If you have ever wondered whether you were crazy when everyone else claims to see things differently than you do, this is the episode for you.
Book clubs are everywhere and we are always asked for book recommendations. But what about the great Essays, Interviews, Conversations, Aphorisms, Shaggy Dog Stories, Lyrics, Courtroom Testimonies, Poems, Movie Scenes, Jokes and the like? Sadly, there is almost never a club in which to discuss them. Yet there are Essays and offerings in other intellectual formats that are just as profound and meaningful as any book while having the advantage of being much more in keeping with modern attention spans. The Portal seeks to fill this obvious lacuna.
We thus finish out the regular first year of the Portal Podcast with an inaugural episode of an experiment: The Portal Essay Club. In this episode Eric reads aloud an astonishing essay from 1944 by Arthur Koestler which changed his world. In the essay, Koestler wrestles with a difficult question that has plagued independent thinkers for ages: what if everyone who is supposedly ‘normal’ is actually a maniac living in a dream world? What if the only sane ones appear crazy just as the crazy appear sane?
During the episode, Eric first reads aloud the essay “The Nightmare That Is A Reality.” and then discusses paragraph by paragraph what makes this one of the most profound yet often forgotten essays to have appeared within the twilight of living memory (1944 as it happens). We hope you will enjoy this experiment and let us know what you would like to see appear next in this series.
Thanks for a great first year.
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Eric’s reading of “The Nightmare That Is a Reality” by Arthur Koestler (the subject of this episode) can be heard in the video below.
Eric Weinstein: Hello, you found The Portal. I’m your host, Eric Weinstein with a new experiment for this episode. The idea for this episode grows out of a familiar question, what are your top 10 book recommendations? Now this is a question that I’m asked so frequently that I have sadly become somewhat numb to it by now. In contrast, I do not believe that I’ve ever been asked for my top recommendations for essays or speeches, lectures, conversations, short stories, lyrics or interviews. And perhaps once in a blue moon, I’m still asked for my poetry recommendations, although even that seems to have trailed off in recent years. So I’d like to close out the regular programming for this the inaugural year of The Portal by trying to entice you all into daring to think about books somewhat less in relation to all of the other marvelous forms in which rich and meaningful thinking are communicated. So let’s look at all the great book clubs, both online and in real life. Keep doing the great job that they’ve been doing of talking about books, but for The Portal, let’s pick up essays, speeches and the like, since they are trading at a deep and unexplicable discount given the modern attention span and the amount of top material available.
Thus, I thought I would start with perhaps the most meaningful essay I have ever discovered on my own, before exploring other non book formats on future episodes. The essay I’m going to read to you is from January 9 of 1944. Now, after the war, we would learn that in just three months of operation Reinhardt, that is September, October, November of 1942, over one and a quarter million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the heart of Europe. This essay comes from more than one year later, after this most terrible and organized of all murder sprees. Only I don’t see this essay as being particularly tied to its time. Instead, it is an eternal lesson to me, for the author Arthur Koestler is trying to tell the reader something that is, in equal terms, desperate, essential, impossible, and timeless. He is desperate because he has a message to share with the world before more lives are snuffed out, and you can practically hear the sounds of the dwindling hourglass sands that goad him as he writes. And what he has to say is timeless, because, in every era, there’s a situation such as the one he describes here.
After some brief messages, I will be back with Arthur Koestler and his 1944 essay, “The nightmare that is a reality,” from the January 9 edition of The New York Times of that year, which can sometimes be found under the title “On Disbelieving Atrocities”. After that, we will hear from our sponsors one last time before discussion of the meaning of this astonishing essay.
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And now the reading of this episode’s essay by Arthur Koestler. This essay is entitled, “The nightmare that is a reality”. It was published on January 9 in 1944 in the New York times by Arthur Koestler.
“There’s a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals. It is dark, and I’m being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood. There is a busy road at no more than 10 yards distance, and I scream for help, but nobody hears me. The crowd walks past laughing and chatting.
“I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I’ve quarreled about it with analysts and I believe it to be an archetype in the Jungian sense, an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness when faced with death and cosmic violence, and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience. I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.
“For, after all, you are the crowd walk past laughing on the road. And there are a few of us, escaped victims, or eyewitnesses of the things which happened in the thicket, and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theaters and cinemas. Now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute, I know that each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces, a faint, glassy stare entering your eye. And I tell myself now you have them, hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake. But it only lasts a minute. You shake yourself like puppies, we’ve got their feet wet. Then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on protected by the dream barrier which stifles all sound.
“We, the screamers, have been at it now for about 10 years. We started on the night when the epileptic Vann de Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament; we said, if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world; you thought we were maniacs. At present we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing by hot steam, by mass electrocution, and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe. So far 3 million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history, and it goes on daily, hourly as regularly as the ticking of your watch.
“I have photographs before me on the desk while I’m writing this, and that accounts for my emotion and bitterness. People died to smuggle them out of Poland; they thought it was worthwhile. The facts have been published in pamphlets, white books, newspapers and magazines and whatnot. But the other day I met one of the best known American journalists over here. And he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey, nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believe that the Nazis commit atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda and lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.
“As to this country, I’ve been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps. They don’t believe in the starved children of Greece, in the shot hostages of France, in the mass graves of Poland. They have never heard of Lidice, Treblinka, or Belzec. You can convince them for an hour, then they shake themselves, their mental self defense begins to work, and in a week, the shrug of incredulity has resumed like a reflex temporarily weakened by a shock.
“Clearly all this is becoming a mania with me and my like. Clearly we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal, but the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a fantasy world. So perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in sound in healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened fantasy world, because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were it not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your daydreaming eyes would still be alive.
“I said “perhaps,” because obviously the above can only be half the truth. There have been screamers at all times, prophets, preachers, teachers and cranks, cursing the obtuseness of their contemporaries and the situation patterns remain very much the same. There are always the screamers screaming from the thicket, and the people who pass by on the road. They have ears but hear not. They have eyes, but see not. So the roots of this must lie deeper than mere obtuseness.
“Is it perhaps the fault of the screamers? Sometimes no doubt, but I do not believe this to be the core matter. Amos, Hosea and Jeremiah were pretty good propagandists, and yet they failed to shake their people and to warn them. Cassandra’s voice was said to have pierced walls, and yet the Trojan War took place. And at our end of the chain, in due proportion, I believe that, on the whole, the MOA and the BBC are quite competent at their job. For almost three years, they had to keep this country going on nothing but defeats, and they succeeded.
“But at the same time, they lamentably failed to imbue the people with anything approaching a full awareness of what it was all about, of the grandeur and horror of the time into which they were born. They carried on business-as-usual style, with the only difference that the routine of this business included killing and being killed. Matter-of-fact, unimaginativeness has become a kind of Anglo-Saxon racial myth. It is usually opposed to Latin hysterics and praised for its high value in an emergency. But the myth does not say what happens between emergencies, and that same quality is responsible for the failure to prevent their reoccurrence.
“In fact, this limitation of awareness is not an Anglo-Saxon privilege, though they are probably the only race which claims as an asset what others regard as a deficiency. Nor is it a matter of temperament; Stoics have wider horizons than fanatics. It is a psychological fact inherent in our mental frame, which I believe has not been given sufficient attention in social psychology or political theory.
“We say “I believe this” or “I don’t believe that,” “I know it” or “I don’t know it,” and regard these as black-and-white alternatives. In reality, “knowing” and “believing” have varying degrees of intensity. I know that there was a man called Spartacus who led the Roman slaves into revolt, but my belief in his one-time existence is much paler than that of, say, Lenin. I believe in spiral nebulae, can see them in a telescope and express their distance in figures, but they have a lower degree of reality for me than the inkpot on my table.
“Distance and space and time degrades intensity of awareness. So does magnitude. Seventeen is a figure which I know intimately like a friend; fifty billions is just a sound. A dog run over by a car upsets our emotional balance and digestion; three million Jews killed in Poland causes but a moderate uneasiness. Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts. We are unable to embrace the total process with our awareness, we can only focus on little lumps of reality.
“So far all this is a matter of degrees; of gradations, and the intensity of knowing and believing. But when we pass the realm of the finite, and are faced with words like eternity in time, infinity of space, that is, when we approach the sphere of the Absolute, our reaction ceases to be a matter of degrees and becomes different in quality. Faced with the Absolute, understanding breaks down and our “knowing” and “believing” is lip-service.
“Death, for instance, belongs to the category of the Absolute, and our belief in it is merely a lip-service belief. I “know” that, the average statistical age being about 65, I may reasonably expect to live no more than another twenty-seven years, but if I knew for certain I should die on November 30, 1970, at 5 A.M., I would be poisoned by this knowledge, count and recount the remaining days and hours and grudge myself every wasted minute, in other words, develop a neurosis. This has nothing to do with hopes to live longer than the average; if the date were fixed 10 years later, the neurosis-forming process would remain the same.
“Thus, we all live in a state of split consciousness. There is a tragic plane and a trivial plane, which contained two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge. Their climate and language are as different as church Latin from business slang.
“These limitations of awareness account for the limitations of enlightenment by propaganda. People go to cinemas they see films of Nazi tortures of mass shootings of underground conspiracy and self-sacrifice. They sigh, they shake their heads, some have a good cry, but they do not connect it with the realities of the normal plane of existence. It is romance, it is art, it is Those Higher Things, it is church Latin. It does not click with reality. We live in a society of the Jekyll and Hyde pattern magnified into gigantic proportions.
“This was, however, not always the case to the same extent. There were periods and movements in history—in Athens, in the early Renaissance, during the first years of the Russian Revolution—when at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration; times, when people seem to rub their eyes and come awake, when their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were “contemporaries” in a much broader and fuller sense; when the trivial and the cosmic planes seemed on the point of fusing.
“And there were periods of disintegration and dissociation. But never before, not even during the spectacular decay of Rome and Byzantium, was split thinking so palpably evident, such a uniform mass-disease; did human psychology reached such a height of phoneyness. Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand; the world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners, each in his private, portable cage. And, meanwhile, the watch goes on ticking. What can the screamers do, but go on screaming until they get blue in the face?
“I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings—an average of ten a week. He is a well-known London publisher. Before each meeting he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes and imagine in detail, for twenty minutes, that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death-train. Another day, he had to dig his grave with two hundred others, and then face a machine gun, which of course is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked. He kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audience, and perhaps he has done some good. Perhaps he brought the two planes divided by miles of distance and inch closer to each other.
“I think one should imitate his example, two minutes of this kind of exercise per day, with closed eyes after reading the morning paper, are, at present, more necessary to us than physical jerks and breathing the yogi way. It might even be a substitute for going to church, for, as long as there are people on the road, and victims in the thicket, divided by dream barriers, this will remain a phoney civilization.”
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Okay, so having read the essay aloud, what I thought we might try to do in this inaugural experimental episode is to try to explore what the essay means—why I’m choosing it. So what I thought I might offer up is just an off-the-cuff discussion of the parts of the essay that I find to be most salient and important. I’ve been sending this essay around to friends and family and colleagues for years. I view it as, perhaps, the most important essay I’ve ever read, because, in part, it affected me deeply and personally. There are three attributes that I look for in people, having to do with three famous psychology experiments: the Milgram experiment, the Asch experiment and the Zimbardo experiment. Now, the Milgram experiment is famously known for the issue of obedience, that there is supposed to be an experimenter who tells the subject that they are to administer an increasing electric shock to someone else participating in the experiment, and not to question the increase in the level of shock given that the screams will be increasing.
What is found is that in general, when people are absolved of responsibility, they’re willing to mete out incredible pain and torture to others, and this is, in fact, what Stanley Milgram was getting at when he was attempting to show that ordinary people are capable of impossible cruelty.
I highly recommend a song by Dar Williams, called Buzzer talking about the Milgram experiment. I think it’s a beautiful song. And it’s an important understanding of humanity that most of us should probably just imbibe deeply—that we are all capable of horrendous acts when someone else absolves us.
So, if I’m looking for people who are Milgram-negative, it means that they will not do the wrong thing, even when they are incented to do it, to do the wrong thing, by an absolution of responsibility. In the Asch-conformity experiment, the experimenter, Dr. Ash, tried to see whether or not people would give completely wrong answers if the confederates in the experiment, unknown to the actual subject, give the same wrong answer before the subject is in fact asked for the answer in question, which I believe in the original formulation of the Asch conformity experiment was to say whether one line was longer or shorter than others—an objective fact that most people were willing to lie about, when in fact, other people in the room would lie earlier and say that they saw the long line as being short.
The last experiment is the Zimbardo experiment, of Philip Zimbardo at Stanford, but it’s more commonly known as the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which, effectively, a mental headspace—that of pretending to be guards are prisoners—extended so deeply into the being of the people who were asked to act out this, in fact, drama, that they lost track of reality. And I’ve dealt with this before in an essay on Kayfabe, written in Edge.org, where Kayfabe is the system of lies that professional wrestling uses to manage the difference between fantasy, which is called “work” and reality, which is called “shooting”, in the jargon of professional wrestling.
Very often people lose track of what is real and what is fantasy, and the Koestler essay, in fact, touches on all of these questions. Who is it, among us, who is capable of passing the Stanford Prison Experiment by not getting so drawn dragged into the drama that they lose track of reality? Who’s capable of getting through the Asch experiment by not being so conformist that they’re willing to lie just because everyone else is lying? This touches on Timur Kuran’s theory of preference falsification, which was one of our earliest episodes in the series earlier in this year of The Portal. And who is capable of being Milgrim Negative—that is, people who refuse to carry out unspeakable cruelty just because someone else absolves them. So, let’s get to the Arthur Koestler essay. I think what I really want to do is to concentrate on the first four or so paragraphs, because I think that’s really the meat of what makes this article spectacular, and this this essay really different.
I find that in some of the rest of his discussion, he doesn’t really reach the same high heights. So, in some sense, it’s really the first portion of this essay, which I think makes it absolutely worth everyone’s while.
So let me read and then I’ll give you my impressions. So he starts off by saying, “There is a dream which keeps coming back to me at almost regular intervals, it is dark and I am being murdered in some kind of thicket or brushwood.” And I want you to remember the concept of the thicket, because he’s going to talk about a screen and so there’s both a metaphorical version of it and they imagine physical version of it.
“There’s a busy road and no more than 10 yards distance, and I scream for help, but nobody hears me. The crowd walks past laughing and chatting.” Alright, that’s his setup. So he is being murdered. And there is a normal world, which is the street, and then there is the unspeakable world, which is what happens that is cloaked by the thicket or brushwood, in his original telling of the tale, people do not hear him screaming. And he talks about screaming, and screaming will be a conserved concept throughout the article.
Then he says, “I know that a great many people share, with individual variations, the same type of dream. I have quarreled about it with analysts, and I believe it to be an archetype in the Jungian sense, an expression of the individual’s ultimate loneliness, when faced with death, with cosmic violence, and his inability to communicate the unique horror of his experience.” So I think this is extremely important to understanding the essay. He says that I know that a great many people share this the same type of dream. So he’s talking about the idea that this dream may, in some sense, be a universal. Yet, if it is a universal, that immediately gives us our first problem. Who are these people who are walking past on the road, laughing and chatting? Are they not the same people who are going home at night to dream this dream of isolation, of being completely vulnerable, and, in fact, being at the world’s mercy? Are we not, in fact, seeing two versions of the self, which he is going to attempt, in some places, to distance himself from those who do not care, who do not stop, who do not hear. But, in fact, he cannot find resolution, because what he is confronted with, while he can be an accurate reporter, to an extent, he will also end up as the unreliable narrator because he himself doesn’t understand the drama in which he is, in fact, figuring prominently.
As we get to the second paragraph, this gets developed. “I further believe that it is the root of the ineffectiveness of our atrocity propaganda.” So he’s hoping that we can get the word out about atrocities and he doesn’t fear the word “propaganda”. And then he says, “For after all”, and now he points the finger at second person. “You are the crowd who walked past laughing on the road and there a few of us escaped victims of eyewitnesses of the things which happened in the thicket and who, haunted by our memories, go on screaming on the wireless, yelling at you in newspapers and in public meetings, theaters, and cinemas.”
At this point, you can see that he very clearly has a different model from the universal, which is that there is a “You” and the “You” are the crowd who walk past, and then there is the “We” and the “We” are the enlightened few who are trying to grab the attention and the mindshare of the crowd.
So, then he says “now and then we” that is those who are not screened from reality, “now and then we succeed in reaching your ear for a minute. I know it each time it happens by a certain dumb wonder on your faces a faint, glassy stare entering your eye, and I tell myself now you’ve got them. Now hold them, bold them, so that they will remain awake.”
So, clearly, the idea is that mostly it’s hard to get people to hear, but there is a moment in which people become open to the idea that they are in fact not seeing something, and he sees this as a dream state, as a fantasy state. But then he says, “but it only lasts a minute,” and here comes a sentence that I cannot free from my consciousness, “You shake yourselves like puppies who have got their fur wet. Then the transparent screen descends again and you walk on, protected by the dream barrier, which stifles all sound.”
What he is talking about here is, in fact, the actual thing that he has previously metaphorically put forward as “the thicket”. What is this thicket? What does it mean that we are in fact reachable, but then become unreachable after we have already been reached? So he’s talking about this as a transparent screen is invisible In fact, and it descends, so that you can walk on. So this issue of walking past, not being concerned, having to get to your day-to-day duties, is only possible because of the concept of “the dream barrier”, and he says, “which stifles all sound”. This question about whether you are, in fact, hearing, or whether you, in fact, are in some sense choosing not to hear—this is something that has perplexed psychologists for quite some time. There have been studies done which show that in order to suppress certain sorts of information, in a weird sense, the individual has to have an excellent map of that which they are pretending not to know, otherwise, it is too easy to trip over something that forces us to confront the reality. So, in fact, what we’re talking about is some very elevated theory of mind that Koestler does not possess, and perhaps we don’t possess in our current time, which is to try to understand exactly what is this thicket, metaphorically, or literally, in terms of brain science, that allow people not to actually understand, listen, or hear.
He continues, and he names the group that he’s previously called “We”, and he integrates it with the concept of “the screem”, so that it is the willingness and ability to scream that, in fact, designates the in-group that Koestler belongs to, and he says “We the Screamers” and I do think that this is an excellent name for those of us who try to alert large numbers of people to dangers before people are really ready to listen. “We the screamers”—not particularly attractive as a group name—”have been at it now for about 10 years. We started on the night when the epileptic Vann de Lubbe set fire to the German Parliament. We said that if you don’t quench those flames at once, they will spread all over the world, and you thought we were maniacs.” So this idea of being able to see the future, and be trapped in one’s own time, and by sharing the vision of the future one is treated as a maniac, in his case—this is obviously sitting very poorly with him. He’s clearly writing in 1944, where it should be clear that the people who are calling this early during the 30s were in fact, the same ones. And he’s got a bigger and taller order, that not only do we have a World at War, but he has something else to tell us and this is going to be really the subject, which is “What is the biggest thing you could possibly have in plain sight that no one could see?”
“At present, we we have the mania of trying to tell you about the killing by hot steam, mass electrocution and live burial of the total Jewish population of Europe.”
Okay, so now he drops. He drops the big bombshell, he’s talking about the Holocaust, but it’s 1944. And instead of being able to call it “The Holocaust”, or “The Shoah”, or “The genocide against the Jews of Europe”, he’s forced to talk about it from first principles, because it’s—strange to say it—the world had not woken up to the idea that there was a mass killing, a genocide, happening inside of World War II. And so he’s forced in 1944 to speak in these terms that most of us living in the present day would imagine, would have been commonplace during the time. But consider that this is January of 1944.
“So far, 3 million have died. It is the greatest mass killing in recorded history. And it goes on daily, hourly, as regularly as the ticking of your watch.” So he gets from daily to hourly. But now you know exactly what’s on his mind. He’s talking about seconds. And he’s talking about what it is like to know that people are being murdered second by second. And that every time that you fritter or take a cup of tea, or adjust your colar, or whatever it is that you’re doing, people are dying at the exact same time that you were unable to figure out how to reach other people and say, “Do you understand what is happening here?”
So clearly, in my mind, the ticking of the watch is about seconds, and he has a very clear idea about how many people are dying for every second wasted.
“I have photographs before me on the desk while I’m writing this. And that accounts for my emotion and bitterness.” Now normally when people talk about bitterness, they’re talking about someone else being bitter. And in fact, on social media, it’s usually an attempt at a kill shot in some kind of a target. “Wow, you sound bitter.” Clearly, everyone who is bitter is in some sense, one down because they’re not reconciled. The inability to say hey, it’s all good. No, I’m not invested is a modern weirdness, we have to recognize that there are reasons for evolutionarily having a trait known as bitterness, and he’s talking about the fact that he’s been at it for 10 years, and it is more pain and weight than this tiny number of people that he’s referring to as “the screamers” can bear.
So anyway, as he says this, he now says “People died to smuggle them out of Poland.” That is, the photographs, for example, “They thought it was worthwhile.”
Now, I want to bring attention to the fact that even in 2020, when this is being recorded, Witold Pilecki, who I do not know how to pronounce his name because I’ve never heard another human being actually talked to me about this person, he is a personal hero along with Dick Gregory, a few other people, of incredible courage, the courage that I don’t have, and most—nobody I know has. Witold Pilecki was a Polish non-Jew who decided that he would get himself smuggled into Auschwitz, attempt reconnaissance, take photographs, and figure out what was going on at Auschwitz and then somehow after organizing resistance, get himself out.
Possibly the bravest bravest thing I’ve ever heard. He, I believe, dressed as a Jew, got himself incarcerated and taken to Auschwitz, did the reconnaissance, organized resistance, got a report together, and smuggled it out. Okay. Most of us have never heard this man’s name. It just I don’t even understand that there should be an entire month devoted to this guy in the Jewish calendar.
He was then killed by the communists after the war. But the key point is that these reports had been smuggled out of Europe, and were widely ignored. And the question of why we would not want to know that our enemy was engaged in mass atrocity, and why it was so difficult to communicate, is something that we should all, I think, pay a great deal of attention to.
So he says, “people died to smuggle them out of Poland, they thought it was worthwhile.” Now the question of course, is, “What happens when Witold Pilecki, for example, gets to report out, and it has very little effect?”
The weak link in the chain, in fact, is not presence or absence of heroes. The weak link in the chain is, “What do the rest of us do when we have access to information that should propel us towards action?”
“The facts have been published in pamphlets, white books, newspapers, magazines, and whatnot. But the other day I met one of the best known American journalists over here and he told me that in the course of some recent public opinion survey, nine out of ten average American citizens, when asked whether they believe that the Nazis committed atrocities, answered that it was all propaganda lies, and that they didn’t believe a word of it.”
Now, what is one make of this somehow, we cannot get people to understand and believe that the world is far different than whatever it is that they are generically told to believe by major news organs, for example, until you have institutions willing to reify a particular reality—in this case, the actual Holocaust—it’s very difficult to get people to go along with it, because you don’t have that kind of concordance between the information and what the institutions say. And this is what really struck me about this, someone describing the Holocaust in 1944, who has to talk about himself as a crazy person in order to anticipate what the mood of the public would be in hearing this.
Now, how big does something have to be, before it becomes impossible for people to pretend that it’s not happening? If it can be the size of the Holocaust, and people can still convince themselves that this isn’t worth reacting to, it gives you an idea that there may be no limit on the size of the elephant that can fit into any room.
Then he says, “As to this country,” and I think he’s probably talking about Britain, where he had a home, “I’ve been lecturing now for three years to the troops and their attitude is the same. They don’t believe in concentration camps. They don’t believe in the starving children of Greece in the shot hostages of France, in the mass graves of Poland. They’ve never heard of Lidice, Treblinka or Belzec. You can convince them for an hour, and then they shake themselves. Their mental self defense begins to work, and in a week, the shrug of incredulity has returned like a reflex, temporarily weakened by a shock.”
So here you see he recapitulates the earlier metaphor of the puppy shaking themselves having gotten the for the for wet. And what he’s saying is, is that you can convince them for an hour. The problem isn’t whether or not you can reach people. The problem is, how do you and using his words, “how do you hold them, and bold them”? In effect, what we’re doing is is that we’re taking the information and we’re putting it in some very unstable state. And as soon as that person has a chance to compute the consequences of what holding that information may do mean how it may obligate that person, they’ve quickly begin a second process. So what we initially imagine is the problem of teaching people of informing people is in fact a very little use whatsoever. The real issue has to do with, “What do we do to make sure that the information stays in place?” This is a massive reframing. It’s not that we need the information superhighway. Instead, the question is, where’s the courage superhighway? Where’s the superhighway of emotion and reification? We don’t have a reification superhighway. And I want to talk a little bit about the Portal as we get to the end of this last of the major early paragraphs in the essay.
“Clearly, this is becoming a mania with me and my like”, again talking about the problem that is ostensibly his small group, but then he starts to make some moves, and we start to see the real boldness of this essay.
“Clearly, we must suffer from some morbid obsession, whereas the others are healthy and normal.” Alright, well, this is like, you know, Queens Gambit declined. He’s going to make a Gambit where he’s going to offer something of great value, which is that, clearly, his group must be the crazy people.
But then he, he makes an incredible move, and he says this, “But the characteristic symptom of maniacs is that they lose contact with reality and live in a fantasy world, so perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps it is we the screamers who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who taught her about any screened fantasy world, because you lack the faculty to face the facts. Were not so, this war would have been avoided, and those murdered within sight of your daydreaming eyes would still be alive.”
Now that is so strong and so bold that he’s going to have to pull his punches slightly in the next sentence, which I think we should ignore. He says, “I said perhaps because obviously the but the above can only be half the truth.” Well, obviously, yes, it’s only a portion of the truth. The rest of the essay, for the most part, is his attempts to explain away this crazy state of affairs. But I think that, really, what makes this essay so incredible is this move where he says it cleanly and plainly: he is saying that a tiny number of us are, in fact, sane and healthy and sound, and that the vast majority of humanity is in fact, maniacal. That the neurotics, the maniacs, are, in fact, the average Joe, the the simple Jane, whoever you want to call it, as being the median individual is, in fact, in danger of being completely crazy and nuts. And this is exactly what, in a certain sense, a naive reading of the Milgrom, Asch, and Zimbardo experiments would tell us. They would tell us that the generic person in our society is willing to lie, is willing to do the unspeakable, is willing to disappear into a story that’s been told.
In fact, why is that? Well, it has to do with what I’ve talked about as truth, meaning, fitness, and grace. These are the four directives, which I’m forced to trade off between, where I can’t simply go pure truth because for example, sometimes if, let’s imagine that you’re, you’re being held hostage, and you’re asked to answer a question, and you know that the answer to your question will be life or death. The reason we refer to these communications from hostage takers as “hostage videos” is to let people know that when people are in life and death circumstances, they frequently lie, they will go back on the truth in order to be fit, to have a hope of saving themselves. And in fact, this is one of the issues, that very often we cannot get people to listen to things, as per Upton Sinclair’s famous line that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it”, something to that effect.
What we have, in the situation where fitness must compete with truth, is a recognition that understanding many things may cause us to become less fit in a Darwinian sense. And so I think that this is one of the things that we have to contend with. It’s just that when we realize that we are up against insuperable odds, as we might have felt when we were facing Nazi Germany, it becomes weirdly rational to lie if we’re trying to preserve ourselves, and we feel that we have very little agency with which to actually change the course of history. So I think that that’s one of the aspects of why you can expect madness on behalf of a large number of people, but it’s also the case that, in general, people lack courage, en masse. They also, very often, simply cannot find a way of behaving that is consistent. And in attempting to behave in a consistent fashion, both intellectually and morally, when they find out that they can’t do it, they sign on for large programs, with the idea being that we can all say, “Oh, well, I went along with what was the dominant force in my time”, and not have to actually take individual responsibility.
So I think that in those paragraphs, we have a fantastic message from the past, which is that something of arbitrary size, that should be seeable by everyone, that is well documented, and to which many people have been exposed can still be hidden. And that the way in which is hidden does not have to do with the fact that the evidence isn’t present. It has to do with the fact that there is the secondary process, this process of shaking ourselves, of getting rid of the truth, of getting rid of our obligations to each other, of, in fact, going into a dream state to protect us. And I believe that in large measure, that’s where we are right now.
One of the reasons that I started The Portal is because I believe almost none of what I’m told by our leading institutions. I don’t believe that the universities are level with us. I don’t believe that the political parties are leveling with us. I don’t believe that our news media are asking the questions or trying to get information into our hands so that we can conduct civil society. In effect, I think that almost all of our institutions are lying to us about almost everything, almost all the time. And to make such a statement is to sound insane, as Koestler did in his time. But I believe that, in part, one of the purposes of The Portal has been to alert people to the idea that we probably live in a fantastic world that doesn’t really exist, and have done so for between ’75 and 47, 48 years depending upon how you want to count.
As to what we should do about it, I’m not entirely sure. One of my thoughts was that we should start The Portal as a means of escaping from this fantasy reality. But I’m watching how the system seems to be destroying individuals using the fact that the few things that are free, that are meaningful in our world are, in general, run by individuals and not large organizations, and that individuals can always be trapped up on accusations and personal foibles. So I want to talk a little bit about what the institutions were failing to do in Koestler’s world, and then I’ll get to the end of his essay.
He says, “At our end of the chain in undue proportion, I believe that, on the whole, the MOI and BBC are quite competent at their job. For almost three years, they had to keep this country going on nothing but defeats, and they succeeded. In other words, he was talking about the fact that it’s important that one’s sensemaking organs—in this case, for example, the BBC in the UK—they have to go to war, because, in fact, you’re talking about a mixture of informing the public and making sure that the public is emboldened to fight whatever it is threat to its survival, in this case, what was happening in the continent.
He says, “But at the same time, they lamentably failed to imbue the people with anything approaching a full awareness of what it was all about, of the grantor and horror of the time into which they were born.” In other words, what was going on in retrospect was that the same part of Europe was fighting the craziest part of Europe. And I don’t mean to say that the US and the UK were blameless, certainly we know about the British Empire and the many horrible things that happened under it, but, in effect, the blueprints for a better tomorrow were found in the UK, and in the US, and we were the good guys. And I don’t want to get into the idea that “there were no good guys in World War II”, because if good guys means anything, we were the good guys. What we had to do was to defeat pure evil, even though we aligned ourselves with a pure evil in the form of Stalin, who, you know, has to be admitted, gave, on behalf of his people, an incredible sacrifice in what would be called the Great Patriotic War over there in the effort to stop Hitler. So, yes, there were a lot of complications, there were monsters everywhere. But it was necessary for people to recognize that pure evil had to be defeated in the form of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis,, and that people who were fighting that war, were not even at the time fully aware of the fact that they were fighting arguably one of the noblest wars that we will ever see.
So, I think it’s very important that we understand Koestler’s context—he then tries to talk about why was it that there were so many great Cassandra’s in the past that failed to alert people, prophets, preachers, teachers, he can’t figure out exactly why it was that we’ve historically been, perhaps, less successful than we might have been. He talks about whether the Anglo Saxon penchant for being cool under fire, which sometimes is exaggerated in wartime—I remember reading letters home from the front in World War I, where the Brits talk about, “Oh, we’ve been, you know, having having some fun with our counterparts on the other side, tossing pomegranates back and forth,” referring to grenades.
And that is possible, that it’s not helpful to be too cool about these things. Koestler himself was a Hungarian Jew who made the UK his home, but both Hungarians and Jews are known to run a little hot. So he hides behind Latin hysterics as he talks about cultural reasons for taking different attitudes. But he can’t really figure out where this disconnect is coming from.
Then he talks about the weird way in which some knowledge is distant and some knowledge is immediate. So he talks about whether or not he believes that Spartacus existed and led a revolt of slaves, or the fact that maybe the numbers are too big in the Holocaust, that individual life is a tragedy, but that millions of lives at once can’t be thought through, and then, weirdly, it has less weight than even a single, a single death, which is very immediate to us because of the way in which our brains keep track. He talks about the idea that the absolute is a particular problem, an impediment, this issue of knowing and believing when he talks about if he knows the exact date of his death, it will have a very different than if he knows the approximate time of his death. Interesting to note that he commited suicide in the 1980s from having incurable diseases and having spent his life, interestingly, as a man trying to ground his idealism in some movement, or some institution, and he finds that his idealism is always of a nature that doesn’t allow him to affiliate. So he tries communism, he tries to anti-communism, he tries Zionism, he tries any manner of different ways of living idealistically, and, like Prince Charming with a glass slipper, he’s trying it out on all of the various possible institutions and never finding the right fit for Cinderella.
Then he says, thus we all live in a state of split consciousness. And I think this is where he starts to actually reconcile himself to the fact that he’s introduced two separate ideas, that is, that there’s a universal aspect of this experience of being isolated and picked off—think about cancel-culture at the moment as a good example that, are we both part of the mob and we fear the mob will turn on us? So here he starts talking about being in a state where he recognizes that there is split consciousness, and that perhaps this resolves the puzzle—that we all have split consciousness, some of us are aware of it. Others of us make use of it and don’t admit to it.
So he says, “Thus we all live in a state of split consciousness. There’s a tragic plane and a trivial plain, which contain two mutually incompatible kinds of experienced knowledge.” I think it’s worthwhile looking at different breakdowns of knowledge. One would be technae versus epistemae. Technae is sort of the knowledge that you have embodied in you, that you feel—a woodworker who works with his hands has technae, but the person who designs a building inside of their mind, and does it according to architectural specifications, might be working within epistemae—for example, the person who understands the acoustics of a great violin, but may not have the knowledge of how to actually machine the wood in order to produce those acoustics. That would be one breakdown of knowledge between two different kinds.
Another kind is the trivial and the profound, which in writing is sometimes referred to when you juxtapose them as bathos, where you have to save the universe, but first you have to remember to floss your teeth. And I do think that there’s a weird way in which the lived experience movement is, in a strange way, an attempt to say that knowledge can’t be universal because of lived experience, and that if someone’s lived experience contradicts the universal we should privilege lived experience, as opposed to that which appears to be far more robust and can actually be shared between people.
So he says, “We have incompatible kinds of experience knowledge, their climate and language are as different as church Latin”—keep in mind that this was before Vatican II—”is different as church Latin from business slang. These limitations of awareness account for the limitations of enlightenment by propaganda. People go to cinemas, they see films of Nazi tortures, of mass shootings, of underground conspiracy and self sacrifice. They say they shake their heads, some have a good cry, but they do not connect it with the realities of their normal plane of existence.”
I think about this as how difficult it is for us to actually think about what it is that we’re saying, and feel it, and embody it. And I found this in the financial crisis where the person who probably had the best handle of the financial crisis before it hit was a friend of mine, or, at least in my circles, was a friend of mine named Adil Abdul Ali, who I wrote a paper and mortgage backed securities with in 2001, and he told me what was going to happen in the financial crisis before it happened. And he did it in a detailed fashion, what was going to happen first, what was going to fail next, which contracts were going to come up, etc. When it all happened, I called him up and I said, Adil, you must have made a fortune. He said, we made some money, but not nearly as much as you would hope or expect. And I said, “That’s impossible. You knew everything in detail before it happened.”
He said, “Yep.” I said, “Well what happened?”
And he said, “I couldn’t bring myself to believe it.”
I said, “Really?”
He says, “No, there’s a difference between being fully committed to it, and simply thinking it’s true.”
I found that to be an incredible statement, but then I was able to connect it to other people’s comments. When Dick Gregory, who, along with Wiltold Pilecki—he is a great hero of mine—found out that the FBI was considering having him killed by La Cosa Nostra, or Italian organized crime, he was shocked.
He said, I always said something like, “I always knew they were trying to kill me. But I didn’t know they were trying to kill me!” And I thought, “Well what did he mean by that?” And it’s this weird way we have of thinking something is true before we actually get confirmation that we are permitted to feel this truth with every fiber in our body. And so I think that this is something that Koestler is talking about, which is that many people who are not screaming are thinking, but they’re not having the embodied experience.
And then he says, “We live in a society of the Jekyll and Hyde pattern magnified into gigantic proportions.” And I think this gets to a very interesting, final way of closing out our analysis of this essay, because it speaks to how different is the time in which we live. If we think about an era in which we’re convinced that things were incredibly real, we could hardly do better than go back to World War II. Yet, this is somebody writing from the tail end of World War II, showing us that, in fact, people were participating in World War Two—they were losing their lives without a sense of the grandeur of what it was they were involved in. There’s always been this question, for example, did people in the Renaissance know that the Renaissance was happening? Was this some sort of environment, like water, or fish never notice it? Or air, where birds and humans, you know, depend on it, but, in fact, we don’t see the medium in which we live, and in which our lives play out.
So he says, with respect to this Jekyll and Hyde pattern, “This was however, not always the case to the same extent. There were periods and movements in history, in Athens, in the early Renaissance, during the first years of the Russian Revolution, where at least certain representative layers of society had attained a relatively high level of mental integration—times when people seem to rub their eyes and come awake.” Again, remember the issue of sleepiness and wakefulness.
He says, “When their cosmic awareness seemed to expand, when they were contemporaries in a much broader and fuller sense, when the trivial and the cosmic plane seemed on the point of fusing.” So if you think back to—what is it—the milk delivery man walking through the ruins of London during the Battle of Britain, and the idea that we have to carry on, you know, “keep calm and carry on”, that idea that a simple small act is an act of defiance. And it’s a way in which the trivial and the and the cosmic come together. I remember when my daughter cut my hair during the covid epidemic, it was a an incredibly small act, but also one that felt laden with meaning, because I had not been able to go to something as simple as a barber, for months.
He says, “But never before, not even during the spectacular decay of Rome and Byzantium, was split thinking so palpably evident, such a uniform mass disease. Never did human psychology reach such a height of phoniness. Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio”—and here it comes—”as communications expand. The world is open to us as never before. And we walk about as prisoners, each in his private, portable cage.”
I don’t know how you read this. “Private portable cage” sounds to me like the mental space that we disappear in when we’re on a street, but looking into a phone, when our headphones are in our ears and maybe our earbuds are playing music or we’re listening to a podcast, we’re not really present. We are not contemporary with anything. It’s not that we’re listening to a synchronized broadcast most of the time. We are asynchronously, out of time and out of space, and due in large measure to communications.
Now he’s talking about 1944 as being a period of increased communications, “Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand, and the world is open to us as never before.”
Well, okay, assume that that’s true. What does it say that our phones carry all of this information and can screen us away from the people who are even at our own table as we privately customize our own world to be the cage that we’ve always desired so that we can lock ourselves in, and we have a permanent thicket surrounding us, that we can’t be reached by anyone else?
And then I think about who in the present really constitutes the screamers?
And I wanted to read a little bit at the very end of this essay, just to remind ourselves, and to mention a friend. “What can the screamers do but go on screaming until they get blue in the face? I know one who used to tour this country addressing meetings at an average of 10 a week. He is a well known London publisher. Before each meeting, he used to lock himself up in a room, close his eyes, and imagine in detail for 20 minutes that he was one of the people in Poland who were killed. One day he tried to feel what it was like to be suffocated by chloride gas in a death train. The other, he had to dig his grave with 200 others and then face a machine gun, which of course is rather unprecise and capricious in its aiming. Then he walked out to the platform and talked, he kept going for a full year before he collapsed with a nervous breakdown. He had a great command of his audiences, and perhaps he has done some good. Perhaps he has brought the two planes, divided by miles of distance”—again, the thicket, if you will—”an inch closer to each other”. So, in other words, it’s very little that has been done, but even an inch is less distance if there are miles.
“I think one should imitate this example.”
Well, I do want to say that there are some of us who have been connecting to the pain of our audiences, and one in particular who made a point of lecturing as fast as he could to as many people as possible. In part, he had encountered a group of people that unfortunately go under the name of incels, that I think he understood better than any of us. We have dispensed with our need for young men—young men who cannot form families, young men for whom there is no enemy that we need to be saved from, so that even the idea of glory in war is not available to them. They’re not able to earn, they’re not able to command the respect in our society, because we, in fact, are completely unclear whether there’s anything we want from masculinity at all. And I think this individual recognized that there was an enormous demographic, just the way in previous election cycles, the exurbs and soccer moms were discovered.
Well, this incel demographic is filled with good young men who are lost. And he went around trying to talk about this problem, and the fact that it was deranging our society, until he couldn’t go anymore, and effectively collapsed in a nervous breakdown. And I think that we have to be compassionate with people who see the size of the problem.
In 2020, many of you have woken up to the idea that some of us, the modern day versions of the screamers, have been yelling at you for decades. On this program, we’ve tried to talk about a great number of things that have no echo in the outside world. You will find that, in fact, we’ve talked about three or four, or perhaps five things with very little impact. In the first place—in episode, I think it was 25—we talked about Jeffrey Epstein, and what questions needed to be asked. And in fact, despite being listened to by just under half a million people on I think YouTube alone, and over half a million people, of course, between the audio and the video, it’s had no effect. In Episode 19 of The Portal, in our inaugural year, we talked about the laboratory of mice of the Jackson Laboratory, potentially being broken, and the fact that we’ve cheated ourselves of the molecular embodiment of the antagonistic pleiotropy concept of George Williams.
We have not heard anything from the Johns Hopkins University with respect to what happened in that interaction, and we would like to extend an another invitation to that laboratory to talk about the problems of scientific interaction surrounding elongated telomeres, laboratory animals, and the perverse incentives of science itself.
In Episode 18, I believe we discussed the distributed idea suppression complex. Again, we got tremendous traction from all of our listeners, an incredible base at this point, but, strangely, within the institutional world, there was no interest whatsoever, except potentially just to sort of deride it, even though what we’re talking about is exactly the same problem that Koestler had.
Additionally, we released Geometric Unity in lecture form, and we have not really heard—despite the fact that I believe that the major ideas are set out in that lecture and the additional material that we put up—almost any substantive response.
We’ve talked about the problem that the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation faked a labor shortage during the 1980s under the leadership of Ronald Reagan, passing to Eric Bloch, as head of the NSF, and passing to Peter House as head of the Policy Research and Analysis Division. We’ve heard nothing on this front, even though we claim that there was a study done in 1986, that clearly showed that we were going to fake a science and engineering shortage that could have been cured by the market, which is what happens in the market economy.
The key feature is that a lot of what we do here on The Portal has no echo. And to the extent that it will have an echo, it will have an echo only when we screw up. So, part of what I wanted to talk to you about was the thicket. What is the dream barrier? What is the screen that keeps us from connecting from reaching our highest and best function in this world, to collaborating amongst ourselves.
Now I would say that the communities that have formed around The Portal have been the most important and gratifying thing as we finish out this year. Try to find the Discord servers. Look for ThePortal.wiki. Look for the website, and sign up if you can, but, most importantly, recognize that we are living in a dream state. And most of what we’ve been taught to believe is completely untrue.
We’ve been trying to do our best to show you another world whether it’s through preference falsification, the idea of stagnation, when many of you have been taught that everything is accelerating at a dizzying speed. Our hope is that at the end of this, that you are not those who walk along the road while people are being hurt in the thicket. We should all be taking a much closer look at what’s really going on, for example, with China and its Uighur Muslim population. There are things to be done in our era, and there are ways in which this essay was written for people of all times. It happens that it’s a time capsule coming out of the Holocaust and World War II, to let us know that, even back then, monstrous things, enormous things, things that dwarf the Hindenburg were claimed not to be seeable by large numbers of people who were staring straight at them. So, if you believe that, in some sense, you’re isolated, that the people around you, your family, your coworkers don’t believe what you see, if you have become convinced that the world is magnificently off the rails, and so far from what it claims to be that you can’t get things to line up, feel free to imagine that, in fact, that you are the maniacs, but also consider whether Arthur Koestler isn’t speaking to you. Maybe the idea is that the people who don’t see this, those who laughed when we called this the “No Name” or “N^2 Revolution”, those that derided the idea of having anything that would stand up to cancel culture, the idea that the problem at Evergreen State College was going to become a national problem, if you only waited for those kids to graduate, given the level of indoctrination. It’s not too late to realize that we have a problem of universal institutional collapse. I think that’s probably my craziest statement, because, if you’ll think about it, saying that all the institutions are led by people who cannot be trusted, is exactly the sort of thing Koestler was talking about. How do we talk about something that is so large that it can’t be believed, simply because to believe it would cause someone not to know how to live their life the very next day?
I think we have to be courageous and realize that we’re going to be living our lives in The Truman Show for a while until this situation breaks and we at last come to grips with the fact that many of us have known nothing other than the bubble in which we grew up.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this essay, “The nightmare that is a reality” by Arthur Koestler from January 9, 1944, in the New York Times. It’s been really meaningful to me that I can bring something up. I never thought I could discuss this with, in all likelihood, over a quarter of a million people or more, going forward. So thank you very much for sharing something of a great personal significance. I hope it was worthwhile. You’ve been through The Portal. We hope that you will subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, wherever you listen to podcasts, Spotify, and then you’ll go over to YouTube and find our channel and not only subscribe, but click the bell icon so that we’ll make sure that we’re in a position where we can update you whenever our next video episode drops. Until then, be well, take care of yourselves. Stay healthy.