Can you hear me?
Welcome, Bloggers, to a combination pet peeve, hobby horse, and stump speech of mine…one I never get tired of giving, riding, and peeving at. Get comfortable; we may be here for a while.
To begin somewhere near the middle, there’s a scene in Susanna Clarke’s marvellous Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (mild spoilers just here, by the way) that sees Mr. Norrell travelling through the English countryside in a coach, slightly pressed to bar the return to England of his opposite number Jonathan Strange, who has lately learned to travel through mirrors. Mr. Norrell looks out the window of the coach, at the rugged English countryside rich with rain, and in a moment he quails, observing the landscape practically all mirror: light reflecting from everywhere, from a million puddles and pools, and in that moment like a world full of nothing but windows and doors, all opened onto one another, endless congress of illuminated surfaces, rolling (if I may) in a fine frenzy between heaven and earth. The natural state of the English countryside, the natural state of the English soul: he cannot keep the other out. He cannot block the avenues of magical travel. Because magic is everywhere. Magic is simply falling out of the sky at every instant.
“I reached out my hand,” the voice of a mysterious prophecy repeats throughout the book. “England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way.”
“The nameless slave will be a king with a silver crown.”
“The nameless slave will be a king in a strange country.”
Stirring words. Portentous words. Words pregnant with a meaning so close to being revealed that it can almost be seen all around, in everything, even before its arrival.
“Mason on Bond: every scene’s a sex scene…”
…As we turn to neurology, if you’ll pardon a turn so abrupt. Not that you have to have anything neurologically weird about you to feel the wonderful pregnancy of the landscape of doors in that passage, or the power of the statement of identity the Nameless Slave makes…except, well, maybe you do, and maybe you have, eh? Human beings are very funny creatures, constantly transiting altered states of consciousness…do dogs and cats do this, I wonder? Probably not: it’s hard to see how they could function in the never-ending rain of mood that falls on the human mind out of noplace-in-particular each day. Emotions, sure; every mammal needs emotions, one supposes. Even: souls? Well, I’m not averse to the suggestion. I mean, I don’t know what a soul is, but I guess I have one or there wouldn’t be a need for me to know the word. And who am I to deny my furry friends the same thing, then? We have a word for it; I use words; screw it, soul all around, on me, okay?
And done, and done.
Mood, though. I don’t know about that. So much of mood is intellectually-based recognition: you look at the sky and feel yourself a speck of noise in an unimaginably wide silence. A loved one dies, and you feel the ego-shield you’ve kept in front of your eyes all your life lower, and suddenly you see over it, suddenly you see right past and through the identities of things, into…
Yes, into. You don’t have to do a bunch of acid (though I hear that helps); you may be doing nothing more interesting than sitting in your chair. It doesn’t have to be traumatic. Just: suddenly a big cosmic switch somewhere goes on, or off — suddenly you feel embedded in a medium of pure intimation. You stretch the fingers of your hand, wriggle them. It’s like sitting on the beach, in the water. You pick up a stone, suddenly moved. Why? You drop the stone again. Why? You look up at the clouds, you look down at the blades of grass beneath your sandaled feet, you look at the horizon. Why?
All around you, a million doors and windows open onto one another, with you in the middle…
…Or am I really that peculiar, Bloggers? Well, I don’t think I am, obviously; but if I were to believe brain-state researchers who make deja vu and synaesthesia their bread and butter, I might well start to believe I was a very, very curious sort of cat indeed.
This happens every year, has done so for about a decade: nonsensical studies of synaesthesia hit the papers with stunningly unscientific conclusions about the “specialness” of the synaesthetic brain (the last one even going so far as to say that a synaesthetic who perceives the number “5” as red can pick out all the 5s from a large grid of numerals at a glance, because of their colour!), all wrong, because all essentially claiming that “synaesthesia” is a synonym for “magic powers”.
I mean, we all know that the synaesthetic has to see the 5s before he can think of them as red, don’t we? They can’t simply exude redness, can they?
They don’t actually look red, for heaven’s sake…!
See, I’m a bit of a synaesthetic myself (just like you are…but we’ll get to that in a minute), and it’s routine for me to imbue numbers with colour and temperature and personality in a consistent way, so I can tell you that as fun as it is (and it is!), it’s not bloody magic.
Umm…well, not exactly, anyway…except that…you know…
Oh, damn it! Never mind, we’ll get back to that later, too!
You see, this is how I think it works: when confronted with an unusually enormous amount of information to sift for important meanings, the analytic faculties of the human brain start spitting out their results in a more high-level language than usual — we say something “feels” wrong, “smells” funny, we think we see things, we think we hear things. But those things aren’t really there: what we think we feel, smell, see, hear, is just the brain crunching some unusually big numbers for us, and reducing a too-multifarious input stream to a sensory impression instead of merely to a long, long list of data that we have to consciously pick through. The senses are extraordinarily fat pipes, after all: hey, do you know how much data the visual cortex processes in a given second, to create the subjective impression we call sight? The exact number, for your information, is a lot. So if stressed by very very large numbers of sensory bitstreams that need to be sorted through, would it really be so surprising for the brain to apply that extra processing power, and manage a stream by crafting special sets of qualia to represent the data in it?
It is through just such a process, I believe, that musicians create their performances: not robotically selecting the specified notes, but instead becoming sensually involved in the music that they represent.
It is through just such a process that we can appreciate that difference, sitting in the concert hall.
The nameless slave will be a king in a strange country.
Brother, he sure will, let me tell ya. What is music, after all? Does anybody know why it exists, why we respond to it? Is it all in our heads, or is it universal?
Maybe there’s no difference between the two: I asked a musician friend of mine once, “do you think birds know that their song is sweet?”
He laughed at me. “Of course they do, what d’you think? Don’t you believe in mathematics?”
I still can’t decide if that makes perfect sense, or not.
Maybe one day…
Regardless, I do know that sometimes one can reach an altered brain-state in which everything becomes, for want of a better term, “musical”. You might call it Enlightenment; you might call it being very very high on LSD (is it possible that the effect of acid is simply to turn that sensory-making faculty on, turn it up to eleven, and then break off the dial? Are glowing oranges and streamers merely the brain’s attempt to make special sets of extreme number-crunching qualia out of uncomplicated datastreams?). You might even call it “what the hell was that?“, but I believe it’s happened to all of us at one point or another.
I believe it is happening to us, all the time, and we just don’t notice it. Well, I do, for some reason. But anyone could, really. There’s nothing so special about me, you know. You could do it too, whenever you wanted.
Quick: who’s a shiftier character, the Jack of Spades or the Jack of Hearts?
Is nine the snootiest number?
Is cool jazz really cool?
What colour is your dog’s name?
Now, to live in the world where all these questions have answers, all the time, would probably be intolerable. Or, would it? (“Does a dog have Buddha-nature?” asks the old Zen koan. “Be careful: if you answer yes or no, you lose your own Buddha-nature…”) I don’t think it’d be too controversial to assert that anyone reading this blog has a better-than-even chance of spending most of their day immersed in the virtual, dealing with almost exclusively abstract and immaterial concerns throughout their working week…a telephonic and cybernetic world, at least, in which letting this kind of thing run away with you would mean simply drifting up and away from your phone and keyboard, and out into the night sky. Into chaos: what did I say to my supplier, there? Christ, I can’t remember. Oh my God, I think I entered all the fours as sevens on the spreadsheet, what was I thinking. Holy shit, I’m going to lose my job. Well, that’s why we strive to get away, though, isn’t it? That’s why we need holidays. To be stuck on a shore somewhere, picking up a rock or putting it down, for no reason…to dive into the water, to plunge into the water, to break the surface of the water, to dive, break, plunge…
To be immersed, naturally. But, in what’s real rather than what’s false, for a change. Because reality is far more textured, far more nuanced. Reality gives back; reality’s quite all-enfolding, really, once you get out into it. It fits right around you in every direction, just as if you were a key, and it were a lock. You can’t get lost.
I reached out my hand…
Are synaesthetics special? I would say: special, but not extra-special. Because one person is not more special than another, you see? For the life of me, I can’t understand how the hell brain-state researchers can be a) so damned over-literal, while at the same time being b) not nearly literal enough. Heck, you should hear what they’ve got to say about deja vu! I swear, if I didn’t know it was impossible, I would almost say that none of them had ever experienced deja vu before: that’s how divorced from the actual experience their research is. It’s actually shocking. It’s infuriating. Damn it, it’s something on the order of a theft, is what it is: how can they walk into this room full of open doors and pregnancy, and declare it empty and absent, and needing to be filled? It doesn’t need to be magic, even if it may be; but the kind of magic they’re looking for is like neurophysiological cold fusion, too easy to be interesting. It’s skepticism gone stupid: “let’s prove or disprove this metaphorical thing once and for all, by seeing if it exhibits a mass defect.” The effort is on a par with celebrity ghost-hunting. Did Coolio see a ghost, viewers, or was it merely some sort of illusion? Remember, keeping an open mind is the most important thing, here: only by keeping an open mind about THE EXISTENCE OF GHOSTS (!) can we hope to once and for all disprove the existence of ghosts…!
Only, you know: with Coolio.
It’s like me wanting to prove or disprove the existence of Captain Nemo by hiring Robert Redford to dig up Jules Verne’s grave, for God’s sake.
What’s gone wrong with those brain-state researchers? Some of them — and I am not kidding — openly wonder if deja vu is truly paranormal prolepsis, some kind of “psychic phenomena”.
What is the point of that? What do they expect to find? That it’s — God help us — true?
“Could these randomly-scattered rocks once have been the landing-strip for ancient astronauts?”
No, they’re all wrong, and I’m right, and here is what’s important, damn it:
The creative impulse isn’t a secret, it isn’t a mystery, and it isn’t magic. Not the Uri Geller kind, anyway: not spoon-bending. It is the kind of magic that would still be much more important than spoon-bending, even if spoon-bending were true; because it’s the magic of William Blake and William James, of Daizen T. Suzuki and Martin Buber, even of our old friends Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. They would all tell you, too, that it’s real…but, there’s real, and there’s real. The numeral “5” on the screen here is not really red — not really. However, inside my head, the number five is.
It is red!
And that’s the “real” I care about. Hey, deja vu isn’t straight-up second sight, either…but deja vu means a lot to us simple regular human beings, even so. Just as the synaesthesia, it isn’t an instrumentality; that’s not its value, in fact getting that instrumental value instead would be a rather poor trade-off, for what it is. Because it isn’t telling what’s going to happen that’s important, but it’s telling what is happening that is absolutely paramount. All around us, all about us, is the sea of intimation, the pregnancy of the present moment. The doors are all open, and the windows too, and through them blows a breeze. And I am calling you, reader; can you hear me?
Can you hear that music?
I went swimming in the pouring rain, this summer. Puddles forming on the rocky beach, water dribbling off the moss on the bluffs, raindrops falling into seawater, generally making a simmering mess of the boundary between ocean and sky. Grey, green, green, grey, grey…everything melting together all at once, everything talking to everything else, everything participating in everything, everything like a great big party for somebody or other who was yet to arrive. Shhh…shhh, he’s coming…!
And then I sort of, you know…reached out my hand.
England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way.
Highly recommended, I must say. So don’t let ’em tell you that you have to be their precious special, to do it. Magic — our kind of magic, not theirs — is simply falling out of the sky at every instant. All you have to do is up-end your hat; it falls right in there.
Okay, now you can have your soup.