As an artist whose work deals with vision and the experience of myth, the nature of these perennial themes in human culture is of principal importance to me, as is the nature of the art that I do: Visionary Art, a complex and multi-faceted artform. At heart, for me, it is the inner and outer quest to uncover ancient and future sacred images that reveal the deepest wordless essences of what it means to be alive in this cosmos as a human being. The visionary image is transpersonal, and transcultural, unhinged from the personal and from local time, place or culture into realms of myth, of sacred journeys, of dreams and imaginal flights of fancy, shamanic and entheogenic visions, and of half-forgotten sacred vistas shimmering within the Underworlds of our Human Souls. And for all of this to be rendered using techniques that speak of craft, lineage and ancestral lifeways.
On the surface at least they appear to deprive us of some of what we consider to be the fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, and thus, for many people, visionary experience is a phenomenon that can only thrive in environments where a nostalgic Classical or mid-19th century view of the world holds sway, or in which a kind of confused pseudo-science must prevail. Or we read from those calling themselves humanists that religion, along with visionary experience, is nothing but delusion and nonsense, perhaps unaware of the excision of important aspects of humanity that such statements demand. Religion meanwhile is receptive to vision, at least in some forms acceptable to the given faith, but opposes those aspects of science which render the world godless.
Let me state, then, at this outset: I believe that a fusion of science and vision is possible, one which joyfully steps over the Darwinian/Quantum threshold and in doing so, strips away some untruths but finds deeper meaning in our humanity nonetheless. The detachment from hidden realities and worlds beyond as the primary driver of meaning in human lives, and the realisation that religion and ritual behaviour evolved in as much a Darwinian manner as any other behaviour trait among humans or animals, when followed through to their logical conclusions, do not abandon us in a desolate and meaningless existence. Rather they grant us a richer and more colourful understanding of what it means to be human, and lead us to a delightful if surreal kind of neurological play, a subjective realm in which all these elements are fused.
I have noted that many people who have similar experiences tend to interpret them literally, a response which is perhaps natural given the human predilection for understanding the world primarily through experience rather than ideas, along with the notion that human language reifies internal experiences through reference to experiences derived from the external world. Thus it would be reasonable – if not strictly rational – to interpret a vision of a cloudful of angels as being literally real.
However I have long found Joseph Campbell's adage, that a literal interpretation of myth kills the meaning and transforms the living imagery into fossilised theology, to be deeply relevant here: indeed I believe that a literal interpretation of vision performs precisely the same action and destroys the vision with as much certainty as religious fundamentalists kill mythforms. This principle has been a guiding light for me and underlies everything written here.
But as I worked through some of the implications, I began to realise that a manifesto was severely limiting and the original sketch has expanded into a series of musings on consciousness, the menstrual origins of symbolic cognition, cooperation and trust as human biological imperatives and meditations on the first proto-deity in the Middle Palaeolithic. It is a kind of philosophy, in that I reject all literal systems of hidden reality whether Platonic or Kantian, but it also results in a kind of pragmatism that I hope will not merely be rational (or perhaps: not necessarily rational) but will be nonetheless delightful.
Hence its expanded title, 'On Vision and On Being Human'. The worldview taken is archaic in some senses – returning to the periods in which anatomically- and cognitively-modern humans emerged in Africa and seeking to understand their proto-cultural realities – but it is also modern, responding to a fundamental compulsion in me that we cannot, as visionaries and as humans-seeking-meaning, hold ourselves artificially in the late 19th century and speak of 'universals' and 'ultimate realities', merely because we experience them as such, when no datum evidence presents itself for them any more. We must engage with our 21st century quantum/relativistic cosmos, and with our Darwinian selves, and do so with bravery of heart and openness of minds.
Quantum and noumenal considerations are exemplified as effecting a destruction of any literally-conceived hidden world, before arriving at the first of several explorations of neurology as the foundation for visionary experience and consciousness. Despite such rational musings, we remind ourselves to maintain a lively sense of the sacred (in perception if not in literally-conceived reality) before engaging upon a lengthy Darwinist excursion into the complex origins of symbolic behaviour in human beings.
Here, the notion of the symbol is examined in several lights, most notably primate ethology and signal theory, before visionary theories of language are interrogated and rejected, whereupon we move to the heart of the essay in narrating the profound role that menstruation has played in the emergence of collective behaviours, trust, ritual, art and symbolic culture in cognitively-modern human beings. Remarkably this leftfield and multidisciplinary theory leads to the natural emergence of all fundamentally human traits, including a sense of the sacred and the otherworldly, using only the strict Darwinian principles of selective pressures and adaptive advantages to make unexpected but surprisingly appropriate connections between disparate elements found throughout human cultures.
We behold an epiphany of the first proto-deity in the African Middle Stone Age before returning to a mixture of neurology and ethnography to explore the links between trance, symbolism and vision, embodied expressions of the sacred, and human perception as a variety of complex neurological projections in a speculative model which encompasses both visionary experience and pre-modern conceptions of the cosmos.
It seems strange to me, as an artist and as one whose primary passion in life is mythology and the glorious psychological vistas that that field of study liberates, to largely avoid the complexities of those fields and instead be so preoccupied with the nature of visionary experience, which is the ultimate question this essay seeks to answer. But it may be considered that everything that proceeds in the present piece of writing partakes, to a certain extent, of a mythical and creative character, and although my intent here is quite serious, the sacred and playful spirits of μυθος, 'myth' and τεχνη, 'art', can be considered as ever-present, implied within every page of the text.
Thus I attempt here a fusion, of contemporary science and of visionary experience that remains, I hope, authentic to both fields whilst at times becoming speculative and irrational without being pseudo-scientific. A difficult task indeed! I seek then to answer a question that can perhaps only be asked in this time period: how do we find the visionary and the sacred in a godless cosmos, or can we reject our mythical heritage and remain fully (by which I mean: archaically, cognitively-symbolically and modernly) human?