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The Paul Nash exhibition just concluded at Tate Britain is a visual summation of some of the great traumas and struggles of the twentieth century: the fundamental disruption created by the First World War, obviously, followed by the exploration of what Gerard Manley Hopkins had already called the “cliffs of fall” in the human psyche that made possible not only the deluded self-destruction of 1914-18 but the even more delusional destructiveness that led to the same thing, only worse, in 1939-45.

Nash turned all this into landscape considered as psychic projection, from his paintings of the eerily devastated forests of his paintings immediately following the First World War to his dead ocean of wrecked warplanes in Totes Meer. His photographs, which initially he thought of as visual notes for details of paintings, today seem like some of his most profound work: the Monster Field series of distorted-looking fallen trees, when juxtaposed with his studies of uncanny aspects of the built environment, suggest that human beings continuously find themselves in an interpreted world in which they are not very securely at home (to paraphrase Rilke’s line from the Duino Elegies).

The insecurity of interpretation is something that Friedrich Nietzsche made much of in the nineteenth century, but so did the Society for Psychical Research. I’ve been paging through Alen Owen’s The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, years after I first acquired it, and am reminded that while theosophists were off making visionary astral journeys to distant planets, F. W. H. Myers and the Society he co-founded were engaged in anything but what today’s skeptics like to call “woo”—they simply assumed that there was a reality at the margins of normal consciousness that we do not understand, and took it as their responsibility to approach that marginal experience with all the empirical rigor they could muster. (Whether they could muster enough is in dispute, as noted below). Accordingly, they undertook, among many other investigations, a Census of Hallucinations. Myers made assumptions about the structure of reality that semiotic philosopher C. S. Peirce, for one, regarded as based on embarrassingly insufficient evidence, but Myers was using what he regarded as empirically available data to construct his models of the several possible selves and the invisible interconnection of selves with other selves. He was not depending, like Madame Blavatsky, on inwardly perceived revelations from Tibetan mahatmas, however dubiously metaphysical his own conclusions may seem to us today.

The publication in 1899 of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was the inaugural salvo in an assault on what Freud called “the black mud of occultism,” an assault in which, nevertheless, Freud refused to exclude the possibility of telepathy, and indeed worked it into his theories about the nature of the Primal Horde at the beginnings of civilization. In subsequent decades, while Freudians battled it out with behavioralists about the nature of the body in which consciousness might or might not be an accidental epiphenomenon, Myers’ speculations based on collections of data ran up against a singular difficulty: that the marginal experiences under investigation proved as difficult to replicate under laboratory conditions as, say, moments of innovation in the writing of poetry (not to mention ballet, mountain climbing, or gymnastics). Moments of creative insight, of course, can be considered heightened examples of thoroughly mundane processes; the thesis of Myers’ successors was that the so-called paranormal is likewise a heightened instance of mundane lesser processes, processes to which we do not pay attention because we believe that they cannot exist.

Myers felt obligated to create hypotheses to explain “genius” as much as to explain telepathy and precognition, a reminder that the 1890s represented the efflorescence of many strands of thought that the intellectual mainstream thought of the twentieth century would dismiss as intrinsically unworthy of serious consideration. Most of the decade’s cultural manifestations were irrational in and of themselves; the efforts to analyze and explain phenomena perhaps wrongly associated with irrationality tend to be forgotten.

Written towards the end of his life, Oliver Sacks’ recent book on hallucinations cites a few cases that go beyond his glancing reminder that we are prone to impose meaning where there is none. Sacks doesn’t censor these cases; neither does he offer hypotheses, in contradistinction from his accounts of neurological disorders in which the categories that our perceptions and our language construct become hopelessly muddled.

Owen’s book on occultism and modernism also examines Aleister Crowley’s empiricist approach to appropriating magical practice, another case of a skeptical intellect determined to discern the factual basis underlying imaginatively constructed ancient interpretations, and, if possible, to make use of their practices. Crowley’s theatricality makes it difficult to decide just how much he shared with the S.P.R. researchers the knowledge that the consciousness of the practitioner creates a scrim of illusion that makes perception of the reality being encountered particularly difficult.

The twentieth century became so aware of the scrim of illusion that by the twenty-first century the predominant assumption was that the notion that there were any invisible connections among individual selves was as absurd as the assumptions underlying magical practice., not least because there was no self and no perceiving embodied consciousness that could not be reduced to uploadable algorithms. For those who took note of the embodied nature of consciousness, making it not reducible to mathematically based algorithms, the very nature of embodiment meant that there could be no invisible communication between bodies other than the physically limited effect of ordinarily imperceptible materials such as pheromones.

Those inclined to believe otherwise have to accept the fact that they are in the position of a Galileo asserting that “eppur si muove” without having something parallel to Galileo’s theory to explain why it moves. Their only comfort is that Joseph Campbell’s assertion seventy years ago that “[humanity itself] is now the crucial mystery” has proven more true than he ever believed, as nearly all theories have been called sufficiently into question that the only way to construct a comprehensive theory of human existence is to truncate large parts of it by declaring it out of bounds. It would be possible, for example, to explicate the roots of large parts of Paul Nash’s oeuvre in terms of the origins and cultural shaping of the emotions projected into his visual structures, but the transhumanist movement would ask why anyone would want to waste their time on something like that, and quite a few other bodies of theory can present reasons why this is not a line of investigation worth pursuing, or even a valid line of investigation at all.

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