OCTOBER 19, 2019
ERIK DAVIS’S NEW BOOK is at once a brilliantly original study and a recap of familiar themes the author has been pondering for the past two decades. Like his pioneering 1998 debut, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, High Weirdness explores the way modern networked society tends to inspire revivals of hermetic and other occult traditions. It thus updates Davis’s analysis of the convergence of contemporary occult and psychedelic subcultures in Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica (2010). And, like his 2006 volume, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, High Weirdness shows how this epochal conjuncture of mystical worldviews, magical practices, and psychoactive lifestyles expresses a uniquely West Coast sensibility, a fusion of NorCal hippie utopianism and SoCal punk paranoia.
High Weirdness is a revised version of Davis’s PhD thesis, produced under the auspices of the Program in Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism in the Department of Religion at Rice University. As Davis remarked in a 2015 LARB interview, he had long contemplated “stepping back from the challenges of freelance life and shoring up the more scholarly side of my writing and research through an encounter with an academic discipline.” Happily, this encounter has in no way scotched his restless, omnivorous intelligence or defused the offbeat punch of his gonzo style; indeed, it has helped him to see himself as a kind of “counter-public intellectual” who brings “rigorous theoretical and methodological approaches to bear on some seriously weird shit.” While he still views his own writing as part of the same “stream of feral, fringe, psychedelically-inflected thought” that is his analytic subject, he can now scrutinize these oddball perspectives using all the tools of modern philosophy, cultural studies, and comparative religion. The result can be at times a bit overwhelming — as Davis struggles to synthesize a welter of theories, from William James’s “radical empiricism” to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory to the materialist psychoanalysis of Félix Guattari (and much more) — but it is never pedantic or boring.
The core of High Weirdness is a careful study of three major “psychonauts” — Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick — all of whom, under the influence of far-out fictions, esoteric doctrines, and various controlled substances, were bombarded by a series of hallucinatory visions that were arguably mystical and indubitably life-changing. Seven chapters devoted to these thinkers’ lives and work are bookended by a wide-ranging exordium that develops a concept of “weird naturalism” to account for their quasi-mystical experiences, and a coda that explores why this freaky occultural mindset should have emerged precisely when and where it did: in early 1970s California. Davis’s introduction makes clear that a key historical development was “the psychedelic transformation of esotericism and the occult,” which spawned a countercultural zeitgeist fusing the delirious whimsies of LSD gurus with a hybrid pop-hermeticism à la Aleister Crowley and a Westernized Tao out of Mircea Eliade via Alan Watts. This potent brew was laced, as the dreamy ’60s gave way to the fidgety ’70s, with even more outré ingredients, from the tabloid conspiracy theories of UFO cultism to the posthuman pulp metaphysics of H. P. Lovecraft.
The result, in Davis’s words, was a “weirding of religious experience” that ushered in a “consciousness culture” of “intense, enchanting, and liberating altered states,” navigated by “a restless mode of subjectivity that I call the centrifugal self.” This deracinated ego, adrift amid a “kaleidoscopic relativism” of arcane beliefs and alternative lifestyles, was less a coherent identity than an endlessly mutating “project”: “On the one hand, the decentered self becomes a charged vector of exploration and creative re-invention; on the other, it spins like an aimless and lonely satellite through random space.” As Davis argues in his concluding chapter, this nomadic subjectivity was particularly suited to — if not outright engendered by — “the complex and abstract behavior of networks, systems, and information ecologies” that emerged as a “new social paradigm” during the postwar years, especially in California (here, Davis builds thoughtfully on Manuel Castells’s 1996 sociological classic, The Rise of the Network Society). The quasi-mystical perception that everything in a network is potentially connected gave rise to both libertarian dreams of empowerment, including the hacker ethos of information freedom, and conspiratorial fantasies of mind control, such as the belief that a “psychic mafia” of paranormal researchers might be “soften[ing] people’s brains” telepathically.
There is thus a key ambivalence — a “strangely doubled gnosis” — at the heart of the visions Davis anatomizes: they seem to give access to higher states of reality while at the same time suggesting that this contact could be manipulative or delusional. A deep strain of doubt underlies the surface credulity: all three psychonauts reported “encounters with enigmatic nonhuman intelligences they could neither shake nor entirely believe in.” A “cautionary” counterexample is provided by another figure who didn’t quite make it into Davis’s mystic pantheon: neuroscientist John Lilly, who used sensory deprivation as a trigger to extra-human communication and “supraself metaprogramming,” but who eventually became convinced, under the dissociative influence of ketamine, that a Borg-like “Solid State Intelligence” was in the process of “conquering all biological, carbon-based life in the universe.” McKenna, Wilson, and Dick all came close to surrendering to such crippling chimeras themselves, but each was saved, finally, by a capacity for wry humor, cool pragmatism, or skeptical self-analysis. Moreover, Davis is less interested in appraising the putative truth of their mystical visions than he is in exploring the rhetorical and conceptual resources these “garage philosophers” marshaled to narrate and interpret their experiences, in a series of highly imaginative, curiously engaging, and boldly genre-bending texts.
The first — and in many ways the least interesting — figure Davis discusses is McKenna, a modern “techno-shaman” who, when he wasn’t hymning the ethno-botanical (if not extraterrestrial) powers of psilocybin mushrooms, was claiming to have discovered a fractal math underlying the I Ching that, when read alongside the patterns of the Mayan calendar, forecast an imminent global apocalypse. (McKenna died in 2000 and so was not around to see the failure of his prediction — or of the big-budget film based upon it, Roland Emmerich’s silly 2009 spectacle, 2012.) While all three of Davis’s psychonauts were a bit sketchy and egotistical, willing to shade the facts in the service of a good story (Davis defends them, fondly but cogently, as “bullshit artists”), it is McKenna alone who comes across — to me at least — as a flamboyant fraud. Like Wilson and Dick, he was a voracious autodidact, and he could vent his weird fund of erudition — a compound of pulp sci-fi, McLuhanist media babble, half-digested Buddhism, and drug lore — in intense and witty raps of “cannabis-fueled eloquence.” (In later years, he became, like his friend and fellow con man Timothy Leary, a fixture on the college lecture circuit, and budding bohemians can readily access his loopy musings online.)
Davis does his best to argue for McKenna as a genuine counterculture intellectual, a psychedelic alchemist who used DMT, magic mushrooms, and other potent substances as metabolic triggers for extra-dimensional experiences. A less generous way to put it is that he was a drug nut — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but his motives, frankly, come across as more shallow and self-serving than the other two pop-mystics Davis groups him with, whose drug use was more incidental to their visions and who, for all their nascent messianism, never really fancied themselves as gurus.
That said, McKenna was, of the three, the most ardently — and admirably — peripatetic: rather than waiting for enlightenment to arrive, he actively hunted it down. Davis chronicles his youthful 1971 foray, accompanied by brother Dennis, into the Amazon jungle in search of indigenous psychoactives — rare plants and fungi that put Terence in touch with “a higher intelligence, either posthuman or nonhuman,” which he dubbed “the Logos” (for his part, Dennis was either transformed into an oracle or had a gibbering breakdown — in later years, he wasn’t quite sure himself). The brothers’ “Experiment at La Chorrera” led to two co-authored books: The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching (1975), which ambitiously constructs a syncretic “folk science” of New Age shamanism, and the flipped-out, “psy-phi” Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide (1976), in which the drug, personified as an alien ambassador, peddles a dreamy fantasy of cosmic symbiosis. (Ever the huckster, Terence had returned to the States with a hoard of psilocybin spore-prints that he marketed to avid heads under his Lux Natura brand.) Caveat emptor.
The second psychonaut to whom Davis introduces us — Robert Anton Wilson — was, I think, an altogether more intriguing cat. Born in 1932, he was 14 years older than McKenna and thus had been compelled to carve out a social niche for himself before the ’60s made hippie entrepreneurialism a feasible option. A modestly successful freelance journalist, he served, for much of the 1960s, as associate editor for Playboy magazine, where he was in charge — along with his friend and colleague Robert Shea — of the letters “Forum,” which the duo remodeled into “a clearinghouse for […] alternative views,” from right-wing libertarianism to psychosexual anarchism. A bookish pothead with a pronounced trickster streak, Wilson proposed to Shea that they consider the worldviews animating the missives they received as all equally valid, a hypothesis that fed into a lengthy manuscript the pair drafted between 1969 and 1971, eventually published in three volumes as The Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975).
The apotheosis of 1970s conspiracy culture, a cross between the pomo delirium of Thomas Pynchon and the earnest hysteria of a Xerox pamphleteer, the trilogy is a bracing tabloid bath of satiric paranoia that I seem to like rather better than Davis does (he claims to find its “blend of pulp indulgence and ironic, avant-garde affectation” off-putting). Davis is interested in Illuminatus! primarily as a gateway drug that leads to Wilson’s later work, as well as for what it reveals about the Discordians, a real-world group of social and spiritual pranksters with whom Wilson was closely associated. Davis warmly defends Discordianism as more than a “parody religion”; it is rather, he claims, a life-affirming neo-paganism that “forges a deep link between anti-state politics and the esoteric imagination.” Certainly, its impish ironies are vastly more entertaining than McKenna’s mycelial metaphysics.
In his later solo effort, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (1977), Wilson started to weave the raw material of the trilogy into a more personal, meditative brief for “pluralistic psychedelic pragmatism.” After leaving Playboy in 1971, the author finally took the plunge into the swirling currents of acid evangelism and pseudo-liberatory eroticism; he joined a small coven in Mendocino, performed rites of Crowleyan and Tantric sex magic, used a tape machine for consciousness re-programming, and generally let his freak flag fly. After a few years of this bizarro diet, Wilson’s innate skepticism began to fray in the face of hypnotic patterns of synchronicity and visionary trances that seemed to channel transmissions from “higher dimensional intelligences [in] the star system Sirius.” The author had entered what he called the “Chapel Perilous”: either he was truly experiencing an epochal “brain change” that gave him access to astral realms, or he was being “seduced by madness” into “scripting” his own life as a “four-dimensional coincidence-hologram.”
Happily, this great satirist of conspiracy theory managed to shake off the grip of the hallucinatory schemes in which he had trapped himself, surfacing as a kind of “bemused agnostic” armed with “the practical counter-magic of reason itself.” Much of his later writing was devoted to constructing an elaborate but highly playful personal mythology (he remained active well into the 1990s, including penning a sometime column for the pop-hacktivist journal, Mondo 2000). This dialectic of development is considerably more arresting and provocative than anything McKenna put himself through; indeed, as Davis argues, Cosmic Trigger was a major “attempt both to communicate the pathological extremes of extraordinary experience and to rescue its author from mysteries whose infectious charisma is nonetheless sustained, and even broadcast, through the act of writing” itself. (The book is still in print from Hilaritas Press, but I would personally much rather locate a copy of the author’s ultra-rare hippie porn novel The Sex Magicians , which Davis describes as a “goofy romp” that draws “as much from Playboy as from the sleazy excesses of underground comix.”)
The final section, on Philip K. Dick, stands out for three reasons. First, it is longer by half than the previous parts, thus suggesting that Davis considers Dick to be a more complex and/or interesting figure than the other two psychonauts. Second, it focuses on someone who had a long career as a celebrated SF writer before his early ’70s mystical encounters turned him into a purple sage; he thus had greater narrative skills and generic resources to draw upon when fashioning accounts of his otherworldly exploits. (He was also, quite simply, smarter than either McKenna or Wilson — that is to say, more learned, as opposed to just well read.) Finally, this section is the only one that doesn’t feature a collaborator, a doting brother or Playboy buddy; instead, Dick had to struggle through his perplexing cosmic baptism more or less alone (though Davis does explore the network of friends and correspondents he regularly bounced ideas off of). As a result, these chapters are more sober and contemplative in tone, and the experience of reading them can be both painful and profound, especially if you are already a fan, like me, of their subject’s body of work.
On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that the wild spiritual ride Dick endured during the final decade of his life, which has generated a host of subcultural responses ranging from a Tarot deck to an R. Crumb comic, has somewhat eclipsed — or, rather, subsumed — his specifically literary achievements. On the other hand, if it weren’t for the interest generated by the author’s purported brush with extrahuman otherness, his work might well have slipped down the memory hole that has engulfed so many of his genre contemporaries. Instead, Dick’s fiction is widely available in editions that are often now shelved with “Literature” instead of “SF” in bookstores, and 13 of his best novels have been enshrined in a three-volume set from the Library of America, under the editorship of avid Dickhead Jonathan Lethem. It was also Lethem, along with scholar-editor Pamela Jackson, who persuaded Houghton Mifflin, in 2011, to publish a thousand-page curation of fragments from Dick’s “Exegesis” — a personal journal the author began keeping in the wake of the theophanic irruption that scrambled his life in early 1974.
In a 2012 LARB review of The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, I attempted to summarize the author’s experiences:
Recovering from oral surgery in February 1974, pumped full of Darvon, lithium, and massive quantities of megavitamins, he began experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations initially sparked by a Christian girl’s fish-icon necklace but eventually taking the form of a pink laser shooting highly coded information into his opened mind during a series of hypnogogic visitations. Over time, the intrepid author developed an elaborate vocabulary to describe the transfiguring effects of these extraterrestrial dispatches. According to this private argot, on 2-3-74 [i.e., in February and March of 1974] Dick underwent a powerful anamnesis, stimulated by mystical contact with “VALIS” (“Vast Active Living Intelligence System,” sometimes also called “Zebra” or, more simply, “God”), that unshackled his genetic memory, permitting him to see through the “Black Iron Prison” of our world into the “macrometasomacosmos,” the “morphological realm” of the Platonic Eidos, in the process revealing himself to be a “homoplasmate,” an incarnation of the Gnostic Logos subsisting in “orthogonal time.”
As this breathless litany perhaps suggests, the Exegesis is a phantasmagoric rat’s nest of deranged erudition, feverish guesswork, and scathing self-analysis, with Dick — like Wilson in Cosmic Trigger — painfully pondering whether he just might have lost his mind. In my previous review, I “question[ed] whether this manuscript should have seen print at all, given its often embarrassing rambling and autodidactic fanaticism, with Dick latching onto any stray thread to spin out his cosmogonic web,” and I said that it was “hard to imagine that there is a widespread audience for this strange assemblage of obiter Dick-ta, even among PKD’s more hardcore followers.”
Davis’s High Weirdness, with its three long chapters parsing Dick’s unruly speculations, will very likely test that assumption. Over the course of his own career, Davis has stoutly put his shoulder to the Dickian wheel: the first glimmering of this book project was an undergraduate thesis he wrote at Yale on “Philip K. Dick’s Postmodern Gnosis,” and he labored heroically alongside Lethem and Jackson to midwife the Exegesis, soliciting, coordinating, and in many cases drafting the book’s superb arsenal of annotations. While Davis does take a few nose-dives down beguiling rabbit holes in his chapters on Dick in High Weirdness, he also provides the most comprehensive and convincing account of the author’s mystical experiences I have read, shrewdly navigating between the Scylla of reducing these visions to phantasms of madness or drug abuse and the Charybdis of embracing them as emanations of godhood (the excellent footnotes cite the full range of extant views, and there are a lot of them). Above all, Davis is superbly attentive to the textual nature of Dick’s experiences, the way narrative retrospection and redaction — both in the Exegesis and in his later published fictions — worked to give shape to amorphous events usually experienced on the hazy brink of sleep. Indeed, the author’s speculative frenzy in some ways simply shows “Dick’s plot-weaving imagination in paranoid overdrive.”
I will leave it to scholars of religious studies to assess the fitness of Davis’s mobilization of Neoplatonic and esoteric discourses in his analysis of Dick’s supermundane visions. In terms of the sociocultural contexts Davis cites, I was particularly struck by the evidence he musters for the influence of the 1970s “Jesus Movement” on at least the outward symbols, if not the redemptive heart, of Dick’s evolving creed; these “Jesus Freaks” were especially active in Orange County, a locale the author — quite understandably — viewed as emblematic of a foul, fallen world. Whatever the triggering phenomenon, Dick “came to believe, at least some of the time, that he was still living in apostolic times, and that the intervening centuries of history were a fabulation.” As Davis meticulously documents, this conviction led the author to recast his earlier novels, many of which had depicted delusory worlds manipulated by cynical puppet-masters, as looming prefigurations of the “Black Iron Prison” he now glimpsed all around him. Conversely, his nocturnal oracles — obsessively masticated and transformed in the Exegesis — came to provide the numinous fodder for a series of late-career novels, including the cryptic, metafictional VALIS (1981) and the deeply poignant Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), published shortly after the author’s death. As Davis movingly puts it, Dick’s final novels were “more than disguised testimonies,” they were “also self-cures for the ravages of revelation.”
The proximate cause of Dick’s untimely death was a series of massive strokes, though his lifelong abuse of amphetamines was undoubtedly a contributing factor. Unlike McKenna and Wilson, Dick was not particularly fond of psychedelics, or street drugs of any kind, as his 1977 quasi-memoir of his years shepherding a crash-pad of hippie drop-outs, A Scanner Darkly, makes plain. A “knowledgeable and compulsive pillhead,” he preferred the quantifiable mood modulations of psychiatric scripts. By the time the Gnostic Logos came a-calling, he had already transformed himself into “a kind of pharmaceutical cyborg,” stuffing his face with Benzedrine tablets he kept in a jar in the refrigerator, along with doses of Stelazine to take the edge off. Davis describes the astonishing regimen in some detail, but he doesn’t fully explain how this teeming pharmacopoeia fits into the counterculture scene his other psychonauts inhabited. And while he does discuss the way that amphetamine use “shaped and supported the rapid-fire, immersive, and deeply personal way […] Dick wrote his [SF] books,” he doesn’t really speculate about its impact on the composition of the Exegesis, much less attempt to describe the way a speed-freak mythopoesis might differ from the psychedelic kind generated by a classic “head” such as McKenna.
Indeed, the main failing of the book, in my view, is the relative lack of comparative analysis of the three authors and their visionary worldviews. There is a bit of this work in the concluding chapter, but it seems half-hearted, with Davis toting up “shared motifs like UFOs, the star system Sirius, and H. P. Lovecraft” before proceeding to his anatomy of the nascent “network society” within which their mystic schemas emerged. Ultimately, High Weirdness displays the weaknesses of many PhD dissertations: an opening chapter choked with theoretical references is followed by a series of more or less discrete case studies, the whole capped by a too-brief conclusion that belatedly seeks to sketch some essential connections.
But I have very seldom encountered a dissertation as engaging, as insightful, or as compellingly written, much less one so clearly driven by a personal passion for its subject. High Weirdness is a richly rewarding study of three maverick talents, the occult incubi that plagued them, the ambiguous gospels they formulated, and the sun-kissed, dope-saturated milieu that cradled and nourished it all. I recommend this book very highly indeed.