The Politics of the Body

This article was originally commissioned for Julian Cope’s magazine Ur-Pagan, which unfortunately only ran for one issue, leaving it unpublished. Writing it between mind-numbing tasks helped keep me (relatively) sane while I was forced to temp as a form designer in a large financial institution.

In the summer of 1995 I paid a visit to Carn Ingli, a sacred mount on the southwest coast of Wales. Expecting visions.

After five weeks hitching around Britain visiting friends, I arrived in the town neighbouring Carn Ingli and, deciding to escape the swarming tourists, found a secluded valley and camped alone in a grassy pasture. For five days I prepared myself, quitting smoking, invoking dreams, exercising, meditating, bathing in a stream and hanging out with some cows. My wild imagination had run amok in the gradual approach to "The Hill of the Angels" (the ruins of a fort on top of Carn Ingli, viewed from the side, bear a close resemblance to an angel lying down, wings outstretched). I planned to stay up there for three nights, taking mushrooms on the third. Whatever was to happen, I expected it to be major.

The night before setting off to the site, I experienced one of the most intense, terrifying and revelatory dreams of my life… A visit to ‘Necropolis’ (the underworld as an abandoned car-wreck dump site, complete with a wizened old psychopomp, infested with insidious entities)… An epic mythical detective quest to investigate disturbing transmissions from distant stars… A heroic effort to align and synthesize Mayan and Egyptian myth-structures… and a dramatic confrontation with my Frozen Self. I awoke with a start, still acutely aware of the felt presence of powerful entities with dubious intentions.

My cynicism and distance reasserted themselves as I gradually adjusted to waking consciousness through the day, but underneath I was jittery and expectant, primed for the worst, and the best, all pushed together into explosions. I walked across fields and moors for about five miles in the blazing heat; my only desire at this point was to reach the peak for sunset. Getting lost at one point, I semi-fancifully called on some nearby ravens to guide me—Bran ("raven") being the Celtic protector of travellers. The raven flew in the direction I was going anyway, so I pressed on, though taking wrong turns and backtracking all the time. Finally I reached the peak, the sun glowing deep red over the Irish Sea… and a raven perched on St Brynach’s rock, as if to say, "Where the fuck have you been?"

Now, one of my main reasons for doing my hiking trip in the first place was to sleep at sacred sites and note my dreams. I visited Glastonbury Tor, finding the usual bunch of continental hippies, weekend crusties and plain weird fuckers gathered there, playing drums and comparing didges. I tried to find out who I may be uncomfortable about going to sleep around, should any of them stay in the tower as well. And yes, the one guy I instantly pegged as dodgy decided to stick around after everyone left. He was obviously tripping, and was being more than just trippy-weird (I found out later that everyone else left because of him). I tried to go along with him when he started chatting, but out of the blue he threw in the fact that he’d just been inside for 9 months. "Dealing?" I asked, hopefully. "Nah. I broke someone’s fingers. It was ‘orrible in there…" (his eyes drifted over the landscape) "…really ‘orrible." I tried to carry on with the small talk as best I could after this little bombshell, but eventually decided to pretend to be asleep in the hope that he’d go away. But no—he sat next to me, talking to himself. "That landscape looks so still… so peaceful…" he muttered. "It almost looks… dead." Bollocks, thought I. A grade A nutter. Dreaming on the Tor was thoroughly cancelled.

After I had set up my tent on Carn Ingli, I was exhausted and hyped at the same time. I grabbed some food and sat around being utterly awed by the starry sky above me, resplendent in the absence of Britain’s deep orange urban light pollution. Gradually, the wind started to gather strength. By the time I was ready to crash, my bubble tent was being battered like a paper bag pinned to the ground. I went outside for a while, to shelter behind a large rock, but was too overawed with… fear of the stars to sleep outside. I got about one hour’s sleep that night, and very vaguely remembered a dream of being led down a spiral staircase by two children talking about bicycles. Something was trying to keep me away from the ‘major’ dreams and visions I was seeking at sacred sites. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes… It was only later that I found my experiences had directed me away from what I thought I wanted—a ‘visionary’ journey of some sort—toward something much more revelatory and much closer my true goals: my body.

While trying to get to sleep that night, massively irritated, exhausted, and with more than a hint of self-pity at my lack of ‘success’ in my quest, I mulled over various things. They were mostly personal, but my thoughts often strayed into various experiences not immediately special to me. As I was going over the events of 9th October 1994, the anti-Criminal Justice Bill protest in Hyde Park, something hit me, and I started crying. I cried and cried, overtaken by a powerful sadness. My radically heightened state of mind (due to sleep deprivation, isolation and the buzz of the site) put me very close to my experiences again…

Stuck on a coach, on one side the red-faced riot police, loaded on rotten testosterone, on the other side the protesters, behind iron railings, screaming at the pigs to fuck off because they were not needed. Every five or so minutes the police charged the crowd. Those people trapped on the police side of the railings, people just trying to reach their coaches, were indiscriminately battered. A young teenage girl was bashed with a riot shield. A very drunk guy was standing on the pavement in front of the police, arms outstretched and loudly imploring them to just go away. He got a big stick in the face, splitting his nose. When the police retreated he stayed there with his arms outstretched, blood gushing from his nose. You could see "WHY?" coming from his lips, if not from his eyes. On our trapped coach, we had to watch these people being battered, and we could do nothing. Some clear-headed guy outside disabled the coach’s fuel line, keeping it there as a vague barrier between the crowd and the soldiers (our driver wanted to go, leaving some of the Leeds people in the middle of all that shit). But essentially we were helpless. The whole experience shook us all up savagely. When I got into bed that night, for some reason, I genuinely felt as if I couldn’t trust my body to carry on functioning if I left it and slept.

In a way, though, I expected Carn Ingli to fall through. Disturbed by my ungrounded, groundless expectations and anticipations as I approached the mount (mostly centred around UFO phenomena), I did a tarot reading to gauge the under- and overcurrents around my heading to the mount. The spread I used was divided into three layers, corresponding to the upper-, middle- and under-worlds of the shamanic cosmos. I decided to pay particular attention to the top layer, as I associated UFOs and angels with the upper celestial realms. I can’t recall the specific cards now, but there they were, three lined up together, screaming the same divinatory meanings at me: over-active imagination, glamour of esoteric practices, self-delusion, need for emotional discipline…

A weight fell off my shoulders, and I knew that I was going on from that point with much more down-to-earth intentions—healing, grounding, etc. So all through my week of preparation in the valley, I called on Mother Earth to give me dreams. It was an experiment in belief—previously I had kept a cynical distance from most mentions of "Mother Earth". But here, I made up a very simple invocation to Her which I repeated every night before sleeping. I received immensely powerful dreams, containing blatant ‘hints and tips’ about my healing processes. But then my final dream in that valley was, unexpectedly, intensely cosmic. Here was one of my first lessons. The most outrageously bizarre and seemingly alien dimensions lie at the core of the most earthly, human, bodily dimensions, if you dig deep enough. Spirit is the heart of matter.

So I left Carn Ingli with the growing realisation that I wasn’t going to get anywhere going up. I had to go down first. You can’t hop and skip straight up into the celestial realms that are the obsessive focus of so much so-called ‘spirituality’ in the New Age. I had already, unwittingly, journeyed to the lower realms in my guided tour of the Necropolis ("city of the dead"—the underworld, of course, is seen in shamanism as the realm of the spirits of the dead), and now it seemed that I should re-connect with the physical world, to begin to end my alienation from the world I live in, or rather am part of, a world seen in much traditional occultism as somehow ‘lower’. How blinkered…

I headed north, and camped in a valley near Snowdonia. Trees with huge, exposed, twisting roots, boulders covered in moss, fern-filled meadows with sheepish sheep and giant dashing dragonflies, mountains on all sides and a gurgling stream passing by… There was nowhere more earthly. I took mushrooms, more than I usually do, but the trip was nearly transparent. I just wandered around in the woods and meadows, utterly at ease with being a body that is part of the earth. Apart from an intense experience sitting against a tree, no ‘revelations’. Just the subtle yet powerful feeling of being bonded to the landscape, feeling my being, which is my body, as an inextricably enmeshed part of the web of matter-energy around and within me.

Politics is the externalization of emotions.

Timothy Leary, Info-Psychology

As with most experiences, especially ones so unstructured, my time in Wales only began to make sense later. Of course, one can make many different ‘senses’ out of the same set of experiences. My views on what happened are no different to those on any other events in that they are governed by my present state, and what at first seemed like a series of events which occurred to constructively force me to realize my limitations and destroy my illusions can, filtered through a negative mood, easily slip into seeming like—no, being—a gradual and cowardly retreat from intensity, smoothed over by various rationalizations and rock lyrics. But certain vaguely intuited notions still fill me when I review the above events, whatever my current state. These perceptions involve treading the narrow line between useful psychic cartography and delusions of grandeur, between an invisible tradition refusing to recognise boundaries between the individual and their environment, and a dangerously hazy expansion of the ego. Literal-mindedness must be left at the door, together with the idea that metaphors must distance one from reality, and a hazardous but revealing path between must be followed.

The ‘invisible tradition’ I refer to can be seen in the Hermetic axiom of sympathetic magic, "As above, so below." The micro reflects the macro, or, in a more extremist doctrine, the individual contains the universe. It can also be seen in Wilhelm Reich’s political analyses: his attempts to explain mass movements such as fascism in terms of the sexual repression and character structure of a society’s individuals eventually dissolve the boundaries between the personal and the political—a move which is always the founding leap of any radical political stance. Many latter-day Reichians view the therapeutic process as essential to the process of becoming politically aware, and often vice versa. The above quote from Timothy Leary neatly expresses the standard Reichian political analysis, but one cannot dissolve boundaries and expect a one-way flow… We are involved in a seamless and highly complex web of interrelations, a web which will resist all attempts at reductionism.

Man’s sexual organization and his social organization are so deeply interconnected that we cannot say which came first, but can only assume a simultaneous evolution (whether sudden or gradual) of both.

Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

Reductionism, which is often inaccurately seen as a sin unique to materialists, stores its sorcerous explaining-away powers in language, in words like "just", "nothing but", and "merely". Whether the ‘real and only cause’ posited is political, social, material, psychological or spiritual, the reductionist removes dynamism and wonder by sweeping all phenomena under a single word-carpet. The reductionism endemic in Western academia is environmental determinism, rife in behaviourist psychology and unenlightened (i.e. most) left-wing politics. They would say that emotions are the internalization of politics, and set about trying to amend social structures, still burdened by crippling internal conflicts. The ‘head revolution’ of the sixties challenged this reductionism mightily, but clumsily left another one behind. To be fair, a close reading of most of the thinkers whose work helped shape the consciousness of that era, like Leary, Alan Watts and Norman O. Brown, reveals a very subtle understanding of the interdependence of organism and environment. But that marauding demon, Popular Consciousness, leapt on the attempts to counter behaviourism and redress the balance, and blew them up into facile ideas about the mind creating reality. "As above, so below" should not imply causation, and neither should "As below, so above"; in the end we’re just describing correlations.

As we shall see, an understanding of the organism-environment field has begun to emerge spontaneously in various sub-cultures, informed by scattered doctrines, myths and manifestos, but largely just happening. We may look backwards now and then, and see what is happening. Hopefully we can hone and sharpen our processes until the gap between happening and awareness narrows and narrows, and they eventually become the same thing.

Yet another fragment of the ‘invisible tradition’, exceptionally relevant to our present story, is the ancient fertility cult belief in the connection between King and Land. The Fisher King myth is perhaps the best known portrayal of this principle. The health and vitality of the King is seen as intimately related to the fruitfulness of the Land, and when the Fisher King is wounded and begins to decline, the Land becomes the barren and blasted Wasteland. Only the Grail, accompanied by the grail question asked by the archetypal quester Parsifal, the Fool, will heal the King and thus the Land. Although we still have an unsophisticated reliance on one-way causation here, we can discern in this myth the belief in the identity of the individual and their environment. The doctrine that the body contains the universe, as seen in Tantric yoga and Christian mysticism, is made a bit more homely and embraceable by narrowing the environmental area down to the surrounding land, and the interdependence of organism and environment is made visibly total.

Of course, historically and mythologically, it is the King alone who manifests this intimacy with the Land. The tribe’s survival depends on the fertility of the Land, and this in turn depends on the potency of the King. The King can thus be seen as a representation of the Divinity, or divine forces, believed to govern the natural world. Here one may begin to discern the genesis of the Fisher King story as a nature myth, dramatizing the cycle of the seasons, and the ease with which this myth-structure has been often been Christianized. Jesus is a remnant of the dying-and-rising vegetation god-form, previously appearing as Dionysus, Osiris and Tammuz, only this guy has been emasculated, stripped of all his earthy bio-energy and vegetal associations (apart from the odd remark about vines and, some say, craftily encrypted references to sacred fungi). Like the King figure as the representation of supernatural forces on which the Land, and thus the tribe’s survival, depends, Jesus is seen as the fleshy form of God, on whom our knowledge of God, and thus our ‘salvation’, supposedly depends.

When play dies it becomes the Game.
When sex dies it becomes Climax.

Jim Morrison, ‘The Lords’

But all this means nothing to us, approaching the third millennium, if we see the myth in literal terms. It seems that the ‘King as representative of fertility god’ myth, which once blended with the reality of human political institutions, now only possesses vitality if it is internalized, and seen as personal myth. And even then we must abolish the monarchy. Fading elements of the view that the country’s welfare depends on the personal qualities of its leader remain here and there, haunting the media machinations of our illusory democracies, but the kingship principle is, hopefully, in its death throes.

Norman Brown, in Love’s Body, has equated the centralized, person-alized political structure of monarchy, obviously going hand-in-hand with patriarchal monotheism, with the Freudian model of the genital-centred organization of individual sexuality. Bearing in mind the essentially bodily nature of both sexual and emotional energy, we can look back to Leary’s quote and once more widen our view of this subtle intertwining of individual and environment, body and society, sex and politics. Sexuality which focuses all pleasure in and through the genitals, though not bad, is the personal pole of the spectrum which finds monotheism and monarchy at its collective end. The reliance of the tribe on the King / vegetation god for crop success, the reliance of Christians on Jesus, sore and crucified, for a guaranteed good time after they pop their clogs—indeed, any collective situation based on the reliance of the Many on the One—all find their microcosmic correlate in the narrowing of eroticism down to cock and cunt.

Even this is repressed, leading many, including Reich, into the trap of believing that we have only to un-repress genital sexuality and social repression will crumble. Actually, we must go the whole way through: rediscovering the polymorphous perversity of the infant, who experiences erotic pleasure throughout the body; dissolving our political systems, the decaying left-overs of imperialism, into a truly decentralized anarchism; realizing that this process is the modern rediscovery of ancient social structures known as ‘voluntary association’ or ‘partnership society’, a process of stone-age feedback; and also intuiting that the personal and the collective processes equate—the recovery of the bodily anarchy of childhood mirrors the re-emergence of social patterns from deep in the race’s infancy.

It seems obvious now that as we move into this transitional phase, between the collapse of monarchical consciousness and the possibility of the resurrection of polymorphous consciousness, the interdependence of the body and the land will begin to manifest in the mythic mind of the individual. We all become kings, and our dreams, visions and body sensations intertwine with social turmoil, political upheaval and the land’s consciousness. It comes and goes, flowing into unnerving sensations of being a fractal microcosm of society or nature, and ebbing back into the alienation and lack of connectedness that we have been conditioned to think of as ‘normal consciousness’.

For myself, it was a gradual realisation that weaved together my re-experiencing of the Hyde Park riot, the sadness and frustrated anger I felt, together with the direction (flesh-wards) in which my initial disappointment at Carn Ingli led me. It has long been known that figures of brutal, repressive authority—like, say… the police—function perfectly as dream symbols for the internal mechanisms of repression in the body, the blocks and knots binding and impeding the fresh streams of energy that may infuse our reality with eroticism and a sense of play. Eros: a sexuality no longer imprisoned between the legs and in the bed, but defining our experience of the world.

For most people, cocooned in their homes and hypermarkets, the police remain dream figures. They are occasionally seen, feared and revered on the street, but they largely appear on the TV dream-screen, pinning those unruly sociapaths to the tarmac… and here and there at night, deep inside… if anyone ever dares to brush against the forces that pin them down. It was surely my brush with riot cops, and the intense feeling of uselessness and redundancy I felt trapped on a bus watching them batter protesters, that meshed with my psyche and led me to feel I couldn’t trust my body to carry on as I slept. I also look back at the suspicious guy on Glastonbury Tor, who had just emerged from prison, and wonder if he was part of my world’s attempt to bring my alienation from my body to light, to pull my emerging unconscious into consciousness though dream logic. Suspicion, lack of trust, is a major symptom of alienation, and the walls of repression within us wither our trust in our bodies, ourselves, just as surely as the emerging police state in Britain attempts to instil in us suspicions about other people. Social alienation goes with alienation from our bodies.

However, we must not lose sight of the desperation that the Tory government’s policies imply [feel free to substitute Labour in here, it’s still happening – Gyrus, 2002]. We may at the moment be moving out of a police state. As William Burroughs has wisely commented, a fully functioning police state needs no police force: the enforcement of law through brute force simply means that the more subtle methods of population control have failed. Following the same logic, many schools of therapy, as well as the archaic tradition of shamanism, see the emergence of traumatic symptoms, disease, or madness as the first step on the perilous road to true health. This, then, is the famous ‘Grail question’: it is the emergence of the act of questioning itself, an awakening to awareness of the real situation, which inevitably involves intense pain, turbulence and confusion. The barren Wasteland, the stale and tentative equilibrium maintained by repression (both social and bodily), is shattered by the questioning of authority and the riotous emergence of the unconscious, our true body.

It is often argued that the attention paid to the sections of the Criminal Justice Act dealing with the restriction of the free festival and rave scenes unfairly overshadow the rest of the Act. But as far as our present investigation goes, these are surely the most revealing. Punk was epitomized by the tactic of forcibly provoking the authorities into reaction. The most basic structures of repression were lured into view by an angry generation, post-hippy cynicism seeing through the superficial non-violent crust. The lazy comfort of the repressed body is jolted by annoying and painful symptoms.

The conservatives are actually right in seeing the rebellion of the young as a disease; but, like the West’s allopathic approach to medicine, they are dangerously wrong in seeing disease as necessarily destructive and in need of blind suppression. Now we see increased police powers and legal provisions brought in, without much direct provocation, to try to stop people having a good time. Moves have been made in the past, under various pretexts, to limit sub-cultural gatherings, but the eighties saw quite a comprehensive legitimization of youth culture, and a parallel drop in clashes between the counterculture and the law. Bigger and better venues, and the mass media’s assimilation of the postures of rebellion helped to quell the energy of the disease, acting like a big hit of pain-killers, but the disease found a new, surprising outlet. This time, through unbridled optimism. A reaction against the smarmy cynicism bred by the Thatcher years, the late eighties saw many various threads of counterculture which had been growing since the sixties all converge and synergize. Ecstasy was a prime catalyst, and it is no accident that one of its main effects is to polymorph the body, creating a vibrant charge of largely non-genital sexuality at raves. Getting off with someone was replaced by getting off on everyone else. And the anarchic dis-organization of free parties, dotted around the countryside in disused warehouses and airfields instead of shackled to the easily policed city… surely this unnerved the conservative consciousness, which panics if anything cannot be readily tracked and monitored.

All this inevitably led to a new attitude towards politics, or at least a proliferation of attitudes previously only rarely met, and practised even less often. Disillusionment with political representation fades away like an unsatisfying orgasm, and all parts of the body politic stir, becoming restless with their desire to speak for themselves and feel their own feelings for themselves. While political activism remains hard and usually dangerous work as ever, recent trends have attempted to transform this work into a form of play. "Neither work nor leisure", as some graffiti on a bridge in Leeds proclaims. The Criminal Justice Act has effectively united previously separate strands of the underground, and the outburst of imagination and creativity in protest culture is testament to a convergence of hedonism and activism, the body and society, the party people and the politicos. Party politics. A playful attitude devoid of the work ethic, a contempt for commitment coming from anywhere other than from within—no more grim-faced dutiful action borne of guilt. Of course, there are still plenty of hedonist hangers-on at protest sites, sitting around rolling up and drinking strong lager while trees go undefended. But something is in motion that will hopefully sweep these elements into insignificance.

I said before that we are all in the process of becoming kings and queens, but as we do it will become clear that we have been living a lie—because we always have been kings and queens. Those public figures who, in whatever way, fulfil the role of leader, the country’s cock, are there because we want them there. We authorize the authorities. Unable to personally bear the weight of the world, we live vicariously through those we elect as representatives. The King is also a scapegoat, as in the Celtic tradition of killing a king who becomes maimed, to keep the Land fertile. As in Jesus, who carries away all our sins for us by his suffering on the cross…

Political society articulates itself and produces a representative; and is then ready for history; tragedy; even as the chorus, the dance group, articulates itself and produces the hero, the dying god. . . . More and more they differentiate him from themselves, make him their vicar. Their attitude becomes more and more one of contemplation. More and more they become spectators, of his action. Theatrically speaking, they become an audience; religiously speaking, they become worshipers; he becomes a god. Gradually they lose all sense that the god is themselves.

Norman Brown, Love’s Body

Politics is the entertainment branch of industry.

Frank Zappa

And now we must wake from the dream, the nightmare of history, give up shifting responsibility onto the political actors we cast on the historical stage. Let an actor in the White House cease to be an irony, and become a truth about our illusory existence, our passive spectatorship. Let the energy in our bodies give us pleasure and excitement all over; fill us with the reality of immediate experience; bring an end to the burden we place on our cunts and cocks, allowing them free play along with the rest of our flesh and feeling; stop our perpetual postponement, our wait for the grand climax of the show; help us live now, at one with the land, together with all the other kings and queens… gods and goddesses.

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