Sunday February 21, 2021

Rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the parent in me wants instantly to refute it. I want for my daughter something other than the Oedipus complex. I imagine a succession of heroines and goddesses. Why among all the characters of mythology does Freud opt for Oedipus and Electra? The latter, of course, has been reinvented in our time as a Marvel superhero. No longer daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, she wields a pair of sai. Electras loom large in the minds of at least two hideous men: Freud and Frank Miller. What if instead we imagine Oedipa Mass, the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49? While imagining Oedipa, imagine too the women in “Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“Embroided Earth’s Mantle”),” the Remedios Varo painting (middle part of a triptych, in fact) viewed by Oedipa at a key point in the novel.

The figures in each case are all still figures trapped in another’s tapestry. “Such a captive maiden,” writes Pynchon, “having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” This, too, is the dilemma faced by Melba Zuzzo, the heroine of Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. Next thing I know, I’m sending myself “Playing the Post Card: On Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 while scanning my shelves for H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. Having seen the Varo painting in an exhibit a year prior to writing the novel, Pynchon recalls it from memory. Oedipa sees in the painting what Pynchon wants her to see. If she’d looked closely, she’d have seen “La Huida (The Escape),” the third part of the triptych, where the girl and her lover flee to the mountains.

And at the center of the triptych, reading from a spell book and stirring a cauldron, a sorceress. Such figures of power and liberation are occulted by Pynchon’s imagining of a feminized Oedipus — a character “hailed,” “interpellated” as Althusser would say, in the novel’s opening sentence when named executor of the estate of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity. Principle among the items of Pierce’s estate is a stamp collection. LSD is a plot point in Pynchon’s novel. Perhaps we could read Pierce’s stamp collection as the equivalent of “blotter art.” It’s described as containing “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” and is delivered to Oedipa by “somebody named Metzger.” Readers might be forgiven for confusing “Metzger” with “Metzner,” as in the logic of a dream. As in “Ralph Metzner,” editor of Psychedelic Review and co-author, along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, of The Psychedelic Experience.

Friday January 1, 2021

Noisemakers announce the arrival of a new year. Let us breathe sighs of relief at 2020’s passing. The year ended with word of a final casualty: hiphop legend MF DOOM. Let this new year be a year of healing. Let portals open onto novel developments: new courses, new branches of study. What’s this talk about time travel, for instance, in the recent Avengers film, Avengers: Endgame? Dr. Strange makes an appearance — as he will again in due course, in the course I teach this spring. Marvel characters invaded the American national-popular imaginary in conjunction with popularization of psychedelics in the 1960s. Early psychonauts like Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were, as Tom Wolfe notes, “Super Kids,” turned on by a mix of peyote and Captain Marvel. Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics might speak to this conjuncture. And for magic, let us read Alan Moore’s Promethea.

Saturday March 16, 2019

As William Bowers once said, “I went and saw me some Spider-Man” — only this time, in the current redux, the current version of the myth, the film is called Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I’d heard good things, but I couldn’t recall if I’d seen the trailer. Suffice to say, though, that a hum of excitement could be heard as I approached the theater. Signs appeared on the side of the road announcing “FEEL THE LOVE” and “TURN THAT FROWN UPSIDE DOWN.” Which isn’t to say that in my heightened state, I’d lost touch with the ground of being. There were moments of wild paranoia, for instance, during the lead-up: creepy, nationalistic, body-police fitness commercials, followed by slight release into the sanitized exoticism of an ad for “Trident Tropical Vibes,” some light, safe corporate capture-attempt; goofy GEICO; plush digital high-energy stuffed-bear comedians joking on the carpet stage of a playroom. Caged Dumbo released into the world of an elderly filmmaker’s “acclaimed imagination” — no magic, but “IN REAL 3D AND IMAX.” And for those not yet satisfied with the menu, try another product from the Disney Kingdom: the myth of the Lion King in a new reanimated register. Thankfully the Columbia Pictures logo intervenes to save us, graffiti’d into a gun-toting cowgirl, along with a variety of other versions from other dimensions.

The film begins and quickly sets its terms: cops and prep schools versus the “droppin’ science” teacher-uncle, the surrogate dad who distills wisdom extracted from the streets and tunnels of the metropolis. All against the backdrop of the cop-father to whom young black men are expected to publicly humiliate themselves and say “I love you.” The radioactive spider-god Anansi erupts into this, effecting a permanent radical reorientation toward reality. In the Spider-Verse, the psychedelic narrative begins not with a drug but with the bite of a spider. “Why is this happening?” wonders this new speciation of the myth. Next we find ourselves in a miniature allegory about Brooklyn’s rejection of Amazon, the corporate behemoth figured here as Green Goblin. The Spider-Verse is rich with allegorical potential, able to accommodate in its mapping practice beasts and alchemy amid DARPA and NSA. By these means, audiences arrive into a multi-color, multi-dimensional anti-Trump national allegory. The question the nation is trying to answer, apparently, is “How do we destroy the collider?” Stan Lee appears as the good wizard, the benevolent Gandolf of the comics universe, promising each of us that the mask always fits eventually. With references to a fictional corporation called Alchemax, the film conjures up for those who have ears to hear figures like Malcolm X and others of the Black Radical tradition, through whose hands the key to revolution once passed. Who else, though, can show us the ropes of a new horizon, eagles flying? How do we retrace Peter and Miles’s steps across dimensions to defeat Kingpin, the film’s version of Trump?