Lunch at the Village Tavern

Colleagues and I sit atop stools at the bar at Village Tavern, the three of us eating lunch and warming to each other’s company toward the end of summer. Talk turns to the icebreaker-like theme of “horror movies we watched at far too young an age”: Poltergeist for me, for instance, at the age of five; The Shining, at a slightly older age, for D., who teaches a course on ghosts; and Scanners for I., a documentarian and professor of journalism.

Inspired, perhaps, by the example of Poltergeist, I sketch for them afterwards the story of “The House on Shady Blvd,” feeling as I do so like the Traveler from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. His was a similar tale, told with great verve over the course of two dinner parties.

“You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted,” begins the Traveler.

“Is not that rather a large thing to expect us to begin upon?” asks a skeptic with red hair.

My eyes twinkling, my face well-tanned from my time in the sun, I expound this admittedly odd and recondite matter of mine in as plausible a manner as I can muster. Contingency pauses me, however, midway in my telling. Sensing through the cloth of my pocket the buzz of my phone against my hip, I beg pardon of my companions, step outdoors for a moment, and take a call from the office of my oral surgeon. ‘Tis the “pre-interview,” says the woman on the other end, for my upcoming wisdom-tooth extraction. Call complete, I return to my companions, whereupon I compare the event jokingly to the one that prompted Philip K. Dick’s weird VALIS experience in the 1970s.

Mood thus lightened, the conversation leaps to life, undergoes a shift in quality, becomes a full, robust, multi-directional exchange.

The Experiment

“I look forward to next week’s experiment in sobriety,” announces the Wizard, “required for 4-5 days after wisdom-tooth extraction.”

“Do you, though?” wonders the Traveler. “Is this ‘experiment,’ as you say, truly a thing you look forward to? Or do you dread it?”

“Part of me is apprehensive,” admits the Wizard. “I have but one such tooth. Parting with it feels like a big deal, though of course it needn’t be.”

Having come from the future, the Traveler replies, “No worries. You and I know full well that, despite its fondness for rhyme, history refuses to repeat itself.”

As Narrator, I interject here to add, “Both characters are acquainted with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s infamous VALIS experience. 2-3-74. That, too, occurs after a wisdom-tooth extraction.”

The characters relive the event for a moment as if it were a flashback. They see before them the young delivery woman, bearing pain meds from the local pharmacy, arriving at Dick’s door. Sun glints off an ichthys hanging from a band ‘round the woman’s neck. The ichthys is the Greek fish symbol that was worn by the early Christians. Dick, blinded momentarily by a pink beam of light, receives in that moment a rapid download of gnosis directly into his consciousness.

Imagine, says the Narrator, something like what Lagunitas suggests on cans of their Hazy Wonder IPA, like the one from which I sip here as I write: “It always starts nebulous. A reflection of a refraction in the back of your frontal cortex. Then before you know it, you just know it…”

Overheard scraps of language. “Natty progress.” “Ferrari, Ferrari, daddy gets me minutes.”

“Imagine all of that happening,” says a girl, “in a bird’s tummy. Or a bear’s. Or the tummy of a fish. Or something with eight tentacles. A spider, an octopus: take your pick. A kind of spider-verse. The one who spins it occupying a space in the middle. The Laguna Pueblo people call this being Spiderwoman.”

The characters pause in their dialogue-via-montage and ponder this for a moment.

“No one need tell Spiderwoman, ‘Off the ropes! Off the wall!’,” adds the Traveler. “Life for her is like ‘The 59th Street Bridge Song.’ All is groovy.”

“Indeed,” concludes the Wizard, in transit now with the Traveler. “‘Groovy’ means knowing how to hang, how to float, how to surf. ‘Float free, in a meditative trance,’ the emblem teaches, ‘and all is well.’”

John C. Lilly and the Rats of NIMH

Every time I think of John C. Lilly, who early in his career worked for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), I’m reminded of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. The latter was the source for The Secret of NIMH, a 1982 animated film that captured my imagination as a child.

No Mere Coincidence

‘Tis no mere coincidence, that all of these organizations of the future have such similar-sounding names: Mark Fisher, Sadie Plant, and Kodwo Eshun et al.’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), John C. Lilly’s Cosmic Coincidence Control Center (CCCC), and Benedict Seymour’s Central Control Committee (CCC). Of the three, the one that intrigues me is the CCC. In a piece titled “The re-Jetée: 1971, recurring,” Seymour sets the scene as follows: “The year is 2040. Facing species extinction and environmental collapse, the members of the Central Control Committee (CCC) of the newly established World Commune resolve to deploy their last hope — the time machine.” Does my own narrative need some such organization? Is there an occult time war underway? Or is the story, rather, one of recovery from trauma?

Cosmic Coincidence Control Center

CCCC is an agency encountered or imagined by legendary scientist-psychonaut John Lilly. The latter claimed the group reached out to him in the early to mid 1970s through its local affiliate, the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or ECCO, while Lilly was studying dolphins and conducting experiments involving combinations of LSD, ketamine, and sensory deprivation tanks at his marine research lab, the Communications Research Institute, on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. Erik Davis writes of Lilly’s odd experiences from this period in his book High Weirdness. Lilly wanted to communicate with dolphins, and Margaret Mead’s ex-husband Gregory Bateson assisted with funding. Lilly writes of his encounter with ECCO in his 1978 memoir The Scientist. His ideas informed the 1973 science fiction thriller The Day of the Dolphin starting George C. Scott, as well as the 1992 Sega Genesis videogame Ecco the Dolphin. Lilly also served as the basis for Dr. Edward Jessup, the mad professor character in the 1980 film Altered States. My sense of him follows a trajectory the exact opposite of Jessup’s: Lilly was a villain of sorts only in his early years. His research of the 1950s, funded by the military, was what we might call “MK-Ultra”-adjacent. Despicable acts like sticking wires into the brains of monkeys in the name of science. Yet Lilly rebelled, acquired a conscience, became a free radical of sorts. With commencement of his self-experimentation with psychedelics, Lilly transforms, becomes a rabbit hole of immense strangeness from the 1960s onward. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog promoted Lilly’s books, especially Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer. A 1972 paperback edition of the latter features Brand calling it “The best internal guidebook I’ve ever seen—far more practical and generalized than transcendent Eastern writings or wishful Underground notes….It makes an open start on fresh language and powerful technique for the frontier.” By the latter, Brand means what? Some sort of moving boundary or threshold state, I guess, where through self-experiment with tools, subjects grow new organs.

By Some Strange Manner of Coincidence

The author sits uncomfortably on his meditation pillow pondering the tranche of 80s jangle-pop / Paisley Underground LPs that turned up at Goodwill mere days after he set out to tell his story. In the heart of the heart of the story is the house he lived in two doors down from Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio. “Who or what passed these records to us,” he wonders, “at such an opportune time? What kind of entity must we presuppose, what manner of causality must we assume here in our rendering of the cosmos?” For two of the records are themselves Easter-produced efforts: one of them recorded and the other mixed at Drive-In. “Was it the Ghost who sent them?” inquires the author. “Or is there some other force at work?” Some covert, time-traveling, Antikythera-wielding group from the future, perhaps, name composed of a string of Cs. Such was the solution OG psychonaut John Lilly arrived at, his paranoid, drug-powered Cold War musings leading him to posit the existence of a shadow organization known as the Cosmic Coincidence Control Center.

The Structure of the Device

It’s an odd thing, this device, is it not? With its levers, it’s like a clock or a timepiece. Spun or turned, the levers grant the Traveler safe passage through forthcoming years as counted by Western calendars. The future is reified, captured in a count by an imaginal technology that converts time into a measurable dimension.

Wells’s Traveler assumes in the very structure of his time machine an imperial temporality: the Western linear temporal orientation, with its obedience to “the Master’s Clock.”

But for more recent Travelers, especially people of color, travel is undertaken not so much in obedience to the clock as in exodus from its dictates. Travelers consult stars and return to sidereal time. Or they create music. They keep time with drums rather than clocks. As Moor Mother notes, “Music created by Black people has been used throughout time and across space as an agent of time and memory” (Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice, p. 9). She and the other members of the Black Quantum Futurism Collective take this longstanding practice a step further, their self-professed goal being “to collapse space-time into a desired future.” Tracks of theirs are self-creating, self-causing sound-events from the future made to happen in the minds and bodies of those who listen.

The Magic Circle

The Traveler claims to have departed the space-time of the dinner party by boarding a vehicle he built in his laboratory. The machine resembles a bicycle. By sitting upon it and manipulating a pair of levers, the Traveler observes his life-world transforming rapidly all around him, the whole flashing as in a sequence of motion studies projected onto a kind of spherical surround. It’s as if the Traveler has drawn around himself a magic circle, like the kind described by Johan Huizinga in Homo Ludens and Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. He sees land transformed over hundreds of thousands of years, while he himself sits safely (albeit uncomfortably), within the circle drawn by his machine, occupying a sphere of local, personal, existential time, divorced from the duration of the years passing around him.

Narrating an Act of Time Travel

How does one narrate an act of time travel? And who is one’s audience? In Wells’s The Time Machine, narration unfolds by way of a story within a story. There’s the narrator, a cautious-but-ultimately-optimistic attendee at a series of dinner parties, who speaks only in the book’s intro and conclusion; and then there’s the host of these parties, the Time Traveler. The core of the novel consists of the account given by this latter figure upon his return from the future.

Utopia vs. 802,701 A.D.

The Traveler of my tale burns sage from Utopia, “a place ahead of its time,” unevenly distributed here in the present. ‘Tis other than 802,701 A.D., the place visited by the protagonist of H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine. Wells’s protagonist arrives to a future 800,000 years hence and makes a fool of himself. He imagines himself lost or damned. He blunders about; he curses, he cries. The only noble thing he does is rescue an Eloi woman from drowning — but he proceeds thereafter to treat her as one would a pet or a child. He imagines himself superior to the Eloi, and responds to the Morlocks with fear and contempt. After flicking matches around and starting a forest fire, he kills some Morlocks, regains control of his Time Machine, and hightails it back to the day on which he first set forth. My favorite touch is his vanishing at story’s end.