Dear Firstname Lastname
earlier this year we embarked on an effort to learn more about you
what makes you so incredibly unique
and the values you all have in common
we learned an equal amount about ourselves
you go after what you really love
you chart your own course
you create something
(often from nothing)
a neighborhood pizza shop
an organization to help those in need
or a company poised to launch a new industry
you believe where others don’t
you have the guts to strike out on your own
and it’s worth every ounce of support we can give
you’ll always be able to pick up the phone and talk to someone 24/7
followed by a name typeset in Arial
and a twitter handle
i don’t create
neighborhood pizza shops
organizations to help those in need
or companies poised to launch a new industry
my values are not your values
i have a blog
it has a domain name
which i pay you to maintain
that is the extent
of our relationship
i will go cry in a corner now ok
a customerSep 5, 2013
The year is 2017. Certain confused souls were convinced the world would end in 2012. Old superstitions, of course. The Mayans were no Einsteins. Like everyone else, I laughed it off. The world will not end until the Sun goes boom in a billion years. Maybe we’ll nuke ourselves to death before then, but the expiration of an old calendar is hardly cause for alarm. I buy a new calendar every year to put on my fridge.
Despite these rationalizations, an uneasiness grew in me once we passed into 2013. A feeling that certain things were not right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, not exactly, but it was as if certain things were not as they had always been. For a long time I thought there was simply something wrong with me: perhaps I was overworked, burned out, depressed. But the feeling did not go away.
I began putting away money. Saving a little here and there. At first I wasn’t sure quite what I needed it for. Eventually, I started taking some time off work, started to travel more. At first it was simply to escape the feeling of uneasiness, but Scandinavia and Thailand felt all the same to me. Either the source of my unease was in me, or it permeated everything, and either way it was inescapeable.
I began climbing fences. I began breaking locks. I never stole anything, I just wanted to look around. To see behind the facade. In the beginning, what I found intrigued me. Now I am scared.
Beyond the barriers are vast swathes of empty space. Abysses of the kind that simply should not exist. If I remember my high school physics right, nature abhors a vacuum. But this is no mere vacuum. It is something else. A glitch in the matrix. A partially corrupted hard drive in the giant computer that runs the world. Or perhaps we are all procedurally generated, and our makers failed to account for the edge cases. Perhaps humanity has expanded so far that we’ve reached the far lands. Perhaps we have become Minecraftians, all of us.
Jumping fences I found roads that led nowhere. If you walk along the edge, you can see that there is nothing beyond. If you dig in the dirt, you’ll find that the closer to the edge you get, the shallower the earth is, until at the very edge, the surface has no depth at all: it has become two-dimensional. Trees are so thin you walk right through them; from an angle, they become invisible. At the edge, physics seems to disintegrate. Buildings hover in mid-air. Houses are mere facades, empty shells with walls only on the sides that face towards us, the dumb public. If you walk into one of these houses, it chills you to the bone.
This is a warning note. I have yet to step over the edge. I camped near an edge once, for three nights, and every morning I had a morning piss over the edge. But I couldn’t bring myself to take the final step. I was afraid. But I must know. I must know what kind of madness has infected the world. I am writing this as a warning. A call to arms. Jump barriers, break locks, walk along unmarked paths. Find the edges, identify the holes. Probe them and test them. Find the cure before the world degenerates completely. I may be lost, but you are not. Tomorrow, I step into the void.
That’s disgusting. I will never understand death, cruelty, or torture, as a form of entertainment.
Pop culture is rife with death, cruelty and torture. If you’ve ever enjoyed a tv show in the last thirty years, chances are you’ve been entertained by death, cruelty and torture.
This is not cruel or torturous. Nor is it entertainment. If you eat meat, you ought to know what happened before it entered your plate. This moose lived on a tiny island with a large moose population. Unless some are felled every year, they will starve to death. The animal was felled the day before. It lived its entire life in the wild, which is almost certainly a better life than the life of most livestock. Provided you do it properly, hunting big game is more humane than keeping livestock.
This is not entertainment, it’s education. If you’re disgusted by the way dead meat is prepared, you ought not to eat dead meat. If you don’t eat meat, I don’t know what to say to you, other than that we have philosophical differences.Sep 1, 2013
Local county fair attraction: public moose dismemberment.
No author has more perfectly captured the permeable membrane between dream and reality than Borges—most perfectly represented by his short story The Circular Ruins, but present throughout his oeuvre. This story has resonated particularly strongly with me recently—I have been living whole days in my dreams, and when I wake up I remember the dream days better than the real days that came before.
I stumbled upon a great Borgesian fable which has improbably slipped past me all these years. Tor Åge Bringsværd is a highly prolific Norwegian author who mostly writes what could be broadly construed as speculative fiction. I mentally filed him away as uninteresting years ago after attempting to read some of his fantasy novels and being underwhelmed—good fantasy doesn’t exist in Norwegian, apparently. I was unaware that Bringsværd is also the author of fantastic short fables that rival Borges in both brevity and imagination, and one of these stories was anthologized by Borges himself, or more probably, someone acting on his behalf in The Book of Fantasy. The story is called Mannen som samlet på 1.september 1972. In the English translation, which I have not read, this has inexplicably been changed to September 1, 1973, which must have also necessitated changing a variety of cultural references in the story. (Apparently, in the French translation the date has become June 23, 1986.)
There is a frame to my discovery of this story, a story told by the author himself. It sounds like a dream, and probably is a confabulation, but it is a great frame story anyway. The date is September 1, 1990. Bringsværd is in Denmark as an honorary guest at an author seminar held at an estate once owned by Danish author Karen Blixen. He spends the day trolling Copenhagen’s bookstores for interesting finds. As a massive fan of Borges, he stumbles on an English edition of the anthology The Book of Fantasy, originally edited by Borges, Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Casares in 1937—two years before Bringsværd was born. He buys the book unseen, on the strength of Borges’ name. When he opens the book, he finds himself in the table of contents—his story The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973, in this book from 1937.
Later, he reads the small type: the revised English edition of the original Spanish-language anthology was published in 1988. Suddenly he recalls a phone call years ago, when a man in hard-to-comprehend English communicated someone’s desire to anthologize his story, and he consented, expecting but never receiving further clarification as to the nature of the anthology. Could he really have been called up—as he would have us believe, or at least likes to believe himself, to hear him tell it—in the early eighties by Borges himself, and not have recognized that he had consented to be anthologized by his great idol? Who knows. It is certainly possible and even plausible that Borges would have read and liked the story, since it was published in English in 1974 and is very reminiscent of Borges’ style, particularly, perhaps, his classic Funes the Memorious, yet also uniquely its own story.
Below is my own translation of the original Norwegian story (available online to Norwegian [or Norwegian-spoofed] IPs), where the year is 1972. It’s a short read and one of the best short stories I’ve read in a long time.
Once upon a time there was a man (Ptk) who discovered that he was losing his grip on reality. It had really been building up for several years (he realized suddenly)—and he hadn’t cared about it, hadn’t given it a thought. Maybe he hadn’t even been aware. Now the gray film had thickened into a veil, a lengthy umbrella and a hat which locked his arms.1 His wristwatch had burning arms, and he no longer knew which side his hair was parted: the mirror said right, the hand claimed left. In the paper he read about a Frenchman who for various reasons had let himself be locked up naked in a small closet a hundred meters underground. When he returned from isolation three months later, the experts concluded that Man had ‘a natural rhythm, a built-in clock’ and that this clock ‘did not bow to the sun, but was adjusted to days of 31 hours instead of 24.’ But no one dared draw the conclusion, the only logical conclusion… that Man was a stranger, that Obstfelder2 had it right, that our real home is another (and slower) planet—which in the light from an unknown sun uses seven hours more than the earth to spin around its own axis… That this was the real Eden—the one we had been uprooted from. Ptk incredulously pointed at his own mirror image, and neither Librax nor Valium could convince him to think otherwise.
Ptk decided to look the everyday in the eyes, attempt to orient himself in the reality in which he was stranded. He went out, bought all the Oslo newspapers of the day (Saturday, August 19, 1972) and walked home. He read them thoroughly—page by page, column by column. But when finally he thought he had a certain grip on Saturday the nineteenth of August, it had become Tuesday the twenty-second—and reality had changed faces three times. Ptk realized that the information was of such weight that it was impossible for a single human to balance it on its head. The news fell in heaps around his feet, grew like vines up his calves, tightened like a belt around his stomach. Exasperatedly he fought against Wednesday the twenty-third and Thursday the twenty-fourth. His ears grew closed, his nose and mouth closed up and he had trouble breathing. He dared not blink for fear that Friday the twenty-fifth would press his eyelids closed. And still… despite the best of intentions—Saturday the twenty-sixth of August, 1972 grew completely over his head.
Ptk realized that he had been acting rashly. One who consumes too much news lacks the time to cook, fry or chew it, but must swallow everything raw. After memorizing over political digestion and protective fat tissues, he decided to tackle the problem from quite another angle.3 He resigned himself before reality as a many-headed creature, but chose instead to chop off one of its heads, in order to come closer to understanding the whole beast through a detailed study of one head. The choice fell on September 1, 1972. In preparation he had furnished a corner of his bedroom as a laboratorium, and stood ready with a typewriter, scissors, glue, paper and a 24-volume encyclopedia with a spine of goatskin.
By the end of October, Ptk had finished every Norwegian newspaper from the first of September (also including weeklies). Without hesitation he threw himself into the study of newspapers from the rest of the Nordic, mostly from Denmark and Sweden. He had a permanent spot in the University library, and at night he glued notes and Photostat copies on the bedroom walls. He started taking an interest in curves and diagrams.
The bedroom soon got too crowded. In order to get as complete study materials as possible, Ptk wrote to newspapers all around the world and asked for issues from September 1, 1972—whether he knew the language or not. He followed evening courses in Spanish and Russian.
Four years later his apartment had been maximally utilized. Except for a stove, a refrigerator, a bed, a fold-out table and a wooden chair there was no furniture or knick-knacks. The rooms were divided by hundreds of light walls, and the passages were so narrow that Ptk had to walk sideways (and very carefully) when he wanted to refreshen his memory of an important clipping or add a new note. Excepting working hours (Ptk was a bookkeeper) he spent the rest of the day in his historical archive. He neglected friends and relatives, and when he met one of them on the street (on his way to or from the office), it was hard for him to hold a reasonable conversation. He grew increasingly shocked by how little other people knew about the first of September, 1972. Finally he isolated himself completely, ignored invitations, gave up his telephone and walked detours.
Two times, he was forced to find a larger apartment. In 1982 he knew—more or less—twenty different languages and dialects. But there were always new things to learn. The topic turned out to be more or less inexhaustible. Who could have dreamt that so much happened on just the first of September, 1972? ‘What a coincidence!’ Ptk said to himself (he had not talked to others in six years). ‘How lucky that I chose that day in particular!’ He still used the light wall system, and busied himself with organizing it as systematically as possible. Not all topics were equally voluminous. Some topics, for instance temperatures and wind speeds, only needed half of a wall, while others, like Trade and Economy, took the whole dining room alone (in total 30 walls, which is to say approximately 450 square meters).
An overcast day in February, 1983, the sports section caught fire. Ptk was on his way home from a private lesson in Mongolian dialects. When he opened the door, the whole Munich Olympics was ablaze, and the American swimming champion Mark Spitz raised his hand in a triumphant V sign before the picture curled up. It was a regular fire storm. Nothing was saved. Before the fire department could get there, the whole archive lay in ashes. (Except for the two basement storage rooms, of course. But primarily they held death notices and unsorted obituaries. All of it of peripheral interest.) Ptk was badly burned, and spent the rest of his life (two years) in hospital.
During these two years both doctors and patients tried in vain to connect with him. But every time someone talked about the war in Latin America, Ptk spoke of Vietnam. If someone mentioned Brussels, Ptk answered that he thought the answer would be no—at least for his part. If the other patients discussed sports, Ptk always shook his head and mumbled something about two Negroes who had overslept and didn’t make it to the 100 meter race. He referred to the King as Crown Prince and always called the American President ‘Nixon.’ If he’d answer at all. Usually he didn’t. ‘A hopeless case,’ the doctors said. ‘There is nothing more we can do.’
And when no one attempted anymore, Ptk finally got the rest he so desparetely longed for. The last three months he lay happily on his back. One for one he recalled the fragments, one for one he carefully put them together, began in the right corner of his brain and worked toward the left. The picture of September 1, 1972 grew slowly in his thoughts, grew bigger and clearer day by day. Names and numbers melted together with maps and diagrams. Border disputes and cinema advertisements faded together. Ptk smiled. The picture filled his head. The picture blew up the brain and filled the whole hospital. Still there were missing pieces. The picture blew up the hospital and the whole park outside, unfolded like a transparent film and became one with the trees, the birds and the sky. But at that point he had already been dead… a quarter of an hour, said one of the doctors. Ten minutes, said the other. And neither of them noticed that fall had come.
So this is Earth. So this is humanity’s home. (…) I appear to have arrived on the wrong planet! / It’s so strange here." ↩
Three nudes, 2010
My grandmother in her garden / Grandma’s shed, 2012.
Breaking Bad.Aug 12, 2013
Why art? Because you have something to say, or because it allows you to live a more interesting life? Do the two coincide? Does good art come from having something to say, or from the compulsion to do certain things which happen to result in art? One would think that art which is not the result of having something to say would be vapid, devoid of meaning, of poor quality. But having something to say is a great burden. Can’t whatever it is you want to say be the effect, not the cause of the artistic process?
Like many other people of a certain intellectual sensibility / posturing, I dislike the artiste, the wannabe, the poseur, the person for whom not the art but the artist’s life is the goal. The art is incidental; it can be dispensed with, if one is only allowed to continue living the life. But it also strikes me that many of my favorite artists, like me, are introverted, quiet people who use art as a way to be something else, to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, to become someone else or explore sides of themselves which ordinary living do not allow them to express. Eleven photographers answer the question “why take pictures?” in one sentence. Osma Harvilahti: “
Photography allows me to do fun things that could otherwise be considered as ridiculous, absurd, dangerous, adventurous or forbidden." Bryan Schutmaat: "
Photography fills my days and often my nights with work that makes me feel better about how I’ve spent my time on earth." Or Alec Soth, elsewhere:
For Mr. Soth, who said he had been painfully shy throughout his youth, this rapport did not come easily. He felt pressure during college at Sarah Lawrence in the early 1990s to pursue the trend of staged photography, but he loved the work of Diane Arbus and wanted to photograph people.
After graduating, he started going to parks and taught himself how to approach strangers, often parents with their children. “Those early photo shoots were a lot like therapy,” Mr. Soth said.
I make photographs of strangers because I’m afraid of talking to strangers. And the weird thing is, the strangers are more scared of my camera than I am of them, sometimes. They excuse themselves. They offer to help me find other subjects. They sweat and blush and squirm. I am in a sense imposing on them; asking for a portrait is a gesture of intimacy. I’m asking them to pose for me and hand over their likeness to a stranger. Yet often the ones who say no act as if they are the ones imposing on me, O great photographer, rather than the other way around—and surprisingly many say yes.
What is the difference between the artiste and the shy artist? Perhaps it is that for the shy artist, the artistic process is vital. Perhaps in either case the end result can be dispensed with—witness Garry Winogrand, who said that the reason he made photographs was to see what things look like photographed, yet left thousands of undeveloped rolls of film when he died, or the generic artiste who wants only to live the life of the famous, rich artist or the boheme—but in the shy artist, the artistic process is indispensible. In the end it may not have mattered to Winogrand whether anyone—even himself—ever saw his photographs, but the act of photographing was vital. Perhaps to Alec Soth, those first photographs were more therapeutic than narrative or symbolic, perhaps what mattered was more that he made them and how than what they ended up looking like. But both were artists and not pretenders because the artistic process was the point. Perhaps they were even purer artists than those who set out with something to say, because they loved photographing, not having photographed.
Nevertheless, one could object that the artistic process as a way of bending one’s life in interesting and beneficial directions is indistinguishable from posturing unless one works towards an end goal, unless at the end of it all some good art comes out. Yet it seems to me that a disproportionate amount of my favorite art was made in this manner. Perhaps it is that using the artistic process to become what one aspires to be, one finds truer or more interesting things to say than when using the artistic process to say things one already desires to say.
Art as self-improvement leads to more well-rounded people, people who dare to live as they’ve secretly desired all along, to break all the rules they’ve always wanted to break, to piss on the conventions they’ve always wanted to piss on, to immolate all the personas they’ve calcified into yet have come to hate—and this is a self-magnifying process by which the individual uses the artistic process to become a more interesting person, thus having more interesting things to say through art, thus having more interesting ways to use art to improve oneself, thus producing increasingly transgressive, groundbreaking, interesting, uninhibited, rawer art which fuels further personal development, which furthers more art, and so on.
I don’t know.Aug 8, 2013
When I was little, my family had a small cottage they had inherited. It had no electricity and for the longest time, no running water either. The cottage was an ugly thing: perpetually in partial disrepair, the foundation was askew and looked like it could not hold a structure half it size, although it did, and the whole thing was painted the dark piss-yellow of a dehydrated man. But it was wedged between the forest and the sea and going there was an adventure and an escape. We had kerosene lamps and an old radio, and that was that.
Right next to the cottage was a giant anthill which could withstand a nuclear attack. No effort to eradicate it was strong enough. My sister had pet ants.
The property this cottage sat on was on a hundred-year lease from a peculiar old man named Gunnar.
Gunnar had inherited a piece of forest and rock and a small shoreline, throughout which was spread perhaps six or seven cottages and summer houses. It wasn’t much, and he wasn’t much, but on this land, Gunnar was king.
In Norway, there are lots of small kings who own vast lands with nothing in them. Most of this land isn’t usable for anything, or anyways isn’t used for anything. For this reason, everything that is regarded as innmark—roughly, cultivated land, or land that is in some sense being used for farming or logging or other uses other than simply lording over a piece of land—is private property, while everything else—utmark—while privately owned, is open to the public. You cannot trespass on utmark unless you set up permanent residence. A land owner can’t legally prevent you from hiking or camping in his utmark. Gunnar was the sort of man who let other people graze their cows on his land purely so that it would be defined as cultivated land, such that he and he alone was the final arbiter of who stepped foot on his property.
Gunnar built a gate with a lock on it at the top of the private road where the public road ended and his private kingdom began. In a decade, there may have been one person who strayed onto his road who didn’t belong to any of the cottages along it.
Gunnar also built a barbed wire fence along his property line, despite the fact that doing so in nature without special permission is illegal. (Wild animals, ugly bloody sores, that sort of thing.) This fence hindered people from walking along the footpath on his property, forcing them instead to walk on the footpath right on the other side of the fence, which was wide enough that you could almost drive a tractor down it.
In the underbrush along the shore of Gunnar’s property, there grew a dozen cloudberries, something of a delicacy to certain people. Gunnar knew every one. During the season he inspected them weekly. Picking one of Gunnar’s berries without permission was a mortal sin. There was a special circle in hell devoted to those who picked them unripe, since that meant they wouldn’t grow back again. When my kindergarten-aged little sister happened to pick a couple unripe berries and proudly presented them to my mother, she had to hide them when Gunnar came to visit, which is to say when he came to inspect.
The last time I saw Gunnar, his eyes were yellow with disease. The mountains are growing, he said. I’ve noticed it. The mountains are larger than they were this time last year. They’re growing. The fact that this kind of change usually takes place on a geological timescale did not seem to concern him.
Gunnar is dead now. He died sometime this year, I think, and now his heirs are squabbling over his land. My parents sold the cottage years ago, but I’ve been back to visit since my uncle still owns the neighboring cottage. The first thing the new owners of the cottage did was paint it white. All of it. Everything.
It used to be that you had to drive from town into a fjord, then across a bridge and out of the fjord on the other side, so that the area which lay straight across the fjord from the city was a half-hour’s drive away. Now they’re building a bridge straight across the fjord and this place becomes just another part of the city.
My childhood is gone. So is Gunnar, that bitter old fucker.Aug 4, 2013
And the internet gave up the living that were in it, and they were judged, each one of them, according to their deeds, and this judgment was expressed in the form of undulating graphs, and so they learned to Search Engine Optimize their lives. — Revelation 20:13Jul 28, 2013
I wish someone would remake Altered States (1980) without cheesy 70s special effects.
The film is organized by the principles of dream logic and asks the question: is it possible that conventional everyday experienced reality might not be the only valid perspective on existence? Could altered states of consciousness be as real, or as significant, as conventional sobriety? The main character, who has a name but might have been called Brainy McResearcherson, is willing to sacrifice everything in order to find some sort of meaning beyond the mundane. Using two highly scientific mechanismsTM, psychedelic drugs and isolation tanks, he becomes convinced that he can regress into a prehistoric proto-conscious state. Because this is a science fiction film, he actually does. But that isn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit is the hallucinatory, altered consciousness and the search for meaning in life. Unfortunately, watching this film in 2013, you get the feeling the technology required to make it simply didn’t exist when it was made. While possibly impressive for 1980, today, it looks incredibly dated in a way the themes and story do not.
I’m not even sure what the science fictional physical transformation has to do with this story. To me, the real meat of it is the struggle for meaning in a world without God. Brainy is an atheist who used to have religious visions, until the day his dying father pronounced that dying was terrible even for good people. After losing faith in dramatic film fashion, he is set adrift: where is the meaning of life, if not in religion? And so he becomes a researcher, obsessed with finding the essence, the meaning of life as experienced by human beings. In his research, he injects schizophrenics with the powerful psychedelic dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is known for inducing spiritual experiences. “The religious experience is so significant in schizophrenia,” he says, clearly fascinated. Brainy almost wishes he could be insane, so that he could experience the feeling of meaningfulness the way schizophrenics do. This more than borderline unethical research recalls actual research done during the 1950s and 1960s, where both healthy and mentally ill people were dosed, sometimes with and sometimes without their knowledge or consent, with a variety of powerful hallucinogenic drugs (the film is set in the sixties).
In his essay The Last Messiah, the Norwegian existentialist philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe compares humans to deer species that died out because they evolved too large antlers; in the same way, the human intellect is overevolved, and has come to be a burden to its carrier. The same tool that has allowed us to become so supremely adaptable also forces us to seek meaning in a meaningless universe, thus becoming a double-edged sword that cuts us down as easily as it keeps us up. The gazelle on the savannah does not experience existential despair. This is Brainy’s dilemma, made all the more difficult by his previous blissful ignorance. Famously, it is for knowledge we are banned from Paradise, according to the Old Testament.
The standard response to this problem is that there is no meaning of life, but there can be meaning in life, and we must create it for ourselves rather than receive it from above. This seems to be the approach to life taken by Zapffe himself. The Last Messiah stands in stark contrast to some of his other writings, including Vett og uvett, a collaborative collection of life-affirming, humorous tales about living in rough conditions in Northern Norway, fishing, farming and talking shit to pass the time until the grave. (This book has come to be an important part in the mythos and cultural identity of people from that part of the country.) Of course, in the same essay, Zapffe lists the four delusions humans use to avoid existential despair: isolation, anchoring, distraction and sublimination. His own life probably checks off all the boxes. Is ignorance truly bliss?
Brainy won’t accept this. He’s determined that there must be something more, and the fact that he can no longer believe in God only means he must look harder. When he butts up against the inevitable limitations of studying altered states of consciousness from without, he finds utility in testing a sensory deprivation tank, and later, psychedelic drugs in combination with sensory deprivation, for himself. As he falls deeper into the regressive state, in the movie reified—not only does he connect internally to some sort of proto-consciousness, he also transforms physically—his interest in conventional reality diminishes, to the detriment of his wife and kids. The screenshot above is from the final scene, in which our protagonist has regressed all the way back to some sort of cosmic consciousness, and his wife is trying to reach through to him and bring him back to the twentieth century and to humanity.
This film explores a side to drug use which is rarely seen in media. One of the real reasons people take drugs—especially the more “sideways” and less hedonistic sorts of drugs—or perform shamanistic rituals, or pray or meditate. The search for meaning in a meaningless universe. Above all, drugs and mystical experiences impart the sensation of significance. There need not be anything significant to the experiences, but they feel significant in a way that everyday reality never does and simply cannot do. Perhaps this feeling is illusory, but it can also be therapeutic. Whether this feeling of significance pales in comparison to mundane but important things like family and love is the central question posed by the film.
Altered States should have received the treatment Enter the Void (2009) did, although I don’t blame the creators for not inventing a time machine in order to use 21st century technology to make their 20th century film.
Enter the Void is a virtuosic piece of cinema whose themes are altogether more vapid than Altered States’. Ostensibly, they are similar, in that both of them employ the device of hallucinatory states seen from the first person to wrestle with the big questions in life. Enter the Void, however, does not look cheesy at all. It looks extremely slick. The camera is located inside the protagonist’s skull for most of the film, and we only see his face when he looks himself in the mirror. When Oscar takes a hit of DMT, we see his fingers light the pipe and we see his vision explode into fractals. When he is shot by police in a Tokyo club bathroom after a drug deal gone south, we see his soul drift upwards and then glide aimlessly through Tokyo at night, searching for friends and family. In the final scene, we get a neat payoff in the “meaning” department via a gigantic cumshot filmed from a vag-cam in which our lost soul reincarnates as the child of his sister and his best friend (what the fuck). In other words, Enter the Void is a visually stunning but ultimately meaningless film that makes statements out of every unanswered question raised by Altered States. Where Altered States probes the possibilities for meaning in an atheistic universe, Enter the Void spoon-feeds us a quasireligious mythology vaguely inspired by the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Imagine what the visual qualities of Enter the Void could do to the spiritually inquisitive, meandering, probing nature of Altered States.
I am a lifelong unbeliever, not because I have anything in particular against religion or spirituality, but because I simply don’t have it in me to believe. I can’t give in to faith. It’s not a struggle: I simply don’t believe in anything that might be characterized as religious, and I couldn’t convince myself otherwise if I tried. My parents are the sort of modern people who don’t practice any religion, but believe in a sort of god in an abstract manner which seems not to impact everyday living in any way. Perhaps if I’d grown up in a religious family, I might have been more spiritual. I don’t think I’ve ever had a religious or spiritual experience.
As such, I can’t empathize with Brainy or with John Campbell, who both claim to have received religious visions in childhood. I can, however, empathize with their search for meaning. Like them, I’m highly interested in altered states of consciousness, although I have a suspicion that I wouldn’t be if I possessed the ability to be content or even happy with everyday reality.
Nor do I possess much experience with psychedelic drugs. My closest encounter with a classical psychedelic was at a party where someone assigned me the role of trip-sitting the hostess, who had decided to drink a large glass of shroom tea after a thousand drunken fights bloomed all over her house. I was singularly unfit for this role, particularly if things went south, which they did not, thankfully. Mostly we sat cross-legged on the floor while she looked at me with big eyes and said stereotypically trippy things like, “You can’t see what I’m seeing right now” and “it’s all so wavy,” while occasionally closing her eyes and falling into some sort of trance. Seemed nice, more or less.
On a medium-high dose of Ambien—which I would classify not as a psychedelic but a deliriant, although an atypical one, since unlike classical deliriants it does not antagonize the neurotransmitter acetylcholine—I held a conversation with a non-existent person whose non-existence I only deduced the morning after. At one point, I looked away and when I looked back, the face of this person was covered in blood. “Stop it,” I said, more puzzled than afraid, “You’re only doing that to scare me.”
These experiences, however, pale in comparison to the psychedelic mindfuck we all experience every night: dreams. Everyone is tripping out every night, and most of us don’t even know it. Although the hypothesis—darling of certain dull stoner types who listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast—that dreams are caused by endogenous DMT is scientifically unsubstantiated, it is a fact that dreaming is a ubiquitous, altered state of consciousness. Some of us are cursed with unusually vivid dreams, and lately, I’ve been one of them. I may not be a fallen believer, but I’ve become plagued with visionary dreams.
The character of these dreams is disturbing and feels impossibly significant. Rationally, I know that dreams are only the brain interpreting garbage data and making up silly shit; that dreams contain no particularly significant messages, at least not ones we can reliably decode. But that doesn’t dispense with the feeling that they are, if not divine, then certainly inspired by some underlying, truer reality. Just like I can’t make myself believe, I can’t make myself un-feel their significance.
The latest such dream dates to a couple of weeks ago. It was so disturbing that I had to write it down when I woke up to confirm its unreality. The account begins: “
My mind is fucking with me." I won’t paste the whole thing here, because unless you are Sigmund Freud there’s a limit to your patience when it comes to hearing other people’s dreams. Some reactionary types have suggested that the common aversion to / boredom with hearing other people’s dreams is irrational, but I think we as a collective have simply realized that dreams are undecodeable, uninterpretable, untranslateable pieces of garbage consciousness whose only significance lies in their ability to induce, in the dreamer, the feeling that they are significant. This feeling does not carry over through the medium of narration.
Nevertheless, to end this monstrous chimera of a blog post properly, I’ll sketch it. Briefly, I have an uncle who died before I was born—I’ve mentioned him on this blog before. I always wanted to talk to him, because I felt, possibly irrationally, that he might understand me better than the rest of my family, that he and I were of the same ilk, that he was a dreamer in a relevant sense which did not hold for the rest of my family. This uncle moved to Paris in his teens and became a successful architect. My family never understood my dreams and aspirations, but maybe he might have, had he not been dead and buried years before I was conceived. After a series of false awakenings, which are disturbing in their own right, this uncle appeared in my dream, along with his brother, one of my living uncles, and it appeared that I’d finally have the chance to ask him for advice. Unfortunately, this was the point where I started realizing I was dreaming, because apparently the afterlife sounds implausible even under the influence of dream logic. As soon as I became lucid, the figures transformed into grotesque approximations of humans, and yet I was powerless to control them. Unlike the cultural narrative about lucid dreams, it does not automatically follow from (1) being in your own imagination and (2) being aware of it that (3) you are omnipotent. Every attempt to get rid of the monstrosities only made them more grotesque, until I finally woke up.
For days after this dream, waking reality gained a shimmer of unreality. It felt like I had seen behind the curtain and discovered that everything was a sham. But that wasn’t the scary thing. The scary thing was I wished it was true.Jul 26, 2013