“Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater,” go the words to a song of my late teen years by the New Jersey band Yo La Tengo. I heard it the other day, only to be reminded of it again midafternoon as Sarah and I, bundled in hats and scarves, set out on a brief walk through our neighborhood. By the evening, though, I’m back to re-reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a book I’m teaching next week. Dick’s dystopian future depicts widespread, near-universal dehumanization as a consequence of prolonged multi-decade domestic drug war. A pair of narcotics officers review horror stories involving consequences of addiction to the novel’s fictional drug Substance D: rapid aging, blown scholarships, a sister raped by her amoral drug-dealing brothers, babies born addicted, spread of STDs. Yet Dick also shows the lack of humanity among the cop side of this nightmarish future. When speaking to each other, Dick writes, these two narcotics officers, Fred and Hank, “neutralize” themselves; they assume “a measured and uninvolved attitude,” repressing feelings of warmth and arousal and cloaking themselves in anonymity. No one is likeable in this future. In order to live in it, one has to be willing to negate the humanity of others. “In this day and age,” says a character named Barris, “with the kind of degenerate society we live in…every person of worth needs a gun at all times” (61). This is a slight exaggeration; on the next page we learn of a character who has never owned a gun. But Dick’s future is one where gun violence is a commonplace (a world, in other words, much like our own). Everyone’s paranoid; everyone’s depressed, depraved, anxious, neurotic, confused. Indeed, to the extent that novels undergo cathexis when written, this one feels strangely anhedonic, borne of a period in Dick’s life of deep psychological crisis. For more on this period, see The Dark Haired Girl, a posthumously released collection of Dick’s letters and journals.
I return from my journey, sun and moon ever-present sources of light overhead, ship stocked with hippie-modernist treasure. “Pleasure from the Buddha Group,” as reads the insert to Jefferson Airplane’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, released in late November 1967 during what Samuel “Chip” Delany called “the Winter of Love.”
Ron Cobb’s cover art captures well the band’s demeanor of even-keeled pleasure-sailing, a ship of color and festivity sprinkling confetti from on high, refusing to allow the black-and-white American trash-heap to harsh its vibe. Cobb is a fascinating figure, by the way, his illustrations and political cartoons deserving of a major retrospective and revival. This first day after feels relaxed and subdued, a day to bake and reflect and give thanks. Stretch, work out the kinks. Midori Tadaka’s Through the Looking Glass calms me midafternoon, as do a pair of squirrels spied while meditating. I sit with houseplants and cacti, patterned pillows, cassettes, back issues of Evergreen Review — and all is well.
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)
We can heal ourselves by placing ourselves in the presence of beautiful aesthetic objects like the new Dire Wolves cassette, Shootout at the Dildo Factory.
Or even better, given our mood at the moment, how about the new cassette from Lake Mary & Talk West on Cabin Floor Esoterica? Lo-fi improvised folk by a midwestern American guitar duo.
What I settle on, however, in my restlessness, in my hunger for uplift, is The Magicians Saw by Alex Meets Sand.
I see sand, fuzz, whiskers, sliced grapefruit, etchings of a state from memory. Bars of sunlight atop a grey carpet. While listening, I begin to eye Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as an American adaptation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. McMurphy shows up, a new Admission to the cave, with pants and shirt from the Pendleton Work Farm “sunned out till they’re the color of watered milk” (12). Dude’s been out in the SUN. The Cave has been updated; it’s far more brutal than it was for the philosophers of ancient Athens. They’ve added a “brain-murdering” room called the “Shock Shop.” And the freed individual, the one who ascends and returns — he, too, has changed. Where once he was a philosopher-king, now he’s a psychopathic “fights too much and fucks too much” capitalist. The men in the cave, we’re told, are like sleepwalkers “wandering round in a simple, happy dream” (16). From the moment of arrival onward, however, McMurphy charms them and helps them wake.
Thomas Merton teaches us, in the face of the nuclear desert as potential future, to wage war unceasingly and courageously against despair. Kikagaku Moyo fill the air with pregnant, dripping, liquid sound with the song “Silver Owl” from their third album, 2016’s House in the Tall Grass.
Listening is like flying regally over a crisp October landscape, air in one’s lungs. Think of that Walt Whitman epigram from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems as a joyous, hearty psychedelic “yea” in reply to William Blake’s line about the “doors of perception.” “Don’t just unlock the doors,” says the psychedelic evangelist. “Tear them from their frames!” Ginsberg begins his poem in much the same spirit as Blake, evoking the power of vision. By this he means “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”: the god-like imaginative power behind dream-work and kosmos-creation. Just as Blake aligned himself with the angry prophet figure Rintrah, so too with Ginsberg, who aligns himself with figures like Muhammad. It’s such a psychedelic place, this world, this book written at the tip of the mind. It was from the Angel Gabriel, remember, that Muhammad claimed to have received the revelations that became the Koran. Ginsberg speaks of Blake appearing before him in a vision hallucinated while lying in bed after an orgasm. Ginsberg’s mother Naomi was hospitalized for mental illness. As biographer Barry Miles notes, this gave Ginsberg “an enormous empathy and tolerance for madness, neurosis, and psychosis.” One of my favorite moments in “Howl” is when Ginsberg refers to “kind king light of mind.” I’ve experienced that kind of high. Also the low he describes on the next line as “the drear light of Zoo.” Ginsberg mapped the emotional antipodes represented in the heroic deeds and misdeeds of the radicals and anarchistic free spirits of his generation. “Howl” is epic poetry set to the purpose of narrating the collective subject of universal liberation collision-coursing its way through the ultimate bender.
To soundtrack my second time through Huxley’s Island, I hit play on World Cup’s new CD-R of “adventure” music, Marsala.
Electronic tones keyed to other eras evoke imaginary videogame daydreams, images paired with sounds. In her first session treating Island‘s protagonist Will Faraday with a form of hypno-therapy, the book’s female lead Susila MacPhail offers him (and us, as we read along) a portrait of “perfect reconciliation”: a veritable church in the wild. “There were daisies in the grass and dandelions, and across the water towered up the huge church, challenging the wildness of those soft April clouds with its austere geometry. Challenging the wildness, and at the same time complementing it, coming to terms with it in perfect reconciliation” (33). The vision continues by imagining “White swans moving across a mirror of jade and jet — a breathing mirror that heaved and trembled, so that their silvery images were forever breaking and coming together again, disintegrating and being made whole” (33). What are we reading at this point? Through the reading experience, it is as if we become spellbound, consciousness led by words to a point of deep satisfaction. “Effortlessly floating,” the book repeats, “Effortlessly floating.” It feels as if one is both here and there, alive and yet already dead, following an echo down a hallway. A masterful bit of indirect suggestion, this chapter! It even announces itself as such by chapter’s end. All pain, all suffering is remade into “A miserable little thing in revolt against a huge and splendid thing. There can’t be any doubt as to who’s going to win” (36). And for me, it works: the words become the experience, the image becomes the thing. I imagine all of human history as a kind of “bad trip” caused by the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, as in the famous creation myth — but with the reminder inserted into the trip that it is just a trip and that already, outside the trip’s false appearances, outside of the prison-dimension we call time, we are here and now awake and forgiven.
A fascinating line from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell where, through a persona he insists on calling “The voice of the devil,” Blake professes, “Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.” Contraries appear because defined by one another. Being and nonbeing co-constitute. When we draw our magic circles, we define for consciousness what lies outside it. The act conjures both figure and ground. But it requires, so Blake suggests, Soul or consciousness to recognize in its self-possession not just a house host to the Self that calls itself Logos, but a whole pantheon of emotions, desires, creative powers, “demons.” The fully human. A body that in dance becomes possessed by the energy of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Afro-Cuban’-versioned “Night in Tunisia,” possesses in consequence a consciousness expanded beyond Reason’s bounds. Filled with delighted exuberance. Orthodoxy to Logos, meanwhile, culminates in material impoverishment and departure from physicality. We must nourish the body, but assume that the imagination extends beyond it. Then again, as Brenton Wood says, maybe I’ve got my fools mixed up. Where in this “marriage” is that groovy thing called Love? Wood frightens and intimidates on “Runnin’ Wild,” but sounds far more loving and merciful on “The Oogum Boogum Song.”