I had a very weird spiritual experience after reading the 120 Days of Sodom. I had read Justine a few days earlier, and Philosophy in the Bedroom, and some extraordinary short-stories by Sade, like "Eugenie de Franval". But the 120 Days was more brutal than anything else I had read, seen or contemplated. And it's long, you're immersed in this world of complete depravity. It also involves a lot of shit, I mean actual crap, feces, and the eating thereof, which Sade uses as an authorly device, masterfully.
I know you think "How silly of you, getting disturbed by eating shit. It's just a book." But it's a long story (taking a turd, feeling it, soft), and it comes at unexpected times, (bite the turd) and you never know (he said as he chewed the turd, left cheek, right cheek) when you are suddenly (salivating, swallow a little), going to get hit again by an (swallow a little more, mmm) unexpected event (another swallow, ok, down it goes). It is really disgusting (a little bit stuck in the teeth there, lick, lick), and it comes at the worst possible times (savor the aftertaste) when you are distracted by other ethical things (oh, some reflux, belch).
I actually felt ill when I finished it, physically sick. I was also horrified and paranoid, because the constant vigilance against a possible turd eating meant that I wasn't paying attention, so my resistance to evil thoughts was suppressed, and slowly, I became more and more convinced by Sade's characters that there was no arguing with the self-consistency of self-interest and power, that even though there is a logically consistent alternative in superrationality, the nearest stable minimum is also consistent. So there is nothing to say to the villains, they are self-consistent, and you are thinking like them now, and your thinking is self-consistent, and your experience reinforces this choice, and the villains finish their party, murder and rape their victims, and they are perfectly happy, while their victims are in terrible torment, but they don't care, and they don't have to, nothing is compelling them to.
The knowledge that there is an alternative was very weak in the brain, and was not a powerful enough protection, because when you are faced with two self-consistent possibilities, the easiest one is the closest one, since they are both self-reinforcing. And the self-interest reinforces the easy one, so let's be realistic, most everybody would go the easy path, so that the world is a very dark place. That's where Sade put me, and deliberately, through calculated masterful writing. It will happen to any atheist who reads the book with attention, cover to cover.
Before I continue, I don't drink, or take drugs, although at the time I smoked cigarettes.
I woke up around 2 AM with this incredible peaceful feeling, and a feeling of an alien presence in my mind, which I felt I could communicate with.
So I communicated: "Hmm hmm hmm?"
It didn't sound like that, it didn't sound like anything, the communication was completely wordless, it was pure internal thought which never passed through the language center, but not emotion--- the emotion was always a steady peaceful calm.
It was sort of like hearing something when your lover is sitting next to you, and raising your eyebrow infinitesimally, and glance, and you immediately know you are thinking the exact same thing. It was like that, except without any lover, and the eyebrow isn't moving.
If I had to translate the sentiment, it would be something like "Is this Sade business really the way the world is?"
Again, calm wordless communication, but now receiving. The translation was something like "It is not so", but with a certain assuredness, and a feeling of awesome incomprehensible static-ness, and humility at my own incomplete understanding of the vast structure. It went on for a while, involving all sorts of ideas and questions, always vaguely aesthetic or ethical questions, which I put to this external seeming thing, and getting answers of a sort, which were not derived by logical thinking, nor by social thinking, but by this alternate thinking.
I immediately knew that this is a religious experience, and this was very shocking, as I simultaneously knew logically that I had been and still was an atheist! It's very embarassing for an atheist to talk to God. Here I am talking to a God which I know does not exist. This was very strange, but your logical beliefs are not at all important during a religious experience.
I was annoyed at the contradiction between my rational beliefs and direct psychological experience (it lasted about half an hour), so at one point, about 5 minutes in, I struggled to remember my list of questions to pose to God, to demonstrate non-existence. "Let's see, what were they again? I forgot. Oh yeah, something like `Occam's razor dictates that any structure...", blah, blah, blah. The problem was as soon as these words or any logically structured conscious arguments came into my head, the thing went away, and I was sitting alone in my kitchen talking to myself. So I had to turn off the words, and relax, and sort of think "come back, come back", except wordlessly and in peace, and then the thing came back.
I want to say that afterwards, I was really rattled, because I finally understood how religious experience works, and to the atheists: you can't dismiss this thing with rational thought or scientific arguments. You just can't do it. It's not like that at all. I don't know how to explain it, because it is nothing to do with rationality, it is a strange sort of direct experience with an ethical structure that you become certain of, and still don't really understand, because you experience it, but you really didn't make it consciously, it just sort of comes under this situation of extreme distress and moral anguish, and gives you peace and direction about what to do.
But also, once I understood it, I became a little annoyed with standard religious texts. Not with Sade, Sade certainly understood this and obviously wrote the works deliberately, with the goal of inducing a religious experience. And boy does it work. I was only annoyed with other religious texts.
Because you would never identify the thing they are talking about from the text that describes it! The structure itself makes no supernatural claims, it makes no material claims whatsoever! Although you feel it is extraordinarily static and powerful compared to yourself, it doesn't make any claims to doing miracles, or anything else like that. There is a feeling of complete universality and permanence, but nothing at all regarding galaxies or trilobytes.
It's just a powerful, external seeming rock-like certainty in certain ethical things that bears no relation to social coercion, or to embarassment, or anything. You don't even need to think about consciously, but they aren't all clear, sometimes you ask a question and the response is sort of nebulous and contingent--- you feel that you got an answer, but it will only be clear in future circumstance, contingent on what happens, and on understanding the situation better.
But this thing is HARD WIRED. I was not commnicating with the Jewish God, I wasn't communicating with the Christian God, it wasn't the Muslim God, or Zeus or Thor or any of those, it was just an abstract thing that I could see was what the people who worship the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God are talking about.
I should point out that I tried to understand this thing using rational analysis, and I already understood the superrationality business, and some ideas in biology about networks and RNA and all that. I eventually understood that what I was accessing directly with some hard-wired circuit was a universal self-consistent constructed approximation to a perfect superrational ethics, something which I could see makes sense under reasonable assumptions. It is possible to construct such a sense from subconscious decision making modules, without reasoning about them, but it is also possible to reason about it.
What it is is a purely moral sort of antenna, which you produce throughout your life without working at it! It just gets built up through decisions and self-consistency and experience, and subconscious ethical deliberation. It isn't consciously constructed, and it doesn't follow social opinions so much, it is constructed in this subconscious way by a process of internal deliberation, and the only time you feel it is when you are old enough and faced with something horrible which is not compatible with this thing, so that the thing asserts itself. You can't make it go away, and if you want it to go away, you might end up doing Sadian things, just to make that thing shut off, go away permanently. That's part of Sade's villain's justification for evil, to make the religious thing go away.
It's also not exactly a delusion, because it doesn't have any material manifestation--- you know you are considering an immaterial thing, not made of atoms. It also doesn't provide you with magic new information you didn't already have,at least not about the material world. It is ultimately just is an abstract sort of communication that tells you whether preexisting sentiments are compatible with an ethical code that you have placed on a rock hard scaffolding, and that, if done right, just cannot change.
You argue that, unlike Nietzsche, Sade wasn't supporting the evil. Yet he probably didn't understand superrationality either. So was he moral/religious? What was his actual ethical position?
He was a Christian at first, but became a revolutionary atheist later. He did understand the superrationality full well, all religious people understand it without thinking, he just rejected the organized Christian Church, as did the society in france at that time.
But all religious people understand superrationality, without any mathematics. You can see an example where an old-testament scholar is put in the Milgram experiment, Milgram reports the fellow stopping as soon as the guy said he wanted out, then saying he would not participate, as the experiment was immoral. The authority tries to persuade, but the old-testament guy wouldn't budge. He behaved exemplary.
Afterwards Milgram asked him "Why did you stop when the authority was telling you to continue?" And the guy said "God's authority is higher than man's." It's really equivalent to superrationality, which is why I identify the God with the computational structure that emerges in superrationality, they really are the same idea. Really. Even though you would never guess by reading the Bible, except obliquely.
I suppose Sade had a religious experience of the type I had, and realized he should preserve the Christian ethics in secular writings, so the ethics would be modernized. So he wrote these books to replace the Bible, to induce religious epiphane. They are extraordinarily effective for this purpose, as I am a terrible target for any sort of religious expereince.
He was writing based on his own perception of persecution, as he felt persecuted by both religious and secular orders. I suspect the charges against him were largely trumped up, and he was just a really horny guy who liked to screw around and talk evil and play-act sadomasochism, so as to make the sex more exciting, but I don't think he was evil, at least not after age 30, after 1789 when the 120 Days is written. Maybe he committed some of the terrible crimes they said he committed. I don't know. The charges are from his youth.
On July 1, he becomes one of the triggers for the storming of the Bastille--- he shouts that the prisoners are mistreated, and he became a bit of a hero of the revolution. His writings were famous until 1808 or so.
Unfortunately, there were a few psychopathic readers who read his books and committed horrific torture murders in the early 19th century, and then his works are banned. Half his writing was burnd by his son. The surviving ones circulated among writers in samizdat form (even Sade didn't know the 120 Days survived, it was stolen from the Bastille). Then the Nazi atrocities came, and then people recognized in the Nazis all that authority stuff Sade is describing so accurately, and decide he should be read, if only to at least understand Nazi type evil.
It's a lesson as to what happens when you ban books. Sade was banned, and Nietzsche wasn't, so you saw the philosophy in a light Nietzche form, without the heavy Sade form which leads to automatic rejection in any reader. The Nietzsche stuff leads to fascism, Naziism, and then you have no antidote, because Sade is the innoculation against this stuff, and Sade is banned. Nietzsche was on the right, Sade was far, far left, further than the Jacobins. He wanted to expropriate property and make a socialist revolution.
In the 1950s, there is a debate in France regarding Sade, and he is de-banned. He is still banned in a lot of countries. In the US, it's freedom of the press, and he was always ok, but the interest wasn't there.
I genuinely think of him as next to Shakespeare. I certainly think he was the most influential 18th century/19th century writer, since all the gothic stuff that came later can be directly traced to his influence (although he wasn't the first with the Gothic novel, he was the first to get rid of the ethical requirements in a novel, so that the hero wouldn't win, and good works didn't have to mean happy ending). He wrote a lot about writing, and he was a very good critic of flaws in other novelists of the era. His writing is also exceptionally clear, and in a dense 19th century style, but without sounding pretentious or forced, just you get into it, and it sounds natural.
Interesting read, but I confess I don't understand the relationship you describe between eating feces and the transcendent experience. I suppose I must read Sade myself.
The eating feces created a situation of mental vigilance, where you were struggling to get through the book, because you kept on getting sicker and sicker, so you are distracted by the disgusting stuff, so the cumulative worse and worse unethical acts take you into deeper and deeper pits of hell, and this compounds the discomfort, and adds mental anguish, and the anguish of the suffering of the innocents compounds it more, and the total lack of justice or empathy, the cartoonish level of villainy makes it intolerable, and further, all the rational arguments that were levelled by the victims at the villains, are each refuted elegantly and correctly, so you are left without any protection at all, your rational mind sees that the villain's philosophy is self consistent also (this is not obvious to a lot of people, since it is not a natural state to be so evil), and at this point, when all your rational and emotional defenses are peeled back, you see the God core under all these mechanisms you constructed as an atheist, but the God thing is completely invisible otherwise, because you never see it challenged so brutally, except maybe if you were living in Nazi Germany.
If there is no God core there yet, if you're like 15, it can lead to depravity. That's why it was banned.
The turd-eating intro to this post has been bugging me. I haven't read Sade, but I feel compelled to put myself through it, now understanding the effect. What's the difference between reading Sade and sitting through a film that features moral depravity? Is it the same effect, only amplified because the written work is so prolonged and intricate? I saw silence of the lambs when I was a pre-teen, and that rattled me, but I was able to quickly tag it as fiction to neutralize the upsetting effect.
Sade actually reveals to you a completely consistent philosophy of total power and evil, which allows you no rational defense against the depravity of the rulers in the novel. It is a description of the philosophy of the aristorcracy, or of Nazis, but made plain and simple, without any sugarcoating or anything to make it sound natural or acceptable. It's a pure reductio ad absurdum, except the rational arguments are always supporting the villain, so you can't argue rationally, because the villains are self-consistent. Ridiculous, but self consistent. It is absolutely essential to understand the villains' self-consistency to see that religious thinking is a free-choice, since it is another, different, self-consistency.
An interesting and I am sure a life enhancing experience for you. Would you characterize it as an encounter with your conscience (i.e. an internally generated phenomenon) or an encounter with an external Universality? An atheist would claim the former and a theist would claim the latter with the same "religious" experience.
I don't distinguish between the two, as I am a positivist, and I don't think it is a meaningful question.
The bottom line is that our brains are amazing - they have an intelligence of their own, and do their own thing, which people misinterpret as "spiritual experience"
Except this thing is not just me, it would come out the same eventually, with enough information, in anybody. So it is more like calculating pi than making up a new song. That's why it is thought of as external spiritual experience, rather than an internal thing you make up.
Given the same frequency of light, we experience the same effect if we have the same type of brain and eye to filter and modify the effects. I think the same is true of more abstract ideas - we end up experiencing the same sensation of something being "true" given the same experiences and brain to modify these, and to reach certain conclusions.
It's not like that either. You could talk to a space alien, explain the situation on Earth well enough, and get the same answer. It's a universal abstract moral object, consistent and unmodifiable, except imperfectly constructed.
"Morality" is a label given to that process that contributes to the livingness of life. So how can there be a universal morality, if it means one group of lives being damaged so that another can live theirs more fully?
You see it as morally wrong that circumcision is being banned in some countries and an attack on the Jewish community; others see it as defending the rights of the non-consenting child.
Gulnaz is convicted of Forced Adultery and then forced to marry her victim, under the morality of Afghan Islam. In the West, she's a rape victim forced to marry her rapist.
Meat eaters see it as morally correct that they should be allowed to kill animals, their biological structure having evolved this way. Others see it as "speciesism".
Why do you put your child first before other children?
You're right, there is a terrible darkness to the world, but it's a fragment of the whole picture, and we shouldn't go too near if we end up being drowned by it.
There isn't a terrible darkness to the world, there is a wonderful light, and it is growing.
I don't see it as necessarily morally wrong that circumcision is banned, I personally considered that this might be a good idea when I was younger, but I was scared at the company I was keeping--- a long list of anti-semitic and barbaric regimes.
Now, with some experience, I just see it as an abuse of government power. Governemtns just should never get so involved in personal decisions made by individuals and communities. That's a different thing. If your government tells you to do something, you have no recourse, and government is not responsive to ethical considerations per se, only to political considerations, and these do not converge in any nontrivial case, and government can impose it's will with infinite power, suppressing the flowering of a thousand traditions that can compete in freedom on their own merits.
If you want to end circumcision, convince Jews not to do it. If they listen respectfully, and say "no", leave them alone. The harm is not sufficient to impose your will on the community, it's like the Asian practice of tattooing eyeliner on girls' eyes. Some girls like it, others don't, but the community decided. Same thing. Some people like to be circumcized, it makes them happy, some don't, and this community decided to make it universal. Leave them alone, it is none of your business, the harm is too little to get worked up over it. It's a dry glans your talking about, not a Prince Albert.
Similarly, the issues that you are talking about can be resolved without use of force, and there is no need to legislate them. I am not happy with the idea of government imposition, as it is an invitation for abuse. The abusive nature of government power is extremely obvious in the US right now, after 9/11, and the attempt to make the US a totalitarian state.