What is real, anyhow? Erik Davis on visionary experiences and the high weirdness of the seventies counterculture
Last night I digitally stumbled across this:
It’s Erik Davis’s senior thesis, written as he was pursuing his Ph.D. in religious studies at Rice University, and submitted just last fall. You’ll recall that I mentioned Erik’s study of this same high weirdness last year (and that he and I, and also Maja D’Aoust, had a good conversation about daemonic creativity and related matters a few years ago). Now here’s this, the scholarly fruit of his several years of research and writing, and it promises to be a fantastic — in several senses — read.
For me, at least, it’s also laden with mild synchronistic significance. I’m presently teaching an introduction to world religions course using Comparing Religions by Jeffrey J. Kripal as the main textbook, so I’m spending a lot of time immersed in Jeff’s thoughtworld, and also helping undergraduate college students to understand it. In the past two weeks I have had a couple of email communications with Jeff in connection with the crucial networking assistance that he provided in the early stages of Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics as I was attempting to locate suitable contributors for the book. And then just last night as I was staring at my laptop screen and realizing with pleasure that I had accidentally found Erik’s thesis on the UFOs, synchronicities, psychedelic visions, alien voices, and other crazy anomalistic weirdnesses that characterized the seventies counterculture, I scanned down the cover page and had another surprise when I saw Jeffrey J. Kripal listed as a member of his thesis committee. It’s not a synchronicity in the same league as, say, Jung’s seminal encounter with the scarabaeid beetle, but it was enough to give me a start and a chuckle.
Here’s the TOC for High Weirdness, which, if you’re like me, will surely whet your appetite:
- The Seventies Self: Spinning Religious Experience
- Magic Molecules: The Birth of Psychedelic Occulture
- La Chorrera: The Psychedelic Romance of the Brothers McKenna
- Hail Eris!: Robert Anton Wilson’s Skeptical Illuminations
- VALIS Calling: Philip K. Dick’s Trash Transmission
If you find a 600-page long academic thesis/dissertation to be a bit daunting, you can at least get a taste from one or both of the following:
First, a formal description of the project in connection with Erik’s thesis defense last August. It reads, in part,
Though most studies of the counterculture focus on the sixties proper, I am interested in tracking the construction of extraordinary experience into the seventies, when disappointed revolutionaries turned in droves towards gurus, self-help regimens, and proto-New Age spirituality. While analyzing some of the sociological dimensions of this influential cultural shift, the project principally investigates three symptomatic but singular intellectuals: the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, the underground author Robert Anton Wilson, and the future psychedelic raconteur Terence McKenna. Employing their own unique mix of esotericism, social science, irony and fiction, all three men wrestle with their own extreme bouts of “high weirdness” in ways that reflect critical mutations in American religious experience.
Second, an excellent 2015 interview in Los Angeles Review of Books titled “Erik Davis: Techno-Occultural Nomad,” which contains the following exchange between interviewer and interviewee:
Can you tell us about your PhD in Religious Studies (working title: “High Weirdness: Drugs, Media, and Gnosis in the Early 1970s”) and why you decided to go back to school?
Well, my “career” has always been more of a careen, full of lateral moves and questionable leaps that I can only narrate in retrospect. For years I have nursed the idea of getting a PhD — of taking a break from California, 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.
The Department of Religion at Rice is one of the few places on the planet with an academic concentration on esotericism, mysticism, and Gnosticism. I do a lot of things based on invitation, and when Jeffery Kripal, then chair of the department, sought me out, it seemed like an offer I couldn’t refuse. Kripal is a consummate and influential scholar of mystical pop culture, tantric currents, and the paranormal, and he is a great writer to boot. I correctly imagined that I would not be forced through a grad-school cookie cutter. My thesis was originally going to be on Philip K. Dick, but at the last moment I expanded it to include a number of other crazy white guys (Terence McKenna, John Lilly, Robert Anton Wilson, etc.), all of whom had bizarre experiences in the early 1970s that involved alien intelligences, technology, synchronicity, California, and the occult. As such, the project has become as much a portrait of a significant and widely misunderstood era as an in-depth study of these avatars of high weirdness.
Fun fact: The interviewer there is Sean Matharoo — whom I met very recently when he signed on to write some entries for Horror Literature through History.
Additional fun fact: Right as I was typing the very sentence directly above, I heard the following words emanating from a speaker in the room next to my office, where currently a young boy is watching a Chilly Willy cartoon on a desktop computer with the sound turned up: “What is ‘real,’ anyhow? But I’ll delve into that philosophical issue in my upcoming autobiography.” No lie. See below. Oh, what a tangled web.
Posted on February 11, 2016, in Paranormal, Religion & Philosophy and tagged counterculture, erik davis, jeffrey kripal, philip k. dick, psychedelics, Rice University, Robert Anton Wilson, synchronicity, terence mckenna, UFOs. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.