“Going back to old sounds won’t help,” thinks the Time Traveler. “Do so and the Narrator stands revealed as a bloody mother fucking asshole.”
The Narrator, not quite omniscient and thus taken aback by the thought, asks of his sub-creation, “You think so?” “What, then?” he wonders. “Do we edit the entries to make me likable? What would we write instead?”
Thus it happens, thinks the Traveler. “The Ghost would have to enter into the narrative,” he says. We know for certain that some such being spoke to us via auditory hallucination, don’t we? And we know as well that it was already there, doing its work upon us in the house, prior to our introduction to marijuana. The latter didn’t invent the Ghost — but it amplified it. It gave it back its voice. Let us open ourselves to the Ghost, then, and recognize it as a potential for apartness within us that is always-already part of us. Once we accept all that is loop-like, all that is like Ouroboros in our nature, we reveal ourselves as we are, infinite: a single, transtemporal, interdimensional being, enunciating itself across time.
The pool’s not been what I’d hoped. This is one of the ways that Mercury Retrograde has manifested locally of late, prompting in me a sense of frustration and postponement, despite my knowing that we’ve performed our planting ritual, seeds and seedlings are in the ground, things are growing. Similar processes are afoot intellectually as I continue my wanderings. In my readings, I’ve been moving crabwise among many books at once. Robin D.G. Kelley keeps it surreal with his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thelonious Monk appears near the book’s finale. Kelley went on to write a book on Monk. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Thumbing through the latter book’s index, I land upon “Monk, Thelonious: drugs taken by,” hoping to encounter word of Monk’s relationship to psychedelics, as he’s known to have done mushrooms with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Monk came to the psychedelic sacrament a seasoned pro. Reports suggest he was unimpressed. Monk had been arrested years prior for marijuana possession. Police rolled up on him after a Sunday night gig in June 1948. He liked to smoke reefer when he played, and other players in his groups relied on drugs and alcohol to keep up. The meeting with Leary occurred in January 1961. Three years later, Monk appeared on the cover of the February 28, 1964 edition of Time magazine. The cover story’s author Barry Farrell wrote, “Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.”
Laws are changing in both the state of my birth and my current state of residence. The states that house most of my lived experience. Decriminalization of marijuana where I reside, and legalization up north for the people of New York. Think of it as “tools returned to the people,” “medicine for the people,” people able now to receive plant wisdom without fear of persecution. In some locations, these projects have been “articulated,” in Laclau and Mouffe’s sense, with police abolitionism and reparations for communities of color.
The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.
Due to health problems, Ada Lovelace started using opium “systematically,” as her biographer notes, from 1841 onward. Her mentor and collaborator Charles Babbage is an interesting figure, too, the author of both “On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures” as well as the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, a work on natural theology. The fourth chapter of the latter work is titled “On the Account of the Creation in the First Chapter of Genesis.” Scanning the chapter’s opening pages, one discovers references to geology. Most mysterious of all, though: Ada’s letters to Babbage contain references to a “lady-fairy” and “Fairy-Guidance.” Babbage’s nickname for Ada was “Enchantress of Number.” Her hope, apparently, was to “bequeath to the generations a Calculus of the Nervous System.” As her health declined in the 1850s to the point where opium no longer controlled her pain, she began to experiment with cannabis. Ada was largely forgotten after her death until her rediscovery by figures like Alan Turing nearly 100 years later in the 1940s and 1950s. The key to all of this magic, I think, is what Ada called “cycles” and “cycles of cycles,” or loops and nested loops.
“You there,” says a cursor, a pointing finger: “Feed your head.” DC hardcore bands of the 1980s laughed off the hippies, refused to remember what the dormouse said. Contra Jefferson Airplane, they clamped down defensively, shouting “Flex your head” through speakers and sound systems across time. That stance appealed to me. I was hailed by it. It formed me into a position as a particular kind of subject. Emanating from the capital, coeval with an era of federally-waged drug war, straightedgers like Ian MacKaye denounced drugs as “crutches.” The stance conveyed an ableism that was simultaneously hyper-defensive, its anger a reaction to fear. As punks, MacKaye and his friends and bandmates faced routine bullying and marginalization. Early episodes of teenage drug use led to denunciations of party culture, as on Government Issue’s “Rock’n Roll Bullshit,” and dramatic public acts of abstention from drug-assisted Dionysian revelry, as on Minor Threat tracks like “Out of Step” and “Straight Edge.” Always flexing, never feeding. It took years for me to recover and loosen up — but loosen up I did.
The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
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.
Worry not: Look outward upon a radiant new environment loaded with hidden Easter eggs. Go out and listen. There is great peace of mind to be had by exhaling and breathing silently along a calm evening walk. I walk in wonder, staring up at chirping birds on lofty branches, a clear cold sky lit for sunset. “Breathe,” I tell myself, “and concentrate mind in the present.” It’s been a tiring past couple of weeks, this conclusion of autumn and entry into winter. To cheer myself, I throw on the Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head — but something’s off, the album fails to suit the mood. I fail to find in it the significance suggested by its title, minus that great line at the end of the song from which the album gets its name: “I’m a child of atom bombs / and rotten air and Vietnams; I am you / you are me.”
The band also released a single the following year, an anti-drug song called “Slow Death” — the same phrase used as the nickname for Substance D, the fictional drug in Philip K. Dick’s doper dystopia A Scanner Darkly. I wonder if Dick was a Flamin’ Groovies fan.