Wizards often stroke their beards as they think. Picture it — as in a Halloween costume. ‘Tis a trope of the genre — as with Merlin, Gandalf, and Dumbledore. Wizards don’t have to fit this image — but there’s a long tradition of bearded wizards, sages who clutch staffs, canes, walking sticks, wands. The particulars vary from culture to culture. Tolkien is said to have acquired the trope from an ancient Finnish epic called The Kalevala, at the heart of which is a mage named Vainamoinen — old, wise, long beard, performs magic using voice and song. Esoteric secrets and forgotten knowledges grant all such figures special powers, distinct from the powers of their peers.
My wish is to write something that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, a story that re-enchants everyday life, sending readers out on weird walks through landscapes rich with clues. Let there be a well in one of these landscapes — or even just a spigot. Let there be precious stones and warp zones and portals to other worlds.
As a kind of essayist — one who writes to think, to find out, to endeavor — I often look for meaning, associations, correspondences, in that upon which I gaze. A friend lends a note of caution: some of what we find, he reflects, might be projected, phantasmatic rather than cloud-hidden. Of course, fantasies are not purely illusory. Psychoanalysts encourage us to think of them, rather, as scenes that stage unconscious desires. Lacan reads fantasy as a defensive formation assembled by a subject to veil the enigmatic desire of the Other. Fantasy hastens an answer to what can never be known, like one’s face or the back of one’s head, that which can never enter directly into the field of one’s perception. Fantasy pretends to solve what Lacan calls the mystery of “Che vuoi”: “What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?”
From early adolescence onward, I’ve been haunted, conflicted, attracted into near identity with yet simultaneously repulsed by the wizard archetype, particularly as embodied by “Raistlin Majere,” a character introduced to me through the fantasy novels of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance series. Raistlin has become synonymous in my imagination with the Lucifer character in Milton — though I encountered Raistlin first. I often hear myself wondering in a ponderous, psychoanalytic way, “Why did these books grasp hold of me? What was the nature of their appeal? What was it that I heard calling to me? How did these books reconstitute and reshape me? I found in them an entire cosmology, did I not? Was it my first, my original — or was there another, one prior? Did I ever reflect self-consciously about Christianity, accept it or choose it as my mythos, know myself to believe in it — or was it only ever a series of meaningless, inexplicable rituals imposed upon me by alien authority structures: family, church, community?” Part of me has come to view Weis and Hickman as corporate corruptors of the fantastic imagination. These were books that fed and perhaps irritated, worsened, fed and prolonged my sensitivity to the violence of being labelled a “nerd” by my classmates at school. That’s a powerful memory: one’s slightly larger male classmates narrowing their eyes, clenching their fists and snarling disgustedly, “Nerd!” I remember resolving to read the Bible in its entirety and getting distracted, setting it aside, reading Tolkein, Weis and Hickman’s Dragonlance and Darksword trilogies, Marvel superhero comics, horror novelists like Clive Barker and Stephen King. From their cover art onward, the Dragonlance books are all about a universe become filled with pubescent menace: men with swords, dragon-riding women. A world ensorcelled by hormones, symbol-systems, RPGs, and media. Readers are encouraged to see themselves in the Raistlin character: a figure of great intelligence trapped in a weak and sickly body, and for that reason contemptuous of others. That contempt is localized in the figure of Raistlin’s twin brother Caramon, the sibling who inherited the pair’s physical strength. Public school attempted to divide me from this through memorization of the alternative rituals of “science” and “mathematics” — but these had none of the same seductive powers, none of the erotic charge, the pleasure felt when under the spell of a fantasy.
The world operates unpredictably but for the most part pleasurably when I smoke weed; some wonderful but as-yet-unnameable “sense” or awareness enters the equation, a buzz or vibration, a field of energy operating outside space-time, in some other dimension. I enter a state of rapt, bemused fascination as I wander this new “inner space,” floating free in a sea of untranslatable semiotic matter. Lewis Carroll captured or came nearest to approximating the sensation with his description of Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole. In so doing, his text provides an anchor, a constant amid the experience of changing worlds. It’s how we lead ourselves from one world to another. With the comfort as well that time’s passage feels slow and dreamy, until suddenly we land and follow the rabbits of our curiosity. Is fantasy a realm of the head, a mere idealism? Or is it instead (for who is to know otherwise?) a portal to a world as actual as any other? Subjects and objects are units of language. Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) doesn’t appear to have experimented with drugs recreationally; he arrived to altered states by way of linguistics and mathematics. But Disney embraced the psychedelic interpretation of Carroll’s work as part of its marketing strategy for a re-release of Alice in Wonderland in 1974, encouraging viewers of the film’s trailer to “Go Ask Alice.” The cause of Alice’s descent is her falling asleep — daydreaming instead of completing her lesson. Doors, rabbits, magic potions: these are all manifestations of her unconscious desires projected into dream. Drugs and dreams inspire similar lines of thought: they strip the ontological ground out from under us, suspending the normal rules of reality. Instantaneously — just like that — we become convinced emanationists. “Our normal waking consciousness,” as William James wrote following his experiments with nitrous oxide, “rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (The Varieties of Religious Experience). Addendum: The psychedelic interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was propagated in a number of texts of the counterculture: Grace Slick’s lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Go Ask Alice (1971), Thomas Fensch’s Alice in Acidland (1970), an anti-drug film of that name from 1969, and another called Curious Alice (1971). Mike Jay’s book Emperors of Dreams (2011) took up the question of Carroll’s relationship to drug experiences, suggesting that Carroll borrowed the psychedelic motif from Mordecai Cooke’s The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860), a book describing use of fly agaric mushrooms among Siberian Shamans.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge “marries” or in a sense “reconciles” apparently contrary images in “Kubla Khan” by way of the latter’s poetic vision of a dome and a bursting fountain. So sayeth the literary critic Harold Bloom. In Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” school of interpretation, poets relate Oedipally to their precursors, each poem thus a demonstration of superiority — a flexing of imaginative muscle, an elaborate brag. Compared to Kublai Khan’s palace, the poet’s is, as enactment into global consciousness, the “finer dome,” the “more abiding paradise” (Bloom, The Visionary Company, p. 219). Bloom reads “Kubla Khan,” in other words, as a poem about poetry’s power. Through use of language, the imagination ruptures the given, allows back the forbidden, the excluded: the knowledge of Paradise. We are that unified, eternal Being — the one that reconciles contraries. Thou are that. Matter languaged. The oboe made articulate. (I classify the above as “notes toward a theory of fantasy.” In the same file I might add topics of conversation from my recent dinner with fantasist extraordinaire John Crowley. Change the stars, and one changes the world. As Above, So Below.)
Have I become an advocate not of one particular fantasy but of fantasy in general? Out of the libraries and into Cloud Cuckoo Land? For music played in non-countercultural public spaces (stores, restaurants and the like), my preferences skew toward the rock-classical: Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival. Radio fodder from the time of my birth. Along my walks each day, I notice certain changes. The daffodils of several weeks ago, for instance, are gone without a trace, but for the remains of a choice few. Sarah speaks to me of hormones surging, cells dividing. So unfolds the dialectic of difference and repetition, tears and ruptures allowing for the assimilation of novelty into the always-already of an eternal present.
What kind of allegorical reality may we ascribe to the myth of the Demogorgon and the Upside Down? A flimsy one, no doubt. A world based on a memory of a mass-media simulation. The same bodies of the past eerily reprising the moment of their youth, despite the change of age. Historical time portrayed as a collective post-traumatic episode to reawaken a numbed sensorium. Capitalism steals away from us our toys. The cathected objects of some originary moment of fully immersive imaginative play. Those objects held the imaginative universe. Why can’t we restructure economic reality around play? Students transform into patients, their automatic writing assignments revealing to me as I read them clues about their psyches. When I contemplate the many towering structures arrayed against me, however, anger flashes through my skin and I find again my hatred for my “fellows,” my “countrymen.” What can I say? It’s a mixed bag. Most of the “work” in our society is mere busy-work, as arbitrary as the mining operations that anchor the value of Bitcoin. “Everyone’s running around, trying to get up off the ground,” sings Transcendental Meditator Rick Stanley, “for that same thing.” “TM is a technique for direct experience,” states the text on the back of his album Song of Life, “And the result of that experience is a showering of pure delight.”
Where is this taking me? Can I trust fully in my journey? These are questions I ask myself while in the presence of Stanley’s LP and similar such objects rescued from historical neglect. Archaic remains of the “New Religious Consciousness” of the 1970s: so promising at decade’s start, yet somehow stalled by Prohibition by decade’s end. “Go deep into silence, take your mind into silence and transcend.” Out we come with energy and intelligence. Big takeover, here we come. We mustn’t turn self-exploration, though, into a mere chartered trip.