I enjoy jotting notes to myself on my phone these days, particularly when relaxing beside a pool. Sun, water, people, thought: a perfect combination. “Bertrand Russell on mysticism,” I remind myself, playing to a future self as its stern parent. “C. S. Lewis: did he, too, die on 11/22/63, the same day as Aldous Huxley and JFK?”—a question I type onto my screen and then promptly set aside. (The answer is, quite remarkably, as I learn afterwards, “Yes.”) In his book White Hand Society, Peter Conners claims that Timothy Leary was the person who, two days prior, supplied Laura Archera Huxley with the 200 micrograms of LSD that she administered to Aldous on his deathbed. Registering the sun’s warmth, I redirect awareness toward a swim, the pool’s rippling blue-and-white surface performing a lovely hypnosis. The lower part of me submerged to just below my chin, my thoughts grow fish-like—and then with another stroke, frog-like—consciousness of the entirety of my evolutionary past remaining stored, it seems, in some code-form akin to DNA. “What are the defining characteristics of contemporary existence?” I wonder after contemplating Western modernity’s imperfect approximation of a past garden paradise. This Shanghai noon. In all observable effects, however, the pool beside which I sit is still a healthy, therapeutic spot: Blake’s Sunflower’s “sweet golden clime.” Pool-going diminishes aggression, serves as a pleasureful release from some of the neuroses of the encircling regime. The optimist under present circumstances rejoices by noticing a parallelogram formed by the play of sunlight upon a tiled surface. The machinery of capitalism, I remind myself, threatens to extinguish even this. The White Hand Society gives me hope, though. I glimpse a row of ice cream cones printed on a towel and feel myself assured again of the all-rightness of existence.
“The instrument of evolution now is culture,” murmured a middle-aged Julian Huxley to a 10-year-old Oliver Sacks during Sacks’s childhood in Hampstead Heath. How does the universe order itself? A poet might say, “Through memories unlocatable in time.” Macro quantum events. Insides becoming outsides. Deterministic chaos. Self-organization. Sudden transformation. Everything can be generated from within. My evening self, for instance, orders my daytime self to look for D.S. Savage’s book The Withered Branch and for Sacks’s essay on “the Odd.” Look as well, it says, for info about Gerald Edelman and his theories about “recategorization.” Floating cell structures, floating synchronic portraits of games of Go. The world fires back, though, with news of a TV miniseries based on the life of Jack Parsons, and two recent biographies by Spencer Kansa: Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, and Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg. Beaches are parts of the labyrinth strewn with the bones of our predecessors.
Heads dive down and unearth an important side note in the history of psychedelic mysticism: Oscar Baradinsky and his “Outcast” chapbook series, published in the late 1940s in connection with Baradinsky’s Alicat Book Shop in Yonkers, NY. The tenth chapbook in this series is a work printed in June 1947 by British pacifist poet and critic D.S. Savage titled Mysticism and Aldous Huxley: An Examination of Heard-Huxley Theories. As I dip in, I feel a sudden urge to read with great haste a number of works by Huxley: first and foremost, his 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza, but also his early defense of mysticism, Ends and Means. Before long, however, Savage’s chapbook launches an attack on what it calls “the general upside-downness of Huxley’s theories.” In consequence, my attention lifts from the page and wanders ‘round the room. Out of the intricate wordplay of Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light” comes instruction for anti-imperialists: “Dethrone the dictaphone / Hit it in its funny bone / that’s where they expect it least.” Manfred Mann covered the song on The Roaring Silence. If one listens to the rest of side A of that album, one comes upon a great heady stoner-prog instrumental called “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in My Ear.”
Some funny bone jammy-whammy hit the deck pout. Glowing boat bat-symbol. Known entities confer without commonality either of language, focus, or faith, as the Other crosses its arms, sits smugly and asks, “Which of you does the talking?” As a “personalist,” Savage finds fault with what he describes as Huxley’s “naive materialism,” and in particular, his “ubiquitous and unexamined assumption of the existence of the universe as a totality, a whole, superior to, and independent of, the perceiving individual consciousness.” To me, though, Savage’s personalism sounds eerily solipsistic. One has to keep in mind, though, that Savage’s target is also a pre-mescaline Huxley, seven years younger than the one who writes The Doors of Perception. And Savage’s personalism, it turns out, is not as solipsistic as it first appears. He of course affirms the reality of subjective, personal experience; this, after all, is what makes him a personalist. But the work of living, he argues, is the work of relating one’s own world, the world centered around individual, microcosmic personal consciousness, with a totality consisting of a potentially infinite number of other such centers, other coevolving, spirit-imbued self-organizations of matter.
Tao Lin floats an interesting alternative history in his new book Trip—one that begins with worship of goddesses among our hunter-gatherer ancestors approximately 7,000 years ago. He relies for this account on controversial works like Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade, where historical societies are of two primary kinds: those organized according to principles of either domination or partnership. Upon my return from Los Angeles, I plan to make regular use of my new employer’s library. Along with Eisler’s book, I plan to grab Gary Lachman’s new book Dark Star Rising, a collection from Pluto Press called Voices of 1968: Documents from the Global North, and Marshall Sahlins’s Stone-Age Economics. I’m interested in the Pluto Press collection for its section on ‘60s Dutch “provo” Ole Grünbaum. Teenage boys sitting across from me at the airport brag about “roasting” some “random person” who has logged more than 5,000 hours in a single online video game. Together they resemble the cast of Stranger Things. The chaperoning mom rouses to deliver a “parenting” speech, the gist of which is to remind the boys to make smart choices; otherwise, she warns, she will “bring out the whip and bring down the hammer.” The boys chuckle at this, aware already of sexual innuendo, but still discomforted enough by it as to feel the need to mock it. “Wait, ‘the whip’? What’s ‘the whip’?” “Don’t cross me,” the mom fires back, “or I’ll be your worst nightmare.” “Ask this guy,” she ends, pointing to her son. On the plane afterwards, thousands of feet above the earth, my thoughts collect around the history of Enochian Magic. “Check out Sex and Rockets,” I remind myself, by which I mean a recently updated book on occult rocket scientist Jack Parsons. Make sure as well to read Kathleen Harrison’s essay in Sisters of the Extreme. Following Harrison’s ex-husband Terence McKenna, Lin posits fractal geometry as an important feature, an important characteristic, complement, or component, of psychedelic experience. Several hours later, I sigh deeply and the plane begins its descent. Back to the rainy, grey, fallen reality of the East Coast.
I listen to David Van Tieghem’s These Things Happen while reading selections from Lacan’s Écrits. I intuit in the latter an abiding belief that humanity’s primary tormentors are images of aggressivity, or “imagos of fragmented bodies” formed during childhood. My reading leads to an objectification of prior experience via the concept of “autoscopy.” This concept names experiences whereby individuals perceive themselves or their surrounding environment from positions outside their bodies. Isn’t there an element of autoscopy, though, in precisely that “subjectless” discourse that calls itself “Science”? As evidence of the latter’s utter theoretical inadequacy, its insufficiency at the level of the human subject, I’ll just note here that neuroscientists attribute experiences of autoscopy to “abnormal higher-level self-processing at the temperoparietal junction.” Notice how the self-exiled objectivity of the body predominates in that formulation. Notice, too, the normative heavy lifting performed by the unexamined, unjustified labeling of such experiences as “abnormal.” What about me, though? Aren’t there still traces of science woven into the semantics of these trance-scripts? What aggressive intentions, I wonder, might cause me to self-sabotage my attempts to dialogue with others? That’s probably the main question psychoanalysis asks us to register, is it not? In this way, we take consciousness for a ride, we elevate it.
My favorite part of Solaris is its foray into imaginary intellectual history. The book’s narrator, browsing in his space station’s library, recounts for readers the history of “Solaristics” as a field of study. Paranoia sets in, though, the moment I gather up and attempt to understand the state of my own discipline, variously defined as “literary studies,” “cultural studies,” or “English.” “This time, open up,” I tell myself. “About breathing, knowing, all those round things, echoing, sighing, dying.” Always resisting, always tensing my neck when I ought to float. Last night I paced the house trance-scribing voices. Okay, it wasn’t scary or anything: just me tapping notes to myself on my phone. By observing ants crawling along grit between tiles, my mind started to imagine lines, a tradition of literature, some of it Communist blank verse, but other parts constituting work that works at the limits of language, teasing at the Unknowability Thesis, reopening the case on that old canard about there being an insurmountable barrier between knowledge and experience. Solaris leads us to contemplate the telos of this thesis: overshoot, solipsism, regression. In evolutionary terms: the end of the line.
The hypno-therapeutic invocation at the start of the new Netflix series Babylon Berlin works as would a spell cast to ensure suspension of disbelief. It sinks the show’s audience immediately into a weirdly liminal, malleable state. The camera mimics, externalizes, makes public a property of mind, the power of the negative. Amid a non-place housing an infinity of potential signs, the mind invents for itself improvised picture-events. Mirror images evolve together like the reflecting surfaces of a kaleidoscope. Culture unfolds this way, too. Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, workshopped in Wallace Stegner’s creative writing seminars at Stanford, prompted Stegner’s angry rebuttal, All the Little Live Things. The Kesey novel imagines escape from the Combine (AKA the White Christian Settler-Colonialist Superstate) through cross-racial alliance between figures representing Native Americans and working-class whites. Kesey stages this alliance by rewriting and altering the outcome of the moment of cultural encounter, with character types and lines of dialogue borrowed from Hollywood Westerns. Kesey himself attempted in the years that followed to live out and embody this imaginary resolution with his cohorts, The Merry Pranksters. Stegner, having been there at the birth, so to speak, of this logic informing Kesey’s self-fashioning, acknowledges as much by linking Jim Peck, the Kesey character in All the Little Live Things, with Shakespeare’s Caliban. The one who forges this equation is none other than the Stegner novel’s narrator-protagonist Joe Allston. Where Kesey staffs the Combine with Nurse Ratched, Stegner places on the throne of All the Little Live Things’s California Eden a hot-tempered patriarch, a stern father intent on nipping hippiedom in the bud. Stegner’s novel, remember, comes out in 1967, the same year as the Summer of Love, the same year California vowed to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” by electing Ronald Reagan as its governor — the story of Oedipus thus given a new ending, with the attempted patricide quelled and the rivalry prolonged into the future.