My friend Phil has recently brought the film Altered States to my attention and his simultaneous thinking through Nietzsche's "Truth and Lie in the Extra-moral Sense" has me thinking about the status of truth in the film. Not so much in that Nietzsche text, but the rather an odd beginning sentence in Nietzsche's prologue to Beyond Good and Evil:
"Suppose truth is a woman, what then? Wouldn’t we have good reason to suspect that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, had a poor understanding of women, that the dreadful seriousness and the awkward pushiness with which they so far have habitually approached truth were clumsy and inappropriate ways to win over a woman?"
A brief synopsis of the film (also see trailer above):
Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a university professor of abnormal psychology who, while studying schizophrenia, begins to think that "our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states." Jessup begins experimenting with sensory-deprivation using a flotation tank, and he travels to Mexico to participate in what is apparently an Ayahuasca Ceremony, although his guide states that the Indigenous tribe they are meeting works with Amanita muscaria which they are collecting for next year's ceremonies. An indigenous elder was seen with Banisteriopsis caapi root in his hand prior to cutting Jessup's hand, adding the ingredient of blood. Immediately after consumption he experiences bizarre, intense imagery. The professor then returns to the U.S. with a tincture and begins taking it orally before each session in the flotation tank where he experiences a series of increasingly drastic psychological and physical transformations.
Edward's mind experiments cause him to experience actual, physical biological devolution. At one stage he emerges from the isolation tank as a feral and curiously small-statured, light-skinned Primitive Man. In a subsequent experiment he is regressed into a mostly amorphous mass of conscious, primordial matter. It is only the physical intervention of his wife Emily which brings him back from this latter, shocking transformation in which he seems poised on the brink of becoming a non-physical form of proto-consciousness and possibly disappearing from our version of reality altogether.
The experiments worsen, as Professor Jessup experiences episodes of involuntary spontaneous temporary partial devolution. This occurs outside of the isolation tank and without the intake of additional doses of the hallucinogenic tincture. His early reaction is more one of fascination than concern, but as his priorities gradually change due to Emily's determination to keep from losing him, he finally begins to act like someone who values his humanity (Wikipedia).
Now that everyone has an idea of what goes on in this film, its time to start the analysis. In some ways, the film begins with Truth being anything but a woman. Indeed, after we find out how they meet and they have sex, we jump to a point where their marriage is falling apart -- and Eddy is the one who wants the divorce, as he seeks truth beyond the contingent, every day existence of their lives together.
It is important that Eddy is studying schizophrenia and religious experience. Schizophrenia is "characterized by a breakdown of thought processes and by poor emotional responses and most commonly manifests itself as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizzare delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia). The film wants us to understand that there is a deep connection between Eddy's object of study and Eddy himself, who is unable to tell his wife that he loves her; rather, the best he can do is say that he "doesn't want to lose her." In a conversation we are told that she is "crazy about him" and that "he's still crazy," drawing an explicit parallel between the schizophrenics he studies and his own state of mind. When we are crazy "about" someone we are in love, but if we are just "crazy" --well, we haven't formed a proper desire in terms of society then. Is that not what crazy really means? Our desires are all out of wack? Eddy, in fact, has a very simple and detached definition of what his wife means when she says she "loves" him: "What she means is that she prefers the senseless pain that we inflict on each other rather than the pain that we would otherwise inflict on ourselves." In contrast, he prefers the pain he would inflict on himself.
That's because Eddy is incredibly self-centered because he believes, a la some mystical traditions, that the Truth can only be sought for within the self and its encounter with reality. At a bar he goes on an at once enlightening and manic rant about how "memory is energy," everyone is "looking for their true selves, expand ourselves" and most importantly: "ever since we dispensed with God we've got nothing but ourselves to explain." At this moment, the camera cuts to his wife who looks despondent and whose expression says: what about the mystery of relationships? What about the mystery of love" (you self centered prick). Indeed, as a little aside that I might want to elaborate on later, is this not merely the colonization of God as the self? The self as God -- the individual as the source of truth? But if we have not dispensed with God (and, as Nietzsche points out, science essentially maintains the god-function), and if we think of God as otherwise than being -- as, perhaps, "love" or "relationship" or the mit-sein (to use Heidegger's terminology) between us, then Eddy is wrong that the only thing left to explain is "ourselves." In other words, against all that post-structuralism has taught us, Eddy is seeking the Origin, the Original, Primal Man, the Ur-Myth -- the Truth, with a capital T.
With this task in mind, as the synopsis goes, he goes to participate in a ritual taking of a hallucinatory drug with the Indian tribes. The leader of the tribe says that the experience will lead him to a "nothing" and that after this nothing will come "your unborn soul." Nietzsche hopes that such metaphysical entities such as "the soul-superstition, which, in the form of subject- and ego-superstition has not yet ceased doing mischief" will be relegated to its proper place as "perhaps some play upon words, a deception on the part of grammar, or an audacious generalization of very restricted, very personal, very human, ALL-TOO-HUMAN, facts." This philosophy of the soul -- even, perhaps the unborn soul or of some mystical void that contains it -- is the philosophy of "dogmatists."
I don't want to dwell on too much of the imagery of the first hallucination, but I must talk about a few images. First, I want to dwell on the connection between the Mushrooms and a clear reference to the mushroom cloud as a sign of the A or H-bomb. Altered States, as a 1980s film, is still technically within the Cold War scenario. That is, we had enough bombs to erase the human species (and every other species for that matter) from earth. The significance of this will return in a moment. But first we must take a little detour.
Toward the end of the vision, Eddy sees a komodo dragon in the sand, and after a camera cut to Eddy's face, it cuts back it is his beautiful naked wife in a yoga-pose (I want to say its like reverse-downward-dog--I'm not sure. I'd find the image but I'm on my public library network and don't want them to think I"m checking out pornography). From there is probably one of the most potent moments of the film because sand (dust? ashes?) begins to cover both man and woman slowly and with no music -- in contrast with the tripped out shit just a minute ago-- this is a moment of calm, but a destructive calm, a calm that might come over a city that has just been bombed. That is, I see this scene as the aftermath of the nuclear holocaust. Eddy and Emily are slowly turned to ashes (from dust to dust) but before their flesh is blown away and merges with the rest, they begin to resemble statues. Particularly Emily, as her breasts begin to sharpen into points -- recalling "primitive" statues. They also recall to my mind the volcano eruption of Pompeii (indeed, there is volcano imagery in the hallucination as well) except that no one is preserved here-- in negative space where the bodies used to be or otherwise. This is an obliteration of history.
Almost as suddenly as the rest of the hallucination, the camera cuts from a long shot of dust blowing in the wind to an eviscerated Komodo dragon. The viewer discovers that the tribe thinks he killed the lizard, but Eddy claims he didn't. Still, if the dragon is supposed to be a kind of spirit animal that would guide eddy to the truth (just as, one might argue, Emily could), then he could not approach the animal in any way but to kill it. Listen to Nietzsche, again, on truth as a woman:
""Suppose truth is a woman, what then? Wouldn’t we have good reason to suspect that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, had a poor understanding of women, that the dreadful seriousness and the awkward pushiness with which they so far have habitually approached truth were clumsy and inappropriate ways to win over a woman?"
Eddy has no idea how to approach, how to seduce, how to "win" over the woman, truth -- Emily/Woman/truth is seducing him, is telling him to come-hither, but he does not understand this mode of discovery. Instead, he wants to experience it directly, without mediation, without a cover (without metaphor, with figurative language). He insists on penetrating the truth, but all he finds is death, destruction, void, nothingness.
In the beginning of the film, Eddy claims, "There is a great amount of religious delusion among acute schizophrenics – its almost as if they are trying to change their physical bodily state to adapt to the image of themselves." For anyone familiar with what is going to happen in the film, this is important foreshadowing because its precisely this changing of the physical state that happens to Eddy. After his first experiment with the drug in the isolation tank, Eddy discovers that the "hallucination has been externalized" and that he "regressed into a quasi-simian state." He then believes that our altered states of consciousness are as real as any other state and these can be externalized -- and he has figured out how to do it.
Eddy decides that he must try the experiment again (like a good scientist) to see if the same thing happens. When he does, he does more than transform part of his neck, he transforms into a full blown ape-cave-man, devolving further back in time (or so we assume). He bursts out of the isolation tank, (almost) kills a guard, and rushes out into the city. Interestingly, Eddy winds up in a Zoo, observing all of the animals in their cages. The Zoo is a complex institution-- at once desiring to mimic a "natural" environment while still maintaining cultural and institutional control. Eddy, as, essentially, half-man, half-animal is in the only institution which is also half-'natural', half-'cultural' -- although the human element predominates. We see that the human element dominates in a Zoo because Eddy approaches a gift shop and stares at the stuffed elephants when he just saw "real" "live" elephants. Although, one might argue that the elephants in the cages are as stuffed and "unreal" as the ones in the giftshop -- tamed, and rendered a harmless spectacle.
But while in the Zoo, Eddy devours a small sheep, which is a parallel to the killing of the Dragon in the first mystical experience. This death is foreshadowed when Emily says that despite what we thought, apes showed a strong carnivore behavior. I'm not quite sure what to make of all of this, but in my notes I linked it to Emily's description of Eddy's bed behavior as a "spiritual experience." Is such a spiritual experience linked to consumption?
Eddy and Emily have a conversation after this experience and when Eddy asks "How did you put up with all of this," Emily brings up the dreaded word: "I loved you." Rather than respond, Eddy changes the subject and narrates/comments on his experience of his quasi-simian state, claiming that this primal, primordial state was "the most extremely satisfying moment of my life." In other words, not love, not marriage, but an experience of the "primordial," of the "real."
But the real isn't material for Eddy. Remember, the transformations are figured as externalizations of the hallucinations. That means that the hallucinations are primary. Eddy tells Emily, “We’re beyond genetics, we’re beyond mass and matter, we’re beyond even energy. What we’re back to is the first thought” The first thought -- the first form -- again, we are expected to believe that the origin is not in the material world, but the ideal.
jj Eddy's final transformation results in him resembling a gooey worm like creature whose screams couldn't help but recall to my mind Edward Munch's famous painting. Like Munch's character, Eddy is alone and isolated with his pain. We may recall Eddy's first statement regarding love, that he would rather endure the "pain inflicted on the self by the self." Also, I think it is worth considering some basic speculations on the influences that resulted in The Scream:
AAmong theories advanced to account for the reddish sky in the background is the artist's memory of the effects of the powerful volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, which deeply tinted sunset skies red in parts of the Western hemisphere for months during 1883 and 1884, about a decade before Munch painted The Scream.This explanation has been disputed by scholars, who note that Munch was an expressive painter and was not primarily interested in literal renderings of what he had seen. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the proximity of both a slaughterhouse and a lunatic asylum to the site depicted in the painting may have offered some inspiration. The scene was identified as being the view from a road overlooking Oslo, the Oslofjord and Hovedøya, from the hill of Ekeberg. At the time of painting the work, Munch's manic depressive sister Laura Catherine was a patient at the asylum at the foot of Ekeberg. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Scream)
Thus, we might understand some of Volcanic imagery in the first hallucinatory experience as connected with this final scream-state. Its proximity to the lunatic asylum and Munch's sister also suggests that the picture depicts an externalization of insanity or madness, which Eddy's character certainly expresses (this ties back to his work in schizophrenia).
After this intense hallucinatory experience that leads Eddy into a swirling hole out of which Emily drags him, Eddy is put to bed and Emily and Arthur discuss the experiment. Emily says (these may not all be exact quotations: "nothing in the human condition was ever real to him he’s a truth lover; reality, for Eddy, is that which is only changeless” “He finally got it off with God, he was finally ravished by truth” etc. etc. “we’re all just transitory matter to him.”
The claim that Eddy finally "got it off with God" is important, as it links back to Emily's claim that sex for him is a "spiritual experience." He doesn't make love to a woman -- he's trying to fuck God through her. This idea leads me to yet another cultural relay, NIN's "Closer"
I wanna fuck you like an animal
I wanna feel you from the inside
I wanna fuck you like an animal
My own existence is flawed
You get me closer to God
Here we have the juxtaposition of a primal urge to procreate and what one might call the "religious impulse." As human beings, it seems to suggest, it might not be our most "human" sides that seek God and Truth. Rather, it may be that this is connected to our animal urges. Thus, in order to become-human, we would tame this desire into affection for an object (a woman, for instance).
When Eddy can finally speak and communicate again, he tells Emily that he has seen the error of his ways:
“you saved me, you redeemed me from that awful pit – it is nothing [. . .]
The final truth of all things is that there is no final truth. truth is what is transitory. It’s human life that what’s real"
“you saved me, you redeemed me from that awful pit – it is nothing [. . .]
Finally, Eddy recognizes that there is no origin, no Primal Man -- that truth is a mobile army of metaphors?
But just when we think that everything is all good, one final moment of horror. Eddy begins to transform again and Emily claims that “If you love me, you can make it unreal [. . .] you made it real you can make it unreal” At this point, Eddy is reduced to a kind of digital static that changes color -- he essentially looks like a TV gone on the fritz. In a modern version of Dr. Johnson's proof for reality (kicking a stone), Eddy bangs his arm against the wall, changing states every time he hits it, until he looks human again. Meanwhile, after Touching Emily, she looks like molten rock from a volcano about to explode.
Eddy comes to her aid, hugs her, and she turns into a (naked) woman again. He finally has figured out how to approach woman, how to approach truth, how to approach 'reality' without Truth and says "I love you."
But what are we to make of this ending? Does the film essentially collapse into a justification of the "human" emotion of love for one individual? On the one hand, the film critiques the desire for Truth and it affirms that it is the transitory rather than the ideal that is what's "real." Indeed, perhaps this is the mistake of people who think that drugs can lead them to an eternal truth: drugs produce transitory states -- perhaps they are as "real" as any other state of consciousness, but we should not draw from this that it is more real or more authentic.
One final point about how such 'externalized" states are represented, which I hope will lead to further reflections at another time. I noticed that the aesthetic of the final transformation at the end of the movie presents Eddy as a kind of virtualized or digitized image. I think that the last point I made about consciousness also applies to media/virtual states. That is, images are as "real" as an altered state of consciousness (or Virtual Reality or Altered Consciousness) but again, we should not then essentialize or hypostatize this real into all of Reality or believe that it can lead us to some authentic way of being. At the same time, it is important not to dismiss it as "false" a mere "illusion" because it is by this very move that we posit something authentic beyond these mediations. And indeed, this may be where the movie leaves us, since it is only once they have returned to their full, naked, embodied states --once they become fully human again -- that he is able to say "I love you" and they are united in a human -- perhaps All Too Human --embrace.