And yet Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the principal character in Network, goes through a transformation that is every bit as strange as anything found in Altered States. As discussed in the second installment of this series, Beale seemingly begins to simultaneously go mad and become endowed some type of mystical insight --In point of fact, he shows the characteristics of individuals who have experienced a sudden period of illumination after undergoing some type of supernatural or high weirdness-laden event, in terms of both the madness and the insight he displays.
And indeed the change in consciousness Beale undergoes was spurred by an encounter he claims to have had with a disembodied voice that requests that Beale become a vessel through which it can speak to the American public via television. Certainly Network is ambiguous as to whether or not this encounter is real but Chayefsky would also incorporate such a notion --that the abnormal states of consciousness the insane occupy, specifically schizophrenics, are not merely hallucinations --into Altered States, his next project.
While Altered State is primarily concerned with the effects that entheogens and sensory deprivation have on consciousness the lead character, Edward Jessup (William Hurt), first becomes interested in such things due to visions he experienced as a child laden with Christian symbolism. Upon the death of his father of cancer Jessup ceased having these visions at the age of seventeen but developed a keen interest in the altered states of consciousness the insane, specially schizophrenics, occupy. As the film opens Jessup has even begun to wonder if the visions of schizophrenics are merely hallucinations, or a glimpse into some type of metaphysical state.
Such a notion --that schizophrenics are both mad and visionaries simultaneously --was not a new concept. Insanity, especially varieties such as schizophrenia, were treated as cases of possession in countless ancient cultures. More recently the Surrealist Movement toyed with the notion that schizophrenia offered profound insights into altered states of consciousness. In the 1970s at least one prominent psychiatrist pondered whether madness and profound spiritual transformation at times worked hand-in-hand.
"The surrealist perspective is echoed in that of Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing who, in his controversial and thought-provoking essay The Politics of Experience, makes many of the same points concerning schizophrenia and the possibilities of spiritual growth through madness. It should be noted that Laing also began his medical career in the army, in this case the British Army, where he worked as a psychiatrist before going to the Tavistock clinic. Laing agrees with the surrealist when he states that '... we are bemused and crazed creatures, strangers to our true selves, to one another, and to the spiritual and material world --mad, even, from an ideal standpoint we can glimpse but not adopt,' and, 'We are potentially men, but are in an alienated state, and this state is not simply a natural system.' The Politics of Experience includes a final section, entitled 'The Bird of Paradise,' that would have satisfied many a surrealist, as it seems to be a free-association account of a journey into and out of madness. Concerning the voyage into madness, Laing is unequivocal:
We can no longer assume that such a voyage is an illness that has to be treated... Can we not see that this voyage is not what we need to be cured of, but that it is itself a natural way of healing our own appalling state of alienation called normality?
In other times people intentionally embarked upon this voyage.
Or, if they found themselves already embarked, willy-nilly, they gave thanks, as for a special grace.
"Thus Laing, more than forty years and a World War after the first Surrealist Manifesto, is seen endorsing what is really a surrealist agenda, except he is doing so as a trained, experienced, and respected member of the psychiatric profession and not as an artist. He recognizes that 'in other times people intentionally embarked upon this voyage,' the condition of voluntary madness that is a hallmark of poets like Rimbaud and Artaud, as well as of occultists and shamans, and people like Breton, Masson, Ernst, Duchmp and so many others. The energy of the surrealist movement perhaps finds its accumulation and Laing; we are certainly living now in a state of the denouement in which the ideas of Laing have been discarded or ignored by a profession that seems to have found its savior in chemical therapies that treat symptoms, and make the neurotic and psychotic more productive members of an increasingly unhappy and alienated society."
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pgs. 100-101)
Altered States takes place at the tail end of Laing's era, in which psychonauts like Timothy Leary and John C. Lilly were briefly given significant university/financial backing to pursue a host of bizarre and incredible fields (frequently under the auspices of the US intelligence community). Altered States is almost like a sampler of virtually every major fringe theory the scientific and mental health professions pondered in the 1960/1970s era even as it foresees the "market-driven" philosophy the Reagan revolution would bring to countless fields.
The Edward Jessup character is in some ways a stand-in for the fading idealism of that age. I can't help but feel that Jessup is also a stand-in for Chayefsky himself, who seems to have moved on to entheogens and other "derangements of the senses" after crafting the "mad prophet of the airwaves." As we shall see, this was in many ways a logical progression of interests. Before going any further, however, I feel I should first address the issue of Chayefsky's involvement on the film.
Because of Chayefsky's disownment of the film and how radically different it is from the scribe's prior work more than a few movie buffs have wondered over the years if director Ken Russell had made significant changes to the screenplay. After all, the adaptions of Chayefsky's prior scripts had all been directed in a rather dry, almost documentary-like fashion. Reportedly Arthur Penn was initially attached to direct Altered States and his style would certainly be in keeping with prior Chayefsky films. But Penn ultimately dropped out (as did reportedly over twenty other directors, some of them big-name types) and British filmmaker Russell (who was best known at the time for The Devils and the adaptation of The Who's Tommy and who went on to direct the cult classic Liar of the White Worm) ended up getting the nod.
Despite the visual nature of the film the dialogue is most definitely Chayefsky's while the profound philosophical questions the scribe no doubt wished to be at the center of the film still shine through. Reportedly the major dispute between Russell and Chayefsky was not over changes to the script, but rather how Russell was directing the actors to recite Chayefsky's dialogue. The New York Daily News notes that the "writer apparently despised the way Russell directed the actors to speak his dialogue in a hyper-caffeinated manner."
Given the complex philosophical and spiritual topics discussed in the dialogue it's easy to see how this direction changed the nature of the film. No doubt Chayefsky envisioned many of the chief exchanges to be more drawn out so that the audience could better contemplate the ideas examined in the film with the voyages into inner space briefly puncturing this contemplation. Russell takes the opposite approach, opting to rely on the visuals to convey the film's rich philosophy as much as the dialogue. For practical purposes I believe Russell had the right idea as many of the concepts Chayefsky explores in his script would be a little too far out for general audiences to take seriously in an overly dramatic fashion.
So much for the feud between Chayefsky and Russell. Let us now briefly consider the chief characters of the film, specifically in terms of their symbolic and synchronicist associations. The last name of the lead character, Edward Jessup, is a variation of the name Joseph. The name Joseph is of course highly significant in Christian mythology. The patriarchal Joseph, the most beloved son of Jacob (Israel) and the founder of one of the legendary twelve tribes, is the most well-known. Dreams and the interpretations of them played a major role in Joseph's life. He was sold into slavery by his brothers after he told them of two dreams he had, the second of which they interpreted as a vision of Joseph's eventual lordship over them. His brothers received twenty pieces of silver for this act (Judas later received thirty after betraying Jesus).
|Joseph being sold into slavery|
|Joseph in Egypt after being reunited with his brothers|
An interpreter of visions is certainly an apt description of Edward Jessup. According to the legendary poet and mythologist Robert Graves the Tribe of Joseph was also associated with the introduction of orgiastic rituals into the ancient Israeli spring festival now known as Passover.
"The Passover appears to have been a Canaanite Spring festival which the tribe of Joseph adopted and transformed into a commemoration of their escape from Egypt under Moses. At Carmel, the dance with a lamp must have been sympathetic magic to encourage the appearance of the God with a bull's full of who was armed, like Dionysus, with a torch. 'Baal' merely means 'Lord'. The annalist refrains from mentioning his real name; but since the priests of Baal were Israelites it is likely to have been 'Jah Aceb' or 'Jacob' --the Heel-god. Jah Aceb seems to have been also worshiped at Beth-Hoglah --'The Shrine of the Hobbler' -- a place between Jericho and the Jordan south of Gilgal and identified by Epiphanius with the threshing floor of Atad, mentioned in Genesis... as the place where Joseph mourned for Jacob. Jerome connects this place with a round dance, apparently performed in honor of Talus the Cretan Sun-hero --Hesychius says that Talus means 'Sun' -- to whom the partridge was sacred. In Athenian legend Talus was thrown down by Daedalus from a height and transformed into a partridge while in the air by the Goddess Athene. The Arabic word for 'hobble' which gives its name to Beth-Hoglah is derived from the word for partridge; the deduction being that the dance was a hobbling one. The partridge is a Spring migrant, sacred to the Love-goddess because of its reputation for lasciviousness (mentioned by Aristotle and Pliny) and the dance must have mimicked the love dance of the cock-partridge which it carries out, like the wood-cock, on a regular dancing floor. It is a war dance, performed for a hen audience: the cocks flutter around in circles with a hobbling gait, one heel always held in readiness to strike at a rival's head. The hens look on, quaking with excitement. The proverb quoted by Jeremiah: 'The partridge gathers young that she has not brought forth', means that Jewish men and women were attracted to these alien orgiastic rites."
(The White Goddess, pg. 327)
|Jacob and his Ladder|
"According to legend, the body of the Christos (the Spiritual Law) was given into the keeping of two men, of whom the Gospels make but brief mention. These were Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, both devout men who, though not listed among the disciples or apostles of the Christos, were of all men chosen to be custodians of his sacred remains. Joseph of Arimathea was one of the initiated brethren and is called by A. E. Waite, in his A New Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, 'the first Bishop of Christendom.' Just as the temporal (or visible) power of the Holy See was established by St. Peter (?), so the spiritual (or invisible) body of the faith was entrusted to the 'Secret Church of the Holy Grail' through apostolic succession from Joseph of Arimathea, into whose keeping had been given the perpetual symbols of the covenant -- the ever-flowing cop and the bleeding spear.
"Presumably on being instructions of St. Philip, Joseph of Arimathea, carrying the sacred relics, reached Britain after passing through many and varied hardships. Here a site was allotted to him for the erection of the church, and in this manner Glastonbury Abbey was founded. Joseph planted his staff in the earth and it took root, becoming a miraculous thorn bush which blossomed twice a year and which is now called the Glastonbury thorn. The end of the life of Joseph of Arimathea is unknown. By some it is believed that, like Enoch, he was translated; by others, that he was buried in Glastonbury Abbey. Repeated attempts have been made to find the Holy Grail, which many believe to have been hidden in a crypt beneath the ancient abbey. The Glastonbury chalice recently discovered and by the devout supposed to be the original Sangreal can scarcely be accepted as genuine by the critical investigator. Beyond its inherent interest as a relic, like the famous Antioch chalice it actually proves nothing when it is realized that practically little more was known about the Christian Mysteries eighteen centuries ago than can be discovered today."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 588)
|Joseph of Arimathea|
"The central image the myth deals with is of course the vessel itself, whether chalice or dish, which also supplies the most obvious fly agaric correspondence: the fully mature mushroom becomes a literal cup (if it is deep) or dish (if it is shallow). If the cap gets wet at this stage rivulets of red run down the cup's interior and pull at the bottom. It looks like a chalice of blood mixed with water. Even without water the mushroom gives the impression of being a cup of blood... Joseph survived imprisoned by eating a 'host' placed in the cup by a dove. The dove and the cup both correspond to a mature fly agaric specimen, and the host corresponds to a dried mushroom. Putting it in the cup as the dove did symbolizes that the host became a liquid and is drunk.
"Joseph left the Middle East and went to Europe, where the fly agaric is found in abundance. Once there he started a cult centered around the mysterious cup of blood, taking great pains to identify it with the story of Jesus. The details of the mystical 'mass' celebrated by the participants were kept secret; an empty seat representing Judas was to remind everyone what happens when the cult secrets are made public or revealed to authorities. The images of the Rich Fisher and Fisher King are a clear tie to Jesus but may also represent dried fly agaric bobbing in the water like so many fish. With these mushrooms one person can feed many.
"The Grail was considered a source of food and with good reason. Actual cups or chalices never produce food or drink on their own, and certainly no one would ever consider eating a cup or chalice. The mushroom-cup, however, contains both food and drink and is itself edible. Not only this, but when it is eaten one becomes 'full,' that is to say one becomes temporarily anorexic, full physically as well as spiritually, and perfectly content with the food afforded by the mushroom."
(Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy, Clark Heinrich, pg. 157)
While I've been unable to determine when exactly the Grail was first linked to entheogens it seems highly probable that such an association would been made by the time that Chayefsky began to work on Altered States. At least two groundbreaking works that had linked Christianity to entheogens, John Allegro's The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross and to a lesser extent Andrija Puharich's The Sacred Mushroom: Keys to the Door of Eternity, had already been published by the time Chayefsky had begun working on the Altered States project. This combined with the obvious visual similarities between the mythological Grail and fly agaric certainly make such a deliberate association possible. And indeed Jessup threatens to become the founder of a most heretical academic strand throughout the picture, not unlike the Gnostic cult attributed to Joseph of Arimathea that clearly dealt in the "derangement of the senses."
Such rich symbolism does not seemingly appear in the name of the character of Emily Jessup (Blair Brown), Edward's wife and possibly the hottest anthropologist in the world at the time. According to Wikipedia the name Emily derives from the Latin name Aemilia, one of the legendary patriarchal noble families of the Roman Republic. Two major roads, the Via Aemilia and the Via Aemilia Scauri, were named after this clan during the Republic. Probably the most well-known member was Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, a member of the Second Triumvirate who was distinctly the weakest party behind Mark Antony and Octavian (soon to be Augustus Caesar). Despite the fame of the Aemilia they did not seemingly contribute many legendary figures in the ancient Republic.
|Marcus Aemilius Lepidus|
"In the personality of Arthur is to be found a new form of the ever-recurrent cosmic myth. The prince of Britain is the sun, his knights are the zodiac, and his flashing sword may be the sun's rays with which he fights and vanquishes the dragons of darkness or it may represent the Earth's axis. Arthur's Round Table is the universe; the Siege Perilous the throne of the perfect man. In its terrestrial sense, Arthur was the Grand Master of a secret Christian-Masonic brotherhood of philosophic mystics who termed themselves Knights. Arthur received the exalted position of Grand Master of these Knights because he had faithfully accomplished the withdrawal of the sword (spirit) from the anvil of the base metals (his lower nature). As invariably happens, the historical Arthur soon was confused with the allegories and myths of his order until now the two are inseparable. After Arthur's death on the field of Kamblan his Mysteries ceased, and esoterically he was borne away on a black barge, as is so beautifully described by Tennyson in his Morte d'Arthur. The great sword Excalibur was also cast back into the waters of eternity -- all of which is a vivid portrayal of the descent of cosmic night at the end of the Day of Universal Manifestation. The body of the historical Arthur was probably interred at Glastonbury Abbey, a building closely identified with the mystic rites of both the Grail and the Arthurian Cycle."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pgs. 590-591)
"In Christian iconographic, the rose may be either the chalice into which Christ's blood flowed, or the transfiguration of those drops of blood or, again, the symbol of Christ's wounds. A Rosicrucian symbol depicts five roses, one at the centre and one on each of the four arms of the Cross. This conjures images of the Grail or else the 'Heavenly Rose' of the Redemption. In the Rosicrucian context, it should be observed that its emblem sets a rose in the very centre of the Cross, that is, where the Sacred Heart, Christ's heart, is located."
While the character of Arthur Rosenberg does not exactly live up to such lofty symbolism he is nonetheless a mostly faithful companion of Jessup and ultimately follows him on his quest. In some traditions King Arthur was a follower of the cult founded by Joseph of Arimathea centered around the Holy Grail (which itself was possibly symbolic of entheogens) and so too does Arthur Rosenberg ultimately relate to Jessup.(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 813)
|Emily (left) and Arthur (right)|
And now on to the first name, which brings a certain secret brotherhood to mind immediately. Some strands of Freemasonry claim its origins lie with mythological builders, masons, of ancient times.
"The checkerboard floor upon which the modern Freemasonic lodge stands is the old tracing board of the Dionysiac Architects, and while the modern organization is no longer limited to workmen's guilds it still preserves in its symbols the metaphysical doctrines of the ancient society of which it is presumably the outgrowth...
"The Roman Collegia of skilled architects were apparently a subdivision of the greater Ionian body, their principles and organization being practically identical with the older Ionian institution. It has been suspected that the Dionysians also profoundly influenced early Islamic culture, for part of their symbolism found its ways into the Mysteries of the dervishes. At one time the Dionysians referred to themselves as Sons of Solomon, and one of the most important of their symbols was the Seal of Solomon -- two interlaced triangles. This motif is frequently seen in conspicuous parts of Mohammedan mosques. The Knights Templar -- who were suspected of anything and everything --are believed to have contacted these Dionysiac artificers and to have introduced many of their symbols and doctrines into medieval Europe. But Freemasonry most of all owes to the Dionysiac cult the great mass of its symbols and rituals which are related to the science of architecture. From these ancient and illustrious artisans it also received the legacy of the unfinished Temple of Civilization --the vast, and visible structure upon which these initiated builders have labored continuously since the inception of their fraternity. This mighty edifice, which has fallen and been rebuilt time after time but whose foundations remain unmoved, is the true Everlasting House of which the temple on the brow of Mount Moriah was an impermanent symbol.
"Aside from the operative aspect of their order, the Dionysiac Architects had a speculative philosophic code. Human society they considered as a rough and untrued ashlar but lately chiseled from the quarry of elemental Nature. This crude block was the true object upon which these skilled craftsmen labored --polishing it, squaring it, and with the aid of fine carvings transforming it into a miracle of beauty. While mystics released their souls from the bondage of matter by meditation and philosophers found their keenest joy in the profundities of thought, these master workmen achieved liberation from the Wheel of Life and Death by learning to swing their hammers with the same rhythm that moves the swirling forces of Cosmos. They venerated the Deity under the guise of the Great Architect and Master Craftsman who was ever gouging rough ashlar from the fields of space and truing them into universes. The Dionysians affirmed constructiveness to be the supreme expression of the soul, and attending themselves with the ever-visible constructive natural processes going on around them, believe that mortality could be achieved by thus becoming a part of the creative agencies of Nature."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pgs. 573-574)
And yet the character of Mason is the least metaphysically inclined of the three academics (the other two being Jessup and Arthur). Mason is a literal craftsman with little interest in speculative things, being chiefly concerned with his own career advancement. He ridicules and mocks Jessup's quest to discover the "First Self" throughout the film yet finds himself drawn in eventually. One suspects that he opts to join Jessup in his examination of inner space in the name of grant money as much as out of genuine curiosity. Jessup is the true speculative mason with Arthur as a reluctant partner and Mason as the increasingly dreary "voice of reason." They make quite the trinity indeed.
On a deeper level the name of the Mason Parrish character can also be read as a comment on the abandonment of entheogens by both mainstream as well as alternative religions. After all, much emerging New Age-type spiritualism desperately tried to disassociate itself from drug culture after the collapse of the counterculture in the 1970s. In general, it would not be until the 1990s that more philosophical discussions of entheogens would once again become semi-acceptable in polite and respectable society.
|Blair Brown on Fringe (top) and the show's isolation tank (bottom)|
And it is here that I shall wrap things up for now. In the fourth installment I shall break down the highly symbolic and synchronicistic plot line of Altered States. Stay tuned.