ALAIN DANIÉLOU’S “FLIP”: THE NARRATIVE OF A REVERSE-SIDEY
Contrary to what the reader may think, Alain Daniélou’s tales are not fictional inventions or even an allegorical processing of ‘real’ experiences. If considered in the light of Daniélou’s work as a whole, they are narratives that reconsider the limits of perception and cognition: they reveal a fascinating and sometimes disquieting ‘flip-side’. Daniélou’s openness to what he calls ‘unseen realities’ is not merely a metaphysical postulate; it is rather testimony to the broader dimension of perception and cognition he experienced in his life, not only in India, but also in contact with nature from his early childhood until very late in his life. This essay attempts to pick up traces of his tales and read them as passages to new modes of experience and relation.
The ‘no-longer world’ of epistemic reduction
The year 1936 saw the publication of one of the landmarks of logical positivism: Alfred Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic. In the face of the equation ‘fascism-irrationality’ that took shape from that decade onwards, the scientific materialism of logical positivism entertained the ambition – beyond its intended purification of the previous “anarchy of philosophical opinions”1 – to become a stronghold of rationality and even a promise of survival for what was deemed ‘civilization’. The problematic territory, as shallow as it may retrospectively seem if we consider the worldwide warfare and racial extermination that took place less than a decade later, was language, and the promise consisted in a clarification of the use of language. With the philosophy of logical positivism (or rather the world-vision it reaffirmed and radicalized), rational communication would regain the upper hand in a Europe threatened by the demons of a superstitious and pathological imagination.
The bedrock of logical positivism was sense-experience, its theater of operation the articulation of sense-experience in language. What do we express when we formulate sentences? Or perhaps more precisely: why do we usually formulate sentences which have no correlate whatsoever in real sense-experience?2 Alfred Ayer was in a way reformulating Kant’s predicament: the human understanding tends to exceed the limits of its possibilities and incurs an uncontrollable inflation. As an island of light surrounded by a stormy ocean of darkness, it tends to madly embrace the ocean of mere appearance (wild imagination) instead of securing its earthly limits3. If we replace the complex ‘reason/understanding’ (Kant) by ‘language’ (Ayer), the quest turns out to be even more strenuous. Ayer establishes a drastic division between the subjective (or purely arbitrary) and the objective (or universally valid) realm in order to propose a collective orientation of ‘meaning’ by an attachment to ‘facts’ – as opposed to the flight of ‘fiction’. Meaningful are only those statements which can be (strongly or at least weakly) verified4 from sense-experience.
As opposed to Plato’s ideal society, artists are not banished from Ayer’s logical world, but their language is deprived of any ‘truth content’. Since ‘truth’ is not deemed a scientific construction but a mirror-expression of a purified, sense-experience-based reality, artistic expression is basically reduced to a prison-house of subjective phantasmagoria excluded from real contributions to knowledge and the progress of humanity5. Poets are therefore re-placed and disempowered; conversely, misplaced poets (that is, metaphysicians)6 are dangerous, since they desire to expand the realm of experience (and eo ipso the horizon of true statements) by means of contaminated or phantasmagoric language. They break into the territory of epistemic rationality and inoculate a superstitious semantics of inclusion concerning the dead, spirits, angels, gods or even ‘the Absolute’7. If they happen to produce emotional reactions, the confusion between the real and the emotional, fact and fiction, can be intensified, and the world risks becoming populated by subjective projections disguised as real entities. The conclusion one may draw is that, for the world-configuration of logical positivism and regardless of a partial integration of non-verifiable statements in the corpus of a culture, ‘factual reality’ is equated with the ‘observable’ by means of parameters established in the modern West as ‘objective’.
Can the world of today, in which different cultures (and therefore different practices and ways of understanding reality) are considerably intertwined, still accept the parameters and the world-configuration of logical positivism? Can we clearly sever the cognitive from the emotional, the factual from the fictional, and the meaningful from the senseless? Not only Ayer, but also other positivist authors like Frege, Carnap and Russell, reduced reality to the parameters of modern materialism and declared such parameters ‘universally valid’. Human qualities became tokens of mere arbitrariness; rigid and quantifiable facts, on the contrary, appeared as emblems of truth. Such an attitude did not consider the fact that any sensory experience is mediated by the symbolic (or cultural) framework used to make sense of it, and that no observation is made from the perspective-less void of a neutral and disembodied world-eye. After all, neutrality is mainly the projection of a dominant perspective inclined to invalidate all others. The depurated objectivity of radical empiricism turned out to be the secular version of Schopenhauer’s pure subject of metaphysical cognition8. In both philosophies, as opposed as they may seem from a historical point of view, the world is no longer one in which experience and meaning broadly exceed the subjects and permanently reshape the objects, but a ‘no-longer world’ devoid of its living substance and gripped by the vacuum of a-cosmic metaphysics or the rigor mortis of flatland materialism. That the ‘logical construction of the world’ (in Carnap’s sense of the phrase)9 is still the dominant tendency even in the field of human sciences should incite us to opposition and challenge, not because there is any use in preaching chaotic meaninglessness, but rather because cross-cultural approaches to other forms of experience and thinking have ended up proving how narrow-minded and even tendentious our objectivity criteria and logical certainties are.
In the conception of logical positivism, the ‘outside’ world becomes a vivisection table for cognitive experiments and technical extraction of resources.
An antidote against ‘shrunken heads’
No method can be properly analyzed without bearing in mind the world-configuration supporting it. A method is ‘the unfolding of a way [Greek: meta-hodos]’, but no way is without its corresponding landscape. The fact that each world-configuration has manifold dimensions does not blur its dominant tendency, on which cultural coherence and cohesion depend. Modern science (of which positivism claimed to be its most radical expression) is characterized by the elimination of sensible qualities from the non-human environment and the projection of an objective (that is, neutral or empty) ‘nature’ as quantifiable res extensa. This is not something ‘given’, but the result of a complex historical (modern) and local (Western) operation. Sensible qualities are not only sense-impressions; they literally constitute the realm of living subjectivity, from passions and emotions to conscious volition and cognition. They are – already at ground-level – impregnated by (inherited) cultural features. Pre-modern world-configurations in the West ascribed a ‘souled character’ to different parts of the world (daimones of Nature) and even to the world in its totality (anima mundi)10. This quintessence of a qualitatively rich, dynamic and unfathomable field of forces was also an object of human inquiry – based on another method. The project of modern science took the ‘souled-character’ away from nature and enclosed it in the interiority of humans; it rationalized part of it to re-shape the world and condemned the rest to mere arbitrariness. Only its objectivation of the ratio in a World-Spirit11 could fertilize the dead soil of a nature deprived of its intrinsic life and intelligence. The world ‘outside’ became a vivisection table for cognitive experiments and technical extraction of resources.
But the most significant step was taken in the very constitution of the field, namely when the ‘objective reality’ of scientific knowledge was methodologically severed from any social conditions and effects, as if the subjective dynamics of a culture (including arts, religion, ethics and other codifications of human behavior) contaminated ‘pure observation’. Pragmatically speaking, this split facilitated many technical advantages for an ever-increasing urbanization process, and it fed the illusion that industrialization was the ultimate expression of man’s divine empowerment. As Auguste Comte wrote (almost a century before Carnap and Ayer), God must not only be eliminated but replaced by the religion of Humanity, which means that human beings are to be regarded not only as the crown of creation, but as the Creator himself. They have acquired absolute (rational and instrumental) power over objective reality, but they have no real interaction with it. The so-called ‘disenchantment of the world’, even if it remains a partial process, consists in the restriction of human creativity and relation to a specific and very limited scope – that of flatland materialism. This materialism has its own postulates: 1. The world is empty (or soulless), 2. Nature is merely a bunch of resources, 3. There is no invisible realm of beings and forms of intelligence beyond human projection, 4. What is called ‘consciousness’ rests and depends on (brain-)matter, 5. The epitomes of cultural development are not art and religion, but science and technology. European Enlightenment created a culture of shrunken heads (detached from the body, the emotions, the environment, as well as from human and non-human expressions of ‘otherness’) that believed themselves to be purified sparks on the long road of evolution.
A powerful antidote against the shrunken heads of Enlightenment was produced when an antinomic expression of colonial expansion, Western ethnology, became symmetric enough to inquiry into ‘the other’ without getting carried away by the typical and not so commendable extremes of fascination and horror. Philippe Descola spent three years doing field work among the Achuar, an Amazonian tribe reputed to practice head-hunting, pejoratively called Jívaros (‘people who shrink heads’). The culture of the Achuar, earlier reputed to be the epitome of barbarism, inspired Descola to attempt, among other things, what he himself called a restoration of animism13. The term ‘animism’ had been defined as a belief in spirits (or non-empirical beings) and a confusion about life and death on the grounds of an erroneous interpretation of dreams14. For Descola this term could be used to describe a mode of being in a world impossible to define through parameters of perception, cognition and socialization typical of modern, industrialized Western societies. In other words: animism, in Descola’s eyes, does not have to do with hallucinatory perceptions, cognitive errors or imaginary confusion (as it was thought in the XIX and the early XX century), but with a modality of behavior and relation which compels us to rethink our own certainties. Is modern Western culture – with its secular, atheistic and materialist drive – the product of an evolution of thought going from magic to religion and from religion to science? Is it ‘universal’ (that is, indisputably valid and superior to all others) as opposed to the ‘ethnic’ (that is, local and therefore deficient) cultures of other peoples? Is it the first culture that discovered ‘nature’ by means of scientific inquiry, whereas all other civilizations keep mystifying the environment? For the meanwhile ‘naturalized’ Eurocentric thought, Descola’s answer to these questions is not only negative, but also upsetting: the Achuar have evolved throughout the ages exactly like us, but in a different way. There is no universally valid world-configuration15 from the very moment that others are also working as a collective organization. Nature is not something that human beings discovered at a certain point in history, but something that certain human groups constructed out of their (historically and culturally conditioned) tendency to objectification. In fact, for the Achuar, nature is also culture, or in other words: there is culture in nature, since the beings taking part in it are perceived and conceived in quite another way. These beings are not merely organisms, inanimate beings or biological indicators, but subjects, environmental agents endowed with interiority and personhood16. If a shaman can summon the spirits of animals or plants to cure ill people, if a hunter can trace the presence of a prey not only by following its footprints but also through telepathic communication with the animal clan (sometimes effected by means of magic songs), if dreams articulate social behavior more coherently than many instances of waking life, this is not something that can be quickly explained away as superstition or regressive belief. It is a mode of behavior that supports, nurtures, consolidates and even expands the life of an ethnic group, and it may serve to attempt an amplification of our horizon and a critical reflection on our own cultural limits – or limitations.
Limitations remain full convictions if the ordinary steps are not retraced to the breakpoint of the ‘given world’. Non-humans can become subjects if they are granted interiority, personhood, volition and subtle influence upon humans, but this is only possible if nature (as a kind of no-man’s-land alien to humans) is no longer conceived in opposition to culture (as the territory shaped by human intelligence and action). Bruno Latour characterized that retracing of steps as ‘symmetrization’17. Within that framework, the long-standing dichotomy between an ‘outer reality’ of nature (where an unbiased, objective knowledge resides) and an ’inner space’ of societies (where a proliferation of different ‘beliefs’ takes place) loses its validity. Post-modern ethnology has managed to break into the territory of a contaminated epistemology. No positivistic reduction is possible any longer; instead, hybrid-objects (from immaterial beings to artifacts) occupy the scene, and the distinction between natural and cultural, genuine and artificial, immanent and transcendent, becomes blurred and calls for another method of approach. Is it enough to leave the library armchair and even the missionary tent to engage in “participant observation” and be able to “grasp the native’s point of view”18? As participatory as the observation may be, it remains subjected to scholarly principles of description. Such principles reveal a kind of disguised objectivity whose function is to draw the line between ‘staying sober’ and ‘going native’. Since going native means sacrificing critical thinking (at least the way it has been conceived for centuries19), it must be excluded from the field without hesitation. But its mere existence poses a problem, namely the problem of the parameters and limits of critique. Can self-criticism reach its own foundations and risk the paradox of its own death and rebirth? What level of contamination can epistemology tolerate before it ceases to be (considered) a form of knowledge? Should every form of ‘knowledge’ – especially in the human sciences – be the result of epistemic procedures and their quest for ‘objectivity’?
enon contained in the expression ‘going native’ has mainly focused on the emotional and romantic posture of so-called ‘cultural brokers’ in dealing with foreign cultures and especially transmitting them to others20. From the standpoint of the critics, such processes do not enrich the cross-cultural exchange but reduce and impoverish it by means of stereotypes and the reproduction of exotic pseudo-identities (American gurus, European shamans, New-Age tribes, etc.). This form of critique presupposes that the synthetic – or syncretic – identification, even when claiming a re-enactment of concrete experience, is after all more abstract than a sober analytical approach. That may be true in some cases; however, one should distinguish two moments: 1. The degree of identification in learning (from) the other culture, 2. The degree of self-proclaimed authority in reproducing the learned contents. The problem lies in the second moment rather than in the first, but not all of those who have delved into another world-configuration and experienced a reformulation of their own mode of being end up embarking on a wild proselytism or an exotic re-enactment. One might rather say the contrary: a mechanical and rather unresourceful appropriation of a ‘native model’ reveals a fragmentary and rather shallow learning process.
Precisely for the reasons given above, one wonders what can be so severely criticized in the learning process of authors like John Woodroffe, Alain Daniélou, Eric de Rosny, Pierre Verger or Claude Planson. At face value, all of them can be said to have ‘gone native’21, but there is no doubt that they took the ‘cultures of the other’ seriously by detaching themselves from the typical prejudices of their time in order to open another horizon of experience. Perhaps they went too far in their tendency to attain a specific kind of understanding: sub specie interioritatis22. Did they lose critical focus, or were they trying to modify the very notion of ‘critique’? They studied central aspects of South Asian cultures (Woodroffe and Daniélou) and African(-based) cultures (Verger and Planson) without separating theory and practice, individual and society, belief and knowledge. Their aim was to surpass such oppositions, to work on a synthesis, to counteract the fragmentary tendency of one-sided analysis and specialization. And most important of all: they tried to adapt the learned contents (with understandable tension towards scholarly transmission) to the contexts in which they thought such insights could be useful to enrich, enhance, adjust or change the dominant trends of their own culture. In embracing ‘native knowledge’, they overstepped two limits: with regard to the other(s) and with regard to themselves. After all, ‘their culture’ was – precisely because of the process in question – no longer so rigid, stable, root-like, and indisputably theirs. Some of them (Daniélou and Planson) even developed a certain antipathy to it.
Paradoxically enough, it is the lucid persistence in an unsettling anti-pathos that prevents the emotional component from falling back and drowning in stereotypes. Lucid persistence avoids rigidity and over-simplification. It (re-)educates the passions. New elements come to the fore and strive for expression. Anti-pathos is the result of an internal break with the dominant world-configuration. With the break comes the irruption, and with the irruption the awareness of the breach and the disclosure of a doubled reversal. I want to call that reversal the flip-side. It is ‘doubled’ because the break is not only with the dominant trend in the culture being transcended, but also with the adopted configuration, that is, that which provides complementary, contrastive and even revolutionary elements. Ultimately, if one goes ‘native’, it is only to come back ‘alien’, but the second foreignness, as unsettling as it may be at first, is productive and may even turn out to be prophetic, hence the difficulty of embracing it with full awareness. It is as if something – at the same time ancient and new – were talking through the human vessel and transforming, to a greater or lesser degree, genres, registers and frameworks of experience.
Authors like Daniélou sought to adapt the contents learned to contexts in which they thought such insights could be useful to enrich, enhance, adjust or change the trends of their own culture.
Jeffrey Kripal has dealt with the “radically new real” that appears “with the simplest of flips”. The flip is a reversal of perspective, “from the outside of things to the inside of things”23. Before it reveals the reverse-side of the reality we take for granted, it presents itself as an irruption, the irruption of the impossible. What is the impossible but the unassimilated other, i. e. that which violates the epistemological boundaries of standard Western empiricism and compels one “to think off the page”24? Interpreting it properly implies a considerable deviation from the accepted truths about the world and reality in general. According to Kripal, terms like ‘psychical’ and ‘paranormal’ reality need to be reconsidered from the point of view of an extended hermeneutics of the subject. Both terms point not only to a supplementary dimension of human existence (situated beyond arbitrariness and individual contingency), but also to a deeper, paradoxical and not-fully-explainable aspect of what is called the ‘natural world’. This dimension can be called ‘the sacred’, that is, “a palpable presence, energy, or power encountered in the environment […] at once subject and object”25. Subjective experience opens the way to a form of subjectivity that is not human26, which nevertheless interacts with us in ways that lend themselves to mythical rather than to scientific discourse, not because they are irrational, but rather because their framework is utterly different and requires other forms of intelligibility. With the flip, the human imagination “becomes temporarily empowered and ‘zapped’, and functions not as a simple spinner of fantasies (the imaginary) but as a very special organ of cognition and translation (symbolic), as a kind of supersense that is perceiving something entirely different”27.
Alain Daniélou’s Les contes du Labyrinthe (The Tales of the Labyrinth) is one of his last books. It is considered part of his ‘fictional production’, very much like the Contes Gangétiques (The Tales of the Ganges) and in contrast to books like Yoga: The Method of Re-Integration or Hindu Polytheism, in which the ‘factual dimension’ prevails in its manifold aspects, such as in the historical sources and articulations of the discipline of yoga or in the cohesive structure and dynamics of the Hindu pantheon. As a token of rebellion against the taken-for-granted distinction between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, Daniélou’s book begins with a note to the reader in which he announces a surprising displacement, inversion and even fusion of these seemingly dichotomic categories: “All characters and events evoked in these tales are real […] I have tried to envisage history from another plane than that of appearances, and I remain convinced that this vision correlates with an unseen reality that never ceases to be present”. In fact, Les contes du labyrinthe contain different paths leading to other worlds, worlds unseen to the ordinary perception of the modern individual (severed as he is from the living and mysterious dimension of Nature). Daniélou’s narrative actively works on a rehabilitation of those paths impelling the reader in unforeseen directions. Tusco, the boy at the fountain at Zagarolo in the first tale of the volume, turns out to be an Etruscan deity and diviner, Tages, who guides Gwynn, the main character of the tale, in his journey of mystical self-discovery. Silvana, the beautiful red-haired woman in the tale “The Sibyl of Veii [La Sibylle de Véies]”, reveals her real self to Marco, the young student who severely criticizes the condescendence of university professors who talk about gods and nymphs “as if they were mere fables”29. She is in fact Vegoia, the Etruscan sibyl who laid down the sacred laws of her people over twenty-five centuries ago30. These tales tell us that the limitation of sight in making out the so-called ‘normal parameters of perception’ is the result of a long process of repression and increasing reduction of the field of human experience, beginning with the rise of monotheistic religion31 and its suppression of the sacred in Nature and ending with the complete elimination of divine agency in the hands of secular rationalism and materialism32.
In Daniélou’s vision, the uniformed and impoverished world-configuration that thinks itself universally valid is an estrangement and a flaw, and it is the reverse-side of it that permeates his tales. In this sense, they are a kind of plea for an amplification of perception whose correlates are the disclosure of divine presences as well as the imaginal collapse of historical chronology: “Time” […], says Tages to his beloved human friend Gwynn, “is only an illusion. The past, present and future are very close to each other”33. That Marco is initiated by Vegoia into the mysteries of the rites and the worship of the gods inherited from the Etruscans34 is a clear example of the relativity of historical distance and the possibility of re-enacting ritual or liturgical intensities by manipulating the two-way mirror of an out-of-joint fantasy35. If the line of the psychical and the physical blurs, if time and history cease to be absolute references for human orientation, if the category of intelligence is extended to encompass non-human forms and repopulate the environment with mysterious subjectivities, the paradoxical tends to reach a point of self-implosion and the flip-side reveals itself in that process. Alain Daniélou, who in his writings on Hinduism emphasized the importance of tradition as a collective support of individual experience and a source of unquestionable authority, takes a decisive step towards individual empowerment through expanded perception, enhanced imagination or acute sensibility for a paranormal twist and radical mutation of the spatiotemporal environment. There is sufficient evidence in Les contes du labyrinthe to state that, according to Daniélou, the gods are favorable to those that seek them and make the effort to reintegrate them in their lives, and that the companions of the gods are not always alone in this world – even if they belong to a culture that has neither eyes nor ears for that dimension. The tales transmit the deep conviction of their author, namely the possibility of an expanded life that surpasses inherited empirical (de-)limitations, providing human beings with a surplus of meaning and reintegrating forgotten aspects and dimensions. Their setting is not traditional India. There are practically no paṇḍitas, no sādhus, no initiatic chains or appositional titles of religious authority, no socio-cosmically-articulated dharma to guide the seekers within a collective setting. The main reference is the Labyrinth, a place where Nature preserves the aura of its own living memory and shares it with some humans who have decided to live otherwise. These humans are visionaries. They have rediscovered the ‘empowered imagination’ that once fed the Hindu mūrtis with concentric wheels of unbounded energy, a modality of empowerment that in our present culture has no place. Still, it does survive, even without uninterrupted institutional transmission (and therefore without structured visibility). The transcendentally disclosed fracture of time and space enables humans to jump over barriers and receive the (hitherto secret) contents of a broader reality, but the revealed secret is not cut off from the world in which they live. It would not be exaggerated to say that, in Daniélou’s tales, the empowered imagination of visionaries is ultimately Nature claiming the recognition of its own flip-side: “Images, works of art, are means of communication with the subtle world of spirits and gods. By creating divine images […] we can attract the presence of the spirits towards them and in this way have access to the invisible through the visible”36. Perhaps the last version of the ‘divine image’ in a fully secularized culture is the double energy-mirror between the body of the artist and the work of art – only if the latter is uncontaminated by instrumental objectification.
A Narrative of Restitution
The passage from Daniélou’s Contes gangétiques [Tales of the Ganges] to the Contes du Labyrinthe [The Tales of the Labyrinth] reveals the loss of a thoroughly structured world – Traditional India with its well-established institutions of knowledge – supporting magical, esoteric and mystical experiences. As a result of this, the Contes du Labyrinthe face the challenge of re-enacting and preserving those experiences in a world where individuals are socially isolated and disoriented. But this passage is not characterized by a mere contrast. There is a guiding thread that cuts across the opposition between tradition and modernity, between religious initiation and artistic sensibility, or between continuity and discontinuity in the transmission of a certain form of wisdom. In the Contes gangétiques, the door to other dimensions of experience and reality is not opened by Brahmins37, that is, by the carriers and preservers of institutional knowledge, but by sādhus, who appear as the embodiment of a special type of marginal, at the same time dangerous, and transformative power38. Such power is for Daniélou indistinguishable from a very rare form of freedom, which has little to do with the kind of individualism that characterizes modern Western societies. At the same time, if the reader observes the thematic architecture of the tales, a subtle connection appears between sādhus, devotional saints39 and artists40. All three of them, despite their specific differences, leave traces of what the empowered imagination (irrespective of the context) can do, namely change the human form, expand it, reshape it and twist it (even out of recognition) in order to disclose and assimilate unforeseen aspects of the living mystery called ‘Nature’ – or by extension ‘cosmos’ and ‘reality’. In Les contes du Labyrinthe, there are no carriers of a living tradition in ‘the real world’41, and the artists have become an isolated enclave of resistance against the social order – increasingly reductive, instrumentalized and profane. However, the ‘empowered imagination’ remains the leading thread and the centripetal force of the tales: it brings humans back to gods and ancestors in the local setting of the Roman province42, it reveals deep secrets of Nature sheltered by an ancient prophetess43, it connects the rites of different traditions by means of analogical resonances44. Empowered imagination is differential, and as such it is not severed from perception and cognition: it is a cleansed door of perception and an unthought-of instrument of cognition. Daniélou’s message in these tales can be summarized as follows: new relations can take place if the perception is cleansed and knowledge is freed from the reductive mirror of flatland materialism, epitomized by logical positivism and its epistemically sanctioned truth conception.
In Daniélou’s tales, the empowered imagination of visionaries is ultimately Nature claiming the recognition of its own flip-side.
In reflecting about the present impasse of the humanities, Jeffrey Kripal emphasizes the importance of putting “extreme, anomalous, outrageous narratives in the middle of the table. […] We may find that we actually need these ‘impossible’ things to come up with better answers to our most pressing questions”45. One of Kripal’s main goals is to revision and renew the humanities as sciences of the impossible, by taking new epistemological and ontological challenges seriously46. This would mean, among other things, to erase the limits between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and accept the hybrid character of our experience in order to begin to think. This might have been done with non-European cultures of different kinds – India, Africa, South America, Australia –, at least partially, as a way of objectifying ‘otherness’ to secure our own neutral space. Kripal proposes however to do it with our own culture, the ‘flip-side’ of which should emerge from the shadows of repression and finally become a (quite spurious) hermeneutical object. He proposes therefore to enter a dangerous territory in which interpreters must get their hands dirty with the blurred limits between fact and fiction, third-rate esotericism and the barely distinguishable limits between pathology and illumination. However, in taking that risk the possibility of rehabilitating the creative dimension of imagination arises, even in contexts very hostile to its expansion. The organ of imagination has long been taken as limited and potentially dangerous, a faculty which tends to ignore its own well-delimited framework (sense-perception below and intellectual cognition above). This is mainly due to a false appreciation of its function and scope, since imagination, once ‘empowered’ (for example in arts or religion), is no longer the merely reproductive faculty of a single individual cut off from his (human and non-human) environment; it is rather what enables “an encounter with other actual species, invisible life-forms existing in some other dimensions of the natural world that overlaps with ours”47. Daniélou’s narrative in Les contes du Labyrinthe links the dimension of the mirror reflecting an objectified world and the dimension of hidden subjectivities (in plants, animals, spirits and gods) that compels us to reconsider our somehow naturalized tendency to positivism. A strong tension and an unthought-of expansion take place; we are shaken by the complexity of experience and the narrowness of our attempts at integration.
It is relatively easy to read Daniélou as a traditionalist Hindu who adopted an old system and transmitted already established ideas (admirably or deficiently) as a mirror reflecting (a one-dimensional) reality, but this barely does justice to the complexity and creativity of his thought. Daniélou was not a born Hindu, he gathered many pieces and aspects of traditions that do not co-exist in a sort of homeostatic harmony, but rather in permanent (partly disruptive, partly creative) tension: Aryan and Dravidian, Brahmanical and Tribal, Vedantic and Tantric, ancient and modern, erotic and ascetic, oral and written. He did not encounter Shiva for the first time in Benares but in a forest of Brittany, that is, in the form of the Celtic deity Cernunnos. He cultivated his own rapport to that deity of Nature by tracing a path to the pre-Vedic Lord of Creatures, Pashupati, and to the Greek god of love and ecstasy, Dionysus. His empowered imagination did not reflect the reality of a single culture; it transversally pierced the codes of many cultures to retrieve analogical resonances and elaborate on them in parallel registers. Daniélou’s narrative is one of restitution, the restitution of the flip-side of ‘flatland reality’. Because of this flip-side, our most rigid certainties are swept away and other modes of relation begin to take place. This is also why, in his note to the reader, Daniélou refuses to regard fiction as sheer invention and points instead to the two-way mirror, that is, the capacity of piercing the veil of the ‘no-longer world’. After all, the ‘no-longer world’ is a cultural wasteland where all powers of Nature have been banished48: “The abode of the ancient gods was splendid and its dwellers were living and fantastic realities, unpredictable forces animating the universe”49. Seeing this splendor beyond time and space limitations is the function of an artistic imagination guided by the very forces it reactivates, fusing author and characters, ink and blood, book pages and mythological settings. Daniélou’s ‘flip’ is the epiphany of a mind that repudiates remaining attached to the shackles of an un-inspired humanity and its normative impoverishment of Life.
- Moritz Schlick, Die Wende der Philosophie, in: Gesammelte Aufsätze, Wien 1938, pp. 31-40, citation p. 33.
- I am of course simplifying Ayer’s procedure, which consists of a distinction between sentence (on the level of pure grammar), statement (on a semantic and pragmatic level) and proposition (a term related to the verifiability of statements). For the purpose of this essay the nuances of a positivist ontology intertwined with semantics and a critique of neo-Kantianism are not relevant.
- Cf. Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1787), A236 B295, ed. by Jens Timmermann, Hamburg 1998, pp. 336-337. The mad incursion into the unknown was epitomized by Emanuel Swedenborg, to whom Kant devoted the essay Träume eines Geistersehers, erläutert durch die Träume der Metaphysik (1776).
- Ayer’s verifiability criterion is twofold, as he himself says: “a proposition [that is, a potentially true statement] is said to be verifiable in the strong sense of the term, if and only if its truth can be conclusively established in experience, […] it is verifiable, in the weak sense, if it is possible for experience to render it probable” (Alfred Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic, p. 9). Despite Ayer’s strenuous scientific reduction, a weak verifiability criterion must be admitted, otherwise all historical statements should not even be regarded as possibly true or false, but simply as meaningless.
- For Alfred Ayer, aesthetics does have a value, but only in the subjective sphere, and a certain logic of ‘sanity’ preventing the subject from exceeding his limits: “If the author writes nonsense, it is because he considers it most suitable for bringing about the effects for which his writing is designed” (Alfred Ayer, Ibidem, p. 45). Contributing to the progress of humanity requires objective value, which is the exclusivity of scientific propositions.
- The metaphysician writes nonsense without intending to write nonsense. There is nonsense generating emotions, which is what the poet is capable of, but not the metaphysician. Misplaced poetry is in the eyes of logical positivists a mystification of the merely secular, emotional power of arts (cf. Alfred Ayer, Ibidem., p. 44).
- Ayer takes one of H. F. Bradley’s theological statements about the Absolute as an example of a failure in communication (Ayer, Ibidem, p. 36).
- In his book Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Schopenhauer speaks of a core-subjectivity which never becomes a thing among others in the world. He ascribes this core-subjectivity a special type of knowledge (of a metaphysical type) and calls it the “translucent world-eye” (Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (1816), Band 1, Frankfurt 1995, p. 266). This pure neutrality, which in Schopenhauer’s philosophy has an undisputable metaphysical status, was introjected by positivists into the sphere of scientific objectivity and became the dogma of materialistic conceptions.
- See Rudolf Carnap, Der logische Aufbau der Welt (1928). Carnap’s presumption that immediate reality (as he says “before the construction of a world”, Der logische Aufbau der Welt, Hamburg 1974, p. 88) is devoid not only of subjectivity-status but also of qualities and spatial delimitation of any kind clearly shows the function and scope of positivism’s negative ontology: to empty reality of any intact (in the sense of ‘not-fully-grasped’) and autonomous (in the sense of ‘side-effectual and otherness-related’) factor and render it a methodological tabula rasa for the human intellect to display its scientific and technical manipulation.
- The idea of anima mundis, the beginnings of which can be traced back to Plato’s Timaeus (in which the world is said to be not only rational but also ‘a souled being [zoon enpsychon, cf. Plato Timaios 30 b8-c1)]’, extended even into modernity, not only in the Renaissance with Nicolas of Cusa and Giordano Bruno, but also in German Romanticism and Idealism with Novalis, Goethe and Franz von Baader.
- The term was coined by Hegel, who refers to it as follows: “The world-spirit is the spirit of the world, as it unfolds itself in human consciousness” (Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte, I. Teilband, Frankfurt 1955, Einleitung, p. 60). There is ‘spirit’ in the world only in as much as it is projected from subjective consciousness and objectified in what humans do to transform ‘nature’. The following sentence from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right reaffirms this idea: “the general spirit [here: collective human consciousness objectified in culture] gives itself effective reality” Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts. Die Vorlesung von 1819/20 in einer Nachschrift, Frankfurt 1983, p. 209).
- “While protestants and deists have always attacked religion in the name of God, we should on the contrary dismiss God in the name of religion” (Auguste Comte, Correspondance générale, Tome V, Paris 1977, p. 98). Of course Comte’s religion has nothing to do with the idea or experience of the sacred. It is a religion of science and progress, hence purely profane and instrumental.
- Cf. Philippe Descola, Par delà nature et culture, Paris 2005, chapitre 6 : L’animisme restauré, pp. 183-202. It should be made clear that Descola does not advocate animism as a world panacea, nor does he reject the world-configuration that became dominant in the modern West – which he calls ‘naturalism’ –, but he rather analyzes, as we shall see, the relativity of values once considered ‘universal’ and the possibility of learning from other world-configurations other (less destructive) forms of ‘anthropization’.
- This is a sort of invariant in the anthropology of religion during the XIX century, from which the main exponents are Edward B. Tylor and James G. Frazer, but it permeated the anthropology and sociology of religion (Durkheim, Lévy-Bruhl) as well as the psychology of culture (Freud) in the early XX century.
- We need to remember that for Descola a world-configuration is not a mental idea of the world in an individual or a group, but a pre-reflexive mode of identification and relation by means of which fundamental bonds are established among humans as well as between humans and non-humans. As he himself writes, the combination of a type of identification and a type of relation “reveals a general structure of a particular scheme enabling an integration of practices” (Philippe Descola, Par delà nature et culture, p. 167). The status of a scheme is not objective, but praxeological, that is, a scheme constitutively frames experience in meaning (cf. Ibidem, p. 135).
- The notion of personhood in non-humans can be traced back to Irving Hallowell’s essay ‘Ojibwa Ontology, Behavior, and World View’, which was first published in 1960 (cf. Stanley Diamond (ed.), Culture and History: Essays in Honor of Paul Radin, New York 1960, pp. 19-52). Hallowell’s essay clearly anticipated and partially inspired the ontological turn in anthropology that took place at the end of the XX century.
- Cf. Bruno Latour, Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, Paris 1997, pp. 128-136.
- Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, London 1922, p. 25.
- In a broad sense, critical thinking can be traced back to Socrates’ ambition of a modality of knowledge freed from non-reflected presuppositions, as Plato presents it in the first book of his Politeia in the context of a discussion about the meaning of justice (cf. Plato, Res Publica, 331c). In this case, I take critical thinking in the modern sense, as the basis of modern scientific inquiry, that is, a method to examine beliefs and presuppositions in the light of empirical evidence – where the question of quantifiable sense experience plays a crucial role (cf. John Dewey, How We Think, Boston 1910, p. 6).
- In this respect cf. among others Michael Marker, Going Native in the Academy: Choosing the Exotic over the Critical, in: Anthropology & Educational Quarterly, December 1998, Vol. 29, N° 4, pp. 473-480.
- Regardless of their differences and the fact that none was a professional anthropologist, all of them spent years in a foreign cultural setting, learned the languages of the local cultures, were initiated by a religious authority of the traditions they explored, and profoundly changed not only their ideas, but also their sensibility and imagination to embrace a broader reality. It is precisely their ‘subjective engagement’ that lends itself to debate.
- This Latin phrase is ambiguous. It can be translated as ‘under the aspect of interiority’ or ‘from an internal or microcosmic point of view’. In the first case, there is a certain objectivity in the interiority; in the second case, there is no transcendent parameter outside the merely individual sphere.
- Jeffrey Kripal, The Flip. Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, New York 2019, p. 12.
- Cf. Jeffrey Kripal, Authors of the Impossible. The Paranormal and the Sacred, Chicago 2010, p. 23.
- Jeffrey Kripal, Ibidem, p. 9. Kripal relies on (and expands) Rudolf Otto’s definition of the sacred as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (Cf. the second and fourth moments of the numinosum in Rudolf Otto, Das Heilige: Über das Irrationale in der Idee des Göttlichen und sein Verhältnis zum Rationalen (1917), München 1979, pp. 13-14 and pp. 42-43, respectively).
- Inasmuch as the ‘non-human’ in modern Western culture is considered devoid of interiority (and therefore of soul, spirit, intelligence), it is a mere object; but the moment we begin to interact with it, a process of subjectivation takes over the ‘objective world’ – with a profound modification of its constituents.
- Whitney Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal, The Supernatural. Why the Unexplained is Real, New York 2017, p. 119.
- Alain Daniélou, Les contes du Labyrinthe, Monaco 1990, p. 9. My emphasis.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 116.
- If we take as a symbolic date the bringing of the sibylline books to Rome during the monarchy of the Tarquins (Tarquin the Elder and Tarquin the Proud).
- The tales “Le Jardin de Songes (The Garden of Dreams)” shows quite clearly how the creations of passages between human and divine were systematically destroyed by the Christian empire (cf. Alain Daniélou, Les contes du Labyrinthe, p. 79).
- The lonely fate of the young Marco in the tale “La Sibylle de Véies (The Sibyl of Veii)” is due to the fact that modern knowledge deals with the forces of the universe as if they were dead elements, betraying the very conditions of a proper approach. “Some rare books” are mentioned as exceptions in the tale, “those of Mircea Eliade, and especially those of a French author that dealt with Hindu mythology” (cf. Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, pp. 116-117).
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 34.
- Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, p. 133.
- “The poets and philosophers asked: what is imagination? Is it simply a spinner of fantasies? Or can it also become a window of revealed truths from some other deeper part of the soul or world? Or better yet, like some secret two-way-mirror in a modern-day police station, is the imagination both, depending on whether one is looking at or through its reflecting surface?” (Whitney Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal, The Supernatural, p. 118).
- Alain Daniélou, Les contes du Labyrinthe, p. 74. These words stem from Nicholas of Cusa, a character in the tale ‘Le jardin des songes [The Garden of Dreams]’ who summarizes for the young Leonardo Da Vinci the secret doctrine of Prospero Colonna. In the tale, this Italian aristocrat possesses an enclave of arts, philosophy and wisdom at a place called “Zagarol” (cf. Ibidem, p. 70). This is a clear reference to Daniélou’s project at the Labyrinth (his residence at Zagarolo), which took shape during the last period of his life.
- There are two sorts of Brahmins in Daniélou’s writings: the old (or traditional) ones, who appear as a cultural complement to the sādhus, since they bring the latter’s experience to the level of reflection, and the young (or modernized) ones, whose main concern is to shut the door to the ‘reality at large’ in which sādhus operate, adopting instead a great part of the secular values that Western colonialism brought to India.
- One example of the higher rung of the sādhus in this respect is contained in the tale ‘Le maître des loups [The Master of the Wolves]’. In fact, in this tale it is the śūdras who open the way of the body for the young Brahmin Kuttu, whose deepest initiation (outside the caste order) is conducted by a sādhu belonging to the tradition of Atharvavedic sorcerers called Aṅgīrasas (cf. Alain Daniélou, Le bétail des dieux et autres contes gangétiques, Paris 1983, pp. 223-225). For Daniélou the power of the sādhu lies to a great extent in his externality to urbanized religion and his proximity to the other (undomesticated) side of Nature.
- For exemple the Bauls in the tale ‘Les Fous de dieu [The fools of god]’, cf. Alain Daniélou, Le bétail des dieux et autres contes gangétiques, Paris 1983, pp. 257-300).
- For exemple the secret society of the vaiśya Jay Prakash in the tale ‘La Partie des dès [The Game of Dice]’, Alain Daniélou, Le bétail des dieux et autres contes gangétiques, pp. 167-194).
- The reductive character of this ‘reality’ has turned sādhus into tramps and saints into madmen, whereas a considerable part of the artistic milieu has adopted the categorical imperative of our present society, that of quantification at any price.
- Cf. the relationship that Gwynn, the main character of the tale ‘Tages’, establishes among others with Etruscan divinities and Roman emperors throughout the story (Alain Daniélou, Les contes du Labyrinthe, pp. 11-53).
- Cf. the relationship between Marco, a young dreamer, and Silvana, the Sibyl of Veii, out of which the contents of a mysterious manuscript are rendered concrete and effective (Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, pp. 113-135).
- In the tale ‘Le don du soleil [The Sun’s Gift]’, a living connection is established between Indian, Persian and ancient European rituals related to the sun. Throughout the tale, it becomes clear that the power of Mithraic rituals can be re-enacted by somebody like the main character of the tale, Ludovico, whose inner gaze can lead to a ritual combination and even fusion of differently codified contents for the sake of a world restitution (cf. Alain Daniélou, Ibidem, pp. 85-111).
- Jeffrey Kripal, The Flip, p. 45.
- Jeffrey Kripal, Ibidem, pp. 17-18.
- Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal, The Supernatural, p. 94.
- As C. G. Jung said, when the powers are banished, they are not fully absent but return in the form of symptoms (cf. C. G. Jung, Kommentar zu ‘Das Geheimnis der goldenen Blüte’ (1929), in: Gesammelte Werke 13: Studien über alchemistische Vorstellungen, Solothurn: Düssseldorf 1995, § 54, p. 45, and The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga (1932), New Jersey 1996, p. 30).
- Alain Daniélou, Les contes du Labyrinthe, p. 116.