The Fantastic Life of Douglas Harding: The Man With No Head

Thomas Ligotti speaks of being influenced by Douglas Harding whose life would impact his notions of No-Self and Void. It was Matt Cardin who introduced Harding’s works to Ligotti. In a tweet to me Matt described that Tom had mentioned Harding in an early draft of his The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror, but had removed it in the final version. He did incorporate this headless notion in a poem in his the Unholy City:

In 1943, aged 34, after some ten years of intense self-enquiry, study and writing, Harding had worked out that he was made of layers, like an onion. In other words, what he was depended on the range of the observer. As a result of his studies, Harding was convinced that he was human only at a certain range. Closer to, he was cellular, molecular, atomic… Further away he appeared as the human species, Life, the planet, the star, the galaxy… At very close range, therefore, he was almost nothing. It made sense to him therefore that at centre he was a mysterious ‘nothingness’. Then, in 1943, he stopped thinking and speculating and simply looked back at himself. He noticed that from his own point of view he was headless. He was looking not out of two eyes but a ‘single eye’, a boundless openness – an openness that was self-evidently aware, and was also full of the whole world. Here was direct experience of his central identity, his True Self.

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

It was when I was thirty-three that I made the discovery. Though it certainly came out of the blue, it did so in response to an urgent inquiry; I had for several months been absorbed in the question: what am I? The fact that I happened to be walking in the Himalayas at the time probably had little to do with it; though in that country unusual states of mind are said to come more easily. However that may be, a very still, clear day, and a view from the ridge where I stood over misty blue valleys to the highest mountain range in the world, made a setting worthy of the grandest vision.

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: just for the moment I stopped thinking. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot my name, my humanness, my thingness, all that could be called me or mine. Past and future dropped away. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, that present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki trouser legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in – absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.

—Douglas Harding,  On Having No Head

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