How does one read Dante’s Inferno here at the ass end of 2019 without concluding A) Dante’s a vindictive prick, B) the universe is a cruel joke, and C) thou art that? Not to be Doug and Wendy Whiner or anything — but man, what a slog. The only good thing, I suppose, the only thing keeping me reading, is the fact that at the end of it lies Purgatorio and Paradiso.
Discovery of the AMC series Lodge 49 sends me back to Thomas Pynchon’s slim but not slight second novel The Crying of Lot 49, a book I read many years ago as an undergrad. This time around I’m delighted to be re-acquainted not just with the book’s heroine Oedipa Mass, but also with her shrink Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist running an experiment in a community hospital in the book’s version of 1960s Southern California, “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (17). Hilarius calls the experiment the bridge, or “die Brücke,” as in “The bridge inward” (17). At the back of the book, my twenty-year-old self had written a set of clues to the book’s decipherment, composed as if they were a type of verse: four lines, four simple statements: “lot 49 equals tristero. / tristero equals the disinherited. / oedipa awaits the crying of the disinherited. / auctioning off america … who will win?” The morning after receiving a phone call from Hilarius begging her to participate in his experiment, Oedipa experiences an altered state of consciousness, an “odd, religious instant.” Looking down a slope over a vast sprawl of houses, Oedipa discerns a pattern of sorts. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle,” Pynchon writes, “sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. […]. there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). […]. As if, on some other frequency…words were being spoken” (24-25). I begin to wonder: is what follows an acid trip? Did Oedipa unwittingly take one of the pills Hilarius had given to her?
My students seem less televisual than they were in the past — though perhaps we’ve just steered conversation elsewhere, constructing through our shared readings a shared grammar. Reading allegory trains us to think allegorically. Texts assemble into vast systems of meaning. We become acquainted with what’s happening. A world pregnant with hope and possibility.
Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
The “heroes” that we encounter in literatures about altered states are individuals and groups, authors and movements, creators of counterculture, figures who rebel against systems stacked against them — because some of us can’t breathe. Some of us feel trapped economically. Others of us feel trapped educationally, betrayed by those trained in STEM. And yet we must practice love anyway, despite, because. Time to revisit the debates internal to counterculture, among the Whole Earthers and others, about technology and ecology. Bring ecofeminists and cyberfeminists and Afrofuturists into account when re-examining these debates. But do so while staring at crows atop a pine tree. Allow time to admire patterns of sunlight and shadow amid fallen leaves. Then up and about: gather the books, assemble the argument. Defend pluralist methodologies and anarchist epistemologies. Critique capitalist science and its institutionalization of consciousness. But do so as an Eco-Marxist, acknowledging climate crisis as a real condition of existence — the Pascal’s Wager of our time.
Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
A kid interrupts my wondering about my relationship to Language Poetry. Leaning over a low fence as I sweep leaves from my back deck, he hails me with a “Working hard or hardly working?” or some such commodified, scripted banter, then tries to sell me an alternative media provider. My response is “No thanks, capitalist roleplayer. You bore me,” thus in no uncertain terms sending him on his way. Back to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E. Why have I never taught any of that material, venturing only so far as poets with whom they conversed? Ginsberg, Olson, Mackey, et al. I suppose I’ve lacked courage — though opportunities to do so also never materialized, really, until this past year or so. Perhaps it just felt a bit too rarefied. Work that makes demands, with comparatively little gain. When does one have time enough to keep up with contemporary poetry? Apparently I did, if only for a brief moment, during my first years out of college, during my stint as a “text editor.” Back when I used to sit at a computer all day listening to early recordings from PennSound and the Kelly Writers House.