101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life
Roger-Pol Droit Faber and Faber, 204pp, £10
Although religion has suffered one beating after another at the hands of science, mysticism survives into the current age with its respectability more or less intact. Despite the debunking of theism and the impostures of the New Age, mysticism lives on because it declines to participate in intellectual contests that it cannot win. Mysticism is expected to be silent, rather than articulate, whereas mainstream religion, with its doctrine, dogma and preposterous liturgies, cannot but expose itself to ridicule. Yet the enviable position of mysticism may have less to do with any inherent resilience in the face of modern concerns and scientific questioning than its status as a country too primitive to be worth invading.
This is about to change. When drugs became a quicker and easier way to induce altered states of consciousness, old-fashioned meditation had to find a new selling point. This consists of exploring how far decisions can affect the mechanisms that give rise to them. It is nothing that has not been done before under more fantastical auspices - in, for example, the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, who attempted to master self-discipline by looking for the hand of God upon the mind, or in the elaborate dances devised by the Russian guru and conman G I Gurdjieff to wrest all our behaviour from the "autopilot" within us and place it under our deliberate control.
The aim of their successors is, I think, to catch the brain out in the act of fudging our perceptions. As an extension of biology, by other means, such mysticism without metaphysics is a kind of parlour game, or "philosophy", as these things are called nowadays. Many of the ideas in the French philosopher Roger Pol-Droit's 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life will already be familiar to any thoughtful person from the experiences of childhood. Who, at some time, has not stretched out on his back and tried to imagine that he were looking down rather than up at the sky, or repeated the name of an object over and over until the word lost all meaning?
Anyone taking childish games such as these as the subject of a book risks the ridicule of those who have never indulged in them. Unfortunately, spluttering derision would be quite understandable in this case. Pol-Droit suggests inventing a number of personal histories when asked what you do for a living. You will then realise - wait for it - "that what you used to consider as your 'true life' is really, in fact, just one fiction among others". Another experiment consists of staring at a woman through her window and fantasising about having a relationship with her. Afterwards, presumably if you have not been arrested, you can try drinking a glass of water while urinating, which supposedly produces a sensation "like the cosmic flux or an automatic washing machine". The author also recommends telephoning random strangers. This, he says, can have an "humanising" effect. In case the excitement gets too much, he advises, "to return to earth, just hang up". Mystics used to start religions. Now they make prank phone calls.
Disregarding the 80 or 90 duds in the 101 experiments included here, it is at least rewarding to compare Pol-Droit's material to one's own childhood thought games. They are the kind of micro-ideas that normally slip through culture because they have no home discipline. So where better to place them for the moment than in philosophy, the only academic discipline happy to describe itself as half-baked?
The author is right that philosophy begins in astonishment, but this is precisely why it is so ill-suited to providing a guide to life: it deals with the oddities, the highs and lows, rather than the general run of experience.
Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic Books)