Dienstag, 6. Mai 2014

Cold Souls, Altered States, Super-Organisms

soulless people
The film Cold Souls (2009) by Sophie Barthes is a beautiful movie about an almost-extinct term within philosophy: that of the soul. In it, main-role actor Paul Giamatti plays himself to be some New York theatre actor in an inspirational crisis with Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, that he is supposed to play. Chekhov's dark, Russian timbre touches Paul in a way that he has troubles dissociating from the role and gets more and more tangled up in a thick downward spiral of emotions. His soul gets infected by Russian melancholia, he has difficulties discerning his feelings from the ones injected by his role - he merges with Uncle Vanya which causes severe distress in Paul.
To overcome this problem, Paul handles it the American way and goes to some clinic where they amputate and store your soul for you in safes, so it doesn't bother you any longer. The doctor offering these services puts it in the following words: "If you've got a tumour - you get rid of it. If your soul is twisted - you can now also get rid of it". "Believe me - when you got rid of your soul, everything becomes more functional and...purposeful." He presents it as the latest bliss of scientific progress and says that for most people, their soul is just in their way to happiness.
After some reluctance, Paul Giamatti agrees to get his soul removed. After the successful procedure he is asked about his feeling. With a somewhat blank look he replies "Hollow" and - after some reassurance by the doctor - adds "Well...I feel light...light and empty and ...uh...bored maybe. ...overall I feel great, I feel great" he concludes in a soulless, monotonous voice.
He exchanges blank but smiling looks with other patients in the waiting room and then commences his soulless life. In the beginning he feels great - a soul just seems to be in the way of a super-functional post-modern life of a New Yorker. His everyday tasks are completed with much less heavy-headedness, he can enjoy the soulless small talk with strangers and the soulless friendliness one receives at high-end stores and spas. He's able to babble the entire Chekhov text on stage without a single wink of his eyes and has a much more nonchalant, light-minded way of interacting with his wife and other friends. 
(In the rest of the movie we see that, whereas most New Yorkers would be more than happy to live life the soulless way, Paul, as an artist, eventually gets in serious troubles with it: his wife complaints about his shallowness, his director about the terrible dullness of his performance. The rest of the movie is dedicated to the hunt for Paul's soul, which bizarrely got kidnapped to Russia. It loses a lot on it's way, but still is worth watching - much more for the brilliant initial idea, then the plot that carries it.)

light-speed vs. soul-speed
There is an old Arabic proverb saying that the soul doesn't travel faster than a camel. So when - for example - Ibn Battuta in the 14th century, who did immense journeys for 28 years, thought that he travelled faster then his soul-camel, his caravan set camp until he believed that the soul has eventually caught up to him. Then they could move on.
In today's world & following the lines of this proverb, most of us must have lost touch with her or his soul. If you travel very infrequently and only by train or bus, there is some chance your soul will arrive where you are with some weeks delay. But if you ever took a long-distance flight, I guess you'll need to get acquainted to the idea, that your soul is irretrievably lost. 
Or: at least your soul as an definite entity. To get rid of your soul, you don't even need to go to some fancy New York clinic, it suffices to travel your soul off on the way there. Soulless travellers, soulless businessmen, led by stewards and pilotesses who have lost even the last bit of soul - an army of post-modern, soulless vampires ceaselessly swarming out of our airports, getting into cabs, buses and trains to arrive nowhere.
That would be the old-fashioned way of seeing it. The soul as a clear-cut entity is being lost to jet engines and speed-travelling.
But we could also see it that way: yes, our soul is loosing its clear-cut entity, but it is not lost to - it is dispersed by jet engines! Like a clump of salt that got wet, our wet and frozen soul is being dried and scattered into soul-dust that can expand around the globe. In times of frequent long-distance flights and globalisation our souls are merging with the stratosphere - are becoming a part of the atmosphere. So we might not have our hard soul entity in our home or some other construction like that, we become ultra-fast nomads that can retrace particles of their souls everywhere on the globe. Everywhere we are, we can be sure to breath in some of our soul-dust. But we won't be able to establish any kind of unity with it that excludes the entire globe.

the primordial self
In the movie Altered States from 1980 directed by Ken Russell the main character Edward Jessup is a young professor experimenting with hallucinogenics at the abnormal psychology department of Columbia university. He doubts that schizophrenia is a mental disorder and believes that there is some primordial or fundamental truth hidden in our minds, which can be traced down with the help of the above-mentioned.
In a very paradigmatic scene there is a discussion about Buddhism1 at a house party, in which Edward insists that Buddhism isn't really a religion, because there is no importance projected into the role of god and it's just about retrieving and improving your self. To this statement, his hopelessly-in-love girlfriend replies rather unnerved, that this is just replacing the term "god" with "self" - and so it is still a religion which hunts after some transcendence, which is - very dangerously - placed within the individual self. 
But Edward can't be dissuaded from his fixed idea of some primordial or transcendental truth and pursues his Faustian hunt even more recklessly, so that they eventually break up, although she can never fall out of love with him. Later he discovers Ayahuasca in Mexico and manages to synthesize it at Columbia. This takes his experiments to a whole new level - for the voyages to a more fundamental form of being that he experiences while tripping aren't purely mental any more - he is actually starting to degenerate physically as well. After much scepticism, the two scientists that assist his experiments are forced to confirm that he really degenerated into an ape-like being, adopting the physical bone structure as well as the DNA-Code.
Enticed by this revelation, Edward can´t be stopped from taking the experiment much further and he - against the concerned advices of his girlfriend and co-scientists - takes even higher doses of the synthesized drug and devolves into something much more primordial than a primate: for the time of his trips he becomes some strange, highly energetic light field which actually destroys most of the laboratory. 
In awe as much as in shock about this discovery, Edward's entire attitude slowly starts to shift. He loses his manic obsession for some kind of truth. But the drug visions hunt him physically as much as mentally. In the closing scene, Edward finally declares his loves to his girlfriend but, in the same sentence, adds that he is too deep down the rabbit hole to still be able to get out of it. His hunt for some transcendent essence actually was successful and he managed to become the long-searched for primordial self, only to find that it is pure horror and terror. By this vision he is so deeply disturbed, that he has eventually been able accept and even admire the beautiful shallowness of life without transcendence. Transcendence, the idea of some fundamental truth is revealed to be pure horror and it now seems like a blessing to him, that the humans have lost touch with their origin, are living disconnected from their primordial selves. In this, the movie is to me some kind of perfect guide to post-modernism, in which humanity has unlearned to hunt for some essence or fundamental meaning.
super-organism dissolving an organism
 Recently I have been quite obsessed with the concept of a super-organism. The terms of super-organism is commonly applied to ants, bees, termites and other social animals. As a individual (organism) those animals have a very limited intelligence, but as a collective (super-organism), they are able to solve and act in very complex manners. For example: some years ago my girlfriend-at-the-time and me played around with an ant colony on Sicily. Some ants of the colony transported material (little sticks and so forth) to the entry holes, unloading in there for others to take in. We for our part "helped" the ants by bringing a lot of those materials directly to the hole. In the beginning, this created chaos: an immense traffic jam evolved in front of the entry holes and nothing seemed to be moving any longer. But, after a few minutes, the ant adapted to the new situation and more of them were occupied with carrying the material inside, so that the traffic went back to a normal and fluent status.
Sometimes I believe we as humans are a super-organism as well - consider London, Jakarta or any other megalopolis. All those cities work on a much higher level then that of individual, intentional decisions. Also the most promising currents in philosophy try to grasp social or other development on a super-personal level. I believe that the human organism has the potential of evolving into a super-organism and - given the immense growth of population since the age of industrialisation - this might be the only alternative we still have. It should be clear that we - as individuals or organisms - have no chance to face the problems of our age (environmental, social, etc.) Maybe we should try to find the hidden potential that lies in the collective or the human super-organism. The problems of our age are too complex to be dealt with as individuals, we have reached a point, which the ants have already long since reached: we have to bond into one super-organism to be able to deal with the complexity of our world. The occidental idea of the strong subject is precisely contrary to that notion and as long as our cities are inhabited by those subjects, they will be in much disarray, because all the tiny little intentionalities or interests of every subject will collide in competition (we call this capitalism for most parts).
I wouldn't have believed I am capable of such leftist Sci-Fi talk.

1 Elmar Holenstein claims that the term Buddhism is a very Western one and doesn't really do justice to the real Indian concept. The teachings of Buddha don't have anything to do with ideology, which is usually expressed with the "-ism"-ending. According to him, it is much more understood as a way, or, in Sanskrit, dharma. Consequently he proposes to use the term Buddhadharma instead of Buddhism. I generally intend to follow this proposal, but in this special case I stick to the "-ism" word, because I deal with a American Hollywood production and the way Buddhism seems to be understood in it, might be more like an -ism than a dharma. See: page 28 of Holenstein, Elmar: Philosophie-Atles: Orte und Wege des Denkens. Dritte Auflage. Ammann Verlag: Zürich 2004.

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen