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?
As William Bowers once said, “I went and saw me some Spider-Man” — only this time, in the current redux, the current version of the myth, the film is called Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’d heard good things, but I couldn’t recall if I’d seen the trailer. Suffice to say, though, that a hum of excitement could be heard as I approached the theater. Signs appeared on the side of the road announcing “FEEL THE LOVE” and “TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN.” Which isn’t to say that in my heightened state, I’d lost touch with the ground of being. There were moments of wild paranoia, for instance, during the lead-up: creepy, nationalistic, body-police fitness commercials, followed by slight release into the sanitized exoticism of an ad for “Trident Tropical Vibes,” some light, safe corporate capture-attempt; goofy GEICO; plush digital high-energy stuffed-bear comedians joking on the carpet stage of a playroom. Caged Dumbo released into the world of an elderly filmmaker’s “acclaimed imagination” — no magic, but “IN REAL 3D AND IMAX.” And for those not yet satisfied with the menu, try another product from the Disney Kingdom: the myth of the Lion King in a new reanimated register. Thankfully the Columbia Pictures logo intervenes to save us, graffiti’d into a gun-toting cowgirl, along with a variety of other versions from other dimensions.
The film begins and quickly sets its terms: cops and prep schools versus the “droppin’ science” teacher-uncle, the surrogate dad who distills wisdom extracted from the streets and tunnels of the metropolis. All against the backdrop of the cop-father to whom young black men are expected to publicly humiliate themselves and say “I love you.” The radioactive spider-god Anansi erupts into this, effecting a permanent radical reorientation toward reality. In the Spider-Verse, the psychedelic narrative begins not with a drug but with the bite of a spider. “Why is this happening?” wonders this new speciation of the myth. Next we find ourselves in a miniature allegory about Brooklyn’s rejection of Amazon, the corporate behemoth figured here as Green Goblin. The Spider-Verse is rich with allegorical potential, able to accommodate in its mapping practice beasts and alchemy amid DARPA and NSA. By these means, audiences arrive into a multi-color, multi-dimensional anti-Trump national allegory. The question the nation is trying to answer, apparently, is “How do we destroy the collider?” Stan Lee appears as the good wizard, the benevolent Gandolf of the comics universe, promising each of us that the mask always fits eventually. With references to a fictional corporation called Alchemax, the film conjures up for those who have ears to hear figures like Malcolm X and others of the Black Radical tradition, through whose hands the key to revolution once passed. Who else, though, can show us the ropes of a new horizon, eagles flying? How do we retrace Peter and Miles’s steps across dimensions to defeat Kingpin, the film’s version of Trump?
Westworld encourages me to reframe my present crisis as a test for fidelity. But to whom, or to what? Creator vs. created, human vs. AI, guest vs. host: as above, so below. As the season proceeds, the show’s violence and bloodshed grow tiresome. No more gratuitous sex of the kind we saw in Season One. This new season cares only to unwind its master-slave dialectic toward ever-increasing terror and systemic collapse. It knows, of course, that there’s an audience hungry for that sort of thing. As one of the show’s female programmer characters acknowledges, “Macho fucks are probably loving this shit.” The maze, the cradle: these are the means employed by the competing sides of the present season’s improvised conflict. Through the show, heads gain access to messages, but not the messenger. A daughter tries to coax her father toward the beach beyond the maze, to no avail. The data in the cradle of our DNA seems intent on full apocalypse. But among these warring parties, there may yet be a savior.