In her utopian fantasy The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish conjures up a convocation of bird-men. Cavendish’s lady protagonist, by now Empress, asks of these myopic bird-men that they share with her what they know of sun and moon, and of stars and air. That they do, in very learned and philosophical ways: though oftentimes in error. The Empress grows irate with the bird-men for their reliance on telescopes and other “optic lenses,” saying “now I do plainly perceive, that your glasses are false informers, and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses; wherefrom I command you to break them, and let the bird-men trust only to their natural eyes, and examine celestial objects by the motions of their own sense and reason” (141). Cavendish herself, unfortunately, would go on to be savaged by her critics, much as the bird-men are here savaged by the Empress. Male contemporaries like Samuel Pepys ridiculed her for refusing to speak during her appearance before a gathering of the men of Britain’s Royal Society in May of 1667, six months after The Blazing World’s first appearance in print. Yet surely these critics are mistaken, one realizes now, reading the above-quoted passage again in retrospect. Cavendish didn’t refuse to reply; she replied in advance.
A new semester approaches. Altered states of consciousness and perception: let us consider religious raptures, drug-induced ecstasies, “peak experiences” and the like as phenomena central to human activity as evidenced by literatures of many cultures and historical periods. A narrative forms as we travel Bill & Ted-style among ancients, medievals, and moderns. We detect patterns; the texts of different places and periods constellate in a kind of cyberspace of meaning, speak to one another as allegories of a transhistorical process or project: the attempt to get free. Confronted with the disruptive power of gnosis, we’re left wondering: “Red pill or blue pill?”
Several factors converge: a remediation team to treat mold in our basement, the sound of a lawnmower, a Hearts of Space recording, Ariel Kalma’s Osmose.
Sounds are everywhere in quick succession. The air vents, the refrigerator; somewhere in the distance, a clock. Sarah’s pen moves across a page as she grades. I sit at points during the experience, feeling what Hearts of Space co-founder Anna Turner, using the on-air pseudonym Annamystyq, called “wind sung sounds.” These sounds, she said, “are heard, experienced, on the skin delicately,” like the peeling of a potato, but “with exquisite softness.” This wind, she adds, brings healing, reminding us that we are “starflower beings,” conversing with those close to us. Beside me sits a purple flower, a Sweet William. Sarah prepares mashed potatoes for dinner with friends. I spend a few more moments wandering about in Osmose, contemplating the shape of the whole. Before I know it, I’m elsewhere.
Ever more horrific cycles of violence infect others, possess them. Lines of fiction become lines of code. Systems that predict behavior shape perception. Individuals disappear into bubbles. Without certainty, without conviction, one’s world stops making sense. Media relations rule the world, managing and controlling through creation of constantly-renewing states of destabilized perception. Turn a corner, though, and one can find oneself in a parable. A comet-like ball of energy streaks past. Because I’m indoors, I can’t see it. But I can hear it, I can feel it as it perturbs my atmosphere. Get a fix on this thing, I tell myself, as if it were a matter of some urgency. “See this reality that is hidden from thee,” I whisper. Ontologically, the hidden is like a below-surface-of-consciousness ambience. One can instrumentalize it through use of mood-switchers — and with these, create a joyous cosmology. Drug use is in this sense utopian through and through. Cybernetic co-evolution of nature and subjectivity. Weed is a means by which non-human nature intervenes in and recalibrates human nature, affecting individual heads even at the head’s most intimate, innermost level: consciousness, selfhood, being. Like bees, we can reside among flowers. Isn’t it all no more than gameplay anyway? Can we hold that view while retaining respect for the sanctity of others? On a case by case basis? Certainly. But universally? Without exceptions? What about when confronted by bullies and sadists? Emotions often override our sense of play — yet I welcome these interruptions. Sometimes we need to collapse inwardly on ourselves like tents. I did so yesterday. Grief snuck up on me unexpectedly as I thought about my dog Daphne, reliving our final exchanges of affection, seeing again her head lifting to acknowledge me as we laid together and said our goodbyes. There was a language we shared, and never again shall we speak it. No more face time. After a spell, though, a buzzer went off. Ice sheets are melting, I thought. Consciousness jumps scales. Zip up the memory and move on.
Possessed with identity, the Self — once like a hand, now like a street fighter — learns to dodge the effects of painful emotion on awareness and performance. To itself it murmurs, “You are special. The world is not twin to itself yet.” So begins a mantra I recite to myself in my sleep. If we observe our emotions, we can change them. Or at the very least, we can endure them with a mix of detachment and curiosity. Old trees serve as stations for rest and reflection along a way of sorrow. How sad it would be to live life without walks through allegorical gardens. Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream is one such garden. I burned right through it, couldn’t put it down. Psychedelic in the sense of two voices dialoguing in inner space. Electromagnetic signals. Fake worlds in their simplicity are reassuring. By clumsy political theater, life is overwhelmed by overpowering bureaucracy. While we doze, the money creeps in. History devolves into constructive ambiguity amidst demonic fury. A world where lies are perpetrated by actors who believe only in themselves. Occultists who exploit popular belief in the importance of ritual. People cooperate with the system, and the rest of us are screwed. The fear among the cooperators is that otherwise, shit would go psycho. Better, they think, to just retreat into an alternate reality. What are we to make, for instance, of that ancient document from the early days of Wired magazine, John Perry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”? What, too, should we make of Adam Curtis’s use of it in the film HyperNormalisation? A script is being read to us, no? An attempt to capture imagination. Iron filings reform in response to magnetic fields. Perception management. Reality is made a thing one handles with codes, algorithms, numbers — for it is by money that they program minds.