Between & Beyond: The Haunted Animal (Episode I)

After I earned my undergrad degree, I found myself working at a bookstore on Long Island. One day I noticed that we carried a series called Introducing… Each installment sought to survey the work of one philosopher or one branch of knowledge and combine the summary with artwork in the style of a graphic novel. So, in my last semester of study, I had just gotten turned on to the postmodern philosophers and decided to see what the Introducing Postmodernism book had to say.

On the very last page of the book I found the very last sentence which read: “The only cure for Postmodernism is the incurable illness of Romanticism.” This struck a very deep chord in me. Long before I had read anything about Postmodernism, identified as a Romantic and here were these two approaches that meant a lot to me being melded together. But what does it ultimately mean? I made tenuous connections and interpretations and it seemed to link the world of Western academic philosophy and the outsider subculture of entheogenic/psychedelic philosophy. But why was Romanticism an illness? Because of subjectivity? Many other questions sprung around the core of truth in that sentence.

We all go through life fashioning our lenses. We try to make sense of the world from a certain point of view. The lens I use these days has been fashioned largely through my efforts to unpack that last sentence of that rather incidental book. That was nearly 10 years ago. What I wish to do here is create a sub-series to this column where I can approach ideas that fall under this umbrella. Not a series that has a definitive endpoint, but something I can return to when the mood strikes me. I am fond of this lens that I have polished and crafted because it calls into focus a great variety of issues across a wide spectrum, from the personal role we must imagine for ourselves in our mundane culture, to the ideological approach to politics and law and economics, to the larger-context ontological and existential questions at the core of what it means to be human.

Much of these considerations revolve around the problem with language. At the core of everything we know and believe, and therefore everything that needs to be fixed and healed and that makes us suffer, is our relationship with language. We take language deeply for granted. In the end, each of us, myself included, can’t even imagine a world without it. It is by and large the very fabric of what we call reality. But the title I gave to this article is my way of expressing what I have come to understand about language. Human beings are the haunted animal. Animals haunted by this other entity we call language.

This is always the hardest part: to use language to describe what I know about it, sense about it. Language and humanity form a sort of caduceus, together twisting up along the core of reality, a double helix, a quantum entanglement or maybe metaphysical entanglement would be more accurate. David Abrams wrote a book called Spell Of The Sensuous which approaches language with the same kind of skepticism. In it, he discusses the phenomenologists Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. During this discussion, the idea of synesthesia is brought up. If we define synesthesia as the melding of two sensory inputs experienced as one, then our vision is always a synesthetic experience. Our two eyes see the world independently, but our brain melds them into one vision. I bring this up to suggest that we can think of language as the sixth sense. It is the synesthetic amalgamation of all our senses frozen in time. In this way, language becomes its own reality. It opens the door to the dimension of time and history allowing us to live there and slowly forget the world that came before. The danger is that the world that came before still supports us. It still keeps us alive. And, it is slowly dying because of our neglect.

When thinking about the world that did come before, we might catalog the forces of the universe that are older than language: motion, or vibration and frequency. Bees communicate by dancing. Young fawns have not run from me because they haven’t seen other deer do it enough yet. Deer in the Czech Republic still don’t cross into Germany even though the electric fence that once blocked their migration was removed generations ago. How much of our lives are habitual? Can we understand our relationship to language through arcane terms like sorcery, spells, conjurations, ritual? Are what we call laws of the universe also habitual? Can they then therefore be bent and broken? Are intention and will also forces of the universe that are more fundamental than the human endeavor? Science is the only dogma to date to say, “no.”

Walking past a construction site the other day, I realized that what our relationship to language often prevents is participation. I saw the workers not only making a living but building something that would exist and last as a symbol of advancement and benefit for others. I realized how satisfying that must be and how that must shape their understanding of the world. Their lenses. So our movement through this world can be participatory or conceptual. One without the other seems inadequate. As much as construction workers participate in the advancement of civilization, the corporations that fund and seal deals are removed from the impact they have on the Earth and are blinded by profit, which is a concept.

For the average citizen of America, the level of participation in our lives seems deliberately choked off. We are removed from our food, from our government, from our culture, from our neighborhoods, from our self-determination. Is this deliberate sorcery? We live in bubbles forged of language. Identities that are removed from the world that enables them. The shamanic process and Joseph Campbell’s hero journey both involve escaping society in order to confront the wilderness and then returning with a new vision for what must be. The lines of escape have become blurred. The conceptual world we live in is somewhat of a desert, a society and a wilderness at once. What lies beyond language? How do we escape? How do we return?

When posing the question of what lies beyond to myself, I was enjoying 17-year cicadas who emerged last summer here in New York. I tried to behold them not as some objectified detached phenomenon, but as a people of the Earth with their own tradition, custom, and ritual. So, their answer to what do we do without language: grow wings and transform.