Wednesday 11 December 2013

Analeptic trance


I came across the idea of 'analeptic' thinking in the prose writings of Robert Graves - it was the term he used to describe his faculty of imaginatively living in the past; such that he would enter a trance state in which (for example) he would walk around the streets of Rome at the time of the Caesars, and observe what was going on.

It was this analeptic faculty that, Graves claimed, that enabled him to achieve the extreme life-like quality of his best historical novels such as I Claudius.

Graves claimed that analeptic trance was an historical method - an objectively valid mechanism for recovering knowledge of the past; that, for those who had it, it was a valid method of 'filling in the gaps' left by the normal historical sources.


Of course, Graves was full to overflowing with crazy, self-aggrandizing and just plain false ideas on all kinds of subjects! But I see no reason to doubt that with analeptic thought he was describing the method of his own historical reasoning, and that this was indeed crucial to the fascination of his novels and polemical writings such as The White Goddess.


I am myself not just able to practice analeptic thinking, but am sometimes involuntarily thrown into the state - by trigger stimuli.

The process is not under my control, and indeed I cannot choose what to be analeptic about; some times and places evoke this trance-like state without effort, while other times and places stubbornly refuse to provoke analepsis.


One example which powerfully triggers analeptic thinking is Constantinople at the time of the early Eastern Roman Empire - and this I seemingly got from reading Robert Grave's novel Count Belisarius read when I was about fourteen. Nowadays a wide range of 'Byzantine' artifacts, but especially Greek Orthodox chant, can instantly project my mind back into this state.

The specific state I get from Constantinople is one that is alien, exotic, Platonic - it is a kind of static contemplation and yearning for Heaven and that I am in Heaven as I feel it - but an imperfect, marginal Heaven. It is a situation of looking-upwards, perhaps to the dome of the Hagia Sophia (cathedral) listening to chant in the midst of divine liturgy; or being on the city streets and caught-up in a religious procession and transfixed by it.

I find this state of mine both immensely appealing, yet also - as I said - alien, strange - I am an observer not a participant - like a crude and simple Briton or Anglo-Saxon visiting the capital of Empire on some mission.


The interesting aspect is that Graves was strongly anti-Christian, and the novel Count Belisarius has almost nothing good to say about the Eastern Empire - except admiration for some of the military aspects. Graves's novel is, indeed, elaborated from the Secret History of Procopius which is a vile work of scandal, dishonesty, and character assassination - very much of the type familiar from the modern mass media.

Furthermore, when I read Count Belisarius I was myself strongly anti-Christian, and I did not enjoy the book (except for the military aspects), and found the society depicted to be horribly suffocating and disgustingly corrupt.

And nowadays, I cannot read the novel for this reason - it is so full of snide, insidious writing; and sis o obviously and pervasively and unfairly anti-Christian - seems mainly designed to discredit Christianity; that it is just a torment to read - a horrible world to spend time in, a sordid soap opera dishonestly projected onto ancient times in order to grind an axe...


YET - somehow, something - some essence - about this depiction of the Eastern Empire, presumably generated by the vividness of Graves's analeptic identification of Constantinople, stayed in my mind for some 35 years until I became a Christian.

Then, my becoming a Christian filled-in the missing piece of the jigsaw of Byzantium; and made sense of the Eastern Empire; because the Eastern Empire minus Christianity is indeed little but a sordid soap opera enlivened by fighting.

Not surprisingly, because Constantinople was probably the most pervasively Christian society that ever existed for any sustained length of time (hundreds of years) - so if you take-away its Christianity, or portray its Christianity as merely hypocritical and exploitative and deluded and silly (as Graves does), you take away almost everything that was Good about it; and indeed there is not-much left over.


But what is there to admire about any society that has ever existed if we take away the heart of that society?

If we take away the religion, or disbelieve it, or regard it as wicked - then when has there ever been a good time or a good place on earth? - by definition there can be nothing much to interest anybody except temporary distractions and delusions - sex, luxury and feasting, and fighting for the rich - and starvation, deprivation and work (plus fighting) for the poor - which is pretty much how modern irreligious people see the whole of human history, and especially the ages of greatest Christian faith...


Anyway, my point is that my analeptic intuitive empathy with Byzantium was and is very real, and feels valid - it feels like the essence of the time and place; and it makes the Eastern Empire far more real for me than the earlier Roman times; despite that I know far more information about the Western Empire, and indeed live among its remnants - such as Hadrian's Wall; and have never visited Constantinople nor do I have plans to do so - and that in fact Byzantium all seems terribly alien and strange to me - and I know I never could fit-into it, nor would I have fitted-in had I been alive at the time.


My conclusion is that although it is objectively indefensible, and simply appears to other people as a semi-psychotic delusion or self-gratifying illusion, the analeptic trance state has such compelling subjective, psychological validity as to overcome all objections and any supposed counter-evidence!

So I regard the 'findings' of analeptic thought as True although not factual, real but not historical - and this fits with the existential status of my other and primary 'time and place' of analeptic trance-identification: namely Middle Earth. 



AlexT said...

Amazing! I thought i was the only person crazy enough to lie down in a dark room, put on some Byzantine chant, and imagine myself witnessing the Nika revolt or some such. I had no idea there was an actual term for it. By the way, Bruce, you should try to find an English translation of 'Byzantine History' by the swedish historian Alf Henriksson. It is one of the very few books i know of that portrays te Eastern Empire fairly, even lovingly. He had mentioned that it was his favourite subject matter for writing, since it already had the qualities of a fairytale.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - A small world... Although I don't even need a dark room - about ten seconds from some YouTube segment is enough!

I have found a few loving depictions - for instance The Byzantine Achievement by Robert Byron (1929) which apparently led Charles Williams to use Byzantium as the focus of civilization in his late poems.

The trouble is that most of the best historical writers on 'Byzantium' were and are not themselves Christians, and this is often a distortion (although Runciman seems to be very sympathetic despite this).

Perhaps because of this, some of the oldest books on Byzantium I found to be the best at evoking this kind of atmosphere we like so much - books from 100 plus years ago when almost all historians were Christian!

What I would most like is a Christian novel or movie that made you feel 'as if you were there'.

dearieme said...

"my analeptic intuitive empathy with Byzantium was and is very real, and feels valid": ah, but does it smell valid? I mean, are all your senses engaged? The past stank, by and large.

Bruce Charlton said...

@D - Good question. No - it is a matter of vision, sound and feelings - not of smell or taste.

But the past did not stink to those who lived there. When I consider how infrequently I washed my self and my clothes in the long hard winter of 1978-9, while sleeping under vast heaps of blankets in a double sleeping bag... well, I must have been in bad odour by current standards. Plus of course everywhere and most people were kippered in cigarette smoke. But the nasal passages and olfactory inputs apparently adjust to the prevailing stench, and life didn't seem any smellier then than it does now...

Samson J. said...

That's funny - yet another phenomenon that I had devised for myself that I did not know had already been given a name. I do this, or something near to it, reasonably often.

it was the term he used to describe his faculty of imaginatively living in the past

It's so interesting to hear a person like Graves say this - someone that we here in 2013 would imagine as having lived "in the past"! I'm reminded of one of the opening letters from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, in which young Lewis talks about going on a "walking tour" of historical England with friends and imagining "what it would have been like to live back then."

Something else that I do, as an avid lover of history, that I once mentioned to a friend and I was surprised that he does *not* do it, is to imagine people "in funny clothes" as it were - in other words, take any random person on the street and imagine him having lived ca. 1800, 1600, 1200, or whenever. What clothes would he be wearing? What would his occupation be? Etc.

Rich said...

I have similar experiences and also play that game Samson J is talking about placing people in different times. All very fun!

I believe Sheldrake discusses this in "Presence of the Past" but, maybe it was somewhere else. That is it so easy to lapse into a different time and place makes the idea of a collective memory existing outside of time seem intuitive and sensible.

stephen c said...

I am not as gifted in historical imagination as you, but what you described reminds me of those dreams or daydreams of the past I so frequently have where people (including myself) who in real life acted (for understandable reasons) from mediocre and unfriendly and selfish impulses were somehow spiritually cleansed and for the length of the dream or daydream acted in non-mediocre, friendly, and only vaguely selfish ways - if I could live anywhere in the world at any time - and I mean this with all my heart - it would be in the towns I lived in from 12 to 40 years old with those non-mediocre, friendly, and only vaguely selfish people of my dreams and daydreams. Or Byzantium, or ancient Israel within the sight of the glory of God, or some place like that. Anyway, thanks for teaching me a word for that kind of imagination

Wm Jas said...

Museum exhibits sometimes induce analeptic experiences -- a few of which have been so vivid as almost to qualify as pseudohallucinations. This happens to me mostly in connection with fossils, the most vivid such experience having been triggered by a juvenile Pterodactylus antiquus.

Like Samson, I also sometimes imagine the people around me wearing clothes from another time period -- the Greek chiton and himation, usually. Very occasionally I can push such imaginings to the point where they snap into full pseudohallucinatory clarity, at which point the streets and buildings and scenery will also change their aspect -- becoming "ancient" in a generalized way, though not corresponding closely to any actual society that I am aware of. Sometimes there are auditory pseudohallucinations as well, cicada song and flute music.

Samson J. said...

Hahaha, well, I'm happy to see I'm not the only one to play the "funny clothes" game. Sometimes I think about starting a history-related blog or something, similar to other blogs that are already out there but geared towards the kind of people who comment here.

George Goerlich said...

This is an interesting discussion. I have not experienced this, though some mentioning artifacts and museums did stir some possible connections. For example, the Catholic desire to have artifacts, even body parts is now seen as morbid and strange - at least in my University experience. It is obvious now, but the people who came in contact with those artifacts would certainly use them in the way described here. Bruce has also written about Tolkien's story of using historical places and objects to gain insights and access to the past.

Lost in a Tropical Mountain Forest said...

The late Classical scholar Miriam (Mary) Frohman reported (personal communication) some success in applying Graves' description of the analeptic trance technique to help her research into Rome in the time of Augustus. She identified immersion in the Latin language as key to her working.