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.”
A rainy evening. Streetlights help us symbolize a mood. Slim branches of bushes bend beneath weight of falling water. I sit watch and bear witness beside a window, dazing, dreaming, pondering the relationship between Ernst Bloch’s theory of an eternal utopian spirit and Aldous Huxley’s presentation of that spirit as a will for self-transcendence. How do we who find ourselves here in language preserve what Fredric Jameson, in a book of 48 years ago, saw fit to describe as “the almost extinct form of the Utopian idea” (Marxism and Form, p. 116)? How do we pry this idea out of the clutches of a total system that even then, as Jameson could see, “may yet ultimately succeed in effacing the very memory of the negative, and with it of freedom, from the face of the earth” (115)? Huxley called this system the Brave New World. To forestall that outcome, let us imagine freedom and then go there! “Complete the thoughts of the past,” as Marx wrote in his “Letter to Ruge” of 1843. This has always been our duty: to develop a clear idea of what the world has long dreamt. Let us confront Huxley’s mystical consciousness so as to awaken in it an Egalitarian Giant. Let us restore to the dreaming subject the political direction which rightfully belongs to it. I do this in my classroom with my assembly for students of “a hermeneutic which offers renewed access to some essential source of life” (Jameson 119). For Paul Ricoeur, Jameson claims, this source is the sacred. What about for Huxley? Is the latter’s positive hermeneutic secular or religious in its orientation? Who or what is it that winks at us in recognition in the wake of ego-dissolution? We could ask the same question of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Who is the woman who escapes from the yellow wallpaper? Identification shifts over the course of Gilman’s story. Of course as readers, we, too, are in the same position as the story’s narrator: observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who herself is observing the movement toward freedom of the woman in the yellow wallpaper. All stories are the same story. But it matters, I suppose, whether the prison from which we dream ourselves is to be transcended or transfigured. “This to that,” or “that in this”?