Saturday, March 21, 2009

Yes but

I posted my last uneasily. It makes it sound like I spend all my spare time in visions of angelic hosts, or in warm conversation with notable ghosts, flitting from grove to grove worshiping elusive numinosities or bowing before golden Buddhas. Whereas mostly, really, I eat and read.

It's not that I want to unsay anything. But it was all done in crude primary colors and major chords. "I talk to dead people," I said. Well, sort of. But dead people don't shout. They whisper. You have to be listening, and it's very easy to mistake them. They're usually gone before you're quite aware that they were ever there; you're always listening after echoes, wondering how much of it you've made up. Maybe all of it. Or they come in dreams, mixed up with all the detritus of the day's recollections. It's not usually easy to tell. And they don't often come in the shapes you expect: they'll come as animals, as birds, as clouds.

When I did a lot of stargazing I picked up the knack of not looking directly at something very faint. Your peripheral vision is actually better, for perceiving black and white: the center of your retina has more of the color receptors and they crowd the black and white receptors out to the edges. So if you want to see a very faint nebula, you learn to look, not straight at it, but off to one side a little. It's difficult to learn to do at first: counterintuitive. Listening for ghosts and presences is like that. Attend to them directly and they disappear. But if you don't attend to them at all, they disappear too.

So when people in the rationalist camp tell me that they don't see ghosts or talk to dead people or sense presences (although you will usually find, if they're in a trusting mood, that they've had an unsettling experience or two that they can't quite explain) I'm not in the least surprised. Ordinary casual observers don't see a lot of nebulae either, when they glance at the night sky. You mostly see what you're looking for, and what you expect to see.

These experiences are very delicate. It's difficult -- it's nearly impossible -- not to start overwriting them as soon as you recall them or recount them. I'm sure you've had the experience of telling someone about a dream, and finding suddenly that you're making some of it up. Without any intention of deception: it's just that the storytelling part of the brain fills in the empty places, the same way the visual perception fills in the hole in your field of vision. (There's a blind spot, where the optic nerve exits the back of the eye, but we never see it, because our brains obligingly paper over the hole with their best guess about what ought to be there.) So there again, directly attending tends to obliterate the perception. There are certain visionaries -- Margery Kemp springs to mind -- that I don't trust at all. Oh, I'm sure they had visions: but what they recount hangs together too well, has too much immediate point, conduces to their self-satisfaction too much, to be real. The hallmark of a real vision is that it is unexpected, uncomfortable, incoherent, and hard to understand. The typical reports of Victorian seances, of loved ones showing up in expected form and saying how happy they are on the other side, are almost certainly thoroughgoing revisions (when they're not simply hoaxes.) I find most of the Biblical visions, on the other hand, to be wholly convincing. They're bizarre and disturbing. The people who have them didn't really want to have them, and they receive messages they didn't want to get.

One of the values of a religious tradition, if it's a good one, is that it teaches how to receive this sort of information, and gives you a healthy respect for it. The Hebrew prophets took their job seriously. They were supposed to report back. Their services as an editor weren't required. They knew a great deal both about how to attend and how not to attend. As a result (and a cause) they were valuable to their communities. Your typical cult leaders, on the other hand, are a plague and a nuisance. Not because they aren't genuine visionaries. I'm betting most of them are. But because they don't have the skills, the the humility, and the restraint afforded by a tradition. I'm as uneasy about religious hierarchy and authority as anybody, but the alternative makes me at least as uneasy. Visionaries aren't going to go away. And they're valuable. We need them. But they're almost all terrible administrators, and rotten community leaders. A healthy community should have a place for them, but that place shouldn't be a throne.

(I have a feeling this post veers around and doesn't get where it's trying to go. I might try to spruce it up tomorrow. I might not.)

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