“The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.” – W.H. Auden (Leap Before You Look)
Narcissus is the “Dreamer”: In Honor of Ta-Nahisi Coates
I’m privileged to be a dreamer. I live in a cloud, which rises from the smoke of guns and bombs. My world is made possible by war. We are all here. Our collective voice is the Web and the media. The voice is growing harsher. It’s Narcissus reacting to his suddenly uglier image. He squirms in discomfort. What does he do when he comes face-to-face with his own vainglories of racism, war and hyper-rational control of nature? How will he peer through the dream, and turn away from his beloved?
This strange privilege to dream has one disadvantage. The dreamer can’t criticize this dreaming society without falsely imagining himself free of that society. His greatest privilege becomes his obligation – he must stay with the dream and dissolve it from the inside out, by looking so deeply into his own mechanism of dreaming that the deception is revealed, even to himself.
That’s why in this cloud of smoke and ash, which gives me the privilege to imagine myself, I don’t turn away. I address myself. In me is my dreaming society. You will see this only by implication. By implication I reel in something larger, sicker, and of greater potential than me alone. But I’m obligated to address this as my own personal problem. I can’t allow it to swim off into an abstract distance. What Coates refers to as the dreamer is a very personal Narcissus.
Narcissus Learns to Fish, but Can He Learn to Leap?
Writing is almost like fishing. I wait for that tug of self-discovery, when I catch myself off-guard, in all my vainglory. Then I reel in the perspective, sentence by sentence.
It seems reasonable to contrast the image of Narcissus with this image of a fisherman. Unlike Narcissus, the fisherman seems at least half-inclined to probe beneath the surface, to feel the underlying tugs of resistance and desire (fight and flight). He seems at least ironically aware of his reflection as a mere reflection.
But I distrust this sense of progressing beyond the stage of Narcissus. Not only because the implied hierarchy elicits a narcissistic pride of achievement, which belies any idea of progress. But also because the fisherman is still enthralled by his image. He still clings to the shore where Narcissus lost his footing.
Progress of a sort occurs, but it takes place on “shore” – on a landscape of imagination. It doesn’t move the mind closer to leaping through the falsehood of the image to know directly the flow of meaning that is his real being.
I’ve “progressed” only in the sense that I’m not naïve enough to reach out to possess my reflection like Narcissus did. In fact, I usually try not to touch it, try not to notice how I still hover and fuss over how I come across to others. That’s why I hesitate to start writing. Writing disturbs the surface calm. I prefer forgetting myself by way of self-absorption – by losing myself in the quotidian urgencies of the image.
It’s this strangely persistent unconscious self-consciousness (this deeper double-bind) that suggests a still-unfathomed error in perception.
Dwelling: From Old English, Meaning “to Lead Astray.”
This is the fisherman’s false dilemma: Either he “dwells” on the disturbing knowledge he has reeled in (of an inescapable self-consciousness), or he releases the knowledge (forgets what he learned, if possible) and lives as if he were free to see without that distracting mirage. A desire to return to the naivety of Narcissus. Dwelling versus forgetting. A dark outlook brought on by fishing in waters that are “too deep,” versus a cheerier disposition made possible by positive or practical thinking.
As a child, these were the only possibilities the world seemed to offer. There were warnings against plunging “off the deep end.” On the one hand this was meant to prevent self-absorption; on the other, it was meant to keep Pandora’s Box from being opened. In either case, thinking too much would make the child incapable of leading a practical life.
But the other alternatives seemed the same. One was taught to forget oneself in sports, or education, even though both focused on competition, self-comparison and self-assertion. The key to surviving this maddening double-bind was to dwell on oneself without being aware of dwelling on oneself. That was what forgetting oneself amounted to. Numbing oneself to one’s self-absorption.
But now and then I’d encounter something in a novel or in nature that suggested a third possibility that was neither thinking too much (dwelling on problems), nor thinking positively (dwelling in forgetfulness). It was a different alertness – a swift transparency of thought. It was not thinking about thinking.
It was downright impossible to reel this third perspective ashore. Inevitably what flopped ashore was not swift and alert, but static and imaginary.
A Reluctance to Disturb the Surface
Here is a perspective that seems most promising: Emotions, moods, personalities, depression, contentment are the enactments of images – scripts that tell me who I am. Everything I say and do betrays how I imagine myself. These images are hypnotic, convincing, constantly flipping from one role to another. They possess the mind. “Thought runs you,” David Bohm once said. The more depressing the image, the more undeniable the image feels; the more expansive, the more cherished the image becomes, discouraging any exposure of this sort.
Why is it so difficult to keep this in mind? If I’ve “discovered” the fact that “all is image” then why do I allow myself to become re-possessed by each one, as if they were real? Clearly some error underlying all this has not yet been discovered. Somehow I fall for the lively content of the image, and fail to notice its stagnant context.
Maybe it happens like this: Sitting by a stream, I get lost in the play of light. The light is morphing reflections of sky and bank. And yet this lively movement occurs while staring fixedly at the surface. In one context there’s movement, but in a larger one, there’s not. It’s a confusion of contexts.
Likewise, it’s easy to become entranced by a sense of expansion unfolding within a static field of Self. A surface tension argues against plunging deeper into one’s whole being. I’m reluctant to feel that cold slap of reality, when cherished illusions get “dissed.” And maybe there’s a fear of drowning in a common and unpossessable fluid.
A Pearl of Confusion, Not Wisdom
I remember also hesitating before plunging into the cold creek behind our house. The longer I hesitated the harder it was to jump. The pre-jump ritual was to fret about jumping.
I always figured that this minor torment of fretting was necessary to bring me to a crisis of decision. Besides, I’d already been trained to wage inner war. This same cultish belief in conflict as a spur to invention was in play well before Amazon.
I’d usually end up jumping because of peer pressure. But sometimes I’d see that dwelling on the jump like Walter Mitty only postponed the act. It was leading in a perpetual circle, never towards open water. It prevented me from jumping. The clarity of this would sometimes stop thought. It taught me a momentary lesson: not how to jump, but how not jumping was perpetuated.
After seeing the idiocy of one’s self-torment, one jumped if one wanted to. By default. It was not a decision, but the ending of deciding. Then I’d sit down or jump with a whoop!
And every time I climbed back on the bank Walter Mitty (that unrequited Narcissus) was waiting to repossess the body.
There was no remembering this kind of learning. It couldn’t be summarized as a pearl of wisdom. The pearl is found only by going deeper into one’s confusion.
Thought Experiment #5: The Television Matrix
Imagine living in a space entirely surrounded by television screens. Floor, walls, ceiling. They are playing what goes on in our heads all day. Each television broadcasts a different channel of thought, different ways we think in different contexts. Sometimes a channel turns creepy, so we switch to a cheerier, more positive channel. We try to forget, we channel-surf. And sometimes we get in a bad mood and dwell on darker channels. But whether we dwell or channel-surf, or are lucky enough to have found an interesting station (good job?) we feel compelled to watch. After all, there is nothing else on TV.
On every screen the claim is made that this is a true story. (“After all, images are real things too!” some screens shout defensively). Some televisions respond: “No, this is reality itself, not an image!” Other screens distract us from such frightening conjecture. The distractions make us feel free. We stop noticing that our freedom is captive to a screen.
But notice the television in the corner. We may overlook it in all this cacophony. Listen for a moment:
“THIS television is broadcasting my own imagination. Every television is doing this. Every thought, every belief, is a repetitive broadcast coming from one TV or another. Every intention to escape to some reality beyond this room is a story emanating from yet another screen.”
“But look more closely: these screens are not obstacles to what is real. The trap itself is real. The trap is not an image. This discovery is the first real freedom. It broadens attention beyond the screen. It takes in the functional reality of the whole room. So long as this functional whole remains in view, programming ceases to hold attention captive within a static frame.”
Of course we can “take the blue pill” and dismiss this as another television program. Forget.
Or we can “take the red pill.” Both pills are works of the imagination. But the red one dissolves the compulsion to dwell within programs, channel-surfing or otherwise forgetting one’s self-consciousness. With the red pill we imagine the limits of the imagination.
The Sense of Danger Must Not Disappear
So, it’s a bit like Neo waking up from the Matrix. The first encounter can be horrifying. But now and then, for whatever reason, we’re exposed to ourselves so clearly that none of the usual tricks of forgetting work, and for a moment the images fade. This is proprioception of thought.
But this doesn’t resolve the issue. This is a reprieve. The dive goes only deeply enough to recalibrate the images. There remains an old compulsion to return (in confusion) to Narcissus on the bank. Knowledge of an actuality that is not mere image seems to be what I learn. But in memory (as an image) it’s not the actuality. I’m led astray.
This is the hardest thing to learn. One can disappear into a new world and then reappear on the bank with nothing to show for it. The insights do not translate. I do not “progress.” In fact, in some sense I regress. Because the lessons I take away from these “experiences” are false. I learn to create a self-deceiving language to describe what lies offshore, beyond my reach.
It leaves me, in effect, mistaking the thought for the thing once again. But now I am even more mistaken than before. Being able to say “the thought is not the thing” makes it harder to see the mistake. It locks one’s confusion behind doors of knowing. This kind of certainty can’t be pried open easily. For instance, we think we know we are racists. No, we don’t know this yet. If we “knew” it as a reality, it would be dissolved in the knowing. What we know is a new image.
In this sense, proprioception doesn’t teach me anything. Learning (as accumulation, as memorization) is not advanced by these encounters with a fluid and translucent being. No knowledge is gained.
It’s a strange kind of learning. It’s as if another being entirely were learning. A being that is not educating me so much as replacing me. But what I take to be me is not me. If nowhere is not nowhere, I am not I. What’s lost is a false me.
Diving for Pearls of Confusion
I think we have to live in close proximity to our confusions. We can’t do this if we return to shore with pearls of wisdom. Such “lessons” are kept behind impregnable certainties. The certainty that we know the difference between thought and thing has to be opened up again so that a deeper confusion still keeping us enthralled to images can be admired like a pearl.
The potential for a wholly different freedom from the compulsions of thought is implied in this persistent confusion. There is some undiscovered assumption that keeps me returning hat in hand to misleading imagery.
I’ve been groping towards the idea that we need a different kind of knowledge, one that doesn’t leave us stranded back on the bank next to dreamy Narcissus.
Typical knowledge will not allow us to dive below the dictionary meaning to encounter ourselves as we actually are, not as mere images, but as these inflamed defenses, these reflexive postures, where these pearls of confusion form.
Learning to Notice Negative Knowledge
“Negative knowledge” is what I want to call information that provokes us to open otherwise impregnable “clams” of certainty, which contain pearls of confusion. It’s important to see how this knowledge differs from typical knowledge so that we don’t merely drag the information back ashore as some new certainty.
Part 2 of Imagine the Limits of the Imagination was a first stab at formulating negative knowledge.
The essay pointed out that the word nowhere does not provide any clear sense of emptiness or absence or nothingness, but provokes an image of something, somewhere. This leaves the question of a “real emptiness” unimagined, radically neutral, suspended. Thought learns in this way to stop short.
It’s a way of honing the statement “the thought is not the thing”, which left the word “thing” hanging there like some reality beyond thought. Whereas “nowhere is not nowhere” doesn’t harbor this same misleading contradiction.
Or take Beckett’s “I am not I”, from The Unnameable. This too stops thought at its boundaries. What I take to be “me” is not me. It leaves the question of what it means to Be open-ended, broader than any verbal container. Then we turn away from the content of images to the wider, functional compulsion to stuff one’s unnameable being in a static box. This is a proprioceptive jolt. An alertness to one’s own compulsive re-imagining.
This is where Krishnamurti was unusual. He’s the only person I’ve ever encountered who spoke and wrote entirely in negative knowledge. (David Bohm did something more intellectually rigorous, and maybe equally astonishing: he brought out the power of theory (a refined form of imagination) to suspend thought. It was a way of imagining the limits of the imagination).
But Krishnamurti wasn’t trying to build a dwelling on shore. He swam in a shifting meaning. Hence if you didn’t follow the context he would seem inconsistent. His inconsistency was his greatest virtue, because it forced the mind to relinquish its hold on dictionary meanings in order to perceive the swiftly flowing context.
One of the most powerful examples of negative knowledge is his statement, “The thinker is the thought.” It alludes to the overreach of thought, leaves the question of who we are unbroached. It stops thought at its natural limit, leaving the mind open, empty, receptive. This is an action of transformation.
By stopping thought, negative knowledge opens a door into meditation. It disenchants the mind from images that have kept it enthralled. But if we fail to see the distinct quality of negative knowledge it will amount to mere semantics.
Dissolving the Dream
It’s unpleasant to awaken even from the nightmare we are creating on this planet. Pearls of confusion that can prod us awake are avoided, are not seen as valuable.
Meanwhile, our solutions aim at improving the programming. Even “serious” media refuses to look deeper than necessary. It acknowledges racism without daring to touch cherished illusions supporting it. The murderers in government and industry are fawned upon. It’s all about image.
Meanwhile this enthrallment to image bends towards mass psychosis. If the circumstances change the programming in a darker direction, then Trump will be the cartoon before the feature film.
And hidden in this cloud of smoke rising over vast killing grounds, we still have the privilege to dream something beautiful. There is no way to cajole me or you to look through this dream and take in the deeper context. No good comes from dwelling on such things.
And yet something seems to be prodding us to look deeper. Maybe environmental and economic limits are no longer so easy to forget. Or some broader current of meaning is welling up from the deep.
Maybe when accidentally glimpsing a wider context the unity of life overwhelms petty concerns. Then our great repressed love for this earth, for its magnificent creatures, for simply being, makes it easy to lose ourselves like a drop in a stream.
But in losing ourselves we are not lost. We are losing a diversionary tactic. There is something of the Lilliputian in the entanglements of who we think we are. These thoughts tie us down. The giant tied down is not who we think we are, but something more vivid and vital than these surface reflections. On some level we have encountered this before: There is an individuality much different than this almost automated reflex life as self-operating memes. We can’t name it, but we are not marginalized by this failure either.
And when we dare to feel the elephants and whales and child soldiers and young black lives suffering under our own collectively unleashed hallucinations, a rescuing love makes it easy to look away from the hypnotic programming of our self-consciousness long enough to face our demons (for we are as good as possessed by thoughts, by memes). This love doesn’t care how painful it is.
But first the heart needs to break. Not merely in sorrow, but as some great collective rebellion of the earth itself, Pan rising again after centuries of enchantment in an imaginary world. It’s our unconsciously breaking hearts that finally moves us to leap.