Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Spengler's Decline of the West and its Relation to Philip K. Dick's VALIS

Temporal Disturbances and Folds in the Space-Time Continuum, and DNA Memory

by J. Albert Barr

For the last several years, I've been very much fixated on the profound notion of Stephane Mallarme's idea of "the fold", Proust's concept of memoire involontaire as depicted in his monumental, In Search of Lost Time, and Walter Benjamin's study of the French proto-modernist, Charles Baudelaire, and his flaneur experiences of the severely altering 19th century Paris, both the pre and post-Haussmann renovation periods. I've also been preoccupied with T.S. Eliot's admonition towards the concept of "historical consciousness", and Oswald Spengler's immensely unnerving implications so poetically suffusing all through his endlessly fascinating post-Great War book, The Decline of the West. But after having read Philip K. Dick's stunningly revelatory 1981 novel, VALIS, I was utterly inundated with striking connections with all the aforementioned references. And so I was immediately compelled to elaborate, to some degree, on these incredible correspondences (to use Baudelaire's apt term), initially in my personal journal, and here's the result of those connective thoughts.

While forging my way through Oswald Spengler’s monumental, early 20th century book, The Decline of the West, where in chapter 8, “Soul-Image and Life-Feeling: on the Form of the Soul”, I came across a quite provocative passage in the section titled, “Classical Behavior-Drama and Faustian Character-Drama” that pertains to the significant differences between the ancient Classical sense-of-self and the modern Faustian sense-of-self, and how Classical man led a more legitimate, or real, existence as part of a communal “plurality” and that one’s “social role”, that is persona, acted as a natural dictate to one’s place in society as an operating whole. The Greeks didn’t work with fractions, algebra, and irrational numbers; they were, in fact, inconceivable to the Classical, Greek mind! And there was also no conception of “zero”, for it would have been a thoroughly meaningless and abstract concept for, say, the Greek draughtsman. It is because the Faustian man’s mind is “differently constituted” that we moderns have indeed fractions, irrational numbers, non-Euclidean shapes and fractals, algebraic formulas and the zero! Spengler wrote earlier in his book about Classical man’s aversion for all things irrational that expresses their extreme misgivings and disorientation of the sort: “There is a singular and significant late-Greek legend, according to which the man who first published the hidden mystery of the irrational perished by shipwreck, ‘for the unspeakable and formless must be left hidden forever’”. I actually incorporated some of this passage in the fifth stanza of my Library of the Sandman poem that was trying to convey, or suggest, a similar scenario, but from a modern mind’s, still limited, perspective pertaining to unwritten texts that surpass the mind-set and fears of contemporary man, incapable of comprehending the concepts therein, hence their dream-world residence in Morpheus’ library until the day, if ever, those concepts are given a proper, realizable and textualized birth, and thus actually materialize in the waking-world.

How utterly suitable that the very Faustian Mallarme should, in his landmark poem, Un Coup De Des (i.e. “A Throw of the Dice”) feature, as its central symbol, a “shipwreck”, which is chock-full of “the hidden mystery of the irrational”, the unpredictable world of chance! Definitely a foreign concept to the Classical Greeks! In one of Mallarme’s central, “divisible” motifs/movements in “A Throw of the Dice”, the one in 12-point capital letters, one of ancient Greece’s worst nightmares goes thusly (from Henry Weinfield's english translations):


Other revelatory passages from this mind-blowing poem are in lower-case letters, such as:

“…the unique Number/ be another/ Spirit/ to cast it/ into the storm/ to fold back division and pass proudly on/ hesitates/ corpse by the arm/ separated from the secret it withholds…shipwreck this/ pertaining to man/ without a vessel/ no matter/ where vain/ from ancient time not to open up his hand/ clenched/ beyond the useless head/ legacy amid disappearance/ to someone/ ambiguous/ the ulterior immemorial demon…”.

If I wasn’t so completely astounded by the implications, and fractured, irrational syntax, in these remarkable passages from Mallarme’s transcendent poem, I’d say he was ostensibly transmitting, perhaps like an S.O.S., no less, a modern-day distress-signal issued, retroactively, towards the ancient past, while simultaneously illuminating the present and future world of infinite possibilities!

Moreover, I’ve also noticed that the word anamnesis was mentioned earlier in Decline of the West in yet another important passage I wrote down a few years ago during my initial forays into Spengler’s book. Well, Philip K. Dick also mentions this word in his remarkable 1981 novel, VALIS. Anamnesis means “the loss of forgetfulness”, a quite significant concept and rare- certainly rarely conscious – individual experience (via “Spiritus Mundi”, seemingly paradoxically, I suspect!) that intimates, like Horselover Fat did in VALIS, a kind of dimensional imbrication of the space/time continuum, or rather a non-quantifiably perceptible erasure of space and time altogether.
The key passage that I read from Spengler’s indispensible book goes thusly:

“It goes without saying that we, when we turn to look into the Classical life-feeling, must find there some basic element of ethical values that is antithetical to “character” in the same way as the statue is antithetical to the fugue (fugue is a musical piece in which the themes seem to answer each other; it also means, rather pertinently here, given my reference of the word anamnesis in connection with both Spengler’s book and Philip K. Dick’s novel, “VALIS”, loss of memory! – my note), Euclidean geometry to Analysis, and body to space. We find it in the Gesture. It is this that provides the necessary foundation for a spiritual static. The word that stands in the Classical vocabulary where “personality” stands in our own is [Greek term inserted here], persona – namely, role or mask. In late Greek or Roman speech it means the public aspect and mien of a man, which for Classical man is tantamount to the essence and kernel of him. An orator was described as speaking in the persona of a priest or a soldier. The slave was without persona – that is, he had no attitude or figure in the public life – but not [Greek term inserted, likely meaning “soulless”] – that is, he did have a soul. The idea that Destiny has assigned the role of king or general to a man was expressed by Romans in the words persona regis, imperatoris. The Apollonian cast of life is manifest enough here. What is indicated is not the personality (that is, an unfolding of inward possibilities in active striving), but a permanent and self-contained posture strictly adapted to a so-to-say plastic idea of being. The significance of Aristotle’s phrase [Greek phrase inserted here] – quite untranslatable and habitually translated with a Western connotation – is that it refers to men who are nothing when single and lonely and only count for anything when in a plurality, in agora or forum, where each reflects his neighbor and thus, only thus, acquires a genuine reality”.

Quite interestingly, as well, Spengler in the very next paragraph describes Faustian tragedy as “biographical” and Classical tragedy as “anecdotal”, meaning that the first “deals with the sense of a whole life, and the other with the content of a single moment”. It’s interesting because they seem kind of like an inverted contradiction when considering the plurality of communal, social life for the Classical man that is deemed as living and experiencing a full, “genuine reality”, as opposed to the apparent singularity of the Faustian man who seemingly counts for “nothing” and is therefore empty, because he tends more to the “single and lonely” life separate from the communal existence. The Faustian man’s existence, his “soul-image” as opposed to Classical man’s “life-feeling”, if you will, is isolate, divided and alone, where as his tragedy is “biographical” and whole, all inclusive with “maximum variability in the details”. But on the other hand we have the Classical notion of tragedy in man being episodic and anecdotal, that is, not all inclusive and thus divided from the “big picture” of his personal existence en masse, which is quite contrary to his wholly communal life and well established persona or role in society and the Culture.

What we basically have here is an historical reversal of fortunes between the Classical man and the Faustian man that, ironically, mirrors each other’s tragedy. That is, the one staring in the mirror sees his former or future self depending on the particular perspective of the figure in their historical context! - the one beholding  the reflection before the mirror, or the one being reflected back, in complete and utter oscillation, eternally recurring and echoing back and forth through the ages. Perhaps that is the strange phenomena that Horselover Fat/ Philip K. Dick experienced in VALIS! A temporal disturbance emanating from a seeming past-life caused by a dimensional-fold in the space/time continuum, and ultimately interfacing two historically and ontologically-connected, but subjectively-separate, lives, beings, entities, existences, identities through a suddenly disinhibited act of anamnesis. I may have had a similar kind of experience back in 1999 working at Tim Horton’s Morningside location one morning while washing the muffin trays in the sink filled with hot water that somehow induced such a strange and disorienting episode, when I first dipped my hands into the hot water, along the lines of what Proust brilliantly and delicately described in his In Search of Lost Time (the more appropriate and accurate English translation from its original French, rather than the more popularly known, “A Remembrance of Things Past”), which provided a few preternatural and transcendent, that is, disinhibited incidents involving the Marcel character, like the famous scene with the madeleine soaked in tea, that momentarily transported the character, when it hit his palette.

Reverting back to my probing of Spengler’s book and Dick’s novel, I reread a key chapter in VALIS and came across a very important passage that explains a kind of ancient memory data-base, the cumulative source of recollection that connects contemporary humanity with its old-world ancestors. As mentioned in my journal while quoting from Decline of the West and making a note of my own in the process, Philip K. Dick had referenced the term anamnesis in his 1981 novel, but he also cited the concept of “phylogenic memory” in said important passage:

“Phylogenic memory, memory of the species. Not my own memory, ontogenic memory. ‘Phylogeny is recapitulated in ontogeny’, as it is put. The individual contains the history of his entire race, back to its origins. Back to ancient Rome, to Minos at Crete, back to the stars. All I got down to, all I abreacted to, in sleep, was one generation. This is gene pool memory, the memory of the DNA. That explains Horselover Fat’s crucial experience, in which the symbol of the Christian fish disinhibited a personality from two thousand years in the past…because the symbol originated two thousand years in the past. Had he been shown an even older symbol he would have abreacted farther; after all, the conditions were perfect for it; he was coming off sodium penthathol, the ‘truth drug’.”

In the very next paragraph, Philip (as himself, but who is also Horselover Fat only he doesn’t know it consciously) states that Horselover Fat had another theory pertaining to all the strange, cosmically-connected episodes he (and therefore Philip as well) was experiencing, like the beam of pink light emanating from space that penetrated his brain and thus severely messed up his sense of reality, not to mention his sense of time:

“Fat has another theory. He thinks that the date is really 103 C.E. (or A.D. as I put it, damn Fat and his hip modernisms). We’re actually in apostolic times, but a layer of maya or what the Greeks called “dokos” obscures the landscape. This is a key concept with Fat: dokos, the layer of delusion or the merely seeming. The situation has to do with time, with whether time is real.”

I find this idea of dokos very fascinating in that the Greeks came up with it to explain the apparent illusion of the phenomenal world, an attitude that only became more expanded upon and complicated through the centuries by other post-Apollonian men, the Faustian, modern man. Plato’s notion of the “ideal realm of things” took precedence over the immediately perceived, natural surroundings, which eventually gave way to Christianity’s belief in a “Heaven”, the ideal realm of the soul in the afterlife created to soften the existential blow that is death and suffering. Horselover Fat (which is, with nominal significance, a variation on Philip K. Dick’s name: Philip means “horselover” in, I think, Latin, and Dick means “fat” in German) seems to be channeling several ancient races and belief systems all the while believing it to be just 103 C.E. /A.D., hence his declaring it “apostolic times”, the age of the apostles and the early dissemination of scripture. The initial time and space disruption happened in August 1974 according to Fat’s/Dick’s testimonial, and “their” life has wreaked havoc ever since, such as a broken marriage and the development of cancer, as well as a drug dependency. “The Empire never ended”, so Fat states in his journal which he titled, “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura”.

What is this “Empire” that Fat speaks of? I suspect it could very well be the Symbolic Order itself or the Door of the Law or “the army of unalterable law”, but more obviously, given Fat’s belief that it is 103 C.E., it’s the Roman Empire; regardless, any “Empire” dictates reality. From Fat’s journal he states in his 41st entry that: “The Empire is the institution, the codification, of derangement; it is insane and imposes its insanity on us by violence, since its nature is a violent one”. This is a quite striking and revelatory statement, because it instantly evokes a seemingly ambiguous, almost incidental, but crucially important, scene in Martin Scorsese’s outstanding 2010 film, Shutter Island! After Leo Di Caprio’s character, Teddy Daniels, has his key encounter with the allegedly real “Rachel Solando” in the cave, he is picked up on the side of the road by the warden of Shutter Island’s Ashecliffe Penitentiary for the criminally insane, who drives by in a jeep. While driving back to the penitentiary, the warden asks Teddy if he enjoyed “God’s latest gift”, by which he means, and says, “the violence”; in this particular case the severe storm from the night before. The warden continues by saying that we wage war and destruction in “God’s honor”, that violence is in us, it is us, and that, contrary to Teddy’s tenuous claim that God gave us “moral order”, there really isn’t any moral order, certainly none as pure as the night storm that passed, and that he and Teddy “have known each other for centuries”! This line of dialogue really resonated with me when I first heard it; in fact it shook my insides, viscerally and mentally.

In order to maintain, at least, a semblance of order and peace, the Empire, the Symbolic Order, Ideological/Repressive State Apparatuses, the correctional Panopticon, institutes “civilization”. It is an organism, but a synthetic one with complex mechanisms of organ-ization and governance. Much like an individual creature, be it, or they, an animal, or sentient human being, the Empire has its own “survival instincts”. Teddy says in the cave to Rachel that “survival instincts are defense mechanisms”, after she initially explains how society (or in this specific microcosmic case the allegedly rational protocols of the Ashecliffe institution) declares who is or who isn’t insane, regardless of how rational and adjusted your claims to the contrary. If the Symbolic Order says “you’re insane and a danger to others, including yourself”, then you’re insane and a danger to others, including yourself, despite what the truth and reality may be otherwise. They are the “big Other” (whose extension is in the common and conformist population en masse) that determines your social status, be it a positive one or a negative one, so long as it DOES NOT compromise the structural integrity of the “system”. And in order to maintain the system, the Empire, the Symbolic Order, it asserts its own defense mechanisms, and has done so for millennia.  The only effective way of exposing the system’s true face and nature is to disguise an expression of it through art, literature, cinema, and especially poetry, in order to short-circuit its detectionary processes.

In Fat’s next journal entry he states: “To fight the Empire is to be infected by its derangement. This is a paradox; whoever defeats a segment of the Empire becomes the Empire; it proliferates like a virus, imposing its form on its enemies. Thereby it becomes its enemies”. I suppose this description could be analogous to the notion of being co-opted or absorbed into the system, like rock ‘n’ roll was, for instance. This entry also reminds me of the zeitgeist, 1999 movie The Matrix, and how Agent Smith and other “agents” of the Matrix could literally absorb or subsume a rebel like a virus (in this case a quite literal “computer virus”) back into the militantly monitored and policed system and gigantic data base. These are all very profound, and admittedly unnerving, connections that I’ve made among these disparate reference points. I suspect that even if the system can indeed pick up on the system-exposing aspects of these books and movies, for instance, it’s likely not enough to concern them, so long as most people continue to fail to “see”, and thus understand, the message beneath the surface of the work. This recalls that great, but disturbing, line spoken by Lex Luthor in Frank Miller’s much-maligned The Dark Knight Strikes Again sequel from fourteen years ago: “Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing, so long as nobody’s listening”. And, of course, Lex is undoubtedly a nefarious agent of the system, as in this case, he’s actually running “corporate America” by projecting, quite literally, a computer-generated hologram being claimed as the President of the United States!

Directly following, or rather chronologically preceding, the same profound trajectory as Philip K. Dick’s remarkable novel, and the notion of ancestral anamnesis (which was apparently coined by Plato) and phylogenic/ontogenic memory, Spengler wrote in an earlier chapter of Decline of the West:

“From the specific directedness is derived the specific prime symbol of extension, namely, for the Classical world-view the near, strictly limited, self-contained Body, for the Western infinitely wide and infinitely profound three-dimensional space, for the Arabian the world as a cavern. And there-with an old philosophical problem dissolves into nothing: this prime form of the world is innate insofar as it is an original possession of the soul of the Culture which is expressed by our life as a whole, and acquired insofar that every individual soul re-enacts for itself that creative act and unfolds in early childhood the symbol of depth to which its existence is predestined, as the emerging butterfly unfolds its wings. The first comprehension of depth is an act of birth – the spiritual complement of the bodily. In it the Culture is borne-out of its mother-landscape, and the act is repeated by every one of its individual souls throughout its life-course. This is what Plato – connecting it with an early Hellenic belief – called anamnesis.

But the prime symbol does not actualize itself; it is operative through the form-sense of every man, every community, age and epoch and dictates the style of every life-expression. It is inherent in the form of the state, the religious myths and cults, the ethical ideals, the forms of painting and music and poetry, the fundamental notions of each science – but it is not presented by these. Consequently, it is not presentable by words, for language and words are themselves derived symbols. Every individual symbol tells of it, but only to the inner feelings, not to the understanding. And when we say, as henceforth we shall say, that the prime symbol of the Classical soul is the material and individual body, that of the Western pure infinite space, it must always be with the reservation that concepts cannot represent the inconceivable, and thus at the most a significant feeling may be evoked by the SOUND OF WORDS."

This immensely pertinent passage provided me with one of my favorite sections of my poem, The Library of the Sandman: “Significant feeling in the restrictive frame/ May pass between the coarse words like a hermetic/ Cry, and communicate under sound within sound”. It also profoundly suggests to me the power of Mallarme’s poetry too and how the sound evoked in his incredible poems was just as important than the extracted meaning conveyed through his carefully and painstakingly chosen words themselves - the literal “reading/listening between the lines” to achieve illumination.

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