Sunday, July 9, 2017

Book review: "The Art of Losing Control" by Jules Evans

We were guided through intense emotions, like buttons on a TV remote. And the strange thing is, I felt each emotion. Are we so easily manipulated?
(p. 143)

I've won via a book thanks to a competition at The Psychologist magazine. It's a thesis on ecstatic experiences by Jules Evans, philosopher and bon vivant (in a broad sense of the term). Although the term "ecstasy" is used to describe religious or sexual experience, Evans highlights that many different forms of activity can be associated with this type of experience, which is not just about extreme happiness or pleasure but a loss of the sense of self.

Evans does not simply wish to sit at the sidelines but rather engage in some of the kinds of experience he discusses in the book. Sometimes he draws on past personal experiences, at other times he engages in new activities as research for the book (his attempts to dip his toes back into organised religion veer between endearingly awkward and slightly off-putting, as congregants and preachers hungry for young blood latch on to him or try to use him as a mouthpiece). Unsurprisingly, when dabbling in these various activities Evans often fails to become ecstatic. However, he draws on characters from the past who have abandoned themselves to ecstasy more than Evans himself, from sexualised cult leaders to preachers who found ecstasy in the natural world.

Indeed, like many philosophers, Evans has a healthy interest in history. He traces much of the reaction against ecstatic experience (or most ways of seeking ecstasy) to the Enlightenment. He posits that at this time an increasingly materialist worldview was increasingly hostile towards ecstatic experiences where sense of self (and therefore self-control) is lost.  I mention "most ways of seeking ecstasy" above, as the ecstatic appreciation of the natural world may be a form of ecstasy less antagonistic to Enlightenment values; people from Dawkins to Tim Michin have highlighted how we shouldn't need God when we could be happy and in awe of the wonder of the Natural World. Evans himself insists that he remains agnostic about religion, although he does seem to want the skeptical reader to consider the spiritual realm.

In delving into the world of ecstasy, a recurring theme is the danger underlying the loss of self. Besides the hazards of dangerous drugs, Evans highlights the negative reaction some people have to meditation. He even suggests there is a dark side to the seemingly innocuous ecstatic appreciation of the natural world; there is a risk of reading an excessively benevolent intention into Nature. However, Evans also suggests a further risk is that ecstasy in nature could distract from a higher power/transcendence (his nudging the reader towards the spiritual again?) This counterbalance serves as a useful rejoinder for the tendency of many self-help types to give an uncomplicated view of phenomena from romantic love to peak experience and flow.

Perhaps the boldest chapter is that which highlights war as a means for searching for ecstasy. Evans mentions Malthusian philosopher John Gray's reference to war as being a major part of the human psyche. Evans does not go as far as Gray in suggesting war as a universal drive, but he does delve deeper into suggesting a number of different reasons why war and violence can be a means to annihilate the self, such as a loss of self to a "greater cause". Of course, with war, unlike most other ecstatic pursuits, when the pleasure fades, you have not just temporarily annihilated the self, but permanently destroyed the other.

This book will raise more questions than answers, which is almost inevitable for a book that deals with a relatively under-explored phenomenon from such a wide-ranging perspective. Is there anything wrong with a life of modest happiness, rather than overwhelming ecstasy? Why is it that ecstatic experience can be turned on/off for many people engaging in quite diverse activities? Why, for so many people, is the self a burden that needs to be shed?

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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Honeymoon diary: Karpathos, Greece

Today this supremely beautiful landscape seemed to me to be almost unreal in its perfection. It produces a tonic effect on me…I felt a kind of aesthetic exhilaration, a mental exuberance and keenness of perception, a complete environmental euphoria. (John Fowles, “The Journals: Volume 1” p. 168)

The knot is tied. Daniela and I are honeymooning on a Greek island-KarpathosI am reading the journals of a favourite writer (I had just recently picked these up in Cardiff, having previously planned to re-read his famous novel with a Greek island setting, The Magus). In his early twenties, John Fowles’s initial resentment and self-absorption in England change to a more outward focus on the extravagant characters he encounters when he takes up a teaching job on the Greek island of Spetsai-possibly the most extravagant of which is the landscape of the island itself. 

From visiting the in-laws in Italy, I am by now used to the fairly urban Verona and Bergamo airports. Landing in Karpathos airport, one is struck by the almost alien landscape. It is a little bit like a grey/deep green version of Red Rocks in Denver. Although the sun takes the temperature into the high twenties, the island is windy, with enough of a breeze to make it feel like low twenties much of the time.

We are honeymooning with an Italian tour operator (Irish tourists are a novelty on the island) who take us from the airport to the Aegean Hotel, Amoopi. A polite yet brilliantly deadpan Serbian waiter attends to us at dinner. We dine a few times at a taverna down the road. The highly extroverted husband & wife proprietors engage their patrons/audience not only with cuisine that often incorporates their mini-farm by the taverna, but also with anecdotes and conversation, the hijinks of their dog, a chance to hold newly-born chicklets etc. They also do a mean Greek coffee. 

Our first excursion with the tour operator is to Olimbus. The various shops sell bespoke items, and the keepers call to the tourists as they stroll past to check their wares. (I look the archetypal tourist in shorts, T-shirt and a Karpathos baseball cap). In one place we pick up a necklace made up butterfly eggs. Another shopkeeper, who sells us a mug she made herself, is as comfortable discussing her life as an architect in Athens outside of the tourist season as she is asking us what age we are.

We hire a small car. I have never driven on the right before, and by force of habit I frequently reach left for the gearbox. In comparing our relative levels of stress when I am driving versus when Daniela is driving, I decide that I should stick to acting as navigator more often than driver. The car is used to travel to various beaches around Karpathos. Starting from the beach outwards, the water starts transparent, then aquamarine, then azure, then a deep blue. Most of the beaches are enclosed by cliffs or hills reaching down to the outskirts of the water. When swimming I tread water to admire the landscape, feeling a touch of Fowles's "aesthetic exhilaration".  

Our second excursion with the tour operator is to the island of Saria, the tiniest bit North of Karpathos. Although some people travel out on a semi-regular basis, when the boat pulls in the island it is quite deserted apart from three mules observing us from the rocky beach. We then walk up a steepish ascent under direct midday sunlight (some of the people on the tour are older-I have to wonder how everyone manages). On the descent we take slight divergence from the way up; there is a dead sheep lying on the path. I was reminded about a reference to travel research I made in an Irish Indo piece highlighting how satisfaction tends not be higher during the initial part of travelling, when one is actually doing the travelling to the place you want to get to! 

Towards the initial high point of Saria we encounter a beautiful small church. There seem to be very numerous Orthodox churches dotted all over the island, although they also tend to be either small or very small (a few of them would struggle to accommodate a full family, were they Catholic churches of yesteryear). The churches usually have a similar style in terms of the icons depicted. One less small church we visit elsewhere is besides a large floor mosaic, much of which has been lost in time.  

Following Karpathos, we return to Verona, Italy for a few days, for some quieter time in Italy post-wedding excitement, when we can settle some debts and run around with the niece and nephew. Then the return to Ireland and relative normalcy-assembling a wardrobe for our apartment and gearing up for more research at work. The honeymoon is not just another holiday. There's an expectation of creating memories that one holds on to for good. I don't think I'll forget the sunset view from the Aegean Hotel at dinner, overlooking the footpath to the hills that stretched to the sea.

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