The Private Sea
6. The dome of many-colored glass
"The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months,"
Thomas De Quincey wrote in May 1818. "I have been every
night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes."
The entry is contained in the famous drug addict's autobiographical
account, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The passage
which follows describes the Eastern nightmares produced by the
Eastern drug, and it is worth quoting at length:
I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point;
but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England,
and to live in China . . . I should go mad. The causes of my horror
lie deep; and some of them must be common to others. Southern
Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations.
As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and
reverential feeling connected with it. But there are other reasons.
No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions
of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way
that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate
religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things,
of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc., is so
impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers
the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to
me an antediluvian man renewed . . . nor can any man fail to be
awed by the names of the Ganges, or the Euphrates. It contributes
much to these feelings, that southern Asia is, and has been for
thousands of years, the part of the earth most swarming with human
life; the great officina gentian Man is a weed in these
regions. The vast empires also, into which the enormous population
of Asia has always been cast, give a further sublimity to the
feelings associated with all Oriental names or images. In China,
over and above what it has in common with the rest of southern
Asia, I am terrified by the modes of life, by the manners, and
the barrier of utter abhorrence, and want of sympathy, placed
between us by feelings deeper than I can analyze. I could sooner
live with lunatics, or brute animals. All this, and much more
than I can say, or have time to say, the reader must enter into,
before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams
of Oriental imagery, and mythological tortures, impressed upon
me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical
sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles,
all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in
all tropical regions and assembled them together in China or Indostan.
From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under
the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered
at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas:
and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms....
I fled from the wrath of Brahma through all the forests of Asia.
Vishnu hated me: Seeva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon
Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis
and crocodile trembled at. I was buried, for a thousand years,
in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers
at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous
kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable
slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud. I thus give the reader
some slight abstraction of my Oriental dreams, which always filled
me with such amazement at the monstrous scenery, that horror seemed
absorbed, for a while, in sheer astonishment. Sooner or later
came a reflux of feeling that swallowed up the astonishment, and
left me, not so much in terror, as in hatred and abomination of
what I saw. Over every form, and threat, and punishment, and dim
sightless incarceration, brooded a sense of eternity and infinity
that drove me into an oppression as of madness. . . . [And] many
times the very same dream was broken up in the very same way:
I heard gentle voices speaking to me . . . and instantly I awoke:
it was broad noon; and my children were standing, hand in hand,
at my bedside; come to show me their colored shoes, or new frocks,
or to let me see them dressed for going out. I protest that so
awful was the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other
unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight
of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the
mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear
it, as I kissed their faces.
De Quincey's attitude might well reflect English provincialism
at its best, or worst, but surely he was correct in assuming that
some of the causes of his horror are shared by others. Undoubtedly
he has summed up very well the reaction of the average Westerner
to that nebulous something we have referred to as Eastern ideas.
A similar attitude was expressed, for example, by Grecophile Edith
Hamilton in her comparison of Greek and Eastern art. The Greeks,
she wrote, were the first Westerners, introducing into the ancient
world something completely new: the rule of reason and the supremacy
of the rational intellect. The Greeks loved order, they loved
life, and they embraced with joy the beauty of the visible world.
They were the first people to play, and their games were conducted
on a grand scale. But this point of view was unique; it did not
belong "to the immense expanse and the multitudinous populations
of the East." With its oppressed masses and its wretched
conditions of life, the East was preoccupied with the unseenand
with death. So insecure and unbearable was the visible world that
men could find hope only by rejecting outside fact and turning
inward to the invisible world of spirit and intuition. Thus a
tomb in Egypt and a theater in Greece. "The one comes to
the mind as naturally as the other." Thus a grotesquely stylized
Hindu bronze of Shiva, its many arms and hands curving outwardand
the Olympic Hermes, "a perfectly beautiful human being, no
more, no less."
When Egypt ended, the East went on ever farther in the direction
Egypt had pointed. The miseries of Asia are a fearful page in
history. Her people found strength to endure by denying any meaning
and any importance to what they could not escape. The Egyptian
world where dead men walked and slept and feasted was transmuted
into what had always been implicit in its symbolism, the world
of the spirit. In India, for centuries the leader of thought to
the East, ages long since, the world of the reason and the world
of the spirit were divorced and the universe handed over to the
latter.... The mystical artist always sees patterns. The symbol,
never quite real, tends to be expressed less and less realistically,
and as the reality becomes abstracted the pattern comes forward.
The wings on Blake's angels do not look like real wings, nor are
they there because wings belong to angels. They have been flattened,
stylized, to provide a curving pointed frame, the setting required
by the pattern of the composition. In Hindoo art and its branches,
stylization reaches its height. Human figures are stylized far
beyond the point of becoming a type; they too are made into patterns,
schematic designs of the human body, an abstraction of humanity.
In the case of an Eastern rug all desire to express any semblance
of reality has gone. Such a work of art is pure decoration. It
is the expression of the artist's final withdrawal from the visible
world, essentially his denial of the intellect.... Again, the
gigantic temples of Egypt, those massive immensities of granite
which look as if only the power that moves in the earthquake were
mighty enough to bring them into existence, are something other
than the creation of geometry balanced by beauty. The science
and the spirit are there, but what is there most of all is force,
inhuman force, calm but tremendous, overwhelming. It reduces to
nothingness all that belongs to man. He is annihilated.... The
Greek temple [on the other hand] is the perfect expression of
the pure intellect illumined by the spirit. No other great buildings
anywhere approach its simplicity.... Majestic but human, truly
Greek. No superhuman force as in Egypt; no strange supernatural
shapes as in India; the Parthenon is the home of humanity at ease,
calm, ordered, sure of itself and the world. The Greeks flung
a challenge to nature in the fullness of their joyous strength.
They set their temples on the summit of a hill overlooking the
wide sea, outlined against the circle of the sky.... To the Greek
architect man was the master of the world.
In so far as it remains Greek, and therefore rational, the Western
mind no doubt abhors Oriental images and the metaphysical concepts
they might seem to imply. Indeed, many Occidentals have emerged
from a psychedelic experience with the same sense of horror and
relief De Quincey felt when he awakened from his opium-haunted
dreams to find himself safe again in merry, common-sense England.
As we have already suggested, however, those images and concepts
are not as remote as they may appear. They are and always have
been an aspect of Western tradition, as counterpoint if nothing
more, and it would probably be possible to demonstrate their influence
in almost every phase of Western history. We have no intention
of doing so. The task is beyond us and would serve no useful purpose
here; without any attempt at comprehensiveness, however, we shall
try to show how this or that thread of Eastern thought has appeared
from time to time in the Western fabric.
The earliest of the threads can be picked up in Greece itself.
It was Heraclitus who observed that no man can step twice into
the same stream. The phenomenal universe is not the secure and
dependable piece of real estate our senses suggest; on the contrary,
it is in a constant state of flux and chaos. Nothing stays the
same. The only thing that never changes, said Heraclitus, is the
fact that everything is changing. Thus the visible world of the
West was called into question from the very beginning, and philosophical
attempts to refute Heraclitus led in turn to the hypothesis of
an invisible realm beyond the senses. Parmenides, for example,
proposed that reality consisted of pure Being: an eternal One,
never changing, which had no describable qualities whatever, except
for the fact that it existedand since existence in this sense
did not change, what then of that phenomal world where everything
changed? Obviously, it did not really exist.
Then came Plato with his eternal Essences or Ideas, which Gordon
Wasson has suggested were psychedelic in origin. "The eye
and the ear and the other senses are full of deception,"
said Plato. The soul is a helpless prisoner of the body. It is
"simply fastened and glued to the body." Or so it was
until philosophy came to its rescue. Referring to the soul in
the feminine gender, Plato said that philosophy advised her to
abstain from all use of the senses "and be gathered up and
collected into herself, bidding her trust in herself and her own
pure apprehension of pure existence, and to mistrust whatever
comes to her through other channels and is subject to variation;
for such things are visible and tangible, but what she sees in
her own nature is intelligible and invisible." The soul is
"dragged by the body into the region of the changeable, and
wanders and is confused; the world spins round her, and she is
like a drunkard, when she touches change.... But when returning
into herself she reflects, then she passes into the other world,
the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness,
which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives."
Platonism evolved into the Neo-Platonism expounded by Plotinus,
who preached a doctrine of mystical union with the Absolute. Both
Platonism and Neo-Platonism in turn were assimilated by Christianity,
and in fact they provided the metaphysical roots of the early
church. This was due largely to the enormous influence of Saint
Augustine, who was a Neo-Platonist before he became a Christian.
Plato's pure Ideas were interpreted to be the thoughts of God,
and as such Platonic philosophy continued as the mainstay of Roman
Catholicism until the rediscovery of Aristotle in the thirteenth
century. Saint Thomas became the most articulate spokesman for
this revived school of thought, arguing the case for intellect,
reason, and the interdependence of the spiritual and the material.
And so it was that Platonism gave way at last to Aristotelianism,
mysticism to empiricism, and Augustinianism to Thomism. Thomism
in essence was officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church.
But the break really was not all that sharp, even within the church,
and Platonism has continued to be a major influence in Western
theology and philosophy. Today's drug movement might even be described
as a sort of Neo-Platonist revival.
The point is that Plato was talking Net of Illusion talk and that
this so-called Eastern idea is entirely within the Western traditionthe
idea that the phenomenal world does not really exist; or the idea
that our truncated senses cannot perceive ultimate reality; or
the idea that our intellect deceives us. Take Berkeley, take Hume.
Take almost any Western philosopher you would care to name. Take
modern physics, for that matter. It seems clear that the West
mistrusts the visible world just as much as the East does, and
always has. The only real issue has been, in James's terminology:
Does some unseen order lie beyond that visible world, and should
we seek to adjust thereto?
Platonism also contains other Oriental threads. Plato, too, spoke
of a morality based wholly on knowledge. He spoke of reincarnation
and of concepts equivalent to nirvana and karma. For example,
Socrates in the Phaedo is discussing the fate of the soul
That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible
worldto the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving,
she is secure of bliss and is released from the error and folly
of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills,
and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with
the gods.... But the soul which has been polluted, and is impure
at the time of her departure, and is the companion and servant
of the body always, and is in love with and fascinated by the
body . . . do you suppose that such a soul will depart pure and
Such souls are held fast by the corporeal. They haunt sepulchres
and tombs. They
. . . wander about such places in payment of the penalty of their
former evil way of life; and they continue to wander until through
the craving after the corporeal which never leaves them they are
imprisoned finally in another body. And they may be supposed to
find their prisons in the same natures which they have had in
their former lives.... men who have followed after gluttony, and
wantonness, and drunkenness, and have had no thought of avoiding
them, would pass into asses and animals of that sort.... And those
who have chosen the portion of injustice, and tyranny, and violence,
will pass into wolves, or into hawks and kites.
If the Greeks worshipped Apollo, god of reason, they were devoted
also to Dionysus, the wine-drunk god of instinct and mysticism.
The cult of the Eleusinian Mysteries paid homage to Dionysus,
and it is believed the Mysteries included a theory of reincarnation.
The possibility that the cult utilized some sort of psychedelic
host would appear to gain considerable support from a Plutarch
fragment, quoted by Edith Hamilton, which is thought to describe
the Eleusinian initiation rites: "When a man dies he is like
those who are initiated into the Mysteries. Our whole life is
a journey by tortuous ways without outlet. At the moment of quitting
it come terrors, shuddering fear, amazement. Then a light that
moves to meet you, pure meadows that receive you, songs and dances
and holy apparitions." As we shall see later, this passage
suggests a remarkable parallel between the Mysteries and the contemporary
drug movement's esoteric interpretation of the Tibetan Book
of the Dead.
Reincarnation also was entertained as a doctrine by some of those
Gnostic sects that flourished during the first three centuries
of Christianity. The sects were Platonist in that they took a
very negative view of existence in the world of appearances, and
they taught that release could be obtained through a secret gnosis
or knowledge of the divine order. They also assumed Plato's concept
of the Demiurgean imperfect creator god who made the earth,
as opposed to the supreme and perfect god who exists as pure Being.
They made of the Demiurge an evil, fallen deity who was responsible
for the creation of matter and hence for the curse of phenomenal
existence, for the fall from pure Being, for the Net of Illusion.
The sects were a curious hodgepodge of Christian dogma, magic,
and Eastern metaphysics.
Christianity had to absorb Gnosticism, just as it had to absorb
Neo-Platonism, and the early church was plagued in addition by
a whole spectrum of Asian-flavored heresies: for example, the
Albigenses, the Bogomiles, the Paulicians. These sects adulterated
their Christianity with strong doses of Eastern idealism, including
the concept of the Demiurge and a hatred of matter. Similarly,
Judaism had come under the dualistic influence of Zoroastrianism
during the Babylonian Captivity. The precise extent of the East's
impact upon the development of Judaism and Christianity is impossible
to measure at this point in history; indeed, there is an equally
frustrated body of scholarship which has attempted to demonstrate
a Western impact upon Eastern religions during some period in
the misty past. But there clearly was some East-to-West metaphysical
commerce, and this has led to some rather airy speculation that
the Bible contains an esoteric teaching along Eastern lines. Much
is made of the fact that Jesus spoke in parables, and it is suggested
that these perhaps were Oriental abstractions presented in parabolic
style for the benefit of his unsophisticated flock. The people
were not ready for meat, so he fed them milk. "And with many
such parables spoke he the word unto them [the multitudes], as
they were able to hear it. But without a parable spoke he not
to them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to
Hidden meaning is thus read into many preachments. "The kingdom
of God cometh not with observation." (The senses are trapped
in the Net of Illusion.) "Neither shall they say, Lo here!
or, lo there? for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you."
(You are God.) "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the
least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (We
are a monistic One. ) "Love thy neighbor as thyself."
(You and your neighbor are the same person.) "Who is my mother?
and who are my brethren?" (We are all the same person.) "If
any man will come after me, let him deny himself.... For whosoever
will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his
life for my sake shall find it." (You must obliterate the
ego to recognize your true Self.) "God is able of these stones
to raise up children unto Abraham." (God is immanent in matter.
) "A good man out of the treasure of the heart bringeth forth
good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth
forth evil things." (Karma.) And so on. Small wonder, then,
that no man dared ask Jesus any question after he declared, "Thou
art not far from the kingdom of God." And the "I AM
THAT I AM" of the Old Testament is obviously a Zen statement
of pure experience. If nothing else, such conjecture indicates
that truly great thoughts are like the commerce clause of the
U.S. Constitution: they can be interpreted to meet any need in
The thread of pantheism can be picked up again in the monopsychism
of Averroes, the Great Commentator who was largely responsible
for reintroducing Aristotle to the Western world. His theories
fell short of pure pantheism, perhaps, for they included a remote
First Cause; but they were both Eastern and heretical in their
monistic denial of personal immortality, and they had gained considerable
popularity in thirteenth-century Europe before Saint Thomas managed
to reclaim Aristotle for the faith. Pantheistic tendencies appeared
in the medieval Jewish mysticism of the Cabala, and the latter
movement did much to shape the thought of Spinoza in the seventeenth
century. The philosophy of the Jewish Dutchman was wholly pantheistic,
equating God with creative Nature and creative Nature with God.
Spinoza also denied the possibility of personal immortality. He
did, however, speak of the immortality of the mind in language
which might well set psychedelic bells to ringing: "Nevertheless
we feel and know by experience that we are eternal.... Although,
therefore, we do not recollect that we existed before the body,
we feel that our mind, in so far as it involves the essence of
the body under the form of eternity, is eternal, and that this
existence of the mind cannot be limited by time nor manifested
through duration." (A hundred micrograms of LSD will make
that statement perfectly intelligible.) For his intellectual pains,
Spinoza was excommunicated by his temple in Amsterdam. But he
had considerable influence on later philosophers, including Hegel.
Hegel's system of absolute idealism proposed that the universe
consists of a single absolute Mind or Spirit which is attempting
to realize and comprehend its own nature through an evolutionary
process. Hegel in turn influenced such disparate thinkers as Karl
Marx, Teilhard de Chardin, and Thomas J. J. Altizer.
Some of the more fragile nuances of Eastern philosophy perhaps
are best caught in poetryand the poetry of the West abounds
in Oriental themes or hints of them. We could quote countless
examples but will limit ourselves to only a few, offering them
in the hope they may serve to sharpen some of these ideas, and
to show that the ideas as such have a definite place in Western
literature as well as philosophy.
Shakespeare, to begin with, certainly lends himself to an esoteric
interpretation. The Delphic injunction, Know Thyself, is echoed
in Polonius' fatherly advice to Laertes: "This above all:
to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the
day, thou canst not then be false to any man." That might
easily be taken to reflect the Hindu idea that men abuse one another
only through ignorance of their monistic continuity, and that
knowledge of the true Self therefore will automatically result
in a perfect morality. And Hamlet himself sums up that delusion
of the rational intellect which gives rise to the dualistic concept
of evil: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking
makes it so." Shakespeare plainly is a commerce-clause bard
par excellence, and nobody has described the Net of Illusion so
well as his Prospero:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
We must of course include John Donne: "No man is an island,
entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part
of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the
less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of
thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to
know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Blake's poetry can be taken as a whole. It rejects the rational
intellect and its dualistic perceptions, and indeed it gives the
Eden story an interpretation quite similar to that suggested in
an earlier chapter:
Serpent Reasonings us entice
Of Good & Evil, Virtue & Vice....
Two Horn'd Reasoning, Cloven Fiction,
In Doubt, which is Self contradiction,
A dark Hermaphrodite We stood,
Rational Truth, Root of Evil & Good.
Blake had his own term for the Net of Illusion: "the mind-forg'd
manacles." He rejected the intellect, the phenomenal world,
the God of Theism. He rejected everything but man's eternal spirit,
and he looked back with longing to the Universal Brotherhood of
Eden, to the Universal Man, to the "Immortal Man that cannot
Die." Blake in fact was a Gnostic, and his Prophetic Books
revive the concept of the Demiurge. His Urizen ("your reason"?)
is that sinister deity who was responsible for the fall from pure
Being and the world of appearances.
Earth was not: nor globes of attraction;
The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses;
Death was not, but eternal life sprung.
Then came Urizen with his ten thousands of thunders, and a shadow
of horror was risen in Eternity.
The Eternal mind, bounded, began to roll
Eddies of wrath ceaseless round & round,
And the sulphureous foam, surgeing thick,
Settled, a lake, bright & shining clear,
White as the snow on the mountains cold.
Forgetfulness, dumbness, necessity,
In chains of the mind locked up,
Like fetters of ice shrinking together,
Disorganiz'd, rent from Eternity . . .
That eternal life, the furnace of all creation, was the subject
of Blake's best-known poem, which Alfred Kazin has aptly termed
"a hymn to pure being."
Pure Being, from which sprang the Tyger.
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
After Blake, as might be expected, the Romantic poets come to
mindand one of the best examples would naturally be Shelley,
who abandoned rationalism and atheism to become a full-blown Platonic
idealist. As for the Passing Parade of Phenomena, compare that
fragile speech of Prospero's and Shelley's stark:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Just as our contemporary mystics are dismissed upon the grounds
of biochemical imbalance, so too has the Romantic movement been
supplied now with a medical interpretation. The poets did not
know it, but the source of their inspiration was a bacillus, the
mood of that period resulting from the prevalence of tuberculosis.
Keats was a victim of the disease, although Shelley insisted the
critics had done his friend in, and Shelley's Platonic philosophy
finds full expression in his elegy to the dead poet:
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven's light forever shines, Earth's shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.Die,
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Follow where all is fled!Rome's azure sky,
Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak
The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.
Then to Wordsworth, poet of the mescal drinkers. His ode, "Intimations
of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," includes
the provocative stanza:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
The poem as a whole might appear to support the doctrine of pre-existence
or reincarnationan implication which Wordsworth later admitted
"has given pain to some good and pious persons." He
protested he had not intended "to inculcate such a belief."
The poem was concerned with "that dream-like vividness and
splendour which invest objects of sight in childhood," and
Wordsworth had cast about in his mind for some device to express
that vision, deciding finally to picture it as "presumptive
evidence of a prior state of existence." He explained further:
"I took hold of the notion of pre-existence as having sufficient
foundation in humanity for authorizing me to make for my purpose
the best use of it I could as a poet."
The argument about this stanza, and about Wordsworth's intentions,
is extremely significant. It offers us a key. And that key fits
It may give us access to the real issues and deeper meanings that
are still half-hidden below the surface of Eastern philosophy,
the drug movement, and radical theology.
Professor Arthur Beatty, a Wordsworth authority, suggested that
the poet really meant to say: "It is as if our birth were
but a sleep and a forgetting." And that is the key.
Consider, for example, a comment that Coleridge made about the
But the ode was intended for such readers only as had been accustomed
to watch the flux and reflux of their inmost nature, to venture
at times into the twilight realms of consciousness, and to feel
a deep interest in modes of inmost being, to which they know that
the attributes of time and space are inapplicable and alien, but
which yet can not be conveyed save in symbols of time and space.
For such readers the sense is sufficiently plain, and they will
be as little disposed to charge Mr. Wordsworth with believing
the Platonic pre-existence in the ordinary interpretation of
the words, as I am to believe that Plato himself ever meant
or taught it.
The italics are ours. And the point is simply this: that poets
are poets, and they express themselves in the language of poetry
saying "is" when they mean "as if."
Prophets are poets as well, and so are the great philosophers.
And all poets, of whatever kind, have found it necessary at times
to express their ideas in terms of symbol; the tools of their
trade are the simile, the metaphor, the poetic image, the myth.
The Greeks indeed may have held themselves aloof from the formal
figures of speech, but they could and did make ample use of myth.
So, too, perhaps did Jesus, Buddha, and those faceless authors
of the Hindu holy books and the Old Testament. They were poets
all. And we can only guess how often their "is"
really means "as if." One is tempted to ask,
of course, why they couldn't just come out with itsay what
they meant and so have done with itand the question is fair
enough. In some cases, however, the people in fact may not have
been ready for meat. In some cases it may be that the poet himself
only half-knew what he meantknew what he felt, all right, but
could not quite put his finger upon it. In some cases he may have
said what he meant and meant what he said, failing himself to
apprehend the deeper meaning. And finally: he knew what he felt,
and he knew what it meant; but what he felt and what he knew could
not be expressed in conventional language. Such language simply
did not apply in those twilight realms of consciousness where
the poet explored the modes of inmost Being.
This is not as fuzzy as it may sound. Many of the discoveries
of modern physics cannot be expressed in conventional language
either; the physicists have been forced to leave language behind
altogether, resorting instead to a complex mathematical symbolisma
form of myth, if you willwhich cannot be retranslated into
words. Many popular books have been written for the general public
on the theory of relativity, for example; the fact remains that
you cannot really understand the theory unless you have the math.
Or so at least the mathematicians tell us, and we are prepared
to take their word for it, while we are by no means ready to take
the mystics at their word for anything. But the relativity theory
is no less valid because it is expressed symbolically, for in
fact everything is expressed that way. Expression as such is by
definition symbolic: only the thing-in-itself is something more
than a symbol of itself. Language and math, therefore, are equally
symbolic; they are simply different kinds of symbolism. In any
case, it follows that Plato did not necessarily mean that people
really return to life as wolves, hawks, and kites; Blake did not
necessarily mean that there really exists a deity comparable to
Urizen; and "is" does not necessarily mean "is"
every time it occurs in the various Hindu, Buddhist, Christian,
and Jewish scriptures. It may in many cases mean "as if,"
and, when so interpreted, these various scriptures perhaps are
closer in meaning than they appear.
Using the key provided us, a case could be made that contemporary
developments in theology and psychedelic experience can be explained
essentially in terms of two basic myths and the conflict between
them: the myth of the Demiurge and the myth of Ulysses.
Let us leave no doubt as to our own meaning. As we interpret it,
the Demiurge is a symbol of the rational mindof the cerebral
cortex, which separates man from the beasts and (it may be) from
much else besides. As for the Ulysses myth, we take it to suggest
the presence of an evolutionary purpose in the cosmos: that is
to say, an inherent state of Being as yet unrealized.
We shall return to these concepts later. Meanwhile, turning from
Wordsworth, we skip ahead a few decades and look across the ocean
from Europe to America.
DRCNet Library |