Touching the void

21 May 2005

12:00 AM

21 May 2005

12:00 AM

Motoring through Gloucestershire a couple of Sunday nights back, I caught a Radio Four programme called Something Understood, with Mark Tully, one of those kinda-sorta-religious shows which seem to be as far as the BBC’s so-called Religious Affairs Unit is prepared to go these days. Its theme that week was the great revival of religion and ‘spirituality’, terms which were used by Mr Tully pretty interchangeably. It’s true that at the moment the shine seems to be off atheism, and many folks find secular society vaguely insufficient. But religion — i.e., Islam, Judaism, Christianity, etc. — isn’t quite the same as ‘spirituality’, a mostly bogus category created for people who want to feel good about themselves without having to get up early on Sunday or give up activities to which they’re partial but most Churches aren’t. ‘Spirituality’ is pretty thin gruel next to your average ‘organised religion’, and my bet is the organised guys will win in the end. But in the meantime we have to put up with a lot of narcissist cults designed to make unsatisfied secular Westerners feel good about themselves.

Which brings us to What the Bleep Do We Know? This was a low-budget creeper in the US, which got taken up by influential thinkers like Drew Barrymore and did so well that the DVD release attracted more advance orders on than anything except The Incredibles (which is a much more philosophically satisfying movie, by the way). Bleep attempts to marry quantum physics with what we used to call ‘positive thinking’ and thereby create a new religion. Its producers all studied under Ramtha, Master Teacher at the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. Ramtha is a 35,000-year-old sage from the Lost City of Atlantis but he could easily pass for, oh, someone a 70th of his age because he’s chosen to channel himself — at least for the purpose of thousand-dollar counselling sessions — through a burly blonde American lady with unusually full lips. Collagen implants? Or positive thinking? You be the judge.

Anyway, Ramtha appears throughout the film, as do other scientists and thinkers bearing improbable names such as Candace Pert and Dr Joe Dispenza. These are all real people, as is John Hagelin of the Maharishi University of Management. Interspersed with these documentary interviews is a fictional narrative starring Marlee Matlin as Amanda, a wedding photographer seeking answers to the emptiness in her life. Presumably that’s what’s meant by the film’s opening line: ‘In the beginning was the Void.’ After all, if they were merely trying to capture the Old World Jewish charm of the Old Testament, it would be, ‘In the beginning was da Void…’

The film promises to explain the void and answer the big questions: ‘Who are we? Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is reality?’ You may find yourself asking some of these about 20 minutes into the picture, especially ‘Why are we here?’ The talking heads mostly specialise in the glibly profound or the profoundly glib: ‘The real trick in life is not to be in the know but to be in the mystery,’ says one. ‘There is no “out there” out there,’ says another. ‘Our mind literally creates our body.’ They’re the kind of fellows who say ‘literally’ literally all the time. Native peoples in the Caribbean were ‘literally’ unable to see the first European ships approaching their land because they ‘literally’ had no concept of what a ship was.

Really? They knew what dug-out canoes were, and they knew what wood was. How difficult could it be to figure out? And besides how do we know they literally had no concept? Did they literally tell the Europeans they literally never saw ’em coming?

But the great thinkers have already hopped and skipped to the next lily pad — the insubstantiality of your furniture. ‘The chair is nothing other than a moment of consciousness,’ says someone, which can be true if you got it at Ikea. ‘A particle can be in two places simultaneously.’ Lucky old particle, I thought, overcome with a sudden urge to be simultaneously somewhere else, face down in the beer nuts. ‘In quantum physics, we can go backwards in time…’ I don’t know about that, but Marlee Matlin’s career certainly seems to be going backwards, from big-time Oscar-winner to a bewildered lurch through a New Age infomercial packed with Deepak Chopra understudies saying things like ‘the height of arrogance is the height of control’ and explaining ‘the four layers of the bio-body suit’ while blobbily anthropomorphised cartoon emotions dance around the room at a Polish wedding, for quite what purpose I can’t recall.

Ramtha gets a better grip on things. ‘It only takes a thought to give a man a hard-on,’ she observes. ‘He has created that within himself.’ In other words, without any assistance from his physical environment, he has changed his physical reality, at least in respect of his penis. It’s when one tries to apply the principle beyond one’s penis that one runs into difficulties. In a subsequent scene, Marlee Matlin inspects close-up micro-photographs showing dramatic changes in the molecular structure of water: ‘This picture is a picture of the same water after receiving a blessing from a Zen Buddhist monk.’ And, given that humans are 90 per cent water, we should similarly be able to change our molecular structure, even if there’s no Zen Buddhist monk to hand. As expert after expert popped up to insist that anyone could create his own reality, I looked at Miss Matlin lying in the bathtub and thought, if I could create my own reality, I’d like the camera to pull back just a bit so I could at least be distracted by her soapy breasts bobbing on the water while the dreary quantum physics guy who looks like a loopy Richard Attenborough is yakking on. But the camera stayed put. ‘At the deepest level of reality, you and I are one,’ said the loopy quantum physics guy, piling on.

Is that true? And, even if it is, what difference does it make? ‘Everyone is God,’ says another expert, rather airily. But I don’t think it works like that. A Church of the Self is in the end no Church at all. And, even if it only takes a thought to give a man a hard-on, the real trick is keeping it up.

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