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.
Consciousness outgrows its paradigm, becomes bigger, encompasses more than all prior paradigms and Zeitgeists. Doors are opened, dispelling the integrity of these spirits of containment. We walk beyond our usual bounds. Worlds are thus studios for practice, helping us envision our agency, each studio opening into one larger. The books I read are part of my studio practice, and each day I learn from them something new. Reading today, for instance, I learn that “Michael Davidson” was a pseudonym used by Warren Michael Zeit (1923-2014), author of two science fiction novels, The Karma Machine (1975) and Daughter of Is (1979). Zeit worked as a professor of history at Marymount College. Not to be confused with the other Michael Davidson, the poet and chronicler of the San Francisco Renaissance. Beautiful writing is a perennial gift, a magical capacity to partition the self so as to function as a receiver of words, word-symbols, symbol systems. Using this gift, we can describe immediacies and then place them using recursive statements in ever-widening circles of past and future. Others think we’re just spinning our wheels. They wonder the merits of these revolutions. But there can be no re-imagining of reality until we re-open ourselves to words.
My favorite part of Solaris is its foray into imaginary intellectual history. The book’s narrator, browsing in his space station’s library, recounts for readers the history of “Solaristics” as a field of study. Paranoia sets in, though, the moment I gather up and attempt to understand the state of my own discipline, variously defined as “literary studies,” “cultural studies,” or “English.” “This time, open up,” I tell myself. “About breathing, knowing, all those round things, echoing, sighing, dying.” Always resisting, always tensing my neck when I ought to float. Last night I paced the house trance-scribing voices. Okay, it wasn’t scary or anything: just me tapping notes to myself on my phone. By observing ants crawling along grit between tiles, my mind started to imagine lines, a tradition of literature, some of it Communist blank verse, but other parts constituting work that works at the limits of language, teasing at the Unknowability Thesis, reopening the case on that old canard about there being an insurmountable barrier between knowledge and experience. Solaris leads us to contemplate the telos of this thesis: overshoot, solipsism, regression. In evolutionary terms: the end of the line.