Fantasy is dangerous. The genre has its share of royalists, reactionaries, and racists. Tolkien and Lewis, who taught together at Oxford, were devout Catholics. Writers of the Left sometimes dismiss the genre as ideologically suspect, preferring science fiction in its stead. But no such distinction holds. Science fiction writers of the Left have written works of fantasy, and rightwing fantasists like C.S. Lewis wrote works of science fiction, like the latter’s WWII-era Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945). Each genre remains anyone’s game.
A flute is blown, a tone sustained, strung like a bridge of sound across an otherwise silent expanse. By flute I mean the shakuhachi, the most important of traditional Japanese wind instruments. “Certain special effects such as flutter-tonguing and distinctly audible breathing, which in Western music are associated with 20th-century avant-garde flute repertory,” writes David Loeb in the Kōhachirō Miyata album’s liner notes, “were a standard part of traditional shakuhachi technique by the 18th century.” The sounds are ones I reimagine come evening as I listen to birdsong. As May concludes, it’s time to plant. ‘Tis summer–nearly so. If not for rain, I’d have been at the pool reading Reclaiming Art, a book by Weird Studies podcaster J.F. Martel. Or perhaps I’d have finished Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. I find the latter troubling in its traditionalism. Japanese communists of the 1930s regarded Tanizaki as a reactionary in the years prior to the Second World War. His writings failed to adopt a recognizable ideological “stance.” He was a foot fetishist; a masochist; his writings explore the erotic and the grotesque. To the ideologues of his day, this made him “decadent,” his worldview colored by nostalgia for premodernity and by an embrace of fantasy and the unconscious. The elements I admire in Tanizaki, however, are his visceral aversion to capitalist modernity, his respect for embodied being, and his desire to live well.
“The kid who’s into Althusser”: that was one of my identities as an undergrad. I read Althusser in my first English course, first semester of my freshman year. Newly hatched from the egg of the family. So coming to “consciousness” has been quite a journey. I spent most of my adult life questioning it or denying it, focusing instead on categories like “false consciousness” or “class consciousness.” Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” knocked me over the head when I read it. The repetitions of Althusser’s prose enchanted me. Yet his story is a tragic one, and so one must become other than Althusser, through rejection of his scientism and determinism. One must find instead a practice of love and joy.
I sit in the sun room at the back of the house listening to birds, wondering about the status of the statue, a Native American chief holding a peace pipe across his knee, an item I accepted as an “inheritance” after the death of my grandparents. It was an object that fascinated me; I remember sitting with it, contemplating it with reverence upon encountering it in my grandparents’s “rumpus room” as a child. How else is one to act in this being’s presence? Is what Ken Kesey does through his invention of Chief Bromden, the “half-Indian” narrator of Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a form of “literary redface”? The Western was a popular genre in the culture of Kesey’s childhood. The novel imagines an encounter between Bromden and a “red-faced Irish brawler” named Randall Patrick McMurphy. Both men are war veterans committed as patients in a mental institution run by the novel’s communist-matriarch supervillain, Nurse Ratched. Communism is figured as an emasculating threat, an overly demanding mother, a superego intent upon world-ordering through replacement of nature with machinery. Capitalism, meanwhile, appears via McMurphy as a kind of confidence trick. It allows patients to enjoy sex and alcohol. It gets them gambling and making bets. And best of all, it’s willing to sacrifice itself like Christ so that natives like Bromden can be “made big again.” Bromden is the one saved by novel’s end. He smothers the lobotomized and defeated McMurphy, throws a control panel through a window, flees the ward, and returns to nature.
As I reflect upon Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents, I think first of the cruelty of the parable itself. It’s a parable that presages evolutionism, is it not? The ones rewarded by its god are those who go forth and multiply. It appears in two synoptic gospels: Matthew 25: 14-30 and Luke 19: 11-27. In each of its versions, the parable features a relationship between a master and his servants. The servants are placed in charge of the master’s goods while he’s away. Upon his return he “assesses” their stewardship. Measures, quantifies, ranks some numerical output or product. And then punishes the one who had the least talent and saved it — the one who produced no surplus. The one who profiteth not. The master, meanwhile, is a slave-master, described by the servant as “an hard man”: one who reaps where he has not sown, gathers where he has not strawed. By parable’s end, the “unprofitable servant” has been cast into “outer darkness.” The master promises, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So how does Butler, whose ancestors were slaves, respond to this parable? She tells the story of a different god: the god of Earthseed, the god of change. Yet change is a hard master too, is it not? Look at how the god manifests in the lives of Butler’s characters! Comparing Butler’s reply to the parable with the one given by John Milton, I prefer Milton’s: “God doth not need / either man’s work or his own gifts; who best / Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best.” Milton’s god is the more merciful of the two. Other famous authors have critiqued the parable as well. In his Threepenny Novel (1934), Bertolt Brecht presents it as a component of capitalist ideology. “And…all who relate such things, I condemn!” he writes. “And I’ll go further: whoever listens to it and dares to refrain from taking immediate steps against it, him I also condemn!” Perhaps Butler’s great genius, however, was to place this parable in dialogue with another: the Parable of the Sower. Sower precedes Talents in Matthew and Luke, as it does in Butler.
How might we characterize Frederick Douglass’s views regarding religion? Douglass tries to forestall misunderstanding about his views in the appendix to his autobiography. He doesn’t want his readers to suppose him “an opponent of all religion” (107). “What I have said respecting and against religion,” he writes, “I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. […]. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (107). Why is religion the terrain of appeal here at book’s end? Religion has been a tool of indoctrination, a violently imposed ideology, a “crown of thorns”-style cognitive map and/or map of the cosmos imposed upon slaves. Douglass shows that the crown can be seized and repurposed. The slave arrives into Logos, reclaims “Scripture,” and sits in judgment upon the master. Douglass’s religious views also manifest in his several attestations about “divine providence,” and his claims regarding the latter’s influence over key events in the course of his narrative.
Strong is the power of ideology — but we’re changing, we’re slipping out from under the latter’s grip. Dancing in the streets. The tasks ahead seem massive but thrilling. Time to learn how to make of the lawn a garden. Purchase the tools one needs and get to it. Convert this place into a permaculture Oikos, a multiplayer bower of bliss.
Language hails us, places us in the position of the Receiver, identifies us as its subject. Thus we return to the matter at hand: the construction of subjectivity via language. Reality is a text adventure: “In the beginning was the Word.” Unless language is the usurper, the gnostic demiurge, the map that overlays itself atop the territory, in which case Gaia is the true creator. Brother Sun, Sister Moon. Perhaps I should watch Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. Each of us, as in the Cavaliers song, a slave to a beautiful game. The Babylonian system, always replacing one form of slavery with another. So thought those who brought me here.
Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
Fiction, with its fabulated particulars, helps us see among these an implicit grammar, communication from a shared unconscious, truths indiscernible elsewhere. Yet here I am reading an intellectual biography, Alison Falby’s Between the Pigeonholes: Gerald Heard, 1889-1971. I respond skeptically to Falby’s characterization of Heard from the late 1940s onward, after the dissolution of Trabuco College — the Heard, in other words, of the psychedelic revolution — as a “counter-cultural conservative.” Ideologically, he was an odd bird, heterodox and hybrid; of that, we can be certain. I guess Falby is right, though. Her argument is as follows. “Heard’s career,” she writes, “reflects the intersection of spiritualized psychology, religion, and conservatism in postwar America. He became a religious counselor to several libertarian businessmen as well as to Clare Booth Luce, the writer, diplomat, and Republican Congresswoman. Although he advocated self-transcendence, he ultimately entrenched individual selfhood with his spiritual prescriptions of yoga, meditation, and LSD. Although he subverted the individual in his theology, he affirmed individualism by putting his spiritual system at the service of libertarianism” (Falby 121). By the early 1960s, she says, Heard was a fan of Barry Goldwater, supporting the latter’s bid for the presidency in the 1964 election. His views had already turned markedly to the right by the late 1940s. A book of his from 1950 advocates reform of criminals through techniques similar to brainwashing. This same book of his (Morals Since 1900) also contains praise for the surveillance work of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. During the same year, Heard also published a bizarro book about UFOs — and this was all several years before he tried psychedelics. By the mid-1950s, Heard joined with libertarians Edmund Opitz (1914-2006) and James C. Ingebretsen (1906-2000) to form an elite spiritual organization called The Wayfarers. Heard convinced several of these right-libertarian patrons and friends of his to try acid during this period. He and Aldous Huxley were both elitists in this regard, thinking it appropriate to share psychedelics only with a select few. Huxley’s elites were often cultural progressives, however, whereas Heard’s were spiritually-minded business executives and captains of industry.