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The Hallucinogenic Power of Words

I have a very visual approach to writing. No, not just a visual, a sensory approach to writing. Something, or more likely many, many things, appear in my head, and I must capture them. I am always trying to not just paint a picture, but to paint sound, movement, and atmosphere.

This, to my eternal frustration, is impossible. A picture paints a thousand words, but a thousand words do not make a picture. No matter how much I – or any other in my place – try, I will not be able to accurately communicate what I see in my head.

This could be well seen as a criticism against my writing, perhaps even a fault of my character as a writer. Not that I fail in this regard (for it is impossible), but that I am so focused on trying. I am, perhaps, more interested in these efforts at communication, than I am in the stories themselves. My approach is often cinematic in intent, and when I’m trying to illustrate sounds, sights, movements and cinematic atmosphere in words I feel like I’m trying to draw blood from a collapsed vein.

Not that writing doesn’t have atmosphere of its own. The atmosphere of the cinema is the sensory atmosphere, while the atmosphere of the book is a cerebral atmosphere, crafted, received and understood in an entirely different way.

You may ask, if I am trying so hard to replicate a movie, why I do not go into making movies, or if I am so interested in painting a particular picture, why I am not a painter. Partly because I (think I) know how to write, and am better at it than I am at anything else. I do not know how to make movies, or paint pictures – and both these talents require quite a lot more expenditure and set-up than just putting pen to paper/fingers to keys. Another reason is that I have simply more interest in writing than these other fields; I can imagine myself as a writer, but not really as the others, nor am I much inclined to try.

There is one more reason, a reason why, if I was to turn to these fields and, against all odds, excel at them, why I would still be in eternal frustration. The pictures, sounds, feelings, atmospheres, textures and all other ideas in my head are transient, flickering and completely elusive; they last less than a second. They are never concrete, not in the slightest, but merely vague concepts and shadows. I’ll understand them, sometime a little, sometimes completely – but I could never define them, I could never capture them, not to canvas nor film. Apart from anything else, there is simply not enough time – like trying to catch the fastest and smartest of butterflies in a broken net.

These are not the only reasons. For all us authors’ failures to replicate the magic, pathos, dynamics, drama, and sensory thrill of movies, our writing has its own strengths that movies cannot replicate.

Movies are the kings of crafting experiences born of the senses, of the outside world, but they are slaves to these things. For what about the inner world? Bar using narration – likely stolen from the book-before-the-film – what can a film tell us of what’s going on inside someone’s heads, of their actionless intentions, their dreams, their thoughts? How are these characters perceiving the world, perceiving conversations, perceiving the people they interact with?

It is this where the written word reigns king. Novels are the inside world. They are the behind-the-scenes of the movies (or, conversely, movies are the eyes and ears of novels). And it is this, this inner voice that has its way with everything, with every spoken word, every person, every animal, every rock, tree, blade of glass, every knife and drop of blood – it is this that I can control, that I can send out like a dog to war.

A movie can show you what a tree looks like, but it can never tell you how to perceive it. It cannot tell you that this tree looks like a cluster of crooked fingers, stabbing the sky. That the tree looks angry, and broken, old not in time but in weariness. That the tree is sick, not by disease but by bitterness. It cannot tell you that the few green leaves of the coming spring are its last plaintive calls of hope.

This is where I come to the title of this essay/speech/post/observation/whatever.  For, you see, cinema has always failed at attempting to replicate the experience of hallucinogenics. It will, perhaps, show you a new, absurd land, of melting walls, snakes in the carpet, talking lizards, giant purple mushrooms, pink elephants, cavorting spirals and dodecahedrons, and everything quite madcap, like a fairytale, a fantastical nightmare, or a Dali painting.  Out of all these, perhaps only the melting and the abstract geometry (fractals is the key word) have much of a truth to them. You can watch as many things attempting to describe the hallucinogenic experience to you, and you will never understand, because the key component, your brain, has stayed the same.

For, as I have said, movies show you things. They deliver their goods unto your eyes and ears, and they can give these goods in whatever package they desire. But they cannot give you anything direct to your brain; your brain will remain entirely yours, always rational (assuming you are already rational), and never screwed with.

Hallucinogenics, on the other hand, leave your eyes and ears alone. You will still see the same lamp, the same desk, the same ceiling and walls, and the very same people around you. Your eyes and ears are fine; they do the job as they have always done, and they give their reports to the brain, and then they get the fuck out of there, washing their hands and saying ‘what happens next is none of my business’.

Yes, your senses are still working perfectly, and that lamp will never change to a demon, that ceiling will never drip tentacles, and that desk will never start talking to you.

However.

What is happening is inside you. Your perspective is what changes. The changing perspectives of the mind is something movies cannot meddle with; it is quite impossible, no matter what tricks they have up their sleeve to make you think they are succeeding.

But words! All those abstract passages, sentences, and mere standalone metaphors and similies that you have no doubt read many of, to greater or lesser degrees, in your life – they are all illustrations of perspective. That tree is not really a hand; you are, of course, still seeing a tree, but doesn’t it make you think . . . perhaps enough to be completely convinced . . .

The brain can be very convincing at these times. Not just with drug-induced hallucinations, but in ‘ordinary’ hallucinations, in the fleeting phantasms of the night, of the corners of our eyes, of those quick, frightening things that scurry in and out of this world just long enough for us to hear something and imagine something else.

Writing can tell you what’s going on in the inside, but not the outside. And so while it cannot show you the real colour of the leaves, or the real sound of the cough right behind you, right now, it can tell you, as best it can, better than anything really can, what’s going on in your head, in my head, and in the heads of my characters.

And that is why I write.

 

fractals