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?
Like Aldous Huxley’s character Robert MacPhail, I am a proponent of “poetry as an autonomous universe, out there, in the space between direct experience and the symbols of science” (Island, p. 136). By which I mean poetry as liberated ground, liberated domain of being. Time and space set aside for breathing, listening, mulling anxiously, retraining awareness (birds in trees: over there! can you hear them?), so as to allow the totality to grow anew.
Conversations keep gesturing ambivalently toward abstractions like East and West, if only because these categories occupy the thoughts of so many mid-century hippie modernists — particularly the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets, along with fellow-traveling first-generation psychedelic elders like Aldous Huxley. The class needs to move outdoors. Perhaps we could go for a walk. Educate the whole person, body integrated with mind. Today in particular would have been lovely. Sunny, mid-70s, birds singing, trees budding, squirrels squealing with delight. Instead we listened to Charles Olson reading “The Kingfishers,” a recording archived on PennSound. I wish I had also assigned “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27.”
No question of the linking of the zones, the various scales of being. Olson faces no impediments other than the geography, to which the poem always returns, even at its beginning. By going back, we also go forward. And we hear in all of Olson’s poems a lamentation about the effects of global economy on a locality, as Greekness moves West. How do we get from the Word to the Dance? Perhaps I should introduce into the discourse mention of Marshall McLuhan. He too foresaw a retribalization and remediation of society into a post-Gutenberg global village. Is that what this was about, both then and now? Are we struggling to adjust ourselves to a new sensory environment made mandatory by automation and digitization? “The artist,” according to McLuhan, “is the only person who does not shrink from this challenge. He exults in the novelties of perception afforded by innovation. The pain that the ordinary person feels in perceiving the confusion is charged with thrills for the artist in the discovery of new boundaries and territories for the human spirit” (War and Peace in the Global Village, p. 12). What I hear McLuhan and Olson saying, in other words, is: Wake to other senses, supersede visual space, step free of the West.
A tall amaryllis sits beside me, both of us seeking light. Subjects must act: punch and kneed dough. As Sarah says, “Something doubles in an hour — it’s exciting!” Imagine change and witness it. Invent a good wizard, in the tradition more of Yoda than of Gandalf. I worry, though, about the prevalence of battle in the myths that house these characters. I suppose one enters the role, as Huxley says, “by knowing what had to be done — what always and everywhere has to be done by anyone who has a clear idea about what’s what” (Island, p. 40). In my case, it begins with a shift from soda to fruit juice. One has to live out total acceptance, even of conflict. We proceed by acquiring knowledge of what we think we are, but are not. The knowledge we imagine we lack we in fact possess. Trust the mind to furnish images to guide us. Move into a non-dual perspective, subjects and objects released from use. Dream now of pyramids lifting from a base: “Whitey on the Moon.” The whole face of the world down to details as small as Cleopatra’s nose, as seen from above.