Pondering The Mental Health Orb [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to Trenchant Edges, the newsletter where something something whatever. I don’t know, I’m tired from putting together food for tonight’s thanksgiving.
Been a weird November for me overall, but a slow productive one. Tomorrow I’ll be starting a tax prep course that’ll hopefully make my 2022 a little more stable than my 2021.
But it’s pushing myself more in all directions.
I want to have two conversations with y’all today. One about mental health and the other about the paradox turtle all the way down in materialism.
When you Ponder the Orb, The orb also Ponders You
We’ve talked a LOT on this newsletter about right wing propaganda and conspiracy theories and the big reason for that is I’ve been trying to get a real handle on its roots over the last few years.
This dovetails nicely with another of our subjects: Forbidden knowledge.
One of the practical problems with Forbidden Knowledge is stress. See, we live in a nation where even “Conservatives” are broadly politically liberal, the capital-L Liberalism of free markets, scientific reason, universal suffrage, and democratic institutions. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s where the mainline is.
We got there by gatekeeping institutions and preventing both the far right’s fascists, monarchists, and theocrats, and the left’s communists, anarchists, and socialists from holding much in the way of influence.
Sure, you’d get some token throwbacks like David Duke or RJ Rushdoony on the right or Angela Davis or Noam Chomsky on the left, but they were mostly fringe figures.
But as Liberalism evolved into Neoliberalism, throwing away worker protections (and much else) for increased capital gains to the richest people, the window of acceptable opinion has widened quite a bit.
Like most people I was blindsided by the Alt-Right/Neoreactionary movement in 2015, and since them I’ve spent a lot more time eyeing their influencers, listening to their podcasts, reading their books, and watching their memes evolve.
I’m pretty careful about what I talk about because it’s easy to contribute to normalizing this stuff instead of fighting it.
Here’s the bind I see right now:
I want there to be far less far-right propaganda in the world.
To explain why I have to tell more people about far-right propaganda, increasing its exposure.
Combine with that the fact that listening to hateful tripe doesn’t feel great on its own and I’m still not sure how to communicate the subject with other people who haven’t immersed themselves.
How many times can you hear people allude or outright say they want to see your friends (and you) murdered?
It’s not great.
And I’ve got pretty good tolerance to this sort of thing. Years of fucking about with buddism has taught me to detach and witness my feelings rather than being overwhelmed by them, but that isn’t the same thing as being immune.
So every now and then I really get hit with feeling the skin-crawling horror of people who have, mostly gleefully, embraced the worst of human nature and advocate others doing the same. Often in clever ways.
It ain’t healthy for sure.
So what can anyone do about it?
The obvious answer is fucking stop. The only reason I crawl through this swamp is because I think someone should occasionally be around to test the PH and make sure the heavy metal poisoning isn’t too bad.
But the fact it does need doing, especially over the next few years. Since our political leadership on both the center left and center right seem committed to refuse to address any core issues, energy and initiative will continue to flow to the fringes and, frankly, the left remains largely dead in the water.
Where the far right has several well organized and funded streams trying to shift the balance of power in the country to whichever imagined golden ages they subscribe to.
And since none of their attempts to reform or revolution are likely to improve anything for anyone other than their leaders, there’s a nasty cycle waiting to happen there.
Which is a long way back to the motto of this newsletter:
But, what about the issue of the inherent stress of consuming poison? Morally, if nothing else.
And especially since getting caught up in cycles of dread/overwhelm is also interfering with finishing this very project.
As for the regular stress of it, I think ritual is probably the way to address it.
The way I’ve been going about this exploration has been freeform and thus nebulous. But if I make it more focused & create specific, time-bound containers for dealing with the shit, it won’t seep into everything so much.
Build a weekly schedule of shit-gazing and specifically limit the attention given to it to those times.
Plus my usual coping strategy of humor.
That’s all of this for now. Time to think about something else.
Mckenna, Descartes, and the Secret Mystic Heart of the Rationalist Project
I am, by inclination and what passes for an autodidact’s training, an extreme or radical skeptic.
As such, old Rene Descartes is a historic figure I have strong opinions about. And when I stumbled onto a video discussing an interesting piece of his legacy I had to fixate a bit.
If you don’t know, Descartes is an early Enlightenment French Philosopher and Mathematician who pioneered the rationalist epistemology underpinning both the whole of the enlightenment and the modern scientific method and thus most of the modern world.
He’s an, uh, pretty influential guy.
For our purposes, he broke some really important ground in what we might call Methodological Skepticism or Doubt. The emerging idea that one discovers truth by attacking its opposite.
Rene wasn’t the first skeptic, as many Greek philosophers fit the bill as well as numerous eastern thinkers. Examples include Socrates, (probably) Plato, Phyrro in ancient Greece, and no less than the Buddha himself in ancient India. As well as some of his successors like Nāgārjuna or (arguably) Dogen. I’m skipping over a lot of people and places.
One of the things that set Descartes apart is timing as he published his ideas at a vulnerable stage in European thought where Aristotle’s physics had started to be refuted by rigorous experiments and theory.
This drove two crises of thought:
Oh shit, we were wrong about the fundamental facts. How do we correct that mistake?
How can we develop or discover knowledge in such a way to prevent this from happening again?
And Descartes's answer to this is basically where rationalists and scientists are today: Doubt everything that can be doubted, what survives scrutiny is worth keeping. Oh, and then grandfather god in as an apriori assumption.
There’s some criticism of how well Rene did that in his philosophy, but this isn’t about that.
It’s about a thing Terence Mckenna said that’s just been… stuck in my craw for a few years and a video discussing that exact thing.
In summary, McKenna said that Descartes had a dream in which an Angel told him that “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number.”
Let’s take a look at a couple of his quotes. This is from one of his Lectures On Alchemy, and the transcription is done by a volunteer. The section preceding this quote discusses the Hapsburgs putting down an “alchemical revolution” in Prauge, a claim I’m unsure of the quality of.
In that Hapsburg army, there was a young soldier of fortune, only 19 years old, still wet behind the ears, knowing nothing, happily soldiering and wenching his way around Europe while he decided what to do with himself. His name was Ren ́e descartes, a Frenchman. descartes in his later years reminisced about his period as a soldier in this army, and I like to think that it was actually descartes who murdered Maier. One of my ambitions is to write a play or a novel where these two confront each other in a back alley of burning Prague and carry on a debate about the future of Europe before Michael Maier falls to the sword of descartes. That may be apocryphal, but what is not apocryphal is that this Hapsburg army, having laid siege and destroyed the alchemical kingdom, began to retreat across Europe that fall and by mid-September was camped near the town of Olm in southern Germany. By a strange coincidence, Olm is the birthplace of Einstein some hundreds of years later. On the night of September 16, 1620, descartes had a dream, and in this dream an angel appeared to him — this is documented by his own hand — and the angel said to descartes, “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number.” That revelation laid the basis for modern science. Ren ́e descartes is the founder of the distinction between the res cogitans and the res extensa, the founder of modern science, the founder of the scientific method that created the philosophical engines that created the modern world. How many scientists, working at their workbenches, understand that an angel chartered modern science? It’s the alchemical angel which will not die. It returns again and again to guide the destinies of nations and peoples toward an unimaginable conclusion.
In a different talk, focused more on Mckenna’s criticisms of science, he said:
If you’ve read Thomas Kuhn’s book on the structure of scientific revolutions, you know this is all lies and propaganda. The real story of science is that it’s a series of revelations, brilliantly defended by people whose careers depended on the brilliant defense of those revelations. One of the best-kept secrets of the birth of modern science is that it was founded by an angel, that the young Ren ́e Descartes was whoring and soldiering his way across Europe as a 21-year-old in the Hapsburg army, and one night in the town of Olm in southern Germany he had a dream — it’s strange that this would be the birthplace of Albert Einstein some 200 years later — and an angel appeared to him in the dream and said, “The conquest of nature is to be achieved through measure and number,” and he said, “I got it! Modern science. I’ll go do it,” and he did. That was the method for over 250 years of the conquest of nature, and it leads us to the Josephson junction, the Mars Global Surveyer, long-base interferometry that searches nearby stars for earth-like planets. It brings us the entire cornucopia of scientific effects, but an angelic revelation disguised as a logical-philosophical breakthrough: this is what you’re not told in the academy.
My point there is that human progress has always depended on the whisper- ing of alien minds, confrontations with the Other, probes into dimensions where imagination and chance held the winning hands; so the shaman, as paradigmatic figure, is applicable both in the aboriginal social context and in the present social context. The skywalker, the one who goes between, the one who passes outside of the tribe and then returns with memes, insights, cures, designs, glossolalia, technologies, and refertilizes the human family by this means. It’s irrational, but it’s how it actually happens, and it’s how it’s always happened and it may very well be the only way that it can happen: this cultivation of the irrational, this flirtation with the breakdown of boundaries.
So, some of this is definitely true.
Rene Descartes was a Gentleman soldier, and he was involved a battle in Prauge and on the way back Descartes had a series of dreams. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts the dreams on a different date, November 10th 1619, and I think we should prefer that over McKenna’s memory.
The first important deviation, though, is the line “In his own hand”.
While Descartes did keep a diary of this and we have records of what the diary said, the actual diary itself did not survive. So we probably have a record of what he wrote with his own hand. Some notes survived in his lost treatise Olympica and commentary on those is our main source.
I mostly bring this up because cranks like Terence McKenna often play fast and loose with how reliable a text is and it’s the kind of thing that makes them less trustworthy.
As he often does, Terence goes for the good story. But the actual story is just as interesting and, I think, more challenging to both the conventional narrative of linear progress and Terence’s own alchemical fancies.
Let’s run through it quickly:
For a few days before his dreams, Descartes was overcome by a kind of religious mania he termed “Enthusiasm” and he went to bed in a state of spiritual expectation.
-Actually, ack, I hate to do this, but I’m going to have to continue this tomorrow. I need to rush off for Thanksgiving Dinner with some friends.
Guess we’ll be doing a special edition tomorrow because there’s no way I can summarize everything at an interesting depth.
The Good news is I’ve been able to largely bounce back from a series push on my body and get some good sitting time in today. So I’m hopeful that my current routine is working well.
I’ve been able to do a lot of background work for the (hopefully) the last American Cultic Milieu series and that should leave us ready to get back into Terence Mckenna’s Opus and its failures.
Related to that, I’ve heard that David Graeber’s posthumous book with David Wengrow The Dawn of Everything has some comments on the Stoned Ape Theory, which I look forward to looking into.
Alright, gotta roll.
See y’all on the other side.
P.S. All typos here were provided free of charge.
just got the Dawn of Everything audiobook, really looking forward to it. also very much enjoying the series. i feel your dilemma with the right wing propaganda... i feel like for a while now a lot of stuff that is supposed to be satire is failing to sufficiently distinguish itself from the thing it's supposedly satirizing, and that's contributing to a lot of unwitting spread of ideas, too.