Essays and Images:
Man in a dark room - the shadows of perception
(Credits for quoted writers and notes on references and allusions may be found at the end of the essay.)
Man in a Dark Room
Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
First movement - nocturne
I have to get up and go to the kitchen. I can't remember why. The kitchen is on the ground floor, four flights down. Too hot for clothes, I start descending naked in the dark. I don't know the stairs well and pick my way down. I reach the second floor, go past the master bedroom and go down the last flight. The final steps lead me to the space by the front door, which opens onto the street. Turning left away from the door and facing into the house I can see the sitting room. The curtains are open and a dull orange glow from the street lights is filtering through the net drapes on the two windows. It doesn't penetrate far. I turn further to my left and look across the room. It stretches a short distance to a low step. This leads up into the dining area, framed by the architrave which had been left from when the two rooms had been knocked together. I don't put the light on. I have no clothes on and I could be seen from the street. But at this time of night? An irrational embarrassment keeps the lights off. I halt briefly, looking in some wonder at the extraordinary blackness beyond the arch. The dining room is filled with an intense, almost physical darkness. But I know where things are here, stride across the rumpled carpet and step into the void.
Immediately there is a sharp intake of breath close to my left ear. A man. Very close. I can feel his warmth. In the second that passes a rush of thoughts and feelings, fear and wonder. I make a diagonal track fast across the room to the kitchen. But O lord! Put the light on? If I do I will turn and see him. If I don't he will follow and be close again. I somehow find myself by the kitchen light switch and slam it on. Turn. Nothing. No-one. I look across the dining room, past the long oval, polished table and the six high backed chairs, across another rucked-up carpet. I see the old white painted wooden door in the corner that leads down ancient stone steps to the medieval cellar. No - nonsense - no-one there. But I am afraid to look. I find a towel and tuck it around my waist.
I am in stunned amazement. He was there. A man. My height. A strong face, lantern jawed, handsome, rugged. About 40. Wiry eyebrows. Black hair with greying sides. I think naked, certainly to the waist. Broad chest with dark hairs. A sexual presence. His one breath was of profound sadness and I’d felt compassion for him, not fear.
Moving back past the black point of his presence I pause for a moment, then remount the stairs, putting on all the lights as I go. I have a glass of water with me, the forgotten reason for which I had come down. Back in my room, lying uncovered on the damp warm bed, I stare at the ceiling. This man was of me, mine, a living being, a complete personality who had been waiting for me in the void. His tangible reality, his apartness from me, his palpable breathing existence, filled me with profound disquiet.
What then is the nature of such an experience? I admit immediately to there being no physical presence of another man in the room that night. Some would call it a psychological projection. But that would suggest that my psyche had somehow thrown this image onto the material world. As if my brain were acting as a film projector casting a brain-conjured scene onto the screen of the exterior world of matter. But that cannot be so. What we know of perception tells us that our image of what is 'out there' is a brain-made construction, feeding off information coming in from our senses, and passing through a process of structuring, both learned and innate, and presenting us with what it deems a most useful best-fit experience. We are not looking out of windows in our heads.
So if my man is brain made, he was being projected not onto the outside world, but onto my perception of it. One transparency sliding over another. A kind of interior slippage. That which we experience as dream is of the same stuff as our experience of the material world. It is no surprise, then, that these experiences can meld, cross wire and conflate. We only know that we are not dreaming all the time by stubbing our toes on a piece of the matter and that only continual cross referencing with incoming information from our senses allows us to make out the difference between information from 'out there' and the imagined world 'in here'.
What then are the conditions conducive to this cerebral slippage? Taken at its simplest, the eye's blind spot gives us some clues. The brain, having no information arriving from that part of the optic nerve's exit point in the eye, takes a guess at what might be there and, rather than leave a blank space in our optical perception, fills in with the closest fit from surrounding visual clues. Using both eyes we are not aware of any shortcoming, no blank spot in the centre of our vision. However, using one eye only it is possible to play games with this. Getting the size of the blind spot to match an object in front of you can make the thing disappear. Removing the heads of dull lecturers in this manner can provide some necessary entertainment.
From another angle, consider a story from the ethnologist Leo Frobenius about a professor and his four year-old daughter. The professor is writing and his little girl is running around in his room and disturbing him. Having nothing else to hand he gives her three matches and tells her that they are Hansel, Gretel and the witch. All is quiet for some time until a cry of terror erupts from the little girl. 'What on earth is it?’ asks the professor. The girl cries 'Daddy, Daddy - take the witch away! I can't touch the witch any more!'1 The transformation of a matchstick into a figure of horror. We infill these insubstantial playthings with a variety of experiences - from images of utmost terror to benign figures who seem only there to console. Swastika and red cross. Is this the same process as my man appearing in the dark? I think it is.
Clinical conditions such as Charles Bonnet syndrome allow images from fiction and imagination to slide seamlessly into the patient's experience of the the 'real' world. In other circumstances, a cessation or diminution of sensory input is the key. Nothing to trip over. The commonest experience is sleep - the shutting down of the outward facing senses, creating the blank screen, allowing our surrender to the spontaneously constructed dream world. Other conditions apply. Isolation in remote places like high mountains or lone sea voyages, allows our brains, remote from societal norms and daily interactions, the freedom to place figures and feelings it considers appropriate into the empty spaces gaping in our sensory and mental experience.
It is not surprising that so many artists, in wanting to free themselves from the analytic transactions with which consciousness has cursed them and to experience Blake's 'emanations of the poetic genius', use sleep and dream scenarios in which to carry out their fantasies, their necessary interior slippages. A place where they do not stub their toes on the matter of the material world. The Divine Comedy itself is set as dream. Piers Plowman, The Pilgrim's Progress, A Midsummer Night's, Alice, Kubla Khan, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and the myriad dream imaginings which are cited in a myriad other works of prophecy, divination, madness and mystery - are all set as, experienced in or inspired by dreams.
And many of the most powerful and influential imaginative visions in world history have occurred in just such conducive conditions. Jesus after forty days in the wilderness defeating his vision of the devil; Moses receiving the law on high Sinai; Mohammed in his remote cave receiving the 'recitation', and the Buddha, his emaciated self after a prolonged isolated meditation under his Bodi tree, attaining enlightenment. Many people - most - still credit the 'reality' of these experiences. But all our creations projected onto the the interior blank wall at the end of our knowledge show us not what is out there, but our own fears and desires.
These dream figures, thoughts and ideas were once, still are, believed to be part of the material world. In some sense they are, being part of the material of the brain. But they are mostly seen through the mistaken perception that we are looking out from a window in our heads into the material world - out there - and not experienced as the interior explosions of brain-made creations and conflations which in reality they are.
And these tremendous emanations are only possible because of the perceptual and cognitive spaces which allow their existence. The void, the blank screen at the end of perception and experience. And they always, even now, in spite of our knowledge of the vastness of our setting and our obvious insignificance in this setting, unsurprisingly are about us, reflect us and picture us as the centre of it all.
Perhaps the most profound image of this kind of filling in, can be found at the end of Dante's 'Divine Comedy', where the poet is led to the end of his journey and stands in stunned wonder before the mystery at the centre of creation, the rainbow coloured circling, which defies measurement and analysis, is beyond comprehension, but wherein -
O eternal light!
Is this image any different, apart from its context, from my man in the dark room? I don't think so.
In the material world, the lightning may have struck, but Frankenstein's creature would not have moved a muscle. Michelangelo declared that he wanted to strike his carving of Moses with his sculptor's hammer and cry 'Now speak!', his creation seeming so alive. But had he done so, Moses would of course have remained seated and silent.
Had I constructed him in wax, hair and glass eye balls, stood him there on the living room threshold – truly projected him into the material world - would my man have made that intake of breath? Would he have turned towards me, sighing? No, of course not. He remains 'alive' only in my brain's circuitry. I can continue my exploration of him of course - perhaps see him as an ex-sailor, wife dead, children drifted away through some unmentionable rift. Give him a deep history. He might live on further and in greater complexity on this page, in these very words. But in the room? By the cellar door? No.
My man stood in front of a blackness of what should have been a dining room. That black hole, the void, the lack of signals from 'matter', allowed him to come into existence and to be projected, not onto matter, but onto my perception of a sensory gap. And not to my conscious bidding - my brain had decided what was needed at that moment and his appearance was beyond control and comprehension.
From here on a vast landscape opens up filled with speculations about what happens in the gaps, not only in our perceptions but also in our knowledge, in the shapes of our ideas, the material structure of our thoughts. Rather than the concrete attainments of invention, it is the way these voids have been filled that is the key motif in the history of our species. The ways religions have had of filling in these clouds of unknowing are too well known and obvious to need discussion here. No – it is more urgent to look at how some contemporary secularists deal with these lacunae, and to show that many of the ideas proposed by them in this post religious world are of the same nature as those ghosts with which those of a faith have rounded out their views of the world.
Second movement - intermezzo mysterioso
But one continues thinking. He wants to talk about it all again, but his friends have started something else and he becomes silent. He separates from them, engaged in an internal dialogue, with questions seeping into his consciousness from way down. How big is it really out there? What does 'big' mean? Is there anything beyond the furthest stars? How did it start? What was there before it started? All questions that, contrary to the impression given by television, books and school, are enquiries to which science has no answers at all - none. But he doesn't stop there. It goes on and on until he reaches the question at the end of all questions. The one that so many have got to before and then stumbled into silence. Why this and not nothing?
Something shudders to a halt in his mind. It is as if a film had stopped, the screen gone blank and the sound track suddenly silenced. Fear and anxiety grow as an abyss opens before him and he is teetering on the edge. He has looked into a void both of the sensed world and of his knowledge of it, and reached that place where the brain is caught stunned before it can begin to fill the immense emptiness gaping before it. He is in the moment of utter stillness where everything drops away - ego, self, identity, even body. He reels dizzy, seeming to float. His friends don't notice. They stroll on into the darkening street.
For the moment we shall leave him there, dealing with his whirling birth into a new world.
Third movement - scherzo - rondo capriccioso
Beauty and the privilege of life
If only we were as careful with our use of language as scientists are with their practical work, things might be clearer, although some scientists are the worst of all at this projection of beauty onto matter. They should admit that when they describe an object – a galaxy, an amino acid molecule, a virus – as wonderful or beautiful, they are projecting their emotional responses onto their perceptions of the object, but act as if these attributes resided in its material form as qualities to be observed. On the contrary, things 'out there' have no qualities, in the same sense that light has no colour - no colour that is, until it is registered in the human brain. What may be sensually attractive or beautiful to our particularly evolved senses is a meaningless bundle of quarks and charm particles, the fundamental nature of which we know nothing, residing in a space of which we know nothing. Let us not then say 'wonder-full' nor 'beauty-full' of a form which engenders these emotions within our nervous systems. 'The Horse Head Nebula is a wonderful and beautiful thing'. No. 'The horse head nebula fills me with a sense of wonder and beauty'.
These facts are of enormous interest and importance and can fill us with a sense of great wonder. This knowledge has the power to change our view of our situation in the universe and alter our emotional response to it, but in doing so it amplifies our awareness of the other more pressing, personal and immediate cognisance of our existential state. Inherent in knowing we are of the stuff of the universe also points to the hard fact that we are ephemeral, dissolving entities and have only come together in this form for a relative nanosecond of eternity. Our imminent dissolution is palpable even at the moment of our coming into existence. Our mothers give birth over a grave - 'Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.' 4- and we open our uncomprehending eyes for an instant as we hurtle into the pit below. Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye. So we are star dust. So what? We have no idea why we are, nor if there is any significance to being stardust or to asking why we are. Our ignorance is complete. So we are star dust to the end of time. So what?
All those items on the list which supposedly make up our fixed identity – nationhood, ethnicity, religion, local society, our personal histories - are supposed to be the manifestations of an innate and inviolable self. These constructed identities are hung onto with tenacious force, owing to our understandable need for a psychological base from which to move out into the world, our terror of dissolution and our instinctive tribal behaviour, and they propel us into some of the most heinous acts of horror and violence we are capable of. The national, religious or personal identities that most people claim to be their own are built with bricks of often spurious historical justification. Those who take their identities from the past are fixed, nailed down and unable to move from a stance which nearly always stands as a provocation to those of another position, often with catastrophic results. On the other hand, those of the rare breed who can see the possibilities of creating fluid identities can be who they need to be, when they need to be and may so adapt to the ever changing circumstances of life.
Our ability to reconstruct our identity presents us with the truth of the situation. The idea of a unique 'self' turns out to be a ghostly nothing, a mist of shapes and forms which come and go as the forces of life, both from within and without, mould and manipulate our relationship with our inner workings, social groupings and the material world. Projections onto an ever accepting blank canvas. Take away our constructed sense of identity from past or future and we drift like ghosts in a light breeze. And we find this intolerable.
Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see.
Some even say that the achievements of this communion are greater than any individual. The spirit of the beehive. The spirit of the beehive as it exists in our own species seems to have produced a viral infection of the planet. A swarming success story which looks to devour itself before its fecund community reaps whatever positive harvest the Panglosses of the best of all possible worlds may predict. No. We may from time to time communicate with our fellows and gain from this all that is said of community - enlarged ideas, possibilities of action and thought, affection. But the reality is that for the most part we talk to ourselves in an endless solipsistic conversation, alone in our divided, multiple, shifting selves. And in the end we must admit that there is nowhere else for the experience of this 'culture' to exist than the individual brain and it is there we are obliged to begin any explorations of our perceptions of the world.
But even so, if we examine the idea of communication as being the basis of consciousness then we are directed to another shadow of perception. If our conscious existence depends on our communicating with one another, then we are in trouble. It is one of the features of what some call the hard problem of consciousness that we cannot communicate the quality, the feel of things. My 'feel' of a misty morning autumn park scene can hardly be the same as yours, even if we are standing together in front of the same landscape. From what we know of the brain attaching personal, innate and remembered details to all our perceptions it certainly won't be. There seems to be no way round this lack of certainty. There may come a time when we can plug into another's brain directly and that might solve the problem, but at present we are left guessing. Therefore we live in a world of approximations when trying to understand or communicate with our fellow creatures. Theory of mind is limited.
Consciousness, in whatever interpretation one applies to it, has no need at all to be of any importance to anything. Consciousness may just as well be seen as an aberration which has caused prolonged unhappiness, the loss of innocence, the ejection from the garden and wars between emotion and analysis creating an eternal disquiet which torments us until our deaths. A peacocks tail of a dodgy unlooked for experiment leading nowhere and of no significance.
A time there was - as one may guess
The idea of consciousness flooding the universe and of that being a desirable thing is of the same quality as Dante's vision of our own image viewed in that great blessed circling as the ultimate image at the end of the universe. It is us as usual, unjustifiably writ big on a vast blank canvas.
As we watch our loves and children age and die, we age and die along with them, often transforming into gibbering wrecks before annihilation. And even if we are lucky enough to live out a long and healthy life, we witness, powerless, alongside our fleeting pleasures, the horror of outrageous natural injustice, the torture, mass slaughter and agony going on all around and all the time, both in all the species we share life with and in our own. The ludicrous death of children. We must bear witness to the amorality of all matter, all the stuff of existence of which we are part, including the extremely thin patina of an attempted, on our terms, moral life that we wear so lightly and fail so often to adhere to in our evolved and temporary communities. What we call evil in our behaviour is merely the natural state of the material world asserting its main thrust, indifferent to the things that seem of such great matter to us in our little local lives.
And the earth said - ‘Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified,
And beyond all this we live these brief lives in total ignorance about the nature of existence itself. Why this and not nothing? We don't know and in our lives never will. It may be that this question is not relevant or has no meaning in the bigger picture of the cosmos. But to us it is vital and the silence that follows every time we ask it leaves us with a profound, devastating frustration.
Ah love, let us be true
And all this, the knowledge of our irredeemable and appalling situation, is intolerable because we can imagine something better. A better something which we know to be unobtainable.
This then is the shadow which exists behind our habitual utopian perceptions of the world - the knowledge of our total isolation, our insignificance and ignorance, a knowledge from which we have for ever turned away in fear and horror. Between us and the silent abyss both within and without we hold up shielding images of benevolent gods - or an involved nature - in spite of all the evidence pointing directly to the contrary.
For if we do not turn away we must face the void. And then what do we do?
Fourth movement - cantabile
He had to keep his eye on the main question. For it had thrown up an immediate and pressing choice. He could hardly articulate it but knew it to be crucial. It was what to do with this overwhelming feeling of isolation, of the emptiness around and within created by his unblinking stare into the void. He had realised quite suddenly a few moments ago that all the stories he had heard about the nature of life, certainly those told at his Church of England primary school just a couple of years before, were not solid views but choices, made unconsciously perhaps, but choices. And the choice that those story tellers had been faced with was that with which all humans had been faced from the dawn of consciousness. It was whether we should fill the void of unknowing with images of desire and fear or leave it empty. We had always, always, filled in the gap.
These thoughts were shapes rather than made of words, (a revelation about thinking which would grow as he did). The words would form a carapace over the felt shapes later. For a moment his mind held a remarkable vision whirling on the screen at the end of his knowledge. Images on a flashing, teeming canvas, filled with animals which spoke, monsters, flying people, whispering woods and mysterious lights, overwhelming images of great figures stretching across the night sky, people bending towards him in engulfing understanding, weeping, consoling, saying 'there, there', and the death-dealing visions of the end of time. His realisation was that these might be, could be, have been, terrifyingly thought of as part of the material world and could turn on him, enslaving and forcing irrational, dangerous, foolish and murderous and suicidal actions. He therefore immediately made his own choice and with some strong confidence gathered these figures and images into a remote but still accessible part of his mind. He could see that, deprived of the oppressive power of supposed reality, these images could become potent metaphors in an infinite game of invention, ideas and reactions. And, in reaping this harvest, he had left the interior screen silent and empty once more.
The watcher at the window lost interest as the small figure disappeared beyond her vision into the blue light beyond the trees. She turned away and faced in towards her own orange-yellow world.
The boy's remaining vision was a non-vision. Nothing. An empty screen. He had made the choice and stared into the silent abyss in front of him. He became aware that this confrontation and the acceptance of those blanks in our perception and knowledge offered neither comfort nor pleasure nor certainty, but only a glimpse of a possible truth and a chance of new creation, good or bad, of both a varying self and a continually changing image of his place in the enveloping mystery. And all his future actions, his loves and his ageing would be set in relief against this blank wall. He realised that this was where the true drama of life was to be experienced.
He reached the river park. The gate was still open and as he stepped in he could see the river surface, dimly reflecting the trees, stars and houses which surrounded it. In the starlight the river flowed away from him. The banks seemed to dissolve in the dark, the flow expand to a barely perceptible vanishing point and become one with the darkness of the covering trees. He stood not knowing what would come next but was filled with a profound curiosity. He began to laugh and at the same was filled with an overwhelming sense of compassion for the whole of existence.
Many years later, at the midway of his life, the man who had been the boy found himself in a dark room. The chimerical figure his brain had created faded from his mind. He paused for moment, alone and silent by the cellar door. If he were to move forward he would need a point of reference, an identity from which to move out into the unknown territory ahead of him, but now he only sensed the darkness around him.
From deep in his mind, unbidden, and at the very edge of the abyss, at the event horizon between his knowing and unknowing, a image of a possible self began to emerge. It would not be fixed, but shaped by a growing knowledge of the material world, an awareness of the ever changing situation this presented but one which could be explored by his mine of metaphors and their configurations. Set against an infinite emptiness, this figure became a self-contemplating, insubstantial shimmering image, already fading, but held briefly in place by a burning curiosity and the nameless, inscrutable energy which moves the sun and the other stars.
References and allusions:
Some of the allusions contained in this essay will be familiar and some more obscure, even to me. The overarching reference is to Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and my essay both starts and ends with direct references to the beginning and the end of that work
The initial poem is Sonnet 27 by William Shakespeare.
1. The story from Frobenius and is taken from 'The Masks of God: Vol 1. Primitive Mythology' by Joseph Campbell.
2.. 'O eternal light! . . .' is from the Canto 33 of the Paradise section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by Henry Cary.
3. 'Nature never did betray the heart that loved her'. William Wordsworth: 'Lines written a few miles above above Tintern Abbey'.
4. 'Astride a grave . . .' is from 'Waiting for Godot' by Samuel Becket.
5. The stanza beginning 'Let us go hence . . .' is from 'A Leave-taking' by Algernon Swinburne.
6. 'A time there was' is from 'Before life and after' by Thomas Hardy.
7. 'Mine ancient scars . . .' is from 'The End' by Wilfred Owen.
8. 'Ah love, let us be true to one another . . .' is from 'Dover Beach' by Matthew Arnold.
There is an allusion at the end to the river image in the last lines of 'Sohrab and Rostum' by Matthew Arnold.
Two stories from the Zen tradition have also been floating around at the back of this. Indeed the 'mind silence' produced by certain koans in Zen relates directly to the idea behind this essay.
A wise man visits the Buddha with two gifts, one in each hand. As he approaches, the Buddha says 'Drop it'. A little confused the wise man drops one gift and begins to approach again. The Buddha says 'Drop it' and, having no choice now, drops the other gift and starts his approach once more. The Buddha says 'Drop it'. And the man gains enlightenment.
An emperor summons a great Zen master to his palace and asks him questions about The Way.
These words too, I hurl into the void.