“. . . 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.)

 

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.

My summer reading list –ADD YOURS, PLEASE!

girl_with_dragon_tattoo_bookAmazon Books has listed The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Understanding Lisbeth Salander and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, in which, apparently, “19 psychologists and psychiatrists attempt to do what even expert investigator Mikael Blomkvist could not: understand Lisbeth Salander.”

Any story, IMHO, that needs 19 psychologists and psychiatrists to understand it probably isn’t worth reading.  That does not include Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two stories in the trilogy. Anyone who wants to bother finding out what 19 psychologists and psychiatrists have to say about Lisbeth Salander is welcome to waste her time, but it certainly is not necessary. I just finished the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Here’s what I (with an almost PhD in esthetic studies) have to say about the novels: they are great yarns! Steig Larsson did not bother with all the “literary” techniques, the niceties that make a “great novel” by the standards of academic literaturists (I can make up a word if I want to), but—my goodness!—he can tell a story. I am grateful to Larsson, may he rest in peace, for helping me find out once again how much fun it can be to read a novel.

For the last ten or so years, I have not been able to read novels because I haven’t been able to concentrate long enough to get through one. And now I’ve read all but the last 15 pages of two and will begin the third in the trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest today.  I’ve been told by more than one friend that it’s not as good as the first two of the trilogy, but I was told that about the second compared with the first—and I’ve found it not true. But what do I know.  (There are other reasons for my inability to read—a problem with sleep, for one. I won’t go into those little issues here.)

So I fully expect to keep reading for fun this summer. The 19 psychiatrists can spoil their own fun if they want to, but they are not going to spoil mine.

I know when my ability to read a novel ended: in 1999 when the members of my (second, never-to-be-finished) PhD committee gave me a list of about 30 novels I needed to read (in one summer) in order to take my qualifying exams. I read them. I passed the exams. And I quit the program.

In 1985 I taught a course in World Literature at Salem State College in Massachusetts. It was pretty strange, I will admit. I was an adjunct music teacher drafted to teach Freshman English because that department was desperate and they read my in-progress dissertation and decided I wrote well enough to teach writing (!?!). Then they decided I could teach World Literature (on what basis, I do not know).  I’d say I didn’t “teach” the students much. Together we read a Greek tragedy, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, some short stories by Flannery O’Connor, E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, and Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. Not a bad list. If I were to teach such a course now, at least some of the stuff by dead white men would be replaced.

He dared to write "epilepsy"

He dared to write “epilepsy”

I have read much of the “standard” literature – you know, the “Canon.”  But my reading for the last ten years or so has been mostly non-fiction, mostly academic articles, mostly really boring (if not irrelevant) attempts by scholars to understand/explain this-that-or-the-other.

So thanks to Steig Larsson, my summer reading list is taking shape.

  • It will begin with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

I already have on my Nook/Kindle/iPad:

  • William Gibson’s Neuromancer (I’ve never read it),
  • Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place,
  • Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers (which I’ve started twice but not finished), and
  • Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

I also have a paper copy of

  • the recent translation of The Idiot, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky which is authentic enough to translate the word “epilepsy” as “epilepsy” instead of the vague, meaningless words that translators have always used.

I may even add more murder mysteries if I can find some good ones.

I’d like to know what other folks are reading these days.

My first summer reading venue

My first summer reading venue

PLEASE!  LEAVE A COMMENT WITH YOUR SUMMER READING LIST.

Note: If you listen to NPR or PBS, you’ve no doubt heard they are supported by the Carnegie Foundation, endowed by Andrew Carnegie “to do real and permanent good.” The Scottsbluff, NE, public library (left) is one of many the Carnegie Foundation built across the country,