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Out of your head: depression and ecstasy

Depression - Bournemouth © www.martinsouthwood.com

It is time to write once more about the that thing I am forced to describe as ‘depression’. I have written about aspects of depression before. The first piece examined the medieval metaphor of Saturn and the slowing and distance of depression. It suggested that to see through depression we need to honour it, not attack it. Another piece concerned suicide explicitly, exploring nature and a sense of place as aids to survival. In this third article, building on the first two pieces, I examine the absence of ecstasy and how this lack of ecstatic experience is leading to widespread depression, which in turn is leading to our destruction of this planet.

Any discussion of depression and medication has become more sensitive since the appearance of ‘pill shaming’, and the understandable response of those who feel their acceptance of medication is being criticised, or who believe that their symptoms are being marginalised. Although this piece is critical of medication, I do not mean to add to that shame, especially since I took medication myself for over twenty years (and I doubt that I would be here without it). However, the sheer scale of medication worldwide, and that of deaths from addiction, strongly suggests a desperate need for more radical action than any currently available.

Bournemouth © www.martinsouthwood.com
Bournemouth, UK. Photo by Martin Southwood.

The Industry of Despair

In the globalised hospitalisation of the soul, Existential Dread shares a ward with Melancholia, rubs shoulders with Bitter Disappointment, collects a paltry lunch tray with Trauma and sits waiting for the therapist beside Bereavement and Shame. Those with money can sometimes divert these dismal characters, but without – then they are inclined to wander the identical lifeless corridors of market culture with increasing noise and desperation.

A search for ‘depression’ online offers the following trifecta of the flat season:

  • Sadness and lack of enjoyment (emotional)
  • Tiredness and headaches (physical)
  • Indecisiveness and difficulty problem solving (cognitive)

These ‘symptoms’ come courtesy of the website rethinkingdepression.com, a vehicle of the Danish pharmaceutical company H. Lundbeck A/S. This is the company that until recently supplied US prisons with pentobarbital, one of the ingredients of the ‘cocktail’ of drugs used in lethal injections. In 2013 the EC fined Lundbeck €93.8m for hindering the market release of cheaper generic versions of Lundbeck’s SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) Citalopram by offering competing companies kickbacks. Their list is simplistic and unhelpful. Sadness, tiredness and slow thinking are all felt in the body. Birdsong, once joyful, becomes plaintive and melancholy. Lifting an arm is Sisyphean. Waves of lassitude break like oil on dark beaches of despair.

But still, Lundbeck wants you to believe that it can help you, and tells you that you are strong to reach out for help from the GP who will push its pills on you. Lundbeck offers only the binary opposition of ‘depression and wellbeing’ and warns against the ‘slippery slope of relapse’ as if depression is either addiction, moral failure, or worse. This company, and others like it, seek to create causes that can be ‘treated’ reductively with drugs. The consequence, as James Hillman pointed out in The Souls’ Code, is drugged behaviour.

Even the UK charity MIND can only arrive at two possible ‘treatments’ (note again the connection to illness and disease): medication (they supply a list of possibilities) and talking therapy. It’s important to acknowledge that many people say that they have been helped by medication – the combination of therapy and medication seems particularly popular. Is this because medicine often works as a placebo, or that people are sometimes so frightened and economically challenged by their ‘depression’ that they desperately need the pills to work? There are people who owe their lives to the sedation of antipsychotics, but others so insulated with Lithium that they barely exist. There is a cogent argument for sedation in chronic cases, for when the world is screaming at you and all you want is death, then some form of peace – even the drugged variety – is welcome.

Unfortunately, the idea that ‘low Serotonin’ causes depression is false. It has not been empirically demonstrated that Serotonin has anything to do with depression, nor does anyone know how SSRIs work (allowing that they do, which I don’t) – and there is evidence that they are actually harmful. In my own experience of depression, I have no doubt whatsoever that it is a response in the body to factors outside it, but the target of medication, my poor brain, is as indivisible a part of my body as my heart, my stomach or my skin.

Kota Garut, Indonesia - a landscape of depression
Photo by Dikaseva on Unsplash

This culture of opposites regularly demotes the brain to a computational device on the one hand and elevates it to a God on the other. The brain is split out of the body and rendered doubly schizoid – it is simultaneously an advanced (and error-prone) calculator and the root of all wisdom. But wisdom, like the soul, is found outside the body in the world, of which the body is a part. Depression is a response to fear without fight, repetition without ritual, and work without worth. It is a response to the deep disconnection that happens when intuitive response meets the plastic empathy of the powerful, and when the intelligence of one’s own body is held captive in a cognitive straitjacket. Extrovert competitiveness has become socially normative – yet conformity within that frame is crucial.

My heart quails to meet the kind of person our psychopathic culture breeds: the android behavioural therapist, sans compassion, sans soul; the beery jerk whose booming voice dominates a room; the entitled oaf whose paltry patronage is sometimes the only way to survive in work. My eyes scrunch up against the flicker of strip lighting, the cracked littered earth of the park, the itchy grey dust of verminous pigeons, and the hideous architecture of inward investment. A non-stop roar of traffic assaults my ears, while I am assailed by the chipper blandishments of telephone marketeers and the dismal whine of air conditioning. My stomach heaves at the stink of lunches eaten at the desk, the rancid fats of battery food and the fug of exhaust. My skin prickles with the sting of coloured gloop that passes for washing liquid, and I jump at the sharp shock and blue crack of acrylic carpet and escalator.

Experience has become customer experience – reduced to cost per click. An impression is never a liminal sensory response but merely a numerical function of advertising reach. I am not alone in feeling these things.

Work and shame

Leeds, UK - urban depression
Photo by Alissa Eady on Unsplash

The government and its useful fools say that if you are well enough to look after your depression then you are well enough to work. In surgeries around the country, GPs tell patients that they are better served by being on Jobseekers Allowance, colluding with the government myth that work cures all. Qualified Health Professionals (government-speak for minimally trained clinicians) deem the company of one’s passive aggressive co-workers better than the ‘isolation’ of being ill at home. The possibility of beginning a different life with new work and different friends is a concept alien to the state. It is deaf to the notion that depression is necessary to a life, that it allows the individual the time to draw together the threads, to consider the future, to make gentle inroads into expression. Along with the ‘epidemics’ of opioid and alcohol abuse, the levels of depression and anxiety in the world are good arguments for Universal Basic Income.

The hierarchy dreads the idea of people being creative or working fewer hours. The prevailing ideology supports ‘hard work’ until retirement and then (following a period of active consumption that keeps hotels, cruise ships and garden centres in business) a quick illness-free death. It is an ideology that most people have swallowed hook, line and sinker.

The Titan called ‘the Market’ must have access to a pliable grateful workforce that will ‘produce’ the toxic rubbish that the Market needs to survive. But, through the innovation of the gig economy, the Market has created the conditions of its own death. The old-fashioned manipulative and puritanical view of work at least offered security and structure. But now the Market holds work in contempt while simultaneously trying to make it mandatory. One only has to witness the anger constellated in reactionary groups at any mention of UBI to understand how immanent it has become. Sadly, the prevailing ideology is as dangerous and as difficult to remove as a tick in the skin, and the likely reality of UBI would not mean freedom from poverty, but rather Universal Credit by another name. As this article explains, the ‘social position of the boss would be undermined’ by any truly radical thinking. Yet the use of industrial robots is growing at around 16% every year.

For now, the population is mostly quiescent, in thrall to consumption and debt. But linked to capitalism is shame. The puritan ideology of work makes it shameful to be unemployed, and the policy of destroying the poor through the withdrawal and reduction of ‘benefits’ is one aspect of this narrative of shame controlled by the media. But capitalism has a secret introvert shame of itself that it cannot bear, hence it projects its own shame onto anyone at the margins of its influence.

It serves capitalism very well to have an underclass. The threat of poverty is used as a threat to the young, and workers of any age. It also – conveniently –  holds, and dies with, the shame of the rich. Every year some new scandal breaks, in which politicians and media luminaries are discovered indulging in drugs, sex, hypocrisy, violence and bigotry. Strangely, people continue to express shock and outrage. Scapegoats are sent into the wilderness for a while, then there is business as usual.

When the magic field of projection weakens and it becomes possible to glimpse the reality of the natural world, then elements start to stir in protest. This is the point at which laws become more draconian and police forces start to become more aggressive. Simultaneously, embattled powers raise fears of job loss and immigration. Humans long for the intimacy of company but simultaneously fear its threatening otherness. It is easy to manipulate and widen such a chronic split.

Voices of the dead

When I was a young man I suffered from the most terrifying and debilitating symptoms – symptoms that were later rolled up and flattened into the inconsequential sounding ‘panic attack’. After a preliminary period (during which I was either ignored, blamed or prescribed SSRIs and anti-psychotics) I survived for the next twenty years on a daily diet of Diazepam (Valium), its big brother Lorazepam, the beta blocker Propranolol, and occasional further dalliances with Citalopram, Paroxetine and Fluoxetine. Throughout this period, I also heavily self-medicated with alcohol and nicotine. And I was intensely relieved to have my pills because they enabled me to half function in a highly stressful and inimical work environment.

Who is to say how I got that way? There are things I can identify easily: the dysfunction of my family; lack of love; emotional and physical abuse. I also suspect genetic sensitivity, a predisposition to anxiety, and trans-generational trauma. Perhaps even the ten years of my childhood spent living next to an electricity sub-station. I also identify with that wound that has been inflicted by the dramatic reduction in biodiversity. The important thing is that not one person, not doctor, friend or relation, ever took my hands, looked through my drugged behaviour and said: “You have met the great god Pan, he has sent you this fear as a message, and I can help you understand its meaning.” Nor was I aware, in my excessive drinking and habitual use of opiate substitutes, that I was in the archetypal realm of Dionysus.

It would have taken more, of course. I would not have listened because I was too frightened and angry. Which one of us honestly wants to hear that everything we believe about the world is suspect at best, fundamentally wrong at worst? Which politician, on record with a hundred strident speeches and a thousand platitudinous sound bites can turn on a sixpence and say, “I was wrong, I’m sorry I lied”. Could the Conservative Party say “We’re sorry about austerity, the thousands who killed themselves needlessly because they had no support, no money. We can’t change that but we can start again, with care, with love, with respect”?

I don’t panic as much now, even when things are awful – though fear, anxiety, and depression have formed a poisonous skein running through my life to this day. But the world itself is suffering a panic attack. Trump, a grotesque orange baby-titan, thumps across the planet threatening, roaring and destroying, the puppet of an out-of-control military-industrial elite. The underlying similarity of the main political parties in the West goes barely challenged. Education has been reduced to intellectual parroting, and so-called knowledge itself is heavily biased to a white middle-class male perspective. Climate change, included and then removed from curricula, is a hostage to power rather than the single most critical issue in the history of our species (not to mention the history of countless others).

In the US, at war with drugs, and with the highest rate of incarceration in the world, there is an epidemic of opioid abuse. There is now so much money spent on lobbying that the manufacturers and pushers have even been able to render the DEA powerless. In the UK, austerity is driving a record number of children into ‘care’. It is difficult to reflect on the state of the world without concluding that something is driving people quite insane. It is the revenge of Dionysus: mad god, vegetable god, twice-born god, immigrant god, god of sexual ambiguity. Dionysus: the irrational, the inebriate, the ecstatic, the blessing, the curse. He represents everything that our culture fears and holds in contempt.

Dismembered by Titans

Dionysus the Liberator was born of the lust of his father Zeus for the mortal woman Semele. Enraged and jealous, Hera lured Dionysus with toys. When he was sufficiently distracted, furious Titans came from the Underworld and tore the child into seven pieces that they first boiled, then roast on seven spits and ate. But they neglected the heart, which Zeus retrieved and sewed into his thigh, so that Dionysus could be born again.

The story of Dionysus, one of the most potent of ancient myths, offers the optimistic hope of rebirth after catastrophic death. And how poignantly relevant to our times! We are like infants ourselves distracted by toys. Jealous Hera gave Dionysus dice, a ball, a spinning top, golden apples, a bullroarer and wool. When the Titans came for him, their furious faces disguised with chalk, Dionysus was looking at himself in a mirror, enchanted with his soul image. It seems that our sensate and intuitive selves become easily obsessed with toys, ever more self-regarding, and incapable of seeing through the disguise of the Titans.

Dionysus and Satyrs
Dionysus and two Satyrs. Brygos Painter [GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

The orgiastic worship of the reborn Dionysus gave birth to drama, particularly Tragedy. But it seems Carl Jung was right when he wrote that the gods have returned to us in our diseases. When the Romans corrupted the psychology of Dionysus (making him jolly old Bacchus, a leering boozer surrounded by tumescent satyrs and simpering nymphs), they turned archetype into stereotype. The consequence is that the Greek concept of pathos – meaning emotion – has gone missing from pathology. Instead, emotion has become disease. In an extraordinarily retrograde move, the World Health Organisation describes depression as ‘the leading cause of disability worldwide, and […] a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.’ At a time when even mainstream psychology is moving away from diagnosis, it is an unfortunate conclusion at best.

What images come to mind in relation to the word ‘drugs’? One might go first to the substances that create an ecstatic and entranced state of being – the illegal drugs – bringers of torture, mutilation and countless violent deaths. Then the legal variety: the dampeners, the flatteners, Mother’s little helper, the drugs that make pharmaceutical companies rich. Third, the panoply of semi-legal uppers and downers: alcohol, nicotine, ‘legal highs’, khat and marijuana. Perhaps the hidden drugs: shopping, sport, sex, religion, social media likes.

If you’re not on one drug, it’s likely you’re on another. Perhaps all of them. Few would credit the number of people who regularly use drugs. That nice friendly guy in the office? Smokes dope most evenings. That live wire boss of yours, who is always on the go? Cocaine addict. We actively defend against any depressive feeling just to survive. The addict and the depressive unwillingly hold feeling for the culture. We can witness the evidence of this every hour in social media. Trolling and outright nastiness are symptoms of unexpressed feeling – fear, grief, vulnerability.

In the US, the ‘war on drugs’ is a convenient euphemism for both imperialist regime change, and the civil war that the US is conducting against its own black and Hispanic citizens.  At another level, it is a war against Dionysus, a fundamentalist assault on ecstatic being. Addiction is a spiritual emergency. The ‘acting out’ as Jay Griffiths says in her book Tristimania, is ‘a way of literalising a profoundly metaphoric experience’. She also elects to call the madness of which she writes manic depression rather than bipolar disorder. Precisely.

For mystics in the Christian tradition, the peak experience took the form of a light coming out of a void, an illumination or revelation, the result of a very one-sided attitude. Some scholars have called this attitude the antithesis of God; through ascesis, the mystic was able to wait until the visio Dei appeared. The Dionysiac adept, in contrast, seems to fall into a sudden possession by the god; it was an emotional experience that happened in the body.”

Lopez-Pedraza, Rafael. Dionysus in exile. Chiron Publications, 2000

The Christian mystic would take the ‘spiritual bypass’ by starving himself into a hallucinatory state. Nowadays the modern psychotherapist takes the place of God, colluding with the patient’s need to make an epiphanic self-discovery. For who can afford (at £75 for fifty minutes) the slow moist incubation of Dionysus, the emotional expression that is the counterpart of the cold depression of Saturn? We humans need ecstatic experiences of one kind or another. The woman who froths at the mouth about ‘drug addicts’ will fix her feelings with binge drink, shop until she drops, then collapse in bed sated with four hours of Netflix and chocolate. So long as she can go to work and pay tax, that’s just fine.

Then there are the value judgments found in addiction itself. The heroin user will often consider the alcoholic to be a lesser species, weak-willed rather than a true hardcore addict, because the heroin user is more likely to be breaking the law to get his gear than the alcoholic. Similarly, the alcoholic will look askance at the cocaine user. All this literal thinking obscures the nature of Dionysian being, and how essential it is to healthy human existence.

The philosopher Heraclitus, who wrote of the unity of opposites, revealed the mystery of Dionysus in a fragment (there is also wordplay in the original that does not translate):

If it were not Dionysus for whom they march in procession and chant the hymn to the phallus, their action would be most shameless. But Hades and Dionysus are the same, him for whom they rave and celebrate Lenaia.”

This syzygy between two such opposite archetypes becomes apparent if we consider the ‘death’ of the addict to the world, the ‘rock-bottom’ of the 12-step fellowships, the ‘death-in-life’ of chronic depression, and la petite mort, the loss of full consciousness after orgasm, or after some particularly traumatic event. One of Dionysus many surnames was Chthonios, the subterranean, and Hades became known as Ploutodótēs, the wealth-giver. There are literal interpretations of these names, but the psychological connection belongs to the rich world of the soul. Death is held in as much contempt today as ecstasy (compare our modern cults of childhood and youth, and our treatment of the elderly, to see the truth of this).

The New Reformation

Prior to the G20 meeting of governments and bankers in July 2017, hundreds of ‘zombies’ appeared in Hamburg, shuffling together until one shook off her grey clay caked clothes to reveal the colourful person beneath. The group 1000 Gestalten wanted to show how rigid thinking makes zombies of us all, that it can be cast off to reveal the colourful multiplicity beneath.

Dancing Maenad
Dancing Maenad. Detail from an Ancient Greek Paestum red-figure skyphos, made by Python, ca. 330-320 BC. British Museum, London
[GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most insidious mind-fucks of our time is found in the correctness of speech. We are ‘clients’ or ‘customers’ of the Job Centre. When a ‘client’ is sanctioned for some trivial failure, and her ‘benefits’ withdrawn, she can rest easy knowing that she has been treated fairly according to a mealy-mouthed charter. The men and women who kill themselves after being found ‘fit for work’ are unfortunate statistics, but the government has done everything correctly. Victims are regrettable. Choice is illusory.

Systems men created the order required for ‘blameless wholesome lives’, idiotic pap that resembles the indoctrination of a Sunday School preparing a child for a life of unwitting dedication, not to the Abrahamic god, but the financial betterment of others. Systems men (those that made, as Hillman noted, the gulag and KZ Lager possible) fear diversity more than anything else.

It is interesting to note the ways in which the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century prefigured the modern systems thinking that I associate with neoliberalism. The Reformation was a response to the corruption of the Catholic Church, the selling of indulgences, and the cults of the saints. It is not much of a stretch to see the modern equivalent in the reaction against the ‘elite’ technocrats of the EU and Washington. In both cases, the weapon is modern technology. In the fifteenth century, the invention of movable type began a revolution of literacy. This article claims that, within thirteen years, reformers had circulated ten million publications.

In the twentieth century, the invention of the internet brought the possibility of unlimited learning and information to the individual. But the reality was different in both cases. Just as the leaders of the Reformation used the press to print propaganda, so neoliberals have manipulated social media. The Protestant Reformation believed in the predestination of divine grace. God, they argued, had already decided who would be saved, and who not. Therefore, it did not matter if one performed good works in life or not, since the only requirement was faith in Jesus Christ. Even if one slipped away from this faith there would be a divine chastening to bring the appointed back into the fold. Since no one knew if they were predestined or not, hard work and frugality became the visible signs of the elect, in contrast to the Catholic focus on confession and sacrament.

It is easy to see how the Reformation was inspirational to European peasantry, offering an end to superstition, and good riddance to wealthy powerful priests – or so they believed. It would be simplistic to replace, for instance, ‘Reformer’ with ‘Brexiteer’, but there are similarities. In both cases, there is a genuine move towards democracy, away from powerful and unaccountable forces. Both favour market forces. Both believe in frugality (though now we know it as austerity). But, certain that the die had already been cast, Reformers had permission to behave as awfully as they liked. The Church of Neoliberalism does not need to play theological games, but it does require unwavering belief in its unitary God, the Market.

To oppose the Market is to declare oneself a heretic, a saboteur, and to become apostate. In ditching Catholicism, the Reformers lost not only the plurality of the saints, but also the medieval delight in carnival and revelry. Most of the world has accepted some form of the Protestant ethic. In Spain, there have been moves to ban the siesta. The reason given is that it is problematic for Spain to work different hours to the rest of Europe. The real reason is lies in the creeping tide of spiritual austerity. Note that Christmas and Thanksgiving have extended seasons. In the UK, the risible festival of Guy Fawkes now lasts for weeks. Rather than happening for one night, the bangs and hisses of fireworks last for weeks either side of the day itself, terrorising pets and wildlife. I see in this behaviour the unconscious need for ecstasy.

Nature and ecstasy

I am critical of pundits paid for describing failure alone, rather than offering any answers. It is the journalistic equivalent of the terrible failure of psychotherapy to offer rescue when it is needed. While there is wisdom in the via negativa, this is a time to imaginatively construct alternatives. At some level, the state knows that poverty and depression destroy this capacity. Just as the soulless culture of power reduces our human agency, and turns us into ‘clients’, with all the dependency that the word implies, it also creates depression. It becomes difficult to think for oneself and easy to believe the propaganda. Because I see the ways in which my agency has been reduced, I can at least see through this flattening effect. Many cannot, or are unwilling to take the red pill, preferring to believe the easy myths and ‘statistics’.

So what is to be done? When psychotherapists refuse to ‘rescue’ a patient, the excuse offered is that he will be better off finding his own power. That might work well when someone is open to exploration. At other times it is indefensible. In the name of the tired clichés of ‘boundaries’, therapists take great power and then abdicate responsibility for that power. Faced with a patient on the edge, some will say that the proper course of action is referral. Woe betide the counsellor who tries to engage with a ‘serious mental health problem’. The reason for this reluctance is not, in my view, based on any particular principles, but rather fear of expulsion from the professional bodies – organisations whose response to the spectre of state regulation is to become even more regulatory.

Many authors write that the answer lies in a renewal of our connection with nature – I’ve said the same myself. But caution is needed with nature. Jay Griffiths says this:

The sheer goodness of nature for the sick psyche is incomparable; there in green one is not judged, one is accepted, with consolation and company. Nature gives you the exalted, tender ordinary – as of right”

Griffiths, Jay. Tristimania. Penguin Books, 2017

I cannot entirely agree. Nature does not automatically give (which is the consumerist expectation) but must be asked. Because nature loves to hide, one has to be well enough to be open to what might be revealed. Even then, nature can expel us from a sense of place, as the conservationist Matthew Oates expresses perfectly in his book In Pursuit of Butterflies. Indeed, forgetting place is one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s.

Pentheus being torn by Maenads.
Pentheus being torn by Maenads. Roman fresco from the Casa dei Vettii in Pompeii [via Wikimedia Commons]

Too much woo? We are still obsessed with the rational. Twenty years ago Candace Pert (who discovered the brain’s opiate receptor) described how consciousness operates at a cellular level, and how white blood cells are like ‘bits of the brain floating around the body’ (forget your brain, your body doesn’t lie). In 2014 John O’Keefe, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered ‘place cells’ – neurons that respond to particular places. It seems likely that neuroscience is just beginning to understand our complex and subtle responses to the world, and that in doing so it may begin to uncover the response of the world to us. 

In this piece profiling the work of neuroscientist Matthew Walker, poor sleep is linked to early death and dementia. There’s a lot to like here, for example Walker holds that dreams cannot be analysed, and he suggests that poor sleep is linked with shame in the developed world. To benefit from sleep we should keep regular hours, avoid stimulants, switch off electronic devices. The problem with all this good advice is that many of us are rendered sleepless by the mad tyranny that has overtaken the world (according to the American Psychological Association, nearly two thirds of Americans admit to being stressed about the future of the nation).

At night the lorries full of plastic shit that roar down the road outside my bedroom keep me awake. Donald Trump keeps me awake. So does institutional violence and climate change. The way things are going, the sensitive people of the world will die out, leaving the rational and violent alphas to kill themselves in total war – assuming the planet hasn’t done the job already. Nature cannot be expected to solve our problems for us. Most people have lost their connection so profoundly that it may never return, and it is unreasonable to expect the urban poor to go on frequent trips into the country. Nor does the contemplation of a dandelion in the gutter give as much joy as the nature writers would have us believe.

But ecstasy must be expressed. In his late play The Bacchae, the Greek tragedian Euripides tells the story of a Trump figure, Pentheus, who bans the worship of Dionysus – in other words he tries to ban the irrational. In revenge, Dionysus sends Pentheus’ mother and aunts away in a mad bacchic frenzy. Then he persuades Pentheus to dress as a woman (hair just so, dress falling nicely, standing in the right way) so that Pentheus can spy on (what he believes will be) an orgy. But Pentheus’ mother Agave discovers him and, believing him to be an animal, tears him to pieces, limb from limb, just as Dionysus was pulled apart by the Titans as a child. Whether this practice of Sparagmos happened or not, it can be read figuratively. Titanic behaviour will be mirrored. The angriest and most masculine of kings will repress his sexuality.

The future of ecstasy

Many people believe that humankind will save itself through interplanetary colonisation. Not content with his hyperbolic dreams of a Mars colony, Elon Musk has started The Boring Company. Not, as one might imagine, a company that produces analytics of actuarial rates, but one dedicated to developing high speed drilling. Both fantasies completely miss hitting the psychological pay dirt. The colony, the outpost, is the start of doing things differently. Drilling and tunnelling is the work required to develop the outpost, but not in the literal sense. Musk, by literalising the concept of colonisation and tunnelling has, like Trump, become a Titan.

The mind-boggling cost of interplanetary travel, not to mention the Brobdingnagian quantity of resources required, make it obvious to all but the most obsessed that it is not a project likely to get off the ground. Rather than amongst the stars, our future lies on the ground and under the sea. It is in the depths of psychological death to an outworn style of being, the acceptance of difference, and the embrace of the passionate. If space opera and science fiction teaches anything, it is that nemesis follows hubris, as in the ancestral science fiction tale of Daedalus and Icarus. In this narcissistic era, it is popular to commend Icarus for his attempt to reach the sun, missing the point of the story.

Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA
Kudzu covered field near Port Gibson, Mississippi, USA Gsmith [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

The spaceships of television and film started as fantasies of clean glittering asepsis, like the USS Enterprise of Star Trek fame. Each episode seemed to be a battle to restore order, as pristine asepsis was routinely compromised by tribbles, hostile aliens, or any number of virulent infestations. When the fantasy became conscious, septic starships started to appear – such as the Nostromo in the film Alien. With sepsis also comes conscious sexual intrusion and – sometimes more terrifying than any monster – ambivalence.

As a boy, I dreamed of turning an old wardrobe into a Tardis. I would be able to lock myself safely in the darkness, turn on my flickering screens, and navigate to a better place. In my fantasy, I had the safe dark womb that was missing in the real world, and I had the power. It is no accident that the consulting room of the therapist is a womb-like chamber, a place that should expect and welcome intrusion, but which all too often rejects it – the unwelcome expression promptly ejected through the airlock. The psychodynamic tradition of psychotherapy also prefers an aseptic chamber, ostensibly to remove the possibility of unhelpful projection, displacement and deflection. I can barely think of a method that annoys me more, except manualised CBT.

It might be revealing to analyse the content of space operas and post-apocalyptic video games for variety of intrusion. I have a fancy that most are organic in origin, inherited from the chthonic fears of the Age of Enlightenment. Might the sexually inquisitive tendrils and tentacles of space opera reflect a terrible fear of nature’s abundance, a loathing of messy fecundity?

The principles of Permaculture invite benign chaos. A vegetable bed overflows with squash, beans, tomatoes, basil, marigolds, and rocket. Another bed heaves with kale, chard, radish, beetroot, nasturtiums, carrots and parsnips. The plants spill over one another in a glorious mess of leaves, flowers and fruit. Humans sow and harvest. Toads and ducks patrol for slugs. Birds snatch caterpillars. Bees and flies pollinate. Everything is in relation to everything else. This isn’t ‘balance’ or ‘competition’ – it’s riot, free association, cornucopia. There are losses, there are gains.

Andrew Marvell’s famous fifth stanza from ‘A Garden’ is supposedly an Edenic fantasy, the use of ‘insnared’ and ‘fall’ a dark reminder of the biblical fall. Perhaps – but this most sensuous of verses might be the anthem for the permaculture movement.

What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
The nectarine, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Insnared with flow’rs, I fall on grass.

‘Invasive’ plants, such as Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and the Kudzu vine pictured here, are plants that humans have cultivated away from their origins, so they have no natural predation. Ashamed of ourselves, we brand them ‘noxious weeds’, when they are doing nothing except expressing themselves fully. I wonder if the beginning to the problem of ecstasy is an understanding of expression in all its forms. I have written before about the idea of an Imaginarium on every high street, a place with rooms to craft, dance, shout, cry, and sit.

A world defined by its qualities, and perceived as having qualities, requires the same richness of its observers. Like knows like. If the world is a messy many, then the definition of consciousness follows one proposed early in the twentieth century by the French philosopher Henri Bergson: “qualitative multiplicity.”

We would conceive of consciousness to be as multitudinous as the world, a microcosm of the macrocosm: as without, so within.
Rather than made in the image of a single transcendent God, we would imagine ourselves made like the multiple images of the world.”

Hillman, James. The Force of Character. Random House, 1999

There are some who see the rise of depression as a consequence of individualism and the market culture. I don’t entirely agree. The rise of group think is worse. If people were truly held in a community they would feel empowered to be creative, and not to be in thrall to the censure of group think.

Ecstatic vision

I have done what I can to provide an introduction, a middle and a conclusion to this piece, but it is too long and at times I probably ramble. Form and structure do not come easily to me: they are in some ways the antithesis of ecstasy. I find, in my depressed way, that I struggle daily with the expected methods of expression.  The word ‘ramble’ comes, perhaps, from the word romen, “to walk, go”. But there is an association with the Dutch word rammen, meaning to copulate, “used of the night wanderings of the amorous cat”. I cannot think of a more apt reversal of a modern meaning.

The war against ecstasy is not only a consequence of our rupture from nature. It is the product of inflated rationalism. The feast of the Great Dionysia was open to all. I would like to think that, one day soon, we will recover the lost truth, because to take back ecstasy is to throw open the windows on the first day of Spring, to hear the birds afresh, to feel the chill receding in the warmth of the new sun. It is to welcome the true world.

Old Harry Rocks, UK
Photo by Will van Wingerden on Unsplash

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Posted on

Waves – a journey into the quantum nature of being

A 5th cenutry CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum

Waves breaking - Hayling Island

Not everything is terrible. Spring flowers and shoots may not be completely cruel, a stranger is sometimes kind, and waves break on countless shores. Ah yes, the waves. Why is it that angry vicious heads cannot hear the teaching of the waves? I wonder if the regular pulse in the sea, the heartbeat of breakers, reminds some people uncomfortably of the amniotic space.  

The patterns of the surf have similarity but each meeting is unique. Perhaps the only other place in the entirety of the solar system to have wind-driven waves is Titan, a moon of Saturn. There, under a dense smog of organic nitrogen, waves of liquid methane break unseen on a sooty sand of ammonium sulphate and water ice.

Wave hello

This is the first message: everything has a pulse, not just the hearts of animals. Plants not only have a circadian cycle, but also a ‘pulse’ that links phloem to transpiration, something like the way a sponge is soaked then squeezed dry. Then there are unique and curious waves: some bees use a resonant vibration of their wing muscles to dislodge the pollen of particular plants.

Waves happen in light and there are waves in gravity. Everything in the universe oscillates. It is only inside a black hole that matter and time are supposed to break down, though even this point of ‘singularity’ is in doubt. Theories of quantum gravity suggest that black holes are portals to other universes and that a signal entering a black hole would leak into another part of the universe, or another universe altogether1.

The waves mirror our own rhythms, just as they mirror those of anything else in the universe. To stand and watch the billows – or to be in them, caught surprised and rendered breathless by the hard force of a big wave, or lulled by a gentle rise and fall – is to become close to an embodied understanding of the power of the universe, the Tao, a power probably more irreducibly complex and astounding than we will ever comprehend. Perhaps this is the reason for the seemingly unstoppable horror of human existence – small minds recoil from the immensity, the 96% of the universe that consists of dark matter and energy, the greater than human power – and seek constantly to diminish, to reduce to a level lower than human, to dominate and control the incomprehensible. Death, to these unfortunates, brings even greater terror.

Faces in things

It is possible that Carl Jung’s theory of Synchronicity, examples of which have long been criticised as confirmation bias and pattern detection, is related to quantum entanglement. The visual form of  ‘pattern detection’ is called pareidolia – it includes the seeing of faces in things. Here’s a pair of old jeans hanging over a chair in which I saw a face:

Pareidolia - a face in a pair of jeans

Google developed the neural network DeepDream to find and enhance patterns in images via algorithmic pareidolia. Here’s an image of Chichester Harbour and the same image processed through DeepDream. I did this myself, selecting a few settings at random. Even though the neural network has been programmed to find animals over a number of iterations, the appearance of the ‘dream’ bird and the other creatures is extraordinary. They suggest hallucinatory ghost presences on the flat tidal landscape, reminding us that there was a time, not long ago, when these tidal flats would have been alive with many more creatures than at present.

Low Tide in Chichester Harbour
Chichester harbour
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream
Chichester Harbour processed by DeepDream

The images produced by DeepDream have been compared to acid trips or hallucinations rather than dreams. The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote of the secret shame of hallucination:

In other cultures, hallucinations have been regarded as gifts from the gods or the Muses, but in modern times they seem to carry an ominous significance in the public (and also the medical) mind, as portents of severe mental or neurological disorders. Having hallucinations is a fearful secret for many people — millions of people — never to be mentioned, hardly to be acknowledged to oneself, and yet far from uncommon.’

Sacks, Oliver. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/opinion/sunday/seeing-things-hearing-things-many-of-us-do.html New York Times, 2012

Who among us has not experienced the hypnagogic (the state immediately before falling asleep) or hypnopompic (the state just before waking) hallucinations that Sacks describes? I know I have, and frequently. Perhaps those who do not hallucinate, or who deny it, refuse to accept that there are other mysteries. In pattern seeking, I wonder if we are looking for the consistencies that bond us to the universe? By locating a figure in a rocky outcrop, or a face in a pair of jeans flung across the back of a chair, perhaps we are seeing something that logic currently dismisses.

Quantum of solace

Quantum entanglement holds that an electron exists in an oscillating wave form. Strangely, measurement collapses the wave-function and creates a fixed state. According to Francois Martin, (Laboratory of Theoretical Physics at the University of Paris) and Federico Carminati (a physicist at CERN), it is possible that consciousness collapses the wave function of the unconscious mind. According to a piece in Epoch Times, rather than our conventional understanding of a binary system of bits, which can take only two values: 0 or 1, a quantum bit (or qubit) can take the values 0 and 1 at the same time. This is reflective of both ancient thinking and the modern practice of depth psychology, which seeks to alter perception from the oppositional binary (good or bad) into the simultaneous (good and bad).

To truly embody non-binary thinking would be revolutionary, but for the revolution to be significant it needs to extend from the individual to the cultural. If the unconscious is collapsed by consciousness (think of how difficult it is to remember dreams, and the importance of dreaming in psychoanalysis) then this explains the fundamental importance of connecting to the unconscious. That connection comes about in many ways: through dreaming, creativity, meditation, nature, the erotic, and a strong sense of otherness. It is unsurprising that dictators are quick to attack the paths into the unconscious.

A wave crashes – it can be measured, its forces understood. But this literalises the extraordinary, robs us of the contemplative and the imaginative, and changes the wave to something quotidian and predictable.

Martin and Carminati also write:

As an end let us mention a quantum effect that can have important consequences in mental phenomena, for example for awareness (for the emergence of consciousness). It is the Bose-Einstein condensation, in which each particle loses its individuality in favor of a collective, global behavior.”

Here is a visualisation of the Bose-Einstein condensate. I find it strangely moving – it says something to me of what needs to happen now in human development, the slowing down that precipitates a new way of being. I do not see this as some amorphous bonding that reduces all individual thought to the hive mind, but the progression of ego to the Jungian Self, the ‘individuated’ unification of conscious and unconscious. Yet individuation is a holistic fantasy that makes such a permanent unification highly suspect, and the wrong type of unification leads to disaster – the chilling effects of fascism and racism. The visualisation appears to show the apparently random motion of individuals suddenly becoming community.

bose-einstein-condensate

Pareidolia? Perhaps. But quantum superposition, such as the double-slit experiment (in which photons behave both as particles and waves, but cannot be observed as both at the same time) and the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat (whereby a cat in a box may be both dead and alive simultaneously) are suggestive of another truth, that the world of Aristotelian, Cartesian and Newtonian logic is itself pareidolic.

quantum-superposition

Wave goodbye

At the weekend I stood on a beach and watched the waves break on shingle. The surf made pools of white lace that hissed as the spume was sucked through wet stones. Those grey waves, cresting and falling, roaring, were hypnotic. Push forward, break, retreat with a sigh, push forward shouting, break catastrophically… and gulls flew as though torn from the racing sky.

As I stood at the edge of the combers, playing with the prospect of soaked shoes and socks, I played too with the idea of walking into the sea, a fantasy that had no struggling flailing terror, no aching chest and bursting heart, but instead a quiet watery oblivion, a passing into the depths.

Water is the special element of reverie, the element of reflective images and their ceaseless, ungraspable flow. Moistening in dreams refers to the soul’s delight in death, its delight in sinking away from literalized concerns.”

Hillman, James. The Dream and the Underworld. HarperPerennial, 1979

The waves crush. The waves tickle the toes. In Chichester they hardly exist – the sea creeps in like a dark colloid and slinks away. Elsewhere, the waves makes themselves known with terrible force2. So with our dreams and what we describe as our madness.

Wave - Alderney Breakwater“Alderney Breakwater Feb 2016” by Neil Howard is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The second message is that the waves belong to dreams and death, the waves of the unconscious. Waves (in the form of vibrations and electromagnetic fields) fuel speculations that are generally dismissed as quackery, but it seems likely that at least some of this pseudoscience will be validated by quantum physics, just as some psychological theories have been validated by neuroscience.

Carl Jung developed his ideas of the Archetypes almost a hundred years ago, writing that they “constitute a common psychic substrate of a suprapersonal nature which is present in every one of us”. The neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin attempts to integrate Jung’s framework (criticised as unscientific, mystical and reductionist) with modern ‘neuropsychological-quantum coupling’. He writes:

What makes the activity of the archetypes distinctive in human affairs is the sense of profundity and numinosity that commonly accompanies their emergence into consciousness. Their numinosity is derived from the fact that they store up and are conduits for affective and libidinous energies from lower levels of the psyche. So numinous and transpersonal are the symbolic eruptions of archetypal processes that the experience of them may lead to fascination and faith, and even to states of possession and over-identification with the imagery.”

Laughlin, Charles. https://www.scientificexploration.org/docs/10/jse_10_3_laughlin.pdf. Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Laughlin’s paper suggests a number of possible neural structures that might enable mediation between the quantum universe that holds these energies and individual consciousness. He carefully avoids the traps of technological metaphor (brain as computer, brain as spiritual radio receiver) in his exploration.  It is fascinating to see how even materialist views of consciousness open paths to theories of ‘subtle planes’ that interpenetrate the physical plane. And subtle planes, a transcendent form of consciousness, are a concept of esoteric cosmology.

Developments in quantum physics suggest that the shaman and the scientist are not nearly as separate as we might have assumed. Indeed, it is the problems caused by duality, fixed ideological thinking and artificial borders that create the problems with which we are beset. It is fear itself that holds us back. The idea of the Gods returning as diseases suddenly becomes vivid:

Soul enters only via symptoms, via outcast phenomena like the imagination of artists or alchemy or “primitives,” or of course, disguised as psychopathology. That’s what Jung meant when he said the Gods have become diseases: the only way back for them in a Christian world is via the outcast.”

Hillman, James. Inter Views. Spring Publications, 19913

Erotic ripples

A 5th cenutry CE mosaic representing the sea-goddess Thalassa in the Hatay Archaeologic Museum
The archaic Greek sea goddess Thalassa

The wave rises, loses support and dies. Another wave follows it. In the discontinuity of the crash is the knowledge of continuity. The controversial French literary figure Georges Bataille wrote of violent sacrifice:

A violent death disrupts the creature’s discontinuity; what remains, what the tense onlookers experience in the succeeding silence, is the continuity of all existence with which the victim is now one. ”

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

He also connected death with the erotic:

Erotic activity, by dissolving the separate beings that participate in it, reveals their fundamental continuity, like the waves of a stormy sea.”

Bataille, Georges. Erotism: Death and Sensuality. (trans. Mary Dalwood) City Lights Books; New Ed edition (Nov. 1986)

The Elizabethan use of the word ‘dying’ as a euphemism for sexual climax makes even more sense in connection to the roaring wave that collapses into milky froth with a sigh. I once watched several ragworms ejaculating in a rock pool. As they swam, each worm ejected great clouds of semen. Once this violent act was complete the limp ragworms died, as did the female after her eggs were fertilised.

Pontus - archaic Greek sea god
The archaic Greek sea god Pontus

Our disconnection with the land has reduced our vocabulary along with our sensual apperception. The ancient Greeks had over 30 deities of the sea – gods and goddesses, monsters, sea spirits and nymphs. The Vikings had fewer, but the sea-god Aegir had nine daughters. It was painful to change that from ‘has nine daughters’:

  •     Himinglæva – That through which one can see the heavens (a reference to the transparency of water).
  •     Dúfa – The Pitching One.
  •     Blóðughadda – Bloody-Hair (a reference to red sea foam).
  •     Hefring (or Hevring) – Riser.
  •     Uðr (or Unn) – Frothing Wave.
  •     Hrönn – Welling Wave.
  •     Bylgja – Billow.
  •     Dröfn – Foam-Fleck (or “Comber” according to Faulkes).
  •     Kólga – Cool Wave.

To know something by many names is a sensual delight, it brings poetry to our lives. To see Dröfn and Bylgja brings an erotic quality to life that the science of the Enlightenment has almost destroyed. Here is the poet Hesiod describing the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love and pleasure:

Ouranos (the Sky) came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Gaia (the Earth) spreading himself full upon her. Then the son [Kronos] from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him . . . and so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.

First she drew near holy Kythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Kypros, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and Aphrogeneia (the foam-born) because she grew amid the foam, and well-crowned (eustephanos) Kythereia because she reached Kythera, and Kyprogenes because she was born in billowy Kypros, and Philommedes (Genital-Loving) because sprang from the members.

And with her went Eros (Love), and comely Himeros (Desire) followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”

Hesiod. Theogony 176 ff (trans. Evelyn-White) c. 700 BC

Birth of Aphrodite
Birth of Aphrodite

Aphrodite was born of the waves, and is often shown emerging from a clam shell. This link will take you to a interesting paper entitled ‘Genitalia of the Sea’ by Carl A. Shaw, professor of Greek Language and Literature at the New College of Florida. Professor Shaw offers a lexicon of the numerous imaginative and humorous ways that “Greek comic poets correlate a range of sea creatures with sex and sexuality.”  They clearly had great fun, not just with clams, but with sea-urchins (“devouring, splitting, licking clean my sea-urchin down below” writes Aristophanes) and many more. Here is a table of 30 species mentioned in the article (and there are others without a translation).

AnchovyBarnacleClamConchCrabCrayfish
CuttlefishEelLimpetLobsterMusselOctopus
OysterPiddockPurple-shellRazor-fishRed MulletSardine
ScallopScorpion fishSea UrchinSea-squirtShrimpSmelt
SpratStingrayTrumpet-shellTunaWhitebaitWrasse
 

Greek comic poets were almost certainly all men. It is unlikely that women would have been allowed into the audience, with the possible exception of notable courtesans and hetaerae, and it is clear that most of the species above were associated with female sexual organs. So these plays were largely for the enjoyment of aristocratic men, who one might imagine haw-hawing at the seafood jokes. Notwithstanding the considerable difficulty this presents, the language itself is a further demonstration of how our language has become impoverished. Over-fishing and pollution have made sure that the species with which we have any familiarity are hugely reduced, so that only a few of the above have any lingering erotic correlation. Not so with the ancient Greeks.

Psychology has seized on the connection between water and sexuality. Here, in an extract from one of his dream seminars, Carl Jung explores the nature of a dream – or rather he elucidates his own position and pulls the attendees of the seminar into it like Scylla!

Extract from Dream Analysis 1: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-30

Hello/Goodbye

Thoughtlessly, we frolic in the surf or bake our skins nearby. Undressing we become more attuned to the senses, making the wearing of wet suits seem particularly perverse. Our western culture has made it hard for us to reflect on death, and because of this it has become difficult to reflect on continuity. All our distortions fall away if we really focus on the waves. The next time you are lifted bodily by a wave, punched in the chest by one, or even just given soaking socks by a rising tide, perhaps you think of these three messages:

  • Everything has a wave form, though sometimes you can’t see it
  • Waves have a special relationship with dreams and death
  • Waves have a special relationship with the erotic.

There are other messages, but these are peculiarly vital. They are reminders that we live in a natural universe, not one of thought and deed, and that there are connections to it right in front of us, physical yet numinous, temporary yet eternal, present yet absent. Appreciating this non-duality makes it easier to see that there is no Life, no Death, but everywhere the continuity of the Tao.4

Footnotes

1. The Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen argument, still apparently exercising strong views in the scientific community, suggests that once two parts of a quantum system are separated, they continue to act as a correlated unity no matter how far they travel from each other. This argument confounds causation, as there is no apparent mechanism to cause the continued interaction.

2. A GIF is available of this 100 ft wave here.

3. I think I have quoted James Hillman in most of the pieces on this site, so it’s clear that I’m a bit of a Hillmaniac. I will continue to do so. Thomas Moore says this of Hillman:

You see, I believe that he is the greatest thinker who ever lived: more important than Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, and Blake. No one pushed the imagination into the world and actual life to the extent that Jim did and with such immediate relevance.”

Thomas Moore, quoted in http://www.cgjungny.org/q/s12.full.content/henderson.pdf

I’m not sure that I can sign up for such hagiography. I have never liked Hillman’s view that the things that happen to us in childhood are of no importance, and his popular work failed to excite me. But no writer of non-fiction has moved me, transformed me, educated me and amused me as much as James Hillman. His Wikipedia entry is so slim it is clear that he is being written out of the history of psychology.

It is claimed that he offers nothing to the clinician – quite so. Hillman’s clinician was – finally – the community. His work was mercurial, contradictory, challenging. He is probably laughing, great waves of laughter, at his post mortem assassination. As one of his principal detractors writes: “By throwing out the heroic pattern of consciousness, and the idea of individuation, Hillman no longer appealed to most psychologists or therapists. By transgressing professional ethics, he no longer appealed to training institutes.”

Good for him – psychology is invested and entrenched, not just in modality, but ethical hypocrisy and defensiveness. The real tragedy is that even with all his fiery compassionate intellectual stature, Hillman was unable to influence the mainstream. But waves will come from elsewhere, and I have little doubt that his work will be remembered – at least for as long as we are able to save ourselves from the peculiar monomania that he sought to address.

4. Laozi in the Tao Te Ching explains that the Tao is not a ‘name’ for a ‘thing’ but the underlying natural order of the Universe whose ultimate essence is difficult to circumscribe due to it being non conceptual yet evident in one’s being of aliveness. Source: wikipedia.

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