“. . . spirit and nature, good and evil are interchangeable. . .” (Hermann Hesse)

Judging from the responses to my writing on December 13, I would say it could possibly be true that much, if not all, of the religious sentiment and belief in the world of homo sapiens originates from a few freakish individuals whose brains work a little differently than most, most likely from Temporal Lobe Epilepsy which manifests itself in experiences of either hyper reality or depersonalization/derealization.

I don’t know if I should be honored, frightened, amused, or simply amazed to be spoken of by my friends in the same company as Meister Eckhart, Ezekiel, Teresa of Avila, the Sufis, and those who understand Maya, the Hindu concept of God. I notice that no one mentioned Christopher Dawkins to me.

At the risk of being so monumentally misunderstood that I will have to crawl into a corner and never show my face or my writing in public again, I want to reproduce three paragraphs here from one of my favorite writings.

Please, if you cannot suspend your belief that anyone who quotes this in any context might seem to be identifying with it, read no farther. I do not imagine myself to be Prince Myshkin. I do not imagine myself to be Dostoyevsky or Hermann Hesse.

I am neither intelligent, talented, wise, nor good enough to place myself in such rarefied company. All I mean to say is that Prince Myshkin is my favorite character in all of literature.

When I am being least frightened by my experiences of depersonalization/ derealization and am trying to put them into a context with which I can live, I think I resonate with Myshkin in a way many if not most people do not. That is not to claim special understanding, simply congruent experience.

When I first stumbled upon Hermann Hesse’s discussion of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, I knew that he was saying in an important and even “exalted” way what I would like to be able to say―and that my writing a few days ago proves that I cannot.

So I invite you to read this not as my attempt to attach myself to Dostoyevsky, Myshkin, or Hesse but as a description of a reality of which I have had fleeting (milliseconds―and I mean milliseconds) experiences at various times in my life, and that have affected the way I think and feel about everything. You have probably had them, too, but for some reason I have noticed them and been shaken by them in ways that most people are not. That’s all.

The “idiot,” I have said, is at times close to that boundary line where every idea and its opposite are recognized as true. That is, he has an intuition that no idea, no law, no character or order exists that is true and right except as seen from one pole – and for every pole there is an opposite pole. Settling upon a pole, adopting a position from which the world is viewed and arranged, this is the first principle of every order, every culture, every society and morality. Whoever feels, if only for an instant, that spirit and nature, good and evil are interchangeable is the most dangerous enemy of all forms of order. For that is where the opposite order is, and there chaos begins.

A way of thought that leads back to the unconscious, to chaos, destroys all forms of human organization. In conversation someone says to the “idiot” that he only speaks the truth, nothing more, and that this is deplorable. So it is. Everything is true, “Yes” can be said to anything. To bring order into the world, to attain goals, to make possible law, society, organization, culture, morality, “No” must be added to the “Yes,” the world must be separated into opposites, into good and evil. However arbitrary the first establishment of each “No,” each prohibition, may be, it becomes sacrosanct the instant it becomes law, produces results, becomes the foundation for a point of view and system of order.

The highest reality in the eyes of human culture lies in this dividing up of the world into bright and dark, good and evil, permissible and forbidden. For Myshkin the highest reality, however, is the magical experience of the reversibility of all fixed rules, of the equal justification for the existence of both poles. The Idiot, thought to its logical conclusion, leads to a matriarchy of the unconscious and annihilates culture. It does not break the tables of the law, it reverses them and shows their opposites written on the back.

(From Hermann Hesse, My Belief: Essays in the Life and Art, edited and with an introduction by Theodore Ziolkowski, translated by Denver Lindley, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. You can find used copies of the out-of-print book at Amazon.)

So on the back of the tablet of our law that says people may not enter the country illegally is written its opposite that if a child comes to our border having walked from Guatemala, we are to take her in and feed her and keep her warm and safe.

On the back of the tablet of the law that says your religion is different from mine and mine is different from the guy’s who lives down the street is written that we are to get over our sense of rectitude and privilege.

On the back of the tablet . . .

That’s what I really meant to say a few days ago.

From the foundation of the world?

Come ye blessed of my father. (Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel.)

Come ye blessed of my father. (Michelangelo,
Sistine Chapel.)

In a little more than two weeks I will be in Jerusalem. I will spend ten nights in Palestine and Israel―in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and religiously important places in the Galilee, as well as Jerusalem. I have been to all of these places before. The first time I was in Palestine, I also had the remarkable experience of spending two days and a night in Gaza.

In the late ‘80s-early ‘90s I was in therapy with a Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Cambridge, MA. He is about my age (we were both very young at that time). My neurologist referred me to him because he had experience working with persons with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, the condition with which the neurologists at Harvard Medical School had recently diagnosed me after I had lived with it for 40 years.

One of the presentations of TLE is a propensity for heightened religious experiences. Out-of-body experiences, strange feelings of transcendence, seeing visions. All manner of mystical experience.

I have had quite a few of those experiences, but I have never exactly attributed them to being in touch with God or the gods or the meaning of the universe as some TLEptics do. From childhood I have had what might be called a “mystical” bent―having deep experiences of connectedness to reality of some kind. I have tried to explain those experiences many times.

In a folder on my computer desk top I have a miscellaneous assortment of documents with stuff I want to be able to find if I ever need it. Somewhat like my last year’s tax return―it’s here somewhere. One of those documents is a quotation from Fyodor Dostoyevsky describing his seizures (I have no record of the article that quotes Strakhov).

Nikolay Strakhov, a philosopher and literary critic, and a friend of Dostoyevsky relates Dostoevsky’s description of the aura: ‘…Often told me that before the onset of an attack there were minutes in which he was in rapture.’ “For several moments,” he said, “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life―such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.” Frank J. Goldstein. Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoevsky. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press (1987).

I don’t know if the experience on the Oregon coast I linked to above was a seizure, a mystical experience, or simply the way anyone who hadn’t a care in the world for the moment would experience the ocean and the cold air and the solitude. My guess is that many (most?) people have these experiences, but they don’t feel compelled to write about them. And they don’t think of them as “religious.”

I should note here that the times I know for sure I am having a seizure are not wonderful. A month ago, for example, I was walking at the fitness center and suddenly had no idea where I was or why I was there (which is a much more frequent experience than being at one with the ocean). It’s more difficult for me to explain that kind of experience than the mystical ones (or whatever they are). Fortunately at the fitness center I was able to get to a bench and sit before I checked out completely. I came to (after probably 2 or 3 seconds) and knew someone named Chris was nearby and that I should see him.

But I had no idea where or who he was or why I needed to find him. It took me a few minutes to remember he is my trainer, and I had an appointment with him in a few minutes.

So that’s the sum total of my mystical experience.

For the most part.

Since I find it almost impossible to say I believe in God these days, it’s just as well that I don’t have experiences where I think I’ve run into her.

When I was working with the Jewish Jungian psychiatrist in Massachusetts, he told me he hoped I would someday have the experience of standing at the Western Wall (the “Wailing Wall”) in Jerusalem. He thought anyone who had had so many “mystical” (I’ll call them that for want of a better description) experiences needed to be in that place where so much of the Western religious tradition had been centered, supposedly, for 2,500 years.

When I finally touched the Wall in 2003, I had nothing like a religious experience. Perhaps that was because on my way down into the courtyard I was greeted by a teenage girl and boy (Israeli soldiers carrying assault rifles) obviously looking everyone over with suspicion, and it was difficult to feel anything other than wariness. I was not wearing a yarmulke as the other men in our group were.

I am fairly certain that when I am in Jerusalem in a couple of weeks, I will have religious experiences. I don’t think William James would have classified them as religious, however. But it’s the only way I have of participating in or knowing or experiencing anything “transcendent” or of “God.”

The purpose of my trip is to join, as best I know how or can figure out, the cause of justice for all people. If God exists, I have only one way of knowing God. That is by doing my level best (which is pathetically inadequate and probably misinformed) to be of service to other human beings, especially in the cause of justice and mercy. It is only then―not by belief or prayer or meditation or good works―that I expect to have anything like the experience of hearing, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”―in this life or any other.

(Some of my reasons for going to Palestine/Jerusalem.)

The new

The new “Wailing Wall.” (Photo, Harold Knight, 2008.)

 

“. . . On Venus you and I are not even a year old . . .”

Surprising St. Petersburg

Surprising St. Petersburg

Today is the day we are habituated to pondering the successes and failures, the good times and bad, the ins and outs. . .

This year has been sideways and frontways, backwards and upwards—like every other year.

EXCEPT! —

I walked and ate and made music in Arvika, and saw Stockholm in Sweden. I reveled and ate and shopped and made music in Rauma, Finland, and saw Helsinki. I marveled and ate and walked in the cemetery where both Tchaikovsky and Dostoyevsky are buried and made music in St. Petersburg. And had a touristy whirlwind through the Hermitage.

I was in the company of a group of new friends-for-life, kind and gentle and loving folks for whom I have immense gratitude and to whom I offer my meager version of love. The choir and companions of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I should stop right there.

The best of times with the loveliest of people

The best of times with the loveliest of people

BUT —

Two surgeries, one a complete and immediate success (the six-month pain in my hip was gone when I woke up from the anesthetic and never returned). The other is still in process of recovery. I’ve discovered what we do that requires BOTH of our shoulders and arms. Balance yourself getting up from a chair with one arm strapped to your chest. Put on your socks with one hand.

However, for nearly a month now I’ve been without a cane, crutches or sling. Gratitude is not my strong suit, but I am grateful.

In her lovely quirky poem “Fragments for the End of the Year,” Jennifer K. Sweeney lists many observations I could have made about this year.

On average, odd years have been the best for me.
I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know . . .
I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland. [For me, it’s Easter Island.]
Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit . . .
On Venus you and I are
not even a year old. (The entire poem is below the video.)

Odd years have been good for me—I’m not sure if, on average, they have been better than even years. This odd year has been odd but good.

I have an overwhelming need to go to Easter Island (don’t ask because I don’t know). I have been awestruck for decades by the fact we all eat fruit without seeds, which means there are more fruit trees pollinated in some way other than through the normal sexual life of fruit trees than I can imagine, and I wonder why—if we can do that—we can’t make a computer power cord that weighs less than five pounds. Or make peace in the Middle East.

But Venus. Oh, my, Venus is a great mystery. I remember reading about the planet years ago and being mystified by what I learned. And today Jennifer Sweeney reminds me of it. In the first place, Venus revolves on her axis the opposite way Earth does—so the sun comes up in the west and sets in the east. But that’s only the beginning. A day on Venus lasts 243 Earth days. A day on Venus is longer than a year on Venus, which lasts 225 Earth days. Now that’s weird.

Not really the worst of times

Not really the worst of times

The best part of that is what it does to one’s age. On Venus, I’d be only 104 days old rather than the approximately 25,000 days I’ve been here on Earth.

Gives a whole new meaning to “a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night” (Psalm 90:4—the “your,” of course refers to God). My guess is that even Richard Dawkins and other militant fundamentalist atheists have some concept of “before the mountains were brought forth” (if only because they were raised in the culture that believes in the concept and then, in their profound scientific wisdom, have rejected the concept—far braver than I am).

.
Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:1-4).

Dawkins has a great time comparing Earth to Venus, I should think. What does time mean, anyway? Go ahead, tell me.

There’s an old German hymn Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig, the text by Michael Franck (1652) and the melody melody by Johann Crüger (1661).

The best English translation I know is

O how futile, how inutile
Is our earthly being!
‘Tis a mist in wintry weather,
Gathered in an hour together,
And as soon dispersed in ether.

The hymn goes on for twelve stanzas with as many (or more) metaphors for the “inutility” (a great word meaning “of no use”) of life and does not mention God until the last, when it says merely that the person who relies on God will find purpose, or some such.

I take great comfort in this hymn. “On Venus, you and I are not even a year old,” so we have plenty of time to sort all of this out. It doesn’t have to be done before midnight today.

Georg Böhm (1661—1733), German baroque composer, wrote a little set of variations on the hymntune. Here’s his setting of the tune itself and then the first variation. Accompanied by inutility.

“Fragments for the End of the Year,” by Jennifer K. Sweeney

On average, odd years have been the best for me.

I’m at a point where everyone I meet looks like a version
of someone I already know.

 Without fail, fall makes me nostalgic for things I’ve never experienced.

The sky is molting. I don’t know
if this is global warming or if the atmosphere is reconfiguring
itself to accommodate all the new bright suffering.

I am struck by an overwhelming need to go to Iceland.

Despite all awful variables, we are still full of ideas
as possible as unsexed fruit.

I was terribly sorry to be the one to explain to the first graders
the connection between the sunset and pollution.

On Venus you and I are not even a year old.

Then there were two skies.
The one we fly through and the one
we bury ourselves in.

I appreciate my wide beveled spatula which fulfills
the moment I realized I would grow up and own such things.

I am glad I do not yet want sexy bathroom accessories.
Such things.

In the story we were together every time.
On his wedding day, the stone in his chest
not fully melted but enough.

Sometimes I feel like there are birds flying out of me.

“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.”

. . . where people get their marching orders . . .

. . . where people get their marching orders . . .

I know why depressed people get more depressed at Christmas time and people who are normally not depressed get depressed. There. I’ve used the word “depressed” four times in one sentence.

It’s really quite simple. It’s not depression at all. It’s an overwhelming dose of reality dumped on us uncaringly and, for the most part, unconsciously by a society that, for the rest of the year, makes and spends trillions of dollars and runs head-long in ever-more meaningless and ever-more frenzied circles of greed designed to avoid reality.

Suddenly—not so suddenly these days—everyone is talking about life and death and eternity as if they meant something by their palaver.

Depressed people have a special gift that our society has chosen to pathologize because it runs counter to and, if given free rein, might jeopardize our carefully and monstrously laid out running-circles of greed and selfishness. The gift is most often a natural phenomenon, given to the world as part of depressed people’s DNA but rejected by those who don’t have it.

Depressed people think about the futility of our frenzied circles. Depressed people think about relationships broken—in the vast majority of cases—by greed in one form or another. Depressed people think about not fitting in, not being frenzied enough to pile up what others see as their fair share of those trillions of dollars. Depressed people think about how cruel greed makes most people, and, as a consequence, how most people live desperately lonely lives even when they are running in circles together.

Depressed people are overwhelmed by the crassness, the thoughtlessness, the disingenuousness, the hatred, the bigotry, and the violence that are the ultimate results of running in circles of greed.
depression1
And that makes many depressed people want out. Perhaps want to die. We have never been able to find our circle to run in because we can see from the starting line that the race is fixed and cruel. So we sit on the sidelines and wonder what the fuck is going on. And we either say we wonder or we stay in bed and don’t even pretend to participate, and that makes everyone else very nervous.

So you all make us feel guilty and broken because we know the end of this circle-running is the same for everyone. We’re all going to die. Even the people who inherit or make at the expense of others a real percentage of those trillions of dollars are going to die. It does them no more good than the drop in the bucket the vast majority will manage to pile up. Who, by the way, are also going to die.

And then, out of the blue, everyone is talking and singing about and having drunken parties in honor of two mythological creatures who are somehow going to save everyone from dying. Jesus and Santa Claus. And no one except depressed people seems to understand how bizarre, how hateful, how escapist all of that is. And we just can’t participate because we know everyone else is simply trying to pile up more and more layers of physical/monetary ephemeralness onto the circles they are running in, hoping through greed and concentration on themselves to be the one person out of the six billion or so on the earth who will not die.

And if we happen to mention to anyone who is not depressed that we think it’s all futile, that we want to stay in bed and not participate, that we think you’re all crazy, that we’d like to find a way out of this world-wide nuthouse—even perhaps arranging our exit by ourselves—you clamp us into a hospital because we are a danger to ourselves or others, or you pour chemicals into us that dull our feelings. And we willingly participate in this because we are so desperate to be like everyone else that we let you convince us that it’s really pathetic and problematic that we can see the futility of it all.

And blaring over the loud speakers of malls and other places where people get their marching orders for the circle-running are these phony messages of “love and joy come to you,” and “peace on earth and mercy mild,” and “no more let sin and sorrow grow,” and “bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take them to heaven to live with thee there.”

That’s the kicker. It doesn’t matter how unkind, how freakish, how wildly greedy, how war-mongering and hateful we are, we’re going to live with Jesus forever in heaven.

Every depressed person understands the world-wide cover-up, worked out especially well in “free-market” societies. But it would end the fun if we listened to them.

Pass the Prozac.

‘Twas in the moon of wintertime when all the birds had fled
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim and wondering hunters heard the hymn,
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

Within a lodge of broken bark the tender babe was found;
A ragged robe of rabbit skin enwrapped his beauty round
But as the hunter braves drew nigh the angel song rang loud and high
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

The earliest moon of wintertime is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt with gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free, O seed of Manitou
The holy Child of earth and heaven is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant boy who brings you beauty peace and joy.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born, in excelsis gloria.

——Words, Huron Carol
——Music, French folk tune

Will beauty save the world?

NOVEMBER: NATIONAL EPILEPSY AWARENESS MONTH

No idiot he.

No idiot he.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s most often-quoted line (at least in the circles in which I run—and I do run in circles) is, “Beauty will save the world” (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot).

Dostoyevsky was epileptic.

The Idiot is my favorite novel. I’ve seriously contemplated learning Russian simply to be able to read it in the original. How’s that for grandiosity (see Google search for Bipolar II disorder)? I have The Idiot as a Nook book, as an eText on both my computer and my iPad, and, best of all in a BOOK, the miraculously compelling 2004 translation by David McDuff. I’ve read The Idiot at least four times and am about 1/3 of the way through the McDuff translation.

I first read The Idiot in 1987 in preparation for teaching an “Introduction to World Literature” course as an adjunct in the English Department at Salem State College in Salem, MA. Why I was teaching that course, I’m not quite sure, but by the third semester I had some idea what I was doing. I used The Idiot because one of the Professors in the department suggested when I told him—because the fluorescent lights in the classroom were killing me—I am epileptic. He thought I would enjoy it for myself, and, as long as I was going to take the time to read it, I might as well use it in class.

Lest you think in some way I am comparing myself to Dostoyevsky—don’t. Your Google search above may have listed grandiosity as one of the presentations of Bipolar II Disorder, but even I am not that daft. Not even my epilepsy is the same as Dostoyevsky’s. He had full seizures. Mine are tiny, half-seizures, little storms in my head that have no physical manifestation. Partial seizures, they are called. Temporal Lobe Epilepsy is my diagnosis (neurologists call it something else these days).

Prince Myshkin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is a full-blown, full seizure epileptic. I love the guy. While I have nothing in common with Dostoyevsky, I have a kinship with Myshkin that simply is.

He was thinking, incidentally, that there was a moment or two in his epileptic condition almost before the fit itself . . .  when suddenly amid the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire at brief moments . . . His sensation of being alive and his awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.  His mind and heart were flooded by a dazzling light.  All his agitation, doubts and worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm, full of understanding…but these moments, these glimmerings were still but a premonition of that final second . . . with which the seizure itself began.  That second was, of course, unbearable. . . (The Idiot, Section V).
Dostoevsky_Grave
My experience used to be of the same quality, but of an order of magnitude so much smaller that it hardly seems the same. I knew that “sensation of being alive [with my] awareness increased tenfold at those moments which flashed by like lightning.” My moment was a high pitched ringing (always B-flat) and then an explosion into white noise, and then the seizure, which was (is—very rarely now) a sense of dissociation, of otherworldliness, of being-there and not-being-there. When I was a kid, the feeling could go on for days. Wandering around certain I could pass through walls because I had no body.

So then, in 1984, that all changed. I was diagnosed with TLE, the medications (heavy doses of Carbatrol and Depakote) began, and I zoned out. Have done ever since. I’ve had one real seizure in Dallas—a complete black-out doozy. In Target. Police called and everything. Very dramatic.

I asked my neurologist a few years back if anyone had a study of the long-term effects of Carbatrol (I’ve been taking the same massive doses for 29 years). He said, “You’re it!”

So enough about me, already. Here’s what I want you to think about as you look for a way to support to the Epilepsy Foundation this month.

. . .  Myshkin is the embodiment of an insolvable conundrum. . . [that] has to do with the fact that Dostoevsky’s ideal “I” can never be achieved because to reach it, one must annihilate one’s actual “I” and join “in a blissful synthesis with the all,” where the “I” no longer exists. . . .this conundrum perfectly reflects what happens during Myshkin’s epileptic attacks. In the moments before a seizure, Myshkin achieves a sense of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things” (an intimation of the ideal “I”). But a moment later, “stupor, spiritual darkness, and idiocy” follow—the annihilation of the self in the seizure and its aftermath . . .Yet epilepsy can only take us so far as an exegetical device by which to understand . . . what happens to Myshkin at the end of the novel. . .  epilepsy with the “destruction of personality” that accompanies it is pointedly rejected by Dostoevsky as the reason behind Myshkin’s relapse into idiocy. The triggering event must be sought elsewhere.
(John Givens . “Dostoevsky’s Idiot and the Christology of Comedy.” The Russian Review 70 [January 2011]: 111. )

NEAM-Facebook-LogoYou have to read The Idiot to understand this, obviously—and probably much more Dostoyevsky than that (I think the same conundrum is present in the other Dostoyevsky novels I’ve read—especially Crime and Punishment, which you have no doubt read).

But when a kid is sitting in his second grade class and have a feeling of “a lofty serenity, filled with pure, harmonious gladness and hope, filled too with the consciousness of the ultimate cause of all things,” it’s more terrifying than anything else. And he probably will not have worked out what it means—or even for sure what the feeling is—by the time you’re 68. But it’s fun trying (no, it’s not—it’s crazy-making).

I just wish they’d turn off all fluorescent lights in the world.