Huxley’s “reducing valve” metaphor renders the self or the Ego porous through a kind of sense-awakening, like the opening of a third eye. Growth of a new organ, as the Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson said, “to expand our sensorium and our body to some new, as yet unimaginable, perhaps ultimately impossible dimensions” (Postmodernism, p. 80). Jameson’s visit to the Bonaventure Hotel reads like a trip report — an account of an anabasis, with its ascent up the Portman building’s remarkable elevators. These elevators grant their riders the ability to cross realms, as Jameson does. After traveling up from the building’s interior atrium, one is launched out, in a glass-windowed capsule, up the building’s exterior shell. The ride allegorizes space flight. Riders shoot upward and land safely upon return into a dizzying postmodern hyperspace connected only by way of ascending escalators to the streets of Los Angeles. The pools at the base of the elevators simulate NASA’s trademark “splash landing.”
A new semester approaches. Altered states of consciousness and perception: let us consider religious raptures, drug-induced ecstasies, “peak experiences” and the like as phenomena central to human activity as evidenced by literatures of many cultures and historical periods. A narrative forms as we travel Bill & Ted-style among ancients, medievals, and moderns. We detect patterns; the texts of different places and periods constellate in a kind of cyberspace of meaning, speak to one another as allegories of a transhistorical process or project: the attempt to get free. Confronted with the disruptive power of gnosis, we’re left wondering: “Red pill or blue pill?”
We need to talk about Allegory, don’t we? I go for a walk, through cold and wind, birds above my head. Signs, symbols, myths, images, all arranged in synchrony. An elaborately constructed meaning-system — meaning not just in a structural but in a personal sense. Today, for instance, a student produced a Vietnam-themed reading of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” with the song’s writer Grace Slick finding in Lewis Carroll’s White Knight and Red Queen the superpower protagonists of the Cold War. And here I am this evening, reading Roger K. Green’s A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics. It’s messy stuff — but that’s what happens when one’s mind manifests. Books feed back upon their readers, each person’s expansion of consciousness contributing, in however mediated a fashion, to the education of all.
My students seem less televisual than they were in the past — though perhaps we’ve just steered conversation elsewhere, constructing through our shared readings a shared grammar. Reading allegory trains us to think allegorically. Texts assemble into vast systems of meaning. We become acquainted with what’s happening. A world pregnant with hope and possibility.
Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
To live allegorically is to juxtapose multiple dimensions of being: this world and another, or this part and that within a single world-system. Records arrive for me at Goodwill, including Charlie Haden’s The Golden Number. I wander around in what feels sometimes like a giant memory palace, reading student essays, some thoughtful, some not. I imagine one adapted into a lush graphic novel confrontation between a psychedelic Plato and a teetotaling Aristotle. From the underground temple of Eleusis we ascend to the Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo.
I read Frances A. Yates’s famous study The Art of Memory with the same enthusiasm that moved me when reading Nancy Drew mysteries as a child. “The Case of the Ancient Memory Palace.” Are there practitioners of this art today? Many people claim so, providing how-tos and demonstrations of various kinds on YouTube, as in Dean Peterson’s video for Vox about memorizing an entire chapter from Moby Dick.
Peterson takes for granted neuro-reductionist assumptions, consciousness translated into a two-dimensional illustrated map of a brain, bisected and divided into named components, like territories in a game of Risk. Birds interject, sending chirps from tree to tree. Fredric Jameson’s new book Allegory and Ideology has also been on my mind of late, causing me to think of allegory not as a two-fold but as a four-fold system of meaning, implying movement between an individual and a collective as well as a surface and a depth. Jason Louv’s book on John Dee approaches that level of complexity at times — as does the course I’m teaching on literature and consciousness. For late classical thinkers like Origen and the Christians of the early medieval period, the fourfold allegory’s levels of meaning consisted of the ANAGOGICAL (the fate of the human race), the MORAL (the fate of the individual soul), the ALLEGORICAL or MYSTICAL (the life of Christ), and the LITERAL. What would be the equivalent of these levels today?
Throughout a day of rich, heady conversations, students waking up section by section, the parts of my course finally begin to click. Texts and lives start to resonate into lightly held rhymes and refrains, an allegorical epic poem of many dimensions, a song of consciousness across time, conjuring the universe within. I celebrate, too, throughout the evening, walking outdoors, ears attentive to the system of systems, joyful, knowing that we read tales of beatnik glory in the weeks ahead. Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done, papers to grade, learning and growth on my end as well as theirs. Shared labor, shared power — that’s how we make space for change.
Students and I have been tracking vast allegorical systems as they’ve developed in parallel with historical transformations across centuries. The texts we read contain banners on behalf of consciousness raised by philosophers, poets, bards, prophets, visionaries. Descriptions of the macrocosm shift with great suddenness and power into descriptions of the microcosm and vice versa once we learn to read allegorically. Through it all, a sense of the Mind’s evolving sense of itself. When I return from work, I honor Robert Hunter, who died the other day, by contemplating a song of his that a student mentioned after class. The student wondered if there might be a bit of Blake’s “voice of the devil” in Hunter’s “Friend of the Devil.”
Another student inquired after the Holy Spirit, prompting me to investigate pneumatology. Mightn’t we interpret altered states of consciousness as charismata? Gifts, powers, inspired forms of being, with or without psychoactive sacrament?
This is the period of trial, the forty days and forty nights (or there about) when the hero with many faces wanders empty-handed, deprived of power, cast down from former heights. The animals of the night-time forest sing their lullaby. Let us imagine the hero figure in one or more of his or her guises, carousing in Fairy Land, when up from the forest floor come a pair of trees, branches raised lovingly toward the sun. If tales were to be told of these trees, would it be the hero’s duty to abide by these tales? Or is the hero rather the one who roots around, unwilling to rest within the boundaries set by the tales as they’ve been told? By now, of course, we’re familiar with both of these kinds of heroes. Do our preferences shift when our interlocutor shares with us the names of these trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge?