Philip Guston, If This Be Not I, 1945
It is 1974. Jimmie G., a 46-year-old alcoholic ex-sailor, has been consigned
to the Greenwich Village Home for the Aged, where Oliver Sacks works. For Jimmie, a victim of Korsakov's Syndrome, the years have moved
backwards, not forwards, until they stopped in 1945, a year that was, according to Sacks, far too symbolically sharp. Although Jimmie—the "Lost
Mariner"—is prone to high anxiety while studying his own face in the mirror, he sometimes questions whether he feels anything at all. Music and
art, however, are able to reach inside to touch him, and he is moved to tears by the celebration of the Mass.
You may have seen these facts before. Have you seen these facts before? How fortunate it is for you that you remember. But how sure are you that
these facts have stayed put, that I have not employed some authorial sleight-of-hand, that you have not rearranged some few things in your mind? Like
Jimmy, you may have previously seen a great many things of which you now are almost totally unaware. For example, did you dream last night?
You should answer "Yes" or "Probably." But from there the test becomes potentially more difficult. Some few hours later, these dreams are far away.
They seemed simple enough at the moment they occurred. Oh, wait, you probably have forgotten even that. Your dream life and your waking life do
not quite fit together. You are used to this. It is your "normal condition," as it is for billions of others, so should you really be disturbed? Yes, perhaps, if
you were to take this disjunction seriously. Perhaps you should listen to your favorite piece of music.
In Vedic tradition, it is said that there are three normal states, dreaming, deep sleep, and waking, plus a fourth state, called "Turiya," which
encompasses all three, in the same way space encompasses the earth. As Patanjali did, Sacks muses on the therapeutic value of a state of total
attention. He first quotes Alexander Luria, who writes, "A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibility, moral being. It is
here that you may touch him, and see a profound change." Sacks then says,
Seeing Jim in the chapel opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion.
The same depth of absorption and attention was to be seen in relation to music and art: he had no difficulty, I noticed, following music or
simple dramas, for every moment in music and art refers to, contains, other moments.
Though the Sacks does not use the word, the concept of the hologram is implicit in this passage. However blurred, perhaps the story of each life is a
hologram, which refers back, first, to the already completed pattern of that life, and beyond that to the larger story of the world. The study of disease
may yet provide us with a key to open the locked doors of the Memory Theater. This theater, a period prototype of what I would call the
"Holographic Theater," slowly fell into disuse, before being boarded up towards the end of the Renaissance. Let us keep the concept but expand the
definition. Let us enter even as we take a moment to ask, "Is this theater just the afterimage of an even vaster theater?" To enter is to exit, to close
these eyes and open those eyes. In every niche of the rotunda is a cue that serves to activate an engram.
Fernand Leger, Mona Lisa with Keys, 1928
If, as folklore and some contemporary research has it, a person's life flashes before his/ her eyes at the moment before death, we must ask where this
Tsunami of information has been stored. It seems strange, indeed, that a process of such scope and power should be able to get underway so quickly.
Not that the shutting down of the body is a trivial event, yet it can seem as though the process is just waiting for some pretext to occur.
If chemicals, such as DMT, flood the brain as death approaches, the skeptical reductionist would argue that the visions that result are no more
than hallucinations, of a particularly detailed sort. They may look dramatic, yes, but they have no objective significance. A depth-charge of
neurotransmitters has disturbed the locus coeruleus, and this has caused the right temporoparietal junction to short circuit. "Tunnel vision" can
occur when blood and oxygen flow is depleted from the eye. The only truth revealed pertains to the abnormal functioning of our cells. It would be just
as reasonable to argue, however, that these chemicals purge, prepare, and then activate the brain centers for an alternate mode of processing. In this
mode, we may witness the reversal of all previous frames of reference, as consciousness attempts to break from the space outside us in, and not, as is
habitual, from the space inside us out.
So, let us grant that our brains go through chemical changes when the moment of death approaches, as they do during every other aspect of our
lives; this is hardly some sort of revolutionary insight. In fact, things could not be otherwise. Let us say that you are driving with your family in a car,
and quite suddenly, a tractor-trailer turns the wrong way onto the highway and is just about to flatten you. Your brain will no doubt undergo some
significant chemical changes. This does not mean that the truck does not exist, that you will not, within a few seconds, be in a catastrophic wreck, or
that your neurotransmitters have somehow caused the accident. No, it is simply that death approaches, and this prompts certain changes in your
chemistry. Correlation is not the same thing as causation, as every skeptical reductionist should know. Because a set of chemical reactions may be
present in the brain, it does not follow that an NDE must be caused by that set of chemical reactions.
If this flood of information is somehow able to self-organize and if this is a purely physiological process, we must ask why such a talent took so long to
reveal itself, when, in countless situations, we might have put it to good use. If we can access a talent only when we will soon cease to exist, what
possible evolutionary purpose does this serve? How utterly perverse: to be able to gain access to certain key facts in our story at the exact moment
when we are powerless to put such knowledge to practical use. We might theorize that such knowledge is not meant to be practical, or that it is
practical, in its own way, but only in regards to ends that we have long been prevented from seeing.
Life itself, not only Korsakov's Syndrome, can create lacunae large enough for whole worlds to pass through, as well as occult blocks that we do not
dare to touch. When we are deaf, dumb, and blind, there is no end to our enthusiasm for grand self-defeating projects, for the breeding of
technofuturist centaurs, for the mass replacement of the person with the brand, for online tribal purges. Our hyperactivity drives us to reach the far
side of the hamster-wheel. When our vision is at its widest, however—and quite maddeningly—we may pause to note that there is no life in our hands.
If the death flash video is other than an accident of biology, a set of haywire neurotransmitters, a massive overstimulation of the temporal lobe, this
expanded state might point to the existence of an alternate self, with which we, under certain conditions, can communicate, and of a parallel system in
which all events are stored. If this backup system is outside of time/ space as we know it, even a syndrome such as Korsakov's, as devastating as it is,
may be no more than a foreground inconvenience.
Roberto Matta and Victor Brauner, Innervision, 1956
Jimmie, the Lost Mariner, seems to intuit the existence of this alternate form of memory, of a backup system to the all too human one, and to be
fully at attention only during the celebration of the Mass. No longer scrambled, his mind is absorbed by each necessary action. His feelings are
transformed. His consciousness becomes one-pointed. If, as Parmenides asserted, there is actually only One—one body that is coextensive with its
mind; one databank whose limit is the circumference of a sphere; one tongue that twists the grammar of the universal language; one oceanic seed
that goes in search of our fingers—there may be no detail so insignificant that the One does not desire to know more. Still unable to gain access to the
clear sky of the One, the Lost Mariner is nonetheless reassured. It will not be long before he steps back through the aperture that just yesterday had
clicked shut behind him at his birth.
Is Jimmie a lost soul, and if so, what does this imply? Has he lost his soul,
or has he lost touch with his soul? If we were to meet him, we might certainly think, "You are lost." We can see him much more clearly than he
is able to see us. We can move more freely back and forth in time, at least in terms of our concepts of its sequence, at least in terms of time as it is
measured by a clock. We usually do not stop to ask, "Is there some presence who sees us in the same way we see Jimmie?" Towards the end of
"The Lost Mariner"—about a different patient, who had suffered a sudden thrombosis in the posterior circulation of the brain—Sacks writes,
Forthwith this patient became completely blind, but he made no complaints. Questioning and being tested showed, beyond doubt, that
not only was he centrally or cortically blind, but he had lost all visual images and memories, lost them totally, yet had no sense of any loss.
Indeed, he had lost the very idea of seeing, and was not only unable to describe anything visually, but bewildered when I used words such as 'seeing' and 'light.'
Sacks presents this as a clinical description. We could, however, choose to
interpret this type of blindness as a metaphor. Let us say you are a skeptical reductionist, for being up to date on the neural correlates of consciousness,
what else could you be? Your rigorous comfort zone is to question all but your own beliefs, every form of cosmological prestidigitation, all but your
own skill in pulling a rabbit from a hat. You have flattened false hopes before, like the hat into which you have once more placed the rabbit. Why
would you not want to flatten these hopes again? Such hopes are false, by definition—they are no doubt due to an excess of dopamine—and you need
a lot of practice to make your reductionism perfect. So, there is a you who observes and judges, but what would happen if you subtracted even this
abstract "you"? What would happen if you stripped off even your own theories, if you reduced the you to nothing and there was still some presence left over to observe?
Like the patient Sacks describes, not only may we have lost our sight, we may have forgotten that our eyes were more than convex surfaces with lids.
We may have forgotten what it once was like to see. As no more than an experiment, please imagine that your vision is quite different than it was,
before the pineal gland became no more than a vestigial appendage, before Earth's Rulers locked the top part of our skulls, before their obedient
helpers (take a moment here to look at your own face in the mirror) then threw away the keys.
Philip Guston, Objects, 1973
As no more than an experiment, please entertain the following: That five
ages or more back, before the Deluge redrew the coasts of every continent, we possessed both local and nonlocal bodies, which together functioned
like a kaleidoscopic field. The ocean was a womb, and our incantations were the catalytic seeds. Vast energies danced on every geomagnetic navel.
It came as something of a relief when we noticed that our bodies had grown dimmer, for the world had come to seem too overwhelmingly bright. Now,
for unknown reasons, we prefer to exist in a contracted state, which to us seems the very definition of good health. Life means moving forward. We
experience the one all-encompassing moment as a threat.
Have you followed me this far? I would guess that you have not, but let me dare to make the following statements and suggestions: We humans have
suffered from metaphysical brain damage for millennia. Dead-end circumstances may require desperate measures. Our healing may demand
that we approach some sort of limit, that we break an alchemical barrier, beyond which we may encounter the mystery of our preexistent form, of
our mute but clear-eyed twin, a configuration of energies as dark as it is light, to whom our illness is a kind of food. To begin to remember what we
are, it may be necessary to let go of who we are.
While the outcome is not in any way predictable, there may be certain liminal states—induced by fasting or entheogens or breathwork or dancing
or physical danger or distress—in which some form of transformation becomes more likely than not. To provoke a near-death experience, for
example, initiates from ancient Greece would sometimes throw themselves from cliffs into the sea. Those who exited were—ideally—not the same as
those who entered. Our problem with this method would be twofold: we would prefer to avoid discomfort and we do not want to die.
Lacking the will to pass through an initiatory keyhole, we find it difficult to
see beneath the skin of the ancient world. When we moderns think about health, we tend to assume that it is the opposite of disease. When we add to
the one we take away from the other. When one grows the other shrinks. When one wins the other loses. For a subject as damaged as the Lost
Mariner, however, it may be necessary to begin beyond the end.
Max Beckman, Death, 1938
If time/ space is a construct, a mere tragicomic convenience, a kind of crutch that assists us in crossing from one lacuna to the next, it could be
that any necessary healing may have long ago taken place. It is always possible that the Mariner may not actually be lost, that some aspect of his
consciousness may have never been diminished, and that he may be doing exactly what he had once agreed to do. As absurd as this may seem to the
more practical among us, there may be reasons that some aspect of the self has chosen to be debilitated, to move slowly rather than quickly towards its end.
To contemplate the Mariner's near total lack of memory is disturbing, if not frightening, yet we do not have far to look for other examples of
forgetfulness. Much that was close is now distant, and our forgetfulness differs only in degree. Like Jimmie, we do our best to pretend that no
catastrophe has occurred, that there are no lacunae in the order of appearances. Like him, we submit to our own confabulations, and we are
glad to buy the rearrangements of past details that we sell. We believe that our actions will almost certainly make sense if only we can keep talking long enough.
A man in a white lab coat has just handed you a mirror. You assume you know whose face is looking back. It is too bad you are wrong. A man in a
white lab coat sits before you. He seems to be a doctor. He asks, "Do you know what year it is?" "Who is this guy?" you think. The question is a
simple one. What sort of doctor doesn't know the year? You politely inform him of where to find the information. He does not seem to hear you, so you
decide to fill him in. "5,782," you say, "or 5,136, or 5,124." Who doesn't know the Jewish calendar, or the Mayan, or the Vedic? Why do you feel
this overpowering urge to stare out of the window?
In the space that surrounds such examples of dysfunction, there is nonetheless a story that coheres. There is a sense of smell whose objectives
might well seem to be nonsensical. Let us say that the brain has lost its ability to self-organize. At its center, calm and curious, there is a presence
that needs little or no sleep. Such a presence may not be different from an absence. At a minimum, we can say that perfect health could be an obstacle,
that we are often most available when something has gone wrong. A wound, too, is an opening, a lacuna through which an alternate form of
intelligence can observe. If this intelligence does choose to act, we should not assume that it is acting on our level, or that it is acting to decrease the
degree of our disturbance. Healing may be the goal, yes, but the method that this intelligence employs may be anything but direct, and the subject
may not automatically become aware of the effects. The cure may be for a subject who has not yet come to exist. Simultaneously, some part of the subject may never have been broken.
"What," the skeptical reader may well ask, "is the purpose of such healing, if no symptoms are removed, and if the subject is not informed that a
change has taken place?" Yes, what indeed. The skeptical reader may well ask this. We should not assume, however, that the Mariner has only a single
life to live. We should not assume that his lives are necessarily lived out in a series, or that dead, he is unable to learn from his experience.
Anselm Kiefer, Spirit Over the Waters, 1985
The deepening of Jimmie's attention during Mass may be seen as both a return and a taste of things to come. Let us say that that he has an accident,
or a heart attack or a stroke, and that the light, quite unexpectedly, no longer hurts his eyes. A luminous but quite violent ocean heaves. Events
that had long since sunk into the depths are once more visible down to the smallest of details. From over Dunkirk, Leningrad, and Dresden, from over
Midway, Guadalcanal, and Okinawa, he can see the silent flashes, he can ache for the thousands of soldiers as they fall, he can watch as the dark
smoke clears. "If I can see so much," he thinks, "why do I feel so distant? There I am, in 1932, playing baseball with my friends. There I am, many
miles below, a gray-haired speck, no longer even able to say 'hello' to my doctor." As eager as the Mariner may be to depart, he may nonetheless be told,
No, turn back. We do not mind waiting several years for you. We have, already, stayed with you for millennia. There is more than enough time.
How could there be a shortage? Your voyage is not yet complete.