Friday, May 10, 2019

We Die into Our Imaginations

I recently came across a provocative speculation about the growing literature on near-death experiences, their relation to "vision", and the relationship of vision to art. This is from a professor of philosophy and religion, Jeffrey Kripal, reflecting on such a near-death experience recounted by Elizabeth Krohn. This seems to me particularly relevant to Yeats's A Vision and his art in a number of ways, so that I will quote at greater length than I normally would.
The modern near-death accounts are made possible in their increasing number and depth by the advances of biomedical technology, which can “pull us back” from further and further into the death process. This might look like a minor observation, but it has major implications for how we think about the near-death literature as a whole. What we have in the near-death stories, after all, is essentially a new mystical or visionary literature made possible by new biomedical technology....
     The English expression “to have a vision” is very helpful here, as it can mean two very different things. First, it can name a more or less passive process. “To have a vision” in this sense is to be given something, as in a dream. But the same phrase can also name a process that is much more active, that is about creating and projecting something and then working toward actualizing that projected vision in the future. Here, “to have a vision” is to make something actual that was previously only potential. As such, it is more akin to writing, directing, and then projecting a movie. When I refer to the modern near-death literature as a visionary literature and write of our vision-work here, I intend both meanings: something is received or revealed, and then something is created out of the gift. I mean to suggest that these revelatory visions of our own deeper nature are also projects that we must engage with and act on; that these need our attention and intention to fulfill their purpose; and that they are finally about us changing us.
     We can think of the entire history of religions in this way. We can think of it all as a long series of science fiction movies—with the scenes painted on the walls (of the caves, of the churches, of the temples), and all of it inspired by countless and quite real supernatural special effects (like precognition and auras). For thousands of generations, we have been born and then died into these running science fiction movies, changing the scenes and stories as we go, largely unconsciously and gradually, but sometimes dramatically and, seemingly, all at once.
     Not surprisingly, the religions have always known something of this, if in a largely implicit, unconscious, or at least unexpressed way. This is why they have so richly supported and funded the arts, not for art’s sake, but for the vision’s sake. They understood very well that it is the image and the story that ultimately define a community’s worldview and religious experience. We do not have to share any of those values or beliefs (that is, we do not have to believe their movies) to see that they may well have been on to something very important, namely, that it is the image and the arts that largely determine what we see and what happens to us in the death process and in the afterlife, at least in the “near-death” zones from which we sometimes return.
     In short, we die into our imaginations, be these psychological, cultural, or religious. We die into our own personal and collective art....
     If any of this is close to the truth, and I think it is, the conclusion is as obvious as it is shocking: if we want better death experiences, it would do us well to make better art. If we want to be in a better science fiction movie “there,” it would serve us to make better science fiction movies “here.” Toward this same end, we might even decide to take up the modern near-death literature and create new art, i.e., new meditation and prayer practices out of it. We might use this literature and these reports to imagine what death might be like for us, or better, what we might want it to be like. By doing so, we could take more responsibility for our own visionary displays and work with them, as in a lucid dream, here and now before we die. We could not just “see visions.” We could also “have a vision”; that is, we could possess a vision of the future and consciously act on it as our project. We could decide for ourselves which paintings we want to die into.
     If we were really smart, we would also create practices that taught us that none of these forms of the imagination are literally true, that they are all “ours.” We might then seek the artist behind all the art, the projector behind all the movies. We might even wake up from our own dreams of life and death, however real they might seem at the moment.
Jeffrey J. Kripal, Professor of Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University,
Elizabeth G. Krohn, Changed in a Flash (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2019).
     Yeats's descriptions of the "bardo", the states existence between death and rebirth, in A Vision include differing levels and kinds of dream state, particularly in the first part where the soul deals with understanding the foregoing life. One in particular, which he calls the Phantasmagoria, is connected with "those among the dead who imagine themselves 'surrounded by flames and persecuted by demons'" and to the ghost in a Noh play who cannot stop believing herself "surrounded by flames" (AVB 230–31, CW14 168). All, however, take place within a construct where the enveloping dreams are created out of the soul itself and the community it is part of, both the "timeless and spaceless community of Spirits which perceive each other" ("Seven Propositions"), and also the community of our earthly life, particularly at the level of culture, art, and religion.
     Kripal suggests that artists contribute to the afterlife experienced by their society by forming the individual and collective imagination, which Yeats also suggests in poems such as "The Tower", where he states:
I mock Plotinus' thought
And cry in Plato's teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Out of his bitter soul, 
Aye, sun and moon and star, all, 
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise, 
Dream and so create
Translunar Paradise.
I have prepared my peace
With learned Italian things
And the proud stones of Greece,
Poet’s imaginings
And memories of love,
Memories of the words of women,
All those things whereof
Man makes a superhuman
Mirror-resembling dream. (VP 415, CW1 198–99, 2nd ed. 202)
Plato bans the artists from his republic because they create only lies or imitations of the true forms, but Yeats sees the artists as giving access to those forms, even if what is created is "a superhuman / Mirror-resembling dream" that reflects ourselves back to ourselves. Life and death are both included in the human visionary act, created from the imagination of the "bitter soul". In A Vision A, Yeats goes as far as to suggest that "time and space [are] the work of our ancestors", in the sense that the souls of the dead who do not reincarnate and "have found an almost changeless rest" are responsible for the "least changing things" in the universe, represented by the "Fixed Stars" (AVA 158, CW13 128) or the translunary world of traditional thought, while the living and the reincarnating dead create together the sublunary world. But Yeats's thought is fixed on the "Translunar Paradise" he will create through the art of Renaissance Italy and classical Greece, love poetry and memories.  
     In "Sailing to Byzantium" his inspiration is Byzantine mosaics and he asks the "sages standing in God's holy fire" to "be the singing masters of my soul" and to help form his existence once he is no longer "fastened to a dying animal" (VP 408, CW1 193, 2nd ed. 198). He asks them to "gather me / Into the artifice of eternity", recognizing that eternity is experienced through the artifice created by the soul and its song.