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.
We gathered in a circle, some of us in chairs, others of us on blankets, on a sunny afternoon, celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday. It’s a lovely day — quality time with friends, all of us pleased to be together, laughing, telling stories, sharing observations and enthusiasms. Afterwards, I reflect upon Allen Ginsberg’s centering of Carrie Nation in the midst of the vortex in his antiwar poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” Nation was a temperance zealot. She ran around cities like Wichita attacking alcohol-serving establishments with a hatchet in the decades prior to Prohibition. I recall there being a straightedge band named after her in the 1990s, as well as a fictional band in Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. Is Ginsberg suggesting that Prohibition birthed Vietnam? What is a vortex? In his 1914 essay “Vortex,” modernist poet Ezra Pound described the latter as “the point of maximum energy.” But of course, Pound was a fascist. Is his essay one we need to read to understand Ginsberg? It’s a modernist manifesto, one that launched the short-lived movement known as Vorticism. (British fascist Wyndham Lewis is the other major figure linked with the movement.) Pound was obsessed with “race” and “race-memory” and attacked hedonism. Yet he’s widely considered one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. The “Vortex” essay ends with a quote from Pound’s lover and contemporary, the modernist poet H.D. The latter is a curious figure, for sure. H.D. experienced “visions,” sought treatment from Sigmund Freud, and dabbled in the occult. For further discussion of H.D.’s interest in the latter, see Matte Robinson’s book The Astral H.D.: Occult and Religious Sources and Contexts for H.D.’s Poetry and Prose.
Modernist art and literature gain viability — become possible — only when there are social movements afoot vying for control of the production of reality. Such was the argument Marshall Berman made in his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, is it not? (Book out of reach, I settle for Berman’s essay of that name.) He complains early in his essay of “primitivist romance” among his fellow former SDSers following the latter’s disintegration in 1969. He accuses these former comrades of nihilism and anti-Americanism. Berman’s views are silly; I bore quickly of his rash judgments. His admiration for Marx’s “developmentalism” leaves him cold to the pleas of Indigenous resistance movements and anti-colonialists like Fanon. Berman is no ally to those of us who demand an end to the money-form. His humanism excludes from its circle of care nonhuman relatives and kin.
M.C. Richards writes of her debt to certain techniques and strategies of high and late modernism toward the end of Centering. (It’s perhaps more than a mere coincidence, I think to myself as I write this, that Jimi Hendrix’s song “Voodoo Child” shares initials with the US military’s enemy at the time the song was released in October 1968, the Viet Cong.) “I have lived my life close to certain impulses in contemporary art,” writes Richards. “The music of the single sound, the composition of silence, and proliferating galaxies. The poetics of Western Imagism — ‘no ideas but in things.’ Garbage art: sculpture out of mashed automobiles; paintings out of old Coke bottles, soiled shirts, window blinds, coat hangers; paintings made out of dirt meant to look like dirt, to consecrate the dirt; an art which consecrates the discard. Cellar doors, walls, sidewalks, street surfaces: as well as all the minutiae of nature. A choreography of making breakfast. Summoning attention, drawing the gaze in, into. And into the wonder comes a kind of high mirth. A release of joy in the form” (Centering, p. 144). Writing becomes for Richards a transcription of her thoughts as she attends to the conditions by which she thinks.