Friends, let us hold space and remember Cruel Optimism author Lauren Berlant upon word of their passing. “A relation of cruel optimism exists,” Berlant wrote, “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1). We are all in such relationships, are we not? “Speaking of grieving,” they wrote, it was in grieving French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard that Berlant “first saw optimism as the thing that keeps the event open, for better or ill” (viii). How does one come to recognize that one’s optimisms have become “cruel”? What is it that moves us out of ourselves? “A satisfying something,” they whisper. “An intelligence beyond rational calculation” (2). And we are here, we are caught in this “scene of fantasy,” we are in the throes of it. ‘Tis our present, our contemporary moment. And this moment is what Berlant calls an “impasse”: “a time of dithering from which someone or some situation cannot move forward” (4). That is the genre of these trance-scripts, is it not? “The impasse is a stretch of time in which one moves around with a sense that the world is at once intensely present and enigmatic, such that the activity of living demands both a wandering absorptive awareness and a hypervigilance that collects material that might help to clarify things” (4).
I retrieve an object from a stack of documents: a postcard for a show called “Pacts and Invocations: Magic and Ritual in Contemporary Art.” Peering into the depths of the image, I see what lies within. ‘Twas a hard day but we got through it. Word-sounds, hyperobjects. Goin’ round eatin’ nuggets and fries. I feel devastated by a loss borne by someone close, and by all of the various “operations” running around, upon, and through me: vaccines, medicines, doctors, treatments. Sarah recommends RuPaul’s Drag Race as we talk over dinner. Frankie sits beside us drinking milk from a sippy cup. Home afterwards, I receive word of a friend’s talk on Psychoanalysis and Psychedelics. Another friend shares a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” The line is from “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” one of Hopkins’s so-called “Terrible Sonnets” of the 1880s. I think of the day’s arrivals as fodder for my meeting with my therapist. Doubt and depression weigh upon me when I contemplate my lack of accomplishment. Hopkins’s poem, though, I remind myself, remained unpublished until decades after the poet’s passing. Listening now to the talk by my friend the psychoanalyst, I’m made to think about “resonance,” a concept the friend extracts from Terence McKenna and Erik Davis. The latter defines resonance as “a phenomenon of interpenetration and mutual participation, of the blurring of the boundary between subject and object, something that is much easier to hear than to see.” Hear it I do as I pause the video and make time for Time for the Tams (1965). “Finally,” Nate says, “it is a form of coincidence.” All of which puts me in mind, of course, of Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Other phrases resonate here as well: “uncanny contact.” Nate reads Valis as the story of a psychosis. “Truth serum” administered in the wake of the removal of Dick’s “wisdom” tooth provokes Dick’s realization that reality is an illusion. Dick’s Exegesis, Nate argues, “is a tome of coincidence. […]. Valis, meanwhile, is a novelization of the Exegesis.” Valis allows Dick to split himself in two. He is both Horselover Fat, the subject who experiences, and Phil, the subject who narrates. Dick is also several other characters in the novel: the cynic, the Christian optimist. Each character a facet of the author’s psyche.
Grieving as I wander in sadness amid old records in my basement, or, while kneeling, I collect Crayola crayons and plastic mixers off the dining room floor. Frankie enjoys tossing these from boxes and jars. She also likes to make us pick up after her with her sippy cups. These she chucks from her high chair, big grin on her face, squealing with delight. I listen to Charlie Parker’s The Verve Years (1950-51) in the basement after she falls asleep. This has been my pattern of late. While listening, I read statements by a group called The Unseen Hand. On their website, the group offers retreats for those in need of its care. “The Songs of Creation,” they write, “are to humans what migration pathways are to monarchs or whales, warblers or the continents. They return us to true: true sound, true north, the position of prayer.” The group seems to be the work of alchemist-acupuncturist Laura Clarke Stelmok. Her words appear on the liner notes to Battle Trance’s Blade of Love, an album of tenor saxophones as opposed to Parker’s alto. Searching the stacks, I happen upon Jan Hammer’s The First Seven Days. I awaken to the album’s mid-1970s synthesizer wizardry by about Day 3, amid a track called “Oceans and Continents.”
Bored by what follows, though, I wander off into the stacks and peek at Kenneth Burke’s Language as Symbolic Action, interest piqued by the latter’s chapter on “Kubla Khan.”
Ever more horrific cycles of violence infect others, possess them. Lines of fiction become lines of code. Systems that predict behavior shape perception. Individuals disappear into bubbles. Without certainty, without conviction, one’s world stops making sense. Media relations rule the world, managing and controlling through creation of constantly-renewing states of destabilized perception. Turn a corner, though, and one can find oneself in a parable. A comet-like ball of energy streaks past. Because I’m indoors, I can’t see it. But I can hear it, I can feel it as it perturbs my atmosphere. Get a fix on this thing, I tell myself, as if it were a matter of some urgency. “See this reality that is hidden from thee,” I whisper. Ontologically, the hidden is like a below-surface-of-consciousness ambience. One can instrumentalize it through use of mood-switchers — and with these, create a joyous cosmology. Drug use is in this sense utopian through and through. Cybernetic co-evolution of nature and subjectivity. Weed is a means by which non-human nature intervenes in and recalibrates human nature, affecting individual heads even at the head’s most intimate, innermost level: consciousness, selfhood, being. Like bees, we can reside among flowers. Isn’t it all no more than gameplay anyway? Can we hold that view while retaining respect for the sanctity of others? On a case by case basis? Certainly. But universally? Without exceptions? What about when confronted by bullies and sadists? Emotions often override our sense of play — yet I welcome these interruptions. Sometimes we need to collapse inwardly on ourselves like tents. I did so yesterday. Grief snuck up on me unexpectedly as I thought about my dog Daphne, reliving our final exchanges of affection, seeing again her head lifting to acknowledge me as we laid together and said our goodbyes. There was a language we shared, and never again shall we speak it. No more face time. After a spell, though, a buzzer went off. Ice sheets are melting, I thought. Consciousness jumps scales. Zip up the memory and move on.
Utopias are dreamt by those without a home. I must dig deeper. The bad ones have taken us from home. Find that anger. Thus begins the story of the dead-end kid. NO THRU TRAFFIC. Most of reality exists elsewhere, available only via special attention. Beings caught halfway between realms. Would you believe it if I said we’ve been robbed of our personhood? Robbed blind. We see nothing but darkness as we climb from bed each day. But indulge me as I imagine it differently: A beautiful sunrise soundtracked by Locrian on my commute to work.
And when I return home, I slurp food truck ramen in the cool autumn air at a picnic table at a local brewery, the sky a welcome canvas above my head. A time to laugh, a time to weep. Hat tip to King Solomon, Pete Seeger, and Roger McGuinn, I mutter in the awed, half-befuddled voice of hero Ted “Theodore” Logan. He of the band Wyld Stallyns. But my thoughts always drift back to Daphne, to whom I dedicate Alan Vega’s “Lonely.”
Death, man — what a fucking bummer. I close my eyes and picture a contraption on a wall — a hand soap dispenser. I rub my hands together in imitation of a cleansing. We’re coming now upon the verge of the superhuman. The West persists as a place I seek in my skull. Skunk smoke revives my starry eyes. “Where else except in the direction of the setting sun,” asks Fiedler, “can one look for the Great Good Place beyond death, the region where what survives of the human spirit bides forever or awaits resurrection?” (The Return of the Vanishing American, p. 30). The yesterday where we cut down the apple tree. “The world was so big,” sang Miracle Legion,” and I was so small.”
Emo of that sort really appealed to me when I was a young man. Multiples appear and degrade, and then it’s as if multiple TV screens turn off at once. I need to learn to speak BASIC.
Embroidered pulse signals. 24/7 thermals and flannels. A friend who I run into from time to time at Goodwill, and whose wife is one of Sarah’s colleagues, gave me two blocks of imported Scottish cheese out in the parking lot the other day. (And no, that’s not street slang for a new kind of drug. I’m talking about cheese here, people!) There are sometimes whole days when events like the above make up the full extent of my non-work-related interactions with others. Sarah’s bummed about having received so few trick-or-treaters yesterday. I sat in the side yard absorbing brown, orange, and yellow leaves atop the patchy remains of a lawn. Birds, bells, crickets, neighbors. The bark of a neighbor’s dog. Squirrels courted one another in the branches above my head, the female shaking her tail and leading the male on a chase. My brother’s girlfriend texted Sarah and I from Brooklyn; a truck had fatally attacked bikers in New York, she said, but she and my brother were safe. Subway riders sat uneasily beside one another in costume. I imagine it was hard, trying to play-act a nightmare while in the midst of one. I enjoyed sitting on the front stoop, though, listening to the zombie shuffle of children’s footsteps as night fell. And we did end up meeting a few more of our neighbors. “This is what — essentially a diary?” I ask myself. To which I reply, “Quit bullying me. Back off.” Am I allowing others to watch me as I lower myself into a de-conditioned vortex? I have incurred a debt which I can never repay. But why dwell on the absolute horizon, the structure that bounds in on all sides one’s field of action? Why not focus instead on papers one will never get around to writing? “America” has always been a settler-colonialist fort, white settlers descending like a plague, a wedge driven between the land and its native people. How might we avenge this — the crime of our very existence? One has to countenance this in the “new frontier” mythos that pervades the hippie counterculture’s embrace of psychedelics in the 1960s and 1970s. Then again, Leslie Fiedler responded to the psychedelic revolution in a rather different political register, regarding it instead as “the red man’s revenge” and as a “reunion of white and ‘other.'” His argument is one with which I’ll need to engage as I develop my theory.
“The mind attracts to one whatever the mind dwells upon,” reads a page I flip to in a college-ruled notebook pulled from the bins at Goodwill. The moon, waxing gibbous, pulled Sarah and I toward a Halloween party the other night. Appropriately heady, for sure, and with major magic. An altar-top arrayed with small bones. Conversations washed over me, though, to little effect. Appalachian Southern witches. Symbols of an arcane sort. It was the party of my coming out as a wizard. At one point, Sarah turned to me and read me my horoscope from her Witches’ Almanac. Apparently I’m on the verge of making a big decision which will “raise a lot of dust.” The horoscope also promised “nice aesthetics” this month. But as much as I enjoyed the care and attention to detail that went into the night’s revelries, Daphne’s death weighed solidly on my mind. It was hard to muster enough will to speak with others. Speaking of speaking: My students love to speak highly of their parents’ “hard work” launching pizza chains and amassing fortunes on Wall Street. Whenever I hear this shit, I think to myself: One could say the same about vampires. They, too, work hard sucking blood from their victims. But that doesn’t make them admirable. A hardworking vampire is still a vampire — and as such, deserves to get a stake shoved through its heart. And that’s how I feel about rich people. But I’m also no Van Helsing, so to ease my temper, I binge-watch the new season of Stranger Things. Eleven wanders alone in an Upside Down labyrinth. Thresholds between dimensions look like body tissue: uterine walls, placentas. The show relishes and savors the textures, tropes, and technologies of the 1980s. But it’s also fully absorbing in its sympathies and its use of outdated media to elicit a sense of the strange or the uncanny. New Age “psychic” or “telepathic” spaces — astral planes, other dimensions — these were very much a part of that era’s narrative universe. It’s a relief to watch a show that can once again broaden my sense of the potentials of genre. The latter, because sticky with the residue of an era’s affective investments, can reawaken phantom media antennae, exposing subjects to ghost sensations and histories half-submerged.
“We’re embarking on an adventure,” I sing in the style of Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott on “The Boys Are Back in Town.” My ears seek out Daphne’s sounds. Her piglet snorts. Her heavy sighs. Her presence every day, every hour. Maybe she’s a cat now, like the one that walked up and allowed me to pet it in the sun on Thursday’s autumn afternoon walk. Or maybe she’s a falcon, perched above me in a tree. My friend, recounting her recent Vancouver experience, says, “Come on, Canada — grow a pair!” I need to get myself up there to visit Urban Shaman, a shop specializing in sacred entheogens. I take note of several other of my friend’s allusions and recommendations. Canada’s “Prince of Pot” Marc Emery (though I have no interest in his libertarianism). A band called Ancient, featuring band members Zod, Ursa, and Non (though not at all something I would ever listen to). Angie Thomas’s YA novel, The Hate U Give. Édouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, from Dalkey Archive. Christian Peet’s The Nines. Sarah and I pay our respects to Daphne by Airdropping photos of her to each other’s cellphones. “Look at her!” one of us gasps. “Such a beauty,” we murmur. How wonderful it is to live with others, growing old together, evolving into witches and wizards, entering secret orders and covens, watching Pere Portabella’s Informe General (1977), with its psychedelic soundtrack by Carles Santos. I seek exhilaration through return to the land, return to a space-time free from the dictates of capitalism. When one dreams, consciousness slips free of old kings and returns to all things. We’ll do what we must, shouts the teenage Oedipus, to seize back what is ours and what rightfully belongs to all. The right to grow whatever one’s head desires. I say that, but then I sit around stewing in a mix of anger, grief, and exhaustion. It grinds my gears when neurotypicals act so sure of their arbitrary mental constructs as to demean mine. A thought has still been thought, an experience experienced, regardless of he who is the sire of the world, He who is Om. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews. Re-roll and try again.
Weed helps turn profound emptiness and sadness into lovers lying in bed reminiscing about old apartments, old friends and neighbors, in honor of one of the common threads running throughout the couple’s life together, their dearly departed four-legged companion. Daphne was our greatest collaboration. The one constant. The supreme embodiment of the life Sarah and I built together. The two of us never had the money to own a home or raise kids. But Daphne made up for those. Her bunny hop. Her reverse sneezes. The way she used to urge us to play with her by pushing tennis balls at us with her snout. She was a weird, wild, autonomous little being who nevertheless loved us unconditionally and, through her evolving behavior and personality, reflected back to us traces of our own. “Death is so fucked up, though,” as Sarah said on our way to a park yesterday. There’s no way of relating to death that feels appropriate. I can certainly understand how one could find comfort in the belief that consciousness persists beyond death — some part of Daphne, for instance, watching over us from above, audience to our existence. When I entertain this thought, Sarah sternly interjects, “But she’s not! She’s just dead.” But why are we Marxists so quick to condemn delusion? Since when has truth ever set us free? I’ll admit: when a copy of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda turned up on vinyl in the bins at Goodwill yesterday, part of me was convinced that Daphne had gifted it to me to cheer me up.
I don’t see any harm in temporary alleviation of suffering, even if it comes via dream. For the latter open up vistas, abstractions of geometric space, into which minds may wander. The private language of the autopilot black hole. Sarah and I arrived at a realization along our walk. A new sense of the potential life we might live, were it not for debt. A new sense of the stakes of what might be. The challenge now will be to find a way to demand from reality the future we want, and to do so quickly, as clocks are ticking.
We’re struggling, we’re grieving. Shit’s rough, y’all. This is what some call a “limit-experience,” an experience that, for theorists like Bataille, Blanchot, and Foucault, breaks the subject off from itself, exposing it to that which consciousness refuses or excludes. We can think of it as a testing of the limits of ordered reality. The latter is abolished and, as Peter Berger would say, “something terrifyingly other shines through.” Imagine it as the parting of a previously invisible set of curtains where once there was a wall. Relinquishing the words we have, we rediscover words we’ve lost. Sarah and I ended up having to put down our dog Daphne yesterday. Kidney failure, liver failure. Euthanizing her was the only way to ease her pain. Our final night together was excruciating, every few moments punctuated by a sigh or the peristaltic rumbling of an upset stomach. I would lie with my eyes closed watching a comet cross an inner night sky, when suddenly the dream’s plug would pull loose from me, and I’d be lying awake in the dead of night, listening to her whimpering, her labored breathing. How is she but a pile of ashes now, this companion of mine who loved and was loved?