7.31.2018

Delirium

Sometimes, I find myself using a word increasingly often without understanding quite what I mean by it. It insinuates itself into my vocabulary, sure, but it's more penetrating than it: without my knowing, it takes root in my body, in my thinking, in my image of the world. As it nestles, it becomes more fertile, sprouting longer and longer tendrils until it winds out my mouth, as much a surprise to me as anyone. I'm the dummy in this cosmic ventriloquist act. Then it comes again at a different angle — and then again: a veritable blooming.

After a period of uttering its name, I begin to take note of it, feeling for its weight, following its logic, learning its lessons. What do you want from me, delirium?

This is my reckoning: delirium, I think, is the state of being without fixed orientation. No ground below or welcoming heaven above. No ideals or concepts to guide. No map, no anchor, no axes, no north star, no goal, no origin.

Delirium is not disorienting per se; it's a-orienting. That is, it's not the event of losing orientation; it's the state of not having orientation. Of course, if you're counting on some fixed tether and you stumble into delirium, well, that's certainly disorienting — reaching for the last step in the dark and it's not there. But what if you never expected there to be a step?

I knew at a young age that the universe is delirious. What does up and down mean in space? I knew that representations of the Earth as always pointing the same direction were arbitrary. But what I couldn't figure out is why all the maps I saw were the same. Was this some kind of conspiracy? And  why do all the images of the solar system look the same — a center and everything going orderly around it? I mean, anything can be the center; the Earth could be pointing any direction, depending on your perspective.


Someone told me about these videos of the solar system in motion which, finally, begin to look like what I knew as an eight year old — a calculus rather than a geometry:



But watch what happens in this video: it claims a universal logic, an orienting shape. "Life," it tells us, "is a vortex, not just a rotation." Indeed, many in the psychedelic community seek precisely this, what they call sacred geometry. This supposes that the the universe is in fact geometric — three-dimensional rather than four-dimensional (or nine or 11, depending on which string theory you believe). Which is bizarre as, uh, isn't it obvious that everything is in motion? Shouldn't they be talking about sacred calculus, not sacred geometry?

To me, the psychedelic is not the revelation of a secret order, a master shape such as the golden ratio. It's a demand for going with a universe that is distinctly not geometric, that swirls every which way, that keeps moving, emerging in unknowable ways, ways that can be toured but never mapped, a universe that will never have had a ground or clear direction. The psychedelic is an experience of becoming without goal, concept, formula, or ratio in a universe that is not disorienting because it will never have had orientation. The melody seems to guide things only to dissipate, morph, go somewhere else entirely, into another melody, always at the edge of chaos. This might date me but wasn't this the flow of a Dead show — this teetering, this never-quite-knowing, this movement in and out and over and through? When they were flowing, there was no sacred geometry; there was exquisite delirium. The psychedelic is a ride, a trip, a movement of emergent order (and hence is not chaos).

In any case, I demand delirium from my art. In fact, I'm tempted to say that delirium is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition of art. Once an image becomes illustrative, symbolic, or didactic, it ceases to be art: it becomes cliché, dead on arrival. Art is precisely the conditions of a certain free play, an internal movement without ground or determining concept.

But while I don't want my art getting fixed in place, I do find myself distinctly attracted to art with arrows — Paul Klée, Matthew Ritchie, Eva Hess, Julie Mehretu. Their arrows are not the arrows of street signs; they don't orient. On the contrary, they foment delirium, offering a whiff of direction without orientation. These arrows are a local flow within a set of other flows. What these artists teach me is that delirium is not chaos. While there may be no external term — no symbols or messages, no secret meaning — there are internal flows, drifts, currents, and eddies.

Eva Hesse

Matthew Ritchie

Paul Klée

Julie Mehretu

In my reckoning of delirium, I even did something I rarely do: I looked at a dictionary — that institution that works so hard to shut down the delirium of language by becoming a disembodied, deadpan authority. This word means this! Me, I love when people use words in all sorts of ways; I love that literally has come to mean something akin to emphatically (I think!). I like when people pronounce words differently, use them in odd ways. I love reading William Burroughs who tears grammar apart only to put it back together again along emergent, affective lines of force.

Anyway, the dictionary tell us that delirium means "a state of violent excitement or emotion." I'm not quite sure what to make of that. For while the act of losing orientation is inherently violent — an unmooring —  delirium is not violent at all. On the contrary, delirium is a condition of peace, of love. In fact, it seems to me that having fixed orientation is violent as it shuts down play, establishing a pulpit of judgement. Delirium has no pulpit, no firm declarations, no absolute demands. Or, if it does, they're not front and center; they're just another element, another arrow pointing away.

Everywhere I look, delirium is pathologized. Google it and you'll see what I mean. I was surprised by the uniformity of perspective. No one comes out in favor of delirium! Not only does the dictionary fix it as violent, delirium is listed in the DSM-5: "Delirium is a common and serious problem among acutely unwell persons. Although linked to higher rates of mortality, institutionalization and dementia, it remains underdiagnosed. Careful consideration of its phenomenology is warranted to improve detection and therefore mitigate some of its clinical impact."

No doubt, delirium can be unsettling and scary. Since I was young, I've often experienced a temporary delirium as I feel knowledge of myself in the world disintegrate — I'm not quite sure who I am, where I live, where I'm going. This sensation is fleeting and usually unpleasant. I may be more or less alone in this; I mentioned it once to my now ex-wife — who is a brilliant artist and fantastic human being — saying something like: "You know that moment every day when, at some point, everything gives way and unravels?" To which she replied, with deadpan genius and a bit of concern — not for me but for her decision to marry me: "Uh, no."

But I don't think I'm alone in this. And I've come to believe that it is a good thing, a reminder that all is fleeting, that the stuff of my ego and stake in the social is not everything, that there are other states of being, states of becoming, that there is a milieu of every-which-way flow that runs through this seemingly ordered social structure. As Alan Watts writes, "To go out of your mind once a day is tremendously important, because by going out of your mind you come to your senses."

Ahem. Anyway, revisiting the common dictionary definition — that "state of violent excitement or emotion" — I do like picturing someone getting so excited about something — say, getting a kiss from a sweetie — that he takes leave of himself, even takes leave of his sweetie and that kiss, and enters a new state of going, one in which the kiss will never have been the goal. That thing he craved so ardently, those lips on his, becomes just another thing as he's launched into a state of such frenzy that the ground gives way — and ego and ground and all orientation along with it. Where he thought the kiss would orient him, it in fact sends him deliriously adrift. And nothing could be better.

Delirium is, for me, the condition of critique and what, in my book, I call immanent reading. I go into a text — a book, film, party, person — without expectation, without goal, without firm grounding. I await what it will do to me, do with me, how it will carry me along. In fact, if it fixes itself and tries to fix me too ardently, I walk away. That is preaching, not the experience I want from art, people, books. Like that kiss from a sweetie, I want to be set adrift.

The world around us works hard to orient us. Alarm clocks, jobs, expectations of marriage, school, debt, dental check ups: these things are markers, sign posts, that give direction, marking a path. Go this way! You're on the path! Indeed, consider the things people often list as the greatest causes of depression: moving, losing a job, divorce. Each of these is disorienting, the loss of regulated time and relationships.

The remedy the world offers is not to negotiate delirium but to end delirium by throwing down new anchors. Find a new apartment! Get a new job! Get a new spouse! And I get that, I do. Being adrift in this culture —without work, without a home, without a romantic partner — can be profoundly unsettling and upsetting. I've certainly experienced it: without these tethers, it's as if I'm plummeting.

But I want to suggest that rather than only pathologizing delirium, we can offer modes of going with delirium. That being untethered to any fixed orientation — economic, domestic, romantic, sexual — can offer possibilities of knowledge and experience that are expansive, illuminating, edifying, revelatory. 

There are modes of going, modes of participation in the world, that don't need or want a fixed sense of time, place, or person. Delirium demands a form of surrender — surrendering control, ego, the immediate safety of home and hearth. It asks for a different way of going. It asks for poise rather than steadfastness, readiness rather than expectation, openness rather than preferences, an oar rather than an anchor.

This is not to say that delirium is in and of itself a good thing. It can of course be terrifying, a true pathology.  My point — yes, the irony of driving home my point in an essay on delirium is not lost on me —  is that delirium is not in and of itself something to be avoided. That, in fact, there is great value to be found in delirium. That delirium may very well be the condition of all critical and ecstatic states. That there is joy, wisdom, and knowledge in being untethered, adrift in the flux and flow of it all. That there is a pedagogy lurking there teaching us that we don't just have to quash the chaos to go through the world: we can learn to go with the great cosmic teem to become with a universe that will never have had any orientation — a universe of delirium. 

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