BARZAKH, HURQALYA, ALAM AL-MITHAL.

Still reading Hodgson (see this post), I came across a discussion of “the ‘âlam al mithâl, the ‘realm of images’, defined by Suhravardî…. it was placed, metaphysically, between the ordinary material realm of sense perception and the realm of intellectual abstractions found in Aristotelianism…. (Some said the objects in this realm were like reflections in a mirror — extended, like matter, but not material in the ordinary sense.)” This intrigued me, and I was more intrigued a few pages later when he brought in “the transmaterial symbolic land of Hûrqalyâ.” I wondered what the relations between the two were, and some googling quickly told me that a lot of people consider them two names for the same thing; furthermore, they are both identified with barzakh, an Arabic word meaning ‘interval, gap, partition; isthmus’ that is used in Islamic thought for the interval between death and the Day of Resurrection and in a more mystical sense for various liminal states—Julian Baldick, in Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism, talks about the “Perfect Man” who “unites God with the world, not as a bridge but as an interface (barzakh), the imperceptible border between the shadow and the light,” and the blurb for Ibn al-’Arabi’s Barzakh: The Concept of the Limit and the Relationship between God and the World calls it “the activity or actor that differentiates between things and that, paradoxically, then provides the context of their unity,” and there’s further discussion here. Well, Denis MacEoin, in The Messiah of Shiraz: Studies in Early and Middle Babism, writes:

The barzakh between the spiritual and physical realms is generally referred to in Shaikhī literature as hūrqalyā. The term played an important role in the works of Ahsā’ī, who claimed to have borrowed it from a Syriac word used by the Sabeans (Mandeans) of Iraq…. Mohammad Mo’in, however, has suggested … that it was derived from the Hebrew phrase habal qarnaīm (doppelgänger) and that its correct pronunciation is hawarqalyā.

I don’t have anything useful to say about all of this except that it interests me; rationalist though I am, I can’t help being fascinated by the elaborate structures of thought people have developed to explain the world. And as Hodgson so well says, “We have learned to be very cautious before labelling as absurd any great body of work which intelligent and sensitive human beings have agreed in finding supremely important.”
Needless to say, if anyone has any information or speculation about this stuff, I’ll be glad to hear it, but I realize it’s both esoteric and pretty far removed from standard LH material.

Comments

  1. “We have learned to be very cautious before labelling as absurd any great body of work which intelligent and sensitive human beings have agreed in finding supremely important.”
    I’d say that one lesson of science is just the opposite. Be ye ever so intelligent and sensitive, if what you have to say contradicts the facts, out it must go.

  2. Your lesson is the automatic fallback position of most educated, rational-minded people these days; I’m not saying it’s not a useful lesson, but it is not the be-all and end-all. I might point out that science is in the business of continually deciding that the “facts” it used to believe are no longer valid or need to be reassessed in some larger context, so it should not be in the position of disparaging other people’s claims unless they directly contradict what it (currently) considers to be facts about the observable universe, which religious claims by and large do not. (I don’t mean “the sun goes around the earth” claims but claims about, say, the human soul or the afterlife; the fact that science does not currently accept the postulate of a human soul or an afterlife does not mean such ideas are, to use Hodgson’s word, absurd.)

  3. Hat wrote: “the ‘âlam al mithâl, the ‘realm of images’ . . .
    My knowledge of Arabic is extremely limited. That said, the Arabic word ‘âlam is cognate with Hebrew ‘olam עולם.
    ‘Olam is today usually translated to mean world, and often realm as well. Hebrew “‘Olam HaBa” is usually rendered as “the World to Come,” i.e., the next world, eternity, paradise, and so forth, in which we may believe but can know nothing about, at least while we’re living.
    There’s an identically spelled root עלם (Klein says they’re not related) and there the fun begins.
    עלם, meaning unknown or secret, is the source of התעלם (hitalem), which means (he) ignored. It’s also the source of נעלם (ne’elam), which means disappeared, and of תעלומה (ta’aluma), mystery.
    Perhaps among the Varied Readers is someone who knows Arabic and can elucidate further.

  4. This Hebrew speaker can’t make any sense of “the Hebrew phrase habal qarnaīm (doppelgänger)”. Qarnaim means ‘horns’, but habal isn’t a possible transcription of any Hebrew word I can think of. My only guess is that it might be an error for ba`al karnaim, which would mean ‘owner of horns, one having horns’, but I don’t know where the ‘doppelgänger’ sense would come from in that case.
    rationalist though I am, I can’t help being fascinated by the elaborate structures of thought people have developed to explain the world – surely that concessive clause is out of place; I think rationalism could certainly be described as an ‘elaborate structure of thought’.

  5. I think rationalism could certainly be described as an ‘elaborate structure of thought’.
    Well, yes; perhaps I should have added “other” before “elaborate structures,” for total clarity.

  6. I’d say that one lesson of science is just the opposite. Be ye ever so intelligent and sensitive, if what you have to say contradicts the facts, out it must go.
    This section of a lecture by Luhmann starts with this:

    Jewish law has the idea that God gave the Torah to be interpreted by writers as well as speakers. In oral interpretation, dissent is permissible. The text is fixed for all time, but spoken dissent is permissible. God did this to provide for the possibility that minority interpretations can become those of the majority at any later time. If those whose opinions were outweighed by a majority opinion at one point in time automatically became the object of moral opprobrium, that would be undemocratic, and it would bind the people to a view which at a later time might seem to need revising.

    And what Hat says.

  7. Recall from 1 Sam 7:4 הבעלים ואת־העשתרת and from Gen 14:5 that the latter’s full name is עשתרת קרנים.

  8. This page, on a site full of Islamic and Bābī-Bahā’ī Studies, argues for הרקיע ‘the firmament’.

  9. I think that barzakh is most faithfully translated as isthmus. I note that some of the links you have translate it as a gap between two things but the inner meaning is really one of that which joins, however tenuous. There is a fascinating, if speculative discussion of the etymology of Hurqalyâ here.
    Henri Corbin’s Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi (which has been retitled to something a little different in later editions) is very good on the basic concepts of the imaginal realm. To oversimplify, Ibn ‘Arabi taught that the imagination, properly developed and used was the link between the world of ordinary reality and that of spiritual reality.

  10. The etymology הרקיע har-raqīya` ‘the firmament’ > hurqalyâ is very unconvincing to me. The phonological changes are inexplicable (why the u or the l in the Arabic word? these languages are closely enough related that borrowings from one into the other tend to remain phonologically faithful), the meaning is very different, and it strikes me as very implausible that a word borrowed from Hebrew into Arabic would bring along its definite article.

  11. “science does not currently accept the postulate of a human soul or an afterlife”: I suspect that many scientists might say that neither hypothesis is sufficiently well formulated to be testable. Or, perhaps, that each has been carefully formulated to be untestable.
    Still, I’m not sticking up for science uncritically: so much bogus stuff is passed off as science that the layman has every right to have become cynical. For example, over the last few decades it may well be true that “All medical science is wrong” is a better approximation to the truth than almost all medical science.

  12. “science does not currently accept the postulate of a human soul or an afterlife”: I suspect that many scientists might say that neither hypothesis is sufficiently well formulated to be testable. Or, perhaps, that each has been carefully formulated to be untestable.
    Of course they’d say that; as I said, that’s the automatic fallback position these days, just as “it’s God’s will” was a few centuries back. For me, “neither hypothesis is sufficiently well formulated to be testable” is an excellent thing to say about scientific hypotheses and a stupid and boring thing to say about just about anything else. Of course, to most scientists everything is a scientific hypothesis, just as to a cop everything looks like a crime scene and to a doctor everyone is a walking collection of symptoms: déformation professionelle.
    so much bogus stuff is passed off as science that the layman has every right to have become cynical.
    If by that you’re implying that I’m the sort of layman who waves off all the so-called theories of so-called scientists out of his cloud of smug ignorance, you’re quite wrong. I got excellent grades in science and math back in the day and when I entered college expected to become a mathematician (and in my hubris took the physics course intended for physicists rather than the one intended for math majors, which was a big mistake except insofar as it gave the necessary puncture wound to my hubris). While I don’t follow the scientific press much these days, I am perfectly well aware of how science works, what a hypothesis is, and what is and is not plausible to the scientific mind. I am very grateful for the achievements of modern science and medicine and am very unhappy with those who reject them to promote quackery like homeopathy and “creation science.”
    That said, I am also unhappy with the hubris of scientism, the religion of “if it can’t be proved scientifically, it doesn’t exist.” Since that’s the attitude I tend to be exposed to on the web these days, that’s what I tend to be most irritated by, and I spend more time defending religion and the religious against ignorant attacks than I would ideally prefer to. When science produces a Chartres Cathedral, a B Minor Mass, or a “Pied Beauty,” by all means drop me a line; until then, it seems only sensible to respect the mentality that could produce such things.

  13. It’s hardly my field, but this looks like a more reasonable etymology to me:
    “Rudolf Macuch has suggested that Sohravardi derived some of his terminology for the luminous, otherworldly realms, such as Hurqalyā “burning fire,” from Mandaic *anhūr qalyā (same meaning), from Mandaean Aramaic usages.” (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/hymn-of-the-pearl), apparently from R. Macuch, “Greek and Oriental Sources of Avicenna’s and Suhrawardi’s Theosophies,” Graeco-Arabia 2 (1983): 9–22
    nhura also means “light”.
    The book sounds fascinating, by the way – I’ll be keeping an eye out for it…

  14. If anybody’s interested, I agree with both of Language’s comments.

  15. Thank you, Hat. While reading your post I had the disturbing feeling: Did I write this in some sort of amnesic state?

  16. Charles Perry says:

    Nhur qalya sounds pretty convincing to me. Maybe the n disappeared by being confused with the Arabic definite article al-.

  17. It’s hardly my field, but this looks like a more reasonable etymology to me
    To me too; thanks!

  18. “a Chartres Cathedral, a B Minor Mass, or a “Pied Beauty,”: but what have any of these to do with contradicting facts?

  19. David Marjanović says:

    “science does not currently accept the postulate of a human soul or an afterlife”: I suspect that many scientists might say that neither hypothesis is sufficiently well formulated to be testable. Or, perhaps, that each has been carefully formulated to be untestable.

    The important thing is that both of these hypotheses are unparsimonious. They’re not needed to explain anything. They’re useless baggage.

    That said, I am also unhappy with the hubris of scientism, the religion of “if it can’t be proved scientifically, it doesn’t exist.”

    It’s funny how scientism exists only as an accusation, never as a self-description, isn’t it?
    There are two good reason for this. The scientific method has two parts: falsification and parsimony. Don’t confuse falsification with verification (as I angrily wrote on this blog just a few weeks ago, there is no such thing as “proved scientifically”), and don’t forget parsimony.
    The IDologist Michael Behe claims that evolution doesn’t happen by random mutations, but that the Intelligent Designer is the Great Mutagen. I can’t falsify that hypothesis. I don’t need to. The hypothesis is simply superfluous.
    Let’s reword: “if an idea can’t be tested, why should we assume it’s right?”
    Anyway: Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.

    When science produces a Chartres Cathedral, a B Minor Mass, or a “Pied Beauty,” by all means drop me a line;

    You’ve shifted the goalposts from “how much can science tell us about reality” to “how useful is science for art”.
    So, not that it matters, but attempts to produce such things as you list have been done. How about the murals by Charles Knight or Rudolf Zallinger, outdated as the science behind them is? How about Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, YouTube excerpts of which have a strong tendency to make Americans cry (culture shock on my part)? How about David Attenborough? How about Jacob Bronowski’s TV series (all on YouTube) about science theory, which has a deeply moving ending that everybody, and I do mean everybody, should have watched at least once? How about this poem (again, the science behind it is outdated)?
    Have you been to the planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History? There are a few museums and libraries with cathedral-like colored glass windows (though obviously on a lower budget). The show in that planetarium just laughs at colored glass.
    Music? There are new lyrics for existing tunes…
    The stars go nova one by one, kaboom, kaboom,
    nucleosynthesis is done, kaboom, kaboom!
    The supernovas dissipate what fusion energy helped create,
    and the stars go nova in the galaxy.

    The heavy elements are born, kaboom, kaboom,
    and from the stellar cores are torn, kaboom, kaboom!
    Shells of gas are strewn through space,
    distributing matter all over the place,
    and the spiral arms are littered with debris.

    As years pass by the remnants spread, kaboom, kaboom,
    but the universe is far from dead, kaboom, kaboom!
    To eliminate the tedium of the interstellar medium
    come the molecules that make up you and me.

    …and there are original creations.

  20. David Marjanović says:

    Could simply have provided a link to Kaboom.

  21. John Emerson says:

    “Scientism” is by definition a pathology, so no one would affirm it any more than they’d affirm any other form of deviance. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

  22. Exactly. And to compare a TV show and a planetarium, however enjoyable and pleasing each may be, to the supreme human achievements I mentioned is to prove my point.
    You’ve shifted the goalposts from “how much can science tell us about reality” to “how useful is science for art”.
    No, my point is that there are many kinds of reality, and science is only interested in the kind that can be measured with its instruments, which is fine, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us should thus limit ourselves.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    “Scientism” is by definition a pathology, so no one would affirm it any more than they’d affirm any other form of deviance.

    People happily admit to all kinds of pathologies. Imagine a horrible political ideology, double it, and you’ll find someone who has wanted to implement it without any mercy and said so clearly. Even pathologies that are seriously out of fashion in a particular culture are often freely admitted to with only a token veil, like the famous phrase “I’m not a racist, but”.

    Exactly. And to compare a TV show and a planetarium, however enjoyable and pleasing each may be, to the supreme human achievements I mentioned is to prove my point.

    Few people these days have the money, or even the time, to build a cathedral or anything comparable, and few people compose classical music at all (for any motivation). Really, what do you want?
    “Alas, she never became a real actress, only a film actress.”
    – Romy Schneider’s mother
    BTW, you clearly haven’t been to that planetarium. Start from the famous photo of the Hubble Deep Field, try to imagine the possibilities, and you still won’t get very close to my experience.

    my point is that there are many kinds of reality

    Can you explain this in more specific ways?

  24. John Emerson says:

    Saying “I’m not a racist, but….” is different than saying “I’m a racist” even though it’s mostly racists who say it. I can easily imagine someone saying “People call this scientism, but I think…..”
    When you say It’s funny how scientism exists only as an accusation, never as a self-description, isn’t it? you seem to think you’re making some kind of argument, but I can’t tell what it is. The fact that no one admits to a pejorative description is not surprising, and it doesn’t mean that the pejorative description is meaningless or false. It just means that all people so described reject the description.
    I have heard scientists use the word “scientism” in the pejorative way about others’ beliefs, which they don’t think are actually scientific but just scientismistic — one difficulty with that word is that it’s lacking key derived forms. “Scientismist” and “scientismistic” might be understood, but they’re super clumsy and not accepted words.

  25. Can you explain this in more specific ways?
    Beauty and mercy, to take the first two examples that popped into my head, are realities that scientists cannot measure and about which science, as far as I know, has nothing useful to say.

  26. “Scientismistic”: I love it !
    German has lots of dismissive, perjorative adjectives derived from the neutral ones. When you want to call something pseudo-scientific, for instance, without even giving it the benefit of pseudo, you call it szientistisch. This would be the equivalent of scientismistic.
    There is also, say, pragmatistisch – the up-yours form of pragmatisch – and cognitivistisch etc.

  27. I spend more time defending religion and the religious against ignorant attacks than I would ideally prefer to.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you. This atheist has spilled too many electrons defending religious people against angry mobs of smug atheists. The problem with pointing common-sense things out to the angry mobs is that they reduce everything to a science-vs.-everything-that-isn’t-science duality and battle the two like Bey Blades or something, so you wind up in ludicrous discussions setting Newton off against Bach. And if you try to point out that that cage-fighting approach misses the whole point, then you’re accused of evading the argument.
    Science is one, useful thing. It is not everything. The scientistists’ knee-jerk rejection of such a common-sense statement is caused by their fear that we’ll be living in a theocracy if they don’t fight to the death every time someone suggests science is not the end-all, be-all. That’s certainly a commendable goal, but their siege mentality is a bit unbalanced.

  28. Thanks, that’s very well put, and it’s nice to know I’m not the only one!

  29. Indeed. I am an Old Agnostic with little use for the New Atheists.

  30. One thing that atheists can get worked up is the harm done by organized religion down the ages: wars and stuff. I can see that, for those who see nothing but ignorant superstition at the heart of religion, this might be a persuasive argument: religion is nonsense, and what’s more it’s dangerous nonsense.
    But, if you have some sympathy for the benefits of religious belief, maybe even a sense that there are important truths or realities there that are largely orthogonal to the concerns of science, then this objection seems more like a bogus guilt-by-association argument.
    On the other hand, when Hat offers masses and cathedrals as arguments for the worth of religion, it strikes me as the flip side of the same bogosity. It’s a bit like, what? I want to make an analogy with that special process of running coffee beans through a mongoose’s alimentary tract, or maybe some delicious foodstuff whose production depends on illness. What am I thinking of?

  31. Steak and salad dressing, if you construe bacterial decomposition as “illness”.

  32. One thing that atheists can get worked up is the harm done by organized religion down the ages: wars and stuff.
    And they can also be impressed and inspired by their charity and humanitarian work. The fact is, most people across the globe are to some degree religious, and it’s impossible to distinguish between causation and correlation analyzing such an enormous phenomenon. You could theoretically cite sats or whatever to show that the ostensibly devout commit more crimes or are bad in some other way, but that isn’t the question. The question is, “Would these people be better off or not without religion?” and I’m tempted to think to hubris to say we do, can, or will ever know. That’s probably what you meant by “guilt by association.”
    On the hand, if we want to get our hands around the value of religion at all (a big “if,” though I too find myself spending more time arguing with smug New Atheists than pious nutbars) — if we want to assess its influence at all, to whatever minimal degree we can, avoiding our own obvious and not-so-obvious biases (you can see my skepticism about the depth of such a project in the paragraph above) — then the only way to do it is to accept all religious phenomena at face value, to tally in the plus column charity, cathedrals, and sonnets, and in the minus column bigotry and slaughter. Again, because the phenomenon is so enormous, any time we explain why a charity doesn’t at root stem from the religion that bears its name, we’re only revealing our own biases. I’m not saying this is a way to get at the truth (I’m not sure we can); I’m saying if we’re going to be asking these broad questions, making these enormous assessments, it’s the only way to do it fairly.

  33. “…I’m tempted to think IT hubris to say we do, can, or EVER will know,” — that should have been, the first mistake having been a typo, the second stylistic.

  34. I too find myself spending more time arguing with smug New Atheists than pious nutbars
    To prepare myelf for both sides I even read the first half of this book (before, as usual, I got sidetracked), a polemical takedown of the New Athiests by a guy who believes (and says in his intro) that Thomist philosophy, read carefully enough, can prove that gay marriage is WRONG. I never would have bothered with the book if the TLS reviewer, Anthony Kenny, hadn’t treated it so respectfully (I’d provide a link, but the page that the review should be on, though it popped up in my search results, linked to an empty page, about which I’ve sent a missive), and though I don’t regret the time spent — William Feser, the author, writes well and is no dummy — even the most careful metaphysics won’t persuade me that gay people shouldn’t be allowed to marry, or do anything else for that matter that doesn’t cause real, as opposed to imaginary or esoteric, harm.

  35. a polemical takedown of the New Athiests by a guy who believes (and says in his intro) that Thomist philosophy, read carefully enough, can prove that gay marriage is WRONG. I never would have bothered with the book if the TLS reviewer, Anthony Kenny, hadn’t treated it so respectfully … William Feser, the author, writes well and is no dummy
    No one should be genuinely surprised that something far-out and big-deal like the bible, the complete Aquinas or Professor X on quantum gravity is again being wheeled in to support a banal opinion on a subject that exercises the masses, such as whether gay marriage is WRONG. “Read carefully enough” and “respecfully” are PR puffery. That’s one way books are sold.
    But is there reasonable cause for alarm when a reader encounters a crappy book by a favorite author whose other books have put that reader in seventh heaven ? Why are some people shaken to their foundations (“How is this possible ??”) when they learn that a father of two children is charged with sexually assaulting and murdering a child (current court case in Germany) ? Answer: they have confused expectation with knowledge, and have forgotten – if they ever learned – that neither of these can be relied on forever.
    Crime was not invented yesterday, and is not caused by insincerity. Moralizers tend to wheel out the big guns of sincerity, right and wrong, becuase that’s exciting and everyone can play – moralizing is reassuring. The purpose of morality is to conjure up certainty in an uncertain world. Some people can live with uncertainty, not everyone can.

  36. To prepare myelf for both sides I even read the first half of this book
    Er, what book? Even Hattic magic can’t fix it, because your comment has “<a>this book</a>.” (N.b.: This is why I deprecate the practice of making readers click through to find out what’s being talked about; not only is it mildly annoying on the face of it, but if you bork the link it graduates to seriously annoying.)

  37. Oh, sorry, Hat — didn’t know you deprecated the practice. The book is “The Last Superstition,” by William Feser, and here hopefully is the unborked link.

  38. No one should be genuinely surprised that something far-out and big-deal like the bible, the complete Aquinas or Professor X on quantum gravity is again being wheeled in to support a banal opinion on a subject that exercises the masses, such as whether gay marriage is WRONG. “Read carefully enough” and “respecfully” are PR puffery. That’s one way books are sold.
    I never said I was surprised that the book was written. And an author’s claims, and critic’s opinion, can be mistaken without being PR puffery.

  39. Well, you wrote that you would never have bothered with the book if the TLS reviewer hadn’t treated it respectfully. I would respectfully point out that TLS reviewers are famous for being professionally respectful. “Respectful” is a dramaturgic feature like big tits, which tell you nothing about the books.

  40. Fuck! EDWARD Feser, that is — and I borked the link again!

  41. Well, you wrote that you would never have bothered with the book if the TLS reviewer hadn’t treated it respectfully. I would respectfully point out that TLS reviewers are famous for being professionally respectful. “Respectful” is a dramaturgic feature like big tits, which tell you nothing about the books.
    The TLS trashes a lot of books, albeit sometimes with a veneer of respect other magazines don’t bother to apply; this wasn’t the case here: Kenny respected, even somewhat admired, the book. Maybe that’s what I should have written to start, although I thought my first meaning was clear. Then again, as always, I’m digging your style, Stu.

  42. Thanks, Jim. You are one of the few people who recognize my catwalking for what it is.

  43. I’m glad we’ve made up, Stu. It’s been rough over on this end of the world, and I didn’t enjoy fighting with you on top of it.

  44. I’m glad we’ve made up, Stu. It’s been rough over on this end of the world, and I didn’t enjoy fighting with you on top of it.

  45. J.W. Brewer says:

    The Baha’i are apparently (per some quick googling) not enthusiasts for the cause of same-sex marriage; perhaps that relates to their understanding of some of the technical terms in the original post (although perhaps not).
    Presumably one of the troubles with these “New Atheists” is they do not adopt a Grumbly status of skepticism toward the whole activity of moralizing but instead tirelessly moralize on the basis of various preposterous (but labelled as non-religious) superstitions they hold for unexamined and irrational reasons.

  46. By the way, over the years I have known a few people with that kind of pain problem, and even had a very minor experience myself decades ago. I find it very difficult to know “what to think” about this matter, specifically and in general – if indeed it is a single matter, and not several, in various combinations in different instances.
    What I believe today is that everything should be looked into, not instead of but in addition to “standard medicine”. Caring gives you the courage to move beyond dogma.

  47. Caring gives you the courage to move beyond dogma.
    Very true, and well said.

  48. Our problem is that we live in an area cholk-full of practitioners of alternative medicine (including my parents), and they’re all so cocksure of their treatments that when we politely decline a phone number or consultation, people assume we’re just being lazy or dogmatic, when the truth is that if we pursued every alternative treatment offered we would have time for nothing else, not to mention the fact that it’s painful for Robin to get in the car and sit in waiting rooms, and that the procedures themselves (good intentions notwithstanding) might do a lot of damage. Plus, her pain is pretty local; it’s not chronic pain, as would be caused by a disease, and we have had plenty of blood work. One of the few physicians we trust is sure that she has a serious acute injury in her back that the doctors just haven’t identified yet — wouldn’t be the first time. So far now, in part to play it safe and follow doctor’s orders — and also out of sheer exhaustion — we’re sticking to the pain management plan, following up with traditional doctors for further tests, and keeping the alternative stuff at a minimum: this after years of acupuncture, visits to chiropractors, and even, literally, a few applications of snake venom.

  49. not only is it mildly annoying on the face of it, but if you bork the link it graduates to seriously annoying.
    I can see now that’s obviously the case; I guess I was just so taken with my linking powers to realize that they’re pretty old hat. I’m not great with computers.

  50. Another of our problems is that people don’t realize how severe Robin’s pain is; they think (and I’m not including you in this), “I’ve had some chronic pain, I dealt with it, why can’t she?” or, “I’ve had some really bad pain, I searched all over and finally found something that helped — why can’t she?” or even, “I’ve had really bad chronic pain — I know what she’s going through.” I’m sorry, but no, you (imaginary person we’ve encountered endlessly) don’t; empathy is a wonderful thing, but it’s also dangerous, because people tend to overestimate its power. The degree of something defines it. Something that’s like something is not that thing. A few years ago, I kicked meth and heroin, and escaped a rigid state-imposed probation; then I was running six miles a day, squatting over four hundred pounds, dropping body fat at will, and finding the time to write a book that got published: I thought it was all about trying hard, having the will to push through. Now, just being on the periphery of what Robin’s going through — seeing her limp around and sob every day (and this is a vast improvement over what life was like before pain management: at least we’re not taking regular trips to the hospital in the hope that they can do something) — most days I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, let alone her. When I think of how smug I used to be five years ago, it makes me sick — but how could I have known?

  51. It’s not hard to feel omnipotent when you’re alone.
    I was not thinking of things like aromatherapy – it wouldn’t work with me unless I were desperate, but that’s what it’s all about, right ? Instead I had in mind certain astonishing practices which, although hardly “standard medicine”, have established themselves in German medical practice with surprising rapidity. I suppose you could say they are based on a conscious placebo effect.
    For instance, I saw on tv that some German physiotherapists use mirrors to deal with the “phantom pain” that amputees have. Imagine a person without his left leg. As he sits in a chair, a physiotherapist places a large square mirror “in front” of where the left leg should be – all open and above-board. Somehow, over several sessions – the tv report didn’t go into the details – the patient is coaxed (more often than not) into experiencing a lasting perceptual change – considerably lessened pain – on the basis of seeing a left leg which is only the mirror image of his right one. Fighting real imaginary phantoms with imaginary real phantoms !
    This kind of insight requires an ability to take radical epistemic constructivism seriously – in addition to, not instead of, being unable to make sense of it in everyday life. Medical science over the centuries had a hard time overcoming fears about the integrity of body and soul. But today we can still eat, drink and screw without a care, only seeking out the doc to get rid of that pesky herpes.
    Now cognition is being anatomized, although certain provisional results are grossly overinterpreted, as is usual with publicistically savvy scientists. But so what ? This is all quite familiar in the form of The Gynecologist’s Dilemma – I simply must write that blogpost after all.

  52. I’m just riffing here, not trying to diagnose Robin’s problem.

  53. How embarassing. I already sketched in my ideas about the Gynecologist’s Dilemma here last year.

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