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?”
Suffice to say, we had some weird occurrences there at the home we rented on Shady. None of it seemed malevolent in intent — just a bit weird. I developed a writing practice during my time there involving self-induced trance states, similar to the surrealist practice of “automatic writing.” I experienced auditory hallucinations, where it felt like I was hearing voices. Some of this was admittedly disconcerting at first. I realized almost immediately, however, that I could write some of it down. I could take notes like a kind of sleuth. And so, a Text began to germinate — one I transcribed gratefully, in a state of silent absorption as I listened.
Hence these trance-scripts.
As for the house, Frank sold it when we moved out — and from what I’ve heard, he tempered the decor when preparing to put the place on the market. Thankfully, however, I have some photos of how it looked when I was there.
Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary’s psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.
Robin D.G. Kelley carries forward a remarkable defense of fantasy in his book Freedom Dreams — one I might consider as I design a course on fantastic literature for the year ahead. Kelley quotes from Paul Garon’s book Blues and the Poetic Spirit. “Fantasy alone,” writes Garon, “enables us to envision the real possibilities of human existence, no longer tied securely to the historical effluvia passed off as everyday life; fantasy remains our most pre-emptive critical faculty, for it alone tells us what can be” (as quoted in Kelley 163-164). Garon sees the blues as revolutionary in nature due to “its fidelity to fantasy and desire” (164). Fantasy is one’s remembering of the past on behalf of the future through a kind of dreamwork, in accordance with a desire that draws reality toward the “as if” and the “can be.” Others have called this desire Eros and the Spirit of Hope. In his retelling of the story of surrealism in light of anticolonialism, Kelley reveals a side of Jules Monnerot that was unknown to me. I’d known him before as a member of Acéphale, a secret society formed by Georges Bataille in the 1930s. After WWII Monnerot drifted to the right and denounced Marxism as a political theology akin to Gnosticism. What I learn from Kelley, however, is Monnerot’s prior involvement with surrealism. Martinican by birth, Monnerot arrived to France in the early 1930s. By 1933, he’d published a critique of the “civilized mentality” in the Surrealist periodical Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. Monnerot was one of several black intellectuals attracted to surrealism. Kelley argues that these intellectuals “found in surrealism confirmation of what they already know — for them it is more an act of recognition than a revolutionary discovery. […]. Aime Césaire insisted that surrealism brought him back to African culture. Ted Joans wrote Breton that he ‘chose’ surrealism because he recognized its fundamental ideas and camaraderie in jazz. Wilfredo Lam said he was drawn to surrealism because he already knew the power of the unconscious, having grown up in the Africanized spirit world of Santeria” (184-185). For the abovementioned figures, and for others like Watts poet-activist Jayne Cortez, “Surrealism was less a revelation than a recognition of what already existed in the black tradition” (187).
The pool’s not been what I’d hoped. This is one of the ways that Mercury Retrograde has manifested locally of late, prompting in me a sense of frustration and postponement, despite my knowing that we’ve performed our planting ritual, seeds and seedlings are in the ground, things are growing. Similar processes are afoot intellectually as I continue my wanderings. In my readings, I’ve been moving crabwise among many books at once. Robin D.G. Kelley keeps it surreal with his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thelonious Monk appears near the book’s finale. Kelley went on to write a book on Monk. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Thumbing through the latter book’s index, I land upon “Monk, Thelonious: drugs taken by,” hoping to encounter word of Monk’s relationship to psychedelics, as he’s known to have done mushrooms with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Monk came to the psychedelic sacrament a seasoned pro. Reports suggest he was unimpressed. Monk had been arrested years prior for marijuana possession. Police rolled up on him after a Sunday night gig in June 1948. He liked to smoke reefer when he played, and other players in his groups relied on drugs and alcohol to keep up. The meeting with Leary occurred in January 1961. Three years later, Monk appeared on the cover of the February 28, 1964 edition of Time magazine. The cover story’s author Barry Farrell wrote, “Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.”
“If the best way to learn is by doing,” argue the members of the Chicago Surrealist Group in a piece on the 1992 L.A. Rebellion written for the Winter 1993 issue of Race Traitor, “There is every reason to believe that in some seventy-two hours of popular, creative destruction, L.A.’s insurgent population learned more than they did in all the years they spent confined in classrooms” (8). The Group touts humor’s role in the Rebellion as both teaching implement and weapon. “Few things are more consciousness-expanding,” they write, “than a good joke at the expense of cops, bosses, and bureaucrats” (9). Cops can police love all they want, pretending their repressed lives matter ‘til blue in the face. Let us laugh as we dream ourselves out there again, dancing in the streets—and let this laughter of ours eat right through them (like acid etching new ways of being), desire educated by joy in doing until, hearts opened to the possibility of next time made this time, precincts go up in flames.
Through a door in the wall opened by Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams, I arrive to the Chicago Surrealist Group. (Kelley had recommended Paul Garon’s book Blues & the Poetic Spirit. “Look, too,” he’d said, “for an edited collection called Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. And don’t forget special issues of Living Blues and Race Traitor.”) Instructions received, I descend the stairs and work the stacks, knowing that my attention is the one thing that might save me. Sources arrange themselves on the shelves of the memory palace shouting “Read me, read me!” So I do.
Nadja constructs for its readers a Surrealist approach toward everyday life. It recalls in its first-person narrative and its forty-four photographs a string of synchronicities and coincidences, life occurring in fortuitous patterns. Breton coasts along on invisible economic means, contemptuous of those who “endure their work” (68). “How can that raise them up if the spirit of revolt is not uppermost within them?” he asks Nadja when the two meet. “No,” he concludes, “it was not yet these who would be ready to create the Revolution” (64). Surrealism is a refusal of work in favor of art and romance. The rest of us, meanwhile, are paying for treatment. Has talking to a therapist helped? Certainly. The more I open up, the more I learn about where and when and how we might exert agency together as Multitude. And we learn this precisely and quite wonderfully through receptivity to chance — or so I catch myself thinking, when what I ought to do is read. When at the end of their conversation Breton asks Nadja, “Who are you?” she replies, “without a moment’s hesitation, ‘I am the soul in limbo'” (71).
I wish I knew more about “Irma,” thinks the patient. Freud should be read alongside those he treated (like the poet H.D.!), just as André Breton’s Nadja ought to be read alongside the life of the woman on which the Nadja character is based. Nadja, the French Surrealist novel par excellence, is based on Breton’s encounter with a mysterious woman: Leona Camille Ghislane Delacourt, a mad patient of the French psychotherapist Pierre Janet. The Surrealists performed events. They embarked on walks and strolls among the cities of France. Art was for Breton and the other Surrealists a way of life. Guided by the Unconscious, they produced an immensity of objects: films, novels, sculptures, poems. They sought revolutionary change of a sort, attempting a brief alignment with Trotskyism in the 1930s. I wonder if I could include Nadja in my course “Rabbit Holes, Time Machines, and Doors in the Wall.” Might it work? The book begins with a question: “Who am I?” The “I” on the page introduces itself through a proverb, claiming to be a ghost of sorts. The “I” that speaks is a Catholic one, a distinctly French subjectivity organized by Catholicism and Descartes, haunted by images of ghosts and eternal torments. As readers, we’re made to wonder. Breton presents language as a site of self-inquiry: Ego in Search of Premise. After a break, the narrator launches into “university discourse”: the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s term for one of four possible formulations of the symbolic network: “Master, University, Hysteric, and Analyst.” The subject of “university discourse,” claims Lacan, is a castrated subject, barred from knowing the world except as it appears in language. Spacey mood, tonight, folks. Chasing after some occulted master signifier. Lacan remains a language. To converse with him, one must learn his terms. Same with Marx, same with Freud. And one never arrives: revelations promised go unrevealed. With Breton and the Surrealists, however, it’s all “sudden parallels, petrified coincidences…harmonies struck as though on the piano, flashes of light that would make you see, really see, if only they were not so much quicker than all the rest” (19). Breton announces early in Nadja his conviction that “psychoanalysis is not qualified to deal with such phenomena” (24).
On these walks each day around my neighborhood, I weigh possibilities for revolution and admire trees and gardens. Yet so much else of the capitalist neighborhood seems distant, alien, preconstituted, practico-inert. Little sense of community other than polite hellos. Nods of the head, the assumption being all of us are “about our business,” do not disturb. This is what it’s like, existentially, to live under the regime of social distancing — while in some more abstract sense, everything around one is the land of Trump. Time to practice drumming and horn-blowing. Noisy, clamorous complaint. Yet the parent in me knows to be quiet so as not to wake the baby during her nap. She’ll wake on her own when she’s ready. Or WE will: into happier times, each day tending toward the better. So too with consciousness. The surrealist revolution attempted a synthesis, an overcoming of dualisms, did a stately pleasure-dome decree: dream-states and pleasure-states reconciled with reality. Or so it seemed as I sat after my walk, mind at play. A student’s paper has me thinking about the politics of “liberation.” By dream or by memory I summon up before me a book from Verso, The Dialectics of Liberation, resting in a stack of books across from me atop Lenore Kandel’s Word Alchemy. What better thing to read? Dialectics of Liberation was a congress held at the Roundhouse in London in 1967. Radical “anti-psychiatrists” like David Cooper and R.D. Laing met with Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse and Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, among others. Paul Goodman was there, as was Gregory Bateson. A “curious pastiche,” as Cooper says in his introduction. In a kind of “circus poster” at the start of her book Word Alchemy, meanwhile, Kandel announces, “ALL dreams ARE true / THIS is a dream / THIS is TRUE.” Kandel’s poems are funky, wonderful, and witchy.