All of us are feeling it, the sudden shift in mood and content from one day to the next. Here we are trying to react to this new present. I for one haven’t any words yet for this funk that leaves me driving around weeping to Martha Wainwright midday. I’m supposed to suffer through this, is what I gather from the day’s intel. I’m reliving an incident from my past. Time travel prompts a return of the repressed. I’m here to revisit an old knot of sorrow: a scene of fantasy that ended poorly when pursued in the past. The hope is that in my behaving differently this time, we can heal.
Without yet knowing in advance the form of this narrative, or even whether it is to be a story or a novel, this thing, this experiment in living theater that we’ve method-acted our way into — let us nonetheless speculate as to what it might mean and how it might happen. At minimum, it means a shift in genre. This Work we’re trance-scribing would become a fiction, a fantasy: something other than the author’s lived reality. This despite being tied indexically to that reality through its temporal adjacency. The world contributes, the world participates in the coming-into-being, the trance-scription, of the text’s episodes. It is to the rhythm of the day that the text is sung. What happens is: I realize I’m already in the alternate timeline. The shift occurred with the paralogy of “Wednesday January 6, 2020.” Publish as is and we can continue to remain in this timeline, thinks our traveler. Edit the date and we enter a timeline that occurred otherwise. Or so I imagine as I sit with the idea, the realization unfolding slowly as I water the plants in our garden. “Otherwise how?” I wonder. “What would happen?” We couldn’t know in advance, could we? We would have to become part of the experiment, like seed in soil, attending to the unfolding of each day amid conditions of precarity and love. Yet this we’ve already done by gifting ourselves the paralogy. Swapping the zero with the one would be like looking a gift horse in the mouth.
So begins the tale. Sarah green-lights the production and confirms my thinking about how to proceed. I go live with the paralogy intact mid-afternoon, and encounter several immediate forms of resistance. A troll, for instance, posts a comment proposing that the work has “hit a new level of faggotry,” while someone I care to know better sings out into the void of social media Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole.” On a more hopeful note, though, the room (acting collectively here as Greek chorus) replies by sounding the passing of Donald Rumsfeld. Have I succumbed to cruel optimism? Should I have proceeded to the “unknown unknown” of the one? Perhaps the Work moves toward personal and collective flourishing as the one and the many learn to live in fidelity with both love and desire.
The time travel narrative presents itself as an opportunity waiting to be written. The narrator has been keeping an online blog: transcripts of daily or semi-daily marijuana trip reports. A lag has entered the cybernetic loop of life and text: the author has fallen behind in posting, publishing, beaming forward the message. He hasn’t stopped trance-scribing; he continues to write each day as he always has: longhand, in a series of notebooks. But analog jottings go digital a solstice apart from their occurrence. Thus it comes to happen that the author can edit or revise his account of January 6th. As he thumbs through the notebook and arrives to the day, he discovers a minor error, a curious slip of the pen. He’d dated the entry “Wednesday January 6, 2020“: a fictitious date. 2021 was at that point too fresh to have become a habit as a thing to write, causing the narrator to default unconsciously to the year prior.
Friends, let us hold space and remember Cruel Optimism author Lauren Berlant upon word of their passing. “A relation of cruel optimism exists,” Berlant wrote, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). We are all in such relationships, are we not? “Speaking of grieving,” they wrote, it was in grieving French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that Berlant “first saw optimism as the thing that keeps the event open, for better or ill” (viii). How does one come to recognize that one’s optimisms have become “cruel”? What is it that moves us out of ourselves? “A satisfying something,” they whisper. “An intelligence beyond rational calculation” (2). And we are here, we are caught in this “scene of fantasy,” we are in the throes of it. ‘Tis our present, our contemporary moment. And this moment is what Berlant calls an “impasse”: “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward” (4). That is the genre of these trance-scripts, is it not? “The impasse is a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things” (4).
The day is a difficult yoga session writ large. I hold poses through tasks required of me: grocery shopping, lawn mowing, parenting. When time allows, I sit eyes closed and meditate. There is an alchemy in this working-through, this processing of desire. The day is the site where one practices care for an absent other. Come afternoon and suddenly it’s a pool day, world redeemed by popsicles and coconut bars. I rise up onto the surface of the pool and float there, big happy smile on my face as I imagine the act shared with another. My friend at The Alchemist’s Studio reminds me of a saying attributed to Vincent Van Gogh: “Yellow is capable of charming God.” The charm of that rhymes later in the day with “Charm (Over ‘Burundi Cloud’),” the 21:24 B-side to Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics.
Hassell passed away yesterday at the age of 84. After listening and giving thanks, I receive J.R.R. Tolkien’s St. Andrews lecture, “On Fairy-Stories.” For this is what we wish to write, is it not? A story about Faerie, “the realm or state in which fairies have their being.” As Tolkien emphasizes early on, “Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” Tolkien also calls Faerie “the Perilous Realm” — the source of peril, I presume, having something to do with the realm’s magic. Faerie’s virtue lies in its capacity to satisfy various desires: “to survey the depths of space and time,” for instance, and “to hold communion with other living things.”
I throw myself into frenetic activity upon waking. Pitched and piqued, I do my to-dos: read a final paper; submit a change of grade for a student who took an incomplete; post a trance-script; water the garden; greet Sarah and Frankie as they wake. Passion wells up inside me as I let your love lift me higher and higher, old world giving way to the new. Books show up in the bins at Goodwill. I rejoice amid receipt of this voice, this chorus which I take to be the voice of my Beloved. In my ears, in my mouth, through all of my senses and modes of attention, through my every breath. Yet all is discrepant: for today Sarah and I celebrate seventeen years of marriage.
I’m about half a year behind in posting these trance-scripts. Arriving to summer solstice, I post trance-scripts about winter. I type up New Year’s Day as I sit in summer sun. And as I do so, the idea dawns upon me: I can edit. I can revise. Trance-scripts could become a time-travel narrative. Through the eerie psychedelic echo and delay of the trance-script, I can affect-effect the past. I’ve done this already in minor ways, adjusting a word or two here and there. Time travel is such a modernist conceit, though, is it not? It’s modernist when conceived as a power wielded by a scientist or some sort of Western rationalist subject, as in H.G. Wells’s genre-defining 1895 novel The Time Machine. But in fact, much of the genre troubles the agency of the traveler. Think of Marty McFly, forced to drive Doc Brown’s Delorean while fleeing a van of rocket-launcher-armed Libyan assassins in Back to the Future. Or think of Dana, the black female narrator-protagonist in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred. For Dana, travel is a forced migration to the time and place of an ancestor’s enslavement. One moment, she’s in 1970s Los Angeles; the next moment, she’s trapped on a plantation in pre-Civil War Maryland. Be that as it may, there is still the matter of these trance-scripts. It all seems rather complicated, this idea of tinkering with texts post facto. Yet here I am doing it: editing as I write. What, then, of this mad-professorly talk of “time-travel”? What would change, under what circumstances, and why? Let us be brave in our fantasies, brave in our imaginings.
What are we talking about when we talk about “political theology”? It’s a rejection of the secularization thesis. Religion never goes away; theological notions haunt the structures and discourses of capitalist modernity. I think of the lyrics to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s song “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot.” The song’s title is a line from a poem in Leonard Cohen’s 1966 novel Beautiful Losers. “I propped two pages of his book up on a music stand,” she recalled when asked about the song in an interview, “and I just sang it out, ad-libbing the melody and guitar music together as I went along.” Who is it that tells us “mind itself is magic coursing through the flesh / And flesh itself is magic dancing on a clock / And time itself, the magic length of God”? Is it Sainte-Marie, or is it Catherine Tekakwitha, the 17th century Mohawk saint worshipped by the narrator of Cohen’s novel?
As a thought experiment, let us take seriously a current of twentieth century thought that regarded Marxism and Utopianism as “political religions,” and more specifically as “Gnostic heresies.” This current arose in 1930s Germany among thinkers of the right like the philosopher Eric Voegelin. It also found articulation in the work of the Martinican surrealist sociologist Jules Monnerot. I write as a Marxist or some derivation therefrom — yet upon my first encounters with these writers, I admit recognizing something of myself in their accusation. “The shoe seems to fit,” I reasoned. “Perhaps I’m a Gnostic!” The term had been applied as a slur when used by Voegelin, but the qualities of thought that he linked to this alleged heresy against church orthodoxy were in my book virtues, not vices. What it comes down to, basically, is suspicion of the system. It’s a heresy that persists, says Voegelin, well after the suppression of the OG Gnostics of late antiquity. Gnosticism is perennial; it reawakens to haunt Christendom every few centuries. Movements that purport to be secular like Marxism and Nazism, argued Voegelin, are in fact upstirrings in the twentieth century of this same ghost, this same spectre, this same political-religious “archetype” or “mytheme.” For these movements all share the same goal, Voegelin warned: they want to “immanentize the Eschaton.” What happens, however, when we read Voegelin’s hypothesis in concert with Black and Indigenous authors: figures like Leslie Marmon Silko, Russell Means, and Ishmael Reed? Each of these authors narrates a secret, “occult” history of the West similar to Voegelin’s. Yet unlike Voegelin, the writers of the left recognize that capitalism, too, is part of the Gnostic current — as is Western science.
Let this book of ours be a joyous one. Let the writing of it happen in the manner of a dance song or dream. Find in it an occasion to read Gurney Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, a “novel of the counterculture” serialized in (and thus functioning as a paratext to) The Last Whole Earth Catalog. Leary, Di Prima, Huxley, Olson, Ginsberg, Kesey, Baraka, Sanders: all have their places, all have their roles in this tale we are about to tell. Words written on behalf of Utopia. ‘Twas a time when the not-yet was still possible, and that time is now.