On hallucination

When I was about twelve or thirteen—and there is no way I can relate this without sounding like the kid from The Sixth Sense—I started seeing dead people.

Well, I presumed they were dead. They were usually a bit fuzzy around the edges, and didn’t have much respect for the laws of physics. I would only see them for a short period after waking up at night, they’d just be wandering around the room and not really interacting with anyone. Sometimes I would, also, find myself totally paralysed during this experience. I didn’t tell anyone. Being a child psychic is unlikely to be much approved of, and I would likely be laughed at or sent to a psychiatrist—and you know how that would have turned out. But the apparently irrefutable evidence that I could see people who should not have been there caused a serious dent in the stern disbelief in which I had been brought up: I was seeing ghosts.

Then, aged seventeen, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that, amongst other things, causes hypnagogic hallucination and sleep paralysis—the continuation of the dream state and the associated auto-paralysis outside of sleep. Suddenly, all my silly ideas about being psychic or the existance of ghosts seemed really rather well explained by this simple, but unfortunate, orexin-shaped hole in my brain. I returned, almost gratefully, to rationalism and scepticism.

These hallucinations continue—I will not take any medication for narcolepsy, because to me the side-effects are worse than the condition—and, at the point of hallucination, I still cannot help but believe them, even though my rational mind knows I am hallucinating. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs (not least because my own experience with hallucination is such that I see absolutely no attraction in doing so), but I presume the experience is much the same. The hallucinations normally, though not exclusively, conform to what I consider plausible—indeed they are often nowadays extremely specific to my circumstances, and I have learnt to simply not rely on anything I experience in the first few minutes after waking up as actually having happened.

We largely operate, even when we may intellectually know differently, under what philosophers call “naive realism”: the presumption that our percepts directly manifest the external world; yet it does not take much to show that this is not the case. Dreams and hallucinations of any type show that external input is not necessary for the construction of percepts, and furthermore, at least some strands of cognitive research suggest that your cognitive categories are used in the actual construction of these percepts (and not simply in the post-perceptual processing), and anyone who has experienced (as I also do, presumably unconnected to the narcolepsy) phantom phone vibration can probably sympathise with this.

The point of this ramble is to explain why, despite insisting on my right to mock the institutes and dogmas of religion as freely as I choose, I rarely mock individual believers, and especially avoid mocking religious experience. The casting of religious experience—whether an inchoate sensation of the sublime or the specifics of hearing the voice of God—as necessarily indicative of madness is a lazy and inaccurate trope of intolerant atheism and, quite apart from the unpleasant judgmentalism it carries concerning mental illness, is simply not the case. We all construct our percepts, partly from input, but also using our existing cognitive apparatus. To someone brought up in a religious tradition, or simply one where supernatural phenomena are plausible, their cognitive apparatus—incorrectly, but not culpably—includes such categories as “real,” and I see no reason to declare lunacy or idiocy in them. I will tell them they are wrong—tediously often—but I do not doubt the validity of their experience, or their honesty in relating it.

My own brush with hallucination has, in the end, confirmed and reinforced my atheism: but it has also convinced me that hallucination, in the sense of perceiving things that are not physically present, is far from a remote condition deriving from egregiously failing brain function. I strongly suspect that we all hallucinate reasonably frequently; but those hallucinations are also frequently reasonable, and so go largely unnoticed. To someone who, however credulously, considers hearing the voice of God to be a perfectly normal occurrence, there is no reason why they should not do so, any more than I should feel my phone vibrating in my pocket when it is on the table in front of me.

They are wrong, of course, but not in my view risibly so. If you assert that God is somehow three things and one thing, if you assert that He is all-loving but prepared to condemn a majority of His creation to eternal torture, or if you assert that He is His own son I will freely mock you for the ludicrousness of your propositions; but if you hear His voice, that’s actually OK by me. Unless it tells you to kill people, of course. That’s when you probably should seek some help.


Minutes after finishing this I checked my WordPress reader and, by a coincidence that threatens to undermine all of the above, one of my favourite blogs has today posted on exactly this topic. Perhaps I am psychic, after all.

On dogs

When I was young, I was terrified of dogs; unreasonably so. A fear of slavering, half-rabid rottweilers or the calculated malevolence of a lithe doberman would have been understandable; but I was also quite capable of bricking my juvenile self at the impotent yipping of the most wretched of miniature poodles. From the age of eleven, this changed, largely through exposure to Mindy, my best friend’s family dog. Mindy was, if I remember correctly, a retriever–doberman cross-breed; intelligent, loyal, protective but not ferocious, and good fun in the park. From Mindy onwards, I became very pro-dog and for a long time hankered after having one of my own.

But then I slowly swung less in favour of dogs, and here’s why: dogs lack dignity. It’s a result, no doubt, of the hierarchical nature of their pack origins, but it bugs me. At their worst—red setters and labradors—dogs can seem to be little more than hyperactive bundles of fur, saliva, and neediness. Exposure to cats played a part in this, of course: cats are dignified to the point of aristrocratic, and whereas I would happily consign the entirety of human aristocracy to eternal perdition for their presumptions of superiority based on nothing but birth, parasitic exploitation of the remainder of humanity, and the cunning trick they seem to have pulled in which half the population are fawningly grateful to them for this, for some reason exactly the same traits in cats I find wholly admirable. They both like torturing smaller animals for sport, too, now I think of it.

Reprimand a cat and all you will receive is a gaze that compresses “fuck you” to the density of a neutron star, and directs it unerringly at your soul. Reprimand a dog, and all the tragedies of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Schiller could not evoke the agonized loss in its soft, dewy eyes. Forget to feed a cat and they will make you suffer for it with the carefully deposited dismembered remains of their alternative luncheon, leave your dog’s dish empty and the suffering will be all his, and he will not even blame you for it. When your cat curls up on your lap, it’s because it’s the warmest place in the house; whereas when your dog curls up beside you it’s because he needs you and loves you and wants to be with you and wants you to love him and needs you to be with him and loves you to want him and—oh would you give it a goddamn rest. I have spent the best part of my life resolutely failing to engage meaningfully with members of my own species, I’m certainly not going to take this emotional incontinence from a member of another.

This is not to say I now dislike dogs: they appear smarter than cats—though the latter often remind me of the old Egyptian belief that monkeys can talk, but just don’t in front of humans in order to avoid being made to work. Dogs have loyalty to their owners, rather than simply a tolerant amusement of the non-cat-shaped thing that currently fills their bowls. And, if necessary, dogs come equipped with a fine protective arsenal, which in certain parts of the world is not without use.

I’m currently staying in the house of a friend who has a dog—not the first time I have lived around one. Sir Woofmore of Woof Hall—or Trix as his owner, Helen, insists upon inaccurately calling him—is a Norfolk terrier, and a good dog. He doesn’t grovel or fawn, he is affectionate but not needy, and his breath doesn’t smell. He has a sense of fun, one of the most attractive aspects of dogs, and though he fails to grasp the concept of the stick-throwing game—preferring to chew the retrieved item to a pulp rather than return it—performing the same game with squeaky toys gets spectacular results, especially if conducted within the house: his tiny, stumpy little legs propel him into a hilariously exaggerated leap over the minute step into the kitchen should you throw one there for him to retrieve—though in my case the laughter can only hide the embarrassing fact that, should a similar obstacle be placed between me and, say, a crispy Hendricks and tonic with fresh cucumber and plenty of ice, my own equally truncated (though, admittedly, not as furry) lower limbs would in all likelihood perform not dissimilar acrobatics.

He has, largely, swung my needle back in the pro-dog direction. (It is, of course, cognitively impossible to be both pro-cat and pro-dog: if you think you are and own both, you are fooling yourself. The dog only exists to give the cat another living creature to be effortlessly superior to.) But there is a downside, and one that did not come with my previous dog co-habitees. Sir Woofmore requires walking, and when Helen is away this task falls to me.

I have devoted my life to the avoidance of walking. Despite being necessarily a non-driver, I will usually do anything to avoid this pursuit. I have endeavoured to live in flattish cities where biking is easy (a year-long recent stay in Bath proved a disastrous exception to this). A number of family-members as well as one of my oldest friends are great adherents of the country ramble, and I have spent many years making excessively clear to them that, as far as I am concerned, the vaunted rolling green hills of England can roll on without me, and that the only thing you can say with complete certainty about the countryside is that for every place you step you can be absolutely sure that an animal has shat there first. I am not exercise-averse—far from it—but my favoured form of cardiovascular involves paying someone to hold up some pads whilst I inexpertly but exhaustingly pummel them: CV should be, in my view, short, painful, intense, and most importantly indoors.

Yet, horrifyingly, I found I rather enjoyed walking Sir Woofmore. An episode of In Our Time runs to a good forty-five minutes—or forty if you skip forwards when Melvin starts to get obstreperously opinionated about matters historical—and this is just the time it takes His Honourable Woofness to burn off a bit of energy, meet and greet some canine buddies, mark certain very specific bushes as his, and if you’re lucky give you a warm little present to wrap up in a plastic bag and dump in the nearest doggie bin. As a significant portion of my veneer of erudition stems from the fact that the entire, almost twenty-year back catalogue of this programme is available as podcasts, I spent my walking week gently ambling round the fields behind Helen’s house, throwing the odd ball, exchanging friendly words with other dog-walkers, revisiting favoured episodes, and internalizing a few obtuse cultural references to casually throw out during this very blogging challenge.

The downside of walking Trix, it turns out, is not the walking itself. It is the fact that I may well be forced into admitting that walking is not such a odious pursuit after all.

On cardigans

Every hotel has its shtick, and the Hyatt on Union Square’s is a lobby that smells of cinnamon, and cardigans.

Staying in a Hyatt? Isn’t that, well, a bit plush for me? I can only concur: it is actually a source of great mystery why I am here. Last time I came over to New York for work I, along with the full editorial board, was put up in the SoHo Grand—an equally up-market affair. That time I presumed that, because the editorial board were entitled to a level of luxury, I got slipped in as an extra on a bulk booking. But this time it is just me, and I explicitly stated that supposed luxury—which seems to often come down to more pillows than that upon which it is actually anatomically possible to rest one’s head, and ten dollar “artisan water” in the minibar (yes, really)—was less important to me than my inveterate loathing of having to walk anywhere, and that I would happily take a less salubrious hotel that was geographically closer to the offices of New York University Press. What I got was the Hyatt—one block from the Broadway offices of NYUP, but if anything a notch up in the luxury rankings.

Anyway, the cardigans. Hotel staff dress codes are quirky, to but it mildly, in New York. At the SoHo Grand breakfast was maître-d’ed by a guy in a suit and smart shoes but no socks; a sartorial choice that placed exactly one less layer of fabric between my toast and jam and his toe jam than I would consider hygienic. Here at the Hyatt, things are different. “Dress down,” the front of house staff seem to have been told. “Look comfy. We want our guests to feel—notwithstanding the uplit copper screen, random wooden strips hanging from the ceiling, inexplicable odour, and chairs that not only it would be glib to say appear to have been designed more for style than comfort, but inaccurate too, as they look pretty awful—that they’re just in someone’s lounge, a four-star homestay.” And this means cardigans. Beards, too. Paisley and chequerboard patterns. Of course, these are not just limited to the Hyatt: the look that is, I understand, termed lumbersexual has been prevalent for a couple of years at least, and this distresses me greatly.

I turn 40 this year. I’m not particularly concerned about the round number in my age; the fact that we have a base 10 counting system seems to me a poor reason for an existential crisis. But there’s no denying that, though I like to think I am a youthful 39, I am approaching the age where young people are starting to confuse and anger me, and nothing so much as the lumbersexual look.

Of course it is important, when young, to dress in a manner that contravenes the expectations of your elders. For me this consisted of long hair—a perennial favourite of youthful self-assertion—and later a leather jacket which utterly failed to suit me. But cardigans? Beards? And not slim-cut, figure-enhancing cardigans, nor carefully sculpted and trimmed beards, but saggy, shapeless, diamond-patterned, for goodness sake comfortable cardigans, and huge, barely-styled facial hair that can only merit the term whiskers. This I understand not. It contravenes expectations in the most gratuitous way: my parents may have thought my long hair made me look like a girl, but the young ’uns of today—as epitomised by the lobby of the Hyatt—seem to be trying to look like us crusties—or at least as we do in our innermost hearts, for I still sport a hoodie and V-necked teeshirts in a desperate attempt to hold on to what remains of my youth.

Young people: this is too much. Dress as shockingly, as ridiculously, as outrageously as you please: let your trousers hang round your ankles, gratuitously expose those Calvin Kleins, wear shorts in winter. Get a mohican, or shave half your head. Wear knee-length boots with a miniskirt—and I don’t just mean the ladies—and weigh your arms down with bangles and friendship bands and cheap kudos-grabbing charity bracelets. Do all of these, and I may think you look daft (or, more accurately, say you look daft, whilst secretly admiring your uninhibited freedom of spirit), but I will celebrate your right to affront my style prejudices. But dress like a crusty? Willingly wrap yourselves in the beslippered, saggy, comfort-oriented dress that beckons, increasingly unrefusably, to me from every M&S window display?

Fuck you, young people: fuck you. This isn’t rebellion, it’s satire.

(The hotel lobby really does smell of cinnamon, by the way. Therein lies a whole new level of bemusement.)