Caught up on witches, let us sit with creatures and plot reading lists, end of schoolyear approaching. When time allows, we’ll plant our garden. Up onto the turntable I place an album from the 1960s folk revival, rescued from a bin at Goodwill: Mark Spoelstra’s Five & Twenty Questions.
Liner notes by counterculture folksinger and novelist Richard Fariña. The latter died tragically on April 30, 1966 in a freak motorcycle accident, two days after the publication of his novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. Fariña is the writer to whom Thomas Pynchon dedicates Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon had been best man at Fariña’s wedding to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi in spring of 1962. Along with the title track, other highlights on the Spoelstra album include “On the Road Again” and “My Love is Like a Dewdrop.”
Rereading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the parent in me wants instantly to refute it. I want for my daughter something other than the Oedipus complex. I imagine a succession of heroines and goddesses. Why among all the characters of mythology does Freud opt for Oedipus and Electra? The latter, of course, has been reinvented in our time as a Marvel superhero. No longer daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, she wields a pair of sai. Electras loom large in the minds of at least two hideous men: Freud and Frank Miller. What if instead we imagine Oedipa Mass, the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49? While imagining Oedipa, imagine too the women in “Bordando el Manto Terrestre (“Embroided Earth’s Mantle”),” the Remedios Varo painting (middle part of a triptych, in fact) viewed by Oedipa at a key point in the novel.
The figures in each case are all still figures trapped in another’s tapestry. “Such a captive maiden,” writes Pynchon, “having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” This, too, is the dilemma faced by Melba Zuzzo, the heroine of Joanna Ruocco’s novel Dan. Next thing I know, I’m sending myself “Playing the Post Card: On Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49“ while scanning my shelves for H.D.’s book Tribute to Freud. Having seen the Varo painting in an exhibit a year prior to writing the novel, Pynchon recalls it from memory. Oedipa sees in the painting what Pynchon wants her to see. If she’d looked closely, she’d have seen “La Huida (The Escape),” the third part of the triptych, where the girl and her lover flee to the mountains.
And at the center of the triptych, reading from a spell book and stirring a cauldron, a sorceress. Such figures of power and liberation are occulted by Pynchon’s imagining of a feminized Oedipus — a character “hailed,” “interpellated” as Althusser would say, in the novel’s opening sentence when named executor of the estate of her former lover, Pierce Inverarity. Principle among the items of Pierce’s estate is a stamp collection. LSD is a plot point in Pynchon’s novel. Perhaps we could read Pierce’s stamp collection as the equivalent of “blotter art.” It’s described as containing “thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time,” and is delivered to Oedipa by “somebody named Metzger.” Readers might be forgiven for confusing “Metzger” with “Metzner,” as in the logic of a dream. As in “Ralph Metzner,” editor of Psychedelic Review and co-author, along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, of The Psychedelic Experience.
Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.
I situate myself amid circles of relatives and kin. Friends and family shower Sarah, F. and I with gifts. Each day is lovely. I wish to give back, give thanks. How do I do that properly in light of settler-colonialism? What happens, too, when we view postal systems in that light? Let our view take into its account Thomas Pynchon’s approach to these matters — but also the idea of mail systems as prehistories of the Internet. Wasn’t the Pony Express an arm of the settler state? What happens when texts replace letters as units of exchange? How do we remove or subtract from these relations guns, money, and oil — the tools, in the Whole Earth sense, at the core of the settler toolkit? Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand produced a multimedia slide show which he performed called “America Needs Indians.” His wife at the time was a Chippewa woman named Lois Jennings. How did the commune movement that Brand and Jennings catered to with their Whole Earth Truck Store negotiate its relationship to the settler-colonialist project? Were they attempting an alliance with Native people, or did they think of themselves as cowboys, as in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad Manifesto? For Ant Farm, though, the cowboy was distinct from the settler. The cowboy “carried all his life support systems with him being restricted by what his vehicle (horse) could carry.” Something of the same can be said for the hero of Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. Missing from that figuration of the cowboy, however, is his relation to land. Does the cowboy’s migrancy, his refusal to settle down, absolve him of complicity with the settler-colonialist project? By “migrancy,” I mean his life “on the road,” as Kerouac put it — the latter’s Dean Moriarty character nothing if not a cowboy. Poet Gary Snyder described Moriarty as an embodiment of “the energy of the archetypal west, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (as quoted in Ann Charters’s “Introduction” to On the Road, p. xxix). The hippie counterculture at its best, however, was more than just a collection of “cowboy nomads.” It fashioned itself into a Woodstock Nation, a coming together, a global village, a gathering of the tribes.
Discovery of the AMC series Lodge 49 sends me back to Thomas Pynchon’s slim but not slight second novel The Crying of Lot 49, a book I read many years ago as an undergrad. This time around I’m delighted to be re-acquainted not just with the book’s heroine Oedipa Mass, but also with her shrink Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist running an experiment in a community hospital in the book’s version of 1960s Southern California, “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (17). Hilarius calls the experiment the bridge, or “die Brücke,” as in “The bridge inward” (17). At the back of the book, my twenty-year-old self had written a set of clues to the book’s decipherment, composed as if they were a type of verse: four lines, four simple statements: “lot 49 equals tristero. / tristero equals the disinherited. / oedipa awaits the crying of the disinherited. / auctioning off america … who will win?” The morning after receiving a phone call from Hilarius begging her to participate in his experiment, Oedipa experiences an altered state of consciousness, an “odd, religious instant.” Looking down a slope over a vast sprawl of houses, Oedipa discerns a pattern of sorts. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle,” Pynchon writes, “sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. […]. there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). […]. As if, on some other frequency…words were being spoken” (24-25). I begin to wonder: is what follows an acid trip? Did Oedipa unwittingly take one of the pills Hilarius had given to her?
My mind races off in multiple directions from one line of lyric to the next while listening to A. Savage’s “Indian Style.”
I feel dizzy at times, mind plucked from gravity. Christopher Hills’s theory of the “rainbow body” helps explain self-other differentiation. We are all light, we possessors of consciousness, divided in our impact with matter. Gravity’s Rainbow names one such cosmology. But why experience the world — what, even, is meant by that phrase, what are its bounds — once there is the possibility, even if only in capitalist fantasy, of VR devices and social media avatars for all? The self trains to become legion. Upon remembrance of death, I look around me, painfully aware of stones, moss, the sidewalk on which I stand, cars racing past. Airplanes draw lines across the sky as Sarah recalls for me the character of Ruddymane from Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Is the beauty of a flower its complexity? Petals radiate around a point of focus, a depth, an interior. Spring weather, temperature in the 70s. I spend time after an early dinner reclining in a chair on the porch behind my house, listening to wind chimes and birdsong, observing the passage of clouds. I wish I possessed knowledge enough to identify types of birds by song. Church bells sound to announce a religious holiday as neighbors converse across the street. Events often occur this way: several parts arriving into sense simultaneously in proximity to a subject.
Jan Hammer Group’s “Don’t You Know” serenaded me on my commute to work yesterday, a warm reminder of the previous night’s high.
Compelled by sheer force of lifelong dissatisfaction, I will jimmy the lock on the prison. I will put weed in my head and float ethereally, the walls of reality made light, airy, tenuous. The mind constructs doorways and portals. Darkness opens onto light. My world was corrupted down to the molecules, the atoms, by fuzzy memories, blurry abstractions. Worlds have been exchanged like seasons. And always, the mystery that instructs through its silent structure, the enigma of Being, with unknown end. Next thing you know, we’ve invented for ourselves an entire weed-inflected grammar. Become a “strange man,” I tell myself, who in disguise writes himself into Being. Create a sense of levels — worlds within worlds. Or, after crashing through, land on one’s feet and inquire after Thomas Pynchon and his views regarding LSD.
Awareness comes by putting things together. I recall seeing a lovely fog yesterday as I careened toward the diploma mill, the air bathed in yellow morning light. A friend and I exchanged texts throughout the day about all the many ways capitalism has fucked us since grad school. Working sixty hours or so a week translates into exhaustion, resentment of others, no time for housecleaning or physical fitness, no time for labor-power to engage in even the most basic forms of self-repair. And of course, our superiors never miss a chance to demand from us some additional act of debasement. We’re supposed to show gratitude, apparently, for these thorns they’ve planted in our temples. You’re one of the lucky ones, they warn. Give thanks or we’ll make it worse. Hence, in reaction, the turn inward: “me” time, breathwork, re-embodiment through relaxation. And I’ll never have time to collect all of the words, but that’s all the more reason to try. What would we learn, for instance, if we looked up Malta’s 1919 Sette Giugno revolts? A revolt stirred by the price of bread. What if we combine that with quantum tunneling? The last image is too immediate, as Pynchon once said, for any eye to register. Think of all of the properties of reality we’ve not yet learned to see.