A little thought experiment today.
I watched a documentary called How Art Made the World: The Day Pictures Were Born (BBC 2005). It offers a theory of how 2-D pictures were invented: prehistoric peoples in Spain and France experienced sensory deprivation in dark caves and wanted to “nail down” the hallucinations they saw. This is why paintings are usually of impressive animals (food-type, like Bison and hunter-type, like lions) OR of strange abstract, repeated patterns. Example below.
The El Castillo Cave
When your eyes are deprived of stimulation, like being in a darkened room, you are in an unnatural situation. Your brain overcompensates for the unusual dearth of information. According to researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, the first thing your brain ‘thinks’ it sees are geometrical patterns, black ‘fishing nets’, series of blotches, clouds of abstract colors– all depending on the location and intensity of any flickering light that does reach your eyes in all that darkness.
Here are two examples which might help explain what early painters saw: When I was very young I would press my face into my pillow at night so that I could watch the moving ‘fractals’ on the insides of my eyelids. (I hope I’m not the only one who did this!)
In the 1980s, I remember seeing ‘afterimage’ art in museums; this art played with color perception. For instance, bright shapes that would trick you into seeing their opposite color, disembodied, once you looked away from the canvas.
Alexander Liberman, Omega IX, 1961
The documentary suggests that as people spent longer in sensory deprivation, their hallucinations took on a more complex form– their brains worked harder to find meaning in what information the eyes provided. If the painters were in Europe, they saw bison. If in South Africa, they saw eland. Painters’ minds forced sensory information into channels of cultural significance. They painted what they were ‘obsessed’ with in an effort to preserve a meaningful spiritual experience.
What I take home from this is that sensory deprivation, and the ‘search for meaning’ your mind takes during deprivation, have a deep emotional impact. Sensory deprivation begs a religious meaning, a spiritual purpose, and carries all the awe and terror that go with God.
Cutting off your senses can make you feel a need for God. Is sensory deprivation a good or a bad thing?
Consider the peace and contentment that come from ‘vision questing’; or living in an austere monastic environment; or why Orthodox icon painters starve themselves; or yogis who meditate in a single (sometimes painful!) position.
But what about people who drug themselves to numb pain? What about the sensory deprivation of ‘solitary confinement’; or the torture of sensory deprivation via sensory overload, like blasting culturally alien Metallica/Britney Spears music in Gitmo? According to Der Spiegel, part of the torture is the perceived sinfulness of the music; the wallowing in muck. To heighten the mental anguish, torturers sometimes put stroboscopes in front of victim’s faces. That type of sensory deprivation is designed to break and debase.
Is there a type of deprivation that harms through ‘confusion’ and another that refines through its focusing effect on the mind?
In Western cultures at least, Hell is associated with confusion, insanity, hypocrisy, lies. Heaven is a beautiful, if austere, place where only the important stuff matters. I can’t answer any of the questions I’ve asked above, but I suspect that Hell is being removed from truth; be it voluntary or induced by one’s enemies.
Heaven is facing truth head on, which means removing distractions. While living in Asia, I remember reading about monks who would practice mediation in loud, chaotic places. It was spiritual boot-camp: they wanted to train their minds not to wander and tuning out the noise helped them strengthen mental self-discipline.
An enemy can torture you by adding distractions; they can try to break your resolve by working on physical, mental or spiritual frailty. I don’t think that an enemy can ever remove distractions from you. (If you love your Andy Warhol painting, for instance, and somebody takes it from you, the new ‘distraction’ is reversing the theft and perhaps retribution.) Removing distractions is something you must chose to do for yourself. That choice is the whole ‘free will’ thing; it’s spiritual growth. Who wouldn’t chose spiritual growth?! Trick question.
So, sensory deprivation wakes you up to your need for truth, for God. Art is a means of preserving the joy of finding truth. Heaven is choosing to be with truth; hell is running from truth or being temporarily pulled away from it.
If you see meaning in any of this stuff, the asymmetry of heaven and hell shows the devil’s only tool is confusion. In Master and Margarita, Bulgakov described this confusion as frustrating truthful communication, subverting Kant’s ‘meeting of minds’. Bezdomnie, the establishment poet, the holy fool, casts off the confusion of hell when he stops shilling for the State. He stops writing bad poetry. The only place left to go is up.