Re-reading The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic “trip narrative” about a mescaline experience at his house in Los Angeles, I’m struck by Huxley’s disdain for modernism and his admiration for artists of earlier eras: Goya, Vermeer, William Blake. Huxley is a proponent of the “Perennial Philosophy.” He finds across time a convergence of teachings, a shared wisdom in the visionary or mystical strains of each of the world’s religions. There is for hum a “universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence” and a “need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). One of the most remarkable aspects of The Doors of Perception, however, is the fact that it’s a book about vision and visionary experience by a man of poor vision. Huxley’s eyesight was damaged; an illness at the age of 16 left him thereafter severely impaired. Huxley claimed to have overcome some of this impairment through an experimental technique known as the Bates Method, about which he wrote a 1942 book called The Art of Seeing. Huxley is thus a modern incarnation of the “blind prophet,” in the tradition of figures like Tiresias, the seer from Antigone and Oedipus Rex.
Nadja constructs for its readers a Surrealist approach toward everyday life. It recalls in its first-person narrative and its forty-four photographs a string of synchronicities and coincidences, life occurring in fortuitous patterns. Breton coasts along on invisible economic means, contemptuous of those who “endure their work” (68). “How can that raise them up if the spirit of revolt is not uppermost within them?” he asks Nadja when the two meet. “No,” he concludes, “it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution” (64). Surrealism is a refusal of work in favor of art and romance. The rest of us, meanwhile, are paying for treatment. Has talking to a therapist helped? Certainly. The more I open up, the more I learn about where and when and how we might exert agency together as Multitude. And we learn this precisely and quite wonderfully through receptivity to chance — or so I catch myself thinking, when what I ought to do is read. When at the end of their conversation Breton asks Nadja, “Who are you?” she replies, “without a moment’s hesitation, ‘I am the soul in limbo'” (71).
I wish I knew more about “Irma,” thinks the patient. Freud should be read alongside those he treated (like the poet H.D.!), just as André Breton’s Nadja ought to be read alongside the life of the woman on which the Nadja character is based. Nadja, the French Surrealist novel par excellence, is based on Breton’s encounter with a mysterious woman: Leona Camille Ghislane Delacourt, a mad patient of the French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. The Surrealists performed events. They embarked on walks and strolls among the cities of France. Art was for Breton and the other Surrealists a way of life. Guided by the Unconscious, they produced an immensity of objects: films, novels, sculptures, poems. They sought revolutionary change of a sort, attempting a brief alignment with Trotskyism in the 1930s. I wonder if I could include Nadja in my course “Rabbit Holes, Time Machines, and Doors in the Wall.” Might it work? The book begins with a question: “Who am I?” The “I” on the page introduces itself through a proverb, claiming to be a ghost of sorts. The “I” that speaks is a Catholic one, a distinctly French subjectivity organized by Catholicism and Descartes, haunted by images of ghosts and eternal torments. As readers, we’re made to wonder. Breton presents language as a site of self-inquiry: Ego in Search of Premise. After a break, the narrator launches into “university discourse”: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term for one of four possible formulations of the symbolic network: “Master, University, Hysteric, and Analyst.” The subject of “university discourse,” claims Lacan, is a castrated subject, barred from knowing the world except as it appears in language. Spacey mood, tonight, folks. Chasing after some occulted master signifier. Lacan remains a language. To converse with him, one must learn his terms. Same with Marx, same with Freud. And one never arrives: revelations promised go unrevealed. With Breton and the Surrealists, however, it’s all “sudden parallels, petrified coincidences…harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest” (19). Breton announces early in Nadja his conviction that “psychoanalysis is not qualified to deal with such phenomena” (24).
I retrieve an object from a stack of documents: a postcard for a show called “Pacts and Invocations: Magic and Ritual in Contemporary Art.” Peering into the depths of the image, I see what lies within. ‘Twas a hard day but we got through it. Word-sounds, hyperobjects. Goin’ round eatin’ nuggets and fries. I feel devastated by a loss borne by someone close, and by all of the various “operations” running around, upon, and through me: vaccines, medicines, doctors, treatments. Sarah recommends RuPaul’s Drag Race as we talk over dinner. Frankie sits beside us drinking milk from a sippy cup. Home afterwards, I receive word of a friend’s talk on Psychoanalysis and Psychedelics. Another friend shares a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” The line is from “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” one of Hopkins’s so-called “Terrible Sonnets” of the 1880s. I think of the day’s arrivals as fodder for my meeting with my therapist. Doubt and depression weigh upon me when I contemplate my lack of accomplishment. Hopkins’s poem, though, I remind myself, remained unpublished until decades after the poet’s passing. Listening now to the talk by my friend the psychoanalyst, I’m made to think about “resonance,” a concept the friend extracts from Terence McKenna and Erik Davis. The latter defines resonance as “a phenomenon of interpenetration and mutual participation, of the blurring of the boundary between subject and object, something that is much easier to hear than to see.” Hear it I do as I pause the video and make time for Time for the Tams (1965). “Finally,” Nate says, “it is a form of coincidence.” All of which puts me in mind, of course, of Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Other phrases resonate here as well: “uncanny contact.” Nate reads Valis as the story of a psychosis. “Truth serum” administered in the wake of the removal of Dick’s “wisdom” tooth provokes Dick’s realization that reality is an illusion. Dick’s Exegesis, Nate argues, “is a tome of coincidence. […]. Valis, meanwhile, is a novelization of the Exegesis.” Valis allows Dick to split himself in two. He is both Horselover Fat, the subject who experiences, and Phil, the subject who narrates. Dick is also several other characters in the novel: the cynic, the Christian optimist. Each character a facet of the author’s psyche.
Grieving as I wander in sadness amid old records in my basement, or, while kneeling, I collect Crayola crayons and plastic mixers off the dining room floor. Frankie enjoys tossing these from boxes and jars. She also likes to make us pick up after her with her sippy cups. These she chucks from her high chair, big grin on her face, squealing with delight. I listen to Charlie Parker’s The Verve Years (1950-51) in the basement after she falls asleep. This has been my pattern of late. While listening, I read statements by a group called The Unseen Hand. On their website, the group offers retreats for those in need of its care. “The Songs of Creation,” they write, “are to humans what migration pathways are to monarchs or whales, warblers or the continents. They return us to true: true sound, true north, the position of prayer.” The group seems to be the work of alchemist-acupuncturist Laura Clarke Stelmok. Her words appear on the liner notes to Battle Trance’s Blade of Love, an album of tenor saxophones as opposed to Parker’s alto. Searching the stacks, I happen upon Jan Hammer’s The First Seven Days. I awaken to the album’s mid-1970s synthesizer wizardry by about Day 3, amid a track called “Oceans and Continents.”
Bored by what follows, though, I wander off into the stacks and peek at Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action, interest piqued by the latter’s chapter on “Kubla Khan.”
My thoughts are of work, therapy, fatherhood, and love.
But in brief respites of freedom from concern with the above, I’m thinking,
Why was Robert Christgau so dismissive of LSD in his rock criticism of the early 1970s — as in his review of Funkadelic’s debut? Was he not “experienced”? Did he have a bad trip? How about George Clinton and Funkadelic? Where did the arrow of the acid trip land them by their 1973 album Cosmic Slop? Had America become for them a witch’s castle, as on their creepy anti-Vietnam War song “March to the Witch’s Castle”?
Wiggle wiggle goes the free one. Announcer requests round of applause, audience delivers. Trumpet plays the difference. Not tellin’ ya — just saying. The voice of the night speaks by sampling many stations. Let us begin to plot our garden, heartened by the sight of daffodils. Plant rosemary and basil. Add rue and hyssop.
Twitter is a “wit” platform. The platform dictates a literary style of hot takes and witticisms: outrage delivered with brevity and snark.
A neighbor with a chainsaw helps me remove a fallen tree. He relays the yard’s history, helps us decipher the boundaries of a garden, one he tended in years past. He’s a contractor. A worker who works with him brought music and, with a wheelbarrow, lent a hand removing the tree. To both the worker and the neighbor, I am thankful. Yellow daffodils sprout around the house and in the yard. I imagine plucking a sprout of onion grass and eating it as seasoning atop a baked potato. This I do.
I met with a therapist yesterday. He posed questions and we spoke. My insurance doesn’t cover this treatment, so at the end of an hour, I pay a fee. I’m thus paying again for a service, as I did as a student. Given the debt I’ve accrued, I can only endure the therapeutic relationship temporarily. I can’t afford for it to continue beyond a few sessions. For those few sessions, though, let us exercise trust. Assume the path ahead an opportunity to speak and heal through conversation with a fellow head. Allow in the weeks ahead time for reinvestigation of psyche. Talking time. Speech practices. Adventures in neuroplasticity. Speaking of which: I imagine I could benefit from a re-encounter with French philosopher Catherine Malabou. I imagine, I imagine. Yet there is much to do. Consult with the Book of Job and be reminded, “the price of wisdom is above rubies.” Consult with “Deep Deep Dream,” an experiment from Ignota Books, and confront a question posed by a future epoch “now, in the present”: Audio or Visuals? Consult with David Crosby and be reminded of a child laughing in the sun.