Students and I grow together as heads by reading and discussing literature about consciousness. Minds throughout the ages trying to know themselves. This is literature about education and enlightenment, minds as they undergo alteration and metamorphosis. Patterns disclose themselves, meaningful coincidences compound over time — formal and thematic resonances that defy existing paradigms. By attempting to interpret these, we arrive at new conceptions, new understandings beyond existing enclosures of possibility.
I perambulate the lush pages of Gerald Heard’s AE: The Open Persuader (1969), a work of gay transhumanist utopian science fiction — surely one of the most peculiar books I’ve yet encountered, published under a pseudonym (“Auctor Ignotus”), read I’m sure by at most only a few hundred people planetwide. In certain ways, the narrative is fairly straightforward. As is common to the genre, a traveler arrives to a previously occulted utopia and, after being sketched in biographically in a bewildering first chapter titled “The Interviewer Interviewed,” receives a tour from a mysterious host. Heard’s prose is so maximally cultured and so mannered, however, that one has a difficult time determining who’s who. The guest character, in his relative innocence a stand-in for the reader, responds to the name “Ulick Stackpole” (or, later in the novel, the name’s abbreviated form, “L”), his initials reflecting his county of origin, while the more experienced “host” character, dialoguing at length on the workings of the utopian creation, answers to several titles: Preter Praetor, the Lord Persuader; Arbiter Elegantiarum; AE. Because utopias are inherently political, consensus reality encircled, relativized, compared and contrasted with another, I find myself wondering at Heard’s aims. What is the nature of this utopia? In trying to imagine the evolution of humanity toward what he calls “total uprightness” (in which one should also hear “erection”), Heard seems to have crafted a secret gay separatist demimonde, home to a race of immortal or at least semi-immortal elites. As AE’s various titles indicate, there’s no great fondness for democracy or self-rule in this utopia. One should thus be wary as one reads, noting questions and concerns. Why is the utopia set in Uruguay, for instance? Why has the book’s author invented elaborate fictions about money manipulation featuring European refugees fleeing to South America during WWII?
Time to read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a work that seems to conjure in its poetic preface the Fates, the Weird sisters, and the Faerie Queene all at once. Carroll is like Odysseus surrendering to the Sirens, the kubernetes granting control of his oars to Gloriana or Titania, who steer the “merry crew” happily toward home. The story begins, of course, with the Fall — the tumble down the bardo-like in-between of the rabbit-hole replacing the far more tragic one imagined by Carroll’s high-minded religious precursors. What happens when the story of the married couple who disobeyed the Father gives way to the one about the girl who wanders off from her sisters in pursuit of a time-worried rabbit? Weird stuff, folks! Who is Carroll, after all? Why should he be the one telling the girl’s story? (And with so many patronizing narrative intrusions, no less!) Is Alice in Wonderland a shamanic journey of symbolic death and rebirth disguised as a children’s narrative? Trippy stuff, indeed. The book’s second chapter, “The Pool of Tears,” retells the story of the Flood, with Alice of course as Noah, arriving to shore with a bunch of animals by chapter’s end. The pleasure of Carroll’s tale, though, comes mainly from the fact that once Alice wanders off into the land of Maya, she discovers keys and teachers that, by way of many wondrous detours, eventually guide her home again.
How about groaning laundry rooms and animated films that scare little kids? How about blue mermaids with turquoise chains? By following a few simple rules, we can feel at home amid the alchemical symbolism of Arthur Machen’s “The White People.” A librarian from my childhood confides over my shoulder about the limits of her compassion. She refuses to care, she says, for those who come back sunburned after a day at the beach, likening these latter to hungry ones who refuse to eat. I smile and pretend not to differ, even as I ruminate about what it would mean to approach the Tarot as a book, or the fragments of one.
What sense might we make of the cover of Ram Dass’s spiritual cookbook, Be Here Now? Twelve satellites poised in a circle, linked to one another in orbit around a sitter, so as to announce, “YOU ARE A TOTALLY DETERMINED BEING.” What matters, the book says, are the vibrations that emanate from us. Owl eyes, islands, stars free like cotton candy. I recall the weight in my arms of my dog Daphne, a neighbor’s dog reminding me again of how it feels to live with an animal companion’s presence. Sarah and I miss that — but there are many narratives, the imagination able to enter and exit vantage points in countless parallel worlds. To write “literature,” however, say the theorists, one has to disguise one’s stake in the story one is unfolding. Shape time, seed dreams with positive vibes.
Behold, there in the basket of keys and letters beside the door like an object in a memory palace: mirror-shade sunglasses, like the ones invested with allegorical meaning by the cyberpunks. Pardon the group tag, the literary label. Anthologies have that effect on people. And as Bruce Sterling once said, label-mongering can be “a valid source of insight — as well as great fun.” For instance, it is to Samuel Delany that he credits the Mirrorshades crew’s “visionary shimmer” (x). During the Sixties and Seventies, a new movement gained recognition within SF, the New Wave. Delany was one of the stars of this movement. Let us dip back into his 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection. Think of Delany as an important component of a single distributed consciousness attempting to communicate to itself across the ages. Who are these “others,” these posthumans who come to populate the remains of our myths and dreams in the future that Delany imagines for us in his novel? As Neil Gaiman notes in the book’s Foreword, “They inhabit our legends awkwardly: they do not fit them” (The Einstein Intersection viii). Why, then, do they need them? What do myths and legends do, either for us or for them? How does dream and fancy come to play an active part in our being? Prior to the loss of a loved one, the book’s protagonist Lo Lobey herded goats with his friends. Like the rural communards, the back-to-the-landers of the 1960s, Lobey and his friends were out there “on the Beryl Face: looking for pasture” (3).
Friends, allow me to report on my second pass through Aldous Huxley’s Island. The book assembles for us an elaborate alternative culture, by which I mean (in Raymond Williams’s sense) a “whole way of life,” from the perspective of which we might imagine ourselves anew. What might we do after reading this book? How might we live our lives differently?