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.”
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.)
Like a squirrel pausing on a high branch to admire a nut retrieved from below, I return home from office hours savoring a day well-spent in joyful, growth-oriented dialogue with students. Work in such moments seems capable of being harmonized with utopianism and individual and collective jubilation. My approach to reality coincides with my approach to students: infinite wonder, infinite passion, infinite forgiveness, infinite care. I can do this. I can bring spirited delight to conversations about consciousness, history, reality, and being, and still have time afterwards to recline and reflect. Students and I through study seed each other’s minds with new language sequences, new hopes, new possibilities. “What about plants?” a student and I wonder. Do they, too, possess consciousness? How do I eat with minimal undue suffering, minimal deconstruction of the order of the Oikos? A version of me tells another version of me across a distance of years to compare the “sacred river” referenced in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium-induced poem “Kubla Khan” with the “stream” metaphor employed in the poem’s preface. Consciousness appears in the work as both non-reflecting pool and mirror. Or more precisely, as Coleridge writes, “The pool becomes a mirror” (emphasis mine). But which the surface, which the depth? I grow frightened of the implications. Suddenly I worry that the poem carries within it a warning about drug use as a sinful act of hubris, God’s creation (the mind, the soul, consciousness) purposed, put to use, instrumentalized, enslaved, the eternal Adam damning himself out of Eden by trying to “finish for himself what had been originally, as it were, given to him” — living for an augmentation, a “more,” a heavenly end of time that is always and forever “yet to come.” The infinite deferment or postponement appears mysterious in its implications in the final lines of the poem’s preface — made all the more complicated by annotations about modifications of the text made by Coleridge at different stages in his career — and thus different stages in the evolution of the author’s political sympathies and related worldview. The poem, wistful and tragic in its unreconstitutable, permanently fragmentary form, gestures toward its parent texts, Paradise Lost and the Book of Genesis. I hope students write papers comparing garden imagery in “Kubla Khan” and Pearl. “Kubla Khan” appears equally in this light as ultimate psychedelic metatext and prophetic anamnesis of the destiny of humankind. Gardens and enclosures, experience-bounding laws and hedonistic transgression. Plenty and the desire for more. Drug use is disruption of the stream of consciousness, the sacred river Alph — language, alphabetic reality. The Symbolic. Coleridge likens the altered state of consciousness to “images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast,” whereas in Pearl, the dreaming narrator imagines himself as the cast stone, trying to cross the uncrossable stream dividing Earth from Heaven, only to find himself awakened from his dream and returned to the site of his misfortune.
To prepare myself for the new CBS Jack Parsons show, Strange Angel, I dedicate my evening to avant-garde occult cinema. The evening’s programming begins with feminist experimental filmmaker Suzan Pitt’s surrealist animated short, Asparagus (1979), after which I watch two counterculture films starring Marjorie Cameron: Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
To my surprise, however, a pattern forms among these films as the night proceeds, as all of them can be interpreted as frightening sex-magical critical revisions of the myth of Adam and Eve. The Anger film took as inspiration for its title the opium-influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan”—a poem that begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Very very nice. Pan that. Quality never in doubt. Wax comma hex comma spells. I barely have a boat, big chump, where’s the boat, where’s the lawyer. Here’s the thing, man. I got family. I’m not lively, nor am I adventurous. I don’t just jump right in, I step in and enter gently, in stages. “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a mythographic film,” argues P. Adams Sitney, “in its aspiration to visualize a plurality of gods” (Visionary Film, p. 107). To Sitney, however, the myth revived in Anger’s work is not the Eden myth, so much as “the primary Romantic myth of the fall of a unitary Man into separate, conflicting figures, a myth that dominates the prophetic writings of Blake and finds expression in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley” (110). If there is to be an intervention, I conclude, if there is to be a resistance against present conditions, it will have to be countercultural, it will have to be by way of magic. Consciousness will have to draw a circle around itself, spin an imaginary wheel, and select from this wheel a provisional belief system for itself as if at random. As soundtrack for this ritual, happenstance recommends Mount Everest Trio’s Waves From Albert Ayler.
Authority? Do you mean the pinnacle of order, as in “the market”? Or do you mean “realms within”? Lunch yesterday at a fast-food chain placed me in proximity to cops and military personnel. I imagine this as the universe’s way of suggesting that I go vegan. It also recommends, through the intermediary of a friend, that I read Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia — whilst listening to Swedish progg group Träd, Gräs & Stenar.
Note that the left-wing, anti-commercial “progg” movement, despite remaining mostly unknown in the United States, whips the pants off of what we think of here as “prog rock.” Spice things up with a shadow protestor throwing a Molotov cocktail. A squirrel jumps into frame and disrupts the leaves out of whose shadows leapt the protestor — promptly causing me to land back into language. “Vår Vila,” thou art such stellar stoner high drama! News from nowhere. Follow through with the explication, darlin’. Lamb, described by W.C. Hazlitt as a lover of “the Indian weed,” is in many ways my spiritual countryman. My new goal in life is to act like a capybara. “Poor youth!” cries Coleridge, as if reaching an arm across the centuries to console me, “who scarcely dar’st lift up thine eyes– / The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon / The visions will return!” Such, at least, is my hope. I imagine a primitive neural network undergoing routine maintenance, followed by a reboot. To Coleridge I reply, “Light that sucker up like a Christmas tree!” We live happily ever after in worlds built from memory, proclaims a tombstone. Is that my frightened existentialist self (a part of me I prefer to keep submerged) trying its best to imagine a best case scenario for an afterlife? The no-longer-there is still there: in the mind. The point of consciousness that operates upon, while remaining ontologically distinct from, the body, its avatar. Reality gets weirder — inflates again. Bewilderment gives way to a smile. Let us aspire to write something as great and divine as Lamb’s “Dream-Children: A Reverie.” Lamb’s chess-master, planned-ten-moves-out sentence structures are marvels; one savors their unfolding. That essay is definitely one I wish to include the next time I teach my “Psychedelic Lit” course.