Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Horror, spirituality and the integral suburbs

Here are some slightly edited excerpts from an interesting discussion at the IPS forum:


I no longer read fantasy or horror, but I used to read and write quite a lot of both, and I still enjoy an occasional horror or fantasy film.  In my conversation with Shashank, we were discussing the respective approaches of Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft.  I was noting that Barker tends to see "order" behind the terror and horror, and redemptive or transformative potential in the encounter with darkness and evil, whereas Lovecraft attempts to present a vision of reality as ultimately alien, containing dimensions which are wholly other -- realms and beings that are wholly unassimilable, human contact with which can only result in madness or destruction.  In other words, absolute limit conditions.

In my reading, Lovecraft's Otherness is an Otherness that must remain Other for the human center to hold, and for our higher ideals to flourish (though those who encounter it now come to see those ideals largely as flimsy defenses in the face of a vast, menacing, terrifyingly alien realm).  If I had to place Lovecraft along the values line, I'd say he was a Modernist -- writing for a genteel Modern audience, many of whom were likely in hard flight from "animal nature."  This is revealed, I think, in his preference for pre-human, visceral images to represent the Other: slime, gelatinous substances, crustacean or invertebrate anatomy, etc.

But while Lovecraft is primarily a modernist (as opposed to Barker's more postmodern approach, where otherness is a functional limit condition of particular stages of development or perspectival frames rather than a concretely identified, metaphysical "thing" or "realm"), I still find his work offers something interesting to consider, particularly in the context of Integral spirituality:  he presents a powerful challenge to complacency and a "comfortable" anthropocentric view of the universe, a view that honestly I sometimes feel marks much New Age and even Integral discourse and thought.  I don't think Lovecraft is an Integral thinker (as I said, I view him as essentially a Modernist, though some post-metaphysical materialist writers* find kinship with him as well), but I think he makes a kind of move -- a firm presentation of That which intractably challenges and disturbs present boundaries and narratives -- that we could use more of in Integral circles, in my opinion.  With talk about "making sense of everything" in Integral marketing, and even in the popularized use of phrases like "swallowing the whole universe in one gulp" (assimilating it in its entirety to the "known"?), I feel there is a move towards what we might call the suburbanization (or urbanization) of the Kosmos.  No spooky corners left, no pesky unknowns, no threatening or destabilizing shadows.  (This is why King, Barker, Lovecraft, etc, are so powerful: they bring the 'unknown,' the terrifyingly alien and powerfully Other, back into our comfortable suburban back yards).

So, I guess what I'm groping toward is the question, What is an Integral nightmare?  What, in its appearance or irruption, would deeply disturb, even terrify, Integral consciousness?  What are the boundaries of our (often comfortable, suburban) narratives, and what has the potential to shred them?

* From the blog Naught Thought:

"At Hypertiling (a blog I should check more frequently) Fabio mentions his ambivalence towards the Lovecraftian tendency amongst the speculative nihilists – a group I would argue includes myself, Reza, Eugene Thacker, Nicola, Evan Calder Williams, SC Hickman, and probably others I am forgetting.
My engagement with fictional forms of darkness my seem too hyperbolic (hyperstitional) but this is, as Brassier and others have pointed out, symptomatic of a larger positivity within philosophy – positivity is a far less questioned operative mode whereas negativity is anything but – the dark and the negative is the more attacked tactic, affect, and behavior. The speculative nihilist wager is that positivity is questionable – positivity may merely be another patina to be shorn by the blade of realism.

"Negativity is more often than not shooed into the self-destructive circuit of the suicide solution (Dominic Fox addresses this via Xasthur in Cold World – suicide is capitulation). An alliance with the darker bits of culture (whatever that may be and whatever that means) may be pigeon-holing but negativity is already pigeon-holed (and we are of course attracted to thinkers and writers often due to gut feelings of agreement).

"Certain darknesses are already relegated to genre fiction (ie not to be taken seriously) and the more negative thinkers (such as Schopenhauer) fair far better in the arts than in philosophy. In the fourth book of The World as Will and Representation (the serious book) Schopenhauer delves again and again into the brutish nature of life, of nature, of human existence. Where sadness is the result of internal characteristics (317) Schopenhauer also asserts that optimism is a wicked way of thinking (326) and that happiness is a short lived exception and not the norm of life. Yet it seems that the lack of a smile (in philosophy and in life) is immediate cause for concern.

"To hyperbolically address Lovecraft et all may also seem too phenomenological or too Kantian – horror and, in particular, Lovecraftian horror, is concerned with the limits of experience but this limit says more about the complexity of the world, about the voidic cauldron that is the cosmos than about our living in the world. Melancholy (in the traditional sense) becomes inverted (or extroverted?) turned outward – the inability to lord over the world becomes the fact of being caught in a thinking and self-conscious existence. But maybe I am just a malcontent!"


I found William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience online at this link. The following excerpt from Lectures VI and VII, "The sick soul," is relevant here:

"At our last meeting, we considered the healthy-minded temperament, the temperament which has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering, and in which the tendency tosee things optimistically is like a water of crystallization inwhich the individual's character is set. We saw how this temperament may become the basis for a peculiar type of religion, a religion in which good, even the good of this world's life, is regarded as the essential thing for a rational being to attend to. This religion directs him to settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them by ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by denying outright that they exist. Evil is a disease; and worry overdisease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint. Even repentance and remorse,affections which come in the character of ministers of good, maybe but sickly and relaxing impulses, The best repentance is to up and act for righteousness, and forget that you ever had relations with sin.

"Now in contrast with such healthy-minded views as these, if we treat them as a way of deliberately minimizing evil, stands a radically opposite view, a way of maximizing evil, if you please so to call it, based on the persuasion that the evil aspects ofour life are of its very essence, and that the world's meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to heart. We have now to address ourselves to this more morbid way of looking at the situation.

"This question, of the relativity of different types of religion to different types of need, arises naturally at this point, and will become a serious problem ere we have done. But before we confront it in general terms, we must address ourselves to the unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them incontrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic gospel;... Let us see rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view and put into our hands a more complicated key to the meaning of the situation.”

I like this from Lecture I, the section labeled "in point of fact, the religious are often neurotic":

"There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric....such individuals are 'geniuses' in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations. Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility. Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence."

Speaking of hell, that is part of my reference to "the horror" in Apocalypse Now. It is a journey into the darkness within, for Williard comes to identify with Kurtz and is transformed by war and terror into liberation from conventional society. Yet this transformation isn't some nice, wholesome, compassionate "goodness" but rather dark, deadly and destructive.  This is not a destruction or (differentiation) that leads to a higher, progressive, transformative synthesis but is an end in itself and liberating nonetheless. Hence Kurtz is a horror that must  be destroyed, yet ironically the one chosen for the job returns transformed into Kurtz and will bring that darkness from the jungle (subconscious) into the very midst of civilization (consciousness). The shadow isn't "integrated" but forever remains in constant tension with the light.


Yes, I agree that an Integral nightmare would likely involve not knowing and not controlling, as you've suggested.  That's what I meant with my discussion of suburbanization or urbanization.  Those words actually point at a modernist form of this movement to tame or erase the other or the unknown or (presently) unknowable, but I think there is an analogous movement in the Integral community, with its rather Appolonian impulse to "include" and classify and order everything in a clear fashion, so everything makes sense.  If the motto of Integral is "making sense of everything," then the nightmare might indeed be that which escapes sense, which resists sense-making, or (possibly) which either resists inclusion or monstrously exaggerates inclusion (a la the Borg).


I found Kurtz's famous monologue to Williard, following. Is it madness and/or a form of liberation that we just cannot accept?


“I've seen the horror. Horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that, but you have no right to judge me . It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and mortal terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies t o be feared. They are truly enemies.

“I remember when I was with Special Forces--it seems a thousand centuries ago--we went into a camp to inoculate it. The children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile--a pile of little arms. And I remember...I...I...I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn't know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized--like I was I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, "My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that." Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that--these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love--that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment--without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.”


A little off genre but i went to see the black swan with one of my daughters over the holidays, and i'll be damned if i didn't walk out of there feeling dissociated and in a somewhat diffused state of consciousness. damn aronofsky! it took me about 15 minutes of concentrated breathing, a couple of clove ciggie's, and a matcha latte and nanaimo bar to feel grounded again...i asked my eldest if she'd had any feelings after watching it previously and she said she had similar feelings walking out.


Actually Black Swan is right on topic, being a horror story of transcendence which includes madness and dark shadow. Excellent film, deeply disturbing and most illuninating of that deep, dark passion that looms forever below the surface, and what happens when it's brought to the surface. The choreographer brings the black swan out of her and it is truly transformative on so many levels. And while beautiful it is also oh so ugly.* This genre calls into question religious (and spiritual) notions that transformation is all about sweetness and light, love and compassion. Well worth a second and third viewing.

* I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your love. --Lady Gaga

In this interview Portman says of her character:

"But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis."

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