We all have two sides to our nature: our primal animal side and our historical side. Many of us, it seems, lose side of our animal nature. Society imposes this alienation on us. One can’t go around sniffing people like dogs or biting them playfully like cats. I can’t extend my nose like an elephant to explore some woman’s umbrella at the bus stop. I can’t bring my neighbor down with a swipe of my claws like a bear and have him for dinner; not, at least, without some nasty legal complications attaching to my person. I tend not to wash my food like a raccoon or emit foul odors like a skunk whenever I feel threatened. If I feel threatened, say, by a totalitarian government it would not do much good to stand near its capitol and fart in the parking lot.
“...it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct....,” observed Sigmund Freud in his great book Civilization and Its Discontents. The hostilities I’ve repressed, the lusts, the spontaneous and unimpeded satisfaction of my appetites have created an individual identical to everyone else in our society: conflicted, frustrated, neurotic, negated and neutralized. Release has been sublimated into art and poetry. Art, music and poetry are domains of uninhibited expression, provided that no one gets hurt, or killed, or loses an appendage. Sublimation is the technique by which unacceptable or potentially destructive instincts, appetites, and emotions are translated into acts of higher social valuation. When I think back on the artists who most prominently and wonderfully sublimated their impulses on stage I think of Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Burdon wailing the soulful “oh lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
There was also Dylan’s magnificent song, “All Along the Watch Tower,” in which the joker tells the thief in words of evident desperation “there must be some kind of way out of here.”
Baudelaire uttered those words a hundred or so years in advance when he expressed the great universal sadness of being trapped in a mortal body forever stymied from a sense of wholeness and comfort and lists a variety of solutions and places where the soul may finally find some modicum of peace, when at last “my soul explodes, and wisely cries out to me: 'No matter where! No matter where! As long as it's out of the world!'”
Movies about outlaws are a form of vicarious release. Whenever a bank robber enters a bank and wields a machine gun yelling at everyone to get down on the floor I cannot help but identify myself joyfully with that character. The robbery of the bank in Heat is glorious with bullets smashing into police cars and the high emotion of a very narrow escape in which some people are killed and others seriously wounded. The adrenalin never fails to rise during this scene. Here we find not only the animal instincts in full expression but the death instinct as well: Thanatos.
Thanatos was a minor deity in the theological pantheon of ancient Greece. He was the son of Night (Nyx) and Darkness (Erebos) and twin to his brother Sleep (Hypnos) whose cave featured poppies and other narcotics at its entrance. The Greek poet Hesiod writes wonderfully of Thanatos in his Theogony:
And there the children of dark Night have their dwellings, Sleep and Death, awful gods. The glowing Sun never looks upon them with his beams, neither as he goes up into heaven, nor as he comes down from heaven. And the former of them roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit within him is pitiless as bronze: whomsoever of men he has once seized he holds fast: and he is hateful even to the deathless gods.
I was possessed with Thanatos the night I wrecked a friend’s motorcycle, riding home drunk on Highway 17 in the Santa Cruz mountains, failing to make a turn on Idylwild Road near the San Andreas fault and instinctively letting go of the handlebars and letting the bike fly into a ditch as I somersaulted through the air three or four times and miraculously hit the road on my knees. It’s amazing that I survived that accident.
My adaptations to this planet have not been entirely successful. While reaching heights of sublimated desire in poetry these interludes have provided a significant but temporary solution to transcending the conflicts moiling and boiling within my being. The rest of the time I crave intoxication. Or at least the relief of certain pharmaceutical substances, chief among them being the benzodiazepines, Valium, Xanax and Klonopin. Unfortunately, as with all really good drugs, they’re highly addictive and lead to far greater problems and hellish situations.
I can sometimes achieve vicarious results by reading Michael McClure’s Meat Science Essays, in which he describes quite vividly and beautifully a number of responses to psychoactive drugs. A personal favorite is his description of heroin. I will list some of my favorite passages:
The flash is a tremendous experience - a great physical cloudy blast in the body - particularly in the head, arms, and chest. It is a sensation of great warmth and swelling.
There is no combat with circumstances or events - no boredom or intensity. Sitting on a bed or a trip are the same. There is quiescence even while moving; there is an inviolable stillness of person. You are a warm living stone.
A new kind of self takes over - there is not so much I. I is an interference with near passivity. This is a full large life - there is not much criticism, anything fills it. Rugs are as interesting as a street.
There is time to study a face - thoughts are traced on it that you had not seen before. Suddenly you understand an old friend. Time does not bother, painful thoughts are fluffed like a pillow.
Comparing the high to normality, you ask where the daily pains are; they are curious. You sort through them wondering why they are problems. They look different and easy. You take them apart. Eyes and thoughts drift to something else. You go somewhere or you sit. You notice coincidences.
Jacques Lacan came up with the idea of the Das Ding for his conception of sublimation. Das Ding is German and means, quite simply, “the thing.” Life is made up of one attempt after another to achieve happiness through things and experiences, “human life unravels as a series of detours in the quest for the lost object or the absolute Other of the individual: ‘The pleasure principle governs the search for the object and imposes detours which maintain the distance to Das Ding in relation to its end.’”
Then Lacan drags language into the mix. This is where Das Dings (so to speak) get really interesting. Lacan considers the signifiers of language to be as fulfilling as the things themselves to which they refer. Which means that the plains of the psyche are filled with endless horizons, endless latitudes of potential fulfillment. “The function of the pleasure principle is, in effect, to lead the subject from signifier to singnifier, by generating as many signifiers as are required to maintain at as low a level as possible the tension that regulates the whole functioning of the psychic apparatus.” Human beings are thereby driven to create or find the signifiers which seduce them into believing that he or she has overcome the emptiness of Das Ding, the bottomless vacuity into which we toss the various toys, drugs and objects of existence that we hope will bring us relief.
Our historical side is what constitutes our personal identities, our code of ethics, the intimate geometry of our inner spheres and triangles, the semantic architecture of our irritants and triumphs, intrigues and questions, our simulations of whatever wildness pulls us out from under the millstones of worry. To each his or her greenhouse, to each her or his lighthouse. Pick a gender then mingle it with the foreign grammar of other erotic ardors. This leads to growth, and intricacy, which are romantic. The inner being is the lambent scripture of our golden remedies, éclairs of bursting indigo, majestic glissandos of imaginative bliss. Our intellects are nourished in books. The scarlet companions of our aquatic tapestries. The place where Id and Superego meet and marry. The graceful articulations of desire converting pain to pleasure and pleasure to pain. Cythereas of apricot and peach. Negligees of nervous touch black with candy hot with rain.