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.
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“Fire of Troy” by Kerstiaen de Keuninck (Coninck), 17th cent. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
NOTE: This post was originally published in January 2007 in a different form. Based on various circumstances — including the publication just yesterday of a post titled “Collective Brainwashing & Modern Concentration Camps” over at Daily Grail, which calls out the below-transcribed portion of My Dinner with Andre — now seems like a good time to re-present this in a slightly revised and enhanced form.
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One of the most nightmarish things about a dark age is the degradation it entails for life’s overall tone, not least in the dehumanization that occurs when a people’s intellectual, emotional, moral, spiritual, political, social, and cultural life in general is reduced to a ghastly level of brutishness and ignorance. As is now plainly evident all around us in the industrialized world of present-day info-technocracy, this coarsening of life can occur even in circumstances of relative material prosperity. It doesn’t always have to be a dark age like the one that gripped Europe in the aftermath of Rome’s fall, when starvation and plague were rampant and most people barely scraped by at a miserable subsistence level. A dark age can unfold and exist right in the middle of outward conditions that may appear enlightened to those who don’t look too closely or deeply.
Sometimes it’s oddly comforting to dwell on the words of people who have seen today’s dark age of dehumanization unfolding. When it feels like the world is full of robots instead of people, or when it begins to feel like we really are living on the planet of the apes (as Robert Anton Wilson liked to put it), it can be a powerfully affirming experience to be reminded that other people have observed the same thing.
With this in mind, here are three of my own favorite articulations of these things, which, based on my own experience, I recommend you ingest, digest, memorize, and keep mentally handy for reciting to yourself on a rainy day. There are no solutions offered here. There’s just the satisfaction of being confronted by grim realities and looking them full in the face. Read the rest of this entry
Here’s Erik Davis, in a recent interview conducted by Jeremy Johnson, briefly discussing the similarities between the respective realms of high weirdness exemplified by Philip K. Dick’s VALIS and Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger. Erik and Jeremy also make some interesting observations about the way the reading of these types of texts can often kick off explosions of bizarre synchronicities and psychic transformations, and thus serve as a kind of involuntary practice of bibliomancy. It’s an effect that I have experienced myself many times, and that I suspect you may have as well, if you find yourself drawn to books like these.
ERIK DAVIS: VALIS is a masterpiece whose power partly lies in its ability to disorient and enchant the reader. I suspect that for readers today it continues to resonate, as our world in many ways has simply become more PhilDickean. I am reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s idea of “Chapel Perilous”. Wilson had somewhat similar experiences in 1974 — cosmic conspiracies, syncronicities, blasts of insight — and he suggested that there was a stage of the path, a kind of dark night of the soul, where the seeker can’t tell what’s paranoia and what’s reality. There is a surfeit of meaning — after all, there is definitely something like too many synchronicities. Valis is Dick’s Chapel Perilous, and he brings readers along for the ride. Some of them never quite get off. But Chapel Perilous is a place to pass through, not to call home.
. . . JEREMY JOHNSON: Professor Richard Doyle, who recently held a class on Synchcast for P.K.D., warned his students that reading Dick’s novels could induce what he calls an “involutionary” affect — meaning one’s life might start getting taken up by synchronicities and uncanny moments. I know you’ve mentioned in some previous presentations that you have experienced these moments (we might call them P.K.D. moments) where the book seems to become a divinizing tool for bibliomancy.
What do you think is happening here, if anything? And secondly: isn’t it interesting that this phenomenon seems to occur regardless of the perceived value of the text? It seems to happen as readily to a pulp scifi novel as the Bible.
ERIK DAVIS: The specific “occult” practice of bibliomancy is key to PKD. The first time I gave a talk on him, which was my first public lecture back in 1990 or something, I realized I hadn’t prepared an adequate definition of “Gnosticism.” With five minutes to go, people already sitting down, I panicked, and opened the book randomly and my eyes fell precisely on Dick’s pithy definition: “This is Gnosticism. In Gnosticism, man belongs with God against the world and the creator of the world (both of which are crazy, whether they realize it or not).” These sorts of gestures are also made by the characters in many Dick novels, a number of which feature oracular books that are opened to any page, or accessed with other random processes, like the I Ching in The Man in the High Castle. Researchers and scholars know these synchronicities well, however you might think about them, and Dick was very interested in seeding those sorts of connections in his novels. Reading, drawing connections, in a sense is invoking these kinds of uncanny links. For Dick, writing itself is alive.
(For more on Chapel Perilous itself, see here.)
Image courtesy of Dan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
The link between creativity and the paranormal or supernatural is an old and enduring one, beginning with ancient ideas about the muse, daemon, and genius, which connected the inner world of artists and poets to the realm of the divine. For a detailed laying-out of this point, see especially chapters one and two of my A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius.
This link has received an increasing amount of very prominent attention in the past couple of years. Jeffrey Kripal, for instance, has written (in his book Mutants, Mystics, and Superheroes) about the bizarre synchronicities and paranormal perturbations that have long attended the work of comic book writers and artists, some of whose fictional envisionings have had a disturbing tendency to manifest in real life.
In a more formally scientific vein, clinical psychologist and parapsychologist James C. Carpenter devotes an entire chapter of his new and paradigm-defining book First Sight: ESP and Parapsychology in Everyday Life to exploring the connection between psi and creativity. He writes, “The human act of creation, the production of some extraordinary poem or symphony or play or scientific theory, seems as mysterious and awesome as the furtive flashes of preknowing or distant seeing that we term psi. Human in their expression, both seem somehow extrahuman in their source. Logical consciousness can marvel at them and study them, but it cannot produce them at will.” He then demonstrates with an abundance of experimental evidence and astute theoretical interpretation that psi and creativity “emerge from similar preconscious processes and are expressed by the same principles of operation.” (Look for a full review of Dr. Carpenter’s amazing book to appear here in the near future, and also at the New York Journal of Books, where I may be coming online as a reviewer.)
Then there’s the case of Robert Anton Wilson, who not only experienced the link between creativity and paranormality in his own life (as I explore in considerable depth in my essay about his, Aleister Crowley’s, and Timothy Leary’s interlinked engagement with a “higher intelligence,” available in the October 2012 issue of the journal Paranthropology) but had very compelling things to say about it. The main source of this material remains, of course, his many books, and particularly the original Cosmic Trigger, which is an extended account of the way his life was upended and taken over for several years by daimonic and paranormal weirdnesses that appeared directly related to his creative philosophical and philosophical creative endeavors. But when you comb through his various other materials, including his articles, essays, and interviews, you end up frequently running into additional statements and one-off comments that he made about the very same subject.
A current case in point — current because I stumbled across it just this morning — is found in an interview he gave to UFO writer Sean Casteel in 1998. Wilson’s observation that “the writing process does have a spooky side,” and that it seems worthwhile to preserve and honor this recognition in the words and concepts we use to think and talk about it, as opposed to inadvertently dismissing the mystery with knee-jerk references to “the unconscious mind,” could serve as the seed for a lifetime’s meditation on, and fruitful practice of, authorial creativity as a primary path to realizing one’s destiny.
ROBERT ANTON WILSON: I’ll tell you, the movie [Wag the Dog] seems to be a combination of what happened in the novel [American Hero, on which the movie was loosely based], in which George Bush started a war to goose up his popularity without any sexual scandals to motivate him, and the sexual scandals of the Clinton administration, which came after the book was written. So it is another example of the astonishing way in which writers, using their imagination, take something that happened already and embroider on it and describe something that is going to happen later also. Writers often write about things they don’t know and only later they find out they were doing that. When I first wrote that Beethoven was a member of the Illuminati, that was a joke. Then I read a biography of Beethoven that made it seem extremely likely.
SEAN CASTEEL: But when you have cases like that of synchronicity between a novel or a movie and real events, is that something they can in any way do consciously or deliberately?
RAW: No, you’ve just got to, as William Faulkner said, “trust the demon.” That means trust whatever it is that drives you to create fiction, to write creatively — trust it and see what comes out. It is always astonishing when you find out that the demon knows more than you know. Norman Mailer calls it the “navigator in the unconscious.” You don’t have to call it a demon. Faulkner just liked to be Gothic.
SC: They taught us the same thing in a fiction class at college. The best stuff just kind of wells up from the unconscious of its own will.
RAW: That is the modern jargon for it. I actually prefer Faulkner’s poetic language, because the writing process does have a spooky side, which psychological models seem to ignore. But everybody uses the metaphors that work for them.
— Sean Casteel, “Robert Anton Wilson Q and A,” Conspiracy Journal, 1998
Image by frankenstoen [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
When the first of my sleep paralysis attacks occurred in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it was the onset of a period that I would later come to recognize or characterize as a spontaneous shamanic-type initiation via nightmare. I didn’t know that it would shatter the psychological, spiritual, ontological, metaphysical, and interpersonal assumptions that had undergirded my worldview and daily experience for so long that I had forgotten they were assumptions instead of givens. Terence McKenna, among others, has argued that, in accordance with the same principle that keeps a fish oblivious to the existence of water, the perturbation of consciousness is necessary for us even to become aware of the reality of consciousness as such. For me this was confirmed with lasting impact by the experience of waking up from a profoundly deep sleep to encounter a darkly luminous, vaguely man-shaped outline of a being that stood over me at the foot of the bed, and that shone with sizzling rays of shadow, and that represented a thunderous and sui generis — intended solely for me — black hole of a negative singularity, a presence whose entire reason for being was to draw me in and annihilate my essence. In the manner of dreams and daemons, the experience was as much cognitive and emotional as it was perceptual. There was no separation between these usually discrete categories. Nor was there a separation between the categories of self and other, between “me” and the assaulting presence. Horror was literally all there was, all that existed, all that was real — not as a reaction to an experience but as an organic and inevitable symmetry of being. I was not horrified. The experience was purely and simply horror.
When this proved to be not an isolated episode but an ongoing crisis spanning a period of months and years, and when the psychic effects began to leak into the daylight world and contaminate daily life with a distinct and inescapable background static of creeping nightmarishness, I knew something dire had happened. I had crossed some sort of threshold, and the most likely vocabulary for thinking and talking about it was the vocabulary of cosmic horror, which had been inculcated in me by years of obsessively reading Lovecraft, Lovecraft criticism, and the works of a whole host of associated authors. As explained previously, one of the results of this confluence was my horror novelette “Teeth.”
There was, however, another vocabulary I could have used, and it would have complemented the cosmic horrific one in mutually illuminating fashion. It was the vocabulary of consciousness change and high paranormal weirdness encoded in the idea of Chapel Perilous as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson. But this didn’t occur to me until much later.
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[UPDATE May 2014: The article described here is no longer available online (nor is the Demon Muse blog). A slightly abridged version of it can be found in the book Daimonic Imagination: Uncanny Intelligence, edited by Angela Voss and William Rowlandson (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013). The same version can also be found in Paranthropology, Vol. 3, No. 4 (October 2012).]
Over at Demon Muse, my blog about the psychology of creativity and the experience of the muse/daimon/genius, I’ve published the next installment in my article series about the ontological status of the muse.
“Theology, Psychology, Neurology: Is the Muse Real? (Part Two)” looks at the interlinked experiences of three major figures in the 20th century’s occult and paranormal scene — Aleister Crowley, Timothy Leary, and Robert Anton Wilson — in receiving what they perceived as communication from “higher intelligences.” It also says a bit about Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, two modern-day legends in the comic book scene who are tapped into the same thing.
Here’s an excerpt:
In the opening post of this series, I raised the question of whether the personification of the creative force that we’ve been pursuing here at Demon Muse is “really real.” Is the muse, the daimon, the personal genius — that gravitational center of our creative energy and identity — truly a separate being/force/entity with an independent, autonomous existence? Or are such words and the experience to which they refer simply convenient metaphors for the unconscious mind? The first thing we discover when we truly begin to consider the issue in depth is that arriving at a viable answer will not be, and cannot be, as straightforward a matter as it might first appear. All of our attempts run us into immediate difficulties, because whichever side we try to choose, we find we’re automatically skirting important issues and begging crucial questions. Hence, the value of reviewing some of the various ways in which intelligent individuals have understood the experience of guidance and communication from a muse-like source.
Of all the myriad strands in the cultural conversation about this issue, it would be hard to identify a more pertinent — or fascinating (and entertaining) — one than the line of influence connecting 20th-century occultist Aleister Crowley to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary to counterculture novelist-philosopher and “guerilla ontologist” Robert Anton Wilson. The dividing line between objective and subjective interpretations of the experience of external-seeming communication from an invisible source is highlighted not only in their individual stories but in the plotline that connects them. In particular, Wilson’s final “resting point” in terms of a belief system to encompass the whole thing is helpful and instructive in our search for the muse’s ontological status, and can prove a helpful tonic for dogmatism, because what he ended up with was more of an anti-belief system that highlights and hinges on the irreducible indeterminacy of any possible answer.