it’s a gas

One thing to say about what can’t be said: the perception of ineffability is habitual, a response to familiar patterns of experience. When the normal conditions of perception shift, our sense of what can be put into words is apt to shift with them. But when we return to familiar ground, old habits reassert themselves.

For instance, many dental patients report finding themselves saying all manner of strange and even mortifying things when under the influence of nitrous oxide. I usually decline the stuff  myself, but the hygienist sort of insisted yesterday. It didn’t really phase me, I don’t recall saying anything I regret.

William James, though, had a different reaction. He ingested laughing gas  not for dental reasons but just to see what would happen. The upshot: stoned poetry, a whole new take on the philosophy of Hegel (“his nonsense is pure on-sense!”), and renewed appreciation for the value of silence. But it’s still worth a chuckle.

What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk , astonishment. . . .
Emotion–motion!!! . . .
Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same!
Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

William James, “Subjective Effects of Nitrous Oxide

Dmitri Tymoczko, “The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher


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