On hallucination

When I was about twelve or thirteen—and there is no way I can relate this without sounding like the kid from The Sixth Sense—I started seeing dead people.

Well, I presumed they were dead. They were usually a bit fuzzy around the edges, and didn’t have much respect for the laws of physics. I would only see them for a short period after waking up at night, they’d just be wandering around the room and not really interacting with anyone. Sometimes I would, also, find myself totally paralysed during this experience. I didn’t tell anyone. Being a child psychic is unlikely to be much approved of, and I would likely be laughed at or sent to a psychiatrist—and you know how that would have turned out. But the apparently irrefutable evidence that I could see people who should not have been there caused a serious dent in the stern disbelief in which I had been brought up: I was seeing ghosts.

Then, aged seventeen, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that, amongst other things, causes hypnagogic hallucination and sleep paralysis—the continuation of the dream state and the associated auto-paralysis outside of sleep. Suddenly, all my silly ideas about being psychic or the existance of ghosts seemed really rather well explained by this simple, but unfortunate, orexin-shaped hole in my brain. I returned, almost gratefully, to rationalism and scepticism.

These hallucinations continue—I will not take any medication for narcolepsy, because to me the side-effects are worse than the condition—and, at the point of hallucination, I still cannot help but believe them, even though my rational mind knows I am hallucinating. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs (not least because my own experience with hallucination is such that I see absolutely no attraction in doing so), but I presume the experience is much the same. The hallucinations normally, though not exclusively, conform to what I consider plausible—indeed they are often nowadays extremely specific to my circumstances, and I have learnt to simply not rely on anything I experience in the first few minutes after waking up as actually having happened.

We largely operate, even when we may intellectually know differently, under what philosophers call “naive realism”: the presumption that our percepts directly manifest the external world; yet it does not take much to show that this is not the case. Dreams and hallucinations of any type show that external input is not necessary for the construction of percepts, and furthermore, at least some strands of cognitive research suggest that your cognitive categories are used in the actual construction of these percepts (and not simply in the post-perceptual processing), and anyone who has experienced (as I also do, presumably unconnected to the narcolepsy) phantom phone vibration can probably sympathise with this.

The point of this ramble is to explain why, despite insisting on my right to mock the institutes and dogmas of religion as freely as I choose, I rarely mock individual believers, and especially avoid mocking religious experience. The casting of religious experience—whether an inchoate sensation of the sublime or the specifics of hearing the voice of God—as necessarily indicative of madness is a lazy and inaccurate trope of intolerant atheism and, quite apart from the unpleasant judgmentalism it carries concerning mental illness, is simply not the case. We all construct our percepts, partly from input, but also using our existing cognitive apparatus. To someone brought up in a religious tradition, or simply one where supernatural phenomena are plausible, their cognitive apparatus—incorrectly, but not culpably—includes such categories as “real,” and I see no reason to declare lunacy or idiocy in them. I will tell them they are wrong—tediously often—but I do not doubt the validity of their experience, or their honesty in relating it.

My own brush with hallucination has, in the end, confirmed and reinforced my atheism: but it has also convinced me that hallucination, in the sense of perceiving things that are not physically present, is far from a remote condition deriving from egregiously failing brain function. I strongly suspect that we all hallucinate reasonably frequently; but those hallucinations are also frequently reasonable, and so go largely unnoticed. To someone who, however credulously, considers hearing the voice of God to be a perfectly normal occurrence, there is no reason why they should not do so, any more than I should feel my phone vibrating in my pocket when it is on the table in front of me.

They are wrong, of course, but not in my view risibly so. If you assert that God is somehow three things and one thing, if you assert that He is all-loving but prepared to condemn a majority of His creation to eternal torture, or if you assert that He is His own son I will freely mock you for the ludicrousness of your propositions; but if you hear His voice, that’s actually OK by me. Unless it tells you to kill people, of course. That’s when you probably should seek some help.

Update: Minutes after finishing this I checked my WordPress reader and, by a coincidence that threatens to undermine all of the above, one of my favourite blogs has today posted on exactly this topic. Perhaps I am psychic, after all.

A to Z blogging challenge: H

On epistolary wisdom

Today, we take a trip down the rabbit hole, into some of the darker recesses of my mind. Not the very darkest, I hasten to add. In those, many spheres below the subconscious, bizarre and disturbing proto-thoughts lie quietly fermenting and fomenting, occasionally rising up to the lowest levels of subconscious to place in my mind shudderingly strange content, the words to express which have yet to be invented.

But we shan’t be plunging that deep today. Today we are merely descending a short way down, to the sphere of odd and sometimes slightly icky obsessions. Here, alongside the fascination for bodily oozes previously discussed on this blog, we find an innocent joy in bizarre folk myths about the behaviours of animals, and a slightly more discomforting fondness for discovering the glorious variety of innovative ways (both true and mythical) in which they get their respective freaks on.

The former means that, amongst others, I have filed away in my mind to occasionally take out and enjoy the fairly well-known fact that no lesser a mortal than Aristotle subscribed to the belief that mother bears give birth to unformed lumps of flesh, which they mould into a cub using their tongue (giving us the expression “to lick into shape”), and the lesser-known nugget that, according to the fourteenth-century Arabic lexicographer al-Fīrūzābādī, the tortoise lays exactly 100 eggs, of which 99 hatch to be tortoises, and one to be a snake. The latter obsession… well, we shall visit that shortly.

So, anyway, I’ve been reading the Epistle of Barnabas, and—

Reader: Wait, wait, wait… The Epistle of Whodjummy?

Me: Oh, you again. Aren’t we done stealing this device from a long-dead Irish comic?

Reader: Apparently not. And I’m not sure being all meta and self-referential about the fact improves matters. It just turns you from being a plagiarist into a irritating post-modern plagiarist.

Me: Well, it’s written now.

Reader (sotto voce): You nicked that joke from him too.

Some explanation, then: the Epistle of Barnabas is a tract, purportedly by St. Paul’s travelling-companion Barnabas, that very nearly made it into the New Testament; in fact it’s in the fourth-century Codex Siniaticus manuscript, and as late as the sixth century the Codex Claromontanus lists it as canonical. This makes it quite interesting, as an almost-ran, showing the kind of ideas that were floating around early Christianity. It is also astonishingly antisemitic, taking the not uncommon (though, to be fair, not universal either) Christian depiction of Jews as knowing deniers of the True God, and jumping the shark by back-projecting it onto the Jewish scriptures themselves. For, according to Barnabas, the entire Law, all 600 plus commands of it, was never intended to be followed. It was all metaphorical, and predictive of the arrival of Jesus and his moral code. The Jews, having broken the initial covenant, willfully erred yet further by treating the Law as literal. I have to say, I’m kinda with them on this point. If a voice spoke to me from a burning bush or a whirlwind giving extensive and detailed instructions on how to act, along with generalized threats of wrath and hellfire, I think I’d give it the benefit of Grice’s maxims, and presume it meant them. But Barnabas is very clear: they are all metaphors. In fact, to demonstrate this, he elucidates a few of them, and it is three of these that give me particular joy, and are the original point of this rather digressive post. They all concern meats declared unfit to eat. The bans on their flesh, to Barnabas, is not literal, but rather evokes characteristics of the creature that should be eschewed.

Firstly, hyenas. The ban on hyena flesh is, actually, a warning against adultery and perversion. Why? Because “this animal changes its nature each year, at one time it is male, the next time female” (10:7). Awesome: though from the folk mythology point of view, it’s not a stunningly left-field imaginative leap, if you know anything about the sexual morphology of the spotted hyena.

Next up, the weasel, who is dealt with as a prohibition on oral sex due to the fact that the weasel “conceives with its mouth” (10:8).

But my favourite, my absolute top, comes first in the list. The rabbit. Here it is, in its full glory:

But also “do not eat the rabbit.” For what reason? “You must not,” [Moses] says, “be one who corrupts children, or be like such people.” For the rabbit adds an orifice every year; it has as many holes as years it has lived. (10.6)

Domesticated rabbits can live up to twelve years.

On converting

I intend—this may cause a few eyebrows to raise—to convert. Specifically, I intend to convert to Catholicism, and I shall do so on my deathbed. I was born an atheist (we all are, if you think about it), raised an atheist and, other than an interesting wobble which will be the subject of a later post, have been and will remain an atheist for almost my whole life—but convert I will, in my final moments, and I shall do so with good cause.

The reason I intend to convert has little to do with my immortal soul, or with the existence of an ultimate being. The ontological argument may have been good enough for Russell, but it fails to convince me. No, I shall convert for one reason only: to exact a perverse revenge upon Brideshead Revisited.

I loved that book, or rather I loved the first 95 percent of it. It’s Waugh’s first grown-up novel, after he had got bored of poking fun at airheaded poshos, and it’s a treat. Waugh could turn a fine phrase, and in Brideshead he hasn’t lost his satirist’s eye, but it is a maturer novel, about outsiders and left-behinds; a nostalgic but not misty-eyed paean to a departing age. It draws sympathetic though far from perfect characters, and even has as a major theme a fairly uncritical depiction of homosexuality (and if you’re one of those who, to protect your own sensibilities, insist that the relationship depicted between Charles and Sebastian is passionate but not physical, I suggest you reread the Italian section, and think upon what Sebastian means when he looks at the statue of a soldier and says “It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war”). Of course, the Brideshead family are Catholics, but I viewed this largely as a literary device to make even the characters from the aristocracy socially excluded. Waugh later wrote overtly Catholic books but, just as with Graham Greene, I credited him with being able to write about Catholics without writing a Catholic book. After all, the most mainstream Catholic of the book—Bridey himself—is an insufferable prig.

But then I reached the last chapter, and Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion. Lord Marchmain, the most attractive character in the book, uproarously living in sin and in Venice with his Italian mistress, resolutely refusing to return to his infuriatingly placid, devout wife in their mouldering country pile. I don’t usually invest myself emotionally in novels (did you not read the previous two posts?), and I don’t expect fictional people to be anything other than fictions, but nothing, nothing in literature has had me screaming in fury as much as his pathetic, woebegone end, feebly indicating his acceptance of extreme unction in his last hours. Nothing, that is, other than the consequent few pages in which not only the wavering Julia but also the narrator himself—the only other resolute sceptic in the book—see in Marchmain’s terminal capitulation evidence of the truth of the Faith; and it is clear that the reader, too, is enjoined to take a fictional act of despair as a shove in that direction. I thought I was reading a smart, gently acidic novel about a fading epoch; and I discovered that all of that, all of it was nothing more than a grotesquely elongated set-up for a crass and proselytizing homily.

What is this, Evelyn, what nonsense is this? The idea that a dying man’s terror of his imminent non-existence leads him to set aside his reason and take up Pascal’s improbable wager is perfectly plausible: but is that really the best that you can do for your religion, to claim that this should be an inspiration? That despair leads to unreason? Is that all you have?

So I shall have my revenge and I shall have it by converting, myself. A genuine, heartfelt, full conversion: bell, book, and candle. I shall recite the Pater noster, and savour upon my tongue the cannibalistically transubstantiated wafer. I shall set aside the millions I make from syndicating this blog for masses to be said for me by hair-shirted monks, and I shall firmly believe that when those very monks were beating the living shit out of their novices it was to induce moral improvement and a contempt for the flesh, and not because they were socially catastrophic sadists. I shall devoutly accept the absolute authority of the Bishop of Rome as granted by apostolic succession, and try my hardest to ignore the inconveniently contradictory fact that the man upon whose purported writings the vast majority of the Papal theology is based was a charismatic evangelist who never met Jesus, and fought with the man to whom the apostolic commission was actually granted.

I shall put my immortal soul out of peril, and I shall do so solely because of a few pages in an out-dated book. I said it was perverse: but nothing will give me greater pleasure in this world or the next than, having earnt my last-minute pass beyond the Pearly Gates, proceeding to hunt down Evelyn Waugh in the heavenly realm, wrenching his gaze back down to this terrestrial plane, and pointing out to him that, rather than a host of serene and uplifted mourners inspired by my last act to turn to Rome themselves, there will be but angry and confused individuals debating whether I was a hypocrite, a fool, or a coward. “There!” I shall exclaim triumphantly to him, “That’s what a deathbed conversion really looks like! Now, can a soul get a decent ambrosia and tonic round here?”

The Sunday Sermon

To get to the little casazinha in which I stay in Picinguaba, you climb some stairs from the beach to an old Catholic chapel. Constructed in the traditional style of Brazil, it had long been out of use—as the Evangelicals have something of a hold here—and was thus quaintly dilapidated, with rusty streaks and incipient lichen on the whitewashed walls. But in the two years that I’ve been away, it has returned to use—two Sundays a month—and has been spruced up and given a lick of paint. They are singing there, now, glorifying God; and it says something about the state of religion in this country that I am happier for them to do so there than in the rapacious Evangelical church down the road, with its smartly-suited unsmiling doormen and bottomless collection plate.

From the chapel, the quickest way to my house is across a small patch of grass, maybe twenty foot by ten. But during the day, at least, I will not pass this way, because it is infested with marimbondos, and they put the fear of God into me in a way that the brimstone preachers of the chapel will never achieve. Marimbondos are a type of wasp—though to make that claim to one who has never seen anything but the British variant of this genus is analogous to describing the ocean as a type of pond. They are two or three inches long, black as the devil, and aggressively protective of this small patch of grass. As well they might be, for below that grass, in burrows that they have built, their children are growing to adulthood.

And how! The marimbondos terrify me because their sting is notoriously painful, but what they do to another species—well that is something else again. The burrows under the grass contain not just marimbondo larvae: each larva has been lovingly, caringly deposited upon the inert but living body of a spider, paralysed—but not killed—by this same sting, and dragged into the burrow by the mother wasp, there to provide all the nutrients that her child needs. So sophisticated, so well-designed is this rearing system that the larvae even instinctively leave the spider’s vital organs to last, as they slowly consume it. The larva thus has the freshest possible food—for it is still living—for its entire infancy.

The marimbondos terrify me, indeed; but the God they are glorifying in the building next door to them terrifies me more. For He created this wasp, this creature whose act of supreme loving care for her offspring involves the prolonged torture of another creature. He saw fit to design a world thus, where the horrible slow demise of one being is necessary for the very survival of another. As His worshippers leave their church later this evening, having raised their voices in song praising his goodness and all-lovingness, I wonder how many of them will glance at that small patch of scrubbish grass to their right, and think upon the viciousness and sadism encapsulated there—not of the marimbondo, who is only acting as she must to continue her species, but of her Creator who designed her, and made her a torturer.