Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.

 

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Israel and Palestine, confict without end: “What’s Left?” October 2014, MRR #377

The middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

I’m a middle-of-the-road moderate.

This feels like a stand up AA confession. Me, “Lefty” Hooligan, a moderate. But I’m middle-of-the-road when it comes to the whole Israel/Palestine conflict.

I grudgingly agree that Israel has the right to exist, but I vehemently oppose Israel’s military overkill, its collective punishment and massacre of Palestinians in pursuit of eradicating Hamas terrorism. I grudgingly agree that Palestinians should constitute their own nation, but I adamantly oppose Hamas terrorism, its indiscriminate targeting of Israelis and threats to wipe out the Jewish people. I think that Israel’s overwhelming military and economic superiority over the Palestinians, this massive day-to-day power imbalance, virtually guarantees the abuse of that power in the form of discrimination and slaughter, apartheid and ethnic cleansing.*

I wasn’t always such a reluctant moderate with respect to the bloody Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I know the subject deeply, but narrowly, and from one side only. As an undergraduate at UCSC, I studied Jewish history in general and Zionist history in particular, with a six month stay on an Israeli kibbutz (commune) in the Jezreel Valley with my Jewish girlfriend in the summer and fall of 1974. My grasp of the Arab side of things is glancing at best. Yet, like a shard of hologram properly illuminated, a slice of history properly studied will reveal the whole. What got in the way of my extremist sentiments, and what made me a moderate was what Israelis like to call “the facts on the ground.”

I was and remain a communist. I was intrigued by Zionist socialism and I had an affinity for kibbutz-style communism, but I soon discovered how intrinsically rightwing they were. Zionist colonial society was dominated from 1920 on by the Histadrut labor federation—part trade union, part capitalist owner and employer, and part de facto state. The Histadrut ran close to 75% of the Zionist economy in pre-1948 Palestine until the newborn Israeli state nationalized half of that, and the labor federation’s social power has been on the decline ever since. The national syndicalism professed by the Histadrut and key to Labor Zionism shunned class struggle for Jewish national unity. It was a non-Marxist, even anti-Marxist socialism rooted in Romantic notions of organic nationalism and ethnic purity.

That’s where the supposed radical communism of the kibbutzim came from. Labor Zionism, often used synonymously with Zionist socialism, was first cousin to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” in promoting a “socialism for one people,” the Jewish people. And Zionist socialism transcended its nationalist socialist roots into true proletarian internationalism only in communist fractions evident within the halutzim (pioneers) of the third aliyah (settler wave). These communist fractions were tangential to the kibbutz movement led by the Hashomer Hatzair and then by the old MAPAM political party. They were central to the Gdud Ha’avoda (Labor Brigades) founded by members of the Crimean Commune who followed Joseph Trumpeldor, which were then deliberately destroyed by the Histadrut. As such, this international working class communism, which attempted to make common cause with the Arab workers in Palestine, was a minority of a minority within the Zionist colonial project. It was doomed to failure. Probably why I identify with it to this day. Ze’ev Sternhell’s book The Founding Myths of Israel makes these arguments most cogently. Israeli society has since moved inexorably ever rightward.

Then as now, I’m an anti-statist. I don’t like to see the building and proliferating of nation-states. I don’t like people aspiring to create them, and I certainly don’t like people butchering each other with them. Arthur Waskow once spun out a lovely libertarian utopia for the area of Israel/Palestine that entailed decentralized federations of autonomous Jewish and Arab cantons residing side by side in a fully binational society. Sure, and if the cat laid eggs, so goes a yiddish saying, it would be a chicken. I don’t think I was ever that naive to imagine anarchism taking root in the area anytime in the foreseeable future. I was disabused of such fantasies by having experienced reality in Israel. Part of that reality is the current demographics of the region. There are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 Arabs living in Israel and the Occupied Territories.

These facts beg for a creative reconsideration of the “one state solution” put forward by the old pre-Oslo Palestine Liberation Organization for a democratic, secular nation-state in the region of Palestine. Not quite as elegant was the call for a binational state in Israel/Palestine by Zionist socialism’s left wing, the aforementioned Hashomer Hatzair and MAPAM, that evaporated with the formation of Israel’s Labor Party in 1968. The chances for either a democratic secular state or a binational state in Israel/Palestine however are slim to none, not without a lot of violence and social disruption. Far more blood and chaos will accompany the least favorable but far more likely solution, the “two state solution” that creates a Palestinian nation-state in the Occupied Territories alongside a mostly intact state of Israel. Not only is the two-state solution the highly probable outcome of decades of suffering and war, but it is likely to reproduce the same power imbalance, a militarily and economically hegemonic Israel running roughshod over a string of poverty-stricken Palestinian Bantustans.

Which is a tragedy considering that, at least on the Jewish side of things, there have been imaginative ways for a people to live and thrive without the need for a nation-state. At the beginning of the 20th century, as youthful European Jews took to socialist ideas and movements of various stripes, Zionist socialism predominated in a nationalist Zionist movement that promoted the colonization of Palestine under the patently false slogan of “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Diametrically opposed to all forms of Zionism were the Jews who committed themselves to Marxist social democracy, specifically to the internationalist socialism embodied by the Bolsheviks and their Third International, which called for world proletarian revolution to bring about a classless stateless society. The Jewish Labor Bund positioned itself between these two poles to develop a hybrid socialism unique to the social situation of the Jewish people.

The Bund operated in eastern Europe, in the territorial ghetto known as the Pale of Settlement to which the Jewish people were confined and in which the Jews often comprised a sizable minority of the population. The socialism advocated by the Bund aligned with the international working class movement while defending the national characteristics of the Jewish people in the Pale of Settlement. The Jews of the Pale lived separately (in urban ghettos and Jewish villages called shtetls), had their own language (yiddish), religion, customs and culture, and shared various autonomous social institutions (schools, community councils, and mutual aid societies). From these facts the Bund derived a form of Jewish nationalism that downplayed any united sovereign Jewish territory for one based on Jewish community control of local schools, police and government. As such, the Jewish Labor Bund’s program prefigured the program of the Black Panther Party in the United States.

The Third Reich’s “Final Solution” put an end to the aspirations of the Jewish Labor Bund by liquidating the Jewish people in eastern Europe. I got to know some Bundists who had immigrated to New York City after the second World War. When they didn’t entirely assimilate, they became either ardent Communists or soft Zionists. Few remained affiliated with the Jewish Labor Bund, which like yiddish has recently experienced a revival in interest.

The spectrum of Zionist socialism/ Jewish Labor Bund socialism/ international socialism parallels a broader spectrum within the Jewish people at large, generated by the question over the nature of the Jewish people. There are those who would argue that the Jews aren’t a people at all, among them outspoken jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, and academic Shlomo Sand whose book The Invention of the Jewish People summarizes this position clearly. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum like the Jewish Defense League who believe that the Jewish people are a nation, even a race, chosen by God and given the land of Israel as their inalienable birth right. Most who weigh in on the subject, including most Jews, hold a middle position, that the Jewish people are some amalgam of race, nation, ethnicity, tribe, culture or religion which cannot be clearly fixed. The point is moot however, given that Jews consider themselves Jews, and define themselves as Jews no matter the argument or the circumstance.

The Jews have existed as a self-identified, dispersed people at least since the Babylonian destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE. Thus, the Jewish people have survived partly or entirely without a nation-state for over 2,500 years. The Roman destruction of the second temple in 70 CE forced the Jews to adapt with the development of the synagogue as a temple in absentia. Yet whether this Jewish dispersal is termed exile or diaspora, it took more than the institution of the synagogue to hold it together. Vibrant centers of Jewish culture and learning overlapped concentrations of Jewish population first in ancient Babylonia, then in Moorish Spain, and finally in Medieval Poland.

These dynamic social/cultural/religious centers provided guidance and cohesion to the Jewish people as a whole, throughout the eastern hemisphere and eventually the world, and were crucial to Jewish survival. It can be argued that this core/periphery structure of Jewish existence was in crisis by 1850, with the rise of the modern nation-state. But what can’t be substantiated is the Zionist assertion that without a Jewish nation-state, the Jewish people will always be threatened by discrimination, harassment, murder, pogrom and holocaust. One of the most dangerous places in the world for a Jew to reside today is in Israel. All it would take is for Israel to lose just one war in order to raise the very real specter of Jewish genocide once again.

Between the wholly inadequate two-state solution and Waskow’s anarchist idyll, there are a number of quite possible, favorable resolutions to the Israel/Palestine conflict. I’ve highlighted as viable examples leftwing Zionist socialism’s binational state, the one-state solution of the PLO’s secular democratic Palestinian state, the Jewish Labor Bund’s socialist program for Jewish territorial autonomy, and the non-state core/periphery structure so critical to Jewish survival as a people over the millennia. This middle ground is quite broad, providing a wide political middle-of-the-road from which true moderation can arise. And a moderate, just solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict would be wonderful. In this instance, I would dearly love to refute Barry Goldwater when he said: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

*I rely on Max Boot’s exhaustive study Invisible Armies for the distinction between formal military action and terrorism.

Driving the red spike

Red SpikeI started this blog on February 22, 2007 and stopped posting after June 2, 2008. I restarted the blog on August 22, 2013, and I’ve been putting up my Maximum Rocknroll columns each month ever since. Slowly, I’ve filled in the gap between when I stopped and restarted blogging. Today, the last in-between column has been posted, linking the 2007-8 period with the current period from mid-2013 forward. The red spike has been driven, uniting these past and present efforts.

The reason I suspended this blog is simple. I was having more and more trouble with my drinking, and because of the drinking with my marriage in particular and my life in general. I was increasingly skipping columns, sometimes going two or three months without writing one. I stopped posting to this blog by mid-2008, but I didn’t stop drinking. Things came to a head by the end of 2009. I decided to quit drinking on January 1, 2010, and immediately I fell into a profound depression. I didn’t write anything for four months. Rehab and CBT followed. I made a vow to write my column every month, without fail. Nine months after I took my last drink, I’d substantially climbed out of my depression. And among the many steps I took in my long recovery, I revitalized this blog.

A “golden spike” was the ceremonial last spike driven to join together the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads into the first Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. This is the “red spike,” the communist spike that connects two tracks in my life into a healed continuity. Now, I hope to take things column by column into the past. My past, back to when I started writing for Maximum Rocknroll in 1992. See Dividing Line.

Dividing Line

Above this line are my collected Maximum Rocknroll “What’s Left?” columns starting from February 2007 (MRR #285) to the present. You can find out about how I assembled them here.
the_wall_adj2b
Below this line will be my collected columns going from this point into the past, back to when I first started writing for Tim Yohannan and MRR in 1992 if I can manage it. This is the Dividing Line.

  • "Lefty" Hooligan-"What's Left?"
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