Of Reading and Experience

By Jin-yeong Yi

“Once you learn to read, you will forever be free.”

—Frederick Douglass

“I couldn’t live a week without a private library – indeed, I’d part with all my furniture and squat and sleep on the floor before I’d let go of the 1500 or so books I possess.”

—H. P. Lovecraft

In my sophomore year of college, I was taking a political science course. One day, I went to the TA’s office for a mandatory consultation about my essay. When I stepped into the room, I saw the TA hunched over a compilation of Benjamin Constant’s political writings, which was one of the texts we were studying in class. The sight struck me and remained with me ever since. He looks like he’s praying…in this modern age, to pray is to read. This was the wordless thought that entered my mind. The TA’s office was a monastic cell, and the TA was a monk pursuing enlightenment not through chants or supplications or fasting, but purely through the intensive study of the printed word. As an aspiring Eastern Orthodox Christian at the time, I naturally disapproved of this worship of knowledge (secular knowledge, no less).

My disapproval of the worship of the printed word has since been replaced by a simple recognition of its limitations.

They had chained him down to things that are, and had then explained the workings of those things till mystery had gone out of the world. When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead toward the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimensions. And when he had failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation. 

—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

In his A History of Philosophy series, Frederick Copleston notes how Immanuel Kant “astonished” people who had experience traveling to other countries with knowledge that he’d amassed exclusively through reading.[1] I have little doubt that Kant’s knowledge was impressive, but I think I would personally rather read an eyewitness account of a country written by a half-educated man than an armchair account written by a genius. In this respect I seem to have something in common with the Pirahã people of the Amazonian jungle,[2] in that I value the immediacy of experience.

When I was working part-time, there was a period in which I divided my time between reading and exercise. In the morning or the afternoon, I would take 3-5 mile walks through the suburbs. It was during these simple walks that I discovered the difference between reading and experience.

When walking, I noticed that the activity engaged most if not all of my senses; I was taking in sights, sounds, smells, and sensations: the bright sky, the rumbling of passing cars, the almost sickeningly sweet scent of pine, the sting of a cold wind.

Of course, reading is a type of experience: you feel the book (or e-book reader) in your hands and experience a range of emotions as the data feeds into your brain. This seems particularly true of imaginative literature.

But something seemed to be missing. As rewarding as I found reading to be, I couldn’t exactly tell a story about it: I could tell of a beginning, a progression, and an end, and the emotions I experienced during that time, but in the end I would only be speaking of what I saw, not what I did. There was much to gain from “going places in my head,” but all of it, it seemed to me, was ultimately a preparation for something more substantial–a real journey, an adventure, an experience that engaged every aspect of my being. In The Doctrine of Awakening, Julius Evola wrote something similar in regard to the difference between Buddhist theory and practice:

“Texts, dogmas, precepts are so many bonds or so many crutches, to be put aside that one may advance on one’s own. The Buddhist canonical literature itself is likened to a window, from which one contemplates the great scene of nature: but to live in this scene you must jump outside the window.”[3]

I feel that all of the reading I have been doing is something akin to studying maps. Is this preparation in vain, or will there be an actual, undiscovered country for me to explore? That is what I intend to find out.

Notes

[1] Chapter X: Kant (I): Life and Writings

[2] See Daniel Everett’s excellent book on the Pirahãs, Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.

[3] Chapter 18: Up to Zen

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Some Thoughts About Life After Life

By Jin-yeong Yi

Illustration from the Egyptian Book of the Dead

“Please don’t think that when you die / You’ll spend eternity up high / When what you really ought to know / Is just how far your life will go”

—Atheist, “Piece of Time”

I desire an afterlife not so much because I fear death (I probably fear pain more than I fear extinction), but because I love life and would like more of it, especially if it can be lived with more freedom and more beauty.

Yesterday I finished reading Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife by Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon who contracted an extremely rare and extremely deadly form of bacterial meningitis and lived to tell the tale, after spending a week in a coma—and, supposedly, paradise.

Prior to reading the book, I’d read part of Dr. Sam Harris’s critique of it[1], and had thought that it would be an interesting exercise to compare my observations with his. I think Dr. Harris and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks make persuasive points, but since I’m not a neuroscientist, I think it will take me a long time—perhaps the rest of my life—to draw anything resembling a comprehensive conclusion regarding the nature of NDEs, and the dualism-monism debate as a whole. So for now I shall limit myself to imaginative speculation.

While I’m not convinced that Dr. Alexander’s account constitutes “proof of Heaven,” I found it to be remarkably well-written, engaging, instructive, and even awe-inspiring. Even if his experience took place entirely within his mind, it was nonetheless an amazing and unforgettable experience that would be entirely natural to cherish forever.

In his own critique of the book[2], Mark Martin wraps up by writing:

“What I can say is that Dr. Alexander’s heaven offers no comfort to me. A posthumous future where ‘You have nothing to fear’ and ‘There is nothing you can do wrong’ sounds like infinite boredom — inhuman and alienating in its contentment.”

After quoting a poem by Vladimir Nabokov, Mr. Martin continues:

“‘Proof of Heaven’ sullies the subtle, exquisite, personal and easily forgotten possessions of this sublunary world. Dr. Alexander’s pink fluffy clouds and divine orgasmatrons are a cosmic vulgarity. Thinking so, why would I commit the giant act of condescension required to imagine this vision good enough for others?”

What I got out of Mr. Martin’s critique was mainly further confirmation of the simple notion that we humans will never agree on what is good, what is beautiful, or what is desirable, whether in life or in death. That’s why I think the closest thing to a utopia we could have on Earth is a personal virtual reality simulation for each and every individual.

“I don’t think Hell exists,” says retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong. “I happen to believe in life after death, but I don’t think it’s got a thing to do with reward and punishment.”[3]

It wouldn’t make much sense to me if it did. The notion that this life is some kind of moral test is quite preposterous to me, given the fact that 1) so many people are prevented from taking this “test” in the first place and 2) individuals cannot ultimately be held responsible for their actions, since they did not determine the genetic and environmental factors that account for much of their tendencies and choices from the cradle to the grave.

If there is a divine Being controlling this universe from the “outside” (wherever that is), I would imagine that He/She/It is more concerned with imparting experience rather than conducting some kind of cosmic eugenics program (i.e., separating the wheat from the chaff). It would certainly explain the scientific data better.

Remember the short-lived TV series Dead Like Me? I rather like the idea that there is a custom-made afterlife for each individual, specially tailored to his or her deepest desires and dreams that were not realized during life, and I can’t help but hope that that is precisely what we will find when it is time to depart this world.

Notes

[1] “Science on the Brink of Death” by Sam Harris 

[2] “Dr. Eben Alexander’s so-called afterlife” by Mark Martin

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SF6I5VSZVqc

Suicide Saves

By Jin-yeong Yi

“As life is commonly the greatest blessing for man, it is to be presumed that he who deprives himself of it, is compelled to it by an invincible force. It is the excess of misery, the height of despair, the derangement of his brain, caused by melancholy, that urges man on to destroy himself. Agitated by contrary impulsions, he is, as we have before said, obliged to follow a middle course that conducts him to his death; if man be not a free-agent, in any one instant of his life, he is again much less so in the act by which it is terminated.

It will be seen then, that he who kills himself, does not, as it is pretended, commit an outrage on nature. He follows an impulse which has deprived him of reason; adopts the only means left him to quit his anguish; he goes out of a door which she leaves open to him; he cannot offend in accomplishing a law of necessity: the iron hand of this having broken the spring that renders life desirable to him; which urged him to self-conservation, shews him he ought to quit a rank or system where he finds himself too miserable to have the desire of remaining. His country or his family have no right to complain of a member, whom it has no means of rendering happy; from whom consequently they have nothing more to hope: to be useful to either, it is necessary he should cherish his own peculiar existence; that he should have an interest in conserving himself—that he should love the bonds by which he is united to others—that he should be capable of occupying himself with their felicity—that he should have a sound mind. That the suicide should repent of his precipitancy, he should outlive himself, he should carry with him into his future residence, his organs, his senses, his memory, his ideas, his actual mode of existing, his determinate manner of thinking.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

“Life is not so desirable a thing as to be protracted at any cost. Whoever you are, you are sure to die, even though your life has been full of abomination and crime. The chief of all remedies for a troubled mind is the feeling that among the blessings which Nature gives to man, there is none greater than an opportune death; and the best of it is that every one can avail himself of it.”

—Pliny the Elder

“When, in some dreadful and ghastly dream, we reach the moment of greatest horror, it awakes us; thereby banishing all the hideous shapes that were born of the night. And life is a dream: when the moment of greatest horror compels us to break it off, the same thing happens.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, “On Suicide”

One of the more interesting books I have on my shelf is Wataru Tsurumi’s notorious Kanzen Jisatsu Manyuaru (The Complete Manual of Suicide), which was published in the early 1990’s, during Japan’s “Lost Decade.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: an instruction manual detailing various methods (from overdosing to freezing) that can be used for self-destruction. It’s a symbol of our time.

One would think that such a book would invariably give suicidal people the encouragement and resolve to fulfill their death wish. So it might surprise you to learn that it may, in fact, have prevented suicide in some cases. A Japanese reviewer of The Complete Manual of Suicide, writing in 2007, explains how the book helped him, and in doing so, he explains how suicide, or, rather, the idea of suicide, can give one the strength to live on.

Here is the full review[1] below (my translation):

I was saved 

By Wan 

I myself read this during a considerably difficult period of my life.

Really and truly, I was saved.

If it weren’t for this book, I probably wouldn’t be alive right now.

Irresponsible reviewers and carefree hypocrites criticize this book, but this is the kind of book that “genuinely suffering people” need.

I wonder just how many people were driven into a corner by the “one must live on” mentality.

“If you have a mind to die, you can do anything” is also a big lie.

The important thing is to have a firm hold of the option of suicide within oneself.

It is to attain peace of mind from “being able to die when push comes to shove.”

So what’s needed are “actual methods for dying,” and the “confidence of being able to apply them.”

With these things, you can, for the first time, gain the courage to live.

I want this book to be read by, above all, those “suffering people,” of course, but I would also like to have other people (the thoughtless, irresponsible and carefree people who say “Value your life”) read it, think and think, think and think, and think it through.

Life is kinder than we realize. For all its hardship and horror, it usually doesn’t force us to stick around and endure it ad infinitum. In most cases, we can choose to walk away from it all any time we wish.

If you, dear reader, happen to be contemplating suicide, I won’t make the mistake of promising you that “it’s all going to get better.” Unless one can actually predict the future, that is a most silly thing to say. There’s no guarantee that it will get better; it’s just as likely, if not more likely, that it’s all going to get worse.

What I will tell you is that, if anyone is going to rescue you from self-annihilation, it is likely that it will be none other than yourself. As the Buddha said, “No one saves us but ourselves.” And why is that? Perhaps it’s because no one knows you better than you know yourself. No one else has the same degree of access to your thoughts and your emotions. No one knows your darkest secrets and deepest desires better than you do. If the question is how you can find the will to live on, only you can help yourself, and the most other people can do for you is to help you help yourself.

Or maybe you don’t need help. Maybe you don’t need saving. Maybe you’re convinced, like Jon Nödtveidt supposedly was[2], that you’ve reached the peak of your life and that you’ve gotten everything you wanted out of life, and that any more time spent in this world would be superfluous. If no one knows you better than you know yourself, chances are no one understands you better than you understand yourself. And if no one understands you better than you understand yourself, who is more “qualified” than you to decide when your story is over?

Either way, take a good look at that fragile thing you call your life. At all times your life is in your own hands. It’s as fragile as a sapling. Will you crush it? Or will you spare it and, for better or worse, see its development to the end?

“That society who has not the ability, or who is not willing to procure man any one benefit, loses all its rights over him; Nature, when it has rendered his existence completely miserable, has in fact, ordered him to quit it: in dying he does no more than fulfil one of her decrees, as he did when he first drew his breath. To him who is fearless of death, there is no evil without a remedy; for him who refuses to die, there yet exists benefits which attach him to the world; in this case let him rally his powers—let him oppose courage to a destiny that oppresses him—let him call forth those resources with which Nature yet furnishes him; she cannot have totally abandoned him, while she yet leaves him the sensation of pleasure; the hopes of seeing a period to his pains.”

—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature

Notes

[1] See the original review at Amazon Japan.

[2] The Dissection frontman and lead guitarist, who took his life at age 31, had said, “The Satanist decides of his own life and death and prefers to go out with a smile on his lips when he has reached his peak in life, when he has accomplished everything, and aim [sic] to transcend this earthly existence. But it is completely un-satanic to end ones [sic] own life because one is sad or miserable. The Satanist dies strong, not by age, disease or depression, and he chooses death before dishonor! Death is the orgasm of life! So live life accordingly, as intense [sic] as possible!”