Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Altered Consciousness and "The Idiot"

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat in front of the stove, feeding it wood now and then while reading Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot in  Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation.

Chapter V of Part Two has Prince Myshkin back from Moskow, looking for Rogozhin and then Nastasya Filippovna. His mind starts to slip, a sure prelude to an epileptic seizure, and he fights for clarity of thought, wrestles with his perceptions.

"He fell to thinking, among other things, about his epileptic condition, that there was a stage in it just before the fit itself (if the fit occurred while he was awake), when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life's forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse. The sense of life, of self-awareness, increased nearly tenfold in these moments, which flashed by like lightning. His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a jolt of sublime tranquillity, filled with serene, harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause" (225-226).

"'So what if it is an illness?' he finally decided. 'Who cares that it's an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, gives a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life?' . . . If in that second, that is, in the very last conscious moment before the fit, he had happened to succeed in saying clearly and consciously to himself: 'Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!'—then surely this moment in itself was worth a whole life" (226).
Reflection on Kitchen Counter

"'At that moment,' as he had once said to Rogozhin in Moscow, when they got together there, 'at that moment I was somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase that time shall be no more. Probably,' he had added, smiling, 'it's the same second in which the jug of water overturned by the epileptic Muhammad did not have time to spill, while he had time during the same second to survey all the dwellings of Allah'" (226-227).

"Then suddenly it was as if something opened up before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul. This moment lasted perhaps half a second. . . . Then his consciousness instantly went out, and there was total darkness. He had had a fit of epilepsy, which had left him very long ago. It is know that these fits, falling fits properly speaking, come instantaneously" (234).

As I'm reading about this extraordinary (and the word is used repeatedly) hightened consciousness, perhaps 8 hours since I last ate something, and while drinking a strong gin-and-tonic, I can feel my own consciousness shift. I put down the book and gaze into the fire. I lay my head on the chair's arm and gaze out the window. The vertical lines of the house, of the window frames and the post of the front porch and the stucco corner stand out vividly. I shift my gaze slightly to the maple skeletons, find a dark spot, it must be a remaining leaf, that breaks the lines of the branches, and savor the experience of unexpected and powerful perception. The dark spot. I focus on the dark spot, on the contrast between the spot and the ink lines of the trees. I'm flooded with joy at the beauty—the simple beauty that is obviously in the eye and soul of the beholder and perhaps only thus beautiful. I wander into the kitchen and find an extraordinary reflection shining from the counter.

Thrilled, I get my camera and take pictures of what I am seeing, wondering how the images will resonate in the morning.

So here they are. While I think they are striking, there is no way, other than in these descriptions in language, to get at the phenomenological experience, at the feelings and perceptions that were the experience.

Later in the evening, wondering, as had Myshkin ("Was he dreaming some sort of abnormal and nonexistent visions at that moment, as from hashish, opium, or wine, which humiliate the reason and distort the soul? He could reason about itsensibly once his morbid state was over. Those moments were precisely only an extraordinary intensification of self-awareness" (226)), how real or how authentic or how meaningful the experience was, I thought again of the careful, rational, abstemious years I spent as a practicing, teetotalling Mormon. There are benefits to such a temperate life; but as I was trying to make sense of my own life in the new context that emerged with the death of my brother John, of AIDS, as I measured my prim abstinence with his sometimes profligate drinking, I remembered calls from Van Winkles, the restaurant he worked at in San Tee, California, a Chargers' game blaring in the background, John's voice both excited and a bit slurred.

I visited the restaurant, and I've thought, often, about contrasts between two brothers, some in his favor, some in mine:

Van Winkles, 1994

The tiny khaki-colored can of Emergency Drinking Water among John’s things was for that horrible moment, perhaps, when there was nothing stronger in the house. During telephone conversations with Mom, John routinely promised he would quit drinking and get more education. His calls to me were often fortified by alcohol. 
I don’t get drunk. Nor did I call him.


* said...

reads like a lovely time of altrered consciousness which is the best state for taking photographs.. :)

michael morrow said...

Dostoevsky's writing...I want to too....seems that the most productive writers have ability to take complex situations and ideas to construct "recognizable" images simplicity ...providing access into personal spaces available to the individual reader ...images complex brains translate into simple...and accessible....

this guy really gets what writing should be.....