frederick Myers. Being responds to the stories we project onto it – this is why Kripal believes the humanities are fundamental to the study of consciousness (here’s a video of him talking about the Imaginal at Queen Mary, University of London earlier this year).

Ferrer’s ‘participatory knowing’ can be both individual or collective – we bring forth a special manifestation of Being collectively. We open a portal together, as the apostles did at the Pentecost. It’s not an individual experience so much as an event in which we participate.

Rather than the ‘one mountain many paths’ metaphor, Ferrer suggests ‘one ocean many shores’. The ocean is the starting point, which most great wisdom traditions share – the belief that we can liberate ourselves from our ego and connect to a more expanded consciousness and reality. However, from that ocean, we can reach many different shores. These will involve different spiritual experiences, and even (Ferrer suggests) different metaphysical realities.

Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact
Jodi Foster exploring the Multiverse in Contact

That metaphor doesn’t quite work for me, because we tend to think of the ocean as the end-point, not the starting-point. Let me suggest this – one rocket launch-pad, many different destinations. The rocket launch-pad of spiritual traditions tend to be similar ethical practices to go beyond the ego. However, spiritual astronauts then reach different planets, different space stations, different universes, where perhaps they encounter different beings (or manifestations of Being).

This seems to be more or less the position that William James reached – he coined the term ‘multiverse’ and suggested a ‘pluralist mysticism’ in an essay on the 19th-century psychonaut Benjamin Blood, who wrote: “Variety, not uniformity, is more likely to be the key to progress. The genius of being is whimsical rather than consistent.” Through spiritual practice we reach ‘new worlds’, new manifestations of Being – and they may be places that humans have not yet reached. The Spirit is dynamic, ever-changing, playful.

portalI wonder if this idea of the multiverse is there in the multiple worlds of science fiction writers like CS Lewis or Philip Pullman, both of whom describe portals through which one can reach other worlds or universes, in which the Spirit will take different forms.

I wonder even if this is what the Bishop of London meant, when I asked him if one could get to God through other faiths. He replied:

You can’t to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s not to say there are other ways to different destinations. There is only one Way to God as Jesus Christ has revealed Him, and that way is by feeding on His word and as part of His community and His sacraments. When you come into the presence of God, by this portal – there are other portals which may take you to different places – you come through a passage of self-sacrifice and giving oneself away, which paradoxically does not result in obliteration, but in the most extreme ecstasy and joy at the discovery which lies at the end of all this – that one is fearfully and wonderfully made, one is a unique and beloved child of God.

There are other portals which may take you to different places…

But here are my questions for Ferrer’s spiritual pluralism, which perhaps Professor Ferrer can respond to, if he has the time.

If he believes there are different metaphysical realities, does that mean there are different destinies after death? That a Buddhist experiences reincarnation, while the Christian gets physical resurrection? Does he believe there are multiple eschatologies – in some realities Christ comes back, in others Valhalla burns, and so on? Are there multiple Gods, or is it rather that Spirit / Being is One but responds differently according to our different approaches? Is there one sort of ethical law or Logos for all the metaphysical realities, or might they have radically different ethical laws??

While Ferrer hopes spiritual pluralism will allow a more fruitful and respectful dialogue between faiths (and he may well be right), I wonder if Tanya Luhrmann has a point, when she suggests the real conclusion of this view is rather melancholy – we’re not just living in different belief-systems, we’re actually living in different universes.

But – more optimistically – these realities, these universes, aren’t discrete. They’re not hermetically sealed off from each other. They interconnect. They overlap. Perhaps in some way they connect together into a grand symphony. This is one reason not everyone in the west should become a Buddhist – it would be like everyone singing the same part in the symphony. We need some singing bass, some singing alto, and Richard Dawkins on kazoo.

Crowley’s Children

turnoff_yourmindA couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog-post analysing the video for Blondie’s Rapture, and pointing out the voodoo, occult and mystic symbolism in it. I wondered if Blondie were into that sort of thing, or perhaps I was seeing things. It turned out they were, and one of them – the bassist Gary Lachman – had even become a historian of the occult. He was kind enough to give me his time for an interview.

I met up with Gary in the British Library, to ask him about the influence of occult ideas on rock and roll – and particularly the ideas of Aleister Crowley. I’m interested in this because I’m interested in ecstatic states and how we reach them in modernity. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and magic are part of that story.  It’s not always a very nice story, as Gary’s book ably chronicles.

He first encountered the occult in 1975, when he was playing bass in Blondie, and sharing an apartment with fellow band-members Debbie Harry and Chris Stein. ‘They had a fun, kitschy aesthetic appreciation of the occult, little voodoo dolls, pentagrams, a model of a nun with an upside-down cross painted onto her forehead.’

He was introduced to the writings of Aleister Crowley through Tommy Ramone, who leant him a couple of books. After he’d left the band, Gary became more and more interested in Crowley’s ideas and rituals. One day in LA, he signed up to join the Ordo Templi Orientis, a secret cult dedicated to following Crowley’s religion of ‘Thelema’. For a while he got very into Crowleian magic – he got himself a robe, did every ritual in Crowley’s Magick in Theory and Practice, tried out sex magick with his girlfriend, even consumed a wafer containing menstrual blood as part of a ‘gnostic mass’.

Gary made the transition from punk-rocker to secret magus and writer on all things occult. But eventually his love-affair with Crowley waned as he decided his ‘religion’ was one long ego-trip. His new book, Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, explores Crowley’s flawed personality and its influence on pop culture.

His influence is huge. It turns out all those nutty Christian evangelists who warned that rock and roll is demonic were right. The wafer of pop music is soaked in the occult, particularly in Aleister Crowley’s highly egotistical version of it.

So, a quick magickal mystery tour:

Crowley appears on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. John Lennon once said ‘The whole Beatles thing was do what you want, you know?’

sgt-pepper-crowley

A statue of him also appears on the cover of the Doors’ album, Doors 13. The Doors admired Crowley as someone who’d ‘broken through to the other side’, and who was a master of anarchic showmanship. Jim Morrison once said, in very Crowley-ite words: ‘I’m interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos, especially activity that appears to have no meaning.’

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Jimmy Page was a huge Crowley fan, and bought his house next to Loch Ness. Crowley’s famous motto, ‘Do What Thou Wilt’, was embossed on the vinyl of Led Zeppelin III.

The Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull were into Crowleian magic through the film-maker Kenneth Anger – hence their album His Satanic Majesties and their song Sympathy for the Devil. Jagger also made the soundtrack to Anger’s film, Invocation to my Demon Brother, while Marianne Faithful appeared in Anger’s Lucifer Rising, which starred a future member of the Manson Family.

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David Bowie was also a big fan of Crowley – he mentions him in the song ‘Quicksand’, and was very influenced by Crowley’s magic techniques, symbolism, and superman philosophy. Bowie was deep into the occult in the 1970s, particularly during the making of ‘Station to Station’ when he feared he’d invoked an evil demon, and that witches were trying to steal his semen to make a Satanic love-child (no, really).

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Both Crowley (left) and Bowie liked the fancy dress of magic

In the 1980s, of course, various metal bands were explicitly into Crowley, from Black Sabbath to Iron Maiden. More recently, and perhaps more surprisingly, Crowley’s ideas are apparently an influence on rap stars like Jay-Z, Kanye West, and that ardent practitioner of sex magick, Ciara.

Jay-Z-Do-What-Thou-Wilt2
Jay-Z wearing a Crowley top. Like Bowie, he seems to buy into the idea of being among a tiny superhuman elite who…er…’run this town’.
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of 'Power'. He used to be such a nice boy....
Kanye West in full demi-god mode for the video of ‘Power’, including wearing an occult Horus necklace. And he used to be such a nice boy….
Crowley has got Ciara's back
Crowley has got Ciara’s back

More broadly, as we’ll examine, pop culture helped to make Crowley’s philosophy of unfettered egotism – do what thou wilt – the ruling philosophy of western society. We are all Crowley’s children.

Who was Crowley?

Crowley’s parents were Plymouth Brethren – a rigidly puritanical Christian sect. They were also quite well-off, and Crowley inherited a decent fortune. This combination of a sense of entitlement with a need to rebel against the puritanism of his parents seems to have been fatal for Crowley. He never grew out of the need to shock, to rebel, to provoke, and to get others to notice him.

As a teenager, he got into ‘Satanizing’, which initially meant being deliberately bad in the decadent style of Baudelaire or Huysmans. By his 20s, he was dabbling in the Occult, and fascinated by the idea of a ‘Hidden Church’ made up of magicians with secret powers.

He eagerly joined the Golden Dawn in London, a magical order whose members included the poet WB Yeats. However, he quickly fell out with them all, despising Yeats when he failed to appreciate Crowley’s attempts at poetry, and annoying the Golden Dawn elders with his desire to ascend rapidly up the ‘magical scale’ to become a top-level magus, even using black magic to do so.

Aleister_Crowley,_MagusHe claimed to have achieved top-level magus status by 1904, when he says he made contact with a demi-god called Aiwass in Egypt (in the Great Pyramid of Giza, to be precise), who dictated a book to him called the Book of the Law. Aiwass was an emissary of the Egyptian bird-god Horus, and he came to Crowley to declare a new age, the aeon of the ‘Crowned and Conquering Child’.

This new aeon would be, writes Lachman, ‘a time of unconstrained personal freedom’, in which a handful of supermen (led by Crowley) would perfect their wills and become gods. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ for the supermen. They will delight in ‘wines and strange drugs’ which ‘shall not harm ye at all’, as well as every kind of sexual excess. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity, ‘the slaves’, shall be made to serve the supermen. ‘Compassion is the vice of kings’, Aiwass told Crowley. ‘Stamp down the wretched and the weak.’

Crowley was excited, though perhaps not surprised, to discover he was the Messiah of the New Age. He tried to usher in the New Age with magic rituals, both private ones (long orgies of sex, drugs and magic) and public ones – most famously, a ‘Rite of Eleusis’ which he organized in London in 1910, where participants took peyote, danced to bongoes and listened to Crowley declaiming his magickal poetry. This was, I think, the first hallucinogenic rave of the modern age.

Other people were disposable ingredients for his operational magic. A succession of mentally unstable women were cast in his magickal S&M orgies as ‘the Scarlet Woman’. The women usually ended badly, in alcoholism, drug addiction, madness or suicide. The debris included his first wife, Rose, who he abandoned along with his daughter, the unfortunately named ‘Nuit Ma Ahathoor Hecate Sappho Jezebel Lilith’ , who died of typhus in Rangoon. He didn’t much care. ‘‘Morally and mentally, women were for me beneath contempt’, he wrote. ‘Intellectually of course, they did not exist.’

He was equally cruel to any man foolish enough to follow him. This included an acolyte called Neuberg, who signed up to be his student. Crowley subjected him to years of sadistic humiliation at his hut in Scotland, including making him cut his arms and sleep naked on a gorse bush for ten days. Crowley also tortured cats, crucified a frog, and was an enthusiastic big-game hunter.

A keen mountaineer, he fell out with a team he was leading in the Himalayas, after they complained about his fondness for beating the sherpas to assert his racial superiority. He flounced off, and then failed to come to the team’s aid when it was hit by an avalanche, despite their cries for help. Several of them died.

His desire for ‘blasphemy, murder, rape, revolution, anything good or bad, but strong’ led him to consider the idea of human ritual sacrifices as the ultimate magickal taboo. Lachman tells me he ‘would tease his readers with remarks about human sacrifice in his book, Magick in Theory and Practice’. There’s no evidence he actually did kill anyone, though he gleefully claimed his spells had driven one lady to suicide, and his ideas about human sacrifices inspired later psychopaths like Charles Manson.

Was Crowley a black magician? He certainly wanted to be, recklessly invoking evil demons, and trying to harm his many enemies with spells. But if he did sell his soul to a devil, he didn’t get much in return. His poetry and writing are rubbish, he never made much money, he never had much power, although he did apparently have a great deal of sex. He died poor, friendless, unread, addicted to heroin, the same gargantuan egotist he’d been as a teenager. His last words were ‘I am perplexed.’ He used many pseudonyms –  Master Therion, Baphomet, the Great Beast, Nemo, Perdurabo – but the most accurate word for him is probably a ****

The age of the crowned and conquering child

So how did this idiot become such a huge influence on 1960s culture? Partly, because his ideas were embraced as part of the 60s counter-cultural philosophy of what Robert Bellah called ‘expressive individualism’, or what Gary Lachman calls ‘liberationism’.

Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley
Timothy Leary, who at one point thought he was chanelling or reincarnating Crowley

Lachman says: ‘It’s the idea of breaking the rules, getting rid of repression and going beyond all convention. Liberationism goes back through George Bataille, Nietzsche and his idea of the Dionysiac, all the way to the Marquis de Sade. And Crowley was a poster-boy for liberationist philosophy. It makes perfect sense that he would be picked up by rock and roll and later forms of pop music, because in many ways it’s tailor-made to the adolescent sensibility. Think of Jim Morrison’s ‘we want the world and we want it now’, or Iggy Pop: ‘I need more than I’ve ever done before.’ When you’re young you want to throw away all constraints on you. Crowley did that his whole life. His whole thing was excess in all directions.’

Liberationists want to liberate themselves from any social hang-ups, which means liberating themselves from traditional morality and even from reason itself. ‘Turn off your mind and float downstream’, as Timothy Leary said and John Lennon later quoted. Leary and other key figures in the 60s saw in Crowley a genius explorer of altered states of consciousness accessed through drugs, music, poetry and sex – just as they were trying to do. His Rite of Eleusis was a blueprint for the acid tests of the 1960s, and the raves of today – which also aim to bypass rational thought and get the audience into trances.

60s adolescents had also fallen rapidly in love with the occult, via books like Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians, and through superhero comics like The X-Men, which popularized the idea of the evolution of a new mutation of superhumans with paranormal powers. Baby-boomer flower children liked to imagine they were this new mutation, evolving through the magic potion of LSD.

Crowley particularly appealed to musicians like Jimmy Page or David Bowie because he promised them power. Musicians are like magicians – insecure, impoverished, desperately searching for the magic formula which will bring them sex, money and power.  Many pop-stars shared Crowley’s taste for alter-egos as a way of exploring different aspects of their psyche, and also for using costume, light, sound, symbols and transgressive actions to ‘get the people going’.

Lachman says: ‘Magic and the music industry make use of much of the same materials – imagery, special effects (light shows), illusion, trance – and both reach down below the conscious mind to the deeper, older, more visceral levels of ourselves. Both also cater to that adolescent appetite to be someone ‘special’, to stand out, to be noticed, to belong to the elite and to have an effect on the people around you.’

Above all, Crowley appealed to the pop-star’s desire to become a star, a god, an Illuminatus, one of the superhuman elite – while weak humanity bows down and worships them. You see this Crowley-ite idea in Bowie (see the lyrics for Oh You Pretty Things for example), and also in Jay-Z and Kanye West. Check out the slavish humans worshipping the god:

Lachman says: ‘The idea they’re selling is ‘we’re the special ones, and we’re going to be in charge of this new world order. And when you join the elite, you’re beyond good and evil, you get a lot of power, a lot of sex and fun.’  That’s the philosophy Kanye West and Jay-Z are selling – it’s Berlusconi with a drum beat.

Alas, Crowley’s ‘Do What You Wilt’ philosophy has become one of the ruling philosophies of our time – our culture is now one of ‘occult consumerism’, as Lachman puts it, in which adverts use symbols and incantations to urge us to ‘Just Do It’ – to follow every impulse, to feed every alter-ego, to yield to every temptation, and above all, to spend. Lachman writes: ‘Crowley was a kind of pre-echo of our own moral and spiritual vacuum. For better or worse, we do find ourselves in an antinomian world, beyond good and evil, in which practically anything goes.’

Be afraid of that trapdoor!

I have a very simple model of the human mind, similar to the one described by Coleridge in Kubla Khan. I’ve spared no expense with the graphics here:

Model of the mind.001At the top you have conscious processes, like a weak and flickering flame. Then you have less conscious or unconscious processes, like a mine of coal beneath that flame. Connecting the two is the Imagination, which runs like a mineshaft between the conscious and unconscious levels. Within the mine of the unconscious are treasures – insight, healing, wisdom, knowledge and power. However there are some monsters down there too.

You remember the cartoon show The Trap Door, from the 1980s? Well, the unconscious is a bit like that. As William James suggested, it may be a door not just to our archaic impulses, but also to the spirit world, to both good and bad spirits. So you need to be careful what you let through the trapdoor.

The arts, sex, drugs, magic and religion are all ways of ‘turning off the mind’, going beyond rational consciousness, opening the trapdoor and following the Imagination down into the dark, to try and find the treasure. But I think, in that perilous descent, it’s absolutely crucial what motive you have, and your moral ability to handle what you encounter without losing your shit.

Many artists and magicians make that descent for selfish motives – for money, sex and power. That’s very risky – it’s like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark trying to use the Ark for selfish reasons. You end up with a melted face.

mt-doom-2-frodo-2525951-400-300I’d say Tolkien had the best idea about how to mine the Imagination without awakening too many Balrogs. You need to go in with a small ego, like a hobbit, with a fellowship of people around you to guide you when you feel lost. And you need to be prepared to give away whatever treasure you find, rather than trying to hang on to it for your own power.

That’s the way to create great art, and it’s the way to live a meaningful life. Crowley’s ‘Do What Thou Wilt’ doesn’t end in happiness or power. It ends in emptiness, addiction, madness and self-destruction. It’s a lie – perhaps the oldest lie of all.

Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind

A few months back I was giving a philosophy workshop in a mental health charity. It was one of my less popular events – only one person turned up, a Romanian man who had recently moved to the UK and was finding it tough. We talked about Socratic philosophy, about the idea of engaging your inner voice in a rational dialogue, and the man (let’s call him Anghel) quietly told me that he heard voices.

Anghel heard one particular voice, and wondered who or what it was. He’d gone online, to an app called God Picker, and in very postmodern fashion picked a God – he’d chosen an ancient Mediterranean fish goddess called Atargatis – and made it his personal deity. Things went OK for him, he said, as long as he obeyed the commands of Atargatis. He was nervous about telling the local authorities about the fish-goddess, in case they locked him up and put him under heavy medication. I suggested he contact the Hearing Voices Network instead, to find support from other voice-hearers.

I thought about Anghel this week, as I was reading an extraordinary book called The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by a Princeton psychologist called Julian Jaynes.

The book was a big hit when it came out in 1976, and has an unusually diverse roster of fans – Daniel Dennett was influenced by its theory of consciousness, David Bowie picked it as one of his 100 must-read books, Terence McKenna thought it was ‘a most provocative book’, while Philip K Dick thought it was a ‘stunning theory’. Richard Dawkins spoke for many when he said (in The God Delusion): ‘it’s one of those books that is either complete rubbish or consummate genius’.

Jaynes’ thesis, baldly stated, is this: human consciousness (which Jaynes defines as self-conscious introspection) only emerged around 3000 years ago. Before that, everyone heard voices and saw visions, which they took as the commands of the gods, and obeyed unquestioningly. These voices or commands came from the right hemisphere of the brain, which ‘bicameral man’ experienced as alien or Other.

Achilles: the lights are on but nobody’s home

This, says Jaynes, is the world we meet in the Iliad. Homer’s heroes have no inner world, no capacity of introspection. The gods appear to them at various points and tell them what to do, and they do it. They don’t have free will in the modern sense, rather they are ‘noble automatons’. They are, in effect, a different species – not homo sapiens but rather ‘bicameral man’.

Jaynes’ astonishing hypothesis is that you can have a whole civilization operating without consciousness, that’s to say, without introspection or free will. A zombie civilization. You can see why the theory appealed to Daniel Dennett and Philip K. Dick.

He speculates that voice-hearing developed as a form of social hierarchical control. When we’re near the chief, we can hear his commands. But when we’re further away and out of the chief’s presence, we can still hear commands from our inner chief, so to speak.

Then, sometime in the second or first millennium BC, subjective consciousness emerged. Jaynes thinks this happened through the expansion of metaphor – our minds became able to make analogies, to link like with like, to imagine time as stretching forwards and backwards, to imagine ourselves as narrative heroes with a variety of choices (what he calls ‘the analog I’). As metaphors connect, like synapses, homo sapiens generated a rippling field of metaphoric consciousness.

With the emergence of subjective consciousness, the ‘bicameral mind’ breaks down – or rather, the external voices become integrated into internal consciousness. The gods are no longer heard so often, except in moments of extreme stress. Instead, we internalize their commands as the voice of conscience. We notice the gods speak to us less, and we miss their guidance and fear their wrath. We wonder what we did wrong, to make the gods go silent.

Michelangelo’s Jeremiah, waiting for a call

Another of Jaynes’ astonishing hypotheses is that the great organized religions emerged out of a ‘nostalgic anguish’ for the lost voices / departed gods. In one remarkable chapter, he uses the Bible as evidence for this departure. In the beginning, Elohim (the Mighty Ones) spoke to us all the time. Then came the Fall – the emergence of subjective consciousness. After that, the Mighty Ones only appear to certain chosen prophets, like Moses, and are organized into one entity, called Jehovah, to which we must be monogamously faithful, or else.

Instead of the constant presence of the Mighty Ones, we have instead the poor substitute of Deuteronomic priestcraft and scripture. The Bible is indeed filled with anguish at the silence of the Divine (like Psalm 35: ‘Do not stay silent, do not abandon me oh Lord’). But at moments of stress, like the exodus from Egypt or the fall of Jerusalem, the voices return to prophets (just as, for Anghel and many other immigrants, voice-hearing may emerge as a response to the stress of immigration).

Although humans evolved into a higher state of subjective consciousness, vestiges of the bicameral mind still remain, most obviously in voice-hearing. As much as 10% of the population hear voices at some point in their lives, much higher than the clinical incidence of schizophrenia (1%). For many people, voice-hearing is not debilitating and can be positive and encouraging.

Sensing a voice or presence often emerges in stressful situations – anecdotally, it’s relatively common for the dying to see the spirits of dead loved ones, likewise as many as 35% of people who have recently lost a loved one say they have a sense of the departed’s continued presence. Mountaineers in extreme conditions often report a sensed presence guiding them (known as the Third Man Factor).

A bear of very little brain (roughly 50%, to be exact)

And around 65% of children say they have had ‘imaginary friends’ or toys that play a sort of guardian-angel role in their lives – Jaynes thought children evolve from bicameral to conscious, much as Piaget thought young children are by nature animist (ie they attribute consciousness to things, and may attribute special consciousness to favourite toy-companions, like Winnie the Pooh or Sheriff Andy).

These are all vestiges of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, as is our capacity to be hypnotized (our hypnagogic openness to external commands is a remnant of the bicameral mind’s obedience to social hierarchy) and our love of poetry, which seems to come to poets from Parnassus or some other Beyond.

Such is Jaynes’ remarkable theory. Alas, he never wrote another book, but his magnum opus is increasingly popular, not least because some recent brain-imaging studies confirm his ideas about brain-function lateralisation and the origin of auditory hallucinations in the right hemisphere.

His book is similar in some respects to Iain McGilchrist’s recent work, The Master and his Emissary, which also uses the bicameral mind for a Grand Historical Theory. But McGilchrist thinks the two hemispheres have become progressively less integrated, rather than more, and this is why the gods have gone silent. He thinks we need to bring the right hemisphere back into the game, through poetry or religious practices, while Jaynes is much less concerned with returning to some bicameral utopia. Indeed, like Max Weber he warns we should resist the nostalgic desire for the right hemisphere’s charismatic certainty.

Genius or bonkers?

What can we say about Jaynes’ theory? Well, it’s refreshingly bold. But as a theory of consciousness it doesn’t really solve the ‘hard problem’ of how mind comes from matter. Even if Achilles isn’t self-consciously introspective, he is still experiencing mental events.

Jaynes’ theory that auditory hallucinations are a form of social control doesn’t sound quite right, either. Look at how many voice-hearers have resisted and destabilized social control, from Moses to Socrates to Jesus to Joan of Arc.

Jaynes doesn’t have much evidence for his contention that everyone used to hear voices and lack introspection – his main evidence is the Iliad. But the characters in that are special, they are heroes, with a special relationship to the divine. If the gods spoke to everyone, why are prophets like Cassandra remarkable or different? Why the need for divination in the Iliad, if the gods are constantly telling people what to do?

And is Jaynes saying that schizophrenics or voice-hearers today lack conscious introspection and free will, that they are automatons? Better to say that they have the capacity to question and not obey their voices, it’s just that often they choose to follow their voices’ commands because they are terrified of them. Some voice-hearers learn a more flexible and egalitarian relationship to their voices. (Marcel Kuijsten, who has edited Jaynes’ work, tells me Jaynes did not equate schizophrenia with bicameral man – in schizophrenics subjective consciousness has emerged).

Those are some of my reservations about the theory. What I like about it is the suggestion that subjective consciousness emerged at a particular moment, and this moment was quite recent. I think, in fact, that fifth-century BC Athens was one of the moments when modern consciousness was born.

Suddenly, in fifth-century BC Athens, many people stopped hearing or believing in the gods, and some sophists insisted that the only real authority was Public Opinion. As a result, rhetoric, or the art of seeming, is born. This was taken as a profound heresy by bicameral minds like Sophocles, the inspired tragedian, who insisted we must honour the intuitive and god-hearing part of us rather than denigrate it or try to leave it behind. What you see in Sophocles’ last two tragedies (Philoctetes and Oedipus at Colonus) is a last-ditch attempt to marry together the splitting parts of the Athenian soul – the worldly and the other-worldly.

Oedipus (right) and Theseus, the intuitive and the pragmatic…
…and Philoctetes (right) and Neoptolemus, also representing the marriage of the intuitive and the pragmatic

And at this moment of the birth of modern consciousness, there stands Socrates, with one foot in each era. He insists that we must bring our unexamined beliefs into consciousness and ask if they make sense. He is the midwife of subjective consciousness. And yet he also has a daemon who gives him moral commands, and he insists he has been sent on a mission to humanity by the Gods. I love these two figures – Sophocles and Socrates – because they are trying to integrate the two eras, to marry the two hemispheres.

Jaynes and the Hearing Voices Network

Perhaps the most impressive practical consequence of Jaynes’ book was the establishment of the Hearing Voices Networks, and the beginning of a more enlightened approach to voice-hearing.

In the 1980s, a Dutch psychiatrist called Marius Romme was treating a 30-year-old voice-hearer called Patsy Hague. She was on tranquilizers, which failed to stop the voices and made it difficult for her to think. She became suicidal. Then Romme happened to lend her a copy of Jaynes’ book. It made her think perhaps she was not ill so much as ‘living in the wrong century’, and also gave her confidence that her voices were ‘real’, or as real as the invisible God that Romme and others believed in. Hague told Romme: ‘You believe in a God we never see or hear, so why shouldn’t you believe in the voices I really do hear?” Why not listen to what the voices had to say, rather than dismissing them as meaningless pathological symptoms?

Romme set up a meeting between Hague and other voice-hearers, who enthusiastically swapped stories and shared their sense of helplessness, vulnerability and alienation from their society. A sort of peer-led support network emerged, and has continued to blossom since then.

Today, the voice-hearers network is increasingly challenging the traditional theory that auditory hallucinations are sufficient for a diagnosis of psychosis or schizophrenia, which should be treated with anti-psychotics without any regard for the content of the messages. More and more healthy and high-functioning adults are ‘coming out’ as people who have occasionally or frequently heard voices. I personally heard a voice once, during that near-death experience in 2001, although I’ve never heard one since.

I’m particularly interested in the link between voice-hearing, dissociation and creativity, and in the incidence of voice-hearing among creative individuals like novelists Marilynne Robinson (who occasionally hears a voice inspiring her novels), comedians Graham Linehan and Jonny Vegas (both of whom hear or have heard voices), and musicians like Lady Gaga and David Bowie (the former says she heard voices and started to act them out as personae, while the latter likewise embodied and acted out radically different personalities and has a history of schizophrenia in his family).

Not to mention the dissociative capacity of gifted actors to become other people (Le Carre called Alec Guinness’ ability to become someone else a ‘complete self-enchantment, a controlled schizophrenia’); or all the many poets and song-writers who say their poems came to them from a voice / presence / spirit / muse.

What Jaynes fails to address, I’d suggest, is the value of these ‘vestiges of the bicameral mind’. When we seem to feel or hear messages from the beyond, it’s not just a primitive throwback to Homeric times. These messages sometimes tell us something useful, beautiful and wise, something our ordinary consciousness does not know. They are often sources of moral inspiration or consolation. I’d suggest the right hemisphere is still not entirely accessible to our ordinary consciousness, and there is a value in learning how to access it through things like meditation, trance states or techniques of ecstasy (though of course there are risks as well, particularly if you end up with an inflated or Messianic sense of self).

To go a step further into the mystical, if we do receive inspiration through the right hemisphere, does that mean the origin is definitely purely material or neurochemical? Could we not consider William James’ hypothesis that the right hemisphere / unconscious is the door through which the divine speaks to us? Such has been the suggestion of various spiritual critics of Jaynes’ theory, from Owen Barfield to Philip K. Dick.

Still, the voice-hearing network is fascinating, from a theological perspective, because in some ways it suggests a very modern attitude to the gods. We hear their commands, and yet we don’t have to obey unquestioningly. We relate to them less as a child to their all-powerful father, and more like a friend to their equal, rather like Lyra’s friendship with her daemon, Pantalaimon, in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials. Happiness, then, is eudaimonia: having a friendly daemon to keep one company in life and through death.

Very well, says my daemon, looking over my shoulder as I write. But who made the daemons?

The New Atheists are actually transcendentalists.

How do you fit experiences of ecstasy, awe, wonder, the Sublime, or the Numinous into a materialist paradigm, without reducing or devaluing such experiences? With difficulty.

I’ve spent an enjoyable few days reading various works by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. For Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, the question of ecstatic or sublime experience is a key issue that New Atheism / materialism has to grapple with – and I’m going to briefly take you through their responses. My conclusion (to skip to the end) is that these writers actually have a deep sense of humans’ capacity for self-transcendence through art and contemplation, which is not entirely reconciled with their professed materialism.

Of the four, Sam Harris has perhaps thought most about this question  – indeed, he has a book out in September called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he attempts an answer. He distinguishes himself from his fellow horsemen by his willingness to use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in a positive sense, to signify experiences of heightened awareness when the chatter of ordinary consciousness dies down, and a deeper, more nourishing consciousness emerges.

He says: “Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.”
Harris has had personal experience of such ‘self-transcending experiences’, as he cals them, which he’s reached through meditation (for a decade he was devotee of Buddhism, and at one point a body-guard for the Dalai Lama!), through chanting, and through psychedelic experimentation with LSD and MDMA.

He writes in The End of Faith:

The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. [Such practices] are some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed.

Harris believes ‘a kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior and strong communities are essential for human happiness’.  The atheist movement’s neglect of the value of spiritual experience (he says here) ‘puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage, because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations’.

Yet, Harris insists, ‘these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.’

What Harris wants to do, in his forthcoming book, is show how we can cultivate states of altered consciousness without reaching after unproven metaphysical concepts like God, karma, the afterlife, the soul and so on. Indeed, his project for the last decade and a half has – in keeping with his Quaker ancestry – been to strip religion of all irrational myth and superstition and leave just the bare ‘kernel of truth’, which would be something like ‘utilitarian ethics + spiritual experiences + skeptic-humanist-rationalist community’.

Which is fine. And I look forward to reading the book. But I’d raise three questions, that I hope his book answers:

Firstly, why do all the contemplative masters, whose findings he respects so much, insist that these mystical practices tell us something not just about the mind, but about metaphysical reality? If Harris is going to grant them such respect and authority, shouldn’t he be more open to the conclusions they reach on their inner journeys?

Secondly, what, as a materialist-determinist, does Harris mean by ‘self-transcending experience’? Does he think we can deliberately transcend our ordinary self? How can we do that, if we don’t have some sort of conscious choice? If self-transcendence happens involuntarily, it’s not really self-transcendence, is it? You wouldn’t say that a flower unfolding or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly was ‘self-transcending’…would you? Those are automatic and involuntary processes. Does he think spiritual experiences are similarly automatic and involuntary?

Are spiritual experiences voluntary or involuntary?

Harris has suggested that deep meditative states support the view that we don’t have free will – something I know Susan Blackmore also thinks. I have never properly practiced meditation, but I confess to not understanding how contemplative states reached by intense and deliberate practice over many years can be used as evidence for our lack of free will. Perhaps, as Blackmore suggests, such experiences and the training that lead to them are the natural unfolding of the cosmos, like buds opening in the spring…Though my sense of spiritual experiences is they’re not entirely involuntary, they usually involve some sort of voluntary submission of the will to a Higher Power.

Thirdly (this is more of a criticism than a question), Harris’ impatience with myths, rituals and any other superstitious paraphernalia suggests an impoverished understanding of the human mind, and of the power of symbols, images, rituals and stories to convey us into altered states of consciousness.

Harris once, revealingly, said that if you removed all the irrational myth and symbolism from religion, you could present the insights of mystics and contemplatives in a book as bare and factual ‘as a manual for operating a lawn mower’. This isn’t true at all. Look at the great mystical literature – at the poetry of Rumi, at the parables of Jesus, at the Upanishads. They never state their claims about the nature of reality in bald and scientifically-testable facts, like a lawn-mower’s manual.  Rather, they gesture towards truths about the spiritual world with parables, paradoxes, images or metaphors. And the reason their teachings work, the reason they give us an intimation of the spiritual realm, is partly because of their poetry and beauty (unlike a lawn-mower’s manual). I’ll come back to the power of metaphor and aesthetic pleasure later.

Christopher Hitchens and the Numinous

Hitchens also had a powerful sense of the value of ecstatic experiences, or what he called ‘the Numinous’. He was once asked, in a debate on religion with Tony Blair, what he thought was best about religion, what bit of it he would most miss if religions did indeed disappear. He replied:

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

In a conversation with the other horsemen, shortly before his death, Hitchens says if he’d make one change to the whole New Atheist movement, it would be to distinguish the Numinous from the supernatural more clearly. That, he says, ‘would be an enormous distinction to make.’

On another occasion he elaborated:

I, think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff..I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.

Hitchens was by far the most aesthetically-cultivated of the Four Horsemen – much of his writing is book reviews, and he spent his last days writing about the poetry of GK Chesterton, one of his favourite poets apparently. Indeed, before 9/11 turned him into the bristling bulldog of atheism, he was considering giving up political journalism to write a book on Proust (a rebuttal of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life – alas that we never got to read Hitchens on de Botton!)

If he were still alive, I would try to ask him what he meant by the Numinous (it’s a term from Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, in which it refers to the irrational and awe-inspiring aspects of religion) and what he means by saying our experiences of the Numinous are ‘not entirely consistent’ with materialism. How then does he account for such experiences – are they, like religious experiences, mere delusions or malfunctions of the brain? Does he really think that our hunger for the Numinous, and our incredible experiences of it, are just a by-product of blind evolution?

As he would have known, many smart minds – Plato and Kant among them – thought our hunger for the Sublime or the Numinous was an intimation of a transcendent realm beyond materialism, and evidence of our spiritual connection to this transcendent realm. This was why Kant made an accommodation between Christianity and his own Enlightenment free thinking. Hitchens, by contrast, is so keen to strip priests, rabbis and mullahs of their power, that he makes the Enlightenment mistake of throwing the baby of the Numinous out with the bathwater of the priesthood.

Hitchens was once asked, in 2007, if he was a strict materialist. He dodged the question, replying that the rabbi he was debating (Julia Neuberger) was definitely wrong to claim she knew the mind of God and could tell us His views on sexuality. But that didn’t answer the question about his own views. At another time, he told a Unitarian minister he was not a ‘vulgar materialist’, that we have a ‘need for the transcendent’. He was not, then, a strict materialist. He was a transcendentalist, just one with a particularly virulent hatred of organized religion.

Richard Dawkins and the wonder of poetry

Despite the stereotype of Dawkins as an arid rationalist, he does in fact have a profound sense of beauty, wonder and even ecstasy  – indeed, he calls the first volume of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder. He describes, in that book, his love of poetry, particularly the poetry of Keats, Blake, Shakespeare and that uber-mystic W.B Yeats (Hitch was also a big Yeats fan). He ends his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, with a particularly ecstatic quote from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

We read also in his autobiography of his deep love of music – his favourite experience at Oxford was being a member of a dining club which sang music hall songs together, and he says he became convinced of God’s existence as a teenager after discovering Elvis Presley was a believer (I think Elvis is a perfectly valid reason for believing in God – argumentum ad Elvisam). He says in passing that he has considered taking LSD, but was talked out of it by his uncle – a psychiatrist who has specialized in studying LSD. Perhaps we should start a petition to give Dawkins the best trip of all time, with a cast of thousands including perhaps a full orchestra and ballet company, to see whether we can nudge his world-view.

Dawkins seems genuinely aggrieved, in Unweaving the Rainbow, at the common view that science is somehow the enemy of poetry. He insists that ‘the impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism are precisely those that lead others of us to science’,  and adds ‘our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same’. Why, he wonders, did Blake and other Romantics denigrate Newton and other Enlightenment scientists? Why do they attack materialism? If only they had sung the wonders of evolution or atomism , as Lucretius had. In the last line of his book he imagines a marriage of science and poetry – ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.

He reminds me, in fact, of CS Lewis ( a writer he quotes throughout the book), but Lewis before his conversion, when he felt like his mind was split into two hemispheres – Reason and Imagination – and he despaired of marrying them. It is not easy, for any of us, to marry the intimations of our aesthetic sense with the logic of our rationality.

But Dawkins’ attempt to marry the two does not quite work. He seems to think it’s simply a question of presenting poets with the facts of scientific materialism, and asking them to sing from that hymn sheet. If only, he wonders, Michelangelo or Bach had received their commissions from someone other than the Church, we might have had great symphonies to atomic materialism. I’m not so sure. The only aesthetic hymn we’ve had to atomic materialism, after two millennia, is Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae, and even that veers off into a hymn to Venus. I think it’s no accident that, in age where atomistic materialism has become the ruling paradigm, great poetry has dried up.

Blake’s Newton

Romantic poets’ antipathy was not, I’d suggest, to science, but rather to scientific materialism. And the reason for that is partly their sense that the creative process is not chemical or neurological but spiritual. Most of the great poets believed their inspiration was from the spirit world, in one form or another (the Muses, the White Goddess, the spirits of Nature, God). Their inspiration felt like it was something beyond rationality, beyond ordinary consciousness, beyond their control – in that sense, it felt like a gift from beyond.

Hitchens once spoke of this: ‘I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.’ This is why poets often feel a reverence and debt to the spirit-world (in one form or another).

In the Romantic poets beloved of Dawkins, this sense of the spiritual gift of creative inspiration is tied to a transcendental philosophy, found in Kant, Coleridge, Schiller, Emerson and others, which believes that the imagination enables humans to transcend beyond phenomenal appearances, beyond the limits of material determinism, and give us intimations of a transcendent or spiritual realm, which the Romantics in their more orthodox moments call God.

The strange thing is, Dawkins – like Hitchens, and perhaps like Harris – sometimes suggests something not so very far from this Romantic transcendental philosophy. He wonders why it was that human consciousness should have gone so exponentially beyond the consciousness of other species on Earth, why it gives us the unique ability to resist the tyranny of our genes, reflect on our experience and make relatively free choices about how to live. And he speculates that the answer may lie in our capacity for metaphor and symbolism:

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meaning in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial software advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold….However it began…we humans, uniquely among animalkind, have the poet’s gift of metaphor, of noticing when things are like other things and using the relation as a fulcrum for our thoughts and feelings…Perhaps [the imagination] was the step from constrained virtual reality, where the brain simulates a model of what the sense organs are telling it, to unconstrained virtual reality, in which the brain simulates things that are not actually there at the time…We can take the virtual reality software in our heads and emancipate it from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality. We can imagine worlds that might be, as well as those that are.

This, it seems to me, is a transcendent and even redemptive vision of the imagination. It is much more inspiring to me than the metaphor Dawkins is most famous for – the metaphor of the Selfish Gene, in which humans are merely robotic vessels for our replicator genes. Dawkins and Dennett (whose thoughts on ecstasy I’ll have to leave for another day) have both tried to extend the self-replicating logic of genes into the world of culture, with their theory of memes. The theory is that memes  – ideas, concepts, fashions – also use humans as hosts and seek to replicate themselves and spread, like viruses. This is not a very good theory, for various reasons – the most obvious being that ideas aren’t discrete entities like genes, and my idea of God, say, may be very different to your idea of God. The meme theory does not do justice to our individual capacity for creation, adaptation, improvisation and play.

But in his more exalted moods, Dawkins talks about culture in far less mechanistic and deterministic terms. Culture is the supra-material realm in which humans can transcend our genetic determinism, can escape the tyranny of the mundane and utilitarian, and delight in free play, spontaneous improvisation and moments of expanded consciousness. Art is a window beyond materialism, a ladder to transcendence.

That is a vision of human nature that I can share, even if I’d disagree with Dawkins about the origin of our capacity for transcendence and what it says about the nature of the universe. And, of course, one’s experience of ecstasy will be very different if you think it is either an evolutionary by-product in an indifferent universe, or the re-connection of your soul with the divine cosmos. Neither is necessarily better or worse, they’re just clearly different.