Friends gather for a gala get-together on my front porch, all of us vaccinated and thus able now to be with one another after our year apart. Spring is lovely here this year, trees budding, the yard awash in constellations of blue, white, and purple: wildflowers and patches of clover. We celebrate the publication of a friend’s novel, an historical romance just out this past week from Berkley, everyone wanting to read it, cheered too by the arrival of her parents, new in from up north. When last we saw each other, F. was new in as well: a newborn, a wee lass just home from the hospital. Amazing how much she’s grown these past fifteen months. Our friend’s dad is an artist, as is another of the party’s attendees. Both draw beautiful illustrations in colored chalk on our cement walkway. I admire these on my evening wanderings about the yard come dark. ‘Tis a starry night, across which flies a ship, discernible here below only as Morse code flicker: modest dots of red and white light. I resolve to read Black Quantum Futurist Rasheedah Phillips’s book Recurrence Plot (and other time travel tales), at the heart of which is a character named after the scarab-faced Egyptian god Khepri. This character is, like me, a frequent thrift-shopper. Let us, like Khepri, donate something each time we thrift.
Awaiting the evening’s discussion, I return again to Octavio Paz’s book Alternating Current, a collection of essays written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 1967, with an English translation released by Viking Press in 1973. For Paz, the fragment is “the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are” (Foreword). What might we learn from these essays — especially “Paradises,” on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception? We would be reminded of the myth of the Teotihuacán paradise of Tlaloc. Huxley finds in the mescaline experience, says Paz, a “universal myth” of “an enchanted garden” where “birds, beasts, and plants speak the same language” (90-91). Light and water are special presences in accounts of paradise. The “instant of equilibrium” formed between these presences is what Paz calls “the precious stone,” by which he means not just earth or the ground of being but rather jewels, emeralds, minerals that sparkle and behave like water in the presence of light. Other essays in Alternating Current point us to Henri Michaux, the French surrealist who, like Huxley, published books in the 1950s about his experiences with mescaline.
I sit in the sun room at the back of the house listening to birds, wondering about the status of the statue, a Native American chief holding a peace pipe across his knee, an item I accepted as an “inheritance” after the death of my grandparents. It was an object that fascinated me; I remember sitting with it, contemplating it with reverence upon encountering it in my grandparents’s “rumpus room” as a child. How else is one to act in this being’s presence? Is what Ken Kesey does through his invention of Chief Bromden, the “half-Indian” narrator of Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a form of “literary redface”? The Western was a popular genre in the culture of Kesey’s childhood. The novel imagines an encounter between Bromden and a “red-faced Irish brawler” named Randall Patrick McMurphy. Both men are war veterans committed as patients in a mental institution run by the novel’s communist-matriarch supervillain, Nurse Ratched. Communism is figured as an emasculating threat, an overly demanding mother, a superego intent upon world-ordering through replacement of nature with machinery. Capitalism, meanwhile, appears via McMurphy as a kind of confidence trick. It allows patients to enjoy sex and alcohol. It gets them gambling and making bets. And best of all, it’s willing to sacrifice itself like Christ so that natives like Bromden can be “made big again.” Bromden is the one saved by novel’s end. He smothers the lobotomized and defeated McMurphy, throws a control panel through a window, flees the ward, and returns to nature.
Re-reading The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic “trip narrative” about a mescaline experience at his house in Los Angeles, I’m struck by Huxley’s disdain for modernism and his admiration for artists of earlier eras: Goya, Vermeer, William Blake. Huxley is a proponent of the “Perennial Philosophy.” He finds across time a convergence of teachings, a shared wisdom in the visionary or mystical strains of each of the world’s religions. There is for him a “universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence” and a “need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). One of the most remarkable aspects of The Doors of Perception, however, is the fact that it’s a book about vision and visionary experience by a man of poor vision. Huxley’s eyesight was damaged; an illness at the age of 16 left him thereafter severely impaired. Huxley claimed to have overcome some of this impairment through an experimental technique known as the Bates Method, about which he wrote a 1942 book called The Art of Seeing. Huxley is thus a modern incarnation of the “blind prophet,” in the tradition of figures like Tiresias, the seer from Antigone and Oedipus Rex.
Nadja constructs for its readers a Surrealist approach toward everyday life. It recalls in its first-person narrative and its forty-four photographs a string of synchronicities and coincidences, life occurring in fortuitous patterns. Breton coasts along on invisible economic means, contemptuous of those who “endure their work” (68). “How can that raise them up if the spirit of revolt is not uppermost within them?” he asks Nadja when the two meet. “No,” he concludes, “it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution” (64). Surrealism is a refusal of work in favor of art and romance. The rest of us, meanwhile, are paying for treatment. Has talking to a therapist helped? Certainly. The more I open up, the more I learn about where and when and how we might exert agency together as Multitude. And we learn this precisely and quite wonderfully through receptivity to chance — or so I catch myself thinking, when what I ought to do is read. When at the end of their conversation Breton asks Nadja, “Who are you?” she replies, “without a moment’s hesitation, ‘I am the soul in limbo'” (71).
Joanna Ruocco’s Dan is a book I read with students. Dan is a place and a state of mind, through which moves a perplexed, brilliant young woman, the book’s protagonist Melba Zuzzo. Melba travels via bicycle, accosted by men and townspeople, en route to and at her place of work, the town’s bakery. Her morning customers include Officer Greg, who suspects Melba of a crime, and Don Pond, a man who brings her back to his apartment on behalf of a conspiracy involving all of the town’s men. The apparent head of this conspiracy is the book’s villain, Dr. Buck. Melba suffered Buck’s hands. He touched her inappropriately and claimed to be her father when she visited his office about chronic congestion of her sinuses as a child. She remembers the event over the course of her day. Buck haunts her, in a sense. He gaslights Melba, using his status as expert and authority to call into question her ability to know. She lays quietly on a sheet of paper in his office by book’s end. Some of my students unfortunately begin the book siding unknowingly with Buck. The course is designed, though, to demonstrate harms done to women by male doctors. Patriarchal patterns of abuse appear, for instance, once Dan is read in light of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams.
The “altered state” presumes variance from a norm: or at the very least, contrast between varying states. Modulation among intensities of experience. Sleeping and waking states. Dream states, drug states, trance states. States of hyper-absorption: flow-states, runners highs, fever-induced deleria. All of our texts this semester assume some ordinary, everyday waking state, as well as an alternative to that state. And in fact, we’ve all experienced “altered states” of one kind or another. Moments of intense concentration, moments of absorption or immersion.
There are moments of self-reflexivity in Pharmako-AI, as when Allado-McDowell begins a conversation with GPT-3 with meta-language about prior interactions, allowing shared acknowledgement of inherited patriarchal bias. After this point, GPT-3 course-corrects, recognizes and honors women and non-binary people. There is a chanting of thanks to the Great Mother Goddess following Allado-McDowell’s insertion into the conversation the prompt, “Thank you, Grandmother” (104). Prior to these interventions, GPT-3 had shared a macho, “Italian-futurist”-style machine-poem in celebration of grandfathers, figuring its birth in relation to a grandfather engineer-machine who worked for General Motors. Allado-McDowell replies, “When I read this poem, I experience the absence of women and non-binary people.” GPT-3 behaves oddly here, repeating several times in a row the statement, “This poem is not without its truths, but it is incomplete” (97), after which point it begins to acknowledge as additional influence on its work “the lineage of the Great Mother Goddess” (97).
Smoking toward dusk I decide to bake — but to no avail. “Bake and bake” remains a dad book waiting to be written. Dad’s busy reading board books. Mom, too. Others seek “productivity hacks.” A Google employee named Kenric Allado-McDowell co-authored a book with an AI — a “language prediction model” called GPT-3. The book, Pharmako-AI, could be wrangled into my course in place of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s book is a downer, a proto-cyberpunk dystopia, whereas Allado-McDowell’s book contains a piece called “Post-Cyberpunk.” The book models communication and collaboration between human and nonhuman worlds. GPT-3 recommends use of Ayahuasca. The computer tells humanity to take plant medicine. What are we to make of this advice from an emergent AI? The book ventures into territory beyond my purview. GPT-3’s paywalled, and thus operates as the equivalent of an egregore. Not at all an easy thing to trust.
The writer in me feels a bit lost, a bit time-tunneled, not yet able to flow. I recall a book I encountered in my past: A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard by Paul Bowles. The book turned up synchronistically in the bins where I scavenged in the days after a transformative event in my life: my first time getting high. I try to recall some of that headspace. “Two worlds,” say the kif-smokers of Morocco. Kif delivers the smoker to a world other than the one determined by inexorable laws. The kif world is a projection of the smoker’s essence: “the elements of the physical universe,” Bowles explains, “automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual.” Bowles speaks of “dedicated smokers” whose visits to the kif world are “undertaken for the express purpose of oracular consultation.” I imagine the kif-world as a world adjacent to (perhaps even coextensive with) the world of these trance-scripts.