INTERVIEWER: …I don’t understand it: the grey room. “breaking through to the grey room”
BURROUGHS: I see that very much like the photographic darkroom where the reality photographs are actually produced. implicit in Nova Express is a theory that what we call reality is actually a movie. It’s a film, what I call a biologic film
-cf Interview with W.S. Burroughs, The Paris Review, 1965
For fifty years, I imagine most intellectuals have written this theory off as paranoiac delusions of a hunted heroin addict – the butt of a joke that contains “the thought police”. Further, I doubt that many scientists have read Burroughs at all, even though Burroughs was far more a scientist than a writer, in my opinion.
Meanwhile, modern cognitive theory now completely accepts and promotes this theory: that the sensory organs merely collect sensory data and present these to “the brain”, which assembles and interprets the data into what you experience as reality. In other words, we now accept that there is a less direct connection between reality and what we experience of it, in our minds, that someone like Aristotle, and thousands of years of Western thought after him, thought.
I think that nowadays, with the advent of very advanced digital filming technology, made available to the Wal-mart shopper, it is just not so hard for the average Joe to believe that there as a very high-speed processing phase, in between the moment you perceive a moment of reality, and the next moment when the “film” is ready to be played inside your head. It doesn’t seem so drug-induced a notion, because we have experienced machines that can do something similar.
We could have understood this long ago – it has been accepted for hundreds of years that they eye functions like a camera lens (okay, vice versa): the image is “captured” by the cones and rods in the retina, upside-down, and then righted, and projected onto the “mind’s eye.” People in the street with little education know this, and accept it.
What interests Burroughs in all this is that stage in between, where the “processing” happens. It’s a kind of limbo, if you consider the outside sensory world the “real world”, and the world inside, painted by the mind, with the help of the sensory data. This grey room – grey matter + notion of film development + notion of “grey area” – is a vulnerable place. Presumably, we’d like the picture we end up receiving and viewing, to be accurate. After all, our decisions are based on “reality.” We move right or left, to certain degrees, based on where we think the attacker is, based on what – this process of transferring, rendering, and interpreting?
But haven’t you found that indeed, the picture in your mind was often very “wrong”? Haven’t you watched “The Thin Blue Line”? Haven’t you sort of woken up, several times in your life, in a significant way, to “see” that who you though you were, and what you thought you were doing, were way off the mark? So, there had to be a miscommunication somewhere, right?
And I don’t think our short-circuits happen, in most cases, is in the sensory-intake-to-sensory-perception link up. I think the broken, or, imprecisely-machined portion of the outside-to-inside transfer mechanism is the interpretive phase. I think this is the part we are supposed to train, but don’t. And within this phase, the words are what get in the way. True enough, and sad, I know, for all you who are wed to the word – it is a poor excuse for a symbology of experience, and you rely on it for everything, even your perception of pretty clear signals coming in from your ears and eyes.
If you could just eliminate the words (Burroughs gives exercises for this, as does Dogen and Patanjali), and get a purer dose of uninterpreted reality, you might not be so confused by a reality that doesn’t often make sense. I