Friday, March 19, 2010

Ghost of a Chance

In a recent post I referred to F.W.H Myers' book, "Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death," which I had read in college (rather by accident), and the impression of which has never left me. My reading of it having been so long ago, I bought a copy and have begun reading it again. I am nearly finished, and it has, once more, prompted me to think, which is what any good book should do.

I had not recalled (or did not realize) that Myers was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research, a defunct body of investigators of psychic phenomena some of whose reports I had read in my research for a screenplay about Houdini. That great debunker of all things spiritualist had often interacted with SPR representatives, most famously in the case of "Margery" the spirit medium. Their epic battle, carried out in the attic room of her home at Number 10 Lime Street in Boston, formed the basis of our script.

Re-reading Myers after all these years, I remain impressed by the serious nature of his scholarship and the elegance and probity of his prose. His many case histories, while seeming dated now, their narratives archaic in a quaint late-Victorian way, are nonetheless worth considering if we are at all interested in the question of what he calls "immortality." He makes the point that conceptions and accounts of survival after death are a constant in human experience, and ought not be dismissed out of hand as superstition or just so much nonsense. And I find myself forced to agree. After all, as a dramatist, I must take seriously the fact that the premise of my favorite piece of literature, "Hamlet," is that young Hamlet is given knowledge, which he could not otherwise have had, by his father's ghost (the sort of thing Myers calls a sensory automatism).

Myers makes the general point that consciousness can experience varying degrees of disintegration, or insanity; and, by extension, ought therefore to experience equivalent degrees of integration. His primary example of this integration is genius, which, as readers of this site will know, is a subject that interests me greatly. In the sort of syntactical flight of which we no longer in this country seem capable (because of the sorry state of public education) he defines genius as "...a power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought."

Now this is just a fancy way of saying that genius accesses the unconscious mind in ways that burst forth into the conscious mind, and of which the average person is incapable. Genius, then, in his thinking, is the ability of the conscious mind to tap the unconscious at will, whereas most of us can do that, if ever at all, only in the dream state. What is interesting in this is that Myers locates the source of artistic inspiration (and by genius he refers only to artistic inspiration) in the subconscious mind.

This squares with my own experience as a writer, humble as that may be. When I am working, and totally absorbed in a project, I am unaware consciously of the source of the ideas that come to me. When those ideas are flowing, I am often at pains to write them down as quickly as they come, my typing skills being preternaturally limited. But when that is happening, I feel truly alive - perhaps the only time, in the absence of my children, that I do feel truly alive. These ideas are coming from somewhere, and it is decidedly not from my conscious mind; or I would have to continually think about them, in which case deadlines would go past like express trains that do not stop at my station.

Myers also attributes great importance to the experience of dreams. When we are asleep, and our distracted consciousness is at rest, the spirit, or soul, is, in his view, much more active than in the conscious state. This has been true in my experience as well. It is when I am asleep that the characters of my writings have free reign over my attention, and many times I have experienced the annoying phenomenon that they speak to me in my sleep and even wake me up. Indeed, some of the most useful and profound expressions of my characters have come to me in sleep, and many is the time I have awakened with their "instructions" in my head. So specific have these instructions been that I have frequently gone into work and dictated to my writing partner whole scenes and dialog transmitted to me by the characters in the piece we were working on. Two cases stand out in my mind: Kleopatra, telling me that when she visited Rome at the urging of Julius Caesar she went to see her sister, who was then a captive working as a prostitute in the city; and Marilyn Monroe, who insisted to me that I was avoiding the fact that she had been abused by a boarder in the house of one of her many foster parents.

Now, these may have been mere subliminal concatenations of my conscious mind; but the fact remains, as Myers would argue, that the unconscious mind orchestrated their integration, and made it available to me in sleep. And this helps to answer a question I have had for many years: What the hell is the purpose of sleep, in which we spend fully a third of our lives? Myers would say that sleep, in addition to its recuperative power, represents the opportunity for the spiritual in us to express itself through its habitual access to the subconscious mind.

I find that I do not disagree with this idea. The residence of genius probably does exist in the subconscious mind, which, in turn, draws its strength from the spiritual nature of man. How else to explain Mozart or Mendelssohn or Bach or Beethoven, or any of the prodigies of art whose fruits we have enjoyed? Their unconscious minds must have been drawing upon a wellspring of inspiration which transcends the natural, and which is inaccessible to the rest of us. But what is the source of that spring? It must lie elsewhere than in the ordinary categories of conscious existence. It must lie in the spiritual nature of man.

I had an experience of this myself. Having declined to cooperate with the Selective Service during the Vietnam War, I was ordered to spend two years teaching brain-damaged and emotionally disturbed children. Among them was a twelve-year-old girl named Stacey. Stacey was a mess; one of the most disturbed of all the children I taught. Occasionally she would disappear into an epileptic fit - sometimes in the middle of as sentence - when she would become catatonic. Then, emerging from that fit, she would draw pictures of such beauty and exquisite organization as one would have thought her incapable in her "normal" state. For a few lyrical moments, Stacey was a sort of "genius." Clearly, I thought, she had been in touch with some force that inhabited her poor, crippled consciousness, and was suddenly capable of producing works of beauty, which, otherwise, would not only have been beyond her ability, but beyond her comprehension.

How to explain this extraordinary phenomenon except to say that in those fits she was in touch with a source of mental integration and artistic inspiration which lay outside her conscious mind? Though I knew Stacey thirty-five years ago, I have never forgotten the impact her behavior made on me. Myers would offer her as evidence for the assertion that genius or inspiration is rooted in the subconscious mind, which draws in turn upon the spiritual essence of man, freed to express itself in sleep or hypnosis or epileptic fit.

If such a source of inspiration exists, then it is also a source of cognition, or of consciousness. And if that form of consciousness exists, then it exists outside the realms of quotidian conscious life. Indeed, Myers would argue that conscious life suppresses the subliminal, in its obsession with what W.H. Auden called the "headaches and worry" in which "life vaguely leaks away." But on this other level of the subliminal-spiritual awareness of man, we are all, potentially, Mozarts.

As Myers says: "Within, beyond, the world of matter - as a still profounder, still more generalized aspect of the Cosmos - must lie the world of spiritual life... [T]he world of spiritual life does not depend upon the existence of the material world... What does not originate in matter originates there..."

He argues from this, citing many examples from case histories, that it is possible for this spiritual life to exist both within and outside of the body. This is what he calls, "Dissociation of personality, combined with activity in the spiritual environment..." The idea that we exist in both a corporeal and a spiritual environment is implicit in his argument, and, once again, I find that I do not disagree. From this Myers will, I expect, continue on to the conclusion that the human personality can exist after death, and express itself or make itself manifest in some way posthumously.

If you have been kind and attentive enough to follow this site, you will know that I have some problems with this idea. For as I persist in my reading of Myers, I find that he argues for the existence of ghosts in some form (though by no means the conventional ones), and for the idea that the spirit, insofar as it survives death, remains individuated. Here is a line which, thus far at least, I have not been willing to cross. That the individuated spirit, reflecting a specific personality, survives death is a proposition which I am not yet able to accept. But that in some un-individuated form the spirit which animated individuals survives is an idea which appeals to me with irresistible force. Survival of death which is relevant to, or an echo of, individual life experience must occur, if only to render that experience meaningful.

One of the questions which Myers forces me to pose is this: How, exactly, does what I have called the animating force inhabit the body? How is it manifest in individual life; what is the means by which it occupies a body and brings it to life and sustains it? And, by extension, by what means does it depart the body, resulting in bodily death? As those will know who have read in my essay on Religion and Spirituality my reflections on the death of the old woman in the Congo which I witnessed - I have, with my own eyes, seen the spirit leave a body. I have been present at the moment of death, and been powerfully impressed by the fact that "something" left the body, almost visibly being lifted out of it, and that that separation represented the fact of the woman's death.

I will try in future posts to systematize my thinking on this point. At the moment, I am struggling to find a metaphor to explain it - since making metaphors is my instinct, and what I do for a living. But in the meantime, I would like to invite my readers to share with me their experiences of death and of survival, so that I may benefit from them in my further thinking.

If you have experienced the death of a loved one, and have had any inkling of survival after death, I would appreciate it if you would post your recollections here. It would be of great help to me, and, perhaps, be of some comfort to others as well.