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Madness, mysticism, genius, wisdom: enlightenment and enigma creating a spiritual awakening

A book excerpt from the spiritandflesh.com religion and spirituality online library.



            It is well known that there is a fine line between genius and insanity, but perhaps there is even a finer line between genius and ignorance, lucid ignorance; the person who coherently loses all concept of life, who intentionally, or not, forgets what it means to 'be', ends up dwelling, as we have seen, in the precarious realm between ecstasy and derangement.



"Ever wonder if there's a difference between having a mystical experience and completely losing your mind?"

Michael Peddie




            Well, perhaps there is not much of a difference after all.

           In the previous chapter I briefly mentioned the darker aspects of a person's tragic encounter with the upheaval of wonderment- where the 'outsider' was seen as an individual who had not properly assimilated novel realizations into their existence. On the other side of the coin, however, there exist the 'crazies' who have lived abundantly (well, some who did, some who didn't) and joyously in their new perspective, despite being permanently stationed on the fringe of life. These heroes of sane ignorance are the wise madmen and madwomen in this chapter, who, from time to time, maintain enough functional control of their faculties to record for the rest of us the annihilation of every solidity, every certainty, and every truth, for they have come to exist defiantly in the limbo of freedom, madness, and wonder.

One of these individuals, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, has done a remarkable job of describing the internal struggles of those who have seen the precariousness of our reality. From his aptly titled novel, The Idiot, to his not-so-short story Notes From Underground, to his brilliantly succinct and inspiring The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, he provides us with a collage of disparate, idiosyncratic 'fools', as it were. We shall not here delve into these works, but instead be satisfied with Henry Miller's description of Dostoyevsky himself, which is as lucid as Dostoyevsky's characters were strange. Of this rare 'outsider', Miller wrote: "Dostoyevsky was the sum of all those contradictions which either paralyze a man or lead him to the heights. There was no world too low for him to enter, no place too high for him to ascend. He went the whole gamut, from the abyss to the stars. ...It is a pity that we shall never have the opportunity to read again or see a man placed at the very core of mystery, and by his flashes not merely illuminating things for us, but showing us the depth, the immensity of the darkness."

            At 'the core of mystery', when all the walls, repressions, denials, and lies crumble to useless pieces around the lucky or forsaken individual (as they did for Dostoyevsky, who survived numerous crises, including almost being executed, and many torturous years in the hopeless gulag), there is no hidden meaning which bubbles to the fore, only an obvious non‑meaning ensconcing all and everything; an essential, immense non‑meaning, for non-meaning is the essence of the core.



"I am at home in the marvelous. Absolutely at home.

The unknown, the mysterious, the exotic,

the strange, the never-lived-before, the difficult."

Anais Nin



At the throbbing core of life, mystery suddenly becomes unavoidably obvious ...because meaning is now absolutely obscured. It is this descent from the surface of reasonableness, to the unreasonable center, which is the hero or heroine's true journey. Heroic clarity then comes from simply accepting the furthest extent of one's irrevocable confusion one can endure.

            Along with Dostoyevsky noted above, Henry Miller wrote about many of his other heroes as well, most of whom were mad artists, and his words convey the essential predicament of this chapter; he relates: "I see this other race of individuals ransacking the universe, turning everything upside down, their feet always moving in blood and tears, their hands always empty, always clutching and grasping for the beyond, for the god out of reach: slaying everything within reach in order to quiet the monster that gnaws at their vitals. I see that when they tear their hair with the effort to comprehend, to seize this forever unattainable, I see that when they bellow like crazed beasts and rip and gore, I see that this is right, that there is no other path to pursue. ...anything less shuddering...less mad, less intoxicated...is counterfeit. ...Let us have...a world of natural fury, of passion, action, drama, dreams, madness, a world that produces ecstasy and not dry farts."

            Ah, but what of propriety, respectability, and convention? Indeed, what of these?  In the pursuit of ecstasy and wonder, there is no room for petty concerns or approbation. And that applies as much inwardly, as it does out. Hence Ernest Becker described Rudolph Otto's tangle with his own shattered psyche, stating: "[He] talked about the terror of the world, the feeling of overwhelming awe, wonder, and fear in the face of creation- the miracle of it, the mysterium tremendum et fascinosum of each thing, of the fact that there are things at all."

            When the mind comes undone, the ego comes undone with it, as we recall from the necessary relationship between epistemological and psychological surrender.

            The fact is that those who come to this critical loss of all cohesion find that there is much that is perceived by non-understanding alone; sublime phenomena requiring perversions of themselves in order to be vouchsafed to us. Which is to say, as it is by vegetation that we eat soil, air, sunlight, and dung, so it is through not-knowing that we apprehend the unknown. And therefore, if we seek to have a relationship with what cannot be known, then it is obvious that we cannot expect to exist in the security of  'knowing'.



"to have that secret that I still couldn't understand, I would again give my life. I had risked the world in search of the question that comes after the answer. I hadn't found a human answer to the enigma. But much more, oh much more: I had found the enigma itself."

Clarice Lispector



Without this catastrophic intelligent ignorance, we might know a great deal of little knowings, and yet know nothing of the immense unknown.

To come to such a perspective (or non-perspective) is one of the ultimate human sacrifices (recall here the Bhagavad Gita's claim that "Better than the sacrifice of any objects is the sacrifice of wisdom.") Thus, Benjamin Tucker describes this willful sacrifice, concluding: "It is in the rehabilitation of position that the succumbing power refuses to be defined, and in the process (if the process is fabulous enough) emerges from its own emerging, writhes in the passage that is omnidirectional, pursues the intensity so furiously that the conundrum becomes the home." (brackets are author's)

            Therefore, to attempt any understanding at this rarified level of non-understanding ...is to misunderstand. Genius does not discern truth for us, it exposes us to mystery.

             Only mystery is true to form; only an enigma is seen as what it truly 'is'- whatever that may be. There is no such thing as understanding, only more sublime levels of non-understanding, or more tragic levels of misunderstanding; the greater the apparent understanding, the greater the misunderstanding.



"Back in those days, everything was simpler

and more confused."

Jim Morrison



To arrive at the precious and perilous realm of incohesion, of unawareness, we must be willing and brave; we must allow the veneer of being to immolate completely; nothing of what we hold onto or believe in can survive a single moment of true, apocalyptic wonder. All the monuments fall in the earthquake of incognition; it may mean that our old well-ordered lives are ruined completely, that we are done for, if we come to rupturous, rapturous non-understanding correctly. Nothing remains of life as it was imagined to be- for finally we have matured beyond the pablum of knowledge. That is the way of the mad and the mystic.

Lispector describes this maturity in one of her characters, writing: "With this enormous courage the man had finally stopped being intelligent." Which is to say, to give yourself away to the mystery that you are, to float upward like a balloon without a mooring, to unrecognize existence with a fearless glance unshaken by the nebulous infinity, is to die and be born again, at every moment, without a clue what is happening to you.




"It is the logic of Illogic. And this is all one can say.

My lucid unreason is not afraid of chaos."

Antonin Artaud



Though Artaud is one of the mystical madmen who perhaps lost it too completely in the end (spending nine years in an asylum in France, where he aggressively declared, "I am a fanatic, I am not a madman"), at least he went down swinging.

Anais Nin wrote, after meeting Artaud, "All I could see that evening was his revolt against interpretations. He was impatient with their presence, as if they prevented him from exaltation." And so he was a hero indeed, forfeiting all reasonableness and caution for one thing and one thing only- ecstasy.

            Wonder for some individuals, then, is not merely an experience to be had and then quickly 'gotten over', as it were; it is instead an outlook which must be sedulously integrated until it becomes a fanatical disposition demanding intimacy with the unfathomableness of being, and this is the power which redeems all of creation from the bounds of logic and reason.



"The non-mysterious concerns of human beings may be drawn as clearly as the outlines of this page. ...What is to be inscribed here but the disgust of generations linked like propositions in the sterile fatality of a syllogism?"

E.M. Cioran



We see that when the will to honesty overpowers the need for the security of understanding, only then will the exasperated individual stand his or her ground; only then will a person hold firm in the acceptance that the history of knowledge and learning is but a cowardly attempt to orient oneself within an unimaginable event- life! To finally come to terms with such a realization is to isolate oneself from the claustrophobia of man's 'reason', and to believe in one's vision, despite what all others claim you should see.

This 'new' madness is the sanity of wonder. And only those strong enough to withstand the tide of mankind's misconceptions, and to walk clean through without succumbing to the taint, only they shall be counted as the Keepers of the Mystery.

Osho provides us with a definition of this type, stating: "Strangeness of a thing immediately shakes you out of the rut of unconsciousness. ...if someone can go mad consciously, it would be a great experience; no other experience could be greater than this. ...it is in such a situation that a feeling of utter strangeness overwhelms you... You suddenly find that all connections, all communications...have snapped, that all bridges have broken, and all adjustments have collapsed. You find that everything relevant has become irrelevant; the day to day relevance of things is lost altogether."

Again, wonder is not about seeing spectacles that are wonderful, but wonder is instead a living function of the individual's openness, which is independent of any specific phenomena- because it includes everything; magic is a perspective, not an occurrence. Wonder is woven into the immanent fabric of the wondering mind, not in the outward recognition of something wonderful; it is the individual's inward ability to un-recognize everything at once, in a euphoric implosion of non-interpretation.

From another individual who went the full distance into Mystery, so to speak, we have, from Vaslav Nijinski's diary, "I want the death of mind. ...The mind is stupidity, but wisdom is God."

We shall meet with Nijinski again in the final chapter. It is said that in the final stages of his insanity (or perhaps sanity, as it were) he was found giving his money away on the street, and claiming that he had suffered more than Christ. Whatever the reality of his experience, there is no doubt from his diary that he, like Artaud, went so far away from the profane understanding of mankind, that he could not get back; neither of them could any longer participate conventionally in a world which was far below their understandings (or non-understanding) of life. Their manias were the passions of men awoken in a prison who believed that they alone knew all others were in prison as well. And that prison is the mind.



"...everything is distorted and displaced

as soon as it understands itself."

Heinrich von Kleist



            Is it not our habit to distort everything, especially ourselves, by assuming to understand them? It is our pathos, our temerity, or caution, or demise.

And therefore, recognizing this, when finally we do confront ourselves with complete openness and candor, we must struggle not to turn quickly away, having found that we do not actually know who or what we are. Instead we must remain there, right in the eye of the hurricane, fully intimate with the self's bewilderment and confusion. We must "keep that don't know mind" when it matters most- when it is our own 'I' of which we know nothing.

Cioran stated: "When we perceive ourselves existing we have the sensation of a stupefied madman who surprises his own lunacy and vainly seeks to give it a name."

What is required of mystical madmen, or madwomen, is to forge relentlessly into the unknown, no longer into the known; to accept over and over again that indeed we are all lost- that we understand nothing of the world or ourselves, and then to have the endurance to expect no reward, no solution, no final understanding, but only the need for more exasperation, more uncertainty, more incapacity.

"If the fool would continue his folly, he would become wise", wrote William Blake in his Proverbs of Hell. And the lucky corollary to Blake's aphorism is: if the wise man would continue his wisdom, he would become a fool.

If we are passionate and mad enough, the more we seek to understand the more we realize we do not understand, and eventually we cease to seek, and instead we just 'are'- we just live in the uncertain, absurd, implausible, inconceivable void. Indeed, the wise person who continues on with wisdom must necessarily fall ...dumb.

Hence Cioran finally admitted: "And for having sought to be a sage such as never was, I am only a madman among the mad..."

So be it. It is the natural outcome of the ardent seeker- to come to awe through a short-circuited intelligence; for to stare into oneself with brutal honesty is to destroy all images and conclusions about what one is, or what one is supposed to be. That is all that is required- the honesty to unflinchingly be one's true, inconceivable self, despite the perilous, ignominious outcome. One who needs to see external miracles in order to believe in the miraculous, is a hopeless candidate for catastrophic, redemptive awe.



"Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light."




Blessed indeed. Beatitudes abound in the sinless humility of irrevocable confusion.

"For there is no progression in the notion of universal vanity, nor conclusion", argued the loquacious Cioran, "and as far as we venture in such ruminations, our knowledge makes us no gain: it is in its present state as rich and as void as its point of departure. It is a surcease within the incurable, a leprosy of the mind, a revelation by stupor."

            Knowledge is vanity; to imagine that we 'know' is to beseech the universe to endure the absence of our inherent essence- the ecstasy of fools.

Fools we are, fools we were, and fools we shall be, yet only a very few of us are brave, or wild, or uninhibited, or oblivious enough to play the role of the jester in the Palace of Wonders we live within. Henry Miller describes one who took this role- of divine lunacy- as a vocation: "At the foot of the ladder reaching to the moon, Auguste would sit in contemplation, his smile fixed, his thoughts far away. This simulation of ecstasy, which he had brought to perfection, always impressed the audience as the summation of the incongruous. The great favorite had many tricks up his sleeve but this one was inimitable. Never before had a buffoon thought to depict the miracle of ascension."

To be a fool because you are a fool is one thing, to willingly express your foolishness so as to enlighten others to their own ridiculousness is a whole new realm of sainthood.

Thomas Merton records this 'sacrifice' by one of the Desert Fathers, who had written: "One of the elders said: Either fly as far as you can from men, or else, laughing at the world and the men who are in it, make yourself a fool in many things."

So it is with the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Mr. Bean, Monty Python's Flying Circus, and so on; the jocular exposure of our limitless stupidity is the mark of artistic rarity. These actors not only make us laugh, they show us who we truly are, for "Anyone who thinks he is not a fool shows his ignorance."



"Some people never go crazy/

what truly horrible lives they must lead."

Charles Bukowski



To not grasp for respectable perspectives, nor reputable lives, but to hold fast in the trenches of ignorance, this is the heroism of the day. So it is that courage and endurance are needed by anyone perspicacious enough to see their journey through to the disastrous realm of unmeaning.

            We must all endure this route, in one way or another, to one extremity or another, for the true self is eventually born only from a sarcophagus containing the remains of all the corpses we once were, and which we, ourselves, did kill, with wise ignorance. The murderer is the murdered. Man is his own sacrifice, and his own mercy; man is his own meat. The mind is an abattoir, wonder is a knife.

Cioran declares this process for us, writing: "The artist abandoning his poem, exasperated by the indigence of words, prefigures the confusion of the mind discontented with the context of the existent. Incapacity to organize the elements- as stripped of meaning and savor as the words which express them- leads to the revelation of the void."

To paraphrase this, if I may: our false meanings, false lives, and false selves cannot survive under the pressure of our own relentless scrutiny; we disappear into mystery under our own fiery gaze.

Which is to say, there is, for the mad and the mystic, no such thing as intelligence, only cold-blooded honesty.

"I want, once and for all, not to know many things", bellowed the wearisome Nietzsche, sundered apart between the warring armies of megalomania, syphilis, and genius.

           We must, if we are to find what these individuals have found (though perhaps not to suffer what they have suffered), heroically return our limited interpretations back to the glorious enigma of being; just as a growing child would hand their training‑wheels back to their parents; though we must do this not because we are necessarily ready to ride, but because ...we are ready to crash.



"The purpose of life is to bring us closer to those secrets,

and madness is the only means."

Kahlil Gibran



We must fearlessly surrender to the collapse of all our conceptual armaments, perhaps even allowing ourselves to dissipate into the helpless shamelessness of drooling morons, and gaping fools.

"Such is the effect of coming face to face with the living mystery of God", admitted Kallistos Ware, "we are assailed by dizziness; all the familiar footholds vanish, and there seems nothing for us to grasp."

            And from H. Rider Haggard: "For the mind wearies easily when it strives to grapple with the Infinite, and to trace the footsteps of the Almighty as he strides from sphere to sphere, or deduce His purpose from His works. Such things are not for us to know... Too much wisdom would perchance blind our imperfect sight, and too much strength would make us drunk, and overweight our feeble reason till it fell [hence the 'Fall'], and we were drowned in the depths of our own vanity. For what is the first result of man's increased knowledge interpreted from Nature's book by the persistent nature of his purblind effort? Is it not but too often to make him question the existence of his Maker, or indeed of any intelligent purpose beyond his own? The truth is veiled, because we could no more look upon her glory than we can upon the sun. It would destroy us. Full knowledge is not for man as man is here, for his capacities, which he is apt to think so great, are indeed but small. The vessel is soon filled, and, were one-thousandth part of the unutterable and silent wisdom that directs the rolling of those shining spheres, and the force which makes them roll, pressed into it, it would be shattered into fragments."

Indeed, our reason must be shattered into fragments if we are to witness the unreasonable.

And now, if you do not accept these accounts of the blessedness of mad wisdom, perhaps we should go directly to the Source for corroboration: "In order to truly know God, you have to be out of your mind", says God.

            Which is to say, you have to 'lose your mind' if you would have 'no mind' and thus be able to know the unknowable.



"I ended by finding something sacred

in the disorder of my mind."




Recalling that the English word 'mystery' is a direct translation from the original Greek word for 'sacred', we can see that to not allow mystery into our lives is to desecrate (de-secret) all of life. To exist without awe is a sacrilege.

For "The hallmark, then, of the advanced religious, nonsectarian or any other", states J.D. Salinger, "...the hallmark most commonly identifying this person is that he very frequently behaves like a fool, even an imbecile."

Perhaps this is the reason why Jiddu Krishnamurti was constantly stating that one must give up the desire for respectability if one is to progress towards reality; that is, one must not worry about being respectable, because only madness will set one free.

As such, David Goddard claims: "The enlightened sage is one who has attained cosmic consciousness- who is a fool as the world judges things and is free from the illusion of separateness, liberated from all appearances and limitations."

And Osho describes a god-enlightened being as such: "...he was a madman- all religious people are mad. Mad, because they don't trust reason. Mad, because they love life. Mad, because they can dance and they can sing. Mad, because to them life is not a question, not a problem to be solved but a mystery into which one has dissolved. ...I am waiting for the day you are ready, so I can be as absurd as God is."

This point is summed up by G.K. Chesterton, describing the holy fool St. Francis of Assisi: "He had made a fool of himself... [T]here was not a rag of him that was not ridiculous. Everybody knew that at the best he had made a fool of himself. It was a solid objective fact, like the stones in the road, that he had made a fool of himself...[but] he was wearing the...word 'fool' as a feather in his cap; as a crest or crown. He would go on being a fool; he would become more and more of a fool; he would be the court fool of the King of Paradise. ...And we can say...that the stars which passed above... the rocky floor had for once in all their shining cycles round the world of laboring humanity, looked down upon a happy man."

Ignorance is bliss. How perilously far we have come from wonder, exuberance, innocence, and laughter. And oh what foolishness it will require to take us back.



"You see, all of us go through the same doubts.

We are afraid of being mad; unfortunately for us, of course,

all of us are already mad."

don Juan



Aleister Crowley furthers the idea that holiness and foolishness are one, stating: "The connection between foolishness and holiness is traditional. It is no sneer that the family nitwit had better go into the church. In the East the madman is believed to be 'possessed', a holy man or prophet. So deep is this identity that it is actually embedded in the language. 'Silly' means empty- the Vacuum of Air- Zero-...And the word is from German selig, holy, blessed. It is the innocence of the Fool which most strongly characterizes him. ...The Great Fool is definite doctrine. The world is always looking for a savior, and the doctrine in question is philosophically more than a doctrine; it is a plain fact."

That is, the Pearl of Great Price, The Holy Grail, the Vision of God, Nirvana, Valhalla, Heaven, or Salvation, call it what you will, it will not be found until the individual forgets who they are, and what they are looking for. Then they shall find it. For, as Aleister Crowley relates: "Men smote me; then, perceiving that I was but a Pure Fool, they let me pass. Thus and not otherwise I came to the Temple of the Graal."


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(excerpted from THE WAY OF WONDER: a return to the mystery of ourselves, by Jack Haas)







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