Printed on my shirt: “THE UNCREATED ETERNITY / THE UNFATHOMABLE PRIMUM MOBILE.” ‘Tis a symbol utilized by Rosicrucians: an elaborate diagram, rendered partly inscrutable through wear and the passage of time. From what I can gather, though, the diagram establishes a network of correspondences, the cosmos mapped onto a stack of circles with wings. Much of it is beyond my understanding, though I’m reminded of the Sefirot from Kabbalah: the 10 attributes or “emanations” through which the Ein Sof, “The Infinite,” the unknowable divine essence, is thought to reveal itself. Studying the centermost circle in the diagram, I discover an inscription: “Let everything grow / and bring forth seed.”
Through a door in the wall opened by Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, I arrive to the Chicago Surrealist Group. (Kelley had recommended Paul Garon’s book Blues & the Poetic Spirit. “Look, too,” he’d said, “for an edited collection called Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. And don’t forget special issues of Living Blues and Race Traitor.”) Instructions received, I descend the stairs and work the stacks, knowing that my attention is the one thing that might save me. Sources arrange themselves on the shelves of the memory palace shouting “Read me, read me!” So I do.
Time: an odd phenomenon in light of the way it communicates, deposits emblems, plays hide-and-seek with consciousness. “Let Your Dreams Set Sail” says one such emblem, printed on the wall above the bed in which I’ve slept of late. A box on the ground displays the Paramount logo, a mountain pointed toward an outer sphere, like a Bucky dome lined with stars. Outside the sphere pokes SpongeBob SquarePants: the Flammarion engraving rejoined or reversed.
SpongeBob disrupts the first sphere’s fourth wall, smiles at consciousness, injects among solemnity a spirit of mirth set free to roam the cosmos. He, too, partakes of the image’s directionality, the vertical ascent narrative involving spaceships: the thing toward which the parts of the emblem incline. Let us imagine among these ships of possibility that which is prophecied in the mythology of the Dog Star — black anti-slave ships, lines of flight like Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. Nathaniel Mackey fuses these symbolisms in his poem “Dogon Eclipse.” The poem ends “as if by then I’d / been thru / Hell / and back.” As if the “I” of the poem were Orpheus, the poet of ancient Greece, founder of the Orphic mysteries. Orphics revered Dionysus. He, too, is said to have descended into the underworld and to have returned. Through his poem, Mackey initiates those who read. So sayeth Michael S. Harper in his preface to Eroding Witness: “These poems are about prophecy and initiation.” Poems like “Dogon Eclipse” hint at mysteries; they transmit a secret knowledge. Other poems in the collection conjure loas from Voodoo and Vodou. Loas are the “mystères,” “the invisibles.” They act as intermediaries between worlds.
The “new” look of psychedelic art and design of the 1960s was, as a recent Vox video shows, about recooking the past. “Art Nouveau on acid.” For Huxley, meanwhile, the psychedelic experience is about Moksha, a concept from Eastern spiritual traditions involving freedom from samsara, or access to a truth or a reality beyond the cycle of suffering and rebirth. I find myself returning to Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy, published in 1945, immediately after WWII. The book assembles passages from the writings of saints and prophets from traditions of Eastern and Western mysticism. The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is the one who named this strain of esoteric wisdom “the perennial philosophy.” There’s a universalizing bent to perennialism, arguing as it does that all religions, despite their differences, point to the same truth: “That Art Thou,” or “Thou Art That,” “the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being” (Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, p. vii). There is an eternal Self in the depths of each person. Or as Marcus Aurelius claimed, “the universe is a single living organism possessed of one substance and one soul, holding all things suspended in a single consciousness and creating all things with a single purpose that they might work together spinning and weaving and knotting whatever comes to pass.”
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 him 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.
Rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the parent in me wants instantly to refute it. I want for my daughter something other than the Oedipus complex. I imagine a succession of heroines and goddesses. Why among all the characters of mythology does Freud opt for Oedipus and Electra? The latter, of course, has been reinvented in our time as a Marvel superhero. No longer daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, she wields a pair of sai. Electras loom large in the minds of at least two hideous men: Freud and Frank Miller. What if instead we imagine Oedipa Mass, the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49? While imagining Oedipa, imagine too the women in “Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“Embroided Earth’s Mantle”),” the Remedios Varo painting (middle part of a triptych, in fact) viewed by Oedipa at a key point in the novel.
The figures in each case are all still figures trapped in another’s tapestry. “Such a captive maiden,” writes Pynchon, “having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” This, too, is the dilemma faced by Melba Zuzzo, the heroine of Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. Next thing I know, I’m sending myself “Playing the Post Card: On Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49“ while scanning my shelves for H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. Having seen the Varo painting in an exhibit a year prior to writing the novel, Pynchon recalls it from memory. Oedipa sees in the painting what Pynchon wants her to see. If she’d looked closely, she’d have seen “La Huida (The Escape),” the third part of the triptych, where the girl and her lover flee to the mountains.
And at the center of the triptych, reading from a spell book and stirring a cauldron, a sorceress. Such figures of power and liberation are occulted by Pynchon’s imagining of a feminized Oedipus — a character “hailed,” “interpellated” as Althusser would say, in the novel’s opening sentence when named executor of the estate of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity. Principle among the items of Pierce’s estate is a stamp collection. LSD is a plot point in Pynchon’s novel. Perhaps we could read Pierce’s stamp collection as the equivalent of “blotter art.” It’s described as containing “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” and is delivered to Oedipa by “somebody named Metzger.” Readers might be forgiven for confusing “Metzger” with “Metzner,” as in the logic of a dream. As in “Ralph Metzner,” editor of Psychedelic Review and co-author, along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, of The Psychedelic Experience.
I move amid the house attending to needs, wishing all well. Light fixtures, sculptures, paintings, artwork: plant the seeds and start doing.
I sit on a chair and think about karmic cycles as seasons for healing. Days have rhythms, bracketed blocks of time given to care, work, and play. By the latter I mean hermetic time of inner listening, when days allow. Books about “space” turn up on shelves across from me. Books on art and architecture: Topologies, Delirious New York, The Situationist City. Further off, a book called Spaced Out. What am I seeking, up there on those shelves? Am I seeking a teacher — one who I hope will appear in my life when I’m ready? Gary Snyder studied the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism with a teacher in Japan. Of course Snyder himself is a teacher as well. I find myself reading about American Zen pioneer Ruth Fuller Sasaki. Snyder worked for Sasaki during his time in Kyoto in the late 1950s. She’s the one who sponsored his first trip to Japan.
A book called Realizing the Impossible called out to me the other day, the title resonating with a phrase I’d recalled in an email the day prior. A friend had recommended an article commending the importance of utopian visionary thinking in times of crisis. I replied with a line of Che Guevara’s spraypainted on the walls on the streets of Paris during May ’68: “Be realistic — demand the impossible.” Opening the book, I came upon an interview with late 60s acid anarchist Ben Morea, central figure in New York freak-left political-art groups Black Mask and Up Against the Wall Motherfucker, as well as — to my surprise — a later, short-lived collective called International Werewolf Conspiracy. The name pricks up one’s ears, does it not? For a short time in the late 60s and early 70s the group made and printed posters and manifestos. They’d pass out leaflets to fellow heads on the streets. Morea was friends with Valerie Solanas, author of The SCUM Manifesto. Morea wrote a pamphlet in support of Solanas when she shot Andy Warhol, an act shunned and disowned by the rest of the left and the art world. There’s a character based on Morea in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol. By 1969, he was heading the International Werewolf Conspiracy. The group’s broadsheets amplify the gothic element in Marx and Engels. The specter evoked in the first sentences of The Communist Manifesto has given way to a pack of werewolves birthed when American youth drink the era’s “magic potion,” LSD. These werewolves are thus in origin a bit like Frankenstein’s monster — one of capitalist science’s Faustian lab experiments gone awry. The pose strikes me as pure Attentat. Then again, maybe it’s just an American “horror-show” version of épater la bourgeoisie: an attempt to shock the middle class out of its complacency as the country transforms into Nixonland.
Travel isn’t quite the remedy I’d hoped it would be, though it rarely is. It rained — and I was still working throughout the day grading papers. Plus the laws, the policies of the state, make it hard to conduct Dadaist and surrealist walks. Urban excursions. Those are the practices that thrill me as a traveler: resolutely following a lack of itinerary. The surrealists called these practices déambulations, their results appearing in works like Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1926) and André Breton’s Nadja (1928). Strange encounters: a kind of “weird fiction,” though infused more with romance than with horror. An experimental approach to cartography and cosmology, becoming revolutionary (at least in the everyday of a collective reality — tiny, temporary, but at least not boring) with subsequent groups like the Lettrists and the Situationist International. These groups amp up the emphasis on “scientific study” and “rigorous analysis.” There was not among Debord’s circle enough dancing and loving, not enough romance in the group’s theory of the dérive. I prefer the surrealist emphasis on the authorial agency of the unconscious. Prior to all of these figures stands the original urban saunterer, the Parisian flâneur. Charles Baudelaire described the flâneur as “a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” In the 1940s and 1950s, the Beats reinvented this practice for the postwar era, the art of flânerie set on the road, flâneurs now palling around with one another, driving, hitchhiking, freight-hopping: the artist-poet as ecstatic world-tourist and pilgrim.