A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?
The “Murugan” character in Huxley’s Island is far more a dramatis persona (literally, a “mask for drama”) than the student interlocutors who engage with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Murugan is willful and petty, his every statement an outburst of bitterness and longing. But it would be wrong to read him as an imp borne of Freud’s unconscious. The would-be tyrant — whose wish is to dominate and rule — appears in Huxley’s narration as an identity captured or possessed, rather, by Ego. Or as Huxley says: “an all too familiar kind of psychological ugliness” (Island, p. 48). “A spirit of delinquency” against the Good, or against collective well-being, waging war against traditional wisdom. In the particulars of Murugan’s case, this means hoping to “modernize” Pala through international sale of oil. Modernization means cities, mass media, confiscation and expenditure of social wealth by the false Son, or by all who would imagine themselves above the Given State. Why is this personality structure present as an irritant within Huxley’s vision? Let speak that which profiteth not, a spilling forth, a babbling brook, buzz, chatter, flight, passage, awareness settling experimentally into a great listening to surroundings or environment, other beings. Wim Hof is another of these false Sons. He interpolates and interpellates through application of a method to breathing, converting those who use his method into “alchemists” of their own chemistry. Part of me fears what he might signify. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps — like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Perhaps this danger lurks in all attempts to modify consciousness.
According to the Old Raja, the philosopher-king in Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian society would be a society in which “most good doing is the product of Good Being” (42). Through the fictional persona of the Old Raja, Huxley asks readers to know who in fact they are, while also knowing, moment to moment, who they think they are but in fact are not. We must be aware in every context, the character suggests, at all times, no matter the manner of the particular doing or suffering. The excerpted passages from the Old Raja’s “small green booklet” end with the author championing “Faith…the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are,” rather than Belief, which is absorption in the Word — the projected symbol, the reified name. I see Belief, for instance, as the disposition fostered not just by churches and organized religions, but also by obsessive-compulsive daily exposure to social media. The latter’s “Gestus” of swipes and clicks is a kind of genuflection, is it not? Social media’s economy of “likes” establishes through aggregation of ritual blessings a pantheon of mythic minor deities to whom users then become subject.
To soundtrack my second time through Huxley’s Island, I hit play on World Cup’s new CD-R of “adventure” music, Marsala.
Electronic tones keyed to other eras evoke imaginary videogame daydreams, images paired with sounds. In her first session treating Island‘s protagonist Will Faraday with a form of hypno-therapy, the book’s female lead Susila MacPhail offers him (and us, as we read along) a portrait of “perfect reconciliation”: a veritable church in the wild. “There were daisies in the grass and dandelions, and across the water towered up the huge church, challenging the wildness of those soft April clouds with its austere geometry. Challenging the wildness, and at the same time complementing it, coming to terms with it in perfect reconciliation” (33). The vision continues by imagining “White swans moving across a mirror of jade and jet — a breathing mirror that heaved and trembled, so that their silvery images were forever breaking and coming together again, disintegrating and being made whole” (33). What are we reading at this point? Through the reading experience, it is as if we become spellbound, consciousness led by words to a point of deep satisfaction. “Effortlessly floating,” the book repeats, “Effortlessly floating.” It feels as if one is both here and there, alive and yet already dead, following an echo down a hallway. A masterful bit of indirect suggestion, this chapter! It even announces itself as such by chapter’s end. All pain, all suffering is remade into “A miserable little thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing. There can’t be any doubt as to who’s going to win” (36). And for me, it works: the words become the experience, the image becomes the thing. I imagine all of human history as a kind of “bad trip” caused by the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the famous creation myth — but with the reminder inserted into the trip that it is just a trip and that already, outside the trip’s false appearances, outside of the prison-dimension we call time, we are here and now awake and forgiven.
The plot thickens considerably as I delve further into the history of the psychedelic revolution. As I reported previously, first-wave psychonaut Aldous Huxley died on 11/22/63: the same day as C.S. Lewis and JFK. As per Huxley’s wish, his wife Laura injected him with 200 micrograms of LSD on his deathbed—and the supplier of these 200 micrograms was none other than ‘60s acid guru Timothy Leary. (The Moody Blues would eventually include a popular song about Leary called “Legend of a Mind” on their third album In Search of the Lost Chord.) But grok this: as Don Lattin notes in his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Leary’s first meeting with Huxley occurred on November 8, 1960, the same day JFK was elected President. There’s also substantial evidence suggesting that JFK may himself have taken LSD during his time in the White House. Kennedy’s mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, ex-wife of CIA official Cord Meyer, seems to have been the conduit. Leary claims in his book Flashbacks that Meyer visited him while he was at Harvard, asking for his help. Her goal was to usher in a peaceful, loving Age of Aquarius by turning on world leaders, under the assumption that acid would make them less violent. Toward this end, Meyer conducted a series of acid experiments, with prominent men in Washington as her test subjects. All of this occurred while she was involved in an affair with JFK. However, Meyer eventually returned to Leary in a panic after someone involved in these experiments threatened to go public. Leary lost touch with her for a while, only to learn about a year after the assassination that she, too, had been murdered — shot, execution-style, in broad daylight, while walking on a towpath beside a canal in DC. Hollywood explored the incident in partly fictionalized form in a 2008 film called An American Affair, starring Gretchen Mol.
I begin to wonder about the role played by sexuality both as influence upon and content within psychedelic literature. Allen Ginsberg was gay, of course, as was Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), as were Huxley’s closest friends during his years in Hollywood, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. As for Philip K. Dick, prior to entering a chain of unsuccessful heterosexual marriages, Dick roomed with two gay poets central to the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (By all accounts, however, Dick’s relationship to Duncan and Spicer remained strictly platonic.) What, if anything, can we intuit from this pattern? For an ecologically-attuned articulation of Psychedelic Utopianism, a kind of blueprint, in fact, for the creation of Acid Communism, see “Four Changes,” the essay that concludes Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. Snyder lists there as some of his allies “Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, [and] Alchemists.”
Why does my imagination tend toward abstract, textured, experimental imagery rather than traditional three-act narrative? How do I once again evolve in cooperation with grace? Explaining Palanese society’s use of “moksha-medicine,” a character in Aldous Huxley’s Island says, “In theological terms, the moksha-medicine prepares for the reception of gratuitous graces—premystical visions or the full blown mystical experiences. Meditation is one of the ways in which one co-operates with these gratuitous graces…by cultivating the state of mind that makes it possible for the dazzling ecstatic insights to become permanent and habitual illuminations.” My enemy, as always, remains the ever-encroaching somnambulism of fascism. All of our relationships, at all degrees of mediation, gain significance to us only by effort of consciousness. Only by way, in other words, of the names we affix and the stories we tell. My behavior of late has been that of a pouter. A glum, unhappy, apocalyptic defeatist—but for those times when I treat myself to medicine. For it is by my medicine that I activate dormant cognitive pathways, regain the brains of the defeated, re-inhabit the as-yet unfulfilled dream-structures of distant ungovernable ancestors. Like sadistic, Irresistible Impulse-era James Chances, these voices arrive into the flux of being and urge self-contortion—by which they mean, “Stretch and dance!” The energy is everywhere: let us cooperate with grace.