29 September 2013

Possession

I think a lot about an interview I once saw with Jim Henson.

Of course, Kermit the Frog was sitting on Henson's knee.

As the interviewer spoke to Henson, Kermit would occasionally comment. And I became fascinated by how throughout the interview, even when Henson was clearly thinking intently or fully engaged in speaking, Kermit looked back and forth between Henson and the interviewer, his face changing expression as he reacted to what he was hearing. This is impressive enough a demonstration of Henson's practiced hand at performing Kermit ... but then something astonishing happened. Kermit interrupted Henson and Henson was obviously surprised by what Kermit had said. They had a little discussion between the two of them — as I recall, they disagreed with each other — then they returned to replying to the interviewer.

I wish I could find a clip of this half-remembered interview. It stands out in my mind because that exchange between Henson and Kermit was unmistakably, uncannily real, not merely a performance for our benefit.

(I do have another example of Kermit inspiring existential terror, though.)

This comes to mind because I just read a little story about Mel Blanc which is very Relevant To My Interests.

Back in 1988, I was lying in bed listening to Mel Blanc (you know, the voice of just about every well-known cartoon character, famously Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Barney Rubble ... I could go on) being interviewed by the local station as part of his book tour, his autobiography That's NOT All, Folks!. He told Robin and Maynard a tale I was too young to hear as a lad, the story of his car wreck in early 1961 that left him very near death in a coma.

Here's the weird. Mel told the story that his doctor came by every day and ask, “Mr. Blanc, how are you?” to see if he could elicit a response. Every day, nothing. Finally, Mel said, the doctor tried a different tack; he asked, “How's he doing in there, Bugs?” To the shock of both the doctor and Blanc's son, also in the room, Bug's voice came out, saying weakly, “Ah, he'll be alright, Doc.”

I always loved that story. Even when I found out it was wrong, since it was wrong in a way that said so much about the nature of our brains and how we perceive the world and us within it.


You see, Blanc's Doc Louis Conway didn't ask Bugs Bunny how Mel was doing. As both he and Mel's son Noel Blanc witnessed, the doctor asked Bugs how he was doing, as in “Bugs Bunny, how are you doing today?” And rather than attest to Mel's well-being, Blanc said in Bugs’ voice, “Nyeah, What's up Doc?”

Doctor Conway then went down a list, asking for Porky, Tweety, Foghorn ... and each answered in their respective voice. Finally, after a string of six or so characters emerging, Blanc himself came out of the coma, asking about what happened and where he was.

And that's weird; not that Blanc answered in the characters he so ably brought to life, but decades later that he would mis-remember this story on his Seattle radio interview (and, one would assume, others as well), placing these personas deep within him as guardian angels, not as shattered fragments, distinct individuals buried deep within his conscious but yet whole, sometimes whole enough to take over his body and communicate when he himself was too broken to answer.

Son Noel gives credence to this idea of the characters being a part of Blanc, noting that watching his dad, he sometimes turned down the volume from the recording studio, but could still tell which character his dad was voicing just by the posture, the demeanor Blanc assumed. “So, I think they were part of him, basically,” Noel notes in the Radiolab piece. He even evaded the question of why his father responded first to Bugs’ summons, not to dad, or father, or Mel.

The fact that Blanc did not recall what Bugs had said reminded me of a more profound manifestation of how we appear to be built to do this kind of thing. There's a good description of it in Michael Ventura's essay Hear That Long Snake Moan about (among other things) Voodoo, which I happen to have handy:

Spurred by the holy drums, deep in the meditation of the dance, one is literally entered by a god or a goddess. Goddesses may enter men, and gods may enter women. Westerners call this “possession.” That’s too crude a concept for this, though good writers describing the phenomenon have been forced to use it; we have no other word or concept that comes close. But instead of possession, it seems more accurate to think of “a flowing through.” The one flows through the other. They flow through each other. As Maya Deren put it in her study of Haitian Voodoo, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti: “The loa [spirit], then, partakes of the head that bears it. The principle is modified by the person.” (Deren's italics.) The body, literally, becomes the crossroads. Human and divine are united within it — and it can happen to anyone.

What a frightening, utterly terrifying concept to our Western minds. Far from inflating the ego, the experience demolishes it while the state lasts. People who’ve been in this state commonly can’t remember what they’ve said or done, and part of the function of the ceremony is to have witnesses who will later tell them what the god said through them. In the West we are so frightened of such states that we assume, when we see them in isolated cases, that they are symptoms of psychosis, if we are charitable; if we are not, we assume — as the first Westerners to see such things assumed — that this is possession by the Devil, and that anything, anything at all, is justified in blotting it out. It is no wonder we tend not to “go south” for our philosophy.

....

The god is seen as the rider, the person is seen as the horse, and they come together in the dance. When the god speaks through the person about that person, almost every sentence is prefaced with the phrase, “Tell my horse ... ” — because the “horse” will have no memory of the “ride” when it is over, and will have to learn of it from others. The morality implicit in this is stated best in Maya Deren’s favorite Haitian proverb: great gods cannot ride little horses.

“There’s a whole language of possession,” Thompson says, “a different expression and stance for each god.” All the accounts are clear that a god is instantly recognizable by its movements, and the movements are different for each. So if the ceremony is to honor Ghede, their equivalent of Hermes, perhaps Erzulie, their Aphrodite, shows up uninvited. But she is recognizable whether she rides a man or a woman because of her distinctive movements and behavior. This suggests a psychic suppleness that has to be staggering to any Westerner. Staggering, and frightening, if we are honest with ourselves. We may speak of a new model of the psyche, we may even be learning to experience life in a way that is more true to the way our many-faced psyches are structured — which is to say, the way they were created to live — but here are people who can dance it!

Here are people who can, to use Jungian terminology, embody an archetype — any single Voodoo worshiper may embody many during a lifetime of ceremonies. They will dance it, speak it, make love through it, manifest it in every possible way, entering and leaving the experience without psychosis, without “mind-expanding” drugs, and while having the support and help of their community, for all of this is integral with their daily lives.

I don't mean to diminish possessory work by reducing it to sock puppetry; on the contrary, I want to ennoble what Henson and Blanc did by saying that their creativity is a manifestation of the same capacity that permits us contact with the gods so intimate that they can live within us as processes independent of what we ordinarily think of as our “self”. Here's Alan Moore in an interview describing his relationship with a god who is very literally a sock puppet.

Do I believe I can raise the dead and talk to them? Yes, I do. Not in any physical sense because that would smell. I don’t see any point in that. You don’t want a maggot bag walking around your living room. But could I re-animate the idea of a person in the useful sense and be able to communicate with that person – or, at least, to believe that I was communicating with that person to such an extent that the information I received was as good as if that person was talking to me? Yes, I do. Most of the effects described in classical magical tradition I believe I can duplicate with art, possibly drugs – or some other means of integrating myself more deeply with that sort of reality, that sort of consciousness – I believe I could do most of the things that are described in traditional magic. This opens up wider possibilities. It also enables me to understand myself on a deeper level. By accepting the idea of endless pantheons of gods, I somehow accept these creatures as being distinct and separate from me, and not as being, to some degree, higher functions of me. Iain Sinclair was asking me about this: he asked me ‘do you think they are inside you, or outside you?’ The only answer I could come up with was, the more I think about it the inside is the outside. That the objective world and the non-objective world are the same thing, to some degree. Ideaspace and this space are the same space. Just different ends of the scale. That’s not a very good explanation, but the best I can come up with so far. All of these things are exploratory, they are exploring me, exploring the world of ideas, attempting to contact what I believe may be potent forms of energy. Like for example, I might do a work to put me in contact with the god Mercury. If the information I get from that is valuable to me, and new enough, it doesn’t really matter whether the god Mercury is there at all, does it? There is a channel that I have called the god Mercury, some sort of information source I have named.

I can understand that on an abstract level. If the information provided is useful, why question the actual existence of whatever is providing that information. But on a personal level, if you were receiving information that you couldn’t immediately attribute to as coming from yourself, wouldn’t you feel absolute terror?

In my own experience – and this is where we get into the complete madness here – I have only met about four gods, a couple of other classes of entity as well. I’m quite prepared to admit this might have been a hallucination. On most of the instances I was on hallucinogenic drugs. That’s the logical explanation – that it was purely an hallucinatory experience. I can only talk about my subjective experience however, and the fact that having had some experience of hallucinations over the last twenty-five years or so, I’d have to say that it seemed to me to be a different class of hallucination. It seemed to me to be outside of me. It seemed to be real. It is a terrifying experience, and a wonderful one, all at once – it is everything you’d imagine it to be. As a result of this, there is one particular entity that I feel a particular affinity with. There is late Roman snake god, called Glycon, he was an invention of the False Prophet Alexander. Which is a lousy name to go into business under. He had an image problem. He could have done with a spin doctor there.

Anyway, the False Prophet Alexander is a Moon and Serpent hero, a saint if you like. He was running what seemed to be a travelling Seleni medicine show, he would do a performance of the mysteries of the goddess Soi. The only reference to him is in the works of Lucien, who calls him a complete charlatan and fraud. At some point, Alexander the False Prophet said he was going to preside over the second coming of the god Aeschepylus, the serpent god of medicine. He said this is going to happen at noon tomorrow, in the marketplace. So everyone said ‘sounds good’ and they all went down there. After a little while, they said “come on, False Prophet Alexander, where is the second coming of Aeschepylus?” At which point, The False Prophet Alexander bent down, reached into a puddle at his feet, pulled up an egg, split it with his thumbnail, and there was a tiny snake inside, and said “Behold, the new Aeschepylus”, took it home with him, where over a week it apparently grew to a prodigious size until it was taller than a man, and had the head and features of a man. It had long blonde hair, ears, eyelids, a nose. At this point he started to exhibit it in his temple, providing religious meeting with this incarnate god. At which point Lucian said, it was obvious, I could have done that. Lucian is another James Randi, you know, I could have done that, he got the snake’s head under his arm, speaking tube over his shoulder, child’s play. And he’s probably right, that’s probably how he did it. If I’m going to adopt a god, I’d rather know starting out that it was a glove puppet. To me it’s a real god, there’s nothing that precludes a glove puppet from being a real god. How else would you explain the cult of Sooty? But a god is the idea of a god. The idea of a god is a god. The idea of Glycon is Glycon, if I can enhance that idea with an anaconda and a speaking tube, fair enough. I am unlikely to start believing that this glove puppet created the universe. It’s a fiction, all gods are fiction. It’s just that I happen to think that fiction’s real. Or that it has its own reality, that is just as valid as ours. I happen to believe that most of the important things in the material world start out as fiction. That everything around us was once fiction – before there was the table there was the idea of a table, and the idea of a table before tables was fiction. This is the most important world, the world of fictional things. That’s the world where all this starts. So I had an experience which seems to be an experience of this made-up, Basil-Brush type entity. It was devastating.

This was the pivotal experience. You were forty when you had this occult Road to Damascus.

Yes. On the day I was forty, I decided I was going to become a magician. That was on November 18th. On January 7th the following year, that was when all of a sudden the lightning bolt hit. It all got a bit strange. For a couple of months after that, I was – looking back – probably in some borderline schizophrenic state. I was very spaced out – godstruck, you babble for a while. It’s a natural response. Babble like an idiot. I’m surprised that – when I look back at what I was saying – that so much of it at least makes a fragment of sense because I was in some divine haze. “I see it all now”, you know, I must have been unbearable for two or three months. I’ve integrated that now into the rest of my life. Now I can deal with functionality on a practical level. And I still have this relationship with this imaginary snake. My imaginary pal. If I’m going to be dealing in totally imaginary territory, it struck me that it would be useful to have a native as a guide. So I can have my imaginary conversations with my imaginary snake, and maybe it gives me information I already knew in part of myself, and maybe I just needed to make up an imaginary snake to tell me it.

Do you have a ritual during which these various conversations take place?

Increasingly, with that particular god, it becomes more casual. It will be talking to the giant imaginary snake god much in the same way you talked to God when you were six, in the quiet silence of bed. If I wanted a full-scale manifestation, one that was apparent to other people, then I would do a ritual. I have displayed the snake god to other people. Or I have consciously hypnotised them into accepting my psychotic belief system, given them drugs, and made them think they are having the experience I have. Whatever you want. I’m not fussed.

The human brain is a palace with chambers set aside where the gods may dwell.

6 comments:

Rhett Aultman said...

Indeed, Paganism as it is seen today presents to people a toolkit for psychic externalization and fragmentation. I'm not so sure, however, that this is a good thing. I've known lots of people of lots of spiritual bent who felt beset by emotional reactions they couldn't control, desires they couldn't accept, or thoughts that ran contrary to their egos. And I could see where naming these fragments and interacting with them would be more productive than leaving then unnamed. Ultimately, though, I would find it (and have found it) preferable to reconcile with these fragments and to shed the need to experience them as external.

I also want to take a counterpoint to Mr. Moore's remarks that go along the lines of "Who cares why it works as long as it does?" I hear this sort of thing from magicians all the time. The answer, which should be plainly apparent to anyone in an investigative or creative profession, is that you should understand the process and the result as deeply as possible because that's how you improve both your effectiveness and efficiency. To be frank, when magicians pull that line of reasoning, I suspect one of two things is at play. The first major possibility is laziness. The second is that they're afraid looking too hard into their own process might shed personal doubt on this whole magick thing or that they're worried they might find someone else to be.

Jonathan Korman said...

I have mixed feelings about the embrace of possessory work in Pagan culture.

On the one hand, the (pardon the pun) demonization of possession in the Abrahamic traditions has cut off Western culture from a significant element of fundamental human spiritual experience, as Ventura asserts. As an enthusiast about the value of the Pagan project of developing a new form of Western spiritual practice which includes much of what it has historically neglected and excluded, I find Pagans doing possessory practices interesting and exciting.

But the fact that the surprising secret of possession turns out to be how easily one can create these states tempts one to neglect the development of sophisticated techniques for handling them. Pagan culture includes some very skillful masters of possessory technique, but there are not enough of them to go around, and the need for their skills is not taken as seriously as it might be in all quarters. We see a lot of sloppy and reckless possessory practice out there with awkward, ugly, or even dangerous consequences.

So I do not want to come off like a cheerleader for going out there and getting yourself possessed. Fascinating (and ultimately as important) as it is, we could use a fair bit less urgent enthusiasm for it in Pagan culture right now.

Jonathan Korman said...

I have struggled with the question of the mechanics of magickal effectiveness for a long time, and share a variant of Moore's radical agnosticism about how magick works. I find it useful to conceive of magickal symbols and entities as being real, but also very wise to not believe that they are real. Much as a rocket engineer must deeply commit her thoughts to the Newtonian mechanics which she knows does not represent the true mechanics of the Cosmos.

Rhett Aultman said...

I'm not sure how many rocket scientists are all that worried about their formulae not being "the true mechanics of the Cosmos." I think that's a bit of magician projection on them.

Chevaliermalfait said...

Julian Jaynes...

Arvind Venkataramani said...

Computationally speaking, if a person is a process running on a standardized architecture, then with sufficient information, the process can be recreated...