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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Wilhelm’

Having done a helicopter view of my reading about what pushes us into evil action, now I must tackle Jordan Peterson’s approach to all this.

What exactly is my problem, given that so much that he says resonates with so much that I have read and come to believe? Maybe he doesn’t carry my understanding any deeper, but why do a step back from endorsing his viewpoint where it matches?

I have to say I am struggling to define this exactly. It’s more a gut feeling in some ways than a fully articulated critique.

I don’t like his rather over-confident and somewhat dogmatic style, it’s true. But it feels as though it’s something more than that. What I’m going to say is the closest I can get for now. I hope to put more effort into tackling it more carefully later, but at the moment my right-brain more poetic side is getting fed up with what it experiences as my left-brain yet again hijacking the plan to spend more time on spiritual poetry. So after this rough and ready attempt to pin down my problem with Peterson’s approach, I plan to pick up the threads of my exploration of Antonio Machado.

Concerning Peterson, I think it is largely because I have some difficulties with his fundamental premise. I’m concerned that his perspective might be like a tower of pennies standing on a bent coin at the bottom. It feels as though it could topple over at any moment. I cannot quite trust it even when he seems to be saying something I should agree with. I need to get a better grip of it.

Order and Chaos

The premise he seems to operate from at times is the dichotomy he detects between order and chaos, equating the former with masculinity and the latter with the feminine (pages 40-42):

Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the… yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchal structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals… Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly.

. . . Chaos – the unknown – is symbolically associated with feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers… As a negative force, it’s the impenetrable darkness of the cave and the accident at the side of the road.

… Elkhonon Goldberg … has proposed quite lucidly and directly that the very hemispheric structure of the cortex reflects the fundamental division between novelty (the unknown, or chaos) and routinisation (the known, order).

For a start I feel there may well be two misattributions or confusions here, even before we dig more deeply: yin-yang and masculine-feminine.

Richard Wilhelm, in his introduction to the I-Ching (lxvi), tackles the issue of linking yin/yang with feminine/masculine, he writes:

To the disappointment of such discoverers it must be said that there is nothing to indicate this in the original meaning of the words yin and yang. In its primary meaning yin is “the cloudy,” “the overcast,” and yang means actually “banners waving in the sun,” that is, something “shone upon,” or bright… Thence the two expressions were carried over into the Book of Changes and applied to the two alternating primal states of being. It should be pointed out, however, that the terms yin and yang do not occur in this derived sense either in the actual text of the book or in the oldest commentaries. In the Commentary on the Decision the terms used for the opposites are “the firm” and “the yielding,” not yang and yin.

Wilhelm goes on to say that ‘change is conceived of partly as the continuous transformation of the one force into the other and partly as a cycle of complexes of phenomenon, in themselves connected, such as day and night, summer and winter.’ It is all subject to the universal law of tao.

As long as we disconnect the link Peterson implies between the left-brain and masculinity and the right-brain and femininity, I’m happy to accept the idea that the former deals with the known and the latter with the unknown. Iain McGilchrist sees this as one of the characteristic distinctions between the two hemispheres (The Master & his Emissary – page 40): ‘… in almost every case what is new must first be present in the right hemisphere. … The left hemisphere deals with what it knows.’

I don’t propose to dwell at any length on the way Peterson ignores the evidence that there have been matriarchal societies. I will accept that we have currently inherited a long tradition, going back millennia, of pragmatically successful and enduring cultures that are male dominated. I also accept that over all he does see some positives in chaos, such as creativity, and a downside to order, in terms of resistance to necessary change and overcontrol.

On Ditching Dichotomies

What bothers me most of all is what appears sometimes to be his investment in the reality of this dichotomy and his understanding of its nature. I’m with McGilchrist when he writes in his introduction (page 11): ‘It has been said that the world is divided into two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t. I am with the second group.’

Peterson doesn’t seem to see it that way. Plausibly, but I think mistakenly, he writes (page 43 – my emphasis):

We eternally inhabit order, surrounded by chaos. We eternally occupy known territory, surrounded by the unknown. We experience meaningful engagement when we mediate appropriately between them.

I need to quote also from Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief to capture his full sense though:

Unprotected exposure to unexplored territory produces fear. The individual is protected from such fear as a consequence of “ritual imitation of the Great Father” – as a consequence of the adoption of group identity, which restricts the meaning of things, and confers predictability on social interactions. When identification with the group is made absolute, however – when everything has to be controlled, when the unknown is no longer allowed to exist – the creative exploratory process that updates the group can no longer manifest itself. This “restriction of adaptive capacity” dramatically increases the probability of social aggression and chaos.

In 12 Rules for Life he expands on this (page 38 – my emphasis):

Chaos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience – two of the most basic subdivisions Being itself. But they’re not things, or objects, and they’re not experienced as such. Things or objects are part of the objective world. They’re inanimate; spiritless. They’re dead. This is not true of chaos and order. Those are perceived, experienced and understood… as personalities . . .

Because 12 Rules for Life is written in a somewhat unsystematic way, with different chapters dealing with different rules rather than having a progressive and consistent analysis of his overall view in some logical fashion, it’s hard to be sure I’ve really grasped his core point correctly yet. Because my other half, as I have said, wants to get back to Machado, I’m reluctant to tackle his much longer book Maps of Meaning even so.

Why does his approach trouble me? It’s partly because he looks as though he has assumed that we only apply the word chaos in a deeply negative sense to what we don’t know. This makes two mistakes, it seems to me.

I’ll make my definition of his first mistake concretely.

Chaos is not inevitably the death at the side of the road, any more than Order is sweetness and light. Order was also the organized slaughter of the Holocaust, just as chaos can lead to new insights and new beginnings. While he seems to acknowledge this possibility in some places the dogmatic certainty of his language in other places seems to ignore it. Both the known (order/the firm) and the unknown (chaos/the yielding) can lead to the negation we call death, of which we are understandably terrified, but they are intrinsically neither negation nor death in themselves.

Now for my sense of a second mistake on his part, which I realise may be simply nitpicking but I can’t shake it off as it feels important to me.

Even more of a problem for me is that I am not convinced that we perceive order and chaos as two distinct categories. I think we can just as easily see them as at opposite ends of the same dimension, and many of us do.

Moreover, I am not convinced either that they are coterminous with the known and the unknown, something that I will be coming back to in more detail in the final post. What we know or do not know, as he realises, is to do with a subjective dimension, and the familiarity of what we know can lead some of us to feel comfortable and safe, whereas the unfamiliarity of what we do not know makes many of us afraid. There are many people for whom the converse is also true: order is suffocating and to be avoided at all costs, and chaos is exciting and to welcomed whenever possible. These subjective states will occur in ways that map onto chaos or order when we have correctly identified those objective conditions. However an order that we do not recognize as such because it is unfamiliar will frighten us, just as a chaos that we fail to see as such might leave us feeling safe. Things are possibly more complicated than his model seems to allow for.

Two examples of one aspect of that will help here, I think.

The incipient chaos that climate change is brewing went for a long time completely unrecognised. Similarly the native inhabitants of a volcanic region can sense the impending chaos of an eruption to which incomers are completely blind. Some people still refuse to accept the reality of climate change in the defensive manoeuvre we call denial: that is not quite the same thing as being completely oblivious to impending or actual chaos.

Again I think that later in the book he clearly acknowledges this aspect when he writes (page 266):

Imagine a loyal and honest wife suddenly confronted by evidence of her husband’s infidelity… One day she sees him in a downtown cafe with another woman, interacting with her in a manner difficult to rationalise and ignore. The limitations and inaccuracy of her former perceptions become immediately and painfully obvious.

Her theory of her husband collapses. However, the spread-out nature of his argument across so many different rules, discussed in so many different chapters, makes it hard to grasp his overall perspective coherently: you have to pick up on and blend complementary aspects of his argument divided across so many pages.

When I have visited China I have encountered a parallel but not identical problem in that culture – where we experience order as chaos: a simple example is the traffic in the big cities. Those who live there seem able to detect an order and predictability that allow them to know when and how to cross the road which is invisible to me when I am standing on the corner of the junction of two dual carriageways and am clearly expected to cross diagonally. I see chaos in-between me and the opposite corner of the junction: the locals calmly navigate across to the other side. I am sure that on a larger scale an immigrant struggles to make sense of a new culture as a whole, and it takes some considerable time before the pattern underlying what looks like chaotic nonsense begins to emerge. Order is experienced as chaos. This point he does not seem so aware of.

When we stare into the complex chaos of the economic and political system some of us believe we can read it accurately, even when this is impossible, as Kahneman has demonstrated. He investigated where the border falls between what we can and what we cannot predict (Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow – Kindle Reference 4339-4347):

If subjective confidence is not to be trusted, how can we evaluate the probable validity of an intuitive judgment? When do judgments reflect true expertise? When do they display an illusion of validity? The answer comes from the two basic conditions for acquiring a skill:

1. an environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable

2. an opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice. . . . .

Physicians, nurses, athletes, and firefighters . . . face complex but fundamentally orderly situations. The accurate intuitions . . .  described are due to highly valid cues that the expert . . .  has learned to use. . . In contrast, stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.

In this context it is interesting to note that many civilisations have chosen to found themselves in danger zones such as near volcanoes and close to shifting tectonic plates that trigger earthquakes. The reason for that, apparently, is the soil fertility near volcanoes and the useful or valuable metals and minerals more readily available in earthquake zones.

This illustrates that chaos can be productive, so productive in fact that it sometimes compensates for the risk of trading with it. I think it is a mistake though to completely conflate the disruption of chaos with either creativity or death. It has the potential for either, but is simply a profound disruption of an existing order or a complete absence of obvious order, making it feel unpredictable and potentially dangerous, though sometimes worth plunging into at the risk of death as the rewards could make it worthwhile.

A pause for breath now. In any case my left-brain is getting pretty fed up of finding words to express my right-brain’s perspective. More on this next time.

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. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

(John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

This short sequence sheds some light on the Parliament of Selves sequence.

What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.

It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.

I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.

What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.

Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.

In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day.  When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:

The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.

As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.

I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.

This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind  sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.

Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.

Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.

I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.

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. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

(John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

Two things have conspired to cause me to resurrect a short sequence of posts from over two years ago.

The first relates to the  set of posts on thresholds of consciousness. The second post of this series relates very strongly to that theme and is an example of where breathwork of a kind helped me integrate an early and traumatic experience into consciousness.

The second thing is that when I recently attended a Baha’i conference several people asked if I had sent in an account of how I found the Baha’i path. There is a UK website that is compiling these accounts from as many people as possible in these islands, and I succumbed to the peer pressure and started to work on the story of my own experience. I’ve been putting it off for years not only because I did not think my story was particularly interesting but also because I’m sure my memories of it all are amazingly distorted – a theme that this first post illustrates from a closely related period of time.

My Krapp’s Last Tape Experience

What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.

It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.

I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.

What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.

Sleight of Mind

Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.

In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day.  When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:

The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.

As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.

I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.

This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind  sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.

Self-Serving Bias

Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.

Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.

I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.

Read Full Post »

. . . the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is famed to do, deceiving elf. . . . .
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?

(John Keats: Ode to a Nightingale)

What seems like years ago I promised my wife I’d work on all those VHS camcorder cassettes we had buried in shoe boxes and make them digital. This Christmas I finally got round to starting on the task. Little did I think I’d end up playing the ghost of Christmas past to my own Scrooge. I sat and watched these images of people who had died and images of selves that had passed away with such a strange mixture of emotions.

It’s not everyday you have to encounter yourself as though you were somebody else, but I’ve been doing rather a lot of that recently, forced by circumstance to meet my old selves in video or scribble form. This post is going to have faint echoes of Krapp’s Last Tape, but without the existential dread you’ll be relieved to know.

I have subjected the readers of this blog to several depressing posts about memory lane. For those who know the kind of thing that’s coming, this may be the moment to move on to something else. I’m afraid I’ve been ambling down the pathways of the past again, but from a different angle this time and over somewhat different terrain.

What made it spookier was that some of the memories, which had already been transferred from their camera cassettes by some ham-fisted professional, were held on an ordinary VHS cassette with some of the images so blurred and distorted they looked like hybrids of impressionist paintings and bizarre moments from a fading dream. I have included one of those images at the top of this post.

Other aspects of memory, in terms of what goes on in my head compared with what ends up on paper that I forget, have proved equally spooky though in a different way. The first situation I describe was just a bit weird: the second was something I’d rather ignore, but I can’t.

In the previous sequence of posts I talked of the way I used to interweave notes from my reading with scraps of information about my day.  When I wrote those posts I was trying to track down a page reference for the Koestenbaum quote (I still haven’t found it – there are pages and pages of notes from his book and I haven’t had the time to read through them all). On a scrap of paper at the very point where I began my search are the notes I made after throwing coins for a reading of the I-Ching on 30 August 1982. I wrote, as a gloss on Hexagram 45 Gathering Together, ‘religion as the basis of gathering together’ and ‘only collective moral force can unite the world’ (Richard Wilhelm: pages 616 and 175), alongside a quote from Sam Reifler, who calls the Hexagram Accord:

The path that is right for you has as its basis community devotion and a communal spiritual sympathy.

As an introverted atheist at the time I presumably felt all this was very wide of the mark, but wrote it down, as I was in the habit of doing, as a way of tracking the bibliomancy systematically in case it ever amounted to anything. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, I’ve never read those words again since I noted them down at the time. I never remembered writing them down until now. So much for the tracking theory of my motivation.

I also failed until now to register their uncanny prescience. I accept that it might have been the power of suggestion rather than of prophecy. Or it could be that the process of using the I-Ching did what it says on the tin – it resonates with and gives you information about the deeper levels of your being. Maybe it was just a coincidence: these ideas are central to the philosophy of the I-Ching and come up often. I used to throw the I-Ching a lot so some hits of this kind were bound to happen sooner or later. Anyway, it made for weird reading at this remove of time given that in December that same year I committed myself to exactly that kind of path with no clue in August that this was where I was heading, and I never threw the I-Ching again.

This rather added to the force of the surprise of discovering that I had read the Koestenbaum book in the month immediately before I realised I was a Bahá’í, rather than some years before, as I had always thought. Given that both the reading of his book and my committing to the Bahá’í path were events of great significance to me, it’s a bit deflating to realise that I had failed to retain how closely connected they were in time, and perhaps also in how the one paved the way for the other. That I transferred a lot of the Koestenbaum notes onto sheets of paper for some talks I was giving about a year or so later, didn’t seem to help me make the link, I’m afraid. It seems that my mind  sometimes, perhaps often, continues to believe what it wants to believe, until forced to do otherwise.

Which brings me onto the next example of how memory works. It involves a complete distortion and will pave the way for an even more disconcerting example in the next post. When anyone used to ask me to tell them about situations where my declaration as a Bahá’í brought me into conflict with the assumptions of my profession as a psychologist, I was a touch too happy to share the story of the time I went for an informal interview for a clinical post soon after I qualified. I was walking with the neuropsychologist, I would say, down towards her office. She was dressed in a white coat so she looked like a doctor from the back. The only thing missing was a stethoscope.

As we walked she cast a sideways glance at me and said: ‘Thank goodness Blackmore has finally put paid to the idea of God, don’t you agree?’

‘Not really,’ I distinctly remembered saying,’I have an idea about God that I believe in.’

She glared at me, as I vividly recalled it, and we walked the rest of the short way to her office in silence.

I come out of that version of events reasonably well and believed, until late last month, that this was exactly what happened, not that I’ve had cause to tell that story in recent years. I believed it until, that is, I read my journal of that period looking for the page reference. Imagine my feelings when I discovered, in my own hand-writing, an almost completely different version of events. First of all it happened in September. I didn’t hear about the Bahá’í Faith until November. First hole below the waterline. I wrote:

She wore a white coat [at least I got that right] with her name written on a badge. My revulsion against psychologists who wish to masquerade as doctors was barely containable. And when I heard her mouthing with obvious contempt such things as ‘. . . .people who don’t realise that the mind is not separate from the brain’ I did not know what to say. . . . .

All I could say was ‘I haven’t thought about it a lot.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that . . . very sorry . . . I’m very sorry to hear that indeed.’

Quite why I couldn’t fight back I don’t know. Perhaps my feelings were running too high – they were certainly strong by this time. I just wanted to get out, I think.

According to my journal I mumbled some jargon strewn with impressive names but basically ducked the point. I believed the mind was not reducible to the brain but couldn’t say so. So, it was nothing to do with God and I copped out anyway. Memory’s junk sunk.

These two accounts, though they have a kernel of common truth, couldn’t be more different. When I had become a Bahá’í I did speak out but definitely not then and not in the way I convinced myself it had happened. I clearly didn’t want to remember my craven evasion so I backdated my eventual moral courage and believed my own propaganda.

I now believe that my journals will be littered with ego deflating realities I have chosen to remember differently. I’m also pretty convinced that, without the protection of a strong value system to inoculate us, we will all chronically succumb to the virus of self-serving self-deception. I also have to recognise the probability that many other entries in my journal will have gone through a self-serving filter long before the ink hit the page.

Of course, it is also quite possible that none of these versions of reality is to be trusted; maybe all of them are distorted in their various ways and the truth is to be found somewhere completely different.

I think I’ll leave that possibility alone for now. I’m beginning to feel quite dizzy as though my view of the world is swirling and blurred in a heat haze. The last example I want to look at will have to wait till next time. It was for me the most stunning example I have ever experienced of the smoke and mirrors side of memory. In the meantime I’ll sit down and wait for the vertigo to pass.

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