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High Weirdness: Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies
by Erik Davis
Publisher:
Strange Attractor / MIT Press 
Year:
2019 
ISBN:
9781907222764 
Categories:
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 12/10/2019

Once upon a time in the 1970s, three men––Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick––lost their minds and found themselves caught in the maw of the deeply weird. For a time, if not the rest of their lives, they tumbled through respective realms of “alien downloads, pulp-fiction synchronicities, techno-media metaphysics, apocalyptic flashbacks, voices in the head”, all serving to reduce to a blurry smudge the lines between fact and fantasy, coincidence and conspiracy, and experimenter and experiment. That all three were accomplished writers has left us with a series of remarkable, and in certain circles even legendary, accounts of their experiences.

For McKenna, this was the famous “experiment at La Chorrera”, documented in the books The Invisible Landscape and True Hallucinations, during which Terence, along with his brother Dennis, attempted to construct a ritual experiment in ad hoc scientific alchemy from which, after the psychotic delirium cleared, the brothers’ famous (or infamous) theory of “time-wave zero” was born.

For Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the ultra-paranoid psychedelic conspiracy epic The Illuminatus! Trilogy, it was when an occult-derived LSD ritual opened the doors to “chapel perilous”, a terrifying period of paranoia and initiation, later narrated in Wilson’s book Cosmic Trigger, in which the pulp-fiction smorgasbord of his own novels seemed to be coming to life around him, as he became convinced he was receiving alien synchronicity transmissions from the dog star Sirius.

And, finally, for Philip K. Dick this was his experiences of “2-3-74” when a chance encounter with light reflecting off a golden fish icon worn by a pharmacy delivery girl caused Dick to believe he was trans-located in time between Southern California and ancient Rome, and that a divine intelligence was beaming information directly into his brain. This experience prevailed over his remaining years, as he feverishly processed it through novels such as VALIS, The Divine Invasion and Radio Free Albemuth, as well as through his “exegesis”, a personal diary of his reflections totaling around 8,000 pages at the time of his death in 1982.

Ever since these visionary adventurers chronicled their profoundly weird experiences, the resulting accounts have been the subject of fringe fascination, attracting a cult following of counterculture heads, aspiring psychonauts, sci-fi novelists, comic book creators, cyberpunk theorists, and literary critics. Arriving now at the head of this pack is author Erik Davis, whose High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies provides a remarkable deep dive into the works of McKenna, Wilson and Dick, tracing the labyrinthine connections weaving their lives, works and times around the central theme of high weirdness, introduced by Davis as “a mode of culture and consciousness that reached a definite peak in the early seventies, when the writers and psychonauts whose stories I tell herein pushed hard against the boundaries of reality –– and got pushed around in return.”

Davis is a writer, journalist, podcaster, “counter-public intellectual”, and scholar of religions, who for the last three decades has been exploring the weird across the shifting landscape of its incarnations. Through books such as Techgnosis, The Visionary State, and Nomad Codes, as well as his Expanding Mind podcast, Davis has established himself as one of the foremost members of and communicators about the psychedelic intelligentsia. As such, Davis is uniquely positioned to guide an exploration of the works of McKenna, Wilson and PKD––all the more so coming on the heels of a freshly minted Ph.D. in Religious Studies, which served as the substrate out of which High Weirdness was fruited.

As such, far from simply presenting a set of countercultural tall-tales told around the campfire, Davis is able to address his notoriously slippery and protean subject matter by drawing from a diverse toolbox of academic and critical traditions, taking these extraordinary experiences seriously and with an open (to say nothing of experienced) mind, while simultaneously avoiding getting sucked too deeply into the funhouse wormholes from which they sprang. As Davis himself puts it, “I wanted to see what happened when I brought rigorous theoretical and methodological approaches to bear on some seriously weird shit.”

To be sure, High Weirdness is a dense read. Its main focus is placed on the practice of close readings, a finely grained textual analysis connecting the writings of his three authors to a larger environment of literary, critical and philosophical traditions. It’s an approach that renders the book’s contents as rich as they are difficult to summarize briskly. At its core, High Weirdness is a sustained meditation on the wonders and difficulties of grappling with awesome experiences that blaze beyond the pale, as well as the challenges associated with thinking about other people’s extraordinary experiences and the records of them they leave behind. It’s about how fine the lines can be between sacred illumination and outright pathology, and the high weirdness coefficient often linking inspiration and creativity with the fear, loathing and profound existential anxiety engendered when fiction takes on a life of its own.

Standing out among the myriad themes pursued throughout High Weirdness is the remarkable, and at times deeply uncanny feedback loops between the writers’ own lives and their writing, a bootstrapping push-and-pull by which the book’s subjects caused their bizarre experiences to come into being and were in turn themselves operated on by them. In almost all these cases, high weirdness started as a game, experiment, or prank, but ended up becoming an entire world from which the authors struggled, often bitterly, to escape.

For the McKennas, self-appointed and ethnobotanically-inflected anthropologists of a separate reality, high weirdness took the form of what Davis calls weird naturalism––a process by which the disciplines of a scientific worldview are cobbled together to account for unfolding peculiarity that stubbornly resists the container of conventional scientific theory. As the McKenna brothers stumbled further and further down the garden path of their famous experiment, they brought together resources from such diverse fields as anthropology, botany, fractal geometry, and acoustics, combining them in a free-form improvisational style along with the I Ching and alchemical elements drawn from the Western esoteric tradition, all in an attempt to make sense of the results of their experiences. In a fashion typical of high weirdness, the theories they concocted suggested further experimentation resulting in yet stranger theories, which in turn demanded wilder and bolder experimentation in the field––a cycle that intensified in the cow pastures of La Chorrera up to the point when their attempt to create the fabled philosopher’s stone ended up sending the McKenna brothers pinwheeling for some time across the screaming abyss.

Philip K. Dick, after his close encounter with divinity (or psychosis), became obsessed with the idea that many of his previously published novels contained within them the prophetic germ of his future experiences––leaving him to wrestle with the question of whether his earlier writing had exhibited precognitive activity, or (perhaps more unsettlingly), if the gnostic intelligence with which he found himself in contact was making use of thematic features of his earlier work as a means by which to manifest itself to him. As Davis puts it: “The more Dick wrote about his experiences, the more he rewrote them, and the more they seemed to have always already written, and rewritten him” These sorts of recursive strange loops dwell right at the beating heart of the deeply weird.

One of the best and most valuable parts of High Weirdness is its sustained engagement with Robert Anton Wilson––a writer and philosopher whose works have long been grievously underappreciated, particularly within the stale groves of the academic mainstream. Wilson’s struggle with juggling multiple concurrent realities, perhaps more than any of the subjects of High Weirdness, seems to presage our own often nauseous epoch of profound ontological uncertainty. As such, Davis’ critical evaluation of the legacy of Discordianism––the reality-bending anarchist tradition of media pranks and reality shell-games––is a highlight of the book.

Wilson and his colleague Robert Shea had been employed as editors at Playboy magazine, charged with fielding that publication’s notoriously nutty letters column, when they touched upon the idea of taking the daily deluge of communiqués they received from crank conspiracy theorists and creating a novel in which all of the hysterical hypotheses were true simultaneously. Operating firmly within the Discordian tradition, Illuminatus! playfully teased its readers with “Operation Mindfuck”––a bombardment of parody, satire, and outright fraud commingling politics, history, media, reality and consciousness, all with an eye towards “sowing the seeds of chaos as a means of achieving a higher state of awareness”.

For modern readers, such Discordian antics leave a bittersweet legacy to contemplate in the era of weaponized misinformation and fake news. Techniques that once seemed to be the exclusive province of anti-establishment punk activists and media-literate chaos magicians are now firmly entrenched within the playbooks of the alt-right and repressive government PSYOP divisions. Yesterday’s SubGenius smart aleck has given way to today’s Macedonian click-bait farmer.

In light of this queasy development it’s both saddening but also affirming to return to the source and contemplate Wilson’s contributions to counterculture philosophy and “conspiracy culture” with his stress on radical pluralism, model agnostism, weirdness-friendly skepticism, and a profoundly sophisticated critique of the cognitive illusions spun by our unconscious use of everyday language. In his reflections on Wilson, Davis points out the extent to which Wilson’s Discordian games were intended not as intensification of paranoia, but instead as an inoculating agent against despair, cynicism, and a collapse into fundamentalist modes of being. While countenancing the menacing specter of paranoia on a global scale, nevertheless Wilson’s writing and thought was suffused with an indefatigable optimism, compassion and good humor––qualities that today can seem in short supply, and that have never been more important to cultivate.

One of the innovative approaches Davis brings to bear in contextualizing the far-out experiences of his trippy trio of authors is to address the uncanny time period during which their experiences unfolded, that farthest-out of all 20th century decades, the seventies. Davis points out these experiences took place during an era of unprecedented and unsettling transformations in cultural consciousness. This was a time of widespread paranoia and stone-cold bummers, but also of explosive expansion in available lifestyles, spiritual paths, and an unprecedented influx of information rushing to fill the void left by the collapse of traditional social roles.

Set firmly against this backdrop, the three authors emerge cast in the role of mutant prophets. To one extent or another all three had their third eyes fixed firmly on the future. From the McKenna brothers’ theorizing about convulsive novelty, Wilson’s prognostications about autocatalytic information increase, or Dick’s visions of information itself as a metaphysical substance pouring in through the cracks in the firmament, all of their work stands as both symptom and cause of the beginning of the age of the network, when information reflexively turns on itself, forming feedback loops that generate increasing complexity.

As Davis argues quite movingly in his conclusion, racing throughout these networks are the spores of the weird. Once limited in scope and virulence to isolated pockets of individuals, the rhizomic expansion of underground subcultures into the popular mainstream (especially along the carrier wave of tech) led, perhaps fatefully, to a fully networked world slouching from its birthplace in the seventies towards the information explosion waiting at the turn of the millennium. Nowhere more so was this transformation taking place, Davis points out, than on the visionary U.S. West Coast––the setting for the better part the experiences recounted in High Weirdness––where dreamers, seekers, cultists and entrepreneurs produced the New Age milieu in which mystical dreams of universal connection would soon give rise to the technological capacity for omnipotent surveillance, fusing mysticism and paranoia into the general Discordian condition in which we all live today.

It’s hard to overstate what an accomplishment High Weirdness is. Davis has done painstaking work whose formal sobriety and methodological rigor serve to unimpeachably register the works of a rogues’ gallery of extraordinary psychonauts within the academic discourse. The result is likely to significantly change how future scholarship on its featured authors is conducted. In a very real way High Weirdness can be seen as a kind of academic Trojan Horse––smuggling his subjects one citation at a time into scholarly zones that have by and large hitherto neglected them…but that in the wake of this publication will no longer be able to easily ignore them.

While High Weirdness started life as a Ph.D. thesis, and as such is oftentimes encumbered by the requirements of that form, in the end Davis speaks, and fairly soars, in his own voice in a conclusion that deserves to be read in isolation, showing how the far-out fantasies of three of the most extraordinary specimens of the fevered seventies have become the building blocks of the banal, everyday apocalypse of today’s deeply, painfully weird world.

For readers who might wish for nothing more than a book-length equivalent of rapping the night away with the world’s hippest, most erudite commentator on the works of Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna and Philip K. Dick, what a friend we have in Erik Davis’ High Weirdness.

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