The 1999 movie the Matrix was filled with puzzles. In some ways it was really mind blowing. For instance the biggest question, stolen from Alice in Wonderland was this:
What is the Matrix?
Morpheus: Do you want to know what it is?
Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
Neo: What truth?
Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.
A good film, and, despite the fact it was a big budget blockbuster and had Keanu Reeves’ rather wooden performance, it asked interesting questions. The Matrix was indeed the world that people thought was real. Life, all of it, was a dream. Nothing one ever though was happening, was actually happening. So the question might be asked is this : What if we are in the matrix? What if none of this is real? Or more to the point, what if reality is being controlled? The notion behind the movie is one of the oldest puzzles known to sceptics like myself. What if we are not living, but dreaming we are alive in a world with a life and a partner and a career and a history? What if we are simply brains in a jar being fed impulses by mad scientists performing a devious experiment? The mad scientists in the movie were machines using people for an energy source, people who were living out their lives inside a vast machine that was feeding them impulses. By extension the jar that I am envisaging is rather like a skull, your skull, and my skull, and we are experiencing a delusion. I am not really here. I exist merely in your mind. So if we think about it, the ‘world’ or what the think is the world, is electrical signals feeding our brains impulses all the time and we are reacting to these impulses, living and thinking and reading and sleeping, and we have no way of ever getting past our senses to check to see if anything we know or think we know, including all the scientifically verifiable knowledge that we have collected, or indeed think we have collected, for the past number of millennia, is true or real. Scary stuff.
Now I want to make clear I don’t for a moment think we are all brains in Jars. Besides it being paranoid thinking, the problem is this: If a mad scientist put my brain in a vat and hooked me up to a vast computer and fed me a fake reality, how would I know? Its impossible to know or ever realize or even conceive of being a brain in a vat if one actually is. It would be a delusion within a delusion, and it could never lead to anything other than an infinite regress of thinking. It would involve my own consciousness being able to examine itself, realize somehow that everything I was perceiving and experiencing was all fake, Maya, and then unplug myself. One has to be shown something like that. Reality has to be disconnected, then another, ‘real’ reality has to be re plugged in. The question then arises, how do we know the difference between the former real and the second supposedly ‘real’ reality? A devilish problem. The simple fact is that the real is what we have been given before our eyes as real. Reality is as we have been given it. It is what our senses and our knowledge gives us, with all the misconceptions and faulty thinking attendant to that. Now we all live with various degrees of misconceptions about reality, and I agree, there is a lot of delusion going around and mistaken and faulty thinking, all of which we try to correct but to draw from that we are all sitting in some lab somewhere being fed illusion, is besides being unhelpful (except as a thought experiment perhaps), its something of a road to nowhere.
*Please check out an update on this blog post which explains how this diagnosis, which at the time of writing this post I accepted, turned out to be a mis-diagnosis*
I have suffered from Bipolar Disorder for as long as I can recall, certainly the last 32 years or so. I have had several major depressive episodes in my life and I am now stable for the past couple of years, thanks to the love and support of friends and loved ones, excellent psychiatric assistance from the Health Service, and medication that I take daily. Both my parents have in their own way suffered and manifested symptoms of their own disorders and my extended family have in their own lives been subject to extreme bouts of either psychosis or severe depression or delusional disorders. One cousin I remember taking me aside and explaining to me in careful detail how he stored up sleeping pills in case he wanted to kill himself and liked hanging around train tracks just to watch the trains speed past. I have seen relatives talk to imaginary saints and invisible people – sometimes for hours at a time, or starve themseves almost to dealth, be taken into hospital with undiagnosable ailments or simply fly off the handle in uncontrollable bouts of rage. I have come home from holidays and seen the walls of bedrooms covered in the most miniscule writing. I remember trying to understand what my uncle had written but was unable to. I thought to myself: golly this must have taken him ages to write! He was taken into hospital again as he had obviously gone off his meds. The stories are endless and have given me endless material to think over and write about. Why am I writing about this? Am I trying to ‘out’ my family? Not at all. Most of the people I am talking about here are no longer with us, but the one thing that does remain with me was the terrible stigma that acompanied their illness. For instance today I had an appointment to see my psychiatrist for a check up, and who did I meet in the wating room but a former neighbour of mine, someone who used live four doors up from me. He nearly wilted with embarassment to see me there. I smiled and shook his hand and tried to engage him in conversation, but he was clearly too embarassed to talk to me. The experience reminded me of long lost relatives and all they went through. It was not enough that that they had to cope with a condition they could barely control, or for the most part their illness made their lives unmanagable, but they were somehow treated as somehow to be pitied or less worthy persons than others who didnt have a psychosis or a mental disorder, something to be kept a secret and divulged under the strictest confidence. I hear stories of people who are diagnosed with some psychiatric condition or other, who hear voices and their immediate reaction is shame and secrecy, a shame and a secretiveness that goes back to an era where to hear voices was to be tempted by the devil, the prejudice and delusion that mentally ill people are posessed, that it means a family is somehow cursed, that all this brings shame on a family, or that parents feel they have failed their children in some way. Its a very natural reacton, and it has a historical and cultural basis and it needs to be addressed. I often have wondered if my writing has come from that place where my bipolarity resides. I often feel the rush of energy when I write which is associated with mania. I often feel when I write that its like as though I am taking dictation, from where or how it comes I do not know. Certainly I know that living publicly rather than keeping my mental illness a secret has made an enormously positive impact on my life. I think there should be more of it, no question.
St. Patrick was probably English, not Irish. (Patrick comes from Patricius – member of the patrician order, a noble, or member of the upper class or ruling elite). There were probably more than one ‘St. Patrick’. Moreover the arrival of Christianity, what is ostensibly a cult of death and resurrection – the sacrifice of earthly existence to the promise of an eternal reward, a religion practised by billions of people in various forms all over the world, may not have been good for Ireland. That being the case, it happened. So in a way, its a bit ironic that the greatest celebration of Irishness has its origins around the arrival of a Middle Eastern religion to Ireland in the fourth or fifth century CE, a county which had its own Druidic traditions up to that point. These Druidic traditions were ritual celebrations around the seasons:- February 1- Imbolg, May 1- Bealtaine, August 1 -Lunasa, and November 1- Samhain( which is Halloween) – all of which were suppressed or subsumed into Christianity. If I were to choose a way to celebrate my Irishness, I would not choose green beer and St. Patrick – a celebration of embarrassing intoxication and the suppression of a highly intelligent imaginative people to a suppressive and negative ideology that damaged our minds, our spirits, and our sexuality. I would Choose Theatre and Poetry and Art. I would choose a festival of history and music, and a celebration of our ancient tradition of combating oppression and of incorporating so many different races and traditions and worldviews into this small Island for so many millennia. We also are huge travellers, but ‘The Gathering’ was over-nostalgic and commercialized.
The biggest celebration of St Patrick’s Day occurs not in Ireland, but in New York. So the biggest celebration of Irishness occurs in New York, one of the great Cities at the heart of one of the great Empires of the Twenty First Century. This year (2014) the NY parade has banned, to my horror, any Lesbian Gay Bisexual or Transsexual signs in its parade. If your are Gay or Transsexual, you can participate, but can’t carry any sign of your sexual preference. I can, for instance, carry a sign I am heterosexual were I participating, but some of my oldest friends, were they participating, could not carry a sign saying they were gay. This is probably one of the most anti inclusive anti-Irish measure imaginable, deeply prejudicial, and it is not without significance that the Mayor of New York has boycotted the event, along with the Mayor of Boston, some big industries – including Guinness. But our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) is attending, which is deeply embarrassing. When challenged on the issue, his reply was that the parade had to do with Irishness , not sexuality, which is a questionable and evasive response in a country known for welcoming all races and mindsets to their shores for millennia. I wonder what his response would have been had heterosexuals been banned from expressing their views. Or Muslims? Or Catholics? The LGBT community are a much a part of Irishness as James Joyce and Carolan the harpist. Kenny’s argument is evasive and frankly absurd.
I recently picked up a book, well to be clear, today I randomly picked up a book on the way out the door because the thought of standing in shopping aisles with nothing to do but stare at cucumbers, peas and coleslaw makes my head explode. While waiting outside a shop I started reading bits of it and I was hooked. I started chuckling to myself and got a few funny looks from people, and I think I might have frightened a few small children. But it is an utterly fascinating book, and I haven’t been able to put it down. Its a puzzle book, and I love puzzles. Its called
Two Errors In The
The Title of
(By Robert M. Martin)
The first error is easy to spot – there are two definite articles in the title. the second is more devious and naughty. The second error is that there is no second error in the title of the book, which is in itself an error. Whoever this person Robert Martin was – I liked him immediately. Like all sharp thinkers, Martin displayed a finely developed sense of humour and of the absurd. The book has chapter titles like – Two ways to kill Granny, or Why its not certain you will be in a plane crash and Why believing in God is a good bet. A few of the puzzles I had run into before, which in no way implied I was able to solve them now any more than the first time I ran into them. The best puzzles are those that leave you thinking, the kinds of ideas that don’t have easy solutions, puzzles that are metaphors for the big questions. My personal favourite was the chapters that dealt with relational differences. Imagine if the universe got bigger, right down to the size of a sub atomic particle. This means that all the clocks, all the weights and measures, all distances, everything was bigger, by, say a factor of three. Could we tell the difference? How can we know everything is suddenly bigger if everything is bigger within five minutes, down to every scinitilla of historical and scientific data? I mean this is a thought experiment, but in real terms, how would one know the difference between the larger and the smaller universe? Who can measure it? what criterion would or could be used?It’s easy to dismiss this kind of question pragmatically by saying it has no relevance whatever to everyday life, but to dismiss it on pragmatic grounds is the very opposite of true pragmatism, because realistically to not look on how we view reality, how we interpret the world, and how limited our view of the world is, is a deeply unpragmatic and limited approach to the world. R. Martin takes it a step further, borrowing from Kant’s Critique. Imagine, he says, if the entire universe was taken up with one right hand. Just one right hand stretched across the fabric of space-time, floating eternally (hilarious and kind of a scary thought really). Imagine, he says, another parallel universe where there is only one left hand. How can we tell the difference? One would have to hypothetically know the difference between right and left, then visit each universe and explain to the hand (obviously somehow sentient) the concept of handedness, alternative universes and the idea of chirality. But that aside, there are thinkers who would argue, that as there is no criterion for handedness within the confines of each universe, then the notion makes no sense and is moot in that universe. Decide for yourself which part you choose makes most sense. Such notions have implications for all kinds of ways of looking at the world. Take for instance the notion of culture and belief systems. If certain philosophical or religious notions do not for instance exist in particular worldviews and cultures, can we hold people to account for breaking rules they do not believe to be valid? It certainly begs the question. Food for thought. One can hear the right hand clapping in that universe right now.
The movie Gravity 2013, at the time of writing, has grossed over $700 million world wide. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Also, at the time of writing, it has collected up more awards than you can shake a stick at. Gravity won seven awards at the 86th Academy Awards, the most for the ceremony, including Best Directorfor Cuarón and Best Original Score, BAFTA Awards, including Outstanding British Film and Best Director, the Golden Globe Award for Best Director, and seven Critics Choice Awards, which I will at this stage pass over in silence.
Gravity is a disaster movie. Gravity is a space chase movie where the main actors are escaping orbiting space debris travelling at speed. A triumph over adversity movie. A movie about new life. A movie about the overview effect: that cognitive shift of awareness where one sees the whole of the earth before one and one experiences a kind of spiritual awareness.
In this movie the brilliant medical scientist (Bullock) and veteran astronaut (Clooney) are disconnected from mission Control, separated from their crew and blown into space due to debris flying faster than 20 thousand miles per hour. This all happens during Bullock’s first mission aboard a fictitious space shuttle mission. The shuttle is destroyed by space debris and with oxygen running low the Principals move from one derelict space station to the next till eventually Bullock lands on Earth having experienced a new lust for life and inner rebirth and gotten past the trauma of losing her daughter (despite the fact that everyone else is dead except her) –this is including her co-star.
The acting in this movie is matched only by the story I have just outlined. Even the catch phrases ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission’ is stolen from the brilliant movie ‘Aliens’ (1987) when Frost talks about getting a bad feeling just as the ship goes into orbital drop of LV 426.
Frost: Man, I’m telling you, I got a bad feeling about this drop.
Crowe: You always say that, Frost. You always say, “I got a bad feeling about this drop.”
Frost: Okay, okay. When we get back without you, I’ll call your folks.
Aliens is a brilliant thrilling beautifully paced action movie with a great plot and equally wonderful effects. Gravity on the other hand is an appallingly acted, appallingly scripted, poorly paced, badly written movie. It looks simply spectacular but looks in this movie are truly deceiving. One gets beautiful sweeping views of the earth, fantastically accurate shots of interiors and exteriors of space stations, lingering shots of Sandra Bullocks buttocks and gym toned body (irritating and sexist). One also gets a truly two dimensional performance from the usually excellent Clooney, who reminds one more of Buzz Lightyear than a grizzled witty thoughtful veteran Astronaut. There were so many times through the movie one longed for the demise of the principals : Burned up on re entry or blown to pieces by space debris, drowned in water or suffocated by oxygen deprivation, lost forever in space or burned alive – at least one limb cut off by debris. Thankfully Clooney suffers a merciful release, and in a truly ridiculous twist to the story. But Bullock had to survive – with nothing more than a beautifully crafted scratch on her perfectly made up face. Why? because its part of a story arc. Despite the fact she had been smashed around several space stations and flung through space and bounced off countless bulkheads, there she stands heroically on the beach: unburned, unbruised, and not a hair missing on her head.
Gravity is just so lightweight. Its a movie filled not with real emotion but sentiment, not with a powerful script but hackneyed phrases, not with acting but re acting. And the worst part was, it won all those awards.
“A Proudseye View of Dublin”
– a talk on FINNEGANS WAKE, Thursday 22 MAY 2014 1 PM
On Wednesday the 22nd of May 2014 at 1pm, downstairs in the beautiful magical enthralling ghostly history ridden Crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, founded in CE 1030, I will deliver a lecture on Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. The talk is part of a festival of events celebrating 75 since the publication of Finnegans Wake in May 1939. It is always enormously intimidating to speak on a work like The Wake. I Have lectured on Finnegans Wake before , and I have found it a pleasure and a huge challenge. I am actually getting jittery writing about it now.
Finnegans Wake is a funny book, written at a very difficult time in Joyce’s life. His sight was gone, by and large, his daughter Lucia Joyce was becoming floridly schizophrenic and was eventually institutionalised,to Joyce’s great distress. Joyce’s own health was failing, and he was drinking heavily during the 17 years the book was under construction. Oh and JJ was writing it under a cloud of disapproval from those who hitherto were his great advocates. I remember the first time I picked up Finnegans Wake. It was about thirty years ago. I was just finished school, a very confused silly shy young man. When I started reading this book, I was instantly perplexed, confused, and hooked by the complex use of puns, jokes, and allusions to tell a story which I spent the next decades in my spare time unravelling – well trying to unravel it.
I remember taking it with me with other books I was reading (as you can imagine from this I didn’t get out much back then), trying to tease out what it meant. Progress was slow and I didn’t have many guides. More than anything, I was suffering from a kind of culture shock, a shock of the utterly new. Reading this brilliantly funny, beautiful masterpiece (if READING is the right word- try getting past a few lines of the text without stopping and going back and asking yourself – ‘what does that mean?’) is rather like trying a new type of food or drink. Or it’s like trying out a new art form – its treasures tend to open up once you get past the shock of the new, that is, once you get past the initial strangeness of it.
It is an archetypically Irish book, (if you hear Joyce read from it you hear the wonderfully idiosyncratic Irishness of the book: – the accents, inflections and musicality of it) and yet Finnegans Wake is a book built from at least 60 languages and a dozen cultures, a book about history and philosophy, mythology and love, and yet a book about a family, a book that incorporates the world. The notion of the world as book, or a world dreamed up as a book, a piece of language mirroring the world and the interconnectedness of the person in the world. If one would like to employ a metaphor for Joyce’s intentionality around FW it would be like an internet-like structure, a network of interconnecting images and metaphors and myths from the story of Isis, the circularity of being and nonbeing as Finnegan, otherwise Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, rises up only to fall down, the cycles of light and dark, the psychological queries about the meaning of life and death, birth and demise, the seemingly endless queries about the deeper cycles that occur within the body, the cycling of blood through the veins and through the heart, mirrored by the tides, the moon, the sky, the night.
One can employ conventional language to describe these things, but Joyce’s words, portmanteau words, conflate meanings from several sources and several different languages, allusions to mythology and scientific and technological terminologies, with an incredible energy, wit and efficiency. The difficulty is to see that each, some, or many of these words do so much more than point to a singular meaning. The words point multi-directionally outwards to other words in the context of the sentences or lines they are placed in, and they point to themselves too, as they request from the reader and the thinker some work to mine their sense, sound and meaning and to see their context within the wider world of Finnegans Wake as a book about the world.
Finnegans Wake is a book about the world, all of it, the world as dream. The world as metaphor. This is a dream book. In other words this is a book viewed through the prism, the metaphor and mythological structure of dreams, which means we can take in all the contradictory facets of the world in one once we move from the logical to the analogical.
In correspondence, Joyce offered some clues to the Wake: “It is night. It is dark. You can hardly see. You sense rather” and “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot”. These observations may be his closest approaches to explaining what he was about.
In dreams we have no borders to the imagination. In dreams we think the unthinkable; we have access to the source of the conscious imaginings, the unconscious. So what is happening while we are asleep? FW is all about the sleeping mind. The dark universe that opens up when our conscious minds shut down . Joyce was not entirely unique. The cut-up method as pioneered by William Burroughs in such books as the Soft Machine and Naked Lunch sought through the uses of unconventional language to expand our minds beyond conventional thought through new word forms and the unconventional uses of language We switch off conscious thought and we dream. Tim Finnegan, bigmester Finnegan as he is called in the book, takes a tumble, is humptydumptillioed, his eyes close, he drifts into the netherworld, and the borders of his body and his mind meld with the city of Dublin, and by implication with all that has happed in the city. His consciousness expands to encompass all of history.
The key to Finnegans Wake is the story of the life of the family who live in Chapelizod in Dublin, a story that expands through the world of the Champs Elysées, Elysian Fields, the underworld, to being the history of the world. This becomes possible because of two things. Firstly because it is not a chronological, but an allegorical history the allegorical mechanism works most effectively through the use of the metaphor of the dream. Thus Finnegan falls and dies and he rises and through his death and resurrection the cycle of history is enacted and re-enacted from one historical and mythological personage to another.
Similarly his twin sons, wife and daughter transubstantiate from one epic historical and mythological character to another and the connection between these characters, their historical and mythological context is shown in the pyrotechnics of the language that Joyce uses – the allusory words, words built and twisted out of their old shape and into new forms – words whose meaning and context and association are only seen as having any kind of real meaning when they are seen in terms of the truly astonishingly vast multilingual, multicultural erudition that has gone into their forging. I In looking at these strange words, these bizarre fiery ciphers reveal that they have within them a multiplicity of meanings. They are grenades of words, words that could explode into a thousand fragments of knowledge.
No, I have not really given much away about the talk itself. I am grateful to Des Gunning of ‘FW75’ for asking me to do it. I am also grateful to him for the original research he contributed to the talk. It’s a rare privilege to deliver the talk. I think it’s pretty inexpensive to get in (I am not sure as to the price) and it will last 50 minutes. Oh and there is tea and coffee and biscuits afterwards – in the oldest built space in Dublin!