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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Literature and Altered States of Consciousness (Topical issue). Part I.

Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature (1986).
Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba.

ISBN: 0027-1276

Description: Paperback journal, iv + pages 1-105. Vol. 19, No. 3, Summer 1986.

Contents: Eight articles, notes on contributors.

Contributors: Doris G. Bargen, Rosalie Murphy Baum, Joseph Glicksohn, Chanita Goodblatt, Peter Hyland, T. J. Matheson, S. St. John Stott, Nichaolas O. Warner, Ralph Yarrow.

Note: "The essays appearing in this issue (XIX/3) constitute Part I of a special on Literature and Altered States of Consciousness. Part II (XIX/4) will feature a dramatic concluding essay by Timothy Leary. Subsequent to the publication of Part II, both parts will be reissued as a single volume with an introduction by the editor." (page ii) The editor is Evelyn J. Hinz.

Excerpt(s): "Altered" states of consciousness, whether through dreams, drugs, art or "mystical" practice, have, whatever their respective shortcomings, always been attractive in the final instance because they offer "more," in terms of our experience and understanding of ourselves and our universe. We normally conceive of this as a disclosure of different levels or ways of perceiving, an opening of doors (Blake) or bypassing of valves (Huxley). The model implied here is largely vertical or synchronic: the doors open suddenly and mysteriously under the influence of "inspiration" or chemicals. The trouble with many such descriptions, whether artistic or mystical, is that ineffability or enthusiasm may convey the value, but often obscure the mechanics. It is important to focus on the nature of this moment of revelation, and on all its implications; but we should also remember that consciousness is not a static phenomenon, but a historical process in time. (page 2)

There is evidence to suggest that the origins of performance—even for Greek theater, let alone that of the Far East—are to be found in improvisation. Aristotle in fact says so, though since his remark does not fit too well with traditional theater history, it has usually been ignored. Dionysian rites predate "established" theater, and Dionysus was not so much the god of wine as of the effects of wine (i.e., removal of inhibitions): a link with the "shamanistic" Eastern and Egyptian traditions becomes apparent. (page 4)

It might be possible to define "higher" states of consciousness as conditions in which reality is perceived as consisting of "more" than that which everyday vision brings to light or in which some higher purpose to life may be observed; or "higher" states may be thought of as those which bypass discursive rational processes of thinking, or which give greater scope to "imaginative" vision, or which raise man toward some greater self-knowledge or some sense of harmony with the cosmos. Although all these are useful pointers, they do not establish clear criteria which distinguish these states from those already know, like waking and dreaming. In order to do so these heightened levels would have to be permanently available, unaided by mechanical instruments, and they would have to be characterized by physiological and psychological criteria distinct from those encountered in other states. (page 5)

"Higher' states of consciousness mean more energy in more orderly forms. The orderliness is in the consciousness, in the matter which is organized, and in the organizing relationship. There is no separate envelope of awareness; it fuses with, shapes and is shaped by its "body," even in the resting phase of neutrality. Consciousness is participation: in the multiple possibilities of self, in the capacity for play, and perhaps ultimately in the sense that we are the universe's way of becoming conscious of itself. (Ralph Yarrow, "Neutral" Consciousness in the Experience of Theater, page 13)

Few works offer a better opportunity to consider the relationship between poetry and altered states of consciousness than Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." According to Arnold Ludwig, an altered state of consciousness is characterized by "a sufficient deviation in subjective experience or psychological functioning from certain general norms for that individual during alert, waking consciousness. This sufficient deviation may be represented by a greater preoccupation than usual with internal sensations or mental processes, changes in the formal characteristics of thought, and impairment of reality testing to various degrees." Not only do we find this kind of "deviation" in the structural content of "Song of Myself," but also there is evidence that Whitman personally had such an experience. In a recollection of Whitman in 1866, Helen Price explained: "I remarked him as he entered the room; there seemed to be a peculiar brightness and elation about him, an almost irrepressible joyousness, which shone from his face and seemed to pervade his whole body. It was the more noticeable as his ordinary mood was one of quiet, yet cheerful serenity ...his face still wore that singular brightness and delight, as though he had partaken of some divine elixir." Similarly, in Whitman's notebooks there is evidence that he was familiar with at least one method of meditation: "First of all prepare for study by the following self-teaching exercises. Abstract yourself from this book; realize where you are at present located, the point you stand that is now to you the centre of all. Look up overhead, think of space stretching out, think of all the unnumbered orbs wheeling safely there, invisible to us by day, some visible by night ... ."

Whitman's metaphoric-symbolic language is thus designed to impart new knowledge which cannot be expressed through literal language. His revelation is the result of his mystical experience, an experience characterized by ineffability. Julian M. Davidson has concluded that "mystical ineffability cannot be accounted for by the factors of amnesia or language [a linguistic system] but that it depends, rather, upon a real difficulty with verbal expression during and/or after the experience" W. T. Stace has argued that metaphor and symbol are used in such experiences because literal language cannot convey the mystical truth. Yet over and beyond this substitutive function, metaphoric-symbolic language can be said to impart a new vision of reality ...

If Whitman's metaphoric-symbolic language serves his own vision in this way, however, it also functions as a "dehabituation" device for the reader, in keeping with the strategy described by Reuven Tsur in his Cognitive Poetics. According to Tsur: "Sensuous metaphor may ... be regarded as another literary device to delay some smooth cognitive process, consisting in the contact with an unevaluated image, its function being to prolong a state of disorientation and so generate an aesthetic quality of surprise, startling, perplexity, astounding, or the like." At the same time, the concept of sensuous metaphor also brings us full circle by way of the observation of one of the earliest "cognitive" psychologists, William James who, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, explained that mystical truth "resembles the knowledge given to us in sensations more than that given by conceptual thought." (Chanita Goodblatt & Joseph Glickson, "A Cognitive Psychology and Whitman's Song of Myself, pages 83-89)

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