January 11, 2011

The Lure of Other Worlds

[Apologies to those of you who have already read this in A Question of Values. Sad to say, not everyone has bought the book (yet), so I thought I’d post this for the bookless among us.]

The essence of man is desire.


At one time or another, all of us ponder the notion of happiness–what it consists of, and how to achieve it. This is my own small contribution to this great question.

Let me start with two vignettes from Proust, in this case from A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs–“In the shadow of young girls in bloom”–the second volume of In Search of Lost Time (and rendered in English as Within a Budding Grove). The vignettes are but a few pages apart. Marcel has just seen the gaggle of the young girls in bloom, and there was one in particular who gave him a “smiling, sidelong glance, aimed from the centre of that inhuman world which enclosed the life of this little tribe, an inaccessible, unknown world wherein the idea of what I was could certainly never penetrate or find a place.” He goes on:

"From the depths of what universe did she discern me?
It would have been as difficult for me to say as, when
certain distinguishing features in a neighbouring planet
are made visible thanks to the telescope, it is to conclude
therefrom that human beings inhabit it, and that they can
see us, and to guess what ideas the sight of us can have
aroused in their minds."

This wonder over who she is, writes Proust, leads Marcel to think:

"And it was consequently her whole life that filled me
with desire; a sorrowful desire because I felt that it
was not to be fulfilled, but an exhilarating one because,
what had hitherto been my life having ceased of a
sudden to be my whole life, being no more now than
a small part of the space stretching out before me
which I was burning to cover and which was
composed of the lives of these girls, it offered me that
prolongation, that possible multiplication of oneself,
which is happiness."

So happiness is the possibility of entering another world, or another culture, which will lead to a multiplication of oneself–an extension to greater realms. Two pages later, Marcel ruminates on the role of the imagination in this process:

"To strip our pleasures of imagination is to reduce
them to their own dimensions, that is to say to
nothing....We need imagination, awakened by
the uncertainty of being unable to attain its object,
to create a goal which hides the other goal from us,
and by substituting for sensual pleasures the idea of
penetrating another life, prevents us from recognising
that pleasure, from tasting its true savour, from
restricting it to its own range."

By comparison, Proust imagines sitting before a plate of fish, and says that between us and the enjoyment of the flesh of that fish we need a certain intervention. We imagine sitting by the water with the rod in our hand, and see “the rippling eddy to whose surface come flashing...the bright gleam of flesh, the hint of a form, in the fluidity of a transparent and mobile azure.” The imagination thus moves in to replace the actual sensual experience (whether of savoring a woman or a fish). This, he seems to suggest, is the Other World that we wish to enter, that offers happiness–the enlargement of oneself.

I remember an ad that was popular in the 1960s–it could have been for aftershave, for all I know–showing an elegantly dressed man sitting at a table surrounded by classic Japanese wood-and-paper screens (shoji), on which was a Go set. The caption read something like: “He is at home in worlds most people don’t even know exist.” And I remember, as a young adult, identifying with that man, wanting to be him, wanting familiarity with unknown worlds–probably because I understood that this would extend my own world, and thus make me happier.

The notion that the imaginary does not substitute for the sensual, but is somehow fused with it, is a major motif in the work of the great Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). In Visions of Desire: Tanizaki’s Fictional Worlds, Ken Ito explores this in detail, showing how Tanizaki is able to create shimmering visions of other worlds–including the world of his childhood–which transcend the ordinary. As he puts it, “Tanizaki’s other worlds are realms limned by culturally determined erotic longing, where men find sensual and aesthetic satisfactions unavailable in the given world of modernizing Japan.”

In fact, in his early work, the West was the other world, the other culture, that Tanizaki found fascinating, and sought to enter. A bit later, he reversed himself, and made the lost traditional world of Japan, a world that was rapidly succumbing to modernization (i.e., Americanization), the culture that was alluring. After the War, Tanizaki came to a more integrated position, and broadened out to an examination of “the desire that underlies cultural aspiration” in general. He became, in short, both a brilliant psychologist and a brilliant storyteller, in a single stroke.

Tanizaki’s novels, says Ito, “brim with characters who labor to realize visions of sexual and cultural fulfillment in the exterior world.” Naomi, for example, is the story of a westernized Japanese woman who is the obsession of Joji, a Japanese man who cannot really distinguish between his yearning for her and his yearning for the West–at least, the West as it existed then in the popular Japanese imagination (powerful, sensual, and replete with all kinds of exotic possibilities). Similarly, in his description of his childhood, Tanizaki evokes “an ‘other world’ that transcends the ordinary,” a world of mystery, in which “sampling just a bit of squid, salty and slick, can be a revelation; the way to a noodle shop can lead through a scene straight out of a Hiroshige print; and a restaurant’s garden can take on the hazy luminosity of a ‘dream world’.” Treated in this way, even one’s own childhood can be exotic. As one Japanese writer put it, in a commentary on Tanizaki, “exoticism is an attempt to find something lacking within the self in an object or person that is foreign, strange, or distant. It can thus be defined as an outwardly projected act of self-recovery.”

(My own encounter with the fusion of sexuality and otherness occurred with my second sexual partner–I was lucky, I guess–who was half Native American. The sensation was something along the lines of, “Where have I been all my life?” For this went way beyond “getting laid”; it was an entrée into a world the existence of which I previously had no idea. Its dimensions seemed gigantic; I suddenly realized that Mystery was not just a concept, and that understood properly, the whole world could be experienced as erotic. Sad to say, that relationship didn’t last very long, and it was more than ten years before it happened to me again. C’est la vie.)

This definition of exoticism has a lot in common with Georges Batailles’ definition of eroticism, which he characterizes as a process where “man is everlastingly in search of an object outside himself but this object answers the innerness of the desire.” Of course, the real question is whether it does answer the innerness of desire. The French psychologist, Jacques Lacan (1901-81), believed it didn’t. For Lacan, these other worlds that we are reaching for, and the desire that impels us, are purely illusory. Lacan argued that the transference that occurs in the analytic situation is really to the knowledge that the patient thinks his or her analyst possesses. The analyst is the sujet supposé savoir, the subject who is supposedly in the know. But what Lacan occasionally hinted at, and what he actually demonstrated in his own life–in his consummate capacity as a charlatan–was that there was no hidden knowledge, no other world. As in the case of The Wizard of Oz, in which the various characters believe themselves to be incomplete (lacking a heart, a brain, etc.) and go off in search of the Wizard, who is supposedly going to make them whole, the journey ends when the “Wizard” turns out to be a nobody. He is just some little bald guy behind a screen, fiddling with levers and pulleys. The knowledge, the other world, was totally in the mind of the desirers. True fulfillment, true self-recovery, consists in grasping that the journey was completely unnecessary. Unfortunately, as Lacan well knew, very few people are willing to recognize this. For then the game would be up, and one would be faced with a very different, and much less dazzling, version of reality.

(I recall a joke in which a young American adventurer learns of some guru in the Himalayas who supposedly knows what life really is. He crosses the Atlantic, hitchhikes through Europe and Asia, climbs the Himalayas, and finally corners the guru, meditating in his cave. “Oh Swami!” he cries, “please tell me what life really is!” The guru, in an authoritative, high-pitched voice, points his finger toward the heavens and declares, “Life is a waterfall.” The young lad stares at him for a moment and finally says, with some anger, “That’s it? Life is a waterfall? I came all this way to hear that ‘life is a waterfall’?” The guru looks at him, a bit puzzled, and then says: “It isn’t?”)

What, then, would be this less dazzling version of reality, and how does it relate to the theme of other worlds? One pioneer in this area–one might well call him the grandfather of body work–was F.M. Alexander (1869-1955), an Australian actor who immigrated to England in 1904 and subsequently developed a technique of mind-body integration that bears his name. He had some very famous students, including Aldous Huxley, who immortalized him as a seer and visionary (as “James Miller”) in his novel, Eyeless in Gaza. Alexander was also in search of other worlds, and an expanded self, but in his hands (literally) these things took on a whole new meaning. For according to Alexander, it is precisely the refusal to indulge in desire, and to inhibit it instead, that opens up a new possibility. In his work with his clients, he sought to disrupt the well-worn grooves of habit and replace them with spontaneity. While not strictly ascetic, the lure here is that a much fuller life awaits one who does not act on impulse, but instead renounces it. This involves crossing a kind of watershed, of the kind I discuss in the final chapter of my book Coming to Our Senses, “The Two Faces of Creativity.” I call these Creativity II and Creativity III, the first being allied to the tormented genius theory, fueled by drama and conflict–Van Gogh, let’s say, or Sylvia Plath. The second is illustrated by the medieval craft tradition, or by much Eastern art, in which the work emerges out of serenity rather than emotional extremes. I point out that it is very hard for us westerners to get to Cr. III because the impulsive, passionate nature of Cr. II makes it seem so alive; and until you reach the other shore, the feeling is one of meaninglessness, loss of purpose. Those who study things such as the Alexander Technique, or emptiness meditation, eventually find themselves face to face with this “dark night of the soul.”

In The Compassionate Presence, Stephen Schwartz talks in similar terms, ones which are reminiscent of my discussion of creativity. The first type, he says, is ego-driven and conflict-based; it prods us into acting, doing. We remain ignorant of the awareness “that there is another kind of impetus besides the motivation of ‘should’ and ‘must’.” This other impetus arises out of trust, not pressure, whereas “ego suggests that no challenge will exist when we stop pushing our life into the ground.” However, if we let go of the old ways before we are ready for the new, Schwartz goes on to say, “a certain kind of forward-directed activity seems to cease.” The ego sees the resulting deflation as “proof” of its theory, that drivenness is the key to life.

“We find ourselves for a while in a kind of paralysis,” writes Schwartz. “This can feel like a barren place,” a place of no hope. It’s a half-way place. “We find ourselves [there] because a specific kind of certainty does not yet exist in full consciousness.” But eventually, another kind of impulse arises, one that is not the result of pushing and doubt. Proust (let alone the Buddha) would say that very few of us get there. In Tolstoy’s famous story of Ivan Ilych, the central character–Everyman, in a word–realizes only on his deathbed that his entire life was a waste of time.

This is where Alexander is relevant, for his teaching was designed to help people work through this “dark night of the soul” on a bodily level. It means putting yourself in physical postures that seem wrong only because you’ve been doing what’s wrong all your life. As in the case of Wilhelm Reich, the idea is to return to a “natural” body, one without tension, without the coercive ego structure of pushing and doubt. “If it feels wrong, leave it wrong,” Alexander used to tell his students. The entire process of the Alexander Technique is counterintuitive. In this case, the other world is an inner rather than an outer world, and as already noted, it is attained not through desire but through its inhibition. This has obvious connections with Buddhism or Taoism, and the classical Chinese notion of wu wei, or not-doing. The promise is that of a richer existence, a happiness borne not out of the multiplication of self, but out of the holding back of the self. As someone once said, Zen is the practice of manifesting oneself as emptiness. The paradox is that renunciation creates a sensation of fullness, of limitless horizons.

Similar conclusions were reached independently by the Polish psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski (1902-80), who pioneered something called the Theory of Positive Disintegration. Dabrowski saw depression and anxiety as necessary for real growth, disintegrative processes that he regarded as positive because they were developmental. Crises, in other words, cause us to review ourselves, possibly redo ourselves, and to make new worlds as a result. One has to weather the darkness, which is not conceived of in negative terms. (Not easy!)

I have repeated this cycle of drivenness/surrender a number of times in my life, most recently in the wake of surgery that left me confined to my house for a few weeks. My doctor told me the following were off limits: spicy foods, fats, sugar, salt, soda pop, tobacco, coffee, too much food in general, sex, exercise, and driving anywhere. After three weeks of this, I was pretty much a basket case. It was as though all my “friends” had suddenly deserted me. I had no interest in doing any work; indeed, it felt like nothing would ever turn me on again. Finally, as Dabrowski says, one has no choice (in lieu of spiraling downward) but to trust the process, give it a positive “spin”. In time, with a little luck (or maybe it’s divine intervention, who knows), the outlines of the farther shore emerge, and one lives to write, and love, again.