Flatland is a term borrowed from the philosophy of Ken Wilber (thank you Ken), because it is considered an apt one to describe many of the conundrums we face in the postmodern world and which this essay will explore. In an immediate sense flatland is a metaphor: it indicates a consciousness restricted to two dimensions when, in fact, reality consists of three. (In this essay we are only considering space and not time, as well as ignoring – for the present – the more adventurous multidimensional theories in modern physics.)
To explore this concept further I will be choosing and exploring several terms that are in modern and common usage to indicate how flatland operates, but also to explore how it can be superseded with depth and substance… even soul.
1 a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
2 a widely held but false belief or idea:
- a misrepresentation of the truth.
- a fictitious or imaginary person or thing.
- an exaggerated or idealised conception of a person or thing.
How disparate are these two parts of the definition? Although they do encapsulate the fundamental paradox with which we are dealing. A little imaginative appraisal may help give some provide context to these seemingly irreconcilable subsections. For example, if we take a trip back into the past it would easy to imagine that the former definition would hold more, even total, sway. Myth and mythology are commonly identified with the early history of our civilisation, most particularly the Greek and Roman. This identification places these civilisations in a past, or the dawn of what we consider to be our advanced and progressive modern civilisation, so rendering them primitive or immature.
Our modern position is grounded in the scientific, rational and technological. (I could add other terms, but these should suffice and give the flavour of the argument.) This position inadvertently almost deifies reality, a deification that is helped by the marginalisation of religion. With our oppositional tendency we tend to belittle mythology because it is “traditional” (from the past), a “story” (a tale, belonging to the nursery) and “involving supernatural beings or events” (or not real). All of this is quite pejorative if taken together and easily gives rise to the second definition, so much so that this would now appear the dominant one, aided and abetted by the terminology trivialisation and “flattening” that occurs in the media and across the electronic wavelengths.
Yet maybe the first definition requires restoration. This may necessitate a relativisation of our current arrogant and culturally superior attitude and even a recognition that progress is neither inevitable or linear: indeed many cultures with a vastly greater appreciation of time and civilisation, such as the subcontinent Indian, view time and culture as cyclic, and that we may be in the declining end of one great cycle now (called the Kali Yuga). A first step would be to reconnect with the wisdom of myth, here and henceforth according to the first definition, which the pioneers of the psychoanalytic movement have done, although often to differing conclusions regarding its relevance to modern man. This is not a regressive step, but a necessary reconnection with undercurrents to both ourselves and also our culture, from which we have become separated.
In this view myth and reality are two sides of the same coin, pointing in differing yet complementary directions; here we enter the world of enigma and paradox. This position provides depth and takes us beyond flatland, it is also a process still in operation. If we examine the lives of great men and women in recent history we can observe that their personal history increasingly takes on a mythic capacity, which makes their personal story both relative and subsumed by the mythic process. Their lives become stories, narratives develop into myths; take the lives of John F Kennedy and Winston Churchill as two examples. It is as if the mythification process becomes an increasing demand, an imperative, as the immediate linearity of the progression of time sinks – deepens – into the cyclical nature of history.
a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.
- a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.
- a misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.
- a person or thing that is popular or fashionable, esp. among a particular section of society.
Most of the arguments that where proposed about myth are also relevant here; so much so that they could be considered to form a thesis about modern culture and the flatland tendency of it. There is also a strong indirect association with the modern concept of magic. Yet it may be wise to see “cult” as derived from the broader and more inclusive term “culture” to gain even further depth and support the argument further:
the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
- a refined understanding or appreciation of this.
- the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.
- the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of a particular social group.
Herein depth is readily apparent, as is the association with creativity… but let us come to this a little more circuitously.
the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.
- the ability of the mind to be creative or resourceful.
- the part of the mind that imagines things.
In our modern dualistic manner we characteristically separate complementary pairs and put them in opposition to each other: imagination loses out to reality.
Reality is governed by the Newtonian worldview – still. In spite of Einstein’s relativity theory and the advances of quantum mechanics, we still tend to see the world as ordered in a grid of space, governed by the linearity of time and the permanence of physical matter. Relativity sees time and space to form a network that is more fluid and interchangeable and, together with quantum theory, sees matter as both an expression of energy and to have a relatively illusory nature.
This emerging world of process and interchangeability appears to our ordered reality-based consciousness as disturbing: it appears grey, opaque and even chaotic. The irony is that in a world marked – even deified – by progress, this is indeed a progression beyond mechanical reality, but leaves us fearful and insecure. Maybe restoring the importance, even primacy of imagination will help gain some footing in this strange and brave new world.
The first part of the definition excludes the external with “not present to the senses”, although the implied reference of imagination to “external objects” alone is somewhat restrictive to the introverted tendency; then again, extraversion usually wins in this modern complementary battle. The “faculty or action” could – imaginatively maybe – be linked with the “creative” ability that immediately follows. Certainly the link between creativity and the imagination is strong; plus the further link with the boundaries of the mind, which border on eccentricity (at the least) and madness (at worst) that have long been established and will need to be left here – so vast is the field.
But what exactly is creativity? Interestingly many of a psychoanalytic orientation would count creativity as an instinct, implying it is present in us all. Such a view holds that the familiar four instincts (feeding, sex, fighting, escaping danger or fleeing) are defined by animal studies and have more human and humanistic analogues (nurturing, human sexuality, aggression, receptivity respectively), with the addition of creativity as a fifth instinct. Whilst at first this seems to be drawing a long bow, there is some deeper wisdom implied: Creativity both humanises the instincts and relates them as facets of the mind, not just restricted to the body and relegated to inferiority.
Yet what is this “mind” that is “creative” and “imagines things”? From the above it can be seen that creativity, although at one level an instinct (and hence of the body), is also part of the mind, so providing a bridge to overcome the dualistic splitting of mind and body. What “part of the mind” is being referred to here? If the thesis that this at least contains the instinctual dimension – and hence, indirectly, the body – is correct, it also implies emotion and mood, as do all the instincts if considered from the human perspective. What we are drawn to conclude is that the mind is not restricted to our rational selves or even our intellectual capacities, but extends to the moods, emotions, instincts, and even the body: a truly holistic vision.
Is imagination restricted to this rather personalised view of mind, which could be readily equated with the physical brain, or does it extend beyond? Certainly many disciplines would argue for an intimate relationship between mind and brain, but do not see them synonymously in the way a reductive, mechanical science – such as modern medicine – would. This greater aspect of mind is inferred if we connect the definition of imagination with those of myth and cult that preceded it. Is this valid? It is, if the fact that the definition perspective of imagination in the modern mind is considered in a parallel manner to myth and cult; the pattern is identical. Maybe this extended view of mind also approximates to what in other times and cultures is called the soul.
the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal.
- a person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.
- the essence of something.
- emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, esp. as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance.
Maybe this says it all. Of interest here, according to the arguments presented above, is that the “immaterial part” – or Einstein’s energy equivalent of matter – is “regarded as immortal”. There are many further strands of thought that could be explored here, but maybe we will have to restrict ourselves to what is to follow.
Of further interest, given the discussion immediately prior, is the inclusion of “emotional” and “artistic”, thus bringing the imagination and soul together as a unified whole. This gives an extended and deeper vision to the word “whole” and the more modern term “holism”, which is related to “holy” and even “halo” etymologically via the Old English word “hal”.
1 belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.
2 belief characterised by self-delusion or dreamy confusion of thought, esp. when based on the assumption of occult qualities or mysterious agencies.
The pattern continues: juxtaposed are the complementary views espoused earlier when exploring the definitions of myth and cult. It would seem that the modern intellectual sensibility is itself related to the “confusion of thought” in the second part of the definition. Even the denigration of the word “dreamy” forms a subset of the argument in this essay that could be similarly explored.
All that notwithstanding the pattern continues, even to the point that a thesis could be drawn around these marginal definitions, which I am tempted to define by the term “liminal”:
occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
But back to mysticism or, at least, the first part of the definition, which is possibly better appreciated by looking at an associated term:
something that is difficult or impossible to understand or explain.
- the condition or quality of being secret, strange, or difficult to explain.
- a person or thing whose identity or nature is puzzling or unknown.
The words enigma, riddle and paradox also spring to mind. This naturally leads to our last definition:
the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.
- mysterious tricks, such as making things disappear and appear again, performed as entertainment.
- a quality that makes something seem removed from everyday life, esp. in a way that gives delight.
- informal something that has such a quality.
As an aside, if magic is used as an adjective – as in the modern vernacular – then the rather dualistic pattern of the earlier terms emerges once again. As does the connection with the supernatural of the “myth” definition, above. Although the “mysterious tricks” sounds like a description of a stage magician, the tone would change if “performed as entertainment” were changed to “conducted in ritual and ceremony”.
We are moving into some strange territory, defined more by associative thinking than rational logic. Is there any credence to this approach? The psychoanalytic movement recognised that associative thinking moves us between levels of reality, or the “conscious” and “unconscious” in their terminology. These are terms we now apply to “depth psychology”, which provides a metaphorical contrast to flatland and etymologically justifies this sort of thinking in the present context.
What conclusions can be drawn from this foray into a dense forest? That associative thinking, the use of analogy and metaphor, plus a liberal sprinkling of creative and narrative interjection takes us beyond flatland. In psychological parlance, being “conscious” equates to being anchored in reality (the term “anchored” is not lightly chosen) and represented by the term “ego”: so what then is the “unconscious”?
The unconscious demands depth and takes us beyond flatland. But it is a term that is becoming anachronistic; for example, unconscious with reference to what? The simple answer is ego-consciousness, which is defined in relation to flatland. The analysis of magic and mysticism indicate that other positions may be taken. The mystical position is of one immersed in the spiritual world, but the magical one implies one who moves between the two and is able to manipulate daily reality from that position. Maybe a little further differentiation of this “unconscious” is in order.
In this analysis the term “soul” would equate to the marginal – or liminal – position between reality and the unknowable. Janus-like it looks both ways; into on the one side a knowable reality defined by the external world and on the other a vast unknowable universe, both without and within. Soul rests deep within or beyond us with the characteristics noted and further implied in the above definition. It is coloured by emotion, marked by our creative impulse and is the animating principle that sustains the body.
Looking the other way soul connects us with the world of spirit. Immersed in the divine we become mystics, but if we mediate it into reality then we are magicians. Yet to have such a choice we must face the fears of leaving our reality-based consciousness; fears such as isolation, lack of meaning and death. We cannot genuinely approach the divine unless we face the issues that limit us to flatland: Justifiable they may be to all around us, but not so to the soul.