Jonathan Bricklin is a Program Director at the New York Open Center and a Jamesean scholar. He is the editor of Sciousness, and the author of the SUNY book on William James, The Illusion of Will, Self, and Time: William James’s Reluctant Guide to Enlightenment.
James’s Filmiest of Screens as a Reverse Veil of Maya
“…even in this world of the mystic One there is something wrong. The rest, the peace, is broken by the Maya….This means that time is real.” —William James
The “filmiest of screens” is one of James’s most quoted metaphors. Introduced in The Varieties of Religious Experience, this thinnest partition imaginable separates “normal,” “waking,” “rational” consciousness from “forms of consciousness entirely different.” The specific “entirely different” form of consciousness that prompted James’s screen was a variety of his own religious experience, with nitrous oxide, in which “the mind sees all logical relations of being with an apparent subtlety and instantaneity to which its normal consciousness offers no parallel.” Called the “anaesthetic revelation” by James’s mystic adviser Benjamin Paul Blood, it was, for James, plausible support for the “mystic One” of both Eastern religion and Western Absolute Idealism. But especially when linked, as James did, with an etherized patient’s experience of precognition, this support posed a problem for him. Since James found a “static, timeless, perfect absolute” to be a “monstrous” belief, “foreign to all that is human,” he needed his screen to function as a substantial border wall, fortifying our “being in time” as an “untranscendable truth.” And for most consciousness explorers who are likewise open to precognition but closed to its implications this border wall remains intact, preventing consideration of what James himself considered a possible “veridical revelation”. But a full appreciation of the “metaphysically significant” anaesthetic revelation—a significance James acknowledged and accessed throughout his writings—can help tear down this wall, transforming the filmiest of screens into a reverse veil of Maya. To gaze through that veil is to still identify ourselves as robust centers of a narrative gravity (though not authors of that narrative) while experiencing, in Blood’s words, “the comfort of serenity and ancient peace” to all who “have felt sadly the instability of temporal things.”
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