Thursday, March 31, 2016

Metaphoric Roads to Reality

The dichotomies we reify into conflicts can be healed, according to Bernardo Kastrup in his book, Meaning in Absurdity.  I’m in accord with the author’s opening salvo.  He begins with a list of experiences said to occur on the margins of credible reality.   Alien encounters and archetypal dreams are a bold starting-point for constructing a new scientific metaphysics.

He writes: “. . . by the end of this book it will hopefully become clearer what those shamans might have meant when they spoke of an identity between the literal and the metaphorical.” 

Pleasantly enough, this completely clashes with common sense.  We can diminish the shock by admitting that the identity is invisible most of the time, though it may show up in the more exceptional registers of human experience.  The truth is that some people have experiences radically dissimilar to what most of us are accustomed to.  Given the wild diversity of human experience, this is a reasonable assumption to make and a good principle of epistemic humility.   

So there may be a secret bridge from metaphor to reality, but we won’t find it on the surface of mundane experience.   

We may conceive of ourselves as already existing in another world.  Again, this converges with Kastrup’s surrealistic inclinations, his refusal to separate dream from reality.  English analytic philosophers, H. H. Price and C.D. Broad, suggest that our dream life, its central characters and leading dramas, are playing out even as we’re awake the livelong day, pursuing our conscious lives.  They occur in a distinctive dream space that physicist Bernard Carr postulates, and that impinges on our waking life, periodically in normal REM sleep cycles and sporadically under random or willed circumstances.  Fechner, Myers, James, and others were alive to this sense of subliminal immersion in a richer, wider mental environment.

This is a bold metaphysical conception, and points in Joseph of Copertino’s story illustrate Kastrup’s identity of the literal and the metaphoric in ways that invite comment.  The first thing that comes to mind is a common piece of English usage.  About Joseph one could say that in certain inspired moods he “got carried away”.   To get carried away could be construed metaphorically and literally.  Carried away has the metaphoric sense of being swept by a superior force into a state of ecstasy.  But carried away also has a literal sense, as in “he picked up the book and carried it away.”   

Now this identity of metaphor and literal matter of fact – at odds with common sense – seems to apply to Joseph when he enters ecstasy.  The Latin version of carried away is rapture.  We know the subjective, imaginative aspect of rapture but the same term is used in Bernini’s biography of Joseph for levitation.  In Joseph’s reality the raptures of consciousness translate into bodily raptures in space.

All the metaphors of spiritual aspiration and ascension unfold into literal bodily upliftings, literal hoverings and even dancings in space.  The imaginative stretch of meaning in metaphor assumes the outer trappings of physical reality in the image of Joseph levitating. 

In this surreal dimension of being, dream and reality copulate.  So now the metaphor comes vividly to life in our dreams, and in our dreams we are like gods and can fly above cities and mountains; but in Joseph’s corner of mind at large the flight of the spirit becomes “identical” with the flight of the body. 

The marvelous things Joseph was said to do would be commonplace in our dreams where we fly and are immune to pain and fire. The ecstasy of levitation is known to most of us, however rarely and briefly, in those rare experiences of flying dreams.  Levitation seems to reveal in a dramatic way the profound oneness of mind and matter. 

If one thinks about a levitating friar like Joseph, the many strange physical acts he is said to have performed are things we might all do in a dream.  Different sorts of event occur in dream space, impossible in 3-D waking space, like, for instance, flying or levitation.  Now it is a fact that we all experience waking and dream space  successively, cyclically.  In addition, experience shows there are intermediary experience-spaces, for example, hypnagogic, hypnopompic, and lucid. But here’s the crux of our enigma. 

What if Joseph, instead of dreaming and being awake in succession, experienced dream space and waking space simultaneously, producing a tertium quid.  In this new compacted space – an effect of Joseph’s ecstasies – Joseph could levitate (as we can in our dreams).  He would elude the constraints of normal physical reality.  My conjecture is that ecstasy may in some incomprehensible way cause a localized compaction of dream and waking space.  Inside the transient bubble of that hybrid space the impossible becomes actual, and figures of speech signal a power to transfigure reality.

Metaphors make unexpected connections, so that the trivial may foreshadow the momentous, the inconspicuous mirror the over-arching.  For example, levity seems the anti-type of levitation; lighthearted banter is nothing compared to awesome levitation.  On what grounds, then, may we assert Kastrup’s identity of metaphor and literal fact?   Frivolity of spirit seems the very negation of the ecstatic levitations of mystics.

One way to escape what Kastrup calls “bivalence”, or metaphysical schizophrenia, is to follow the metaphoric road to the source of the identity of levity and levitation.  That road takes us back to the Roman root of the two words from levare, “to make light of”.  Levity and levitation, united in their etymology, are about making light of things – perhaps of all things.  

What does that mean? To make light of all things implies a move toward inner detachment, the great virtue of the mystics; in this sense, making light of is a figure of speech – and could apply to many situations.  It is always possible to lighten up.  But with Joseph who practically lived in the zone, making light of referred to his strange behaviors in space.  Su! Su! Andiamo! he was fond of saying. “Up there!  Up there!  Let’s go!”


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