"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, August 7, 2017

I Get The Willies And Worry What’s Behind Closed Doors–Disturbing Visions And The Nature Of Clarity

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I get the willies when I see closed doors.  Even at work, where I am doing so well now, the sight of a closed door is sometimes enough to make me dread that something horrible is happening behind it, something that is going to affect me adversely; if I am tired and dejected from a night of lies or booze or sex or just plain nerves and insomnia, I can almost smell the disaster mounting invisibly and flooding out toward me through the frosted glass panes.  My hands may perspire, and my voice may come out strange.  I wonder why.  Something must have happened to me sometime (Joseph Heller, Something Happened)
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For Bob Phillips his closed doors were intimations of something really wrong, structurally wrong when becoming unhinged is a real possibility, if the sense of dislocation doesn’t pass. There are no reasons for these ‘adjustments’ nor any preparation nor, worst of all, any remedies.  Suddenly there are too many things in the room to take in let alone make sense of.  You are encircled by them, no longer in control of them or the space they occupy. Each object means something more than it is and frightening. 

During one of these moments, Bob’s kitchen, the most familiar room in his house, became disassembled. It was not even the sum of its parts.  The dishes were in the drainer, still dripping.  The fan, suspended from the ceiling didn’t  move. The garden outside the window was dark because of the rain and the early hour; but the limbs of the cherry tree were too close to the house, and there were no birds up.

After a few seconds the paralysis was gone. The kitchen resettled.  The moment of adjustment was over.  Things became again what they were supposed to be, in place, utilitarian, and usual.

It was not that these moments were common or even frequent; but they are more unsettling because of their unpleasant surprise and the total disorientation they effected.  The fear that that they might come again was almost more disassociating and unnerving than the event itself.  They were so complete in their rearrangement of the order of things  that they suggested mental disorder, illness, or even madness.

These ‘events’ as Bob called them could happen anywhere – as often in his office or on the Metro as well as in his kitchen.  The most unsettling were on his way home.  Once on K Street he couldn’t make sense of anything – the stoplights, traffic, and pedestrians lost function and positioning.  He knew that there must be an order to the scene in front of him, but it eluded him.  There must be underlying patterns – a certain frequency of red lights,  varying intervals between cars, or a particular geometry of sunlight reflected off store front windows; but he couldn’t see them.

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As soon as the events passed, everything came clear and integrated. There was indeed a functional pattern to the direction of cars up and down Connecticut Avenue, to pedestrian crossings, and to the sounds of jackhammers, drills, and hammers.  Things made sense, followed routine, harmonized and synchronized not in any meaningful interrelationship but simply part of a meaningless but understandable whole.

A form of minor panic attack, suggested his physician.  Nothing to worry about, probably caused by some temporary chemical imbalance – too much coffee, not enough breakfast – or minor stress at home or the office.  Nothing to worry about, the doctor said, but if they became in anyway debilitating, Bob was to call him.

Louis Bayard, writing in the New York Times (11.19.00) wrote the following in a review of Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, the story of a Carmelite nun who has seizures during which she sees God:
Cloistered in the heart of secular Los Angeles, Sister John of the Cross has spent most of her life laboring toward God but has only recently found an entry point: a series of blinding headaches that leave her ''splintered like broken glass . . . all edges and points,'' until a strange light burns through and all heaven breaks loose. ''Pure awareness stripped her of everything. She became an ember carried upward by the heat of an invisible flame. . . . She could see forever, and everywhere she looked, she saw God's love.''
These divine visions inspired Sister John to write a popular volume of poems and essays and have earned Sister John the awe of her peers. But when her headaches begin interfering with convent duties, Sister John's mother superior sends her to a doctor -- a creature of modernity who gives her the worst possible news: she has temporal-lobe epilepsy or, in the classic parlance of clergy, ''holy madness.'' The diagnosis leaves Sister John poised between two equally unpalatable options. She can let surgeons remove the small menangioma that triggers her seizures and, in the process, lose her visions. Or she can go on living with her epilepsy, knowing that her encounters with God may well be biologically induced delusions.
Sister John was very much like the revered St. Teresa of Avila, the Catholic saint who had ecstatic, almost erotic visions. If Sister John’s visions were anything like those of St. Teresa, it is no wonder that she didn’t want to give them up.
Bob’s ‘events’ were not visions.  In fact just the opposite. The real world disassembled into discrete elements.  He saw everything around him exactly as it was before his event – cars, stoplights, buildings, litter, graffiti – but nothing had coherence, no continuity, no internal order.  Visions were not reordering events but introductions of something new – the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael, spirits, the dead, or demons.  His events were nothing of the sort; and yet he had seen something that wasn’t there outside of the event.  Perhaps his temporarily disaggregated world was indeed a vision, for hadn’t his mind, disturbed as it might have been, do exactly what Braque, Picasso, and Duchamp had done?

The problem became more serious when his disassembly became less visionary and more compulsive.  He became more like the fictional Bob Slocum who found upsetting meaning in specific things – in Slocum’s case, closed doors – but Phillips took this obsession much farther.  He invested every gesture, every motion, every sound with meaning.  An arm was never raised in one fluid motion but in quanta.  Rather than see a continuous movement, he saw the micro-movements that made up the arc.  A voice was never made up of a normal sequence of synchronized notes, but broken into micro-tones, the hearing of which, made comprehension impossible.   Doors were to be opened and closed but they had meaning in their inert state. 

As his disturbance became more acute, Bob could look at nothing without every sub-component, every micro-shade, micro-tone, or micro-movement interfering with larger meaning.

These new events happened with regularity but not often.  They were like migraines, disturbances of unknown origin, unpredictable, of irregular frequency, but unsettling and disorienting.
Bob shared more with Sister John than he cared to admit, for as initially unwelcome as his events were, they had substance. He uncovered unconsciously what Kant, Berkeley, and Hume did deliberately with the most disciplined rationality.  Were not his events illustrations of metaphysics?

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Eventually his events took over.  They happened with such frequency that he lived in his disassembled world almost more than he did in his normal, coherent one.  While he stubbornly clung to the belief in his particular intelligence and unique perceptions, he realized that he could not survive leading such split and unabridged life.  He gave into pharma-therapy.

Once the drugs took hold his events diminished, his marriage, work, and social life improved; but because he missed the strange, hollowness of his events and their surreal rearrangement of meaning, he kept trying to generate them.  The drugs were too effective; and like LSD, psilocybin, and other hallucinogens, contact highs never last.  Bob could remember what happened during his events, but could never feel them.  He was cured and not cured, and neither relieved nor happy.

New Age apostles and evangelical preachers both insist on alternate realities – wormholes into other universes and modes of being or stairways to heaven.  One in the right frame of mind could indeed see Jesus or Mary or God himself; or be transported through astral projection to other worlds.
All of us would have been better off without a content Bob Phillips.  Visionaries – Braque, Picasso, Sri Vedanta Ramakrishna Rao, or Sister John – come far too seldom, and should be nurtured not neutered as he was.

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