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.
Let’s initiate today’s ritual with a notch-lowering jaunt through X.Y.R.’s “False Angel Lullaby.”
Today’s headlines feature reviews of dramas performed by morons. Like Herrigel’s bow and arrow, my trance-scripts are “only a pretext for something that could just as well happen without them, only the way to a goal, not the goal itself, only helps for the last decisive leap.” Not Not Fun have been putting out some top-notch records: “mesmerizing maze music mapped for altered states,” as they say in one of their promos. These records lend themselves to me as “Temples of Solitary Thought.” Let’s end things today, by the way, in anticipation of the season gestured to in Jefre Cantu-Ledesma’s “Autumn,” playing both that and Magnetizer’s “See What U See.”
Neighbor wars, street wars. The culture war has been heating up over several decades, to the extent that now it functions not just as war by other means, but war by many means. Tree-chopping homeowners, bumper-sticker micro-aggressors, coal-rolling sociopaths: these are some of the monsters immediately in our midst. And yet there at the corner, a garden of great beauty. “Reality Redux (feat. The Blues)” serves as mood-supplementing accompaniment as I go for my afternoon run, along which I intermittently walk and type.
An old yellow truck is tucked in the side lot of one of the homes I pass on my way. Don’t you love it when performers of feats perform cockily? Insects in the trees unleash a pulsing, multi-directional, multi-sourced roar in the moments of dusk’s fading light. Funny, in contrast — I vibrate into an icy unease when my body’s focus shifts to the repetitive drone of my next-door neighbor’s air unit, as if the mechanical and the organic were out of harmony with one another. This is the escapist fantasy into which I implode. Coherence involves a thing’s relation to itself. The marijuana firm American Green just purchased an entire town. It’s small, certainly, atop a mere 120 acres in California; but it signals an intensification of green capitalism’s commodification of peak experiences. With bottled cannabis-infused water, mineral baths, and marijuana retail outlets, it’s a first-of-its-kind, at least here in the US — the latest advance in psychedelic tourism, where your body travels to a particular location in meatspace, but only so that your mind can relax into the exoticism of an altered inner state. What hope is there for the positive changes in consciousness of the kind proposed by Acid Communism when legalization efforts are run by capitalists?