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Marco Polo’s Unicorn.

Towards the end of high-school, a close friend of the family suffered from a stroke that left him without the ability to read with any sustained proficiency. As such, M---- D---- gave me his collection of books that he had acquired over the years. He had majored in literature and the collection contained a good cross-section of the Western cannon – great books – from the inception of the Spanish novel through Dickens and Dostoevsky to the authors of the Latin American boom. There was much poetry, 18th century English and French verse and anthologies of Bronze Age Greeks.

I can remember sitting with M---- D---- in hospital and talking of Nietzsche, Sartre and Camus and his smile of recognition and happiness that I was taking pleasure in reading and literature. That the books were going to good use. Whilst perpetually curious and striving for understanding, up to this point I had allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education. The collection was fuel to the fire. Among my favourites, the philosophical essays of Sartre and the novels of Camus helped to forge my own sense of self and my own set of principles without appeal to the eternal which I instinctively rejected. The eternal distinct of course, from eternity captured in the works of William Blake:

He who binds to himself a joy
Doth the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise.”

To understand the concept of eternity, which I discovered in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, it took years, the last stanza of Several Questions Answers and an acid trip to resolve that paradox of the ephemeral and yet ever present instant. The tab of acid which induced this epiphany, taken without thought during a rather drunken New Year’s Eve party, had produced a state of timelessness in which minutes seemed to last forever. In this state, conscious of my condition, I contemplated Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell and one particular line:

"If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite"

The key phrase “doors of perception” was later borrowed by Aldus Huxley, for the title of a book reflecting on his experience with mescaline. Not that I would indulge Huxley’s views on the educative use of mescaline or that the drug can cleanse the doors of perception by undermining the supposed “eliminative function” of the brain allowing one to perceive pure reality without mediation; but the effect of time elongation produced by the acid trip did exemplify the notion, each moment stretched out into an eternity of excruciating self-referential dialogue on books, character and destiny. Of course, perception is not a function of elimination but rather an act of construction. The solipsist Bishop Berkeley, not Blake or Huxley, was closer to the mark. Dual perceptive optical illusions demonstrate how perception is a function of ‘noticing an aspect’ which the brain constructs in conjunction with our previous experience into our picture of reality – only until we shift focus and recreate the picture yet again. Acid does not expand consciousness, in the sense suggested by Huxley's imitators; it merely interferes with how the brain interprets perceptual data allowing for the illusion of insight. The epiphany on eternity, less the result of true insight into the nature of reality was more likely the outcome of previously acquired mental furnishings: the accumulation of books and memories of casual café conversations.

The Venetian traveller Marco Polo, while journeying through Asia found rhinoceroses and saw unicorns. The point here is that books and myths, previously accumulated mental furnishings, inform our understanding and perception of the world (this should be taken as a simple statement of fact: there is no sociological or literary substitute for epistemology). Marco Polo saw unicorns, because European folklore had led him to believe that is what he was seeing.

Written by Mathew Toll.


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