Octavia Butler’s 1977 Mind of My Mind is another book I first became acquainted with by being a precocious childhood reader who tried to get her hands on every piece of reading material that passed through the household I grew up in. I was perhaps in middle school when I first tore through my mom’s copy. When I found a copy of the book at the local library some months ago I was drawn to it again and read it while traveling. I lost the library book before I could suck any more marrow out of it by trying to parse out some of what it sparked in me in writing. Having relocated it after thinking it was a goner, now I want to get a couple thoughts out on it before I attempt to be a less delinquent member of society and give the local government their property back.
The main character, Mary, is the result of a millennia-long, multi-generational breeding project by an an immortal with psychic powers named Doro. Phew, I know. When he was born somewhere in southern Egypt or the Sudan at the beginning of civilization, Doro knew immediately that he was different than others because he could occupy their bodies—he’s been body-hopping for the thousands of years since then—and read their minds. He sought to create a genetic strain of others like him by choosing the right people to breed with, people whose life-force he could feed off of.
Basically Mary, who is Doro’s lover as well as his descendant, starts calling people to become a part of hers and Doro’s network with her mind and they’re all intimately connected psychically in what the book terms “the Pattern.” They share emotions and thoughts. Mary issues commands to them telepathically and they are usually forced to obey. If anyone wanted to extricate themselves from the Pattern, it would be painful. Mary and those who are connected to her in the Pattern use their telepathic gifts in various ways in the world and are bound to each other on the mental plane. It reminded me of the experience of communicating with many of my family and friends in my head while psychotic, that we were enmeshed in this network that allowed us to communicate beyond words. Eventually I awoke from the dream that this experience was authentic, but the sense of connection with others across time and space stayed with me.
The “Pattern” made me think of the Internet too, which Mind of My Mind‘s original publication predates by decades. Now we have these semi-solid links to one another that exist on a non-physical plane, which can be our playground to interact with each other outside the “physical” world. Just one more way in which the visionary Butler was able to describe realities she had yet to encounter, giving prophetic gifts to those yet to be.
If we’re the only species capable of committing evil—certainly the slim 21st century alone provides evidence that we may be the best at it—it’s perhaps because we are the only species whose individuals claim responsibility over themselves. We only need a slightly skewed interpretation of Genesis: they eat that fruit and now know what is good and what is bad, so that they can choose, where before they did not know these things and could not choose. It was simply good, according to the god who walked with them and spoke with them, real enough to touch.
We wouldn’t ever hold an animal accountable for doing something wrong, because consciousness and free will are inexorably tied, and we have never confirmed consciousness in another species. To choose wrong, one needs an awareness of the field of choices. If this consciousness introduces the possibility of “wrong” into the world-—of disharmony, of chaos—then we might consider whether human consciousness is the most destructive force in the world today. We might consider whether consciousness puts the well-being of the planet and even of humanity at grave risk.
Is it true as Jaynes said, that in those days he claims predate consciousness men were commanded by the voices of gods, heard as auditory hallucinations in a similar function to that by which the mentally ill—and many others—experience auditory hallucinations today? That they were commanded to obey, freed from choice-making? Freed from will? If it’s as he says, then as the voices left moral codes became external, conveyed from the mouth of a prophet with a unique connection to the god. These became laws by which humans would have to abide, which even to this day have maintained a connection to divine authority. Yet as we continue to evolve, towards what end we know not, perhaps toward none, and those forces we consider divine hold ever less authority over an increasingly secular world, I’d say we can legitimately ask if morality has a future. We haven’t proven that we know how to conduct ourselves on Earth in sustainable ways that benefit a majority if we’re not bound in obligation to forces we perceive as mightier than we are. Maybe humanity has never proven that, and the golden ages we glorify were hellish on Earth in their ways. But I suspect there’s been a real decline since we’ve become masters of our own nature, as though the burden of self-governance was foolishly entrusted to us by the gods.
o sweet wine that swells
my heart—this faith this night’s not
my last—may you not
leave my blood, may dying not
diminish my days.
“…what is this singular which is Socrates: Is Socrates the intellect alone, which is a mover? Or is he a thing moved by the intellect, that is a body animated by a vegetative and sensitive soul? Or is he a composite of both?” —St. Thomas Aquinas, On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists, p 51
Why can’t souls be sutured back to bodies after they separate, so that we can live again? It’s the million-dollar question that has fueled humanity’s rise. Is that what happened to me while I lay in a coma, that my soul was somehow re-fastened back onto my body? Do we have layers of soul like Aristotle thought we did—a vegetative soul, a sensitive soul, a soul for this and that? In ancient Egypt there were said to be a ba and a ka and so on and so forth, different parts of the soul that separated at death but could be reunited in the afterlife by means of the proper spells and incantations. As a woman, I would have had to ritually been turned into a man upon death in order that I could conceive myself in the afterlife, since men where held to transfer the entire embryo to the woman’s body upon conception. My skin would have had to be painted a masculine red-brown instead of the golden yellow that was normally used to represent female skin. My soul would be reconstituted, and most importantly, reunited with my body. And I would go on.
There’s a bit of room to doubt that the soul animates the body, but we do have to at least entertain the idea that when it’s gone it’s gone. The simplest definition of what you are is that you are that thing which controls your body. Some kind of force, a mover. United to those things it is under your domain to move by a tenuous thread that can all too easily be severed. And ultimately will be one day, no matter what you do to preserve it.
Throughout the book he’s written to quibble with Ibn Rushd over interpretations of Aristotle in the righteous name of Christendom, Aquinas makes the clear assertion that the soul comes to know through the presentation of phantasms, or images of the sensory world, to the intellect. If this is the case, what is madness to the soul? A false image it can get tangled in? Warped sensory information that deceives the soul about what it claims to represent?
In the town in whose low-income housing Jimi Hendrix was born and raised a haze is suspended in the air. It wafts south from wildfires across the Canadian border, and residents feel they have every right to complain that a foreign wilderness dares obstruct their view with the smoke from its burning to the ground. It is this smoke that tints the moon a “fire red” at night, just like the lyric in Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile,” when the color of the moon portended the birth of a child with supernatural powers. The people of Seattle have grown bored of the blood-red moon, though it looks to me like a clear sign of the coming apocalypse. They’d prefer the spectacle of the upcoming eclipse, or so they say.
Did I tell you that I went a few years without shedding a tear? That the first time I cried after all that time was when the doctor told me the lithium on which I depended had given me kidney disease? That the nurse in the room said “Don’t cry, don’t cry,” and that I responded by telling her she had absolutely no right to say such a thing to me? Since then I’ve luxuriated in crying at every inappropriate opportunity, just like the good old days before trauma made me numb. Tears are one of those hallmarks of being human that I felt I’d been deprived of for way too long. Today I was moody, was hoping to shed some tears at Hendrix’s grave south of the city because I thought this would provide me a keepsake moment. I wanted to sit on the stone of his mausoleum and cry and cry, but I was all cried out for the day when I arrived at his reverently maintained grave site in a quiet cemetery.
On the plane out here I experienced multiple heartbreaks as I read Hendrix’s brother Leon’s memoir. Their house was an ongoing party where the kids as young as three were allowed to drink the dregs from beer bottles strewn about, until their parents’ volatile relationship disintegrated. Leon, a robber and hustler who battled addiction to many substances for most of his life, found out his brother had passed away from his prison cell in 1970. His fellow prisoners turned off their radios out of respect for him as he passed down the hall and he was kept in solitary confinement to grieve. A black American who became part of the British Invasion, Jimi left to form a band in England because his homeland was inhospitable to his genius until he could be validated by the proper white people. White people still believe they own him, and warily dismiss the all-black rock band he played with shortly before his death as a footnote in his story.
Otherwise the city that prides itself on having launched the fleet of a thousand million Starbucks that now flank every corner of the globe is nondescript, even though there’s a ghost town right underneath it, a mirror city made of tunnels where Jimi and Leon used to play as kids and which you can now tour for a fee.
And the world will end soon. We don’t know exactly when. Could be within my lifetime, could be a few generations after I’ve passed away. If the nukes don’t get us, the swelter of an overheated planet will. We can’t stop the ending, we can only delay it. Our great task is coming to terms with this. Or not; it will happen regardless. Jimi knew he was from another galaxy and maybe he returned to it. But he was a Voodoo Child who sliced off the tops of mountains with his hands. We mortals will have nowhere else in the universe to flee to.
my mothers were plucked unwillingly as they bloomed, the even and the odd of you
pressed by the weight of strangers—profit, these shadow-men made a god of you
as the flower seeks the sun’s face i’m honed to your beam, i swear, across lightyears
you let me suck puss from your wounds. it was nectar; i worshipped the god of you
when the sickness of the prophets is cruelest you cannot know your own wanting
in its curse—its comfort unquestioning, a sure grip—it shows who is the god of you
we are seized. lifted. the damp hand clamps unformed cries; the rigid body yields.
goliath who swallows my smaller form in his, my murderer—who is the god of you?
the old ones leave us, their gardens of mint uprooted, their basil plants dead of thirst
not even by dove do they send word on the fate of the soul of you, the god of you
“We have a more personal need, in our time, to dissect the past in search of its pathology, for according to some historians our own culture is showing disturbing signs of disease.” –Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs and Heiroglyphs: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, p 314
I’ve been looking at myself in retrospect; trying to get cues on how to craft the person I might become at a moment where something in me is so raw and so new, as though scraped fresh. It’s true that I’ve always been a person who harbored passionate obesessions, from the first stirrings of curiosity about the world and its facets that ocurred in my earliest childhood. This much is clear. My fascination always snags on its object and doesn’t let it go, trying to absorb every detail. Trying to lose myself in its particulars, to embody it and to be embodied by it. If I hear a song I like I listen to it over and over again for a period of days, until its grooves in my mind have worn. Once an idea begins to haunt me it is with me forever, hiding in the words I leave behind me even when I think I’m talking about something else entirely.
It seems I’ve never been convinced that we really know who is speaking in our minds calling itself “I.” Or that we can draw much of a line between the forces that act through us, upon whose mercies we depend, and the desires we enact because we think they are our own. I may admit to being a bit of a fatalist. I am too often held in the grip of my compulsions until they are finished with me not to be at least slightly suspicious of free will. No one who allows the current to run through them as they channel the impulse to create art–even the kind of art there is in preparing a meal or choosing an outfit–can reasonably doubt that they have at times acted in service to a vision much bigger than they are. I’m never sure who’s in charge, me or what speaks through me. But as long as I seem to be giving back what I’m taking away here on Earth, and as long as I can check in with others to make sure I haven’t somehow been severed from the objective world–as does happen sometimes–I’m comfortable not knowing the answer to that.
I remember George G. M. James’ Stolen Legacy from my father’s bookshelf when I was young, but it was one of the few books lying around our house that I didn’t bother to read. This weekend I found it at a flea market. I think it’s one of those black cult classics that people who were “woke” long before that word died a shameful death of mis- and over-use in 2017 would keep around to demonstrate their commitment to the cause, whether they wore a suit and tie or overalls to work. As far as I know it doesn’t hold much weight with the academic establishment. That’s too bad, because it makes a very cogent and well-cited case for the origins of classical Greek thought in the ancient Egyptian Mystery System and its author is credentialed by some of the West’s most respected institutions of higher learning. James reduces the giant Aristotle, who I’ve heard some claim as the last man who knew everything there was to know in his time, to a plagiarist and a plunderer. That proposition is difficult to accept in its entirety, but worth entertaining. The author also raises the intriguing point that one of the reasons those who came to call themselves “lovers of wisdom” were so persecuted in the Athens of Socrates’ day was that they were spreading a foreign doctrine, ideas that the early Greek philosophers had learned at the feet of hierophants during extensive exile in Egypt.
I haven’t read Martin Bernal’s Black Athena, which is nothing to brag about. Not all of it anyway; we might have been assigned some chapters in undergrad but my lack of recall is also nothing to brag about. My Spelman professors would shame me to the grave for that. Stolen Legacy came out some thirty years before Bernal’s work. It might have been too ahead of its time to be taken seriously in a discipline where white supremacy has so firmly taken root somewhere in history that even after a black man has occupied the White House, journals at its vanguard feel entitled to explain resistance movements that rise out the black community without including black voices. I was one of those who were missing out on it. Ironically for all I’ve invested in chasing those pieces of paper called degrees, I come late to the game of reading philosophy for fun, without the guiding hand of a professor to help work out its kinks. Its study in the halls of the academy attracted me because I wanted to be wise, wiser than I could ever be without learning from people who could outthink me, not only on the page but in the classroom. As result of this reverence for those who could unlock the text for me—and also as a result of pure exhaustion in the wake of personal traumas that nearly took me under—there have been stretches of time, longer than I’d like, where if it didn’t get assigned to me it didn’t get read.
Authorship wasn’t always a thing. Stolen Legacy is a reminder of that. For thousands of years people attributed the words that they marked on clay tablets and on stone temple walls to forces that came from beyond them: muses, spirits, gods. The rulers stuck their names on everything and built monuments to themselves, sure. But not the sages, unless they were also political leaders like Ptahhotep. It even took a while for the Greeks to catch on to the trick of signing your name after something you’d written. Socrates famously didn’t write, and George G. M. James draws on Plato to indicate that Socrates believed himself to be guided by a divine voice, his private daimon. The pre-Socratics were practically mythological, with the fuzziest bios reconstructed from oral tradition well past their times. But somewhere along the line people got the idea that they were responsible for the words that had come to them. The rest is, literally, history.
I wonder if it is the insight that our ideas belong to us—not to the king, not to the god—that was the real revolution that provided the foundation for the Western attempt to reroute the narratives of intellectual history in its own interests; if you can stamp your seal on your own work, you can stamp it on somebody else’s so long as they don’t defend themselves and perhaps even then. There’s some dangerous racism implicit in even the claim that a concept as fundamental to the modern experience as authorship belongs to Europe. That’s not exactly a road I wish to go down, and I’m sure if we looked we’d find evidence that the idea of the author originated further south or east anyway. At any rate it’s possibly way too “meta” to search for the authors of authorship, and I for one would never deny having written this blog or anything else I poured my efforts into in a world where to do so could take food off of my table. So there’s more to think about there. I choose to believe there’s time, too.
“It is by metaphor that language grows. The common reply to the question ‘what is it?’ is, when the reply is difficult or the experience is unique, ‘well, it is like –.'” –Julian Jaynes, The Onset of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 49
I was around 19 and had not a legitimate care in the world when I became the owner of a book by Julian Jaynes–the psychologist who postulated that human beings only become conscious about 3,000 years ago, and had before then been willed by the voices of the gods, who spoke from one hemisphere of their brains to the other in a process he called the bicameral mind. He argues that mental illness is the remnant of this function. One day many years later I thought I heard the voice of Jaynes speak to me from my hospital bed, although he had been dead for decades at that point.
A couple years after I bought a copy of Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind with money I didn’t have I managed to sneak this into my senior thesis:
“In many ways, my ongoing fascination with this book is representative of the love-hate relationship that any budding black thinker develops with the tradition of Western thought. It’s the process of trying to take real value from work which devalues our experience. For the devaluing of alternative experiences to its own is one of the very hallmarks of the Western tradition. I do not excuse his Eurocentricity, but to this day I assert that the value of Jaynes’ work is not necessarily in its very strange conclusion—which, though incredible to the imagination, cannot actually be qualitatively refuted—but in the brilliant insight it provides into the workings of the mechanism of metaphor and of consciousness.”
In case you were wondering, it’s cool to quote yourself now, especially if fewer than five people have read the work. Most especially if you still haven’t answered the questions you’d asked. Like: are we any closer to free will than we used to be? Jaynes tells us that our ancestors were automatons, following commands that they were convinced came from forces beyond them. These forces were the source of poetry and art, of civilization.
People have told me that I myself wasn’t accountable for the reasons why I ended up in that hospital bed in conversation with the ghost of Jaynes, and I believe them. Sometimes I’ve surrendered myself without choosing to. It could be that the thing that I surrendered to is the same thing that gives me the power to use words in the ways that most excite me, in the ways that most heal me. But there are people who use words well without falling victim to worlds they’ve created. When I think I’d rather be one of them, I try to take heart in my connection to the ancients, who may or may not have had any idea why they wrought the wonders and the terrors they did.
When the president really wanted to hit CNN anchor Chris Cuomo below the belt, he called him a “chained lunatic.” Mental illness tropes are easy. The idea that minds can be lost–the fear of this–uproots everything most people take for granted. That they will always be themselves. That they actually know what motivates them. That their rationality will not be taken from them. And if you’ve ever traveled to the poisoned fields of madness and returned to tell the tale, you can testify that it is as terrifying as it sounds.
It’s been reckoned by some that the current occupant of the White House suffers from a mental illness–narcissism, say. It’s not out of the question; but what they mean is that he’s dangerous. He can’t be contained. He walks on the edge of what’s permissible. Critics of his like calling him “psychotic” when he says something racist or takes us to the brink of nuclear war. As though his megalomania puts him on par with sufferers of conditions that have caused their senses to be distorted to the point where they are trapped in the funhouse, unable make meaningful contact with the objective world. Psychotic people don’t make choices. They are compelled. What’s the president’s excuse?
At a talk last month, I heard philosopher Gail Weiss speculate that Trump’s shamelessness has created a counter-culture of people who feel shame on his behalf. Is there a way to avoid making Trump into an effigy onto which we cast everything in us we feel ashamed of? Maybe not. It could be a hidden opportunity to examine what those things are. Loosing touch with who we are and what makes us human rank high on the list of them. People who appear to have lost control of themselves, the mentally ill, scare us because they suggest that these things are possible.
Even sheroes of the dispossessed like Janelle Monae can get away with lyrics like ‘shaking like a schizo‘ and bat their eyes. Do they know that schizophrenia doesn’t actually make you shake, or do they know that some of the drugs its sufferers are prescribed do? They avoid rebuke for their choice to invoke mental illness because they’re talking about people who don’t exist. If there’s one thing we know about the mad, it’s that they don’t answer back. Not with coherence. Because they don’t speak for themselves in the common language, we cannot hear them. And if we cannot hear them, they don’t exist.
If you want to know what it’s like to live under the weight of mental illness, try to forget what you are. Vanish. Only then will you know what it is to grieve yourself.