In his curious afterword to a 1991 abridged edition of Philip K. Dick’s mammoth Exegesis, Terence McKenna mused on the hidden harmonies and near-miss junctures surrounding his experiences of cosmic weirdness in the early ’70s, and those of his fellow Californian and literary idol.
They shared a homeopathic doctor. Their homes once shared a street, albeit not at the same time. In early ’71 they were going nuts a few miles from each other, McKenna’s friends considering committing him, PKD spending a few days in the psych ward. And the day after McKenna spent his twenty-fifth birthday in the Amazon, sincerely expecting ‘the final Apocalyptic ingression of novelty’ in which ‘our entire universe would quietly disappear’, PKD experienced a more humdrum shattering event — a break-in which left both his archives and his speed-addled mind in disarray, and which paved the way for suicidal descent and ultimately, a fraught visionary breakthrough.
‘This raises some questions,’ McKenna deadpans, pondering these coincidences and the deeper resonances between their respective contact experiences with an alien Other.
Can we refer to a delusional system as a folie à deux, if the deux participants have never met and are practically speaking, unaware of each others’ existence?
Does the delusion of one visionary ecstatic validate the delusion of another? How many deluded, or illuminated ecstatics does it take to make a reality? PKD proved that it only takes one. But two is better.
Hey, says Erik Davis — eyeing the mid-’70s ‘Sirius transmissions’ of the Bay Area sage of doubt, Robert Anton Wilson — maybe three is even better?
But rather than following McKenna’s debatable yearning for ‘a reality’ behind ‘delusions’ in this separate-yet-connected folie à trois, Davis choreographs his masterly comparative study as a recursive, exploratory dance of possibilities. A deconstruction of reality which refuses to cut loose into the bodiless abstractions of shallow postmodernism, and which keeps an eye on the realities of encountering the Other, and the realities of mediated society — ultimately finding weird loops deviously structuring the ineffable, shifting grounds beneath both reality and delusion.
The ‘mediated society’ in question is of course that of early-’70s California. Its freak culture, suffused with a desperate last-ditch psychedelic utopian yearning at the tail end of the ‘long sixties’, underpinned the personal quests of the three protagonists here in multifarious ways. Yet the society in question is also that in which we all live today. The Nixon-era paranoia and media tricksiness which permeated the States at that time, and the nascent network technologies which California was gestating, have mushroomed into a fraught and dizzying infrastructure for most of our lives. Davis, as someone whose childhood self absorbed the West coast ambience which seeded much of this, and who has spent his adult life passionately studying and reporting on its mycelial colonisation of the globe, is uniquely placed to tell the tale.
A key metaphor that Davis frames his investigation with, and frames the experiences and gonzo methodologies of his three subjects with, is Nietzsche’s tightrope walker from Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The walker appears in Nietzsche’s prologue, as Zarathustra descends from his lonesome mountain top and begins, in a town marketplace, to preach his doctrine of the Übermensch: humanity is envisioned as a rope stretched over an abyss between animality and the ‘Overhuman’ of the future. For Davis, this image captures multiple levels of his project.
There’s his own balancing act between the lofty rigours of scholarly discourse and his personal fidelity to the freak culture compost which fed the sensibilities of himself and his subjects. He walks this tightrope with panache and great success. ‘Weirdness’ is posited as a fertile term which (following Mark Fisher) acts as a ‘trailer-park country cousin’ of Freud’s ‘uncanny’. It relates to this idiom in its evocation of unsettling anomaly, but also reaches past literary inwardness into a thickly present Outside. Etymologically rooted in the Anglo-Saxon wyrdness of fateful twists, reaching back to Shakespearean and Romantic auras of eerieness, and filtering through Lovecraftian pulp to street lingo which taps into similar zones to ‘queerness’, the Weird brings with it a nebulous, potent mass of associations — yet retains a beguiling throwaway aspect: ‘That was weird.’ Deftly unpacking and weilding this exquisitely apposite term, Davis sets his project on its waywardly intelligent course. Drawing shrewdly on the work of theoretical heavyweights like William James, Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, and Ann Taves, he references academic discourse in a way which is both intellectually productive and ever-accessible. Scholars will find their thinking fertilised by Davis’ passionate embrace of psychedelic experience, and freaks will gain invaluable theoretical tools for mapping their strange forays, as Davis nimbly cross-pollinates high and low cultures of the mind.
The tightrope walker also images the perilous paths of McKenna, RAW and PKD. The shaman as bridge between otherworld and community, primary process and consensus reality, haunts the purposeful instability of these psychonauts, and the tightrope walker metaphor evokes an authentic strain of mediated showmanship in shamanic heritage.1
The inevitable collision of this heritage with modern discourses around psychopathology is especially well handled here. Eschewing a simplistic reactive validation of the reality-warping experiences being studied (i.e. drawing a clear line between them and ‘madness’ in order to save them from being reductively pathologised), Davis boldly allows pathology a place at the table, and engages it sensitively. In this, he’s arguably just remaining faithful to his subjects, since in each of the three core narratives — and especially in the case of PKD — ‘madness’ is woven into the tale from the start by these highly self-aware protagonists themselves. I’m reminded of Phil Hine’s disclaimer in his book of Lovecraftian magic, The Pseudonomicon:
It is generally agreed by experienced magicians that working with the Cthulhu Mythos current is dangerous, due to the high risk of obsession, personality disintegration or infestation by parasitic shells. Whilst giving this opinion due consideration, I have decided to release this material since, before the throne of Azathoth, questions of who is sane and who is mad become inconsequential.2
There’s much more than the cheeky bravado of this statement in the consideration of psychopathology by Davis and his subjects. But there’s a daimonic kernel of pragmatic audaciousness here which captures the flavour of many of the Foolish abyssal leaps under scrutiny. Again, the section on PKD stands out. Davis has spent a long time with his thoughts on this singular writer (from his senior thesis in the late ’80s to his recent PhD, out of which this book grew), and his insights into PKD’s valiant struggles with pathology radiate a well-honed maturity which still sparkles with infectious, fannish obsession.
Davis did his PhD in the Department of Religion at Rice University, and a major theme here is how the work of McKenna, RAW and PKD represent a significant evolution and transformation of modern American religious experience. The ‘New Age’ is judiciously evoked, mindful of both the trite shallows of these waters, and the way in which these maverick thinkers, and their relationship to New Age staples like channelling and the ‘network’ metaphor, bring shimmering light into the depths.
Crucial to this analysis of ‘religion’ is the way in which all three subjects rallied both scientific and religious perspectives, intertwining them into Möbius bootstraps. Radical empiricism and genuine skepticism enable a weird dance between these simplistically opposed domains. In closely tracking the dances performed by his subjects, Davis’ project represents a vital supplement to Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm’s The Myth of Disenchantment. Josephson-Storm’s account of the ways that enchantment persists into modernity is important; but Davis goes deeper, exploring the ways in which modernity’s enchantment radically transforms in the face of the very real disenchanting power of science and the deepening loss of historical and cultural innocence. Peppered with phrases such as ‘transcendental pragmatism’, ‘esoteric positivism’ and ‘profane religiosity’, this book sketches zones in which enchantment and disenchantment paradoxically feed each other, and empower tricky but potent empirical operations on self and reality.
We could say that something new emerges here; but we would also do well to remember the fact that among the Renaissance roots of modernity, ’empirical’ was less a reference to a sensible fidelity to experiential facts, and more a description of charlatans and mountebanks who sold medical remedies in the marketplace. Modern scientific empiricism was born shrouded in ambivalence. ‘Charlatan’ and ‘mountebank’ are both terms derived from Italian Renaissance times, in which they signified practices less clearly fraudulent than they do for us. These questionable characters proferred quack cures and snake oil, but mixed in there was much pragmatic knowledge trusted by common folk — experience-derived knowledge which the learned at the time dismissed because their revered ancients never mentioned it. There’s a complex relationship here between hands-on empiricism (which fed into the Scientific Revolution) and occultism and folk magic (which stood, as much as early modern science did, against the book- and thought-bound clerical scholasticism of medieval times). This relationship derails the simplistic narrative of a neat transition from ‘superstition’ to ‘science’, and acts as an important precursor to the quests detailed in this book (McKenna, for one, was profoundly influenced by the odd swirl of ideological currents at work in the Renaissance). William Eamon documents this aspect of early modernity brilliantly in Science and the Secrets of Nature,3 and his account of the importance of the ‘books of secrets’ genre, which detailed medical recipes, household tips, and other practical and technological — as well as ‘magical’ — information, is worth juxtaposing with Davis’ look at how a concern with ‘tools’ and how-to know-how informed early ’70s counterculture in California. In this light, Stewart Brand’s seminal Whole Earth Catalog (1968-72, subtitled ‘Access to tools’) shows how Renaissance resonances with hippiedom went far deeper than psych-folk dalliance with harpsichords — and how the sensibilities of this period, just before science and religion commenced their bitter divorce proceedings, informs the ‘weird naturalism’ explored by Davis.
We might picture mountebanks and charlatans hawking their dubious wares in the marketplace to which Zarathustra descended from his mountain retreat, where he sees the tightrope walker imaging the abyssal (over)human predicament (the Italian Renaissance was a place and time which was only rivalled in Nietzsche’s imagination by ancient Greece). But, returning to re-read this strange scene which haunts Davis’ book,4 I also wondered about another dubious but crucial character who jumps onto the tightrope behind the finely-balanced walker. A ‘gaudily-dressed fellow like a buffoon’ taunts the walker and, yelling like a devil, leaps over him and causes him to fall to the ground. Zarathustra comforts him as he dies by praising his risk-taking: ‘Thou hast made danger thy calling; therein there is nothing contemptible. Now thou perishest by thy calling: therefore will I bury thee with mine own hands.’ What to make of this mortal fall, this buffoon’s ruinous betterment of the tightrope walker?
To be clear, Davis’ use of the tightrope walker as a guiding image is apt and skilfully handled. But part of the beauty of High Weirdness is its infectious atmosphere of intellectual questing, and, as I vanished for a week into a series of Nietzschean research rabbit holes, I realised there may be something important in the absence of the buffoon. For me, it leads us to the mythological figure which presides over the book, even (or especially) while rarely being mentioned: the Trickster. And pondering the Trickster leads me to wider thoughts about the very tricky cultural and social reverberations of the ideas studied here.
Davis opened his seminal 1998 study TechGnosis with a brilliant deployment of myth to more precisely characterise technology:
Technology is neither a devil nor an angel. But neither is it simply a ‘tool’ [recall here ‘access to tools’], a neutral extension of some rock-solid human nature. Technology is a trickster, and it has been since the first culture hero taught the human tribe how to spin wool before he pulled it over our eyes. The trickster shows how intelligence fares in an unpredictable and chaotic world; he beckons us through the open doors of innovation and traps us in the prison of unintended consequences.5
Much of the focus in TechGnosis and High Weirdness is on the Trickster spirit as embodied by, say, Hermes. Quicksilver intelligence, pervasive and nimble awareness, and consummate deviousness. But Nietzsche’s buffoon suggests another strand in the fabric of the Trickster: a bawdy, blind, sometimes oafish force of catastrophic disruption. Sometimes the Trickster traps us in the prison of unintended consequences out of a kind of cosmic-perspective tutelage, presenting us with an opportunity to hone our intelligence against baffling adversity. But sometimes it’s hard to discern a redemptive arc. Real maliciousness is usually still absent, but perhaps we can never really tell if a higher mind is leading us towards development, or if a lower mind is just roping us into the mess of its own blundering. (Or, importantly, if our struggle to differentiate is part of the point.)
Much depends on how these ambivalent figures are mediated by society. In hunter-gatherer cultures where small-scale bands honour tricksters as part of their negotiations between nature and their ‘anti-structural’ social forms,6 there is tremendous scope for fidelity to this figure’s fluidity. As societies scale up, though, the need for — and eventually, possession by — images of stability occludes the Trickster, losing subtleties in often false economies of angel-devil binaries. And as modern individualism and acceleration erode the containing power of culturally-sanctioned inititations and ritual, the Trickster-as-buffoon runs riot.
The tightrope-walker and buffoon appear to Zarathustra as he emerges from secluded isolation and makes his first, deeply naive attempt at sharing his wisdom with society. His words fall on unappreciative ears; and perhaps the buffoon images the unsophisticated processing of Trickster wisdom by unthinking crowds.
But Nietzsche, at least once, saw himself as a buffoon.7 In Ecce Homo he writes:
I have a terrible fear that one day I will be pronounced holy … I do not want to be a holy man; sooner even a buffoon — Perhaps I am a buffoon.8
It’s significant that this fear is expressed directly after his more famous musing on the fate of his influence and reputation:
I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.
Rather than lazily reduce this to some kind of premonition of the Nazis, we should see here a more general insight: Nietzsche’s awareness that the radical nature of his intellectual quest would face calamitous reversals and distortions as it filtered into the ‘group mind’ of wider civilisation. The poised complexity which characterised his lonesome philosophical performance could not survive a wider audience without losing its balance. The Hermetic-shamanic tightrope walker, exposed to the mass-mediated ‘marketplace of ideas’, always risks being overrun by his Trickster shadow-self, the buffoon. There’s an ironic — perhaps cautionary — self-deprecation often missed in Nietzsche’s quick pivot from ‘I am dynamite’ to identification with the buffoon.
Of course, Davis is only too aware of this dynamic. Discussing the way in which the Taoist-anarchist ideals of RAW’s Discordian libertarianism have been mutated by more recent economic schools of thought, he rightly notes that ‘the notion of a “Taoist market” sounds like one of those monstrosities that result when concrete liberatory forces twist into new and abstract forms of domination.’9
He also puts forward the important idea that, while the shifting hyper-paranoia of RAW’s Illuminatus! has clearly fed into the noxious contemporary mainstreaming of conspiracy theory, there’s still mileage in RAW’s core intent, of tightrope paranoia as a ‘pharmakonic’ toxin-remedy:
[T]he Discordian game must also be understood as an inoculation against paranoia. At a time when drugs, covert operations, and the critical analysis of power all increased the possibility of pathological suspicions, Discordian consciousness upped the ante, becoming another version of the high-wire act … paranoia provides the tension of the line, while the balance comes from Wilson’s ‘maybe logic’ — a form of suspending or bracketing ultimate questions…10
But still, we’re back to the question of scale, and Nietzsche’s subtle, wry identification with the buffoon in the marketplace, alongside his identification with Zarathustra’s preaching there, and Zarathustra’s mournful care for the mortally wounded tightrope walker.
A quote commonly attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead had great currency in the milieu of McKenna and RAW, and echoes Zarathustra’s move from preaching in the marketplace to seeking select ‘companions’: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’11 But exactly how the subtle mediations of such small groups might translate into mass cultural shifts without perilous reversal, exactly how the world is changed, is a question which the early 21st century starkly confonts us with.
For myself, a perhaps sentimental but crucial fact which underlines the fascinating narratives of High Weirdness is the baseline human decency of the protagonists and the author — a baseline which anchors forays into the far reaches of psychonautic tighrope-walking. This baseline enabled RAW to be libertarian without forfeiting his deep social concern, enabled McKenna to proffer a pretty wacky eschatology without losing sight of a demand for ‘compassionate civilisation’,12 and suffused PKD’s terrifying fictional visions of the loss of humanity with singular acts of kindness and concern for everyday people.
Whether this baseline can be spread alongside awareness of the vertiginously contingent and shifty nature of reality remains a vexing mystery. But as we move into a profoundly uncertain future, we desperately need the kind of intelligent, accessible, and wise guides to reality’s shiftiness exemplified by Davis’ High Weirdness.
Because for better or worse — or, more likely, both and neither — the future is the domain of the Weird.