Friday, March 31, 2006

If you ever have doubts about the rhinoceros watch it eat and look at its tongue

On June 13, 1998, I was at the Berlin Zoo, and I wrote these words:
I’m sitting by the rhinoceros listening to what Germans say about bad smells.

Gypsies. One is poking around in the grass on the other side of the fence with a crutch, trying to find an animal.

A red/white spiral ice cream treat

Ready for a nap; if I were on the other side of those bars, I could easily go to sleep


Ab nachm. 4 Uhr: Grosses Militär-Konzert

BITTE RUHE: Tiere neigen zur Panik
It is reasonable to assume that I could have taken notes on different aspects of my experience at the zoo: this bird, that child, other paths, signs, kiosks, etc. This is because I was writing about something real. Real things are like that: there’s a lot more you could say about them than what you do say. They aren’t used up in a particular form of words. If the conditions are right, you can return to the thing, experience it again, and get more words.

Not all of my journal is like this; some entries seem to have permanently lost their referent; the mode of life that produced them seems no longer to exist. Or perhaps the world I wished to describe was not just one that’s since gone missing, but a hallucination, a feverish dream-event not so much ineffable as unreal. I imagine that a similar skepticism has been felt by many writers who have dared to return to a record of vision and feeling and found themselves disappointed.

All of this is intended as an introduction to a long passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience in which James suggests that Hegel wrote philosophy in more or less the same way I wrote about the zoo: by experiencing one complex particular object and noting some of its salient features. It is standard for commentators to insist that Hegel's “phenomenology” is the gradual stepping out of consciousness on the world-historical stage, but James suggests that Hegel is a phenomenological philosopher in the vulgar, 20th-century sense, that he is a writer of an autobiography that, if you thought about it, would be the same as your own.
Some years ago I myself made some observations on this aspect of nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded. How to regard them is the question—for they are so discontinuous with ordinary consciousness. Yet they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map. At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance. The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradictoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity. Not only do they, as contrasted species, belong to one and the same genus, but one of the species, the nobler and better one, is itself the genus, and so soaks up and absorbs its opposite into itself. This is a dark saying, I know, when thus expressed in terms of common logic, but I cannot wholly escape from its authority. I feel as if it must mean something, something like what the hegelian philosophy means, if only could only lay hold of it more clearly. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear; to me the living sense of its reality only comes in the artificial mystic state of mind.1

1What reader of Hegel can doubt that that sense of a perfected Being with all its otherness soaked up into itself, which dominates his whole philosophy, must have come from the prominence in his consciousness of mystical moods like this, in most persons kept subliminal? The notion is thoroughly characteristic of the mystical level, and the Aufgabe of making it articulate was surely set to Hegel’s intellect by mystical feeling.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are a delightful writer.

4/08/2006 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are a delightful writer.

4/08/2006 4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are a delightful writer.

9/17/2006 4:23 AM  

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