Call me Patient C-3E/008-01, late of the Village of the Damned. I was released from hospital yesterday afternoon, and believe me, dear readers, I did a little Snoopy Dance of Joy inside when they finally discharged me. Thanks also for all your kind thoughts while I was ill. I have to say, though, that a great deal of the pain and suffering I endured over the last week was iatrogenic (or what might be called “collateral damage”). Still, I would also like to thank the medical staff that pulled me back from the edge of the precipice that was crumbling beneath my feet.
Everyone should become deathly ill a few times in their life. I fancy I understand Nietzsche pretty well because of that, for Nietzsche was deathly ill throughout much of his life. It very much colours his entire philosophy and he knew that unless one had suffered from life the way he had suffered from it, no one could really understand his philosophy. Extreme pain often has the salutary effect of sobering the mind and ridding us of superficial pettinesses (or what is called “personal baggage”). It cuts to the quick, but you also gain some measure of clarity into what matters and what does not matter. It’s the first Noble Truth of the Buddha — life is dukkha. It matters, though, in what way you understand how and why life is dukkha. This is also the starting point for Nietzsche’s entire philosophy: “what does not kill me makes me stronger”. There is value to be discovered even in dukkha, and Nietzsche wanted to draw that value out.
(Unfortunately, they aren’t done with me yet either. I have to return for additional surgery in a couple of weeks).
Extreme illness can also be a teaching, and all of life and even what we call “evolution” is a process of learning those teachings. For much of my stay in the hospital I was in a delirium of pain. One part of me was immersed in that delirium of pain even as another part, somewhat detached from that, found the whole matter interesting and absorbing. That’s the part that McGilchrist calls “the Master mode of attention” associated with the right-hemisphere of the divided brain. If you have read Nietzsche’s “The Despisers of the Body” chapter from his Zarathustra, this is not to be wondered at. The “Master” is what Nietzsche calls “the Self” and it is not the Ego-nature. This is a point on which many people who pretend to understand Nietzsche often go astray. It is this latent or implicit “Self” that is the core of Nietzsche’s “overman”, or Emerson’s “Oversoul” or Blake’s “Albion reborn”. So, “The Despisers of the Body” is a key chapter in understanding Nietzsche’s entire philosophy of dukkha and much of William Blake, too…
“Man was made for joy and woe
Then when this we rightly know
Through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul to bind.”
If you can suffer dukkha “creatively”, without lapsing into self-pity and resentment of life, this is the beginning of wisdom and of compassion for all living. Gurdjieff even advocated an exercise for awakening compassion in this respect, even in a pub — knowing that the person you are sharing a beer with during “happy hour” is a mortal being doomed to suffer and die as you yourself are doomed to suffer and die. In Buddhism and in Castaneda’s writings, this knowledge is extended to all living beings. What makes Man equal to the slug or the plant or the insect is the knowledge that we are all mortal beings doomed to suffer and die. This is the Buddhist Law of Impermanence and what Jean Gebser calls “the Law of the Earth” and many people resent it deeply and turn away from life. It’s one reason why Heraclitus was largely rejected in Western intellectual history. But now his time has come.
I was admitted into emergency last Friday, 27. September with a kidney obstruction. I was in emergency for seven hours as various unsuccessful and quite painful attempts were made to insert a catheter in my bladder until a specialist was called in who basically performed on the spot surgery. I am what they call “a difficult insertion”, and the procedure caused some “trauma” to the urethra and the bladder. In other words, I bled quite a lot and this caused blood clots to form resulting in an extremity of pain as they jammed up the works. My extended stay in the renal unit had less to do with my chronic kidney dysfunction than it did with the attempt to heal the trauma of the procedure for alleviating the kidney obstruction. Once that had been cleared up there followed days of disappointment when my discharge was postponed “till tomorrow” until it seemed like in the Village of the Damned (what I called our ward), tomorrow never came. It began to feel a little too Kafkaesque, or like Macbeth’s soliloquy
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
That’s what it began to feel like. The reason my discharge kept getting postponed till “tomorrow” was high blood pressure and various attempts made to control it. It was through the roof, actually. But it was a vicious circle. My body organism, bed-ridden and made immobile because hooked up to, and pinned down by, machinery was rebelling against this condition of immobility (they even had to give injections of some painful substance to counteract the effects of immobility on the body organism). I protested that my blood pressure would normalise once I was discharged and in my own home (and sure enough, it has returned to normal since my discharge). The high blood pressure, too, was iatrogenic. So, it began to feel very merry-go-round-like and a bit too kafkaesque.
So, I did learn a few things about the moods and meanings of Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and Kafka from the experience.
And also David Bohm. One of the most interesting effects brought on by the trauma and the delirium of pain was precisely this issue, previously discussed, of “fragmentation”. (This delirium of pain was very often accompanied by a shaking and spasms of the entire body organism). The fragmentation of the field was very, very concrete during these periods. Everything stood out in its apartness. Nothing had coherence. It certainly brought to mind Yeats’ line from “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. Everything — every aspect of the field — seemed to be in rebellion against every other thing or aspect. It was like the field view fractured and splintered, and the proper word for that is “dis-concerted”. There was no concert of the percepts. That simply reflected the loss of equilibrium (or homeostasis) in the body organism itself. But even immersed in this delirium there was a part of me saying “hey! This is just like the pandaemonium and delirium of the New Normal!”.
Indeed, it is. What Bohm means by “fragmentation” is something very, very concrete in meaning for me now. And maybe that alone was the whole meaning and teaching of this particular episode in my life — pandaemonium, delirium, and the chaos of the affects.
In any case, I am not the same “Self” as I was for the experience. I’m like the serpent that has shed its skin. There is here for me a teaching and a lesson in all this about the pettiness of “identitarianism”. If we can remain open to being transformed and changed, even through pain and suffering, and not give in to self-pity or resentment, we will learn, and the learning is the transformation. None of us ever is the same “Self” from day to day anyway. This is perhaps why the New Testament describes the serpent as “the wisest of creatures”, and perhaps the real meaning of the ancient ouroboros — the World Serpent constantly shedding its skin and being born again a different creature, but within the cycle — constantly dying to itself; constantly being renewed through its dying to itself.