My favorite moments are those that allow me to experiment with novel forms of sociality and self-care. Hello, summertime: for academics, a T.A.Z., a seasonal utopia, release from bondage. Yet I feel so isolated and diminished, caught in an entropic well. Let there be good vibrations. Let us crush once and for all this miserly neoliberalism that rules everything around us. For there are reasons to celebrate, reasons to dance late at night, pasts to recast and futures to speak into being.
The problems hippie modernists proposed to address through their prophetic interpretation of the future have not gone away at all. The violence of capitalism is still all around us. We’re living amidst crisis. We’re living together amid these challenges. Utopia has already been modeled for us; those who modeled it waved to us from the past and asked us to come join them. What are we waiting for? Let’s do it. Each of us struggle for Utopia. It’s the same story for every individual life. Let us imagine the hippie modernist vision as our collective future. The members of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture have prepared us for what is to come. These are the two levels of historical and religious allegory. They’re shouting, “Join us! Join us!” with great joy in their hearts, like the crowd surrounding the police car at the dawn of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, remembered via Berkeley in the Sixties. The image reminds me of Bosch’s famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s triptych is the global-cosmic totality unfolding all at once. Think of it as the map of an ongoing, universally participatory Oculus-style MMORPG. It contains within its ambivalent central panel reality’s mysterious core. As audience members, we get to choose our own adventure. Is the air of perfect liberty an intoxicant or a solution to the riddle? In all of Bosch’s triptychs, one can read the work allegorically by viewing it — exercising perception — either sequentially, left to right, each life played out between Eden and Last Judgment, or in toto, viewed abstractly, like the Whole Earth from space. Atlantis is another era’s name for the West Coast. Time is a mere alteration undergone and endured by consciousness. Sun Ra saw this, broadcasting his music from “after the end of the world.” Let each of us create within ourselves a world-picture of like nature, and interesting things start to happen. Contain all elements within a magical-circular perspective and one has a world-picture, a cognitive map, functional on a level similar to ancient devices of such nature like the Tarot and the I Ching. All are devices allowing us to toggle consciousness from local, timely perception to perception of a kind able to observe constellations of meaning, one’s inner spinnings aligned with the timeless, universal spinning of the cosmos. Let us all find our places amid the stars even as now we race apart.
Take the load off the self and place it on The Band (or, due to licensing issues, a band called Smith). The Easy Rider soundtrack remains for me a peak moment in 60s psychedelia. Despite decades having passed since its release, it still managed to turn me on to revolution and liberation when I first encountered it while rifling through my parents’ LP collection as a teenager in the 1990s. I picture every time while hearing it beautiful, peaceful people relaxing in nature. Let’s lie barefoot in the grass passing a joint. Fuck the system. Simply turn from it and walk away. Such has been my conception of Utopia ever since. Angel-headed hipsters singing, banging tambourines, harmonizing under umbrellas in a rainstorm, committing themselves eternally to growth and becoming. Tom Wolfe calls this ideal “Edge City” in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test: a place where “it was scary, but people were whole people” (50). Theaters there play movies like Hellzapoppin featuring American midcentury comedy duo Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson. (Wolfe died, by the way, this past May. In a final interview with Rolling Stone in 2017, he insisted he never tried LSD.)
The “Murugan” character in Huxley’s Island is far more a dramatis persona (literally, a “mask for drama”) than the student interlocutors who engage with Socrates in Plato’s Republic. Murugan is willful and petty, his every statement an outburst of bitterness and longing. But it would be wrong to read him as an imp borne of Freud’s unconscious. The would-be tyrant — whose wish is to dominate and rule — appears in Huxley’s narration as an identity captured or possessed, rather, by Ego. Or as Huxley says: “an all too familiar kind of psychological ugliness” (Island, p. 48). “A spirit of delinquency” against the Good, or against collective well-being, waging war against traditional wisdom. In the particulars of Murugan’s case, this means hoping to “modernize” Pala through international sale of oil. Modernization means cities, mass media, confiscation and expenditure of social wealth by the false Son, or by all who would imagine themselves above the Given State. Why is this personality structure present as an irritant within Huxley’s vision? Let speak that which profiteth not, a spilling forth, a babbling brook, buzz, chatter, flight, passage, awareness settling experimentally into a great listening to surroundings or environment, other beings. Wim Hof is another of these false Sons. He interpolates and interpellates through application of a method to breathing, converting those who use his method into “alchemists” of their own chemistry. Part of me fears what he might signify. A dangerous fantasy, perhaps — like Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Perhaps this danger lurks in all attempts to modify consciousness.
According to the Old Raja, the philosopher-king in Huxley’s novel Island, a utopian society would be a society in which “most good doing is the product of Good Being” (42). Through the fictional persona of the Old Raja, Huxley asks readers to know who in fact they are, while also knowing, moment to moment, who they think they are but in fact are not. We must be aware in every context, the character suggests, at all times, no matter the manner of the particular doing or suffering. The excerpted passages from the Old Raja’s “small green booklet” end with the author championing “Faith…the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are,” rather than Belief, which is absorption in the Word — the projected symbol, the reified name. I see Belief, for instance, as the disposition fostered not just by churches and organized religions, but also by obsessive-compulsive daily exposure to social media. The latter’s “Gestus” of swipes and clicks is a kind of genuflection, is it not? Social media’s economy of “likes” establishes through aggregation of ritual blessings a pantheon of mythic minor deities to whom users then become subject.
Before arriving to the thing itself, I instruct myself to regard the 9-acre suite of Japanese gardens on the grounds of the Huntington not only in cynical terms, as a tourist site and a marker of social status, but also in more hopeful terms, as a site for encounter and self-actualization: manifestations, in other words, of Amida Buddha’s Western Paradise, enabling rebirth on a path toward enlightenment. Our observations, these gardens teach us, are always contingent, based on changing points of view. In the library itself, I request access to the “Aldous Huxley Oral History Papers, 1985-1990” and several rare books by Huxley’s friend and fellow mystic Gerald Heard. I also browse old issues of a journal called Aldous Huxley Annual. Consciousness airdrops into an altogether different Earth, however, some postindustrial world, an Earth of a different geological period, once the Subject exits the library and actually enters, sets foot into, the desert garden. Curvilinear profusion, flesh of the Earth thorny, prickly, and hairy. Morning doves and amber-bellied fox squirrels in the trees, lizards scurrying up the torsos of cacti. This is my Utopia, my garden at the end of time: this hot, wet, earthy, noisy, citrusy, fruit-bearing, sun-absorbing, multi-scented surround. I’m swept with the conviction in this moment that, whatever the details of this Utopia (apart from “full communism now”), our presence in it should be airy, minimal — an attentiveness to life’s formal richness that nonetheless remains light in its imprint. Let us be great lovers, tending only to our role as gardeners, nurturers, machines of loving grace, I’s who preside over the self-presentation of being. In these gardens and their surrounding bungalow heavens, this gift, this experience my love has given to me, LA prefigures its nickname “City of Angels.”
Let us begin like Homer with an invocation of the totality. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of the man of many ways.” A kit of pigeons crosses a sky of blue and grey on a warm afternoon. I prefer to sing of these nonhuman organisms, since A) I object to the above translation’s movement from the many to the singular-universal under the gendered sign of “man”; B) my own life continues to trouble me, particularly in its isolation from its Utopia, its beloved community; and C) to the extent that the personal under capitalism can still aspire to the scope of the political and the form of the epic, its universal human of many ways would unfortunately be a tragic figure, in many ways unfree. Stripped of ease, most especially, by its society’s demands upon its labor. “How can one self-actualize,” we might imagine this figure of subjection thinking to itself, “when one is separated from one’s fruits, the matter into which one bestows one’s energy?” Why would there be any surprise, in fact, if this figure, the human under these conditions, the subject with whom we identify, prefers to sing not of itself but of the nonhuman, multiple and singular, the paradoxical ever-changing presences that have thus far accompanied each day of the subject’s lived experience? The answer, of course, is Love, as this latter is the means by which that which we are—the subject, the “human of many ways”—finds in this world a companion. History may yet wish to make of me a casualty of the class war, I tell myself, but in the meantime I prefer to walk outdoors with Sarah, the two of us stopping over at a friend’s screened-in porch for wine and Goldfish, talk revolving around movies and TV shows we’ve been watching, punk-rock twentysomethings with bleached hair passing us on our way.