Do Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, the heroes of Tolkien’s fictions, pass through portals? Their home in the Shire features a circular door, through which they step when they begin their journeys. ‘Tis a magic circle, of the kind theorized by Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens. The world in the circle is the realm of Faerie — or what Huizinga would call the realm of play. “Play is not ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life,” writes Huizinga. “It is rather a stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own” (8).
Tolkien, as one of the preeminent figures of twentieth-century fantasy, shares Huizinga’s interest in this other, “temporary” sphere born of play. That the worlds that result from this sphere are temporary in nature leads Tolkien to assume them “sub-creations” — “secondary” worlds, as he says in his 1938 essay “On Fairy-Stories” — but not in a way that diminishes their value. In keeping with his Catholicism, he believes that humans are handiwork of a single god, a single divine creator. And therein lies our magic, he argues. Created in that being’s image, he says, we too possess a capacity to create. We who are “created sub-creators” in one reality get to be creators of worlds of our own.
So sayeth the Fantasist.
“But what if, instead of distinguishing these worlds as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary,’” adds the Narrator, “we opted rather to call them ‘partner worlds,’ or ‘corresponding pairs’ — as in the Hermetic saying, ‘As above, so below’?”
“What if, in so doing,” replies the Traveller, “we followed the paths of the Alchemists and the Surrealists? What if, as Magico-Psychedelic Realists, we brought them together, allowed them to merge?”
We rejoice upon word of the rapid, successful birth of our niece. My sister FaceTimes with us: she and baby are well. We care for her boys until her return, while teaching and caring for each other. The boys are into lightsabers and Fortnite. I race after them, pushing Frankie in a stroller, as they bike to the neighborhood park on the bay. They request “Lava Monster,” where I roar and give chase.
There’s a moment in Ezra Jack Keats’s picture-book Whistle for Willie when Peter, the book’s child protagonist, pretends to be his father. This same Peter elsewhere draws a line in chalk along the sidewalk of his neighborhood. The main action of the book, though, involves Peter’s attempt to whistle to his dog Willie while hidden behind a box. Peter is a playful child. There are hints of the trickster in him. I think of the book as one designed to introduce young readers to forms of play. My own head, meanwhile, looks a bit like “One Beat of Dove’s Wing,” the Paul Whitehead painting on the cover of Tom Fogerty’s 1974 solo album Myopia.
All of it seems memorable in retrospect. I remember a clickable icon appearing in the upper right corner of a newly opened Word document, or a text message arriving on my phone. Both events occurred. Updates have something to do with ontological transformation. They introduce novel forms of interruption and collaboration into the lifeworld. Through them, I find myself rediscovering ancient play-scripts: theaters of mind anchored to toys and action figures, consensual hallucinations, collectively experienced fictional beings. Of course, collective authorship can take other forms as well, Zoon in dialogue with Oikos. “Listen: go out and take note!” reads the received instruction. “Don’t ask where: just go!” So I do — promenading excitedly to a neighborhood park. I walk first to a small wooden pavilion to sit in its shade, but turn away upon sight of a purse left on a table, preferring instead to sit at a different table on the far side of the park, near a stand of trees. Sunlight warms my forehead. Kind words kindle kind dreams. Before long, I’m home again, feeling a bit distracted by worlds of possibility. The story involves beams of light, squirrels appearing, eyeing us, making contact. The story involves forests and rock creatures, Lego ruins amid gardens overgrown with weeds. “Time for a little ventriloquism,” says the narrator. “Become an ensemble and speak each part.”
Hippie modernism reimagined progress as a great social loosening, a relaxation of former tensions and animosities in favor of joyful, wondrous being. An allowance for work to coincide with play. In consequence, when studying hippie modernist literature, one is immediately drawn to make comparison with the present. How do work and play relate in our lives today? What do we think we know about the hippies? What, if anything, do the terms “hippie” and “modernism” already signify in popular consciousness? Hippies are in some quarters remembered wistfully, in other quarters disdained. Suffice to say, stereotypes abound. Yet we can come to know ourselves better — our potentials, our hopes, our fears — through study of this as-yet poorly understood chapter in our recent collective memory. Let’s consult the evidence, and see what we learn from it. What was Chester Anderson’s conception of the situation in “Hippies in Haight-Ashbury,” a memo he distributed throughout the San Francisco neighborhood with his Diggers-affiliated group the Communication Company, or “com/co” for short? He interprets hippies as individuals exercising their right, held up as a basic principle of American society, to think and act in any manner they choose, so long as they don’t interfere with the rights of others. Anderson requests aid from members of the community: free housing as opposed to violent mass arrests. He ends with the prophecy, “This is an extremely serious responsibility. These students are in the process of shaping attitudes toward society, police and our governmental system. They are bound to be deeply impressed by what they SEE here, good or bad. They are watching the world today; they will be running the world tomorrow.” Anderson’s broadside hints at a Close Encounters of the Third Kind scenario: the teenage head as homo superior, led westward by Chariots of the Gods, Ghost Riders in the Sky. Look for resonances, associations, correspondences.
For the artist, the universe remains a plaything, a site for open exploratory stars-in-eyes investigation. One wanders about or thumbs through books of symbols asking, “Where in the world is my next sacred-ecstatic encounter? What material should I alter, and by what process?” Curiosity leads to discovery, and discovery leads to artistic creation or invention, as in Fanita English’s transactional analysis script matrix, “Sleepy, Spunky, and Spooky,” an essay referenced in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
My countrymen turn to one another. “Is this the apocalypse?” they ask. “I thought it would be a bit louder.” They see the world entranced, fragmentary mirror images morphing and quivering as in a kaleidoscope. Observation of beautiful forms. Symmetry is a special kind of doubling. The repetition begins at an imaginary center point. “Somehow it’s all connected,” we tell ourselves. We just don’t know how. We need keys to unlock other parts of the game-board. Study maps, search for Ariadne’s thread. Do we wish to escape our prison, or do we wish to know ourselves to be bound to a plan, our every step designed? All I know is, 4:20 comes around and it’s like I’ve leapt levels. The mind-world is mine to do with as I please, or so it seems, the object-world confronting me but for money like a floor laid out with puzzle pieces and Legos, or like a playroom, an amusement park from my youth. Or better yet: a forest or a beach or a library. As part of me rejoices, however, another part of weeps, for the world melts and drips. I take action upon reading Denise Levertov’s “The Unknown.” “The preparations,” she writes, “are an order one may rest in. / But one doesn’t want to rest, one wants miracles.” So out I go for a walk. Some part of me announces, “Any politics that has recourse to Law is of no interest to me.” I gasp for breath at times, the pressure of my workload crushing me. I feel better about being alive, though, upon watching the 11-minute Oscar-nominated trailer for a new videogame called Everything.
Players toy with object-oriented ontology, a mix of identification and detachment as one directs one’s focus among multiple scales of being. I feel it may be time for me to learn about the game’s creator, David O’Reilly. We have arrived at the precipice of a new teaching, now that we’ve devised a way to think it: the Interactive Nature Simulation. Philosophy’s new frontier.
What kind of allegorical reality may we ascribe to the myth of the Demogorgon and the Upside Down? A flimsy one, no doubt. A world based on a memory of a mass-media simulation. The same bodies of the past eerily reprising the moment of their youth, despite the change of age. Historical time portrayed as a collective post-traumatic episode to reawaken a numbed sensorium. Capitalism steals away from us our toys. The cathected objects of some originary moment of fully immersive imaginative play. Those objects held the imaginative universe. Why can’t we restructure economic reality around play? Students transform into patients, their automatic writing assignments revealing to me as I read them clues about their psyches. When I contemplate the many towering structures arrayed against me, however, anger flashes through my skin and I find again my hatred for my “fellows,” my “countrymen.” What can I say? It’s a mixed bag. Most of the “work” in our society is mere busy-work, as arbitrary as the mining operations that anchor the value of Bitcoin. “Everyone’s running around, trying to get up off the ground,” sings Transcendental Meditator Rick Stanley, “for that same thing.” “TM is a technique for direct experience,” states the text on the back of his album Song of Life, “And the result of that experience is a showering of pure delight.”
Where is this taking me? Can I trust fully in my journey? These are questions I ask myself while in the presence of Stanley’s LP and similar such objects rescued from historical neglect. Archaic remains of the “New Religious Consciousness” of the 1970s: so promising at decade’s start, yet somehow stalled by Prohibition by decade’s end. “Go deep into silence, take your mind into silence and transcend.” Out we come with energy and intelligence. Big takeover, here we come. We mustn’t turn self-exploration, though, into a mere chartered trip.