Mellow Is the Man Who Knows What He’s Been Missing

My therapist’s office is a short walk away from the house on Shady. A figure in large, loosely-fitted clothing serenades me as I walk, singing “Dress You Up” from a street corner as I crest a hill. Another figure sings to me from a bus stop. The neighborhood has a bit of an edge, always has, air charged with noise. Birds, motorcycles, cars cruising up and down First and Second Streets. Construction work over by the ballpark up the hill. But what was before a desolate field is now a park.

“This park can be a place to perform the Work,” thinks the Time Traveler. Birdsong relaxes him as he sits at a table gazing toward the house on Shady. Walking the bend of the park, he reads a plaque about the 1778 Salem Waterworks, part of the park’s past. A waxing ¾ moon appears in the sky above the dome of the most notorious of the city’s landmarks, the one referred to by locals as the “Phallus Palace.”

5:55 turns up again as I rise from one of the park’s benches and continue on my way. Same numbers, same time of day, two days in a row. And there in the sky, the moon, near full. What of it? What of the tape on the telephone pole flapping in the wind? Or wind chimes in a neighbor’s yard, sounding like gamelans? Or wind in the trees? The air is cold, my walk brief.

I communicate with loved ones as best I can, sending and receiving valentines and giving thanks. Yet come evening I’m alone again in my flat, listening to Love’s “Alone Again Or,” cooking dinner for one. Spaghetti and meatballs. Wishing it were otherwise. “Yeah, I heard a funny thing,” sings Arthur Lee to flamenco swells, nervous violins.

Up on the stereo afterwards rumbles Richard & Linda Thompson’s “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.” “I wanna be dancing and rolling on the floor,” thinks the Traveler, “I want it to be me and you.” Temperature rises, food cooks as I dance to Ananda Shankar’s cover of the Rolling Stones song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”

It’s that time of my life, I guess, when all of these feel right: Shuggie Otis’s “Strawberry Letter 23,” Link Wray & The Wraymen’s “Rumble,” Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream.”

Nico climbs atop the stack, bums me out with “These Days,” until Arthur Lee returns to remind me of how good it feels to always see your face. Songs replace songs as posts replace posts, but the music never changes, and I never quite learn the words I sing.

All Because of a Couple of Magicians

Twenty-first century subjects of capitalist modernity and whatever postmodern condition lies beyond it have up to Now imagined themselves trapped in the world of imperial science. The world as seen through the telescopes and microscopes parodied by the Empress in Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World. That optical illusion became our world-picture or world-scene — our cognitive map — did it not? Globe Theatre projected outward as world-stage became Spaceship Earth, a Whole Earth purchasable through a stock exchange.

Next thing we know, we’re here.

Forms from dreamland awaken into matter.

John Dee, as Imagined by Margaret Cavendish

What are we to make, though, of the attention Cavendish grants to John Dee and Edward Kelly? She knew of the pair’s angelic conversations through Ben Jonson’s play The Alchemist. Dee and Kelly were the inspiration for the play’s characters Dr. Subtle and Capt. Face. Margaret’s husband William was one of Jonson’s patrons.

If I were to enter the John Dee rabbit hole opened by my wanting to follow up on his appearance in The Blazing World, I could practice for students the keeping of a captain’s log. Into this log I would register three semi-recent biographies of Dee: Benjamin Woolley’s from 2001, Glyn Parry’s from 2012, and Jason Louv’s from 2018. Dee will make an appearance again later in the course when we discuss the Golden Dawn.

Through a Glass, Darkly

In her utopian fantasy The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish conjures up a convocation of bird-men. Cavendish’s lady protagonist, by now Empress, asks of these myopic bird-men that they share with her what they know of sun and moon, and of stars and air. That they do, in very learned and philosophical ways: though oftentimes in error. The Empress grows irate with the bird-men for their reliance on telescopes and other “optic lenses,” saying “now I do plainly perceive, that your glasses are false informers, and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses; wherefrom I command you to break them, and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes, and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason” (141). Cavendish herself, unfortunately, would go on to be savaged by her critics, much as the bird-men are here savaged by the Empress. Male contemporaries like Samuel Pepys ridiculed her for refusing to speak during her appearance before a gathering of the men of Britain’s Royal Society in May of 1667, six months after The Blazing World’s first appearance in print. Yet surely these critics are mistaken, one realizes now, reading the above-quoted passage again in retrospect. Cavendish didn’t refuse to reply; she replied in advance.

Movie Night

Home equipped with corkscrew, shelves stocked with groceries, laundry in the machine in the basement, I lay back with Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World and await snow, the latter expected to fall this evening and to continue through most of tomorrow. A friend and I will make of it a movie night. A girl with glittery eyes tells me to watch Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood (2019), so I do. Tarantino includes within his film a remake of a scene from Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Brad Pitt’s stunt double chauffeur character Cliff Booth arrives home and gives his dog a bone after caring all day for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, neurotic washed-up TV Western actor Rick Dalton. And already, we’ve seen the Manson girls — they’re in the neighborhood. For Dalton lives on Cielo Drive. Director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate live next door. “The year, then,” thinks the Narrator, “must be 1969.” Booth, meanwhile, lives crosstown in a trailer, preparing dinner for himself and his dog, like the manliest of men. Panning among houses in the hills, we see varying levels of wealth, right up to the Playboy Mansion. The Tate-Polanski car’s arrival there recalls the opening pages of The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz. Trailing after this day in the life of an actor and his stunt double, actors who appear later in the film playing “real historical figures” are likely to seem like stunt doubles of a sort themselves, as with the guy playing Steve McQueen. It’s all a bit morbid, thinks the Narrator — until suddenly, the film redeems itself with its shocking revisionism: its imagining of events other than as they occurred in real life.

The Fabian Contingent

Why does Wells propel his Time Traveler into as distant and bleak a future as the one imagined in The Time Machine? It’s the future as pictured from the standpoint and subject-position of the Traveler himself as he recounts his journey for others. Wells, meanwhile, imagined other futures elsewhere and elsewhen, as during his later years, following his split with the Fabian Society. His political ideal of those later years was the “World State”: a single global technocratic “world commonwealth,” governed by a scientific elite. In his twenties, however, Wells may have interacted for a time with a secret society of a different sort: the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His run-in with the Order is thought to have occurred in London in 1894, the year prior to the publication of The Time Machine, Wells’s first great success as a novelist. Ithell Colquhoun mentions this run-in in her book Sword of Wisdom: MacGregor Mathers and the Golden Dawn — or at the very least speculates about a “Fabian contingent” within a Golden Dawn splinter group called the Order of the Stella Matutina or “Morning Star.” Colquhoun describes Wells’s 1911 short story “The Door in the Wall” as “in the line of GD tradition” (192). I find myself reading again descriptions of Golden Dawn initiation rituals, like the following from Chic Cicero and Sandra Tabitha Cicero’s Self-Initiation into the Golden Dawn Tradition:

“The goal of initiation is to bring about the illumination of the human soul by the Inner and Divine Light. A true ‘initiate’ is an individual whose Higher Self (or Higher Genius) has merged with the Lower Personality and actually incarnated into the physical body. The Personality is left in charge of the day-to-day routines of living and working, but the Higher Genius is free to look out at the world through the eyes of the initiate. Through this experience, the individual is given a permanent extension of consciousness which is impossible to mistake. Many times a student of the mysteries is drawn to a particular mystical current without knowing it. A series of ‘coincidences’ and synchronicities will often direct (or sometimes shove) a person toward that current through books or through meeting other people who also have a connection with the current. During this time, the student’s psychic faculties are still relatively undeveloped, yet the inner spark has been ignited. However, a full initiation, or dawning of the Inner Light, is evident when the entire aura is illuminated.”

Of course, one can be a solitary magician. One can tap into the Golden Dawn’s magic, as Wells did, without having to become a member of any particular group or organization. But according to Cicero and Cicero, the solitary magician is at a disadvantage, “not having a group of temple-mates to consult if problems arise” (xxvi).

North American Time Capsule 1967

More to my liking is John Cage.

Where the architect-composer Iannis Xenakis used probability, game theory, group theory, set theory, Boolean algebra, and computers to produce his scores, thus pioneering “stochastic music,” Cage composed “aleatoric music.” While stochastic and aleatoric forms of music both rely on chance procedures, aleatoric music eschews mathematics in favor of ancient divinatory devices like the I Ching.

Readied by Cage for further weirding, I tune in and listen to Alvin Lucier’s “North American Time Capsule 1967,” a 10-minute composition that neighbors a track by Cage on Side A of Extended Voices. The Lucier piece uses a vocoder designed by Sylvania Electronics Systems “to encode speech sounds into digital information bits for transmission over narrow band widths via telephone lines or radio channels.” Lucier says of the piece, “The performers are asked to prepare material using any sounds at all that would describe for beings far from our environment, either in space or in time, the physical, spiritual, social, scientific or any other situation in which we currently find ourselves.”

Thinking of 1967 as “situation,” I relate the song to the psychedelic consciousness of that year’s Summer of Love. Lucier worked at Brandeis, directing the University Chamber Chorus there from 1962 to 1970. While dwarfed in scale by hippie meccas like Berkeley, Brandeis was nonetheless an important independent nexus of sorts for 1960s consciousness. Abraham Maslow taught there during the 1950s and 1960s, as did Herbert Marcuse, who served as a faculty member at Brandeis from 1954 to 1965. Future Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman studied there, too, under both Maslow and Marcuse. Through Lucier’s time capsule, one becomes entangled again in that scene.

The Labyrinth of Stuck Desire

Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.

Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:

Prayer is the little implement

Through which Men reach

Where Presence — is denied them.

They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God’s ear—

If then He hear

This sums the Apparatus

Comprised in Prayer—

“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.

“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”

Cosmic Coincidence Control Center

CCCC is an agency encountered or imagined by legendary scientist-psychonaut John Lilly. The latter claimed the group reached out to him in the early to mid 1970s through its local affiliate, the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO, while Lilly was studying dolphins and conducting experiments involving combinations of LSD, ketamine, and sensory deprivation tanks at his marine research lab, the Communications Research Institute, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Erik Davis writes of Lilly’s odd experiences from this period in his book High Weirdness. Lilly wanted to communicate with dolphins, and Margaret Mead’s ex-husband Gregory Bateson assisted with funding. Lilly writes of his encounter with ECCO in his 1978 memoir The Scientist. His ideas informed the 1973 science fiction thriller The Day of the Dolphin starting George C. Scott, as well as the 1992 Sega Genesis videogame Ecco the Dolphin. Lilly also served as the basis for Dr. Edward Jessup, the mad professor character in the 1980 film Altered States. My sense of him follows a trajectory the exact opposite of Jessup’s: Lilly was a villain of sorts only in his early years. His research of the 1950s, funded by the military, was what we might call “MK-Ultra”-adjacent. Despicable acts like sticking wires into the brains of monkeys in the name of science. Yet Lilly rebelled, acquired a conscience, became a free radical of sorts. With commencement of his self-experimentation with psychedelics, Lilly transforms, becomes a rabbit hole of immense strangeness from the 1960s onward. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted Lilly’s books, especially Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. A 1972 paperback edition of the latter features Brand calling it “The best internal guidebook I’ve ever seen—far more practical and generalized than transcendent Eastern writings or wishful Underground notes….It makes an open start on fresh language and powerful technique for the frontier.” By the latter, Brand means what? Some sort of moving boundary or threshold state, I guess, where through self-experiment with tools, subjects grow new organs.

John Dee, as Imagined by Derek Jarman

Among the more fearsome of the precursors to what follows is John Dee, the great Renaissance spymaster, court magician and inventor of the British Empire. Filmmaker Derek Jarman is just one of several artists to have made much of Dee in recent decades. In fact, Dee appears repeatedly throughout Jarman’s oeuvre. We first meet Dee, for instance, in Jarman’s 1978 film Jubilee, where he operates as a kind of early-modern Doc Brown. At Her Majesty’s behest, the Dee of that film works up a spell that sends Queen Elizabeth I 400 years into the future–i.e., to London in the age of punk. And what begins in Jubilee continues in the films that follow, with Dee cropping up again the very next year by way of Shakespeare’s famous magician character Prospero. The latter wields a wand modeled upon Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica in Jarman’s adaptation of The Tempest (1979). Nor is this the last of Dee’s appearances in Jarman’s catalog. He also turns up as muse, for example, in a film named after Dee and Kelley’s famous scrying experiments, The Angelic Conversation (1987). Nor was Jarman alone in thinking highly of Dee. The latter captured the imaginations of several of Jarman’s contemporaries. To mention just two examples: Dee appears as a character in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen; and comics artist Alan Moore wrote a libretto about him. For Jarman’s own reflections on his interest in Dee and in related topics like alchemy, see his memoir Dancing Ledge.