Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegutk-slaughterhouse5I started reading this novel because of its status as a classic, but I must confess I knew nothing about its theme. As the story got underway, I had the distinct feeling that this was going to be a thoroughly depressing tale about reflections on the horror of war. Not my cup of tea. Imagine my surprise when the story made a weird tangent into Twilight Zone territory. The narrator, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. What I mean is, one second he could be in the trenches of World War II, and the next he could be cuddling up to the woman he married after the war. Two days after that, he could be on exhibit in an extraterrestrial zoo, where he spent some time after being abducted by aliens. Then he might be back in the war. He has no control over what point in time his consciousness leaps into, or when these jumps are going to occur, but his weird condition gives him a perspective on time that allows him to see “the present” as more than just a single knife-edge that exists at only one point in time and is always racing forward. His alien captors, the Tralfamadorians, live in four dimensions all at once, seeing every moment of time as the present. When events happen, good or bad, their reaction is always “So it goes.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is a war story, an absurdist science fiction tale, and also an entertaining philosophy text on the nature of time – which might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but is definitely mine. As someone interested in esoteric knowledge, I had my own eureka moment about time a few years ago. It’s a real delight when I’m reading a story and the author lets me know that we’re both privy to a life-enriching secret: the idea that no matter when you are in time, you’re always in the present.

Man and His Symbols by Carl G. Jung

jungcg-manandhissymbolsMan and His Symbols is Carl Jung’s final work, and was intended for a lay readership, rather than psychology students. It is co-written with four of Jung’s associates, each writer taking on one of five separate sections. The overall theme is dream analysis.

Since I’m someone who writes extensively about the human mind, I figured it was high time I read Jung, if I aim to be taken seriously. Having finished this book, I find myself fairly dissatisfied overall. A great deal of the text is concerned with dream analysis, and so much of what was conveyed seemed unwarranted and almsot fanciful. People, objects and situations were cropping up in a patient’s dreams and the interpreter was immediately jumping to firm conclusions about what the presence of this or that meant. Often, I simply couldn’t see how such conclusions could be solidly justified.

The Jungian model of consciousness views the unconscious mind as a helper, giving us coded messages in our dreams – messages laced with symbols, some of which may be deceiphered by reference to the “collective unconscious.” This is not a paranormal idea, but is more the theory of symbols and their meanings being inherited genetically from ages past and stored somewhere in the brain. So, if we dream about a particular symbol, such as a scarab beetle, for instance, the purpose behind the presence of this object in our dream may not be consciously recognised, but our unconscious knows it from our species’ past experience. These kind of symbols Jung calls “archetypes.”

While there may be some truth to the theory of the collective unconscious, I find it hard to buy into the notion that our unconscious is like a second self that wishes to aid us. I have certainly had dreams that are meaningful, but only because they reflect the particular pre-occupations of my mind at the time. For instance, I once dreamed that I was cooking a dog alive in the oven. During this exercise, I heard my mother coming up the path and into the house, about to catch me in the act. The dream was obviously reflective of a guilty conscience and worries about my actions being found out. The real-life actions behind the dream were far more trivial than cooking a live dog, but the theme of the dream was clearly on target. I don’t think this was my unconscious giving me a warning, like a helpful big brother. It was just a jumbled up mental reflection of what was occupying my mind as I went to sleep. I have had countless dreams of a completely inconsequential nature, where I can see clear allusions to my waking thoughts, albeit messed up.

So I’m afraid I don’t accept the Jungian theory about dreams. Nevertheless, this book had nuggets of useful insight here and there, particularly on the importance of integrating the animal self with the higher consciousness.

The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

Alan Watts is a non-dualist, as am I. Among those who think in this fashion, opinion is divided on the helpfulness of psychedelic drugs in the quest for enlightenment. Watts is in favour of their use, although he cautions that such experiences are wasted on those who do not approach the activity with a philosophical mindset.

Personally, I’ve never felt the need to take drugs in order to heighten my awareness. The human organism is working perfectly just as it is, and I’ve been able to grasp very deep things about reality from an intellectual perspective, and to feel these insights so deeply that I doubt drug use would be of any benefit. Many have congratulated me on my ability to talk and write about things they have felt but been unable to articulate; one individual even expressed great surprise that I have managed to comprend life to such a deep extent without resorting to drugs. My suspicion is that psychedelic drugs are merely a shortcut – something that takes the hard work out of the endeavour of understanding our place in the cosmos. And the drawback of such a shortcut is that it can leave the user stunned by glimpses of a deeper reality without any ability to communicate what he has experienced meaningfully to others. He feels a lot intuitively about what he went through, but cannot process it mentally. Since I haven’t dabbled in drugs, I’m doing a little guesswork here, but I hope intelligent guesswork.

The Joyous Cosmology is Alan Watts’ attempt to articute his psychedelic experiences in words. He never had hallucinations, except when his eyes were closed and he allowed his visual cortex to run amuck. In normal consciousness, the effect of drugs was to heighten perception. The simple act of gazing at a flower takes on far greater significance. Ordinary things became objects of incredible wonder. As I said, I think it’s possible to cultivate this appreciation without resorting to drugs. In fact, the author’s endeavour to capture his experiences in words attests to that.

Some people who are interested in non-duality have a strange view about life: they’re trying to “awaken,” to experience the underlying oneness. But if your individual mind were able to experience unity with everything, then it’s still the individual mind experiencing something separate from itself – still in duality. Any experience of oneness brought about by meditation or drug use will only be a halfway house, by virtue of the ever present subject-object (dual) relationship of consciousness. So, if that’s why you want to take psychedelics, you might as well forget it. What you seek can’t be accomplished.

The main aversion I have about mind-altering drugs are the toxic effects of drugs in general, especially when used habitually – which the author does not advocate. If you’re thinking about using a psychedelic drug for “spiritual” purposes, first educate yourself with this book and others. For me, this whole endeavour is of little practical value, because I’ve already achieved something the hard way. Still, a highly interesting book.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

I’m frequently disappointed by what passes for spirituality, from a non-dualist perspective. Quite often, there is a crafty repackaging of salvation woven into an author’s sales pitch, or there is a totally unrealistic descent into a spiritual pipedream of “universal love.”

Alan Watts, happily, manages to be both a non-dualist and a down-to-earth realist. In recent years, one of the most interesting dilemmas I went through was the clash between non-dualism (which says that everything is one) and LaVeyan Satanism (which grasps that the universe is adversarial). I rate both of these observations as true, but the latter one is often missed. Watts gets it. He describes existence within the universe as “a harmony of contained conflicts,” understanding that it cannot be any other way, by virtue of the dualistic predicament of all life.

This was a fabulous read. It began with a suggestion of how non-dualism can be explained to young children, as a better alternative to the “God made the universe” stereotype. Watts goes on to tackle non-dualism from a vector that had never even occurred to me: our inability to separate the human organism from the environment around it. We naturally think of the self as a human body – a distinct unit isolated from what is around it. But the air that is breathed into the body from the environment and the carbon dioxide that is breathed out are just as essential to the body as the blood that circulates within. The body cannot be isolated from its environment, nor can the immediate environment be isolated from the planet, the planet from the solar system, and so on. The division of self into body and environment is arbitrary – merely an act of labelling. There is no “you” independent of everything else – only an organism within a super-organism, i.e. the universe itself.

Many times in the book, Watts made observations that were profound, simple, and obviously true, yet so easily missed until pointed out. Chief among them was our conditioned way of thinking, “I came into this world,” when it is far more accurate to say “I came out of the universe.” A person is like the eyes of the universe, which is gazing at itself. Watts has a way of describing life on earth that makes the materialism of atheists seem absurd. Atheists commonly think of the universe as something unconscious. But since man came out of (not into) the universe, and man is conscious, does this not mean that the universe must be conscious?

The balance of nature, the “harmony of contained conflicts,” in which man thrives is a network of mutually interdependent organisms of the most astounding subtlety and complexity. Teilhard de Chardin has called it the “biosphere,” the film of living organisms which covers the original “geosphere,” the mineral planet. Lack of knowledge about the evolution of the organic from the “inorganic,” coupled with misleading myths about life coming “into” this world from somewhere “outside,” has made it difficult for us to see that the biosphere arises, or goes with, a certain degree of geological and astronomical evolution. But, as Douglas E. Harding has pointed out, we tend to think of this planet as a life-infested rock, which is as absurd as thinking of the human body as a cell-infested skeleton. Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as “symptoms” of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy – in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.

Watts is well versed in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism), and his writing serves as a useful bridge between very different cultures, helping us in the West to appreciate a wider metaphysical perspective outside of the cramped confines of Western materialism.

After reading this book, I want to get hold of everything that Watts has written.

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Dune concluded with Paul Atreides established as the new emperor of the known universe. He is now married to the previous emperor’s daughter, the Princess Irulan, but his true love is Chani, the girl he fell in love with when he lived in the desert with the Fremen. Chani, due to politics, is forced to play the role of concubine. Paul is a reluctant emperor, and a reluctant messiah, for he has now become the object of religious devotion. Endowed with powers of prescience due to the planet’s “spice melange,” Paul is continually cursed visions of a jihad in his name, stretching out across the universe. And no matter what course of action he takes, whether he stays or runs, the jihad is always there. In fact, it has already begun, and Paul is powerless to prevent it.

The chief focus of Dune Messiah is Paul’s struggle against several enemies who have conspired to destroy him. Frank Herbert’s mythology is so intricate that you can never tell from what angle the attack will come. The first suspect is in the form of his old friend Duncan Idaho, who had been slain but is now resurrected as a “ghola” – essentially a whole new person in Idaho’s skin, containing whispers of the previous man. But how do you attack a man who can see into the future? With the aid of a “steersman” – a creature with prescience, ordinarily used to steer starships safely through the void, because seeing the future means that you can avoid disaster. Paul is immersed in a battle of wits involving not only the ordinary skills of cunning, but prescience versus prescience. You might imagine it would be easy for the reader to get lost in such a complex tapestry, but the book is immensely readable. To cap it all, Herbert comes up with a genuinely unpredicatable and satisfying twist in the tail.

As with reading the first volume, I was in awe of Herbert’s mythmaking ability. I had the sense that I was only being shown a tiny portion of a whole universe, entirely imaginary, but so well thought out as to be almost tangible. Dune Messiah is only half the size of Dune, but is a worthy sequel. I’m really looking forward to the next volume, Children of Dune.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Instruction manuals on how to write fiction tend to feature suggestions like: “Create empathy between the protagonist and your reader.” Thank goodness not every author follows such rules, because then we would never have gems like A Clockwork Orange. The main character, Alex, from whose perspective the tale is told, is no hero. He’s not even an anti-hero; he’s a blatant hooligan of the worst kind. There is almost nothing likeable about him, save for his appreciation of classical music. Alex likes nothing better than going out with his three friends, Pete, Georgie and Dim, for an evening typically consisting of beating up some old person, stealing a car, breaking into someone’s house then raping the woman who lives there. One day he even lures a pair of ten-year-old girls to his house so that he can molest them.

But this is not pornographic fiction. It’s a tale of considerable depth about morality. Why do we do what we do? Alex asks the unaskable question:

But, brothers, this biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don’t go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop? If lewdies are good that’s because they like it … But what I do I do because I like to do.

Notice the unfamiliar words in the above quote. The entire novel is written in this futuristic juvenile slang. It makes the first couple of pages hard reading, but you quickly get into the swing of assuming the natural meanings of the many strange words on display. Bezoomny = mad; creech = scream; droog = friend. There’s a dictionary at the back of the book, but you won’t need to refer to it.

The really interesting part of the book happens after Alex gets caught by the police and tossed in prison for several years. He gets selected for the Ludovico Technique, a new program designed to turn criminals into good people with astonishing rapidity and reintegrate them into society. For Alex, this means drastically early release from prison, but at what cost?

This begs the question: if one is forced to be good, is this really good? I was reminded of the Christian worldview I used to hold, where I looked forward to a future in heaven where I would not only be free from sin, but I would be unable to sin. But if a person does not have the ability to choose between good and evil, how can good be called good? It is simply action, having no ethical value whatsoever. Is there any virtue in anything, if there is no risk of choosing the opposite path? A person becomes a clockwork orange, his choices imposed upon him. The book is divided into three parts, each one beginning with the telling words “What’s it going to be then, eh?” emphasising the importance of having a will of your own.

Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of this novel is, for the most part, very faithful to the book, even to the point of his script mirroring some of the dialogue word-for-word. Both are worth tackling, especially for the philosophically minded. How many religionists have dared to ask: “Why should there be good only?” No, it is assumed that good is right and natural, whereas evil is wrong and unnatural. But the one has no substance without the existence and threat of the other. What’s it going to be then, eh?

Edgar Cayce on ESP by Doris Agee

Edgar Cayce was an American psychic who lived from 1877 to 1945. The majority of his work consists of channelling answers to questions while in a hypnotic trance. This was called giving a “reading.” Readings consisted of: giving general advice on life from an astrological basis; giving medical advice on ailments; helping to locate missing persons; providing information about ancient Atlantis and the future of the planet.

Interestingly, Cayce was a devout Christian throughout his life, which is hard to marry with his use of astrology, given Christianity’s condemnation of magic. It is claimed that he had no education in this art, which is hard to believe, since his language mimics the general practice of astrology, which is, in my opinion, a rather flawed magical art.

The book begins, very interestingly, with a chapter entitled “The Universal Mind,” which is concerned with where Cayce obtains his information. The idea is that there is a sea of consciousness, of which our individual minds are just an aspect. Cayce’s trances allowed a greater flow of information from the Universal Mind than his normal waking consciousness would be able to process. I resonate very much with this way of thinking, and I was eager to know more.

Unfortunately, after a few chapters of this nature, the book changes tack, and concerns itself with raising Cayce on a pedestal rather than teaching anything useful about psychic abilities. I quickly grew bored reading case after case of supposedly accurate psychic readings. All the while, the sceptic in me was making note of the fact that, while the author Doris Agee had access to “The Cayce Files,” she chose to relay the stories to using aliases, which makes any verification of facts impossible.

When reincarnation was mentioned, Cayce’s readings always fell into a pattern that I see so often with frauds. Have you ever noticed that when a psychic talks about somebody’s past life, that life is always special: he either lived in Atlantis, or he was an Egyptian priest, or he was present with Jesus at the cruxificion, and so on. Statistically speaking, why would your past life be any more special than your present? But it always is. And that’s very telling, isn’t it?

The clincher came when Cayce offered some prophecy about the world’s future, that great “earth changes” would take place between 1958 and 1998, including the destruction of Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. FAIL.

I get frustrated when reading books about psychic matters, because it’s hard to tell the genuine information from the fraudulent. All things considered, I have to categorise Edgar Cayce in the latter group. What a waste of time.