Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.
Ellen Sander’s book Trips begins with a lovely dedication to “the incorrigible spirit of the Sixties; a seed planted, a weed grown, the promise, forever beckoning, of a garden.” That garden is the same one that beckons to us as the before and after of these trance-scripts. Sander was an early rock critic who covered the scene for Hit Parader, Vogue, and Saturday Review, among other outlets. Her book documents a change in awareness, the consequences of which continue to be felt today. She wrote in an age of bombs, flying saucers, superpowers, rock and roll groups — the same age of “high weirdness” analyzed by Erik Davis in his recent book of that title. These were the years when we first made contact — people of the world united in dance. Where has it led us, though? Localized changes, small but significant, keep me hopeful, each of us doing what we can. One of my nephews honors me, for instance, by adopting my habit of wearing colored Tyvek bracelets, the kind acquired as tokens of admission during visits to amusement parks, concerts, carnivals, and pools. It’s a quirk of mine, I guess — part freak flag, part makeshift memento mori — something I’ve been doing ever since I was a teenager. A modest bit of deviant self-fashioning.
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.
Street art adorns every available surface along London’s Brick Lane — tags, murals, stickers, posters, the works. Uniformed schoolchildren file past, their tour guide pointing out to them where the master weavers used to live. Rounding the corner onto Sclater Street, I stroll over to a bar and grab a seat under an awning on the sidewalk. A courier rides by on a bicycle as I sip my lager. What am I to do with these interests of mine? Marxist philosophers, Decadent poets, psychonauts, occultists, members of the New Weird Britain: do any of these figures matter anymore, or has the hour of the counterculture’s final passing come round at last? The success of Strange Attractor Press suggests that there’s still a readership for this material. Let us persist, then, in our faith that these forces can reactivate and work their magic in the years ahead.
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.
Charles Perry’s history of the Haight-Ashbury, published by Rolling Stone Press in 1984, is definitely a product of its time, hopes dashed and tone soured by the experience of Reaganism. But it’s the best, most comprehensive, research-intensive book of its kind. If you wanna know what happened in the Haight, the epicenter of 1960s psychedelic utopianism, this and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test are where to begin. After which point I suggest walking, sitting in a park. Imagine wind patterns, encounters with butterflies. A squirrel sits on a branch. A motorcyclist buzzes past. And on the bench beside us, a lovely ladybug. She crawls across my finger, my leg, my wrist-band. She hitches a ride, climbs aboard as I walk home to order a copy of Alexandra Jacopetti’s Native Funk & Flash.