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Ego-Death or Whatever the Fuck Happened to Me
Mercury Retrograde: Claimed my husband’s computer screen. We were simply watching a chill episode of Swamp Murders in bed and then suddenly – psychedelic stripes and frizzes! It’s better now. Also had a plane ticket snafu too boring to discuss but it reeked of Mercury fucking with my life.
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Mom: Is devastated by the passing of Lisa Marie Presley. She’s been on a heavy Elvis kick ever since I took her to the Baz Luhrmann flick months ago, reading spicy biographies, watching documentaries, and my kid got her another Elvis book for Christmas. This Lisa Marie thing is hitting her smack in the midst of her obsession, and she is shook. She stayed up late watching all sorts of YouTube videos about her, and reported that she hadn’t been looking good this week, though she sounded lucid, so maybe not drugs, maybe an eating disorder stopped her heart, or maybe something congenital. She’s on it.
By it, I mean, YouTube. She’s severely fucking up my son’s feed of gamers and Pokémon unboxers. Last night she was on the Tube into the wee hours, and she took notes on hacks she wanted to share with us – a banana peel / rice / powdered milk / corn starch DIY face mask said to give you the immediate complexion of a Japanese teenager. Your wrinkles are gone, she claimed. Wrinkles Are Never Gone, I countered. Nothing removes wrinkles but Botox and face lifts, though I do love a DIY beauty product project so we’ll see what happens. When I visited my mom after her husband died the first things I did was make her salmon with mango salsa and then a DIY honey face mask. She also spotted a recipe for some dessert that involves cubed angel food cake and a can of cherries. Speaking of –
Food: I made Tuscan Bean Soup from the Clean Food cookbook and even my son ate it, despite the swamp of wilted kale swirling around his spoon. This is a huge win. He thus far only eats broccoli, and only with mounds of ketchup. I also made a spinach and mushroom egg casserole, only I removed the mushrooms because gross, only I didn’t reduce the salt so, salty. Finally, I baked some Nova Scotia Oat Bars which were pleasantly salty, I thought. No one else liked them but that was fine because then I got to eat the whole pan.
Perfume: I ordered The Emperor of Scent by Chandler Burr with an Amazon gift card I got for Christmas, and it just showed up! I’m excited. Otherwise, not much to report. My sin still awaits the Ketchup scent I promised him, and now my husband has requested a New Orleans-y scent, and my current beloved house guest, the witch-poetess Mya Spalter has also requested a scent, so maybe I will get busy.
Anyways – why aren’t there more movies that feature existential crisis? I’ve been in a low-grade chronic one, with noteworthy peaks, for about eight years, sense the birth of my son. Perhaps it is simply hormonal, as in, I shot my body up with hormones trying to get pregnant, literally wore a wrestler’s belt of hormone patches around my waist, shoved hormonal suppositories up my kittycat (I’m reading an ARC of Jenny Fran Davis’ incredible Dykette right now, and the narrator calls her pussy her kittycat, as in ‘My kittycat puffed.’ - !!! – and now I want to do the same), and it worked, I got my baby and had a happy pregnancy, but the minute that baby leaves your body, your hormones plummet to levels beneath whatever they were before you ever got knocked up, or stuck an Estrogen patch on your belly. You are deficient, you are below sea level. If you think you actually are a person, have a personality, have moods that are rationally and understandably swayed by the events of the day – no. You are not. You are a walking chemistry set of hormones and other chemicals, and the little personality you (me) are so proud of skedaddles into the ether when they get disrupted, especially on a level like this. This makes me think of the incredible George Saunders short story Spiderhead, in which prisoners are punished by having their brain chemistry fucked with. It’s so terrifying and amazing I refuse to watch the film version of it that someone recently made. I just like it way too much – though my favorite George Saunders story is Comm Comm. Anyway.
The rosy, plummy, sweetness of bringing a baby into the world, well, it didn’t exactly vanish, but I learned this massive undertaking cast a looooong shadow, and in that shadow lived all sort of sadness and unanswerable questions. Such as: Why are we even here? What is ‘this?’ How could I bring a precious, dependent little soul, so trusting, so oblivious to pain and sorrow and tragedy and trauma and – hello! – death – how dare I bring him into this existence? How irresponsible, considering we don’t even know what this existence is. I’m not even talking about the ethical quandary of having birthed a child onto a dying planet, or the fact that I will essentially be leaving him to fend for himself under capitalism – this breaks my heart daily. Did you catch the story about the guy suing his parents for creating him? Because he did not consent to being born? I believe he has a case. I believe I am culpable. But again, I’m not even talking about the bad things we know about. I’m talking about all the things we don’t know about. What if they’re bad, too?
Have you ever strained your brain against the constraints of reality, trying to push through to some other side? It’s an almost meditative state I can get into for only seconds before my mind rebels and is like go answer emails or do something productive. It’s like I’m trying to see, or feel, something other than this – our universe. It’s impossible, but something in the mind does respond. It feels like a paralyzed muscle trying to wake itself up. And then, poof.
My low-grade existential crisis’s notable peaks include the Wellbutrin episode previously mentioned, and then an innocent session of breathwork I was doing at home, on my office floor one night turned into a confrontation with The Void. It was like I suddenly understood, in my body, the deep, profound meaningless of life, and how the Universe is a cold, mechanical thing and absolutely nothing and no one is looking out for us, hence nothing that happens here is of any consequence whatsoever. SORRY FOR BUMMING YOU OUT! It was a lot for my body to receive. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I didn’t want any of it to be true, but also couldn’t turn away from the truthiness of it. An adjacent revelation – everything we do here, from political and spiritual beliefs to the wonder of art and family making, friendships, anything, everything, it’s just to distract us from the incomprehensible and depressing reality of The Void. Man. It was hard to get out of that one. It’s worth mentioning that I was deeply grief-stricken, in the throes of a divorce that had left me pretty shattered. This might have been what happens to an Aquarius who engages a psychedelic method to process grief. Talk about globalizing your personal catastrophe! I known-universalized it! My friend Clement, who dabbles in psychedelics so seemed like a good person to inquire with as to any Void-sightings, simply gave it a wise shrug and said something akin to, I think we’ve looked into the void and decided we want dance parties with our friends. This continues to give much comfort.
I looked around for evidence of others who maybe felt or saw what I did. In the occult practice Thelema, created by Aleister Crowley, there is The Abyss; it is written about a lot, and I believe many rituals deal with looking at it or crossing it. Apparently, The Abyss is guarded by a demon named Choronzon, who I’m pretty sure is a Pokémon. The occult comic book creator Grant Morrison, whose work is said to have influenced The Matrix, says Choronzon is ‘Existential Self at the last gasp… Beyond Choronzon we are no longer our “Self.’ The “personality” on the brink of The Abyss will do anything, say anything and find any excuse into taking this disintegrating step into “non-being.” Is this what is meant by ego-death? Did I accidentally slay my ego one night doing basic breathwork on my dusty office floor?
The website Ararita Oasis has an entry called Thelema is Horror that talks about Thelema’s links to Buddhism and the nothingness of Buddhism, and says that neither Thelema or Buddhism are nihilistic practices in spite of the mindfuck whammy of coming face to face with The Void and whatever Pokémon may or may not dwell there. In this piece I read that Crowley believed magic workers were required to confront The Abyss, and described the confrontation as a ‘crisis.’ Yep. ‘In their quest for spiritual attainment, the magician is twice obliged to step into a void which removes any clear meaning or value to their life, as both a lived experience and as a physical entity.’ Hence, Horror. Truly! I’m going to stop going into the void over The Void, because there is really no end to writing about it in Thelema alone, not to mention Buddhism and nothingness, Nietzsche and nihilism, H>P. Lovecraft and Cosmicism, Kundalini awakenings in folks unprepared for the spiritual onslaught – not to mention a blog I found by a woman who is a porn actor who did LSD for like a year and now believes she is an arhat. Maybe she is! It is KILLING ME that I can’t find her web site again because her blog is SO interesting, but I can’t, and you can imagine what ‘porn star LSD’ brings up. Suffice to say – I am not the only one who has seen the void, had an experience with ego death or whatever the fuck happened to me. I only wish I was more deeply involved in a spiritual tradition that works with this phenomenon! Is it goes, I only have anti-depressants, and film.
This week I watched two movies that fed my existential drama – maybe fed is the wrong word. Acknowledged it? The first was Glitch in the Matrix, a documentary exploring the possibility that we are living inside a computer simulation, by Rodney Ascher, whose Room 237 is an enjoyably paranoid deep dive into an array of conspiracy theories surrounding the film The Shining. Perhaps you are aware of this theory, that our reality is somehow simply a computer simulation, we are basically avatars, maybe someone is playing us, maybe we’re playing ourselves, who knows how it all shakes down. The best part of this theory, to me, is that science can’t prove that we’re not living in a computer simulation. This is an enormous comfort to me whenever I start taking life too seriously, or begin to worry about literally anything. Try it! It might not work. For instance, the notion fills my sister with anxiety, rather than reliving it. Because I actually lean into this concept regularly, I was psyched for the documentary, but it wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.
Firstly, it’s a huge sausage party. All but one person interviewed or profiled are dudes and, though we can’t actually see most of them, due to them appearing on screen in fanciful avatars, I do get a sense they are white dudes. And maybe it is what happens to this theory when it is pressed through the sieve of white American maleness, but the way they understand or experience the theory is that, in this computer-simulated reality, they are the only ones who are real. The rest of us are just NPCs – non-player characters. Trust the demographic whom the world most revolves around to take this theory and use it to augment their sense that no one is as real as them.
It never even occurred to me, whilst mulling this theory, that it meant I alone was, like, Super Mario or something. I understood it as a much more inclusive concept involving all of our consciousness. Because this wasn’t really discussed, I grew bored and annoyed, though not enough to turn it off. I enjoyed the many movie clips (Ascher is obviously a huge film nerd), especially the one from Horton Hears a Who, my favorite Dr. Seuss film as a kid, and a really great way to explore this idea of multiverses. The best part was the many excerpts of author Philip K. Dick speaking about his experience of encountering the multiverse via recovered memories of alternate lives in the now during a dentist appointment (!!). He’s just sort of, fuck it, I know I sound crazy but this is what happened. He’s lecturing in France and it’s being translated and the camera often checks in on the incredulous faces of his audience, which is amusing. It absolutely made me want to read the entirety of his oeuvre, and re-watch Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly, and, sure, why not Blade Runner for the millionth time. The primary concern of his work is, how do you know you are you / how do you know reality is real. Glitch also included a lot of shots of the fantastic R. Crumb comic The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick, which I once read in the comic magazine Weirdo and still think about from time to time. What Dick was saying was super fascinating, as well as the interview with Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom who (with the help of Elon Musk) popularized this idea. And, again, the sole woman, multimedia artist Emily Pothast, whose embrace of the erotic as the polar axis to the nihilism felt true and whose quoting of Audre Lorde was much appreciated.
Of course, thinking you are the only real person in reality is not unique to the computer age. Solipsism, the philosophy that we can only be certain of our own existence, pre-dates Socrates. Solipsism Syndrome, a close cousin to depersonalization disorder, is the psychological state of believing you’re the only person who truly exists, and is a breeding ground for psychosis, as Glitch demonstrates by including the story of Joshua Cooke, a teenage goth (and probable only person of color in the film, though we never see him) who got so obsessed with The Matrix he lost touch with reality, believed he was in The Matrix, and murdered his parents. Super dark and scary, and sad. This led to the creation of ‘The Matrix Defense,’ which is a thing, though he wound up simply pleading guilty, having come out of his delusions to find himself baffled and remorseful. At the end of it all, Glitch in the Matrix really feels like a film about Solipsism Syndrome, much more than the intriguing possibility that reality is a simulation. It sort of ruined the simulation theory as a comfort for me for a moment, but I’ve come back around. I’m just in a different computer game than those dudes.
The other film that sort of jazzed and soothed me was White Noise. Having not read the book I had no idea it was about death (“What is death is nothing but sound?” “Electrical noise.” “You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.” “Uniform, white.”) I came for Greta Gerwig’s phenomenal perm and Adam Driver’s prosthetic dad bod. And what I got was a story that unfurled itself, in retro technicolor and rapid-fire, theatrical dialogue) to be about death and the ways we collectively work, as individuals, families and societies, to keep the reality of death at bay. Adam Driver’s character, the world’s foremost Hitler scholar, does it by embracing a horror to cataclysmic it becomes its own thing, obscuring our own demise-in-progress. The culture does it with consumerism, as gleefully illustrated by a pop art grocery store that looks art directed by Andy Warhol moving through Wes Anderson from beyond the grave. The couple’s many children, still young-ish and innocent-ish and not yet indoctrinated to the required denial lifestyle, go about their task of poking holes – the son, a survivalist obsessed with televised plane crashes, is revealed at a temporary evacuee camp to be the only person who really has the scoop on the toxic cloud released by a train crash and menacing the region. A sleuthing daughter clocks Mom, Gerwig’s Babette, popping pills, and it’s eventually revealed that Mom – mom, the mother, with her constant fretting over her children’s safety), has been so overtaken by her fear of dread that she enrolled herself in a pharmaceutical study, an experiment with a new drug meant to cure fear of death.
The pill’s side effects – besides death itself, lolz – is an inability to tell the difference between spoken words and real-life action, so that the phrase ‘Look out, a plane is falling’ would inspire the listener to run for cover, no matter the obvious lack of plane. Is this because it’s death that enlivens the world, our lives, brings it from the flat virus of language into the multi-dimensional, sensory overload that is our lives? I don’t know, but when Babette speaks, in heartbreaking earnestness, ‘I can’t believe we’re all marching toward non-existence.’ The tone in her voice found a channel in my heart to plug into, and I cried, there on the couch, wrapped in the arms of my husband, our preferred way to watch things once the snacks are gone, in a hard snug.
The full quote is, ‘I can’t believe we’re all marching toward non-existence. All of us. It haunts me, Jack, and it won’t go away.’ Same, Babs. Same.
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