Welcome to the sixth and what will hopefully be the final installment in my series revolving around the final two films of famed screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky. The first two installments in this series (which can be found here and here) chiefly focused upon the Oscar-winning Network, one of the major critic's darlings from the 1970s. While this film is chiefly remembered for its scathing satire of the television industry it is also littered with high strangeness, from the Symbionese Liberation Army-inspired guerrilla group drafted by the UBS network into a quasi-reality show to Howard Beale's legendary monologues he claims are inspired by a daimonic-like "shrill, shrieking voice" that visited him one night.
|Beale (Peter Finch)|
|Lilly (top), Wasson (middle), and McKenna (bottom)|
Anyway, onto the film. Jessup has realized that he has reached a wall in terms of how far into the void the Hinchi brew can propel him --He passes out at a certain point, but is aware that the hallucinations are still ongoing. He can't up the dose as he is at near toxic levels so he opts to add sensory deprivation to the experience via an isolation tank.
|John C. Lilly standing next to an isolation tank similar to the one used in Altered States' second half|
"The Dogon and Bambara regard three as the number symbolizing the male principal and depict it in a hieroglyphic showing the penis and two testicles. As well as being the symbol of maleness it is also that of motion, in opposition to four, the symbol of femaleness and the elements... the Bambara... believing that the original universe was three, but it was not actually made manifest, that is, did not impinge upon the awareness, until it was four. As a result... the Bambara regard maleness (three) 'as what sets things in motion, ensuring fecundity, while the latter only comes to fruition and full knowledge through femaleness.'"
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 995)
This is especially appropriate for this junction of the film. This trip sets in motion latter events in the film but is ultimately a failure at enlightenment --Jessup, in his search for the First Self, only reaches the material beginning on humanity --Primal Man. He describes this curious creatures as it frolics through the savannas and grasslands to Arthur and Mason through the tank's speaker. Later, he takes on the consciousness of Primal Man and experiences it eating a goat. The goat is of course a creature with much symbolism.
"The goat is both a phallic symbol and also an emblem of courage or aspiration because of its surefootedness and ability to scale the loftiest peaks. To the alchemist's the goat's head was the symbol of sulphur. The practice among the ancient Jews of choosing a scapegoat upon which to heap the sins of mankind is merely an allegorical depiction of the Sun Man who is the scapegoat of the world and upon whom are cast the sins of the twelve houses (tribes) of the celestial universe."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 286)
In this case it is almost surely the baser symbolism of the goat that is being invoked. By eating the goat Jessup is confronting the material --as opposed to spirit --aspect of humanity. Shortly thereafter Jessup makes a sound resembling that of an ape, much to the horror of Mason and Arthur.When they bring Jessup out of the tank his face is covered in blood and he is unable to speak. Via the aid of a notepad he expresses to the two scientist that he believes that he regressed while in the tank on a genetic level --That he in fact began to take on the physical characteristic of Primal Man.
|Jessup coming out of the tank|
|the gang inspecting the X-rays|
Jessup, meanwhile, experiences side effects from the experiment: That night, after bedding his research assistant, Jessup begins to hallucinate and/or experience physical transformations occurring across his body --his hand, stomach and even feet become those of a primitive human at various points. He gets up from bed to take a shower and witnesses these different parts of his body change at various points. When he heads back to the bedroom the mushroom-cap shaped entrance to the Hinchi caved flashes before his eyes and the bedroom turns into an abyss ending in hell. Jessup is terrified and only drawn out of the hallucination when his sleeping partner wakes up. He demises himself to grade some papers, his mind a buzzing.
|the transformation of Jessup's feet while he's in the shower|
When she confronts Jessup upon her return he gives her good reason for concern. He raves about altered states of consciousness being as real as everyday life and implies that entheogens are capable of sending man back into his vast genetic memory --time travel, in other words. As outlandish as this may sound there were in fact people during the height of the counterculture who toyed with such notions. John C. Lilly and possibly Terence McKenna were such people.
"The action of psychedelics, in the model, opens the quantum information system within the DNA to inspection by the higher neural centers. When Dr. John Lilly says he traveled in time with LSD, and then adds that this is 'only' a metaphor, he is perhaps to modest. If the McKennas are right in their basic theory, every psychedelic trip is literally a voyage through the quantum information system at faster-than-light velocity, i.e., outside 'time' in the local (Einsteinian) universe."
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume One, Robert Anton Wilson, pgs. 216-217)
A bit more information on the McKenna brothers and this theory can be found in part five of this series. But back to the film --the time travel depicted in Altered States is a very personal one. Instead of modern man traveling back to the ancient world modern man regresses, both mentally and physically, to ancient man in the modern world.
This notion is played out in Altered States' most celebrated sequence, namely Jessup's full-bodied regression. It happens the night of his chat with Emily. Jessup returns to the lab by himself, takes some Hinchi brew and slips into the tank. The numeral significance is interesting here as well. As a party of one Jessup takes on the personification of the monad. While generally considered hermaphroditic it may lean a bit further to its masculine side.
"The Pythagoreans considered the odd number --of which the monad was the prototype --to be definite and masculine, They were not all agreed, however, as to the nature of the unity, or 1. Some declared it to be positive, because it added to an even (negative) number, it produces an odd (positive) number. Others demonstrated that if unity added to an odd number, the latter becomes even, thereby making the masculine to be feminine. Unity, or 1, therefore, was considered an androgynous number, partaking of both masculine and feminine attributes; consequently both odd and even."
(The Secret Teachings of All Ages, Manly P. Hall, pg. 211)
Hall goes on to note, however, that the monad was also considered to be the "father" (ibid, pg. 216) of the numbers. In the context of the film, I think that this is definitely meant to represent a masculine working for it once again produces matter --Jessup completely transforms into Primal Man and runs amok.
|Jessup as Primal Man|
"This artificial network exists in a natural state in the passageways leading to a number of prehistoric cave-sites; Virgil assures us that it was drawn upon the door to the Sibyl's cavern at Cumae; it was carved upon the stone floors of cathedrals; it was danced upon in many lands from Greece to China, and it was known to the Ancient Egyptians. The fact is --and its association with caverns bears this out --that mazes should both allow access to their centres by a sort of initiatory journey and bar it to those who are not qualified to enter. In this sense the maze is akin to the mandala, which in any case sometimes bears a labyrinthine appearance. Thus we are concerned with the representation of initiatory tests by choosing, as preliminaries to a journey to the hidden centre."
(Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier & Alain Gheerbrant, pg. 642)
Jessup finds his way to the center of this particular maze, smites his pursuers and escapes the compound. Almost immediately upon hitting the streets (which feature graffiti sprayed on the city walls that resemble cave paintings) Jessup is confronted by a pack of dogs which peruse him through Boston for a time. Here one is reminded of the legendary hell hounds on the heels of the damned.
Eventually Jessup makes his way to a zoo where he jumps a fence and escapes the dogs. After stumbling upon a rhino and an elephant Jessup finally happens upon a flock of sheep. He peruses them, taking one down and feasting upon it. The sheep shares similar symbolism to the lamb (during one of Jessup's early hallucinations in an isolation tank he envisioned himself with the head of a seven-eyed lamb, an image taken directly from the Book of Revelation).
"Through every stage of development, from nomadic pastoralsim to settled agriculture, Mediterranean civilization regarding the first lamb to be born to the flock, spotless, white and shining, as a manifestation of the power of Spring. It embodied the triumph of renewal, of the victory, always to be won afresh, of life over death. It was this archetypal office which made the lamb the ideal victim of propitiatory sacrifice, the victim to be slain in order to ensure its own salvation. In this, as in so many other rites and customs, the adepts of the Dionysiac Mysteries are antetypes of the supreme revelation to come."
(ibid, pg. 585)In this context, I see Jessup's consumption of the sheep as a triumph --He has survived the night (a kind of initiation) and thrived. When he emerges from his journey into the Underworld in human form the next day he is ready for the next stage of his initiation --A confrontation with spirit. After all, he has just survived matter at its basest form and Primal Man's greatest fear: The terrible night and the great beasts the lurk therein.
Others, however, are having problems accepting this transformation. Emily, upon being told by Jessup of his adventure, is utterly horrified. It surely doesn't help that he describes killing and eating the sheep as the most supremely satisfying experience of his life. She would have been completely convinced of Jessup's madness had Mason not shown up at their house in the midst of Jessup's narrative with his own tale of an ape loose on campus.
|Jessup after the transformation --remember, hallways are symbolic of initiation, as discussed in part four|
As outlandish as this may sound countless ancient traditions the world over feature variations on the concept of entheogens as a gateway to another world. Such was the case of several early tribes in what is now the United States, especially the Adena and the Hopewell, for instance.
"The association of the hallucinogenic mushroom with the sacred sites indicates a reverence for the psychedelic experience and a context of sacred space and sacred time surrounding its use... it is an indication of the beliefs of the prehistoric peoples of America in the creation and use of the mound structures as a gateway to other worlds, a gateway that could be used in both directions. The conjunction of lunar, solar and stellar earthworks in early America with the use of psychotropics and ritual lead us to the conclusion that early Americans... had a technology for otherworldy 'travel' (such as remote viewing)... which would have led to the social organization and control of these early people such as the Adena and the Hopewell in line with extraterrestrial forces..."
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pg. 423)
Reportedly Andrija Puharich, who was convinced that he had made contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence in the early 1950s which referred to itself as The Nine, believed that magic mushrooms were such a gateway. Here Chayefsky opts for ambiguity and simply leaves the place beyond the void as another dimension or even the Godhead itself. But the principal --that entheogens open a door to another reality --is the same.
When the scientists reconvene for the final experiment they are now four --Jessup, Mason, Arthur and Emily. As noted above, the number four is associated with the feminine principal in some traditions and in this case it is certainly present in the figure of Emily. Unsurprisingly Jessup is able to finally break through the void --Indeed, Mason, Arthur and Emily all witness this process through the video camera in the tank.
First an image of the mushroom cap-shaped entrance to the Hinchi ritual cave appears followed by the tiny dot the tribal shaman called the void. Jessup goes into the void and surpasses matter, morphing into a spiritual state of energy. As I've noted in this installment and the prior one, this notion of matter and spirit is taken directly from Gnosticism.
"While there were many different versions of Gnostic belief, they agreed on some basic issues. First and foremost was the idea that matter was inherently evil, and had been created by the 'demiurge,' a being that opposes God and who fashioned the world from chaos, the abyss, one of whose terms is the Latin matrix. According to some Gnostic texts, the God in the Garden of Eden who created Adam and Eve and warned them against eating of the Tree of Knowledge was the Demiurge and not the benevolent Deity; God's presence in the Garden was actually that of the Serpent, who pointed the way of freedom to Eve...
"In Gnosticism, there are two main schools of thought concerning the true nature of evil. The 'Eastern' view --which has its origins in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeanism, and thus demonstrates a possible link to Aryan Hinduism --states that good and evil are two supreme powers struggling for control of the world, and will continue to struggle forever. The 'Western' view --which has its origins in Egypt and the Middle East --defines evil as a result, rather than something of an autonomous existence. This theory describes the creation of matter as a series of emanations of light, of spirit, leading from the divine Source and becoming grosser with each rung of descent until spirit is buried as a dim spark within matter..."
(Sinister Forces Book III, Peter Levenda, pg. 373)
The Gnostic perception of the episode in the Garden of Eden between the Serpent and Adam and Eve is certainly consistent with Altered States world view but as a whole the film seems to be even more horrified with spirit than it is by matter. But more on that in a moment.
Arthur is seemingly hypnotized by Jessup's transformation. He will emerge from the experience as not only a complete convert, but even a zealot. As noted in part three of this series, both the names Arthur and Jessup (which is a variation on Joseph) synch with the Grail (which some researchers have speculated may have been a magic mushroom) mythos, and indeed they end in the midst of a truly mythical quest.
|Arthur during Jessup's final trip|
In the midst of Jessup's transformation Emily rushes into save him, only to be pulled away by Mason. He takes her outside the lab where she passes out. When Emily comes to she finds Mason and Arthur unconscious by the door, Mason having seemingly gone back in to save Arthur. If nothing else, Mason emerges from this experience with a soul, something he clearly lacked as a reputable scientist.
Emily eventually pulls Jessup's nearly formless mass out of the void, where he regains material form. The isolation tank he was in is totally destroyed in massive burst of energy. Mason heavily drugs Jessup and takes him back to Emily's place. He and Arthur debate the implications of what they experienced, awakening Jessup. Mason does a checkup before they depart for the night. Emily then apparently strips naked and goes to bed. Jessup, also naked, awakens during the night and goes to sleep next to her.
|Emily pulling Jessup from the tank|
Emily then asks, "Why don't you come back to us?" Jessup explains that he "can't live with it. The pain is to great." Jessup then turns away and begins to regress back to spirit form before Emily. Emily again tries to pull Jessup out of it but instead begins to regress into spirit as well. As they devolve into mass-less lumps Jessup finds the will to confront this terror and re-materializes. He then pulls Emily out of her like state. They embrace and the credits role.
I find the terror Jessup feels when confronted with spirit, especially the nothingness he describes, to be strikingly Keel-ian. Of it the legendary Mothman hunter once wrote:
"Actually, true reincarnation is impossible. Memory is stored by an electrical system in the brain, and when the brain dies, all memories are also canceled out. Our personalities, egos, emotional structures, and memories are all part of the brain's complex circuitry. The brain dies very quickly --as soon as the oxygen supply is cut off. All of this circuitry dies with it, like a radio being turned off. If the soul is merely a mass of high frequency energy, then it would not retain memory or personality. When the body or host dies, this mass of energy would be liberated either to rejoin the main intelligence of which it was always a part of or to find and possess a new host. It would not carry along any memory of its previous body or life."
(Our Haunted Planet, John Keel, pg. 126)
Early in the film Jessup expressed a certainty in the existence of the soul because human consciousness is energy, which can not be created or destroyed. While that may be true, Jessup seemingly discovers that the self is destroyed. Hence, there is nothing except the original/first source that all souls are descended from.
But then again, terror is a part of birth. Indeed, countless occult orders have attempted to recreate the terror of birth and death with their rituals.
"The Investigator is betraying no secret when we say that, in serious occult orders, such performances are not mere rituals but real ordeals. Insofar as possible within the law, the candidate is often brought to a state of terror similar to the emergency condition of the nervous system in near-death crises. What occurs then, and is experienced as rebirth, is a quantum jump in neurological awareness."
(The Cosmic Trigger Volume I, Robert Anton Wilson, pg. 139)Ultimately Jessup is able to overcome this terror. Upon doing so Jessup is then able to gain control over spirit and matter alike. Jessup wills himself to return to matter for love, a very Crowley-ian concept indeed. While everyone knows the Great Beast's proclamation about "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law" it is often forgotten that Crowley also said "Love is the law, love under will." Jessup is indeed love under will by the time the credits roll.