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.
Birds and squirrels play outdoors, the world outside the window an infinite cosmology, plural worlds within worlds. Sarah sings to me from the next room about the ideas of Margaret Cavendish. World-building. Radical occult ontology. Can these be the way individuals imagine themselves in relation to a cosmos of many beings and worlds? By such means, we could design our own cognitive maps, could we not? Think of these latter as structures similar in scale to Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe. Only they’re not grasped as structures. We learn our cognitive maps, we study them as they unfold all around us: the great Happenings of the Multitude. The “cognitive map” is a Utopian object proposed by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson — a “spur,” we might say, an aesthetic riddle, a challenge issued to artists of the future. The purpose of this object that doesn’t yet exist, Jameson says, is to represent the unrepresentable, so that individual subjects can once again find their way in a global totality that at present “transcends all individual thinking or experience” (“Cognitive Mapping,” p. 353). When I return to André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism,” I encounter aesthetic interventions of a different sort, ones that place their trust in “the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Allow language to air what needs airing, urge the Surrealists. Allow the unconscious to speak, no more cross-outs, just flow. To produce a “Surrealist composition,” one enters a receptive state of mind, allowing sentences to come either spontaneously or through games involving arbitrary constraints. Get weird, bring back the arbitrary, “so compelling is the truth that with every second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard” (Breton 30). Breton’s movement was a response to world war. Reason had led humanity toward destruction and tragedy; perhaps we should live in accord, then, with our imaginations and our dreams. It’s a shocking, scandalous proposal, as Breton the former Dadaist intended. This is, after all, an anti-art. Yet its results are sometimes marvelous and strange. “The words, the images,” as Breton wrote, “are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener” (35) — and each of us, of course, when creating and dialoguing through Surrealist art, gets to play the listener, “reason’s role being,” in this art, “limited to taking note of, and appreciating, the luminous phenomenon” (37).
Sometimes I respond to concentric circles representing the orbits of other entities and beings. What did William Blake mean by phrases like “the starry floor” and “the watry shore”? Look, too, at the Silver Surfer figure at the base of the “Introduction” engraving from Blake’s Songs of Experience, lounging on a chaise in outer space.
Blake speaks in the same poem of “the starry pole” that the “lapsed Soul” might control, “And fallen fallen light renew!” In the voice of the Bard who knows the power of words in the act of creation, Blake beckons the Earth to awaken again after years of slumber. And to the “lapsed Soul” of fallen humanity, he says, “Turn away no more.” Or so I thought at first. However, maybe he’s still speaking there to the Earth. Perhaps Earth is the “lapsed Soul,” the slumberous mass of which the humans reading the poem are but a part. This makes sense, given that the next poem in the series is titled “Earth’s Answer.” Awakened into language, Earth denounces the “Father of the ancient men” who would shame her and place her in bonds. In Blake’s estimate, the Father imagines himself as Reason, but behaves like a jealous tyrant, chaining us with “mind-forg’d manacles” to a prison-world, a false totality, a construct. Have critics read this work in relation to cousin genres: image-text parings like Tarot cards and graphic novels?
Honey bees forage around a fence overgrown with ivy, the latter’s blooms providing the bees with sustenance this time of year, the early weeks of autumn. I sit beside them, imagining myself a visitor to their utopia, newly arrived via miniature Montgolfier balloon. A package arrives by mail containing Brian Blomerth’s beautiful new graphic novel Bicycle Day. The bees doing their thing, I enter the book’s retelling of the story of “mystic chemist” Albert Hoffman’s April 19, 1943 discovery of LSD. Intense stuff, particularly upon entering the trip proper, the famous bicycle ride home from Sandoz. In some sense, these scenes reinvent the classic superhero tale: the sudden, terrifying discovery of superpower. Hoffman didn’t know what was happening: the event was without precedent, a burst of pure novelty. He feared he’d lost his mind until his blissful day after, a time of rainbow-colored well-being and renewal. “Everything Glistening in the Soft Fresh Light,” he wrote afterwards of the experience. “The World was as if…Newly Created.”
Constellations of thought rotate around like the cover of Led Zeppelin III or the wheel of a rotary telephone, an object common to domestic space during the era of my childhood, replaced over time by cellphones. Thinking of the Led Zeppelin album, I kneel beside my unalphabetized, unsystematized wall of vinyl whispering, “Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
There it is, a psychedelic thing of beauty. “Visual Creations by Zacron,” reads the circular stamp beside the credits on the inner sleeve. I guess this device I’m imagining is a volvelle, a wheel chart featuring concentric circles with pointers. Volvelles were used in medieval Europe to calculate the phases of the sun and moon. “While at the Royal Academy Schools,” I learn, “Zacron produced a rotating book” called One Line and a Box.
Users could ask the book “questions about their interaction with the environment,” as they might using devices like the Tarot or the I Ching. From this earlier work, Zacron derived the idea for the design of Led Zeppelin III. My courses begin to shape up into elaborate nested allegories.
I listen to recordings from several weeks ago of friends and I jamming with guitars, laptops, effects pedals, and modular synths. Amazing how it all comes together into a synchronous spontaneous composition. Noise band as groupuscule, noise band as psychedelic assemblage. Isn’t that what John Sinclair had in mind? “A rock & roll band,” he wrote, “is a working model of the post-revolutionary production unit. The members of a rock & roll family or tribe are totally interdependent and totally committed to the same end — they produce their music collectively, sharing both the responsibility and the benefits of their work equally. […]. It’s time to turn on tune in and take over! Up against the ceiling, motherfucker!” Will Alexander helps in this regard, reminding me of exercises for “turning on,” like the ones specified in Edward de Bono’s book Lateral Thinking. Most importantly, he reminds me, “Leaps can be made.” Alexander calls the technique “flexible ambulation through one’s mental catacombs” (Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat, p. 13). Through him I learn about the Cuban painter Wilfredo Lam, influenced by his godmother, Matonica Wilson, a Santeria priestess, healer, and sorceress who performed rites dedicated to African orishas. One drifts a bit, breathing, open to new experience. Voices respond by firmly chanting, “Aye!” as they do in the Supergrass song, “Coffee in the Pot.”
Let us try to see as others see. Try, try! Unforeseen outlooks, hidden powers, power on. Let us become creative in our capacity to heal. Bruce Mau’s advice also seems applicable here: “Take field trips. The bandwidth of the world is greater than that of your TV set, or the Internet, or even a totally immersive, interactive, dynamically rendered, object-oriented, real-time, computer graphic-simulated environment.”
An ant explores the surface of a sunlit outdoor table. I sit across from it observing and writing on my in-laws’ back patio. A neighbor waters a garden next door as I read Erik Davis’s review of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition for Frieze magazine, written two years ago, when the show was up at BAMPFA. This is the show that inspired the course I taught this past spring. There’s an elegance to the review’s list of the show’s achievements. My eyes dwell for a time on an image included in the review, a digital reproduction of a 1965 painting by Isaac Abrams called Hello Dali.
I see echoes of the painting as I look over at flowers in my in-laws’ garden. I let this work motivate me to complete my project. I watch videos, like the radical Italian design group Superstudio’s “Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth,” a film of theirs from 1972.
Balm applied, the goad to work kicks in. I note down books I need to order, like Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. After a breakfast of homemade waffles and orange juice, I burrow away and watch Davis’s recent talk, “A Brief History of Queer Psychedelia,” where I learn about Gerald Heard’s involvement with the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.
Isocrates was the pseudonym that Heard used for the articles he published in the society’s magazine, the Mattachine Review. He also wrote articles for ONE, another early gay publication, under the pseudonym D.B. Vest. Davis also unveils a weird book of Heard’s written in the late 1960s called AE: The Open Persuader published under the pseudonym Auctor Ignotus (or maybe W Dorr Legg). Tartarus Press published a collection called Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard in the early 2000s. That, too, is a book worth tracking down. By midafternoon, elements have clustered together to cause me to wonder at the overlapping histories of psychedelics and ritual magic. The famous LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III noted that his early experiences with acid coincided, for instance, with his reading of The Kybalion. Most of the first-generation Western psychedelic crowd took up at points with Eastern tantric currents. Some folks also explored Western pagan and esoteric traditions. This outburst of spiritual yearning and experimentation remains for me in its utter mysteriousness a source of fascination. In my state of unknowing about it, the topic seems rich with narrative potential, like there’s a story there waiting to be told. Like the fate of Pedro Salvadores in the Borges story of that name, it strikes me as a symbol of something I am about to understand, but never quite do.
Clouds appear puffy and white with shades of gray the way they do in the paintings of Turner and Constable above the stack of three-level Victorians at the corner of Cowcross and St. John. To sit at a table under an awning at a café here in London is basically to resign oneself to inhalation of secondhand smoke. I see little evidence of Glastonbury and Windsor and the other acid-fueled free festivals of the 1970s remaining here in England’s cultural DNA. The same goes for Madchester and late-80s / early-90s rave culture. The neoliberal counter-reformation has wiped clear near about every last trace of these consciousness-expanding influences, allowing Her Majesty’s loyal subjects to throw themselves whole-hog again into their old habit of killing one another with cigarettes and drink.
Sunlight reflected off passing cars on the street below travels in a ghostly manner across the ceiling of the flat, short fleeting flashes matched with sounds of engines as I lie on a couch beside the window. Sarah and J. type at their laptops. Air releases as one of them twists the cap from a carbonated beverage. I try to open myself to these sounds. I try to welcome them as aspects of experience. Before long, conditions change: J. rinses a dish in the sink, Sarah leafs through a catalogue, the sun passes behind some clouds, and suddenly I’m up on my feet, I’m stretching, trying to release tension from my neck and shoulders. What is the source of this tension? Blocked kundalini energy — energy I’ve awakened, trapped along its journey up my spine? Perhaps it’s just pain related to the shitty mattresses on which I’ve been sleeping these past few weeks. Rather than dwell on the discomfort, I hop over to the Tate Britain, where I wander around listening to Third Ear Band’s Alchemy while viewing works by Ithell Colquhoun and William Blake. Beautiful carved objects greet me by day’s end — ornate wooden chessboards, masks, figures, and statues at a West African restaurant near the British Museum. Dining alone in close proximity to neighboring tables creates a slight sense of awkwardness, as I know not where to direct my gaze, other than at the art on the walls.