Participatory Spirituality for the 21st Century
On David Marshall's Integral Archipelago forum, a member there named Shashank recently posted a blog (and initiated a discussion) on the relationship between horror and
fantasy literature and spirituality that I am quite enjoying. I invite
you to read it, if you're interested. Here, I wanted to open a related
discussion, based on some of my comments to Shashank, particularly if
any of you enjoy the horror or fantasy genres. (I wish I had time to
compose something nice, but I don't, so here are a few jotted notes).
I no longer read fantasy or horror, but I used to read and write quite a lot of both, and I still enjoy an occasional horror or fantasy film. In my conversation with Shashank, we were discussing the respective approaches of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. I was noting that Barker tends to see "order" behind the terror and horror, and redemptive or transformative potential in the encounter with darkness and evil, whereas Lovecraft attempts to present a vision of reality as ultimately alien, containing dimensions which are wholly other -- realms and beings that are wholly unassimilable, human contact with which can only result in madness or destruction. In other words, absolute limit conditions.
In my reading, Lovecraft's Otherness is an Otherness that must remain Other for the human center to hold, and for our higher ideals to flourish (though those who encounter it now come to see those ideals largely as flimsy defenses in the face of a vast, menacing, terrifyingly alien realm). If I had to place Lovecraft along the values line, I'd say he was a Modernist -- writing for a genteel Modern audience, many of whom were likely in hard flight from "animal nature." This is revealed, I think, in his preference for pre-human, visceral images to represent the Other: slime, gelatinous substances, crustacean or invertebrate anatomy, etc.
But while Lovecraft is primarily a modernist (as opposed to Barker's more postmodern approach, where otherness is a functional limit condition of particular stages of development or perspectival frames rather than a concretely identified, metaphysical "thing" or "realm"), I still find his work offers something interesting to consider, particularly in the context of Integral spirituality: he presents a powerful challenge to complacency and a "comfortable" anthropocentric view of the universe, a view that honestly I sometimes feel marks much New Age and even Integral discourse and thought. I don't think Lovecraft is an Integral thinker (as I said, I view him as essentially a Modernist, though some post-metaphysical materialist writers find kinship with him as well), but I think he makes a kind of move -- a firm presentation of That which intractably challenges and disturbs present boundaries and narratives -- that we could use more of in Integral circles, in my opinion. With talk about "making sense of everything" in Integral marketing, and even in the popularized use of phrases like "swallowing the whole universe in one gulp" (assimilating it in its entirety to the "known"?), I feel there is a move towards what we might call the suburbanization (or urbanization) of the Kosmos. No spooky corners left, no pesky unknowns, no threatening or destabilizing shadows. (This is why King, Barker, Lovecraft, etc, are so powerful: they bring the 'unknown,' the terrifyingly alien and powerfully Other, back into our comfortable suburban back yards).
So, I guess what I'm groping toward is the question, What is an Integral nightmare? What, in its appearance or irruption, would deeply disturb, even terrify, Integral consciousness? What are the boundaries of our (often comfortable, suburban) narratives, and what has the potential to shred them?
I enjoy and appreciate this topic because I think wrestling with, encountering this sort of "dark" or Otherness, is both humbling and chastening (something Lovecraft cultivates through his shocking, chthonic vistas) and potentially transformative (a la Barker). I am thinking here of several things: Rilke's terrible angels, which perhaps show up in modern popular form in something like Strieber's Communion series (where the Other is a vastly more evolved and powerful entity, an entity that has a disturbing, inscrutable agenda for us); and which showed up for me, in a wilderness visionary experience many years ago, as powerfully disturbing -- even terrifying -- entities who I associated with Krishnamurti and who put me through a mind-blowing (and humbling) ordeal. And I think also of the "darker" aspects of Tibetan practice, which I explored when studying with Dzogchen teachers: practicing ch'od, for instance, or purposefully going to graveyards or other frightening places in order to practice. But even doing that, I also was aware of bumping up against worldview differences: not all of the images cultivated in traditional Tibetan practice were really terribly disturbing for me, and I recall wondering at the time what a modern equivalent could be -- how could the practices be made more challenging and relevant for our time?
What would scare the bejeesus out of the Integral community? :-)
a little off genre but i went to see the black swan with one of my daughters over the holidays, and i'll be damned if i didn't walk out of there feeling dissociated and in a somewhat diffused state of consciousness. damn aronofsky! it took me about 15 minutes of concentrated breathing, a couple of clove ciggie's, and a matcha latte and nanaimo bar to feel grounded again...i asked my eldest if she'd had any feelings after watching it previously and she said she had similar feelings walking out......on a more positive note: i recently went to a viol concerto with my honeygurl and had a marvelous transcendent peak experience.......
um, my vote would be for sheldon from the big bang theory tv show as being an all time nightmare:)
happy roman new year to ya'all..........
Actually Black Swan is right on topic, being a horror story of transcendence which includes madness and dark shadow. Excellent film, deeply disturbing and most illuninating of that deep, dark passion that looms forever below the surface, and what happens when it's brought to the surface. The choreographer brings the black swan out of her and it is truly transformative on so many levels. And while beautiful it is also oh so ugly.* This genre calls into question religious (and spiritual) notions that transformation is all about sweetness and light, love and compassion. Well worth a second and third viewing.
* I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your love. --Lady Gaga
Another possibility: Jesus (both "earthly" and "divine") has a hunch but does not fully know what end will occur, and his suffering is not a set-in-stone requirement but a self-emptying choice made in/for other-directed love & reconciliation/union, the "kingdom of heaven."
Any "earthly person's" transformation could be toward either disintegration or wholeness. It depends on context and on circumstance. I do think Black Swan's crucifixion could be seen as a dark version of some kind of sacrificial "salvation." But I'm looking at it on a more mundane level, I guess. The main character cannot distinguish her inner monsters from outer reality. Despite her brilliant performance, she remains at the mercy of her imaginings. Her transformation, IMO, is into something fragmented and split-off, not toward kenosis and union.
Aronofsky said in this review:
"When I started thinking about Swan Lake a dancer, I think Julie Kent, said to me that the story is really about a girl who gets caught by an evil magician who turns her into a swan during the day and a half-swan, half-human at night. It popped into my head, 'Oh, a were-swan.' And I realized I was making a werewolf movie ."
Yes, it might be difficult to differentiate while in the midst of the process of changing. The movie's ending is ambiguous; we as viewers are not sure ourselves . . . Liminality, bright and dark.
In this interview Portman says of her character:
"But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis."
I found William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience online at this link. The following excerpt from Lectures VI and VII, "The sick soul," is relevant here:
"At our last meeting, we considered the healthy-minded temperament, the temperament which has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering, and in which the tendency tosee things optimistically is like a water of crystallization inwhich the individual's character is set. We saw how this temperament may become the basis for a peculiar type of religion, a religion in which good, even the good of this world's life, is regarded as the essential thing for a rational being to attend to. This religion directs him to settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them by ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist. Evil is a disease; and worry overdisease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint. Even repentance and remorse,affections which come in the character of ministers of good, maybe but sickly and relaxing impulses, The best repentance is to upand act for righteousness, and forget that you ever had relations with sin.
"Now in contrast with such healthy-minded views as these, if we treat them as a way of deliberately minimizing evil, stands a radically opposite view, a way of maximizing evil, if you please so to call it, based on the persuasion that the evil aspects ofour life are of its very essence, and that the world's meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart. We have now to address ourselves to this more morbid way of looking at the situation.
"This question, of the relativity of different types of religion to different types of need, arises naturally at this point, and will become a serious problem ere we have done. But before we confront it in general terms, we must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them incontrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel;... Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view and put into our hands a more complicated key to the meaning of the situation."