(I had originally removed this from my Blog due to being unhappy with it. Nevertheless, upon finding it among my old drafts for Evolutionary Metaphors, I now feel differently about it. I have always had an unusual relationship to Neuromancer, and I hope to one day return to this novel and attempt an existential criticism as laid out in Wilson’s books of literary criticism. There is, I think, much to be said about the novel in the new existentialist context.)
In order for a human being to most effectively survive, his idea of the world around him – as it has developed – and himself must be in agreement with one another. This is a very fundamental truth, in so far as it applies both to individuals and cultures at large; for if both have a poor grasp of its environment and of themselves, this will eventually result in destabilisation – politically, environmentally, individually. If either one are to misidentify something even so simple as foodstuff; a danger or an opportunity; a poisonous snake for a twig – it may indeed prove fatal, catastrophic.
Our vision of the world must, from those first initial stages of growth, complexify. First, we emerge from the safe haven of our mother’s womb and into a whole new world of opportunities. But with opportunities comes discrimination, and first we must discriminate ourselves from our mothers, from the world around us, in order to manipulate to our own benefit. We learn to use our voice to attract attention, and then our limbs to touch and hold, and then our legs to manoeuvre us around in search of adventure. From one miracle to the next, our live thus begin.
Eventually we develop our ability to abstractify through the symbolic nature of language, until we are able to communicate with others, who, before us, have undergone a similar development. Spatial as well as temporal awareness grows accordingly to misadventure and marvel, and duly we become more individuated – there is an environment ‘out there’, and then there’s ‘I’, within that environment. At this point, through the medium of language and symbolising, to identification and self-identification, we are truly acculturated; placed into a context as necessarily circumscribed by our culture, our language, customs and environment.
In our initial stages of development we rarely rebel against our culture and environment, for this is in our best self-interest. Only later, when we develop a strong sense of identity, can we criticise and perceive flaws in our society’s fundamental structure, and once we can communicate more effectively we may be able to initiate degrees of change, and therefore further highlight and adjust aspects of our environment as we – and perhaps many likeminded folk – may agree upon. This, in its most basic and crude sense, is the origin of the democratic process. At some point in our development we become aware that, as well as our selves, other people exist too.
However, there comes a point in our lives where our natural organism carries us only so far. Maturity is effectively where we stop physically, that is, biologically evolving, and what awaits us is the gradual entropy of old age, and eventually, death. And yet, there is another type of evolution which is primarily concerned with our consciousness. There is, of course, the sense of purpose, a purpose that may increasingly become ‘blinkered’ by our encroaching habits and biology. This ‘blinker’, acts as what the philosopher Colin Wilson called “the gravitational pull of the ordinary”, which, due to their habitual nature dulls our consciousness to the point of almost total automatisation of perception itself. We cease to see the world as fresh and exciting, and as we get older, it increases until we have symbolised everything. “My ‘automatic pilot’ has taken over my perceptions” and one becomes, as Wilson put it, “condemned to the trivial”; the grey world of the increasingly robotic mind (177-178).
And yet, there is the evolution of our inner mental freedom, and of our sense of being, which, in many religious and mystical disciplines, is generally referred to as the spiritual evolution of man. Indeed, John Shirley, in his biography of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Greek-Armenian mystic and originator of an immensely original and psychologically penetrating philosophy of the ‘Fourth Way’, summarises this type of evolution precisely:
Evolution is usually understood as a kind of refining and empowering of the organism, or spirit, that comes about naturally over time. But again Gurdjieff challenges the popular notion. We cannot evolve mechanically; we can only evolve through conscious effort. And nature is not inclined to help us – our spiritual evolution is not necessary to nature (141)
Later on I will deal with this notion of conscious evolution in more depth, and will apply both Gurdjieff’s philosophy and his excellent interpreter, P.D. Ouspensky, who extrapolates this philosophy in its most accessible form in his 1949 book In Search of the Miraculous. For Gurdjieff argues that certain ‘shocks’ are necessary to dislodge this habitual, robotic consciousness which robs us of a fresh experience of reality as it is. These shocks are usually radically new experiences which challenge our state of being, are absolutely necessary to launch us beyond the basically regulatory, static nature of experience after we mature. In short, the shocks enable us to take a glimpse into a truer reality, and by relation, they inspire in us a thirst for understanding beyond what we habitually know. “Man’s other self is geared entirely to purpose and evolution”, and this other ‘self’ is the ‘I’ that is beyond mere entrapment in the meaning-starved world of our everyday consciousness.
Our culture, our friends and family can aid us in this transition, offering us challenges, alternative ways of being and thinking which may modify our entrenched views. And this may provide us with new modes of understanding as we navigate our way through life’s difficulties. This collectively-glimpsed gnosis proves time and again as an invaluable tool in our self- and collective-development. And yet, certain types of knowledge can only be gained in retrospect, or in moments of quietude, for wisdom tends to unfold gently and without force – it is, as many know too well, the fullness of a meaning that can only come through direct experience. We can know something superficially or mechanically, but a sudden shock – an event that throws us out of our habitual thinking – can suddenly remind us of something that has eluded us, we begin, again, to see things as if anew.
These jolting experiences challenge our habits, and in turn, they may aid in forming a reciprocal dynamism in which our increased consciousness enables us to correctly integrate our psychological energies. We begin to get from life what we put in. Although there are many obstacles, and we are often helped by other people in our lives, it is, in the end, primarily an individual task. We have glimmers that it is us alone who can change our own lives. For as H.G. Wells’s character Mr Polly says “If you don’t like your life you can change it”. In a more integrated state of mind you can identify that the normally robotic ‘I’ is robbing your life of its meaning and purpose, and it is this higher form of identity which can initiate this change – a change initiated beyond the robot.
It is this principle of individuation that shapes, not only our own lives, but our entire species. Eventually our lives spread out, affecting those closest to us; our families and friends and in turn our society, and so on. Like Joseph Campbell says in his celebrated work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we are heroes who must first venture forth into the chaos of the world, called by the adventure of life . . . And our influence may spread further still if we’re successful in this adventure.
At this point it is important to emphasise that our very ideas about the world become the contextual lens through which we see our relationship between the world and ourselves. And if this lens is adequately focused and calibrated to what is called the ‘real’, then our lives become, if our culture allows us, dynamic and evolutionary.
Professor Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Toronto, even goes so far as to argue that “scientific realism [is] nested inside Darwinian competition”, in other words, our moral truths are derivative from a much older struggle to survive and that our scientific view of the world – the Newtonian paradigm – is nestled in this essentially moral universe. Moreover, this moral universe is directly connected to our survival, and if this strays away from the Darwinian truth, we enter the moral ambiguities of a Newtonian universe which is not orientated towards our survival. Truth for Peterson is pragmatic in the sense that it is ‘true enough’ and fundamentally ‘good enough’; indeed if we act upon this truth it increases our chance of survival.
In short there is no ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ in the Newtonian universe, and if this is taken to the extreme, it may destroy our species with the development of technologies out of favour with the Darwinian universe. In other words, we had better nestle our Newtonian one inside the larger framework of a Darwinian reality. Furthermore, this Darwinian ‘reality’ in the form of natural processes, is orientated towards developing itself through competing species. Our lives, our culture, even our science, essentially resonate from the sounding gong of survival, of the anti-entropic Will to Life.
This resonance is excellently exemplified in music itself, for it is a significant factor in determining our orientation by its communal and psycho-neurological effects. There is a interesting development in the West, for music has become more and more disconnected from its community-based roots and has increasingly become individualistic – it is listened to in private, on headphones or in the environment of our own homes. And even then, it is in the form of an MP3 or CD and is a recording of a performance, not, as it may otherwise be, a communally orchestrated and ritual celebration. Iain McGilchrist explores this ‘privatisation’ of music, in his fascinating book, The Master and His Emissary. Indeed, he notes that this phenomena is “rare in the history of the world”, for in “more traditionally structured societies, performance of music plays both an integral, and integrative, role not only in celebration, religious festivals, and other rituals, but also in daily work and recreational and it is above all a shared performance, not something we listen to passively” (104).
Indeed, McGilchrist argues that music itself precedes language, and that its initial usage was to communicate emotion, for the “prosody and rhythmic motion that emerge intuitively from entrainment of the body in emotional expression”, which would infer that these communications would have been immensely useful for our survival. Indeed, he warns us that this is a controversial theory, for music is itself seen as peripheral by geneticists, and thus is regarded as playing a very unimportant role in a Darwinian universe. However, music, it is clear, has played a crucial role in binding people together in communities, solidifying group identities and, as a result, I would argue, enhancing those parts of our brains that make us empathic (the supermarginal gyrus in the cerebral cortex), for music, in its most communal sense is the expression of collective passions, dreams, tragedies and comedies. It is in a sense a pedagogical tool to impart an immensely complex set of imperatives, of warnings of danger and celebration of victory – it is socially binding, and this community enforcement is of enormous importance for group selection and survival. Pythagoras quantified as well as acknowledged the qualities of music and the spheres and just as our brain-waves exhibit a rhythm and a wave, the resultant quality above and beyond these phenomena is consciousness itself. One cannot ignore corollary that music is fundamentally more than just the sum of its parts.
Martha Heyneman’s in her extraordinary book, The Breathing Cathedral, makes the case of a moving pattern “like a dance – a four-dimensional pattern – or like music, in which an invisible unifying force is everywhere felt (however subliminally to the nonmusician) [that] exerts a unifying effect upon the listener”. This unifying effect, as we have mentioned above, she takes “shape in time as well, so that you yourself are participating in such a pattern you can know where you are, not only in space, in relation to other players or dancer, but also in time – where you are in the sequence” (38). Therefore, music, is fundamentally an alignment with a structure beyond that which we can comprehend ordinary Aristotelian logic; you somehow embody the meaning intuitively, or as the poet Robert Bly says, “If you memorize any work you bring it into the body. And then you are participating in space. And then it can become sacred space”.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
This will become more significant with some further examples of ‘sacred space’ and its relationship to human psychology and general wellbeing. For tone has a physiological as well as a psychological effect. For example, in Japan there is the fifth-largest bell ever made, weighing an enormous 74 tons and situated in the Chion-in at Kyoto it is evocatively referred to as ‘The Voice of Buddha’. To strike this enormous bell it requires twenty-five monks to swing the trunk of a cedar tree to invoke its deeply moving tone. Sir Frederick Treves describes its affect in his 1904 book, The Other Side of the Lantern:
mysterious, thrilling, and solemn beyond all imagining. The sound comes out of the wood, and rolls downwards to the town. It is a deep, soft, melancholy note like that of a humming gong. It never rises skywards, it rumbles along the ground. It flows through the listener like water through sand. It penetrates the body like a subtle tingling current . . . It is so sad, so wandering, so desolate, that each slowly recurring boom comes like a sob.
Another example that involves a bell concerns the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who became curiously connected to a church bell which he could be seen from his study window. For Kant this bell became a visceral reminder of the connectedness of the psyche, and its resultant categories, and its being ontologically bound to a sense of place – or, indeed, Bly’s ‘sacred space’. Indeed, Carl Jung believed it came to signify, in some obscure sense, Kant’s own soul. Jung argued that it had become for him a “point of reference in his life, a way of placing himself in space and time”, and so much so that when the “tower was demolished Kant was totally incapacitated for months. He could not function. He felt he had lost part of his soul” (112). Again, it is interesting to note that this is a church bell tower and that moreover a church, of course, is a place of communal and religious worship. As a sacred place, it is a symbol of a consensual agreement upon a set of metaphysical values. Furthermore, it became, unconsciously for Kant, inextricably linked with his identity in space and time, and no doubt it had become a part of his psyche as it was an integral to the psychogeography of Königsberg.
Kant, whose many categories defined the fundamental aspects of reality as apprehended by the mind, must have felt something rather strange about the bell tower’s destruction and his corresponding incapacitation. In Adam Robert’s excellent science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself (2016), which relates closely to what we’ll be discussing in this essay – the mercurial nature of the unknown – describes the inflections of Kant’s category of Quality, these are Reality, Negation and Limitation, the character Kostritsky, elucidates:
. . . quality is the filling up of time with sensation. When time is completely filled, we have very vivid, very strong sensations. When it is meagrely filled, we have weaker sensations. So that’s what reality is, for us. It is the experience of sensation in time. Negation is the opposite; the lack of sensation in time. And limitation is scale between the two, the range of degrees. (98)
In this sense, the church bell tower for Kant enabled him to live with an increased existential quality, in other words, it orientated his existence towards a positive sense of identity that was aligned to a reliable sense of his place in time and space. When this stimulus of the bell tower was removed, it interfered with his usual spatiotemporal adjustment and had sent him spiralling into a form of catatonic depression – i.e. he was lead into a negation of quality.
In Kant’s case there is a significant divide between what is objective and subjective, for in a sense the church tower is, for all purposes, a real thing – a physical object in space and time. Yet, through the lens of the categories it is something somewhat different – it has been categorised and placed somewhere within Kant’s complex relationships between the categories. Kant claimed that we can never know the ‘real’ world as it actually is, for we can only know it through the spectacles of the mind. He called the real reality the Ding an Sich, the unknowable thing in itself. This unknowableness of reality as it truly is upset the dramatist Heinrich von Kleist so much so that he committed suicide!
True objectivity, in the sense of knowing or beginning from the ultimate reality, for Kant, is impossibility. Yet, the very least we can do is to understand consciousness itself and work from there. Objectivity is in itself an interesting idea, for as Jeffrey Kripal points out, it is “visual distance [that is] is . . . the basis of modern reason and modern science, both of which need to create a “distance” between the subject and the object being reasoned about or measured. Hence the modern metaphor of “objectivity”. It’s all about creating objects, which is t say: distance, separation, not us” (274).
Significantly, in Kant’s example, this necessary distance was broken down; the church bell tower was somehow intricately connected with his psychological wellbeing. It is interesting to think that something as symbolic, as essentially communal and religious as a church bell tower could, in some unconscious way, anchor this highly intellectual “loner of Königsberg” in a more communal and vivifying sense of reality. Or, in a more Kantian sense, his time filled up with a “sensation” of himself in time and space. Some deep part of his self was inextricably linked with the bell tower and its destruction.
This problem is addressed in modern works on split-brain research, such as in the aforementioned The Master and His Emissary. However, in 1983 the philosopher Colin Wilson points out an interesting distinction between the left and right hemispheres in his book Access to Inner Worlds. He argues, like McGilchrist, that these two hemispheres of the brain have fundamentally contrasting views of reality, and in a healthy state they basically complement one another. In this complimentary state they align our apprehension of reality in a way which is much more holistic and integral. Again, Wilson could be discussing the effects of music alongside religion and art, for all of these disciplines aim for a large scale view of reality rather than the ‘piecemeal’ realities presented to us through a heavy-handed and reductive left-brain. Says Wilson:
Science came later than religion or art, and in the past century, has gained itself a bad reputation among the religious and the artistically inclined. But this is because scientists have taken it upon themselves to dogmatize about reality, unaware that the reality they perceive through their microscopes is the two-dimensional reality of the left brain. Science is nothing more than a reference system, like the index at the end of a book, which is meaningless without the reality that occupies the rest of the book. And now this slow, plodding method of ‘indexing’ reality is beginning to reveal its true value. For the left brain is never entirely convinced by the ‘revelations’ of religion and art; it is inclined to discount them as mere ‘emotions’. But today its own investigations of the structure of the brain have made it aware that reality is unreal until it is completed by a third dimension.
(1983: p. 117)
For Kant this ‘third dimension’ of reality, however small, was added to his ordinary life by the routine acknowledgement of the church bell tower out of his study window. In some obscure way, when it was demolished, his mind was thrown out of its usual routine and thrown into a dizzying disconnection of meaning – a meaning, moreover, that was supported by two supporting pillars of time and space. The ‘tone’ with which Kant’s life resonated was given shape, in space, by the resonant ringing out of the church bell.
In Living Time the philosopher and student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, Maurice Nicoll, invokes the metaphor of a marionette connected up to ‘outer things’ as being “dead, through lack of realisation of the mystery of the world”. He continues by asking:
What else but the sense of strangeness can awaken us? What else can give us new thoughts, new perceptions? We are dead because we do not try to understand, because we never face the mystery of existence with any real thoughts of our own, because we are satisfied with explanations which prevent us from beginning to think. Or, to put the matter differently, we rest content with the appearance of things – that is, we do not go beyond perceptual consciousness (216).
The question at this point is how can we go beyond perceptual consciousness, how can we know the ‘thing in itself’, the ‘noumena’ as Kant called it? In Kantian terms this can only be known by the ‘transcendental ego’, the ‘I’ which is instrumental in presenting to you – the ordinarily everyday ‘I’ – the world in a pre-digested and categorised form. What this seems to suggest, of course, is that the transcendental ego directly experiences the world as it is. Indeed, Colin Wilson’s philosophy of the ‘new existentialism’ begins from the work of the phenomenologist, Edmund Husserl, who aimed to “unveil the secrets of the transcendental ego”.
Neuromancer – A Cartesian Romance
Before we continue unpacking precisely what Husserl meant by the ‘transcendental ego’, it is worth turning once again to another extraordinarily insightful science fiction novel, which to my knowledge has not been used in a context such as presented in this essay.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) is a profound meditation on the post-modern condition that, in its own unique and circuitous way, effectively resolves the problem of a general sense of being ‘merely trapped in a body’, out-of-context, and generally haunted by entropy and unreality, indeed as were many of the Existentialists in the mid-20th century. As we have already discussed Kant briefly (aided somewhat by Adam Robert’s science-fiction novel, The Thing Itself), an analysis of Neuromancer further enables us to sketch out the mind-body dualism of René Descartes and furthermore helps us to outline the slippery relativisms of post-modernism. Indeed, the metaphor of cyberspace and disembodiment enables us to see a distinct relationship between the body and mind and more importantly, its relationship to its spatiotemporal environment.
Scott Bukatman in Terminal Reality, notes that the “imploded arenas of the datascape become the new phenomenal ground for bodily awareness. It is the experience of the body that operates to centre the subject, which is why the body must serve as the locus for any interface with terminal reality” (243). This is essentially the plight of Case, the protagonist of Neuromancer, who is addicted to the disembodied state made readily available to him in the world of cyberspace. Nevertheless, the more disembodied he becomes, and the more obsessive he becomes about cyberspace, there is a general sense of decay in his body, a disrespect for the ‘terminal’ world of entropic forms, and, fundamentally of the limits of time and space itself. Indeed, the name Case is reminds us that he is encased in his own body, and that no matter what he does, his identity is still intrinsic to his body; he cannot experience the ecstasy of disembodiment without having a body to disembody from.
Case’s yearning for disembodiment, of the infinite kinesis of cyberspace, is strikingly similar to what Colin Wilson called ‘the discovery of inner freedom’. For this, it could be said, is the paradox of a mystical experience; it often appears to go beyond these distinctions of mind and body, conscious and unconscious, being and non-being. Significantly, disembodiment in Neuromancer is often compared to an intense sexual orgasm. Rather like Marcel Proust felt after he had an extraordinarily vivid remembrance of his past, he, like Case, “ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal”. This same sensation is the general lure of cyberspace.
There is a sense that Case is merely an updated, cyberpunk version of the same Romantic quest for super-consciousness that Colin Wilson outlined in his 1957 Religion and the Rebel, in which Wilson argues that the essential drive of the Romantic or mystically-inclined is based on the “recognition of a permanent principle in man, of an element which wars to impose its will on the body conditioned by space and time, is reserved for the few who are awake enough to be aware that time drags the body towards unconsciousness, that ‘to be conscious is not to be in Time’, that the aim of all religion is increased consciousness” (135). Like the Romantics, Case too has tasted both limitation and freedom, but for Case this intoxicating glimpse is dangerously close to hand in the form of cyberspace – in fact, it has a similar attraction as alcohol does for many ‘outsiders’; it stimulates semi-mystical experiences but in the end depletes their body’s healthiness as a result. Eventually this means of escape becomes overwhelming and can lead to death or suicide.
In fact, fundamentally Case’s vision of the world and his body is that of a ‘fallen state’ akin to the beliefs held by the Gnostics. Carl Jung describes the central mythology underlying Gnostic cosmology from a pre-Fallen God’s-eye perspective:
. . . the idea of Gnosis, the nous, that beholds his own face in the ocean: he sees the beauty of the earth and . . . he is caught, entangled in the problems of the world. Had he remained the nous or pneuma, he would have kept on the wing, would have been like the image of God that was floating over the waters and never touching them; but he did touch them and that was the beginning of human life, the beginning of the world with all its suffering and beauty, its heavens and hells.
Similarly the literary critic Benjamin Fair argues that the central exploration of Neuromancer is “how technology and global capitalism influence our ontology by generating a world of images that have no original referent: meaning is cut loose from our surroundings, so that the self and the world we knew are in question” (2005). In both the Gnostic myth and Neuromancer there is a general sense of being ‘cut loose’ from our ‘original referent’, rather like Kant’s collapse after the destruction of the church bell tower. Interestingly, it is both a combination of a sexual encounter, music in the form of reggae dub, and a near-death experience that precisely reanimates Case’s respect for what he refers to throughout the novel as his “meat” body – and thus redeems him from this quasi-fallen state.
Contrasted to this ‘cut loose’ world of a Gnostic deity or a post-modern blurring of our identity is a Rastafarian group in the novel collectively known as the ‘Zion Cluster’. Fair describes this group as providing an “alternative to the world that has driven Case to suicide: it is a symbol of the embodiment that contrasts with the matrix as a symbol of disembodiment”, indeed, as Case has become increasingly uncomfortable with his physical body he in fact flinches from bodily contact, and significantly observes that “[the] Zionites always touched you when they were waking, hands on your shoulder (1984: p. 106), therefore emphasising the Rastafarian’s general confidence with which they regard their own bodies, a complete contrast with Case who is generally cold, distant and non-sensual. In fact, the Rastafarians prove vital for Case’s own physical survival.
One of the significant moments in the book is when Case’s consciousness is entrapped in a subjective time-loop by Neuromancer, the artificial intelligence within cyberspace, in which in ‘real time’ his body is ‘flat lined’. However one of the Rastafarians, Maelcum, is still in connection with the Case’s body as it is hooked up to the computer console, and as the reggae-dub music is pumped through this acts as a defibrillator to Case’s heart, which thus saves him from a subjectively endless form of psychological torture in a state outside of time. By extension this restores in Case a natural biological rhythm brought about by a community and through the medium of music. Another significant event also happens within cyberspace, and thus, in an odd reversal, reminds him of the importance of his own flesh. Again, he is captured by Neuromancer in the virtual world, this time the AI takes the tactic of simulating the love of his life, Linda. And although Case knows this to be a mere virtual representation, he nonetheless makes love to her and, in the act he regains a powerful insight:
Something he’d lost and found so many times. It belonged, he knew – as she pulled him down, to the mean, the flesh the cowboys mocked. It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read (239)
Sex, like music and community, reminds Case that empathy is an enormous and important element of human existence. It is a radical part of human embodiment, the only way that we can embrace being who we are, in our state of corporeality. And furthermore, he realises that in its own way the ‘meat’ body is more complex than the world of cybernetics, of computer simulations and virtually-mediated disembodiment – there is, in a more real sense, a great responsibility to exist. This reminder offers him the realisation that the human genome is similarly programmed through the DNA, embedded as it is in an evolutionary framework, an “infinite and complex thing”, mysterious and enigmatic; the wonder and appreciation for his ‘meat’ is no longer reduced, but extraordinarily increased by an almost mystical flash of his own responsibility along this mortal coil.
Says Wilson in Introduction to the New Existentialism (1966)
We are all trapped in a world of dreams inside our own skulls, and nothing short of the threat of immediate death will wake us up to intense appreciation of our lives. We have forgotten that the world out there really exists. For most of us, it is a shadow world. Improved techniques of communication have only blurred the outlines further; we live so much through books, films, television, etc., that dream and reality have only become further confused (25)
Indeed, this is precisely what has happened to Case – he has forgotten about the world ‘out there’ and its immense complex beauty. He has, instead, become seduced by a counterfeit world, a counterfeit mundas imaginalis. The philosopher Jeremy Naydler, in Technology and the Soul Part One: Living in the Shadow of the Machine (2008) foresees a danger in our addiction in our modern times with virtual worlds, seeing them as masquerading themselves as counterfeit forms of imagination, instead of true imagination: a ‘realm of images’ that is profoundly archetypal and real, and, moreover, essentially religious. Instead, he feels, we have rejected this mediation between “the human soul and deeper archetypal realities” and instead replaced them with “machine-generated virtual worlds” that does not “open to any numinous content”, and thus, he concludes, “the soul is inwardly corrupted” (17).
Naydler offers us a profound glimpse into Case’s rejection of his ‘meat’ body, and as a result, of the physical organic world in general. He has been enticed by the representation that, ironically, represents something real enough; yet, due to his spiritual and psychological degradation he has ceased to feel this inner-numinosity. Instead, he has supplemented the rich and layered world of the imagination and saturated himself in a world of machine-generated imagery, which, Naydler points out, generally has a “cartoon-like quality” and is “the opposite of sacred it art”. He continues: “It has neither arisen out of a contemplative or prayerful condition of soul, nor can it lead us into a state of consciousness that is open to an objective spiritual reality” (18). Case has been pulled in by Colin Wilson’s ‘shadow world’, a world bereft of meaning, or of any significance beyond itself – in short, his imagination is entrapped with a closed-system of values.
In a sense, Case’s revelation is essentially what Colin Wilson called ‘Faculty X’, and it is to this, he realises the importance of his own mind, his own relationship to space and time. Faculty X a sudden flash of the meaningfulness of our lives, and moreover, in a direct illumination, we see that our minds are not bound to the limits of time and space. Indeed, Case’s realisation of “a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way, could ever read” is the realisation that human beings can access a far wider reality than we are usually accustomed to in our ordinary state of consciousness. And yet the AI, Neuromancer, is instrumental in reminding Case of this fact – with the sexual encounter in cyberspace – and he thus firmly planted firmly back into the Darwinian world of flesh and blood, of bodily survival. But, in fact, this vision exceeds that of the boundaries of the Darwinian universe; it is a flash of evolutionary implicitness; the huge potentiality embedded within the unknown regions of DNA itself.
At this point, we should note that there is something fundamentally transgressive in Case’s encounter with his dead loved one, Linda, and particularly her presence – her ghost, if you will – haunting cyberspace. In their intermingling there is a disturbing element of willing self-delusion on Case’s part – it is a suspension of disbelief, an instance where Case throws himself blindly into bodily lust without conscience. It is, in a sense, a Dionysian act, which enables him for the first time to gain a Gestalt – an organised whole –, and not simply as ‘meat’ and ‘mind’, or ‘physical’ and ‘non-physical’; freedom and restriction; corporeality (meat-body) and disembodiment of cyberspace (beyond meat-body). Arguably Case has been resurrected in the flesh with renewed value for the body’s immense complexity, its ability to “read” the language of DNA. As the philosopher and psychonaut Terrence McKenna says, the “Earth is a place where language has literally become alive. Language has infested matter; it is replicating and defining and building itself” (64).
The paradox – and thus redemption – of Case is that he is “embedded in the machinery of epistemic knowing itself”; yet this is the beginning of a realisation along the lines of Gödelian meta-systems. In other words, there must be higher realities beyond the systems we are embedded in; each system nestles in a larger meta-system. This insight into the “infinitely complex” is enough to inject mystery back into Case’s life, and thus remove the suffocating atmosphere of fundamental nihilism as a result of a closed-system of values – a result of his bodily resentment.
Case’s resentment of the body and the phenomenal world stems from the Cartesian problem. The author Bryan Appleyard puts his finger on the origin of this philosophical crisis, for Descartes’ conclusions, of a mind-body dualism, implicate that the “inner self-awareness [is] the basis of all knowledge” and that this results in a divide “from our bodies, reason from the passions, mind from matter” and, further still, in which our “true identities” are divorced from the world (59). This results in the body being a part of the phenomenal world, and the phenomenal world, by definition, is ‘not us’, for we reside entirely within the realm of soul or mind. Indeed, we are left, as Descartes realised, ‘half way between being and nothingness’. Now this is precisely an existential problem; Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness (1943), beings from this premise.
As we have seen in Neuromancer, there is a sense that Case has already half-way solved the problem. But the problem remains, for Case’s realisation was effectively passive in so far as he had no part in realising it for himself – there is something incidental and fundamentally contingent (an important word for the existentialists) about the whole revelation. His insight was certainly active, but the means by which he acquired it is circumstantial. To continue further we need to look at an active philosophy that attempts to go beyond this existential stalling of our being. A vision that may expand further the notion of a ‘transcendental ego’ and unveil the phenomenological mechanisms which allow, inside, an increasing apprehension of what is ‘out there’ in the phenomenal world in which we are a crucial and significant part.
Shadows of Eternity – The Essence of Existentialism
In the discussion of Neuromancer, there is a close delineation of the Sartrean type of existentialism. And in Case’s revelation, as we have seen, is a step beyond the essentially a closed system of values at the heart of Being and Nothingness, into what Alfred North Whitehead called “unbounded rationality”. Indeed, Colin Wilson argues in his remarkable 1980 critical essay ‘Anti-Sartre’, that Sartre:
“defines the nature of “for-itself” (human consciousness) as pure freedom. The for-itself envies nature (the in-itself) its solidness, its unquestioned existence; it is the “eternal hunter of the in-itself”. Its very emptiness, its lack of real definition, means that is free whether it likes it or not. A stone is what it is; man isn’t what he is; therefore he is “free””
However, Wilson continues, “he does not explain how, if consciousness is a mere reflection of objects, and there is no controlling ego, we can regard consciousness as pure freedom” (166). This mental freedom of Sartre is about as hollow as escaping into cyberspace, in which the user, deep down, knows is fundamentally false – free, but for what? Therefore man is left, as he is, divided from the world of meaning; of solid, objective reality; his consciousness remains as if adrift, vague and yet free, but not free enough to become real or know reality. He is, as Sartre said, ‘condemned’ to be free.
The origins of Existential philosophy is a complex history, but to put it briefly it can be generally described as a philosophical reaction against the ever enclosing and ultimately reductive philosophies of Logical Positivism, and of a general obsession with a scientifically reductive of man as he lives and experiences his life – and as a consequence, of nature itself. The Existentialist, in short, wants to understand the ‘whole man’, his confrontation with the conditions in which he lives, and more over, how he lives and why and what he lives for. In Sartre’s case – and Sartre is but one example in the diverse philosophy of Existentialism – we are not free for anything; we are simply free to do as we please (although Sartre would have suggested taking up a cause in social activism, such as he himself did with Marxism). In his excellent study of Existentialism, Irrational Man (1958), William Barrett summarises the development of the modern world in which this philosophical school developed as a healthy reaction. Barrett contends that we were lead out of the Middle Ages by an increasing tendency to ‘despiritualise’ nature that is to tear away at the symbolic framework which encased our existence prior to the developments of Science, Protestantism and Capitalism.
William Barrett argues that Protestantism, although religious in nature, was a step towards this desacralisation of nature – which arguably may have its origins further back in Gnosticism – in which it aimed to unveil nature as a “realm of objects hostile to the spirit and to be conquered by puritan zeal and industry” (27). Of course, from this description it is easy to see where Capitalism takes off, for it works on the materialistic assumption that the stuff of nature is inherently worthless until, that is, it is charged with labour and, in turn, becomes a desirable or utilitarian object to be used and sold. This in turn intensified the individualistic nature of the religious search, wrenching it away from idolising and outside influences, lures, deceptive charms; and yet, as a result, deconstructed the deeper and unconscious substrata of mankind’s psyche; disconnecting him with a sense of interconnectedness within – and participating along – with God’s grand creation. In effect, we as human beings were to despiritualised, for only God himself could help us out of the psychic quandary; our inherent sense of value, of being embedded in a mysterious and ultimately meaningful universe, had in fact been subtly rejected. In light of this, it is rather ironic that the great Protestant Reformer, Luther cursed: “Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”
A struggle against the divine world is an obsession that runs throughout three centuries of philosophy. It is, arguably, still present in modern day man; his existential anxiety is still essentially bound to his corporeality, his temporal nature against the backdrop of an entropic universe. There is a general decreasing of the metaphysical struts to hold up the architecture of divine, intransigent meaning, there is, in the end, a sort of grim stoicism in the face of life. We have accepted nihilism, as the existential psychologist Dr. Victor Viktor Frankl points out, that is not simply a nothingness, but a “nothing-but-ness”, in which human phenomena “are thus turned into epiphenomena” (A Guide for the Perplexed: 14). Indeed, we exist, but our essence – that ‘what’ of us – is reduced to a mere happenstance, an evacuation of all mystery replaced, instead, with a meaningless freefall into the abyss.
And against this type of negation it is futile to ask the question: What is the thing-in-itself? It is, in the end, like Sartre said, “meaningless that we live and meaningless that we die”.