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All comments regarding the life and work of Lawrence Durrell are welcome. Say whatever you like, however you like. Comments are not censored, but they reflect the views of the commentator and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the administrator nor anyone else on this blog. All comments are copyrighted and belong to the blog. Fair use of the blog's material requires proper attribution both to the blog and to the commentator.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mind and Durrell 2

The following is an edited and fictionalized exchange between Dr. D. and BR.  Dr. D. is a psychiatrist in Sydney, Australia, where he founded the Mood School.  He is a practitioner of Yoga and has made many trips to India.  BR lives in California.  He writes fiction and criticism and travels frequently to Southeast Asia.  —  BR

BR.  Durrell was an avid practitioner of Yoga and an avowed Taoist.  How do you think he viewed the mind and human consciousness?  Brain and mind are two different entities, and the connection between the two is now the center of a big philosophical debate.   I've been reading John R. Searle's The Mystery of Human Consciousness (1997), which provides a good summary of the main issues, their origins, and the "state of the art."  What do you think of Durrell's "mind's eye?"

Dr. D.  What did Larry think of mind-brain models?  He was certainly intrigued with consciousness and the brain, neurons, memory, artificial intelligence, mood and dreams.  I wonder what concepts he held about his own brain and mind and whether he gained insights during his meditation time and yoga.

Brain-mind models were sent into a bit of a spin around Larry's time by the confusion about microscopic brain structure.  The Nobel prize for neurology research, at the turn of the 19th to 20th century, was given to both Santiago Ramón y Cajal [1852-1934] and Camillo Golgi [1843-1926].  Ironically their respective brain model views being diametrically opposed. 

Golgi stated firmly that he had proven the brain is one large open syncytial blob.  Whereas Cajal using Golgi's revealing silver stains took a closer look and then stated firmly that there were certainly slim spaces between neurons, they nearly touched but fall just short.

This gap he correctly observed we now know as the synaptic gap.  How funny that one of the most important parts of the brain is the "empty" space between cells where they nearly touch!

BR.  Ah, "the synaptic gap."  I suppose you see some similarities to the Buddhist concept of śūnyatā, the fundamental emptiness of all things?

Dr. D.  When I say "empty gaps" I fully accept that the universal presence of "dark-energy" fills this emptiness with potentiality . . . So strictly speaking true and complete "emptiness" is a bit hard to achieve!

BR.  Searle would probably discount this line of argument as wild speculation.  He thinks there's a biological connection between brain and mind, although how this happens — the exact causal relationship — presently eludes our understanding.  But why not speculate and let the imagination drift into dark matter and dark energy?  In Shadows of the Mind:  A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness (1994), Roger Penrose argues that the biological basis of "mind" has something to do with quantum mechanics.

Dr. D.  Durrell believed in the "unstable ego."  I'd say he believed in no-ego, no-self.  Does this have any relationship to quantum mechanics?  Maybe.  Let me quote Osho, the Indian mystic, who died in 1990, the same year Durrell died, which is a little bit of synchronicity:  "Once the ego is not there, there is no expectation, frustration, no desire, no despair.  Suddenly one finds oneself falling into a deep harmony with the cosmos.  And that harmony is God; that harmony is nirvana; that harmony is tao."

BR.  So, the famous Zen koan — "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"  The answer:  "Mu!" (no, not, nothing, nothingness).  I think it's safe to say that whatever Durrell meant by "mind's eye" that his idea was aesthetic and not based on any deep appreciation of the philosophical "mystery of consciousness."  As you suggest, the deepest he went into the matter was into the Buddhist or Taoist notion of mindlessness or egolessness   Which, however, may be very, very deep indeed — Mu!  Durrell also wanted to do away with causality and time, and I have big problems with this program.  For example, can you conceive of the self without a sense of time?  I can't.  This also seems to counter or undercut Durrell's great gift — to locate people and things in an imaginative moment.  That seems to me the great achievement of his best poetry and The Alexandria Quartet.  On the other hand, maybe this is what Durrell really wanted — maybe in the end what he was really after was self-extinction.  Remember, Sappho Jane Durrell said her father was suicidal.

Dr. D.  Mu!

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