Anthony Grayling reviews Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on the numinous

I’ve posted several times about Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book, Living With a Wild God: A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything (e.g.,here, here [on Isaac Chotiner's interview with Ehrenreich], and here [on the New York Times review of the book]). The reason the book deserves scrutiny is because Ehrenreich is a great author who’s written many absorbing books on diverse topics, and is also a prominent atheist. But her new book is largely about a numinous experience she had (famished and tired, she had a hallucination or something like one in Lone Pine, California), and her attempts to make sense of it.

Sadly, she sees in that hallucination something Bigger, something Out There. It’s not God, for she’s still an atheist, but it seems to be something paranormal. I haven’t read the book, and probably won’t, but I’ve read her take on it, and some excerpts. I’ll let Anthony Grayling give his take on it from the Los Angeles Review of Books. His review is mixed.  He praises her autobiographical insights, and her prescient take on philosophy at age 12, but also chastises her for the Big Something Out There Part:

Ehrenreich’s chief experience of a transcendent Otherness, an experience which has had a large impact on her life, occurred when she was eighteen. Returning from a skiing trip, hungry and tired after a sleepless night in the car, following a long day of exercise on the slopes, she was wandering in the dawn’s rising sunlight along the main street of a town called Lone Pine when suddenly everything around her seemed to catch fire, to burst out into an effulgence of radiance: “the world flamed into life … Something poured into me and I poured into it … It was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all the things at once.” Every mundane object in the street and the shop windows around her gave off a blinding glow. She had no sense of being different from the effulgence — she was it and it was she. The “only condition was overflow. ‘Ecstasy’ would be the word for this, but only if you are willing to acknowledge that ecstasy does not occupy the same spectrum as happiness or euphoria.”

. . . But alas, as her book approaches its end, Ehrenreich departs from rational ways of understanding her own experiences, and begins to sketch a view to the effect that there is indeed Something — she calls it the Other. She says that this is what she had encountered in her dissociative experiences. Ehrenreich disavows thinking of it as a personal deity or as anything monotheistic. Instead, she describes it in pantheistic or animistic terms, like a Life Force or something such. She is retrospectively even inclined to attribute anomalous results in the experiments she performed for her undergraduate science thesis to the presence of “something else” in her lab.

Ehrenreich is well known for her atheism as well as her other publicly-avowed stances. As a highly talented writer and a powerful advocate for social justice causes, she has a standing in American life that will make this spiritual — or quasi-religious — turn a subject for debate. The explanation she gives of what she means by her “animism” is only sketchily offered, for the reason mentioned: the difficulty of expressing the inexpressible. All those who report having the kind of experiences she has had have had to resort to poetry, allusion, hand-waving, or metaphor to convey what these experiences are like.

No doubt having such experiences powerfully inclines one to project their cause to something outside the mind. We do not tolerate anomaly very well and need to give it a name and an explanation in order to cope. But the merest respect for economy of explanation should be a bulwark against externalizing the source of anomalous experiences before all the more likely explanations are exhausted. We should always remember that the mind is a great player of tricks: one can induce Ehrenreich-type experiences in the lab, or by popping certain kinds of pills, no Other and no Mystery required. It is accordingly a surprise and — let it be confessed — a disappointment to find so doughty a heroine of her causes sliding away from Athens to — well, if not to Jerusalem than to some other Eastern locus of the ineffable, the unnamable, and the smoky.

I repeat: it is a disappointment when a rational person’s thinking about the unusual, the unexpected, the extraordinary, the amazing experiences of transcendence and unity that many of us have at heightened moments of life, suffers a declension into quasi-religious or supernaturalistic vagueness. The human brain is complicated enough to produce all these experiences from its own resources; we need no fairies in the garden to explain how roses bloom.

Indeed, the fact that it is the brain, and nothing mysterious outside it, that produces these experiences, is to me far more interesting and spectacular than the invocation of some vaguely hinted meaningful mist sneaking around reality’s backyard.

He takes back with one hand, but gives with the other, for the review (much longer than the excerpt above) ends like this:

That disappointment registered, my admiration for Barbara Ehrenreich the author and campaigner remains, as it does for the book itself: it is so beautifully written, so full of pungent insights on matters other than a putative Other, and so fascinating as a portrait of an intense and hypersensitive mind, especially in its youth, that it must surely count as one of the best reads of the year.

Perhaps, but I still won’t be reading it. I’ve immersed my self far too long in Other Ways of Knowing over the last 2.5 years, and I’d like to read some nonfiction for a change.

h/t: Barry

59 Comments

  1. Heather Hastie
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I am disappointed that someone like Ms Ehenreich has taken the route “I can’t understand it so it must be supernatural”. I will not be reading it either.

  2. Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like Jill Bolton’s description when a experiencing a stroke. Beautifully articulated in a TED talk.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      “Sounds like Jill Bolton’s description when a experiencing a stroke. Beautifully articulated in a TED talk.”

      It also sounds like the time my friends and I went out to Paine’s Prairie at 3:45am, ate about 5 grams of mushrooms apiece and watched the Space Shuttle launch. By my math it was 1969 when Barbara had her “visions.” I’ve been told that recreational use of psychedelics was quite common back in 1969 . . . I’m, not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.

      • Plny the in Between
        Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        Indeed – In an ongoing discussion with an online acquaintance, I have often asked this question (and just used it in a panel punchline) “why is it that people who take chemicals to alter their perceptions, have such a hard time believing that perception has something to do with chemistry.”

        • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

          I’ve noticed that of “the people who take chemicals to alter their perceptions,” the ones with a rudimentary understanding of neuroscience generally have no problem seeing that “perception has something to do with chemistry.” Indeed, to them it is usually obvious. It is mostly those ignorant of neuroscience that attribute their experiences “tripping” to a connection with The Other.

          On a related note, in The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley suggests that a child’s brain experiences overwhelming sensory input, much like a psychedelic drug experience, and that the maturing brain “learns” how to ignore all the input not directly necessary for survival. The end result is the adult, sober, brain. Psychedelic drugs “open the doors of perception” and allow adults to experience all the superfluous sensory input that a young child does, without the survival boosting filters that are put in place during development. Having a small child has led me to believe he may have been on to something. She often acts as though she is “tripping balls” as they say. And viewing myself as a sort of “spirit guide” for her trip often helps me to be a better parent – whether it’s helping her enjoy the beauty of her first taste of grapes or talking her through a “bad trip” experience. It’s much easier to be calm, supportive, and patient, and to maintain my own composure, when I think of a meltdown temper-tanrum as a bad trip that she needs help working through.

          • Posted July 8, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            Also, (depending on the drug) it may erode the capacity to reason, so in particular make understanding its own mechanisms awkward.

            There also seems to be a common “fracture point” (as it were) in our brain that corresponds to some versions of the “point of view”. This seems to break with drugs, starvation, etc.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted July 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

            Interesting that Huxley mentions ‘filters’. After my few experiences (decades ago) of LSD (I didn’t hallucinate, it was very small doses, but everything just seemed so much more vivid, the colours were brighter) I likened the experience to seeing everything ‘unfiltered’. As if the brain filters out familiar scenes, and the Acid simply removed those filters. I found I could replicate the sensation of heightened colours to some extent by looking at a scene upside down.

  3. Matt G
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    A shame she doesn’t go for well-explained phenomena – like hallucinations – to explain her experience. Occam’s Razor ignored amid echoes of Eben Alexander and his “Proof of Heaven”….

  4. R. Dale Caldwll
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I have had 2 experienes that sound similar to what the author described. The first occirred as I was driving and knew something was wrong and I managed to get help before I killed myself or anyone else. The second was in the hospital after I had a bad experience from an endoscopy. When the nurse responeded to my call, one look at me and it was CODE BLUE. I was concious enough to watch my blood pressure drop to 55/35! Talk about numinous!

    • darrelle
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      I have feinted or otherwise involuntarily lost consciousness several times in my life and experienced the same general things each time. Hearing starts to progressively get funny, tinny might best describe it. Vision progressively brightens and contrast fades, until whiteout, and at the same time the field of view progressively narrows until it is gone. Like looking through an aperture that is closing. And a vague thought of “WTF(?)” and “oh shit, I remember this, I should get help, oops, to late.”

      The funniest one, the last image I had, right in the center of my tunneling vision, was a nurse sprinting towards me like a sprinter charging off the blocks, eyes wide, one arm outstretched, mouth forming a large “O”. She had just got done standing me up in front of an x-ray plate to get chest images prior to surgery, and had walked away to stand behind the barrier.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      I had a similar experiences, one while in a hospital bed while famished — having not eaten for about 18 hours. Can I get a book deal and go on talk shows because of that? Probably not.

      • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

        Probably yes if you market it properly…or get Deepity Chopra to co-author.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

      My only experience like this was long ago when I had an operation to repair a severed anterior tibial tendon (that’s the big one that raises your foot, for those who haven’t studied human anatomy). It was very painful and for several days I was given morphine (or perhaps a synthetic equivalent). Much of the time I had the distinct feeling that I was floating tightly pressed against the ceiling of the hospital room, looking down at someone in the hospital bed who was in a great deal of pain, and feeling very glad it wasn’t me. I did not, however, see the baby Jesus, or any other Other.

    • Marella
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      I have had some interesting experiences as well. I was pregnant and close to fainting and the flowered wallpaper started to dance, a bit like a Salvador Dali painting coming to life. I had a dream that continued after I awoke; that was a bit scary since I had no idea how to make it stop, but it didn’t last long. There was a migraine hallucination which was fascinating though painful, and more but I didn’t ascribe any of it to “the meaningful mist”.

    • Dawn Oz
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      I had a small operation in my early 20s, and was given a narcotic in hospital – and was fascinated by the experience, stating that I had been ‘up there with the good, the true and the beautiful’. This was in the 1960s, and I was pleased to know that such a powerful drug was there when I needed it, and to steer clear at any other time.

  5. darrelle
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    An easy way for anyone to achieve the same kind of experience is to just do what she did. Engage in something that causes significant mental and or physical stress for a long time, and then deprive yourself of sleep for even longer. Being by yourself during the final stages seems to help too. Has worked for me in the past.

    The most amazing hallucinations I’ve ever had were when I got lost at 2 or 3 AM in the high desert in the vicinity of Edward’s AFB near the end of a 28 hour straight drive. Which had been preceded by a 17 hour straight drive and then about 4 hours of sleep before continuing on to the 28 hour stretch. Never tried that again.

    • Taz
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      “Engage in something that causes significant mental and or physical stress for a long time, and then deprive yourself of sleep for even longer.”

      As god intended!

      • Matt G
        Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        The very fact that these (or similar) conditions had to be met should have been a major clue for her. When it happens while she’s out walking the d*g, THEN she should write a book about it.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      “Engage in something that causes significant mental and or physical stress for a long time, and then deprive yourself of sleep for even longer.”

      That’s the *easy* way? How about just taking drugs?

      • darrelle
        Posted July 8, 2014 at 5:23 am | Permalink

        Too scary for me!

    • Kevin Long
      Posted July 8, 2014 at 1:43 am | Permalink

      In Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” the narrator hangs upside down in a dark cave, and “by degrees” starts to have visions. Ya think?

  6. Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if Ehrenreich ever read Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception.” I’m inclined to believe that she hasn’t because if she did I don’t think she would have been able to write about her experience and inject the big “Other” into her narrative.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      Oops! I should have read the other comments before adding my own.

  7. Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    I heard Barbara Eherenriech give an interview about this book and her experiences on NPR one afternoon. Disappointed doesn’t even begin to describe my reaction to it. She must realize that a high profile atheist attributing her altered state of consciousness to a numinous explanation is a statement that theists will exploit to the fullest extent possible.

  8. reasonshark
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    To take her side for a moment (though not with great enthusiasm), this doesn’t necessarily have to be supernatural. Grasping at straws here, but it is at least potentially hypothetically possible that there’s some hitherto-unknown field of physics in which a sensory system (a sensory system like an eye or a touch sensor or an ear) detected something during these experiences. Like an extra sense which is hard to describe in terms more usually applied to sight, sound, smell, and so on, it might lie within the brain rather than outside as other sensors do, become active under certain conditions, and have a physical mechanism that can be isolated and studied.

    This is speculation, though. Highly theoretical and abstract, it is not going to excuse the intellectual problems with what she’s saying. The severe snag is that the physicists have to discover this extra realm first (like discovering extra wavelengths on the EM spectrum) before anyone can invoke it with any confidence.

    So I’d still call her out for jumping the gun way too early in explaining what is most likely just a system error in the brain unconnected to anything actually happening in the environment, but it is kind of psychologically understandable – if you take her perspective – why she might see more in it than we would.

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      Ehhh… If she, or anyone, has such an ‘extra’ sense, why did she only notice its input one time out of decades of being alive? If it is because there is something special about Lone Pine, why don’t we have many and repeated reports like this from the residents of Lone Pine?
      Also, she thinks this ‘other’ also caused anomalous results in the experiments she performed for her undergraduate science thesis, so the ‘other’ can have effects that don’t require a special sense to detect.

      Sounds like post-hoc rationalization to me.

      • reasonshark
        Posted July 8, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

        “Ehhh… If she, or anyone, has such an ‘extra’ sense, why did she only notice its input one time out of decades of being alive? If it is because there is something special about Lone Pine, why don’t we have many and repeated reports like this from the residents of Lone Pine?”

        Well, logically speaking, it’s possible that some senses don’t activate unless triggered by specific circumstances, both internal and external. Kind of like how senses heighten when you’re in fight-or-flight mode.

        “Also, she thinks this ‘other’ also caused anomalous results in the experiments she performed for her undergraduate science thesis, so the ‘other’ can have effects that don’t require a special sense to detect.”

        She’d probably argue that this doesn’t contradict itself, and that while the ‘other’ can have physical effects, our ‘special sense’ feasibly can only detect it (or tap into it, or whatever) when the body needs it.

        I’m not arguing her case because I agree with her, mind, since I don’t. It might help to understand where this kind of claim comes from, especially if we’re going to consider the science that challenges or refutes it (like Ben Goren does below).

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      Grasping at straws here, but it is at least potentially hypothetically possible that there’s some hitherto-unknown field of physics in which a sensory system (a sensory system like an eye or a touch sensor or an ear) detected something during these experiences.

      No, it isn’t — especially not since the CERN team discovered the Higgs Boson and, in so doing, completed the Standard Model at all energies relevant to human physiology and daily experience. There’s much physics yet to be discovered, but none of it will directly interact with the fermions and bosons of which humans and our surroundings are made.

      b&

      • reasonshark
        Posted July 8, 2014 at 2:38 am | Permalink

        Yes it is. I chose my words carefully. I said “potentially hypothetically possible”, meaning that, strictly speaking, a future empirical result might start swinging that way. But you’d be mad to actually bet on it. If it helps, it’s on par with thinking it’s “potentially hypothetically possible” the sun will turn out to be a disc. No sane person is going to say the sun is a disc, or even suggest it’s likely or probable. It’s one of an infinite number of “technically possible” things, like fairies, gryphons, matter transporters, illusion shields, and so on that haven’t been disproved, but which we needn’t waste our time studying, like a deistic god designed to escape the empirical test.

        It’s a backhanded defence, basically. I also think it’s a way to understand where she’s coming from, though not actually condone it.

        • reasonshark
          Posted July 8, 2014 at 2:40 am | Permalink

          I should say ” If it helps, it’s on par with thinking it’s “potentially hypothetically possible” the sun will turn out to be a disc in disguise.”

  9. Tulse
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    “…we need no fairies in the garden to explain how roses bloom” == what a great line!

    • Matt G
      Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      VERY similar to a Douglas Adams’ quote, however.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Who may have been inspired by Shakespeare:
        “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw a perfume on the violet, to smooth the ice, or add another hue unto the rainbow, or with taper-light to seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

        And then Tim Minchin in Storm said:

        To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
        To throw perfume on the violet… is just fucking silly”.

  10. Kevin
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I do not recommend shallow water near-drowning, but the experience can be mightily blissful. The mind floats into whatever realm it desires. The expanse of the universe is collapsed to a single quantum of existential being. Wait…did I just drown or did I swallow Deepak.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

      Drowning in Chopra…we’ve all been there.

      • Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

        Alternatively, I could make a sexually inappropriate joke about swallowing Deepak…but I won’t.

        And now I’ve just ruined my “drowning in Chopra” joke.

        • Kevin
          Posted July 8, 2014 at 5:26 am | Permalink

          Steamy hot transcendence that never ceases to ooze. That thought alone can cause premature unconsciousness.

  11. Filippo
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    sub

  12. MR
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like shes veering into Terence McKenna / John Lilly territory. Taking hallucinogenic like experiences a bit too seriously, and posing cosmic theories to explain them. She should read a few more books, there are plenty of naturalistic explanations for these all to human, more common than most suspect, peak experiences.

  13. Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    Barbara Ehrenreich is a writer. As far as I know, she makes a living by writing books and magazine articles, and she must find something to write about that will sell books. The only Other she has tapped into here are Other wallets.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Touché!
      Writers need content, and find it wherever they can.

      • Posted July 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

        This refers to Mark Sturtevant’s comment “she must find something to write about that will sell books.”

        It has to be, because in reality it’s the publisher that decides if the book will sell. The writer’s preoccupation is to get the book published, hence to find the publisher that will take the book. In desparation, many now resort to self-publishing on their kitchen laser printer.

        So Mark sensed the artistic impulse in “she must find”. She is a writer and must continue to write, and can do it only so long as her content is acceptable to a publisher. The commercial viability is a necessary feature of the artist’s situation when there’s no longer the sponsorship of the upper classes or the church as in the past, or even a secure job in academia.

        Grayling said it even better: “it is so beautifully written, so full of pungent insights on matters other than a putative Other, and so fascinating as a portrait of an intense and hypersensitive mind, especially in its youth, that it must surely count as one of the best reads of the year.” It is worth reading because it is quality writing, never mind the Other and other fantastic imaginings.
        More, it can be valuable to psychologists to have good instances of modern delusions in brilliant minds.

        She is a writing artist, and she finds her content in whatever touches her mind and inspires her to write.
        This comment is about the motivation to create art, the “will to write”, and the rewards from social acceptance of one’s writing as publishable and enjoyable.
        It has nothing to do with a critical evaluation of the content itself according to extraneous criteria. It is one case of privileging form (style, art) over matter.

        It’s the same as in the musical impulse of the Beatles to write songs, or Picasso to paint absurd shapes, Freud to paint ugly fat women, or the graffiti artist to continue defacing subway cars, buses, or walls, in NY, etc.
        The creative impulse must find content, wherever he/she can. It is inexorable.

        • Posted July 7, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

          Maledizione!
          “Desperation” instead of “desparation”!
          System 1 preempts System 2, especially in spelling, would claim Daniel Kahneman.

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      I don’t understand either of these comments. Are you saying whatever she writes is okay because she’s trying to make a living? Or are you cynically saying that she’s writing stuff she doesn’t believe just to pull in the bucks? Please be clear. It’s certainly not a touché if she’s putting out misleading ideas.

      • Posted July 7, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

        I have no idea what Roo is getting at, but in case you were also asking me:
        I can take her at her word that she believes she had a transcendent experience, and so I do not consider her book to be a cynical exercise. If anything, I was the one being cynical, commenting on there being plenty of people who would buy into her claims.

    • Graeme
      Posted July 8, 2014 at 12:49 am | Permalink

      Exactly. This book is just tapping a ready market. She will sell loads to spiritual numpties and believers who like to point at atheists who find ‘Other’ on their road to enlightenment. Flew is a good example. Moneyspinner for an author, no better or worse than all those evangelist texts or books about personal angels. Sad really.

  14. Posted July 7, 2014 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    This sentence below Grayling writes is one I wish I could claim for my own. I intend to use ‘meaningful mist’ at the earliest opportunity. Of course the odds are, try as I might, it shall elude me in that moment and not appear until hours after, amiably arriving on its own preferred schedule, perfect situation vanished forever.

    ‘Indeed, the fact that it is the brain, and nothing mysterious outside it, that produces these experiences, is to me far more interesting and spectacular than the invocation of some vaguely hinted meaningful mist sneaking around reality’s backyard.’ – A.C. Grayling

    • Posted July 7, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Exactly.
      Barbara Ehrenreich’s book is a psychological document, one evidence of the formation of mental illusions in over-educated modern brains.

      Coincidentally, Massimo Pigliucci is publishing on his site, Scientia Salon, an article touching to “meaningful mists”, or perhaps “pseudo-meaningful” mists.
      This is, aptly titled, “The Art of Darkness” on a master of the “Other”, the obscurantist French post-modernist philosopher/psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

      Being exposed to Lacan, even if only through this article (and I would recommend no more than through this article or Amazon reviews, if any), makes you appreciate the value of Ehrenreich’s beautiful prose.
      There are brilliant suns and, also, unfathomable dark holes in our space.

  15. Posted July 7, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Ehrenreich seems like nothing more than a middle aged human being who is feeling the weight of her mortality and needs to have something to make believe in. It’s unfortunately not a rare phenomenon.

    • Robert Bray
      Posted July 8, 2014 at 6:17 am | Permalink

      An acute observation! Perhaps she felt transcendence because she ‘wanted to’ or ‘needed to.’ Some forty years ago Kenneth Clark declared that we are the almost bankrupt heirs of Romanticism. Yet we continue to hang on to the notion that there is a perceivable or intuitable Whole to which we can belong and know that we belong. Ms. Ehrenreich, like this writer, still seeks union with ‘Nature,’ treating it not as the cultural construction it is but rather as something real yet outside of human making. I don’t find it, and am melancholy; she believes she did, and is transformed. At least this is the fiction her persona accepts in ‘Living with a Wild God.’

      • Posted July 8, 2014 at 8:55 am | Permalink

        indeed. I think a lot of atheists tend to be cynics aka disappointed romantics.

      • Posted July 8, 2014 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        “Some forty years ago Kenneth Clark declared that we are the almost bankrupt heirs of Romanticism.”

        Can you throw some light on this statement? Why “heirs”, and why “almost bankrupt”? There’s some implicit connotation somewhere, but it’s not obvious.
        Thanks in advance.

  16. Slaughter
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    About two months ago, right before awakening, I was dreaming that I was flying, including a sweep along my street where I was about two feet off the pavement before soaring into the sky. I woke up with a feeling of euphoria even though I knew it was a dream. But it was a great fucking feeling!

  17. MikeN
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve has such experiences three times in my life, two of which were unrelated to psychedelic drugs. I had an incredible feeling of the Great Ocean of Being, recognising my oneness with the Universe.

    And it’s true! The hydrogen and helium that compose 98% of the elements were created in the instant after the Big Bang; as were (presumably) the dark matter and dark energy that give our Universe the structure it has. The other elements that compose the remaining 2% were forged in the heart of a star. I am here because of formation of planets out of the cosmic dust created by those stars; I am the product of billions of years of evolution ; I share my genetic heritage with all other living creatures on Earth; I live and breathe in an ecosystem composed of billions of other living creatures; I live my life as a human being enmeshed in human society and heir to tens of thousands of years of human consciousness.

    Why shouldn’t I feel a sense of oneness with the Cosmos?
    But I don’t need a God, Spirit, or Other to explain it.

  18. Dale Franzwa
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    I, too, heard that radio interview a number of weeks back and my impression is that Ehrenreich is suffering from a bad case of addled memory. She may have had some kind of experience or dream decades ago but her current memory of it is probably 99 % (or so) fiction.

    I had a similar but mundane experience myself. In the late 1940’s I saw a movie, The Picture of Dorian Gray. He had a portrait of himself, painted when he was a young man, that changed over time, becoming uglier and older as his personality became more evil. Yet he remained young and good looking. Over the years, I would run into old friends from time to time whom I hadn’t seen for years. They would remark how, despite the years, I still looked the same. As a joke, I would mention that I had a picture of me in my closet that kept aging while I continued to look the same. They all laughed because they all had seen the Dorian Gray movie.

    Then, one day, I ran into an old friend who hadn’t seen the movie and had to explain the plot to her. A couple of years later, I saw that old movie again on TV and was astounded. The plot I had recited to my friend didn’t resemble the actual movie plot at all. I had made the whole thing up (without realizing it) because I had forgotten the original. I suspect Ehrenreich’s memory is similarly muddled.

  19. krzysztof1
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    I have read the book. Both ProfCC’s and Grayling’s reviews make sense to me (I’m sounding like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof here: “You’re right, too!”), although my estimate is a bit more in line with Grayling’s as to her writing skills. I can’t second-guess Ehrenreich, but I do think that the farther she speculated on the nature and especially the significance of her experience (of which I have had a similar episode, which was one of the things that intrigued me), the cloudier things got, until the thread was lost. It was all starting to get kind of Jungian.

  20. Rob Bate
    Posted July 8, 2014 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    I had several experiences like Ms Ehrenreich’s also about the same age she did that didn’t involve any drugs. One in particular after a long night I slept on a beach in New Jersey and woke up to the early morning light over the ocean and the world was knitted together like nothing I had ever known and I was overcome with an all encompassing joy of life. I spent many years pursuing that experience and a few others I had around that time. I took many acid trips trying to recreate them and came really really close. I checked out every new and old age spiritual practice and got really duped a couple of times.

    In the end I have to chalk it up to something that occurs in the brains and bodies of young adults as no one seems to have these experiences when they pass their 20s. Whatever the hormone or whatever it was should definately be bottled – its great!

  21. Zach Donaldson
    Posted July 9, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    I read Ms. Ehrenreich’s piece about her numinous experience on nytimes.com, and I don’t blame her for emphasizing a contact with The Other as part of it. That is, after all, what many people reported when injected with DMT during clinical trials at the University of New Mexico. While I’m still highly skeptical about the veracity of such contact, there is no denying that these experiences are utterly bizarre and tend to defy conventional explanation.

    Even if the human brain is alone responsible for these experiences (as I suspect it is), calling attention to the inexplicable serves to spur debate and incite research into our outlying cognitive capacities, which I wholeheartedly support.

    By the way, I’m quite jealous of the commenters here who have had non-induced numinous experiences. I’ve always had to take psychedelics, and even then it’s hit-and-miss.


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