Do Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the heroes of Tolkien’s fictions, pass through portals? Their home in the Shire features a circular door, through which they step when they begin their journeys. ‘Tis a magic circle, of the kind theorized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. The world in the circle is the realm of Faerie — or what Huizinga would call the realm of play. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
Tolkien, as one of the preeminent figures of twentieth-century fantasy, shares Huizinga’s interest in this other, “temporary” sphere born of play. That the worlds that result from this sphere are temporary in nature leads Tolkien to assume them “sub-creations” — “secondary” worlds, as he says in his 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories” — but not in a way that diminishes their value. In keeping with his Catholicism, he believes that humans are handiwork of a single god, a single divine creator. And therein lies our magic, he argues. Created in that being’s image, he says, we too possess a capacity to create. We who are “created sub-creators” in one reality get to be creators of worlds of our own.
So sayeth the Fantasist.
“But what if, instead of distinguishing these worlds as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary,’” adds the Narrator, “we opted rather to call them ‘partner worlds,’ or ‘corresponding pairs’ — as in the Hermetic saying, ‘As above, so below’?”
“What if, in so doing,” replies the Traveller, “we followed the paths of the Alchemists and the Surrealists? What if, as Magico-Psychedelic Realists, we brought them together, allowed them to merge?”
Twenty-first century subjects of capitalist modernity and whatever postmodern condition lies beyond it have up to Now imagined themselves trapped in the world of imperial science. The world as seen through the telescopes and microscopes parodied by the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. That optical illusion became our world-picture or world-scene — our cognitive map — did it not? Globe Theatre projected outward as world-stage became Spaceship Earth, a Whole Earth purchasable through a stock exchange.
Thanks to Frank, I found my way down there mere days after my arrival to town. What a space! It was like a T.A.Z. torn in time, a liberated territory poking through the city’s capitalist-realist façade.
To make it viable economically, artists living above had opened a coffee shop below. I remember the latter as a funky, spacious, cavernous place — a fun place to plot. And their annual Halloween parties were instant things of legend. Members of local bands would partner up with one another each year and play in one-off cover bands, performing in costume as famous indie bands of the past (Pretenders, Modern Lovers, Cramps, and the like). And the remarkable thing was, heads came out in droves: hundreds of us in costume, dancing, drinking, smoking our way toward dawn.
How I wish it was still there! Which is to say: How I wish we were there, you and I. If my Time Machine works, we’ll go there — ‘tis a promise. But not today. Today’s is the story not of the Werehouse, but of the home on Shady Boulevard.
Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary’s psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.
Are we genres of people, as Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter argues? Or do we contain multitudes, selves morphing and genre-shifting? Could capitalist realism reality-shift? It could become a romance: a “scientific romance” as per Wells, with a time machine. And it could do this with or without the horrors of weird fiction. It could be a detective comic. It could be a portal fantasy. It could be all of these. Even at times, under game-like conditions, a dungeon-crawl. Let us remake ourselves as magical realists. The story that contains is a story of love. It can get smutty, as Sarah says of Bridgerton. Persons in their many phases, including altered states of consciousness: some higher, some lower. Let us imagine time machines, war machines, starships. Revolution occurs, a revolution of consciousness. Heads awaken to higher states: romantic comedy, utopian fantasy. Genres combine, as do gods and archetypes in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Paradise is both the third book of the Divine Comedy and a novel by Toni Morrison. The latter begins with a call to sobriety.
Sarah retrieves my grandmother’s bracelets from a storage bin. Large colored plastics — the “costume jewelry” equivalent of the donuts from our daughter Frankie’s Fisher-Price donut toys. Frankie plays with these bracelets that belonged to my Nani. She holds them, admires them one by one. The persistence of Nani’s spirit in our lives gives me joy. A friend calls these final weeks of each semester “grading jail,” days busied reading students’ essays and assigning final grades. If it’s a sentence, let us bear it lightly. Such has been my motto. “Grade fairly and kindly, as would a ‘sharer’ — so that we may enjoy our well-earned break.” The break, of course, is not truly a break. One continues to work, plotting the semester ahead. And perhaps, too, beyond that, a new course for next school-year, on “portal fantasies” and magic. A former student who majored in game design complains that Cyberpunk 2077 was released too soon. “Despite seven years in production, and ‘patches’ to improve textures,” say the players, “the game is a disappointment.” “Well okay then,” replies my alias, the “Uncle Matt” character from Fraggle Rock. “By alternate paths,” he says, “we’ve arrived to an agreement. Shitty cyberpunk is what capitalist realism gets us. Let us try our hand, then, at something else.” I imagine that means authoring a program or script other than the capitalist-realist one we’ve been given. At the very least it means “shaping change,” as Lauren Oya Olamina counsels in her Earthseed religion’s “Books of the Living.” Weave fate toward a near-future other than the ones imagined by the cyberpunks.
Magic is a narrative device deserving of reinvention. Realism may be capitalism’s reigning mode — but it, too, is no more than a genre, and like all genres, emerges embedded in a particular historical narrative. Realism, in other words, is not reality; it can be supplanted through reemergence of magic. This reemergence hinges upon invention of the future by way of remembrance of a forgotten past among oppressed and colonized peoples. But the potentials available in forms of magic other than technology frighten Westerners into disbelief. Is there a way for disbelievers to be healed of this disbelief?
I roll down the passenger-side window and sit in my wife’s parked car beside a prickly bush, bothered by my historical moment but trying to breathe, trying to find joy and cheer despite the gridded, hyper-branded environment. A kiss and I feel much better. Roses, rainbow umbrellas, Moses Boyd’s “Rye Lane Shuffle.” Or better still: Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus.”
The relationship to capitalism is one forced upon me, my consent squeezed out of me every time I share space with others, i.e. every moment of every hour. How do I shed the anger I carry about, so as not to be troubled by headlines, flags, courts, markets, affairs of state — the recklessness and hostility of the American present? One way is to discover a secret history of underground resistance, like the one featuring Michael Aldrich, author of “Marijuana Myths & Folklore,” the first Ph.D dissertation on cannabis in the US, completed at SUNY Buffalo in 1970. Aldrich founded the first college chapter of LEMAR in 1967 and was co-founder of Amorphia (1969-1973), the organization that sponsored the first California Marijuana Initiative in 1972. Download issues of old counterculture newspapers like Oz, Gandalf’s Garden, the Ann Arbor Sun, and The Marijuana Review. Allow magical meanings to reveal themselves day by day. By that, I suppose I mean synchronicities and sermons heard in birdsong. Leary associate Art Kleps seems to have preferred something more than that. For him, “ideas of reference” are where it’s at, as he claims in The Boo Hoo Bible (161). But mine is the path of Ahimsa, Satya, Asteya, Aparigraha, and Brahmacarya: the five principles of Yama.
Harried with work, days and days of grading midterms, I stumble free mid-afternoon into observation and contemplative reading of the Afros of the White Panther Party, dining on a side of green lettuce. How compartmentalized the days become under capitalist wage-slavery, I think with a sigh. Oscillations, electronic evocations of reality. Abbie Hoffman and John Sinclair in the midst of the last civil war represented themselves on the stage of history as revolutionary superheroes. But department stores are weird trips, man. Compartmentalized to the nth degree. Objects hung from racks in one thinly-populated zone, dense diverse clusters of people and sound elsewhere. How might we reconnect? I pick up a faceted wood vase and tap at it, questioningly. A voice in a nearby aisle proclaims, “it feels so real!” Materials when touched, not what they seem. And these motherfuckers no longer carry my Heinz Jalapeño Ketchup. Reality becomes ever more standardized, with me too jittery and anxious to connect, strike up conversation with others. As in the song, I become “lost in the supermarket.” It’s at least in part a fear of race and sexuality. But mainly it’s a fear that to others I might seem a weirdo, a creep, a stoner. I wish we could somehow become heads together. How do we re-establish communication across the plastic dome?