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The Bacchae and Catharsis

Listening to Jill Bolte-Taylor – Part 2

524px-bacchusbycaravaggiojpegWhen Jill Bolte-Taylor was thrown into right-brain mode by the artery exploding in her left brain, she described her new state as a timeless, Nirvanic present. With her left brain shutting down, she felt intimately connected to the ever-shifting field of experience, like a wave moving through a body of water. In her former left-brain mode, Bolte-Taylor described feeling separate from all else and continuous in time – like a particle traversing a solitary path from past into future. Those as intrigued as I am by modern science might foresee the wild, speculative leap I’m about to make – the right-left division of our brains reflects the basic split at the foundation of the material world between wave and particle. In this view, our right brains formed to engage with the wave aspect of the material world; our left in response to its particle aspect.

In the quantum world what leads to the “collapse” from wave to particle is the act of measurement. To take a measurement is to extract information from a system, which requires standing apart from it yourself. This, in Bolte-Taylor’s view, already involves moving decisively away from right-brain participation into left-brain observation. Those of us with an awareness practice might recall the shift out of a meditative state back into everyday consciousness. As we move back into the world, we acquire narrative specificity (“coherence”) the way a wave-form, once measured, acquires mass and position. Falling sway to a self-image, we become fixed in a storyline in which we are moving away from a definite past toward a limited future. This narrative leads to suffering as we move out of balance with what is actually taking place within and around us. We are released from suffering when we rebalance again in the direction of presence and Being.

To push this line of speculation a bit further, what is it that “measures” us as we shift back from right-brain mode to left? Modern psychology from Freud forward suggests that when we embrace a self-image it is always for someone specific, an idealized Other we have conjured, an aspect of a parental figure typically (i.e. the super-ego), introjected into the psyche and then projected outward again onto the world. We compose ourselves, hoping for the best, as this illusory authority takes our measure. In my experience the Other arises first, standing apart, judging, measuring, then the self-image arises in response. Last comes the narrative that supports the self-image.

800px-freud_sofaThis actually happens numerous times a day. Under the gaze of projected Others, we are carried away from the present moment on a current of self-justifying stories, becoming action heroes, maidens in distress, sacrificial victims, avenging angels, saints and seducers in a constantly shifting dreamscape of archetypal dramas. Some of these narratives are encouraged, sponsored and energized by the culture at large, which is prone to its own forms of meta-dreaming. All are attempts to fend off a debilitating sense of lack, an anxiety about our fundamental groundlessness in the face of experience.

Obviously this is a complex subject and not something that can be fully explored here. But all these elements are present in tragic drama. As we in the audience take our seats we become the measuring Other standing apart from the spectacle. If the drama is well constructed we get “drawn in,” the boundary between us and the spectacle becoming porous and insubstantial. This process continues as we begin to “identify” with the protagonist who, under the spell of some self-image, is caught in his (or her) web of action and re-action. The protagonist moves ineluctably toward a final dissolution and all that’s left is…our awareness. Drawn along toward a moment of maximum tension we are released into an open state of presence.

Without a conveniently targeted stroke to help us along, crossing from left brain to right means moving beyond the death of a self-image. This is never easy. Just ask Oedipus, Lear, Hamlet or Beckett’s Hamm. Over-determined, form-based, these figures are inspired by a taste of freedom to struggle against the potent self-images that imprison them. In the Bacchae by Euripides, the god Dionysus shows up in the city-state of Thebes and the women begin to run wild, dancing in the hills. Pentheus, the young king, disapproves. Despite a secret fascination with their ecstatic state he attempts to reassert order and control…and is ripped apart by the marauding women in a cathartic spasm of violence. The left brain always believes the fiction of its own power, only to be defeated by an unknowable presence larger than man.

Like many of the Greek tragedies, The Bacchae is as shocking today as it must have been 2500 years ago, and as relevant to our lives. These works of art retain their transformative power because they embody crucial dynamics operating deep inside the human psyche, dynamics that, spilling over into the public arena, continue to shape our collective destiny as a species. The anxieties being addressed in these texts have to do with the tremendous power human beings began to tap via the left brain during the “axial age”. In the ensuing 2500 years – a heart beat in geologic time – we have utterly transformed the geosphere, to the peril of every life form. Our power to have done so arises mostly from the practice of empiricism, the scientific method, which is left brain, observational thinking in its most distilled form. This is why recent discoveries in the brain sciences, including those of Jill Bolte-Taylor, have ignited such excitement. The sovereignty of the left brain is now being challenged from within the temple of science.

We do not have an easy time inhabiting our innate freedom. To do so requires that we, like the tragic heroes, move through our own suffering, which is then revealed to be the biggest illusion of all. In the words of the teacher Sally Kempton, the emotional effect of tragedy becomes “a doorway into the depths of Being from which we come out transformed.” The idea, according to Kempton, is to hold the freedom of that moment as long as possible, stretching it perhaps into a permanent awareness. We might then begin to fulfill our destiny as a species, our awareness becoming a stage on which matter itself can turn and looks back at itself, a liberating witness capable of restorative action.


  1. This is indeed very interesting. I will read it a few more times, let it sit for some days, and ponder more.

  2. Martin Perlich says:

    Emptiness entails Form?

  3. Claire Zimmerman says:

    These connections between two modes of thinking interest me as a historian, and show up in a slightly different way in concurrent debates elsewhere. See Cornelius Castoriadis on “Passion and Knowledge” in Figures of the Thinkable, which is available in its entirety in a bootleg copy online: http://www.notbored.org/FTPK.html

    Castoriadis on the dilemma discussed by Zimmerman above: “On the philosophical plane, it imposes a new idea of the truth as an open relationship between an interrogation and its results, as a sui generis movement going back and forth between processes and pauses, between excavation and encounter….On the psychoanalytical plane, it obliges admission of a singular, and historically new, type of cathexis, the cathexis of self as creative source and of the activity of thought itself as such. Under what conditions can knowing be cathected as process and activity and not simply as result? And to what extent can one cathect oneself as origin and actor of this process?” (pp 253-254).

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