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Teeming Links – June 27, 2014

FireHead

Beware the man who has more influence on the future of reading than anybody else in the world: Jeff Bezos is simultaneously a visionary, an innovator, and a destroyer.

Pro Publica explains why online tracking is getting creepier. (Hint: It has to do with the merging of all the mountains of online and offline data about you.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has recently announced that it will start tracking users across the Internet using its widgets such as the “Like” button,” and it won’t honor do-not-track browser settings.

Helpfully, Pro Publica offers an illuminating look at Facebook’s complicated history of tracking you.

Feeling more antsy and irritable lately? Nicholas Carr says blame smartphones, which are turning us into patient and irritable monsters: “Society’s ‘activity rhythm’ has never been so harried. Impatience is a contagion spread from gadget to gadget.”

The Wall Street Journal briefly reports on Americans who choose to live without cellphones.

William Deresiewicz warns against uncritically buying into the apocalyptic rhetoric about the state of higher education, much of which comes from profit-minded billionaires who want to remake college for their own purposes: “The truth is, there are powerful forces at work in our society that are actively hostile to the college ideal. That distrust critical thinking and deny the proposition that democracy necessitates an educated citizenry. That have no use for larger social purposes. That decline to recognize the worth of that which can’t be bought or sold. Above all, that reject the view that higher education is a basic human right.”

A new survey of all 7 billion humans on planet earth — conducted by The Onion — finds that we’re surprised we still haven’t figured out an alternative to letting power-hungry assholes decide everything.

Two_Draculas-Bela_and_Vlad

On Point presents a 45-minute conversation about the deep and perennial fascination of Dracula in history, myth, and literature:

There is something about biting and blood that we never get over. Luis Suarez and his bite debated round the world in the World Cup. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the Victorian tale of castles and darkness that we still feel at our throats. That story has had amazing staying power. “I want to suck your blood!” and all the rest. Built off the story of Transylvania’s real Vlad the Impaler. Back to Europe’s long struggle with the Turkish caliphate. The story never dies. This hour On Point: the history and myth of literature’s great vampire — Dracula.

Historian Tim Stanley explains how Slender Man is a strongly Lovecraftian myth that became a violent reality.

E. Antony Gray gives a brief introduction to egregores and explains how Slender Man is a non-abstract and positively Lovecraftian example.

Writer, artist, and photographer Karen Emslie writes from first-person experience about the terror — and bliss — of sleep paralysis (while holding to a reductive neurobiological understanding of the phenomenon): “[S]leep paralysis has naturally spawned some very scary stories and films. But as a writer and filmmaker as well as a long-time percipient, I have another story to tell. Beyond the sheer terror, sleep paralysis can open a doorway to thrilling, extraordinary, and quite enjoyable altered states.”

(Note: I have personally never experienced the bliss of SP. For me it has always been pure, overwhelming, transformative horror.)

 

“Fire Head” image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Bela Lugosi as 1931 Dracula by Anonymous (Universal Studios) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Vlad Tepes by anonymous artist (Unknown) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the dark-mythic summer of 1816

I’m presently teaching a sophomore college course about horror and science fiction in literature and film. (You can view the syllabus online.) Yesterday’s class meeting was devoted to introducing Mary Shelley and Frankenstein by giving background on Mary’s life and describing the epic, shadowy, amazing, uncanny, utterly mythic summer of 1816, when Mary stayed with Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Doctor John Polidori at the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Switzerland, and both the literary vampire (leading directly to Dracula seven decades later) and the Frankenstein myth were born out of the group’s heady conversations about ghost stories and cutting-edge science that unfolded around the fire.

More specifically, these horror icons were born from the horror-writing contest that Byron suggested they undertake in order to pass their time during that eerie “year without a summer,” which was marked by Armageddon-ish weather, crop failure, famine, and epidemics in Europe, Britain, and America (with effects in Asian countries as well) as “the last great subsistence crisis in the western world” unfolded when Mount Tambora in Indonesia erupted and blanketed the atmosphere with an obscuring cloud of ash.

I’ve often thought this spontaneous nexus of events — a myth-level natural catastrophe coinciding with the philosophical and literary birth of two iconic/mythic figures in the gothic and horror field — sounds like a fictional tale of its own, something that someone might make up as a dark and fascinating horror story. Maybe that’s why the events surrounding Frankenstein’s birth have long been nearly as famous as the novel itself (a fact helped, of course, by Mary’s account of that summer and the book’s genesis in her introduction to the standard 1831 edition). It has been made into two separate movies — or maybe I’m forgetting that there are more than that — and referenced in partial form many more times, from the introductory segment to 1973’s not-bad television movie Frankenstein: The True Story to the segments involving Mary, Percy, and Co. in the not-bad 1990 film adaptation of Brian Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound to the charming prologue of director James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein in 1935. The summer of 1816 at the Villa Diodati and environs is like a living novel, a manifestation of fiction in history, replete with obvious, even glaring, symbolism, and planted firmly in the gothic horror genre.

And that’s really all I have to say in this hastily written post. I think I’m still riding on momentum from yesterday’s class session, where I did a brain dump about all of these things, leaving it to the PowerPoint presentation that I had put together ahead of time to keep me on something resembling a coherent path as I talked excitedly about a mega-subject that has kept me entranced with fascination for the past 25 years or so.

Add to that, of course, the fact that some people have interpreted Mary Shelley’s description of the “waking dream” in which she received the inspiration for Frankenstein as an episode of sleep paralysis — a supposition made all the more probable, or at least suggestive and evocative, by the fact that she and her family knew Henry Fuseli, the famous painter of The Nightmare, that master image of both the gothic horror genre and sleep paralysis studies, and by the additional fact that she actually gave a deliberate “quote” of that painting in the mise-en-scène of the moment when Victor Frankenstein bursts into the bridal bedroom to find Elizabeth flung backward, dead, across the bed while the monster leers from the window above. James Whale likewise quoted the same staging in his 1931 cinematic vision/version. The fascination factor, as we might call it, is unbelievably high here.

It was a total accident, by the way, and something I didn’t realize until three days ago, that I began teaching this literature course, with Frankenstein as the first assigned text, right as August 30 marked Mary Shelley’s 216th birthday and was being hailed as “Frankenstein Day” all over the Interwebs.

Here: watch these. They’re good medicine, all (especially the last two).

 

Lucid dreams, sleep paralysis, and altered states: Ryan Hurd interviewed

"The Knight's Dream" by Antonio de Pereda [Public domain], ca. 1611, via Wikimedia Commons

“The Knight’s Dream” by Antonio de Pereda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teem member Ryan Hurd was interviewed yesterday on the Internet radio program Paranormal Review in connection with his new book, Dream Like a Boss (which will soon be available for pre-order):

Have you ever wondered if you can control your dreams? Do you want to know how to take more control over them? Is there more meaning to dreams than you may realize? And. . . how can you transform the control of your dreams to your reality?

Well, the answers to these questions and more will be revealed to us [by] our guest Ryan Hurd. Ryan is a consciousness researcher and author. He is the founder of DreamStudies.org, a website dedicated to sleep, dreams, and imagination. His new book Dream Like a Boss will teach you how to dream and what is holding you back from control.

FULL SHOW (streamable and downloadable): “Lucid Dreams with Ryan Hurd

For more, see Ryan’s occasional Teeming Brain column, Visions, Dreams, and Visitations.

Teeming Links – August 16, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Today’s (rather extended) opening word goes to Morris Berman, who was recently interviewed for The Atlantic online in connection with his new book Spinning Straw into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. Morris first rose to prominence as the author of several books about the evolution of human consciousness, with a focus that included depth psychology, religion, spirituality, and the way the nature of civilization necessarily leads humans to experience a “disenchanted” world. Then he turned to writing books about the decline and collapse of American culture. Now he has turned to the work of integrating these two strands. The result is a dire and fascinating diagnosis and prognosis for American and Americanized cultures, along with an invigorating prescription for how each of us might consider responding life-fully to the inevitable long-form breakdown that will characterize the indefinite future, and that already characterizes the present.

Your message of detachment from materially measurable pursuits and your encouragement of leisure, creativity, and relaxed living is un-American (I mean this as a compliment). Why is American culture so addicted to speed, movement, action, and “progress”?

This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat. It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it. This is Sartre’s “bad faith,” the phenomenon whereby a human being adopts false values because of social pressure, and is thus living a charade, an inauthentic life. It’s also what happens to Ivan Illych in the Tolstoy story, where Ivan is dying, and reviews his life during his last three days, and concludes that it was all a waste, because he lived only for social approval.

. . . You write that the “road to redemption is a solitary one.” That’s a tough challenge, especially in highly religious and nationalistic culture. Is redemption tied to your notion of authenticity? Norman Mailer said that the first and most important virtue is courage, because it is a prerequisite for all other virtues. How do people cultivate the courage to live real, independent, and authentic lives?

I suspect courage is something that is handed down from within the family, something you learn viscerally, by example. Unfortunately, the American family is now in pretty bad shape, and there aren’t that many positive role models around in a dying culture. Literature can help, however; not the lit of heroic stories of derring-do, but just the opposite: literature that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.

The sociologist Robert Bellah, who just died a few days ago, once wrote: “Great literature speaks to the deepest level of our humanity; it helps us better understand who we are.” So I would say that that’s a good place to start. But ultimately, if you are open to it, courage will find you; you don’t have to go looking for it (which I don’t think will work anyway). What was that line from Augustine? “Love God and do what thou wilt.” For “God” I substitute “Truth.”

— David Masciotra, “How America’s ‘Culture of Hustling’ is Dark and Empty” (interview with Morris Berman), The Atlantic, August 13, 2013

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The Public-Private Surveillance Partnership (Bruce Schneier for Bloomberg)
“The primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance, and our government’s intelligence-gathering agencies have become addicted to that data. Understanding how we got here is critical to understanding how we undo the damage.”

The End of Forgetting and “Administrative Rights” to Our Online Personas (IP Theory Vol. 2, Issue 2, 2012, PDF)
An excellent consideration of “what it would take to have enforceable ‘administrative rights’ to one’s personal information — the ability to edit or modify one’s online persona just as a webmaster would be able to edit or modify on an individual.” The author was explicitly motivated by Google’s audacious and troubling new move of constructing massive uber-profiles of users from information that was formerly kept discrete and separate.

The Trauma of Being Alive (Mark Epstein for The New York Times)
“Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster. . . . Trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life. We are human as a result of it, not in spite of it.”

Is Superman a Superman? (Smart Pop Books)
“The association of [Nietzsche’s] superman with [the comic book] Superman, far from demeaning philosophy, gloriously elevates it. In an important sense, Siegel and Shuster are closer to the heart of Nietzsche’s ideas than most philosophical commentaries.”

Your Thoughts Can Release Abilities beyond Normal Limits (Scientific American)
Better vision, stronger muscles — expectations can have surprising effects, research finds. “There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.”

Horror’s New Golden Age? Probably Not (Scott Poole at Monsters in America)
“I’m afraid the interest we see in producing horror series and films based on the success of classic tales will produce more eye rolling than chills. Let’s hope one or two gems come out of horror’s new heyday.”

The Incubus in Film, Experience, and Folklore (Southern Folklore Vol. 52, No. 1, 1996, PDF)
Interesting academic study about the incubus tradition of nocturnal supernatural-sexual assault. It “tests a hypothesis derived from the theory that media images govern the incidence and content of such anomalous accounts.” The authors apply David Hufford’s “experiential-source hypothesis” from The Terror That Comes in the Night and conclude that “sleep paralysis coupled with sexual arousal spawns memorates which provide a basis for incubus folklore.”

Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman (The New Atlantis)
A sharp and elegant critique of attempts to “explain” all art in evolutionary biological terms. “The reductive form of inquiry in the natural sciences will always have a limited ability to account for the symbolic, moral, and religious significance of art. Brain scans and other cognitive experiments on human beings alive today can tell us something about the neurological correlates of aesthetic experience, but they cannot tell us how, when, why, or whether our aesthetic preferences evolved.”

The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher (The Atlantic, 1996)
“Do drugs make religious experience possible? They did for William James and for other philosopher-mystics of his day. James’s experiments with psychoactive drugs raise difficult questions about belief and its conditions.”

Real Succubus Tales: Sleep Paralysis and the Genesis of Erotic Horror

"Succubus 2" by Mike Teves, used with his permission

“Succubus 2” by Miles Teves, used with his permission

I was struck by Richard Gavin’s recent commentary in which he observed that most horror fiction is rarely horrifying, but rather tends to focus on peripheral unpleasantness, such as nausea, gore, or bloodlust. As I read this, spontaneous images immediately welled up in my mind from some of the most horrifying moments of my life that were not only chilling but also erotically charged: sleep paralysis night-mares. This tangential response from the body/mind — unbidden but undeniably seductive — is the focus of this essay.

During sleep paralysis, terror and the erotic often come together in a dizzying array of ambiguity. It is precisely this ambiguity — am I safe? Is it okay to feel this way? — that can escalate a merely creepy scenario into one of apocalyptic dread and sexy terror.

While all fiction doesn’t necessarily have its genesis in real life, there is undoubtedly a close connection between sleep paralysis and literary horror. Some of the most famous examples of direct influence would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” [1] (Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin has also written about the creative horror connection here and speaks eloquently about it here).

This makes me wonder about the direct influence of erotic sleep paralysis nightmares on culture and literature. I’m not a literary expert, especially concerning erotic horror, but I do know quite a bit about sexy devilish imps because, well, they have stolen into my own bedroom at night. By outlining the experiential roots of the real life succubus, as well as some of the science behind it, I hope to start a discussion about this potential correlation as well as the significance of this neuro-mythological pattern in the human psyche. Read the rest of this entry

Fuseli, Sleep Paralysis, and Horror’s Master Image

Just in time for the Halloween holiday, Ryan Hurd has published a horror-fied guest post by me at Dream Studies, his thoroughly excellent Website about dream science, nightmares, and related altered states of consciousness. The article describes my long-in-coming recognition about a very famous painting (you know the one; see above) and the way it has come to serve as a transformative nexus of dark meanings enfolding a vast span of unsettling subjects. Readers of my Liminalities column here at The Teeming Brain will find the article an extension of some of its major themes. Likewise for readers of my horror fiction.

Here’s a taste:

When I first started experiencing sleep paralysis attacks accompanied by visionary assaults from a shadowy demonic presence in the early 1990s, I was already a long-time fan and student of supernatural horror. I had grown up enthralled by horror stories, novels, and movies, as well as by nonfiction explorations of supernaturalism and the paranormal. I was also intrinsically interested in religion and spirituality. So perhaps it was predictable that my sleep paralysis encounters would hit right in the middle of all this and produce some profound emotional and philosophical effects. But what startled me as much as anything was the recognition, which didn’t arise until more than a decade later, that there already existed a kind of master visual image that united this network of concerns and sat at its center, acting as a nexus of nightmares and emitting cultural, psychological, and spiritual waves of dark inspiration.

… [Christopher] Frayling was getting at far more than he even knew or intended when he traced the horror genre’s origins to Fuseli’s painting, Mary Shelley’s waking nightmare, and the growing culture-wide ferment and foment at the turn of the 19th century that involved science, religion, art, literature, ideas about creative inspiration, and the growing recognition that the conscious “daylight” mind is accompanied and influenced — and is also, as shown in both nightmares and horror tales, menaced — by a subconscious or unconscious “nightside” realm of dreadful entity.

— Matt Cardin, “Nexus of Nightmares: Fuseli, Sleep Paralysis, and Horror’s Master Image,” Dream Studies, October 31, 2012

Horror, religion, Lovecraft, sleep paralysis, creativity, reality: Matt Cardin interviewed

Horror, religion, Lovecraft, sleep paralysis, fantasy, science fiction, consciousness, creativity, reality, the dystopian hazards of an uber-online lifestyle — these are all topics broached in an extensive new interview with Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin by fellow idea-driven horror writer Ted E. Grau at The Cosmicomicon. (Ted is also, of course, the author of The Extinction Papers for The Teeming Brain.)

The interview is extremely philosophical, personal, and lengthy. Here’s a taste:

As for why I ultimately started writing fiction, and why it has always been of the dark variety, I think interrogating the question itself shows that it is, at bottom, unanswerable. In fact, interrogating the question opens up a vast, murky, electrifying, terrifying realm of unknown and unknowable realities that hold all of us perpetually in their grip. This is along the lines of the thought experiment that Robert Anton Wilson recommends in, I think, Prometheus Rising, or maybe it’s in Quantum Psychology — and anyway, he borrowed it from Aleister Crowley, who said he got it from somebody else — where you stop, as in really and truly, for a long pause, and you engage in a deep questioning of the reasons for why you’re right there, in that location and circumstance, at that precise moment, doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking and feeling what you’re feeling. Keep pressing the question “Why, why, why?” to each and every answer that presents itself, and if you really dig down and follow this backward trail of causation and justification, eventually you’ll find, not just as an intellectual matter but as a startling existential realization, that you have absolutely no idea. You don’t know, ultimately, why you’re right there, right then, doing that. In a sense, everything about your life is just arbitrary, just happening by itself, and any story you tell yourself to explain why stands as more of a rationalization than an explanation.

What’s more, those unknowable reasons — which also, pointedly, include the reasons for why you are who you are — shade directly into the unknowable reasons behind everything else. The impenetrable mystery that lies behind the entire universe, and that makes it be what it is and do what it does, is not something you can write off as abstract and distant and unimportant for daily life, because it happens to be the mystery of your very own being as well.

I think the fact that I’m the type of person who instantly and helplessly goes for the über-philosophical end of things even when nobody’s asking for it — as in, you know, the way I’m going on and on right now in answer to your reasonable and straightforward question — is linked to why I write, and to why my writing always inhabits dark territory … Where do innate qualities ultimately come from? Instantly, the mystery of human personhood is all up in our face, and for me this leads to inevitable ruminations about the metaphysical and ontological origins of individual selfhood and consciousness, and the ancient idea of the genius daemon that makes each person’s life and self be what it is, and the Zen koan where the master orders the student, “Show  me your original face, the one you had even before your parents were born.”

I could also mention the fact that I entered a very dark place late in college and an even darker one in the years following it, a development abetted by a kind of spontaneous initiatory experience into certain nightmarish things by the onset of sleep paralysis attacks that were accompanied by visionary attacks by a demonic-seeming entity.  This permanently and profoundly altered me, and set the tone and direction for what I write. Or maybe it just realized what was always wanting to be written through me anyway.

— Ted E. Grau, “TC Blog Review & Interview: Matt Cardin Unleashes His Teeming Brain, Featuring New Monthly Column ‘The Extinction Papers,'” The Cosmicomicon, September 20, 2012

Image: “The Nightmare” (1781) by John Henry Fuseli, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Book Recommendation: “Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness”

Readers of The Teeming Brain will find something of more than passing interest in the just-released nonfiction anthology Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness: Liminal Zones, Psychic Science, and the Hidden Dimensions of the Mind. This is indicated not only by the book’s heady subtitle, and not only by fact that it is co-edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan of Reality Sandwich fame, but by the fact that its contents include three essays by current and future Teeming Brain contributors.

David Metcalfe, who writes our popular column De Umbris Idearum, is present with an essay titled “On Anthropological Approaches to Anomalous Phenomena: Explorations in the Science of Magic and the Narrative Structure of Paranormal Experiences.”

Popular consciousness and edge-science author Anthony Peake, whose person and books we’ve mentioned many times, and who will soon be featured as a Teeming Brain contributing writer, is present with an essay titled “Layers of Illusion: Manifesting Astral Body, Dream, and Lucidity.”

And Ryan Hurd of Dreamstudies.org, whose books and lectures on consciousness, dreams, sleep paralysis, and related matters are among the best around, and who will also soon become a Teeming Brain contributing writer, is present with an essay titled “Sleep Paralysis Visions: Demons, Succubi, and the Archetypal Mind.”

The rest of the table of contents reads like a who’s-who of fascinating figures in these and related areas. Here’s the official description:

EXPLORING THE EDGE REALMS OF CONSCIOUSNESS

In Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness, a diverse group of authors journey into the fringes of human consciousness, tackling such topics as psychic and paranormal phenomena, lucid dreaming, synchronistic encounters, and more. The book is published by Evolver Editions/North Atlantic Books.

Collected from the online magazine Reality Sandwich, these essays explore regions of the mind often traversed by shamans, mystics, and visionary artists; adjacent and contiguous to our normal waking state, these realms may be encountered in dreams or out-of-body experiences, accessed through meditation or plant medicines, and marked by psychic phenomena and uncanny synchronicities. From demons encountered in sleep paralysis visions to psychic research conducted by the CIA, the seemingly disparate topics covered here congeal to form a larger picture of what these extraordinary states of consciousness might have to tell us about the nature of reality itself.

 

Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous

When the first of my sleep paralysis attacks occurred in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it was the onset of a period that I would later come to recognize or characterize as a spontaneous shamanic-type initiation via nightmare. I didn’t know that it would shatter the psychological, spiritual, ontological, metaphysical, and interpersonal assumptions that had undergirded my worldview and daily experience for so long that I had forgotten they were assumptions instead of givens. Terence McKenna, among others, has argued that, in accordance with the same principle that keeps a fish oblivious to the existence of water, the perturbation of consciousness is necessary for us even to become aware of the reality of consciousness as such. For me this was confirmed with lasting impact by the experience of waking up from a profoundly deep sleep to encounter a darkly luminous, vaguely man-shaped outline of a being that stood over me at the foot of the bed, and that shone with sizzling rays of shadow, and that represented a thunderous and sui generis — intended solely for me — black hole of a negative singularity, a presence whose entire reason for being was to draw me in and annihilate my essence. In the manner of dreams and daemons, the experience was as much cognitive and emotional as it was perceptual. There was no separation between these usually discrete categories. Nor was there a separation between the categories of self and other, between “me” and the assaulting presence. Horror was literally all there was, all that existed, all that was real — not as a reaction to an experience but as an organic and inevitable symmetry of being. I was not horrified. The experience was purely and simply horror.

When this proved to be not an isolated episode but an ongoing crisis spanning a period of months and years, and when the psychic effects began to leak into the daylight world and contaminate daily life with a distinct and inescapable background static of creeping nightmarishness, I knew something dire had happened. I had crossed some sort of threshold, and the most likely vocabulary for thinking and talking about it was the vocabulary of cosmic horror, which had been inculcated in me by years of obsessively reading Lovecraft, Lovecraft criticism, and the works of a whole host of associated authors. As explained previously, one of the results of this confluence was my horror novelette “Teeth.”

There was, however, another vocabulary I could have used, and it would have complemented the cosmic horrific one in mutually illuminating fashion. It was the vocabulary of consciousness change and high paranormal weirdness encoded in the idea of Chapel Perilous as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson. But this didn’t occur to me until much later.
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On transmitting artistic and spiritual vision

Some years ago as I was searching for a way to introduce poetry to the high school writing and literature classes that I was then teaching — not just certain, selected poets and poems but the entire idea and import of poetry itself — I started telling my students that language can have an alchemical power. There is, I told them, a positively magical potency to language, particularly of the poetic sort, since language enables a person to recreate his or her private thoughts and emotions in somebody else’s headspace and heartspace. This is especially true of lyric poetry, because this form is specifically meant to capture and express an author’s state of mind and mood at a particular moment, and therefore a full understanding of a lyric poem entails not only an intellectual understanding of the poem’s formal content but an actual shared feeling with the author. When this magic works, it actually recreates the poet’s inner state in the reader (or hearer), so that poet and reader vibrate in sympathy, and the reader doesn’t just understand the poem “from the outside” but divines it “from the inside” by sharing the actual mental-emotional experience that motivated the poet to begin writing. The poet, sometimes speaking across centuries or millennia, acts as a linguistic alchemist who uses language to transmute the reader’s inner state into something else. And this same phenomenon is active to some degree not just in poetry but in all uses of language.

That, in combination with the reading of several short poems to serve as examples, was how I went about trying to “prime” American teens to understand the nature and significance of poetry. It has often been said that a person teaches best what he or she most wants and needs to know, and in this case that little homily was definitely true, because the issue of language’s magical/alchemical potency was something that I was only then beginning to appropriate consciously after years of grasping it intuitively and even using it in my own writings. And it’s something that has only become of more pressing interest in the years since then.

When we consider the ability of language, particularly in its poetical or otherwise artistically deployed form, to alter, shape, shade, and create states of mind and affect, what we’re really considering is a convergence of art and — for lack of a better word to encompass a vibrantly varied set of studies, experiences, practices, and disciplines — spirituality. We’re also highlighting a key distinction in the way language can affect us in both arenas. This distinction is between the transmission of visions, plural, and the transmission of vision. By the former I mean thoughts, concepts, stories, images — all of the actual content that can be communicated by language. By the latter I refer to the much deeper impact that language can have by working a change not just on what we think or “see” with our mind’s eye but on how we think and see. In art and spirituality, the most profound effects come from the alteration of a person’s basic outlook and worldview, his or her fundamental cognitive, emotional, and perceptual “stance” toward self and world. This is the level at which visions become vision, and an entirely new way not just of seeing but of being opens out from one’s first-personhood.

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