Thursday, May 20, 2010

Waves and Billows: Or, The Perilous Perturbations of Evil

Today’s text comes from the second chapter of Jonah:

I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord,
And He heard me;
Out of the belly of hell cried I, and Thou heardest my voice.
For Thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas;
And the floods compassed me about:
All Thy billows and Thy waves passed over me.
Then I said, I am cast out of Thy sight;
Yet will I look again toward Thy holy temple.
The waters compassed me about, even to the soul:
The depth closed me round about,
The weeds were wrapped about my head.
I went down to the bottom of the mountains;
The earth with her bars was about me forever:
Yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.
When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord:
And my prayer came in unto Thee, into Thy holy temple.
They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay that I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.

“If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

Well, the drama’s done—or just begun, more like. I’ve finished Chapters 5, 6, and 7, and, barring a few superficial adjustments to the opening of Chapter 7, can account them finished. They were well-received.

Yet a higher mountain looms. In saying that, I’m dimly conscious of a story I remember reading some years ago in The Thousand and One Nights. I believe it was the third in the series given under the title “The Story of the Three Kalendars.” Tempting though it is to tell the story over, all that matters for the present purposes is what transpires after the Third Kalendar departs from the island on which the story began. The captain of the ship on which he’s sailing warns him never to utter the name of Allah, under any circumstances. So of course he does. After seven days’ journey, a gigantic IRON MOUNTAIN rises up out of the midst of the ocean. “By Allah! That is a huge mountain,” cries the Kalendar. The captain disappears in a violent puff of Luciferian smoke. The metal joists and nails which hold the ship together, drawn by the inexorable magnetism of the massive mountain, send it splintering to doom.

And, in a way, that’s kind of a metaphor for what I’m trying to describe within the present chapter. Chapter Eight, December of my Senior year, and all the world to darkness turning. The Count of Monte Cristo warned his son, “You will bask in the sunlight one moment, and be shattered on the rocks the next.” This was my rock; this was my mountain. I was lost in the midst of the sea. It was only by an act of greatest grace that I emerged again.

The question I have to examine in this chapter is, “How did this happen? How can a man be steeped so far in evil that he can’t get out again?” For it wasn’t evil itself that drew me; it was something subtler.

The starting point for my examination of this topic will be Coleridge, who in one of his lectures on Shakespeare had this to say:

“When once the mind, in despite of the remonstrating conscience, has abandoned its free power to a haunting impulse or idea, then whatever tends to give depth or vividness to this idea or indefinite imagination, increases its despotism, and in the same proportion renders the reason and free will ineffectual. Now, fearful calamities, sufferings, horrors, and hair-breadth escapes will have this effect, far more than even sensual pleasure and prosperous accidents. Hence the evil consequences of sin in such cases, instead of retracting or deterring the sinner, goad him on to his destruction. This is the moral of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the true solution of this paragraph—not any overruling decree of divine wrath, but the tyranny of this sinner’s own evil imagination, which he has voluntarily chosen as his master.”

What Coleridge seems to be saying is that the imagination can precipitate a person’s downfall. He had evidently seen this principle in practice. You begin, as I began, by abandoning your mind to the power of one trance-like, irresistible idea. This idea can be something as innocuous as an understanding of the verity of prophecy (as it was in Macbeth’s case, and in mine), but in the particular kind of psychological collapse herein described, the belief thus arrived at is always supernatural.

Then: “Whatever tends to give depth or vividness to this idea… increases its despotism, and renders the reason and free will ineffectual.” The idea begins reinforcing itself. I’m reminded of scenes in two movies; the first hasn’t come out yet, but it’s featured in the shorter trailer for the film Inception: “Do you know what is the most powerful virus known to man? An idea.” True! Christopher Nolan (the director) would certainly know. An idea is a virus that becomes a parasite. The second is from the movie Rope (1948), in which James Stewart notes, “It’s odd, isn’t it, the way the mind can pyramid simple facts into wild fantasies?” An idea can acquire such tyrannous power over the intellect that it begins reinforcing itself… like in that, frankly terrifying, scene at the end of the children’s movie Fern Gully, where an anthropomorphic blob of oil, played by Tim Curry, gains sentience and actually starts commanding the logging vehicle in which he was birthed. You get on that treadmill and you can’t get off. When once your thoughts begin to shape and run themselves, your puny, feeble fists of opposition are of little consequence.

For example, had I not already been seized by a predominating idea, before Senior year ever started, I would have looked askance, as no doubt almost everyone else did, at first, at the unnatural abundance of unworldly circumstances. As it was, I was caught in a web of my own devisings: I already more than half thought life could be a story, with a tangible beginning, middle, and end; I was at least open to the possibility of prophecy, demonic possession, and the near end of the world. Had I not been, I could have ignored those potent manifestations of corroborating evidence, but I did not. It was not without reason that [[ Petunia ]] and [[ Mortimer]] both chose me as the one person in whom they confided their mutual, but separately-acquired conviction that they were destined to bring about the end of the world, for I was already more open than most to the possibility of such a circumstance, and they knew it. My openness to these ideas allowed not a few of them to seize me, as the iacet parasite can seize the mind of an ant and lead it, forthwith, into the waiting belly of a cow. This is appalling to think on, but it’s almost as though I had grown a tumor with a mouth and arms entirely its own with which it fed itself apart. Both of the previous examples were horrific, and they ought to be, for these are horrifying things. The power of a rogue idea to feed itself on unembodied air can break a person’s mind.

Robert Burton also ponders the effects of imaginative sin in the first section of his Anatomy of Melancholy, which by a happy chance I have been lately reading. This is discussed in two separate subsections, the first of which is (again, conveniently) entitled, “Passions and Perturbations of the Mind, How They Cause Melancholy.”

"As by wicked incredulity many men are hurt… we find in our experience, by the same means many are relieved… So diversely doth this phantasy of ours affect, turn and wind, so imperiously command our bodies, which as another Proteus, or a chameleon, can take all shapes; and is of such force (as Ficinus adds) that it can work upon others, as well as ourselves. How can otherwise blear eyes in one man cause the like affliction in another? Why doth one man’s yawning make another yawn?... Why doth a carcass bleed when the murderer is brought before it, some weeks after the murder hath been done?... So that I may certainly conclude this strong conceit or imagination is astrum hominis, and the rudder of this our ship, which reason should steer, but, overborn by phantasy, cannot manage, and so suffers itself, and this whole vessel of ours to be overruled, and often overturned."

In the latter section, which happily deals with prophecy, apparitions, strange voices, and virtually every other phenomenon I had to deal with during my Senior year, Burton tries to arrest the fears of those who suffer from such things by assuring them that their quarrel is not with the devil, or with God. No, the father of these unbearable torments is the brain’s melancholy. “The spirits [humors] being darkened, and the substance of the brain cloudy and dark, all the objects thereof appear terrible, and the mind itself, by those dark, obscure, gross fumes, ascending from black humors, is in continual darkness, fear, and sorrow; divers terrible monstrous fictions in a thousand shapes and apparitions occur, with violent passions, by which the brain and phantasy are troubled and eclipsed.”

More will shortly follow, but for now I would only note how this corroborates my initial sense that the “moral” of this chapter, if there is one, will be similar to the one which Melville gives us in the “Try-Works” chapter of Moby-Dick: “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!... Believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly. Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler relief… Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe, but there is a woe that is madness.”

And that’s what happened to me, is it not? I looked too long. So it is with the sun, whose light, among its other nobler uses, warms and illuminates; there’s a generous, untiring benevolence in the undiscriminating blazon of its glow. And the sun is a god, after his fashion; not as fair, but in his own way greater than the moon, and brighter than the stars.

But woe to him who seeks to subvert, for his own uses, that which was created for our good! To stare too long or too directly into it, destroys the retinas; clouds the clear vision with vivid and thick-swarming hallucinations. Those are the gnats of the judgment of your hubris: Seek to see what no man fully sees, to do what no man can attempt—and bring the plagues of Egypt on your head. He will not be commanded; nor will constant searching ever yield to you his secrets, son of man!

For now, though, I would fain go further in this matter. Tomorrow, Lord permitting, we will continue with our examination of the root causes of imaginative evil.

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