Friends gather for a gala get-together on my front porch, all of us vaccinated and thus able now to be with one another after our year apart. Spring is lovely here this year, trees budding, the yard awash in constellations of blue, white, and purple: wildflowers and patches of clover. We celebrate the publication of a friend’s novel, an historical romance just out this past week from Berkley, everyone wanting to read it, cheered too by the arrival of her parents, new in from up north. When last we saw each other, F. was new in as well: a newborn, a wee lass just home from the hospital. Amazing how much she’s grown these past fifteen months. Our friend’s dad is an artist, as is another of the party’s attendees. Both draw beautiful illustrations in colored chalk on our cement walkway. I admire these on my evening wanderings about the yard come dark. ‘Tis a starry night, across which flies a ship, discernible here below only as Morse code flicker: modest dots of red and white light. I resolve to read Black Quantum Futurist Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales), at the heart of which is a character named after the scarab-faced Egyptian god Khepri. This character is, like me, a frequent thrift-shopper. Let us, like Khepri, donate something each time we thrift.
Awaiting the evening’s discussion, I return again to Octavio Paz’s book Alternating Current, a collection of essays written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 1967, with an English translation released by Viking Press in 1973. For Paz, the fragment is “the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are” (Foreword). What might we learn from these essays — especially “Paradises,” on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception? We would be reminded of the myth of the Teotihuacán paradise of Tlaloc. Huxley finds in the mescaline experience, says Paz, a “universal myth” of “an enchanted garden” where “birds, beasts, and plants speak the same language” (90-91). Light and water are special presences in accounts of paradise. The “instant of equilibrium” formed between these presences is what Paz calls “the precious stone,” by which he means not just earth or the ground of being but rather jewels, emeralds, minerals that sparkle and behave like water in the presence of light. Other essays in Alternating Current point us to Henri Michaux, the French surrealist who, like Huxley, published books in the 1950s about his experiences with mescaline.
I sit in the sun room at the back of the house listening to birds, wondering about the status of the statue, a Native American chief holding a peace pipe across his knee, an item I accepted as an “inheritance” after the death of my grandparents. It was an object that fascinated me; I remember sitting with it, contemplating it with reverence upon encountering it in my grandparents’s “rumpus room” as a child. How else is one to act in this being’s presence? Is what Ken Kesey does through his invention of Chief Bromden, the “half-Indian” narrator of Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a form of “literary redface”? The Western was a popular genre in the culture of Kesey’s childhood. The novel imagines an encounter between Bromden and a “red-faced Irish brawler” named Randall Patrick McMurphy. Both men are war veterans committed as patients in a mental institution run by the novel’s communist-matriarch supervillain, Nurse Ratched. Communism is figured as an emasculating threat, an overly demanding mother, a superego intent upon world-ordering through replacement of nature with machinery. Capitalism, meanwhile, appears via McMurphy as a kind of confidence trick. It allows patients to enjoy sex and alcohol. It gets them gambling and making bets. And best of all, it’s willing to sacrifice itself like Christ so that natives like Bromden can be “made big again.” Bromden is the one saved by novel’s end. He smothers the lobotomized and defeated McMurphy, throws a control panel through a window, flees the ward, and returns to nature.
“Against work, for utopia,” announces a podcast I’ve listened to of late. Give it a try: sex worker Conner Habib, the show’s host, interviews Marxist-feminist Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem with Work. Weeks is an investigator of “Antiwork Politics” and “Postwork Imaginaries.” See especially her book’s fifth chapter, “The Future Is Now: Utopian Demands and the Temporalities of Hope,” where Weeks proposes “a utopianism without apology” (175). To defend the latter, Weeks draws upon the ideas of the great German Marxist “philosopher of hope” Ernst Bloch. Her account of Cold War anti-utopianism covers ground I covered in my dissertation: Karl Popper, Francis Fukuyama. All of it now dust in the wind. Let Utopia rise again from the sea of the possible as it did for More.
There were deer in the yard when I arrived home from “the Teet.” And a stinkbug that needed rescue, and a toilet that whines and may need a new valve. Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll mow the lawn and grade. In the days ahead, we hope to build our garden. As Roy Morrison said of the Mondragon cooperatives: “We Build the Road as We Travel.” Let these trance-scripts be spaces of hope. Signposts to an alternative modernity, like the one reported from firsthand by Richard Fairfield, reports gathered in his book The Modern Utopian: Alternative Communities of the ’60s and ’70s. If I could time-travel, the countercultural communes would be a destination to which I would journey. Let us be drawn toward collective living, enriched by conversation with others. We can begin by taking Fisher’s course on Postcapitalist Desire. Read the assigned readings, including work by Ellen Willis. Fisher gets his assessment of the reasons for the failure of the communes from Willis. Fellow ’60s rock critic Richard Goldstein included Willis among Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman as members of a lost tradition of “radicals of desire.” Somewhere in my basement is a collection of Willis’s writing on rock music, Out of the Vinyl Deeps. Also the book with the material Fisher assigned: Beginning to See the Light.
I’m reading Postcapitalist Desire, the transcripts from Mark Fisher’s final lectures, and thinking again of “Acid Communism.” I await insight into Fisher’s thoughts on psychedelics. Did he work with them? Or did the anti-hippie sentiments that Matt Colquhoun unearthed from early-2000s K-Punk lead to Fisher’s demise?
We rearrange ourselves beside a canal among people with good stories. A seal docked beside me with a smiley face sticker atop its face prompts me to imagine the addition of hieroglyphs to the text message emoji/emoticon lexicon. Mermaids hover to my left, and to my right a friend’s new romance novel: Joanna Lowell’s The Duke Undone. A trip down memory lane. “Down By the Bay” theme song performed on ukulele. I eye the book’s prologue and note its relationship to another of the friend’s novels. Female protagonist. Third-person subjective narration. Yet there the similarities end. Or so I imagine.
Step into “Jam On It,” members of Newcleus rocking the mic, beat is fresh. Then read Lennon Remembers, a two-part interview with John Lennon conducted by Jann Wenner for the December 1970 and January 1971 issues of Rolling Stone. Lennon begins the interview a bit rancorous and sour grapes. The Beatles had broken up eight months prior, and Lennon seems convinced that the 1960s cultural revolution failed to produce real change. “Nothing happened except that we all dressed up,” he says. “The same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything, it’s exactly the same. […]. We’ve grown up a little, all of us, and there has been a change and we are a bit freer and all that, but it’s the same game” (12). The band’s final years were in Lennon’s view humiliating and awful. People were thrust on them and would touch them. To recover, he made his first solo album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, released the same month as the interview. The album cover features John and Yoko relaxing under a tree beside a lake at Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate. A church bell rings in the opening seconds of “Mother,” the first track on Side A.
By the time of “Working Class Hero,” my thoughts are of primal scream therapy and psychic restitution. That’s what one seeks through psychotherapy, is it not? “Psychic restitution”? It all seems a bit too rooted in the past. It is time instead to re-read Eroding Witness by Nathaniel Mackey.
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.