Walking with Nobby

Conversations with Norman O. Brown

Dale Pendell

Before the World Psychedelic Forum 2008, I’d never heard of Dale Pendell—not consciously, at least. Most of my friends singled him out as a speaker worth seeing, so I went along to his first talk, titled ‘Plant Teachers and the Path of Eve: The Mythopoetic Roots of Psychedelic Practice in the Western Tradition’.

Pendell is an engaging presence, a measured deliberation containing fiery undercurrents; a dynamic reflected in the carefully crafted wildness of his curved, pointed eyebrows. He begun by classifying shamanism as “ghost work”, with “ghost” (or “shadow”, as Pendell also termed it, careful to point out this isn’t the Jungian Shadow) looking like something between the Hillmanian and the shamanic conception of “soul”. Loss of shadow, he declared, leads to a kind of invisibility, which he connected to the Pitt River Indians’ concept of losing your “power” or “luck”. Thinking of Burroughs, el hombre invisible, I was hooked. Pendell’s injection of the Western tradition—classical Greece, esoteric Christianity, Shakespeare, Faust, Blake and depth psychology—into the conference’s psychedelic proceedings was exactly what I was looking for. It was icing on the cake to hear him quote one of my favourite thinkers, the little-discussed Norman O. Brown.

Of course I was partly amazed, and partly unsurprised, when I went out to the bookstall afterwards and found that this collection of conversations with Brown, which I had been anticipating eagerly, was the work of Pendell. Having studied mythology with Brown at Santa Cruz in the early ’80s, Pendell returned in the ’90s to take walks with Nobby (as he liked friends to call him). Even if Brown never plunged into the Dionysian madness that he advocated with the physical aplomb of the hippies, he clearly remained true to Nietzsche’s habit, “to think outdoors […] preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.” His regular walks were also one-on-one tutorials with students and colleagues, the physical exertion and chance encounters with nature infusing and peppering proceedings with the vigour he sought and exemplified in intellectual life. In return for Nobby’s perspectives on “the Western Tradition”, Pendell offered his extensive botanical knowledge (subsequently expressed in his celebrated Pharmako trilogy, which I can’t wait to get around to).

These conversations reward us with something a little more than the appeal of “the interview”. Besides small peeks into Nobby’s personal world, and discussion of topics not broached in his formal written works, we get pregnant little vignettes of thought woven into the environment; as when a discussion of King Lear, veering off towards the subject of Dionysian tragedy, is brought decisively back to Lear when the trail emerges from some brush onto a meadow beset by a sharp wind—“we both thought of the heath”.

Brown attacks mercilessly, and his teacherly chiding keeps the thinking sharp and crisp; Pendell’s usually spirited self-defence, and the background of affection between the two, keeps things rolling with an intellectual eros, a mutual desire to push boundaries and to “never cease from mental fight”, as Blake had it. Pendell, as a Dionysian in the ways that Brown avoided, or missed—basically, an initiate of sex, drugs & rock ‘n’ roll—is a fascinating foil to Nobby’s rather Apollonian tendencies of sensual restraint and regular habits. Both men meet on the common ground of constant questioning and commitment to seeing beneath, understanding, but their divergent lifestyles creates a valuable tension here that is quite educational.

Theodore Roszak once criticized the style of Brown’s Love’s Body as “Dionysus with footnotes”. Despite Brown’s attempt to dissolve scholarly prose into aphoristic, allusive waves, his allegiance to and respect for “the canon” compelled him to meticulously riddle his work with references to his numerous sources. Notes play a prominent role in this work, too; the conversations are recorded on right-facing pages, accompanying notes are found on the left. Occasionally notes outrun the conversation; sometimes the left page is blank. Generally, they balance out. The notes are endlessly fascinating, a mixture of Pendell being able to get a last word into conversations where he perhaps felt he didn’t fare to well, together with sensitive elaborations and criticisms of Nobby’s frequently contradictory (because self-questioning) thought. Pendell’s good grasp of both hard science and mythopoetic thought shines through.

Theoretically, the choice is yours as to whether you just read the conversations straight through, or constantly break off to read the notes. But the notes sit there tempting anyone with a curious mind, and may prove distracting if you’ve a strong resistance to fragmentary thought. They occasionally distracted me, but in the end, they’re a worthy treasure of appended insight, a proof that good conversations never really end.

This book doesn’t serve well as an introduction to Brown’s thought—the beginning and end of understanding Brown will probably always be diving straight into Life Against Death and Love’s Body. But for anyone who’s got that far already, here is a valuable, eclectic book of further thinking.