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.
I coach myself to smuggle more dreamtime into daytime along my daily walk. As I do so, a squirrel falls from a tree branch a good 15 feet onto the street below several yards ahead of me, only to then run off unfazed into the shade of a parked car. Sarah and I marvel at the strangeness of a dream of hers from the night before involving a student who, despite her protests, insisted upon blowing a dog whistle during class. The conversation turns toward a German TV series she’s been watching recently, Babylon Berlin. I reflect upon the left critique of bourgeois decadence and the Nazi attack on “degenerate art,” both conjured by their association with the show’s use of “Babylon” in its title. Both formations, I tell myself, emerged as critiques of liberalism. A large dog, however, stirred by my approach, awakens me from these thoughts with its bark and its yelp, a dark blur spied between the panels of a neighbor’s fence. Afterwards I find a copy of All the Little Live Things, a 1967 novel by Wallace Stegner featuring “Jim Peck,” a character modeled after Stegner’s former student at Stanford, Ken Kesey. The book’s first-person narrator, a retiree named Joe Allston, spends the bulk of the novel venting about the Peck character once the latter, described on the book jacket as “a bearded young cultist,” moves in next door, builds a treehouse on Allston’s property, and proceeds to start “a University of the Free Mind, complete with yoga, marijuana, and free-wheeling sex.” That’s when it hits me. Wild Wild Country, All the Little Live Things, Babylon Berlin: they all explore the same basic narrative, the culture war imagined in miniature, with variable sympathies and variable scales and stakes.
Is there still a Freudian subject in the age of Big Data? Scanning a bin full of books at Goodwill, I encounter an ominous concatenation of signs: “The Crippled Lamb”; “The White House Transcripts”; “Herman Kahn”; “1984”; “Armageddon.” Push away these titles on the surfaces, however, and one can happen upon a far more hopeful arrangement: a psychology textbook; a collection of “parable-stories for those on a mystic journey”; a study of the “theology of romantic love”; a guide showing how to set up a “children’s house” — an environment for learning based on the Montessori method, “where children can be their own masters, free to learn at their own pace.” Is there a name for the belief that reality has been edited, updated, revised? Just like that, rifts seem to form in memory. New dimensions are added to ease tensions in the fabric of the totality. By these means, those who adequately desire a thing can suddenly find in their immediate environments resources enough to bring their wishes to fruition.
In need of silliness to preserve my sanity, I clown about, I launch a study of Operation Mindfuck, a Discordian reality-hacking practice that entered counterculture consciousness in the 1970s via Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. I refuse to grant more than a bare minimum of attention to burdens and distractions, interference with my pursuit of peak-experiences. Walking beneath cherry blossoms, for instance, head tilted back to observe petals in popcorn profusion aglow with sunlight. Peaks of this sort give way eventually to what Abraham Maslow called the “plateau-experience”: “a serene, cognitive blissfulness which can, however, have a quality of casualness and of lounging about” (Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences, pp. xiv-xv). A voice recommends The Rock Warrior’s Way. In it, I find a sequel of sorts to René Daumal’s Mount Analogue, but with all of the chewy metaphysical implications drained away, leaving a miserable earning regimen measured out in increments of exertion, irritated into being by promised pearls. Let us instead coast blissfully, attention unleashed to happen where it may.
Reality expands, splits along a seam, opening a path, a trail for bikes and pedestrians beside a downtown railway, linking formerly disparate parts of the totality. Cells and cell-clusters travel through veins beside arteries. The name of an appearing and disappearing cat scrolls across a screen. One can imagine universes suffused with entities of this sort, on whom one may call through performance of ritual, as in The Teachings of Don Juan. Among incalculable potential pathways through life’s labyrinth, I’ve wound up here, eyes scanning across rows of books. Let us make of our path a joyful journey. Planes streak the sky at twilight as I listen to Brett Naucke’s “The Vanishing.” Ignore the monorail and advance toward the glowing pyramid.
Using directional keys to navigate, I sit down at a drum set and unleash sprays of knocks and clicks, as if to initiate a ceremony. Strange voices enter my headspace, lecturing incoherently about Peter Pan, Pinocchio, archetypes, and DMT. Mental reprogramming sends me down stairwells, through lovely gardens, to an ancient sea below. Instructions appear in bubblegum font. Consciousness dwells sequentially over details spanning several levels of being. Object permanence bids farewell, leaves us momentarily to contemplate selfhood as extrapolation or device. The average lifespan of a ladybug is 2 to 3 years, announces a voice outside ours. Wilderness spaces are spaces of diversity, pluralities of plural worlds. Out of the folds of these worlds emerge previously obscured items: books like Ludic Dreaming: How to Listen Away from Contemporary Technoculture by a group called The Occulture, Steve Goodman’s Sonic Warfare, and François J. Bonnet’s The Order of Sounds: A Sonorous Archipelago. Let us engage in creative rather than merely receptive modes of listening. Like Cordelia in King Lear, let us exclaim, “All blest secrets, / All you unpublished virtues of the earth, / Spring with my tears!”
I practice silently the names of plants in my neighborhood. Star magnolia, tulip magnolia, hyacinth. Rows upon rows of daffodils. A massive weeping cherry tree atop a hill. The first-person perspective shots in Maryam Goormaghtigh’s Before Summer Ends fuse me in an unprecedented way to a trio of Iranian male protagonists, vacationing on the coast of France. By these ways, we forge new ties, bonds, interests, empathetic capacities, across and despite traditional national-linguistic boundaries. Alas, life runs through our fingers; let us make haste in our imagining a beyond. Screw in the corners of a hammock. Relax, lie back, light up, read a book. Lincoln in the Bardo comes to mind. It and High Maintenance present themselves as clue-bearing reference points within a secret network, a kind of “Head Underground.” The joint effort of assembling art from jointly sent and jointly received sets of signs.