Do Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the heroes of Tolkien’s fictions, pass through portals? Their home in the Shire features a circular door, through which they step when they begin their journeys. ‘Tis a magic circle, of the kind theorized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. The world in the circle is the realm of Faerie — or what Huizinga would call the realm of play. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
Tolkien, as one of the preeminent figures of twentieth-century fantasy, shares Huizinga’s interest in this other, “temporary” sphere born of play. That the worlds that result from this sphere are temporary in nature leads Tolkien to assume them “sub-creations” — “secondary” worlds, as he says in his 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories” — but not in a way that diminishes their value. In keeping with his Catholicism, he believes that humans are handiwork of a single god, a single divine creator. And therein lies our magic, he argues. Created in that being’s image, he says, we too possess a capacity to create. We who are “created sub-creators” in one reality get to be creators of worlds of our own.
So sayeth the Fantasist.
“But what if, instead of distinguishing these worlds as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary,’” adds the Narrator, “we opted rather to call them ‘partner worlds,’ or ‘corresponding pairs’ — as in the Hermetic saying, ‘As above, so below’?”
“What if, in so doing,” replies the Traveller, “we followed the paths of the Alchemists and the Surrealists? What if, as Magico-Psychedelic Realists, we brought them together, allowed them to merge?”
The British Empire — a thing culled from Arthurian legends whispered between Faerie Queenes and court astrologers — stood for a time as proof of magic’s power. ‘Twas a rabbit pulled from the hat of Elizabeth I’s wizard-friend John Dee. The same rabbit that draws Alice down the rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Enlisted as Her Majesty’s spymaster — indeed, he was the original secret agent, Mr. 007 himself — Dee stormed the reality studio, made Elizabeth a Time Traveler, conversed with angels.
And this thing Dee dreamt into being was of course a terrible thing: an expansionist project armed with ships of fools and launched outward to seize others — other persons, other worlds — for purposes of self-aggrandizement.
Literary greats went on to reimagine Dee just as he himself was a reimagining of Merlin. Shakespeare figures him as Prospero, and against him imagines the colonized subject Caliban. To overthrow Prospero, says Caliban, “Remember / First to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot.”
Christopher Marlowe supplies the more influential imagining of Dee, however, by casting him as Doctor Faustus.
The Aleph is what happens when consciousness recognizes the allegory of itself and communicates with itself as through a mirror, world of divinity communicating with the earthly realm, signaling like a satellite of love.
What if Borges had “accounted” for his encounter: his experience of simultaneity, oneness, and infinity? What if he hinted, for instance, that his friend Carlos had slipped him acid: a drug first synthesized in the laboratory of Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hoffman two years prior, on April 19, 1943? (Borges published “The Aleph” in 1945.) Or, given that the postscript attached to story’s end is dated 1943, perhaps it was mescaline, a synthetic variant of peyote.
Did Borges and other magical realists experiment with psychedelics? How about indigenous plant medicines? Is that why Borges denounces the experience, calling the thing he encountered “a false Aleph” at story’s end? Is its illumination a profanation of the divine?
Forgetfulness wears away at the glimpse of paradise gleaned while high, much as it wears away at Borges’s memory of the face of his beloved Beatriz.
Borges and Huxley pair well together, thinks the Narrator. Both are blind prophets: mind manifesters gifted with inner sight.
Having enjoyed my stay in Borges’s Labyrinths, I hasten to board another of his books, The Aleph and Other Stories. Before long, I find myself there again at the House on Shady Blvd, imagining it now as an Aleph, or what Borges’s friend Carlos calls “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending” (23). Hence also a kind of time machine. Is that not the ineffable core of my story? There I am again, sunlight shining, moonlight glinting amid stained glass windows, glass chandeliers, large mirrors. “I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance,” writes Borges. “The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors of earth and none of them reflected me […]. I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe” (27-28).
Clock reads 5:55. Across the street from my apartment — indeed, visible out my window — an office tower with its street address printed in large lit signage upon its side:
Time to visit Shady Blvd, thinks the Traveler. He pictures the current tenant, hopes they meet. Hope begins by returning to the site of the story. A friend recommends Chris Ware’s Building Stories. Traveler resolves to grab it. That and House of Leaves. For the Shady story, if it is to be made into a book, must be of that sort: the story of a house. Tenants of multiple eras in the home’s history interact with the home’s energies, repeat the home’s patterns: the time loops impressed there. Unless it isn’t a repetition. Time is like aletheia: an unfolding, a revealing. A process of disclosure. Let each one’s story be told.
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.
I hope to sit at a wheel and spin, “throw,” practice the art of pottery. One can take classes in town. It’s as simple as enrolling in a beginner’s workshop, as has a friend. Otherwise I read M.C. Richards’s thoughts on pottery as a craft, her descriptions of her work as a potter in her book Centering, and I think Ghost (1990), a romance starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Swayze’s ghost and his former lover achieve erotic paranormal union round a wheel, hands wet with clay. ‘Tis the most memorable scene in “one of the most memorable romantic films ever,” “winner of two Academy Awards,” etc. I was maybe 12 years old when I first encountered the scene — and already at 12, I was a sucker for ghostly romances. (Hence another of the films I liked in those years: The Heavenly Kid.) Those are what came first to my adolescent consciousness. Audio-visual tone poems visited upon me in my youth. From them I came to know desire as a longing across distance. “A passion of the lonely soul,” as a character says in Arthur Machen’s story “The White People.” A thing one suffers as a ghost. Years later I would hear the cost of this in “Catholic Block,” and in the mmms and bells of Russell Atkins’s “Night and a Distant Church.” Can I trust myself to let go and have fun? “When a body is filled with stresses, the nervous system is so busy handling them that its potential for attaining higher states of consciousness is very limited,” writes Itzhak Bentov in Stalking the Wild Pendulum: On the Mechanics of Consciousness. Through meditation, however, we can self-stimulate pleasure centers and calm our way toward joy.
The Time Traveler sits across from his copy of Game Theory’s Paisley Underground power pop classic, Real Nighttime. The latter is one of several albums of note that arrived for the Traveler at Goodwill soon after his entry into the narrative. Music journalist Byron Coley called it “the actual godhead pop LP o’ the American Eighties. No shit. This is it.” Record producer Mitch Easter mixed the album at the Drive-In, two doors down from the House on Shady Blvd. “Was this record produced for me?” wonders the Traveler, eerie feeling running up and down his spine as he reads the text on the back of the LP: liner notes by band member Scott Miller. The Wikipedia entry for the album points the Traveler to a rather remarkable “annotated edition” produced by someone at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the 1990s. Modeled after the playfulness of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Miller’s text feels dreamlike and oracular. Transpersonal energies stir as one reads.
Others of us puzzle through, knowing sometimes rest is needed. The work is to rest — heat up some pasta, assemble a salad, read Matthew Ingram’s Retreat: How the Counterculture Invented Wellness, feel the heaviness of it weighing in the palm of one’s hand like a sentence, retreat from it into episodes of Adventure Time. Orange Juice sing “Rip it up and start again.” By that, they mean the past. I’m reminded of a line from Pharmako-AI where the book’s AI writes, “The past is mutable, and it can be remade in our image as we desire” (26). At which point I hear poet Joy Harjo adding, “At some point we have to understand that we do not need to carry a story that is unbearable. We can observe the story, which is mental; feel the story, which is physical; let the story go, which is emotional; then forgive the story, which is spiritual, after which we use the materials of it to build a house of knowledge” (Poet Warrior, p. 20). John Cale’s “Paris 1919” serenades me to where I think the implications of this are leading me. “You’re a ghost, la-la-la-la-la-la-la,” sings Cale. And reader, I feel it. This ghosting. It takes the royal promise of Adventure Time’s “Island Song (Come Along With Me)” to cheer me. Loneliness is hard.
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.