Winged or Shriven

Hearther Horton, Central Park Angel
Heather Horton

Escape Into Chris: Winged or Shriven

Excerpts from the journals and library of Christopher Al-Aswad (1979-2010) 

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s the winter solstice, commonly known as the first day of winter and the longest night of the year. We are in the season of advent for some, a time of hope and anticipation, but for some, it’s a season of prolonged darkness, cold, and sadness.  And some of us swing between two moods, as did EIL’s founding editor, Christopher Al-Aswad.  It was actually closer to the spring solstice that Chris wrote this in his personal journal, but he was always wrestling with his demons, and it resonates interestingly right now: 

The outside is not so cold that I should feel this deep urge to be someplace else. My life is not bad. My fiction is not a refuge from a harsh way of life. No, I am not desperately escaping some minefield. I am simply rising up with my spirit, or at least my spirit wants to rise, but gravity—my thoughts, my conscious mind—holds me down. So in constant movement toward the heavens, in constant fall of heaviness, my anguish is knowing not which I am—winged or shriven. 

Chris had already identified fiction as his literary path to enlightenment: “I have chosen fiction because fiction is the ultimate expression of the unconscious.” But it was his ongoing, revolving task to separate reality from illusion, fiction from autobiography, authenticity from “pantomime.” 

Heather Horton, white sheetsWe live out a pantomime. It’s a routine, a habit we’ve created for ourselves—and [we’ve] enrolled others to participate with us. We are not who we think we are. We do not have insight into our inner being. We identify with the outside of life, and the inside is hidden. We cannot see our essence—it is obscured. Something guides us—we know not what. 

Therefore allow me to open the gates of the unconscious, for it is my own path of transformation. I must divine my true path in the dark of the unconscious. I do not know what lies ahead. I have chosen fiction because fiction is the ultimate expression of the unconscious…. My job as a writer is to pierce the veil of fantasy and habit that enshrouds us all. What are we really seeking? What do we really want? Who are we really? And do we want to know?Or would we rather continue our pantomimes—would we rather live out a script, an enactment without vitality or free will? 

In his efforts to find answers to his questions, divine his true path, separate the authentic self from a routine persona, and live without daily anxiety, Chris was reading The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt looks at the wise, funny, and admirable Benjamin Franklin, known for his good habits and a life of evident vitality. 

“What was his secret? Virtue. Not the sort of uptight, pleasure-hating Puritanism that some people now associate with that word, but a broader kind of virtue that goes back to ancient Greece. The Greek word aretē means excellence, virtue, or goodness, especially of a functional sort. The aretē of a knife is to cut well; the aretē of an eye is to see well; the aretē of a person…well, that’s one of the oldest questions of philosophy. What is the true nature, function, or goal of a person, relative to which we can say that he or she is living well or badly? Thus in saying that well being or happiness (eudaimonia) is “an activity of soul in conformity with excellence or virtue,” Aristotle wasn’t saying that happiness comes from giving to the poor and suppressing your sexuality. He was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become. (Aristotle believed that all things in the universe had a telos, or purpose toward which they aimed, even though he did not believe the gods had designed all things.)” 

Chris was searching for his telos, his purpose and his real self, but may have encountered instead what Haidt might call his “mystical” self. Chris said: 

Heather Horton, The SearcherWe are not consigned to our false selves. If we have the desire to wake up out of this dream, we can step into the unconscious. You know you’re inside that realm when you know nothing else. The unknown surrounds you. Vast uncertainty makes you disappear. 

Using the research and insights of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, Jonathan Haidt identifies “mystical experience [as] an ‘off’ button for the self. When the self is turned off, people become just a cell in the larger body, a bee in the larger hive. It is no wonder that the after effects of mystical experience are predictable; people usually feel a stronger commitment to God or to helping others, often by bringing them to God.”  Chris had an on-again, off-again relationship to God but did seem to lose self in the “unknown” or “uncertainty” even as he sought his telos and his authentic self. 

Again, Haidt helps us with science, this time the brain science of Andrew Newberg, who located the self’s “off-switch” in the rear of the brain’s parietal lobes in two main “orientation association areas.”  As Haidt summarizes,

“The patch in the left hemisphere appears to contribute to the mental sensation of having a limited and physically defined body, and thus keeps track of your edges. The corresponding area in the right hemisphere maintains a map of the space around you. These two areas receive input from your senses to help them maintain an ongoing representation of your self and its location in space. At the very moment when people report achieving states of mystical union, these two areas appear to be cut off. Input from other parts of the brain is reduced, and overall activity in these orientation areas is reduced, too. But Newberg believes they are still trying to do their jobs: The area on the left tries to establish the body’s boundaries and doesn’t find them; the area on the right tries to establish the self’s location in space and doesn’t find it. The person experiences a loss of self combined with a paradoxical expansion of the self out into space, yet with no fixed location in the normal world of three dimensions. The person feels merged with something vast, something larger than self.”

So, whether you are swayed by science or mysticism, God or no-God, may you find plenty to think about and sustain you on this, the longest night of the year. And/or, go out and make snow angels.


3 responses to “Winged or Shriven”

  1. Basel Al-Aswad says:

    Again Kathleen, you have delved into Chris’ mind and soul extracting mystical insights as well as practical ideas to help us bring purpose, meaning and a sense of at least partial satisfaction in our lives. These inner conflicts between our two selves, the bigger expansive and the smaller limited one, are present in all of us but Chris expresses them so vividly in his journals. I find myself reading the post several times before it sinks in. Reflection and introspection is as much part of this season as is sharing and giving….
    May all have a Merry ( and thoughtful ) Christmas

  2. Seana Graham says:

    Thanks for this. I too will read this again in quieter less busy season as there is much to ponder here.

  3. […] promise of an essay about writing fiction…and the recent solstice…enticed me to visit Escape into Life. Consider yourself […]

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