Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.
Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
Worry not: Look outward upon a radiant new environment loaded with hidden Easter eggs. Go out and listen. There is great peace of mind to be had by exhaling and breathing silently along a calm evening walk. I walk in wonder, staring up at chirping birds on lofty branches, a clear cold sky lit for sunset. “Breathe,” I tell myself, “and concentrate mind in the present.” It’s been a tiring past couple of weeks, this conclusion of autumn and entry into winter. To cheer myself, I throw on the Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head — but something’s off, the album fails to suit the mood. I fail to find in it the significance suggested by its title, minus that great line at the end of the song from which the album gets its name: “I’m a child of atom bombs / and rotten air and Vietnams; I am you / you are me.”
The band also released a single the following year, an anti-drug song called “Slow Death” — the same phrase used as the nickname for Substance D, the fictional drug in Philip K. Dick’s doper dystopia A Scanner Darkly. I wonder if Dick was a Flamin’ Groovies fan.
The stories we read and tell one another compose us collectively into an intersubjective multiverse linked by each consciousness holding up to the Other its mirror. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is a hard novel to end a course on, hard because it contains so many prior horizons of psychedelic-utopian possibility in the uncertainty and despair of its narrative universe. I worry that the book inspires in its readers an excess of aversion to chemical modification of consciousness. The book is too unqualified in its denunciation of drug use; the book’s fictional Substance-D operates allegorically (most vividly via its street name “slow death”) as an emblem, a universal shorthand for every drug — drugs in general. Dick leaves readers without a positive alternative to the “straight” world’s miserly, hypocritical relationship to mental health, where “sanity” equals mind-numbing adherence to pre-established norms, and all are expected to board what Margo Guryan called “The 8:17 Northbound Success Merry-Go-Round.”
I prefer to focus instead on collecting recipes for a cookbook. The cookbook was a great utopian art form of the late 1960s and 1970s, from The Grub Bag and The Tassajara Bread Book to Ant Farm’s INFLATOCOOKBOOK of 1971. To my cookbook I add a recipe for “Vegan Cream of Mushroom and Wild Rice Soup” from the Food 52 website.
“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.
Settle in for some “fun with voices.” Ride lazily. Lean back. Smile a bit. Stretch arms and shoulders. Syncopate the body with easy rhythms. See no damage. See no evil at all. Trace a path similar to Schopenhauer’s in relation to Buddhism and the Upanishads. Familiarize oneself with Raymond Schwab’s Oriental Renaissance, a book about, as Edward Said remarked, “the reeducation of one continent by another.” Said’s Orientalism critiques Schwab’s work for intuiting as the motive for Europe’s late eighteenth and nineteenth century encounters with ancient Indian religious texts a desire to learn from the East, rather than, as Said would say, an urge for mastery over the East. Rather than being revived by eastern spirituality — as had been the hope of the Romantics — Europe instead turned on the latter, framing it as evidence of the East’s “backwardness” and “barbarism.” From this emerges a reading of the blue flowers that appear at the end of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, since blue flowers serve as symbols of equal importance in works by several German Romantics. In his fable Heinrich von Ofterdingen, for instance, Novalis drew on ancient Indian texts like the Shakuntala to posit a blue flower as “at once a symbol of mythic immanence, sleep and mystery, organic flowering and growth, and total reconciliation of all dualities” (Feldman and Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology, p. 350). Art thou caught in a narrative? The end of another phase? How does one who is lost become saved? One way to move forward, perhaps, is by reminding oneself (as Huxley reminds us in his final book Island), “It isn’t anything to worry about. It’s all over and done with.” Breathe and start again.
Crazy, really, the worries we invent to forestall enjoyment. But when it happens, when we overcome our fears and rise from our depression, messages come through—alternate meaning-systems, dreams—and the resulting metamorphosis of the world-picture can occur quite suddenly, as it does to some of the protagonists in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, readers who become conscious of their positioning as Subjects as they read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel-within-the-novel that allows them to peer out from their own history to learn of another. It is as if one’s attention were suddenly able to lift for a moment from the totalitarian thoughtscreen, the system of Being then and there updating and evolving, as it were, in the blink of an eye. Otherwise I just sit around reading and wielding digital code all day, bemoaning the lack of plants in my office.
I begin to wonder about the role played by sexuality both as influence upon and content within psychedelic literature. Allen Ginsberg was gay, of course, as was Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), as were Huxley’s closest friends during his years in Hollywood, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. As for Philip K. Dick, prior to entering a chain of unsuccessful heterosexual marriages, Dick roomed with two gay poets central to the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (By all accounts, however, Dick’s relationship to Duncan and Spicer remained strictly platonic.) What, if anything, can we intuit from this pattern? For an ecologically-attuned articulation of Psychedelic Utopianism, a kind of blueprint, in fact, for the creation of Acid Communism, see “Four Changes,” the essay that concludes Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. Snyder lists there as some of his allies “Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, [and] Alchemists.”
Sitting in a chair in my backyard, gazing up through a cover of leaves at layers of clouds as they cross the sky, I experience self-tension, part of me a voice commenting live as another part awaits assumption, uplift, acquisition of an as-yet unpossessed knowledge. How do I overcome what Lacan calls the “narcissistic passion” birthed by the mirror-stage? Where am I? What do I want to do? I’m Philip K. Dick’s “electric ant,” a robot trying to seize control of consciousness. By practicing self-analysis, I can “regulate the yield of my ears,” as Lacan would say; I can learn to listen not just to breath and heartbeat but to brainwaves. By these means, one can self-regulate thought’s beats per minute, “in order to pick up what is to be heard” (Écrits, p. 45). These signals might guide one, for instance, to a reimagining of oneself as a “collective head,” a series of singularities slowly acquiring awareness of itself as plural. This head of ours floats atop the “pastoral krautrock” of Smoke Bellow’s ISOLATION 3000 while enrolling itself in a crash course on anamnesis.
The apparatus in the chest of the Electric Ant structures light. It gives birth to some objects while causing others to disappear. Dick calls this apparatus the Ant’s “reality-supply construct.” “Tampering with it would be risky,” he writes, “if not terminal.” Imagine the process whereby an avatar acquires knowledge of its player. The latter would have to send the former clues. The gasp of recognition, sure — but where does one go from there? What does one do with this force in the universe that makes things happen? It provides one with a kind of drowsiness, a deep-dream state, this living within a fable, where things aren’t what they seem. “It’s hard to see the city from the buildings,” as F.J. McMahon sings on “The Road Back Home.” It’s like getting lost in a crowd and having to think one’s way out. Facts and figures float by as we wait for morning sunshine. Amnesia aids the merging of the soul with the brain.