Tobacco’s “Yum Yum Cult” tunes me in, helps me switch on to life in an alternative future, the psychedelic machine-in-garden paradise of Richard Brautigan’s “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.”
Long-haired commune-dwellers sit on grassy hillsides worshiping the moon with cups of wine, the night sky a thing there for them to ponder while listening on headphones to Tangerine Dream’s “Phaedra.”
Shapes drift across an inky cosmos. Here in the other future, the one in which you and I reside, where ordinary folk are born to be hurt, the words most appropriate are those of the Talking Heads song, “Born Under Punches.”
The tea leaves that show up sometimes in my Facebook feed suggest that in the days ahead, we may be facing another constitutional crisis. Imagine a harrowing chase scene. Will we take to the streets and participate in work stoppages? Or, like dogs, will we roll on our backs and submit? For answers, I look to John Berryman’s “Desire is a World by Night.” The poem’s reply is none too reassuring. “If anyone could see,” he writes, “The white scalp of that passionate will and those / Sullen desires, he would stumble, dumb / Retreat into the time from which he came / Counting upon his fingers and his toes.” Jingle bells, morality tales, big webworks of meaning. Hissing voices whisper. Recruit the right words, intones a booster, and we can give and take — everything multiplied sevenfold.
Does it help? Does growth occur when subjects reexamine their origins? Their earliest fears, for instance? Reality says, “Follow the signal! Create a new world.” Beautiful old decrepit landscapes, abandoned train tracks. Consciousness imagines itself occupying other identities. Matter, form, laws, energy. We know ourselves only in the midst of higher and lower orders of being. We play games and hope to attract others to join us. Utopia is a place where we all descend into our own mazes, families of selves who improvise being in keeping with the teachings of the Emerald Tablet or Tabula Smaragdina. Another afternoon, another walk timed to the sun’s descent. Pine needle arrangements on a piece of blacktop. I know not why the sky is so gray, but I like it. Gusts of wind lift ends of ribbons tied to trunks of trees. Heads lift, too, with help from Asheville, NC improv duo LULO.
The day starts to stack up, one stimulating experience after another. Everything creator David O’Reilly supplies a brain-busting animated short called RGB XYZ.
I experience a confusion of levels, political reality seeming a mere myth-performance atop an abyss. Imagine this abyss as an infinitely large room, where Left, traveling through a wormhole in space-time, comes out Right, time an eternal beast one can’t defeat. We are only ever here and now, even when compelled to bring growth and wealth to the owners of capital. Yet we puzzle over our origins and seek purpose. There are no truths, just stories. And presumably bodies. I lose myself amidst a collapse of images and memories. Some shifting space of menace. And then, like that, I can breathe again. Montage transmits a composite of synoptic slices of a person’s narrative arc so as to prompt recognition of archetypes. The composite governor, Zhuangzi, drives paradoxes into the grammar of reason. Noise enters the oikos through the psyche. Of course it does, we add: the future self who at other times plays the part of the Big Other, commands it.
At night, jigsaw puzzles. The doors have been blown off their hinges, the world behind this world revealed in the process of setting the next part of this one into place. Imagine two selves: the planner and the performer. Smoke clouds emerge from our lips. A ball rolls across a wooden floor and my eyes observe bodies burned in the BBC’s retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, this latter formed into images of middle-aged male heads of competing households marching into one another’s rooms and antechambers and exchanging taunts and threats. I hardly recognize history in this meaningless quarreling, this bargaining and scheming, men standing around in elaborate period costume. History is a story of warring families acting their parts in scripted sword-fights. Men go around bullying, torturing, and murdering one another on behalf of ancient, petty, angel-on-pinhead, political-theological grievances. The night confronts me as a blank screen; as opposed to those men of yore, I can do with my nights (though not my days) as I please. I sit on a sunny hill and play a harmonica, gazing downward at the world below. Before I can help it, though, my gaze trades itself for something dazed, stoned, sleepy. I wish instead to imagine communities of mutual care, self-organized into improvised, voluntary, no-rules-but-the-ones-you-and-I-here-and-now-invent-for-ourselves, service-trading commune-congregation-encounter-groups. Behavior in this wished-for place is like that of radical theater troupes of the late 1960s: tentative, experimental, invented on the fly, in absence of any cause for enmity, competition, or hostility. Subjects of such polities get high and love one another. Unless, of course, will to power is not mere arbitrary imposition but rather an inner imperative. ‘Tis a wager we make; but better to make it and fail than to wonder what might have been.
Gnostic beasts blow smoke in my face. They draw their fangs and whisper in my ear. I posit the existence both of a subliminal language and of those who speak it. I know not, however, this subliminal messenger-class’s intent. “What art thou,” I ask blindly, “friend or foe?” Friends and I must try to make the Commune into the outcome of history’s likely progression. Put utopia back on the map. Marxism needs to stop its “museum roaring with crowd of sober patrons” act. The grain of sand must become the pearl. No more molding of behavior to accord with the words of the patriarch. Dress instead to celebrate life. Become like the wild animals who, even as we converse, continue to roam the countryside. The change from good to brutish happens, though, in every child, warns Wilhelm Reich. It is here and now, in one’s inner grace, that one attains one’s godhood. No more entrapment of consciousness in identification with the as-is. Go instead for weed-supplemented walks with friends. Pass a grey-and-white cat nesting in a batch of monkey-grass. When friends and I stomp through a park amid the murky air of a purple and orange dusk, a cacophony of chirping bird-speak erupts from an evergreen, and squirrels root around in dead leaves at the base of tall, bare shadow-trees. A friend recommends I read Argentinian author Samanta Schweblin’s new novel Fever Dream. I direct my head toward knowledge acquisition, but nothing happens — the system’s fried. All I can picture are skies filled with slaughterbots. Autonomous drones. Makes no difference whether we’re ‘tiny house’-owning minimalists or OCD hoarders. They’ll declare open season on all of us. Tech will empower authoritarian capitalism to precision-strike its foes.
I have trouble imagining, both at present and in hindsight, the views of me held by others. Friends, students, coworkers. My students seem quite impressed, though, when I confess to them my involvement in Occupy. I’m like a metal dreadnought. Either that, or I’m a figure aboard one, ready to mutiny ship and go pirate. I think they respect that. Teachers must also be persons of action. Persons who rediscover a center for themselves in their bodies by listening to Charles Lloyd’s Nirvana.
Of course, work can also be an enjoyable lot, as when I sweep pale autumn leaves from a back deck on a windy weekend afternoon. Nature writers are great ponderers of the seasons. Their journeys inward keep kin with Thoreau. My utopia is like their utopia, except mine includes machines in its gardens. The computer-mind amidst earth and sky, enjoying colors, lights, and sounds. I prefer a nature that remains simple in its speech. After all, who needs countrymen when so many are mere appendages of the State? AI-controlled NPCs. “A man is rich,” wrote Thoreau, “in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.” The books I assign students ought to be imagined as gifts. “Congratulations, students. Today I give unto you Walden. Thou shalt remember it as a momentous occasion. This book will become part of the vocabulary by which you think.” Is it proper to draw a distinction between animal-persons and spirit-persons? The dachshund on its leash and its master? I think not. I think there are insides to the reality of both. Yet I sometimes think the same of all things. Leaves blow up and down the street as if Nature were setting them into position for a new drama. I listen for voices, eyelids weighed down. The scene before me so peaceful, you would think it a picture. A tree of paradise, hung on the line of a high-tech hippie commune. When I try to pin my bow to a location in reality on which to unfold this dream, however, my lack of real estate sinks my ship. Landscapes have to be believed in order to be seen. Politics begins the moment there are disputes over land.
I watch as contour lines on a topographic map transform into rings of paint. Whatever the Monopoly Man once meant, it’s over now, he’s cashed in his cards. Say hello to Jr., dead by March of 1943. For my students, a capitalist is, like, a tech nerd, tinsel on a Christmas tree, not Rich Uncle Pennybags. Bye-bye iconography of yore. A book of personhood would have to be a psychic bible, its voice able to bear a politics of authenticity while portraying a mind at play. Tall order. But no worries: I’ve the power to throw fireballs. Flower power. With it, I can reverse the smoothing-out effect of the law of large numbers. I don’t want the world to remain stuck behaving in ways ordained by mere actuaries. When I’m stuck, I end up at Taco Bell ordering Beefy Nacho Loaded Grillers, my mind unable to posit a desirable alternative. The world clutches my heart and squeezes, blood running out betwixt the fingers of a shrugging Atlas. Roll and light a magic wand, though, and the life narrative turns silly. E.T. waves down at me, poised atop a bookcase like an imp of the perverse. The eye sees the Word and the mind assimilates its meaning. There needn’t be a lack of correspondence between wonder and focus, but for the fact that concentration so often spurs anger about parts mistaken for what in truth remains ungraspable, the whole. The reason for consciousness of Being. Or so I tell myself, as if to perform a kind of programming. Better, then, to just relax while time allows. Psychedelics are for those in the know. Imagine a world that makes one happy, I tell myself. Life is and should be ecstasy. Collective mass experimentation with consciousness-expansion. But Christian cultures are unable to tolerate freedom: they stamp out the Hippie-Dionysian. They inject poisons into the body politic. It is as if some secret power steps in around 1969 or so and corrects the statistical anomaly. Some covert force intervenes, and redesigns the narrative.
Utopias are dreamt by those without a home. I must dig deeper. The bad ones have taken us from home. Find that anger. Thus begins the story of the dead-end kid. NO THRU TRAFFIC. Most of reality exists elsewhere, available only via special attention. Beings caught halfway between realms. Would you believe it if I said we’ve been robbed of our personhood? Robbed blind. We see nothing but darkness as we climb from bed each day. But indulge me as I imagine it differently: A beautiful sunrise soundtracked by Locrian on my commute to work.
And when I return home, I slurp food truck ramen in the cool autumn air at a picnic table at a local brewery, the sky a welcome canvas above my head. A time to laugh, a time to weep. Hat tip to King Solomon, Pete Seeger, and Roger McGuinn, I mutter in the awed, half-befuddled voice of hero Ted “Theodore” Logan. He of the band Wyld Stallyns. But my thoughts always drift back to Daphne, to whom I dedicate Alan Vega’s “Lonely.”
Death, man — what a fucking bummer. I close my eyes and picture a contraption on a wall — a hand soap dispenser. I rub my hands together in imitation of a cleansing. We’re coming now upon the verge of the superhuman. The West persists as a place I seek in my skull. Skunk smoke revives my starry eyes. “Where else except in the direction of the setting sun,” asks Fiedler, “can one look for the Great Good Place beyond death, the region where what survives of the human spirit bides forever or awaits resurrection?” (The Return of the Vanishing American, p. 30). The yesterday where we cut down the apple tree. “The world was so big,” sang Miracle Legion,” and I was so small.”
Emo of that sort really appealed to me when I was a young man. Multiples appear and degrade, and then it’s as if multiple TV screens turn off at once. I need to learn to speak BASIC.