If I had a library, I’d visit it mornings, evenings, I’d look for books by David Henderson, co-founder of the Umbra writer’s workshop, a group that met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s. At one point Henderson was married to the black feminist scholar Barbara Christian. I have a book of his on Jimi Hendrix somewhere in my basement. By the 1980s, though, Henderson started publishing with North Atlantic Books, a press founded by Miranda July’s father, the writer Richard Grossinger. I retrieved a book of Grossinger’s from my basement earlier this week. He seems to be quite a character — a magician of sorts who apprenticed under Robert Kelly. At some point I should also look for work by Calvin Hernton, another of the writers associated with the Umbra group. Hernton studied with R.D. Laing, participating in the Institute of Phenomenological Studies and the Antiuniversity of London before returning to the US in 1970. Ishmael Reed once described him as “a modern-day warlock…the man faltering governments keep their eye on. The native who has his own cabala.”
An ant explores the surface of a sunlit outdoor table. I sit across from it observing and writing on my in-laws’ back patio. A neighbor waters a garden next door as I read Erik Davis’s review of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition for Frieze magazine, written two years ago, when the show was up at BAMPFA. This is the show that inspired the course I taught this past spring. There’s an elegance to the review’s list of the show’s achievements. My eyes dwell for a time on an image included in the review, a digital reproduction of a 1965 painting by Isaac Abrams called Hello Dali.
I see echoes of the painting as I look over at flowers in my in-laws’ garden. I let this work motivate me to complete my project. I watch videos, like the radical Italian design group Superstudio’s “Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth,” a film of theirs from 1972.
Balm applied, the goad to work kicks in. I note down books I need to order, like Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. After a breakfast of homemade waffles and orange juice, I burrow away and watch Davis’s recent talk, “A Brief History of Queer Psychedelia,” where I learn about Gerald Heard’s involvement with the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.
Isocrates was the pseudonym that Heard used for the articles he published in the society’s magazine, the Mattachine Review. He also wrote articles for ONE, another early gay publication, under the pseudonym D.B. Vest. Davis also unveils a weird book of Heard’s written in the late 1960s called AE: The Open Persuader published under the pseudonym Auctor Ignotus (or maybe W Dorr Legg). Tartarus Press published a collection called Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard in the early 2000s. That, too, is a book worth tracking down. By midafternoon, elements have clustered together to cause me to wonder at the overlapping histories of psychedelics and ritual magic. The famous LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III noted that his early experiences with acid coincided, for instance, with his reading of The Kybalion. Most of the first-generation Western psychedelic crowd took up at points with Eastern tantric currents. Some folks also explored Western pagan and esoteric traditions. This outburst of spiritual yearning and experimentation remains for me in its utter mysteriousness a source of fascination. In my state of unknowing about it, the topic seems rich with narrative potential, like there’s a story there waiting to be told. Like the fate of Pedro Salvadores in the Borges story of that name, it strikes me as a symbol of something I am about to understand, but never quite do.
Having finished Sword of Wisdom, I spend the first part of my sixth day at the British Library dipping into Jeff Nuttall’s Pig, a book written in the afterglow of Ulysses and Naked Lunch. This being a research junket, though, there’s only so much a’ that one can take, so I shift gears and thumb through another of Nuttall’s books, a hippie manifesto of sorts called Bomb Culture. At the end of the book’s preface, Nuttall writes, “What can be said in words about how the vat was brought to the boil I hope to have put down in the following pages” (Bomb Culture, p. 10). Nuttall’s book antedates Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style by a decade, feels more directly immersed in and connected with the hip counterculture than the latter, and says all that the latter says, only with knife-sharp clarity and glamour galore.
A dreary day — cold, rainy — most of it spent indoors reading the final hundred pages of Ithell Colquhoun’s book on MacGregor Mathers at the British Library. I’m all for observation of synchronicities and correspondences, but Mathers’s attempts to align various ancient magical systems — alchemy, astrology, Hermetic Qabalah, John Dee’s angelic alphabet, Egyptian and Celtic lore — leaves me exhausted and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s time to shift course.
The day begins with comrades and I busing down to Trafalgar Square, where thousands gather to protest the president, picket signs in hand. Elated by this show of force, I settle in afterwards at the British Library for another round of research. Objects of study include a full run of Gandalf’s Garden and books by Ithell Colquhoun. Dare I share here the fruits of this research, or shall I exercise discretion, assuming that the terms of my use of this material will be made manifest in the days ahead? “All in due time,” I decide over a bowl of Spicy Tonkotsu. “All in due time.”
A long, rewarding day of research in one of the reading rooms at the British Library culminates in a relaxing evening in a park, the latter being my preferred space to write of late. A bell tower rings the hour as a woman in a violet dress and matching sandals strides past. I close my eyes and witness a crumbling facade amid a landscape of “unverified personal gnosis.” Elsewhere in the city, figurehead greets slumlord-in-chief, as in a Trauerspiel on the banality of evil.
“The instrument of evolution now is culture,” murmured a middle-aged Julian Huxley to a 10-year-old Oliver Sacks during Sacks’s childhood in Hampstead Heath. How does the universe order itself? A poet might say, “Through memories unlocatable in time.” Macro quantum events. Insides becoming outsides. Deterministic chaos. Self-organization. Sudden transformation. Everything can be generated from within. My evening self, for instance, orders my daytime self to look for D.S. Savage’s book The Withered Branch and for Sacks’s essay on “the Odd.” Look as well, it says, for info about Gerald Edelman and his theories about “recategorization.” Floating cell structures, floating synchronic portraits of games of Go. The world fires back, though, with news of a TV miniseries based on the life of Jack Parsons, and two recent biographies by Spencer Kansa: Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, and Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg. Beaches are parts of the labyrinth strewn with the bones of our predecessors.
Big discovery today: Richard M. Doyle’s Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere. Doyle also blogs at mobiused and wrote an “Afterword” to Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis. Dick’s exploration of Gnostic beliefs and teachings in the Valis trilogy proved to be of great importance to me in the months following my initial encounters with psychedelics, so I’m excited to see what kind of sense Doyle makes of these themes.