Friday, February 10, 2012

HUXLEY, JUNG AND STRANGENESS

Without an understanding of man's deep-seated urge to self-transcendence, of his very natural reluctance to take the hard, ascending way, and his search for some bogus liberation either below or to one side of his personality, we cannot hope to make sense of our own particular period of history or indeed of history in general, of life as it was lived in the past and as it is lived today. For this reason I propose to discuss some of the more common Grace- substitutes, into which and by means of which men and women have tried to escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves.-- Aldous Huxley on Self-Transcendence, opening paragraph.
As the online reprint of Huxley's 1953 essay notes, the author wrote this roughly a year before he took mescaline under a psychiatrist's guidance.  The result was the famous book THE DOORS OF PERCEPTION, which took a very different attitude than this essay toward one's finding "transcendence" through chemical substances.  To be sure, Huxley does allow in the 1953 essay that some brief "moment of spiritual awareness" can be acquired through drugs, but he's skeptical as to whether it can be maintained.

Regardless of one's opinions on this particular issue, the salient concern of Huxley's essay is to understand "the urge to self-transcendence."  The last sentence of his opening paragraph, speaking of "escape from the tormenting consciousness of being merely themselves," seems to imply that such escape is a form of what Adler would call "negative compensation," but the bulk of the essay shows a more analytical approach.

Briefly, Huxley sees the "urge to self-transcendence" as taking three forms:

UPWARD TRANSCENDENCE-- a state of mind that Huxley doesn't adequate define, though he associates it with "theophanies" and the veneration of a " liberating and transfiguring Spirit."


 DOWNWARD TRANSCENDENCE-- a state of mind in which the transcendence "is invariably downward into the less than human, the lower than personal."  Huxley's three main venues toward this form of transcendence are "drugs, elementary sexuality and herd-intoxication," though he mentions some others as well.

HORIZONTAL TRANSCENDENCE-- Huxley himself is worth quoting at length here:
In order to escape from the horrors of insulated selfhood most men and women choose, most of the time, to go neither up nor down, but sideways. They identify themselves with some cause wider than their own immediate interests, but not degradingly lower and, if higher, higher only within the range of current social values. This horizontal, or nearly horizontal, self- transcendence may be into something as trivial as a hobby, or as precious as married love. It can be brought about through self-identification with any human activity, from running a business to research in nuclear physics, from composing music to collecting stamps, from campaigning for political office to educating children or studying the mating habits of birds. Horizontal self- transcendence is of the utmost importance. Without it, there would be no art, no science, no law, no philosophy, indeed no civilization.

To invoke Jungian terminology once more, "horizontal transcendence" most nearly approximates the idea of a given subject's purely "personal" psychology, dealing with activities that pertain to one's day-to-day consciousness, such as acquiring a given skill:
 
If Person One wants to build a birdhouse, that individual is in a static state with respect to his non-knowledge about birdhouse-building, and he reaches a dynamic state once he has learned the method of crafting birdhouses and does successfully build one.-- A SIEGEL SEGUE.
Jung's concept of the "transpersonal," however, compares favorably with Huxley's concept of both "upward" and "downward transcendence."  Even though the latter concerns a descent into sordid physicality that Huxley deems "lower than personal," it, unlike horizontal transcendence, can lead to the other kind:

To what extent, and in what circumstances, is it possible for a man to make use of the descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence; As first sight it would seem obvious that the way down is not and can never be the way up. But in the realm of existence matters are not quite so simple as they are in our beautifully tidy world of words. In actual life a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent. When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being.
Jung does not speak of "downward transcendence" as such, but in some writings he too views the darkness in man-- what he terms "the shadow"-- as a source of upward transformation:
Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries.-- Jung, The Integration of the Personality (1939)




Huxley's theory also has some worthwhile applications to my theory of metaphenomenality and isophenomenality.  Obviously the working manifestion of isophenomenality, "naturalism," denotes a state of being in which the subject remains on a horizontal plane.  Within that plane, all phenomena are essentially the same, differing only by degree in terms of how typical or atypical a given subject considers them.

In contrast, the two characteristics of metaphenomenality are marked by the attempt to transcend the world of sameness, of contingency, as I noted in a not unrelated context here:

But what form can transcendence take, if one does not nullify the world of the contingent?

In a sense "strangeness"-- the quality that I find in both divisons of metaphenomenality-- is that nullification of the world of the contingent, of sameness, in that strangeness presents to us a world of ghosts and gods, a world that implicitly trumps the tigers of materialism.  Strangeness can operate equally well in terms of "upward" or "downward" forms of transcendence, evoking presences that are beyond one's horizontal consciousness, irrespective of whether they incline more toward heaven or hell.   One might even loosely term the supergenre "fantasy" as having a predilection for images of upward transcendence, while "horror" tends toward images of down-bound movement.

More to come in the next essay.

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