January 5

A warmer morning than the one the day before. I continue reading McGilchrist, even when outdoors under cloudy skies, as I did yesterday when I went to my favorite beach to park in the sun for a couple of hours. A large mass of gray sun blotters moved overhead, as if a pod of whales from the Arctic, going to a puppy show in Baja.

Sometime last night, just before bed, one of McGilchrist’s hidden ideas came to me, and as I read along a little further, he confirmed it for me. Part One of his book, “The Master and His Emissary”, is written for what seems to be a scientist who is interested in understanding left-brain, right-brain functionality. The detail is exquisite enough to serve that purpose. But, that sort of a scientist would have other, more in-depth, and perhaps even better-informed sources to go by. So, that would mean that the intended audience is more general, someone like me.

McGilchrist in Part One then spends an exorbitant amount of time describing various mental illnesses. His main account, however, is schizophrenia, as he goes through case after case from studies, to show how dysfunctional halves of the brain affect a person’s behavior. If the brain is severed, one such behavior. If a stroke occurs and one half is rendered useless, then this type of behavior occurs in the patient. I read all of this, knew a weensy bit about such things already, having a family member who has gone through bouts of schizophrenia, and I had read “Eden Express”, an account written by Kurt Vonnegut’s son of his ongoing battle with schizophrenia (the son, not Kurt Vonnegut).

Then last night I realized that what McGilchrist is writing here is metaphor for our sick modern world and society. I had understood his general concept of the right-brain and left-brain battle of our civilization, but did not catch that the illnesses of individuals he describes in Part One actually show, metaphorically, what our world looks like. If you could describe a normal left-brain, right-brain functioning mind to a schizophrenic, he would not understand, at least not while under the influence of the disease. It would be a reality with which he could not identify. So is our modern predicament. We live in a world where right-brain has been deafeningly silenced by left-brain control, and so have no idea what a world might be like were the right brain allowed to have it’s say-so. The best example we have in the history of western civilization, I think McGilchrist would agree, is that of the ancient Greeks before Plato, the Mycenaeans, which is why I am endeavoring to study more about this ancient, hardly known civilization.

So since it is impossible for us to understand what a right-brain functioning modern world might look like, what the experience might be like for each of us, the next best thing we can do is to study schizophrenics, those whose left brain is doing all the work of cognizing, while their right brain is not working at all. These discernible differences give us a clue to what a crazy, mixed-up world we currently live in. Our modern left-brain world is complex, quite a difficult problem to either understand, discuss, or fix. If we can make the metaphorical jump, and trust that studies of schizophrenia are telling us something about the truth, then when we study schizophrenics we can extrapolate more about our modern world.

McGilchrist has a Youtube video in which he presents art work from patients who are psychotic or schizophrenic.

There is not much of an introduction to the topic in the video, and it rolls out as if the subject of his presentation is the limited art capacity of sick, institutionalized individuals. But now I see that it is not really about that at all. It is about a whole modern society, culture, civilization, that has lost its ability to use its right brain, which causes how we live to be–well, eerie, creepy, disconnected, and disassociated from what should be the common reality. Eyeballs hang in the sky in places they shouldn’t be, arms fall off of people and lie rotting on tables in front of them, day-to-day common scenes become indescribably dense and confusing, a sensory overload that has no comfort or focus. Now I see what McGilchrist is up to.

I feel an obvious need to go back and read the book a second time after I have completed it. One book reviewer on Amazon says that he plans to read it at least five times. It is dense, which would make anyone who has read it once and appreciated what he read, want to take a second pass at it. But it is the slow unwinding, revealing power of his metaphor that is the wonder of the book. Rather like reading a poem, one pass at it gives the reader the sense of depth and breadth of it, and images pop into the mind that seem incongruous or mysterious, making one want to return and go through the journey once again to gain the richer experience. (Maybe life and the notion of reincarnation is something like that?)

My own interest in first coming to McGilchrist was more along the lines of what I regarded as a spiritual quest, rather than social commentary. I wanted to understand better the power of metaphor, why it is that the New Testament writers, for example, wrote in metaphorical language. I figured it had something to do with an ancient cultural understanding that is no longer apparent to modern man. I am learning that my suspicions are true, but that there is much more than that to learn. My own metaphor-making mechanism inside of me has been seriously wounded as well. My own left brain works and conspires to kill my right brain. The fight goes on, as in the Bhagavad Gita, and I remain standing on the battle field, half dead, trying to understand how I got wounded, how badly am I wounded, and which way do I go to find help and relief?

I am not yet done with my first reading of the book. Perhaps there is more coming that has to do with spirituality. I am sure that other readers have come to McGilchrist for similar quests as mine. He has thrown out a few ideas for the pilgrims, and described some of the detours that western civilization has taken us on. Rather than speculate too much right here and now, I will continue the read, and see if some of my own thoughts can be confirmed by him. But I think personal experience plays a big role in this left-brain, right-brain spiritual conundrum. I have begun to take an advance peek at Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a right-brain volume of epic poetry. Here, early on in the first book, when he is talking about man entering God’s creation, he writes:

But something else was needed, a finer being,
More capable of mind, a sage, a ruler,
So Man was born, it may be, in God’s image,
Or Earth, perhaps, so newly separated
From the old fire of Heaven, still retained
Some seed of the celestial force which fashioned
Gods out of living clay and running water.
All other animals look downward; Man,
Alone, erect, can raise his face toward Heaven.

Man is looking up, facing the gods, or God, rather than looking down, like an animal. Perhaps our right brain is inviting us to perceive what is above us, rather than listening to what our left brain has conceptualized and packaged for us, to keep us lifelessly under its control. Who are the right brain masters and who are the emissaries and what do they want with me?

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