Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Until recently, I wasn't aware of the roots of the word "nostalgia," which are related to the pain of homesickness. But although I am not overly nostalgic by nature, it's the pain or queasiness of nostalgia that concerns me as a I grow older.

As any of us age, we accumulate a freight of memory, one largely comprised of lost worlds. Our cultural idols and heroes pass away and, with them, the age that helped bring them into their prime. For some this makes nostalgia a kind of grief akin to losing a loved one. The pain can be accute.

I have known a few people who are prisoners of nostalgia, people who pine for the cultural milieau of their childhoods or even for a long-lost time they weren't alive to see. For such people, the nostalgic affliction may be compounded by isolation and loneliness.

I grew up listening to an AM readio station that played "the music of your life." When I was a child, the music from the 30s and 40s was featured on this station. At night I would take the radio into my parents' expansive backyard and listen to that or repeats of Radio Mystery Theater with E.G. Marshall. Even at that age, there was something bitterly sad about this music and imagining the elderly, wrapped in blankets against the cold, listening to the radios in musty old homes, attended by ragged pets. That was something that haunted me, along with the sound of static and distant thunderstorms that filled AM; a sense of this or that generation passing into its particular good night.

Over the years, I found that I was succeptible to the nostalgia of those older than me. In the past hour, I have heard three examples of songs that contain a razor-sharp edge of nostalgia: "Thanks for the Memories" by Bob Hope, "It Was a Very Good Year" and "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra. It almost seems as if these songs have acquired a ghostly power imparted by lost time and the passing of avid listeners.

There is a vertigo attendant to nostalgia, too; a sense of living memory lost. One day, despite your best efforts, you may become a caretaker of memories, the docent of one of those lost worlds that we often idealize. In the crepuscular flow, as shadows flicker on the walls like a special effect in a time travel movie, it's all too easy to be caught up and carried back temporarily.

But the past is also its own kind of undiscovered country, filled with cultural obscurities that were largely ignored in their time. There are things that can be carried forward with awe and wonder, signs and portents that were never read. Perhaps they may change the present or even the future, getting a second chance. But ultimately all will become nostalgia and even that will someday blink out as the living memories that carry it are extinguished.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Scientism Redux

With all respect to science, it doesn't yet seem to be the ideal analytic system with which to understand consciousness which, beyond its mechanics, remains largely mysterious in its origins and nature. We don't know more than we do know, presently.

Similarly, using science as the sole grid with which to measure religious experience/ spirituality seems suspect, at best. One who would approach sexuality solely through a scientific rationalist perspective may come to some sort of understanding or even enhanced technique. But there is a gestalt of sexuality which relegates this perspective to a component part, and probably not the most important one at that.

Science has made inroads in beginning to understand things that an older generation of rationalist skeptics regarded as pure bunk. We now understand not only how brainwaves work but what activities alter them. We now understand that the mind/ body link, as exemplified through techniques like yoga and meditation, is much more complex than we previously thought. We understand that exercises once dismissed as mumbo-jumbo impact everything from mood to blood pressure.

I know people who don't fully enjoy their lives because they think too much. They can't kick the habit and forget themselves. Many of them fail to understand that epiphanies can be triggered simply by stilling or focusing the mind through various techniques. For the scientifically minded, it might be useful to consider Archimedes' breakthrough while relaxing in the bathtub. Those who think that they understand all of the functions of the brain should consider its potential role as lens, revelator and transmitter.

Others aren't really scienitifically minded. They call upon the word "science" as others call upon God/gods. Rather than considering what science has accomplished, their religious dogma is to tell us what science WILL accomplish, WILL prove or disprove. They cannot offer details or references because they are out on a limb with the religionists they castigate. One need only consider the erstwhile "scientific" dismissal of "thunderstones" as balderdash, scoffing at the subjectivity of eyewitnesses who saw what we now know are meteorites (an example offered by the late, venrable Robert Anton Wilson). I think it's safe to consider such people victims of Scientism, the faith in what science has yet to achieve.

The temptation for some to pretend that science has (or in some cases can) adequately studied "religious experience" (or altered states of consciousness) seems overwhelming. But it isn't science to dismiss the experience of another by invoking the word "science."

Similarly, some atheist rationalists display a bizarre puritanical streak when addressing altered states. Suddenly the conclusions don't come from science but from "common sense" or other objects of faith. For example, when I bring up the body's naturally occurring DMT and its relationship to the brain, the objections come from politics, common sense and, it seems to me, sheer ignorance and fear. Those objecting seldom have the basic knowledge of naturally occurring altered states. They get uncomfortable and speak of "chemical imbalance," as if they possess some scientific standard for this or full knowledge of the role of this and other examples of the body's natural "drugs." It's horseshit.

I have suggested often enough that anyone can, through a very wide variety of methods, consider the potential usefulness and expended perspective granted by some altered states. And when I say altered states, I include spiritual experience and sexual rapture; I am not specifically referring to certain drugs (neither am I excluding them for reasons of popular morality).

Frankly, I think that some people think too much. In doing so, I think that they may be repressing aspects of life, brain function and experience that are very natural. That many of these people feel compelled to share their dogmatic faith about what science may conclude one day or "common sense" dictates(as elusive as God, surely) is a bit awkward. When someone appeals to future scientific conclusions, we might as well be talking about religious assertions.

Mystery frightens some people. It fascinates others. I would suggest that there are truths available experientially, through experiential gnosis, that merit exploration. Barring that, I have little use for "scientism" telling me which of my experiences and what aspects of my knowledge are false. Like the virgin who has read a book about sex and presumes to hold court, it's a matter for some hilarity.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Kemialliset Ystävät

This band from Finland has become one of my musical passions. Part of a feral Finnish folk movement that has been percolating for a while, their music is dreamy and surreal. They also have moments of inspired cacaphony. Although considered as part of the "freak folk" movement by some, there is something about their sound that reminds me of early '80s experimental underground music. Imagine if Cabaret Voltaire or Rhythm & Noise played folk music. I could listen to them for hours.

Aquarius Records (a great place to shop for their music) sums it up quite nicely: "A sort of Krautrock meets seventies pagan folk meets minimal drone meets free rock meets everything else. No wonder it all sounds so good. It's little purloined scraps of everything we love, woven haphazardly together into gorgeous rambling and meandering sonic explorations. Banjos accompany wavering falsetto vocals, shuffling seasick rhythms underpin wild songbird like melodies and fluttery flutes, buzzing distorted guitars rumble beneath full on harmony pop vocals, warped and warbly organs and woodwinds nestle up against the clattery clang of kitchen sink percussion. It all sounds so perfectly imperfect together. Dreamy and melancholy, stumbly and goofy, dark and brooding, woozy and hypnotic, innocent and playful, exuberant and festive, creepy and bizarre, pretty and darn near perfect."


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Strange But Untrue: Dr. Strange & the Lesser Book of the Vishanti

Move aside, Necronomicon, there's another genuine fake book of occult secrets in town, The Lesser Book of the Vishanti penned by catherine yronwode with nagasiva yronwode (neither of them capitalize their names on this site so I won't either). It's the grimoire used by Steve Ditko's comic book creation, Dr. Stephen Strange.

Dr. Strange, shown here in a portion of a black light poster, urges fans to consider set and setting before turning on.

As catherine relates on her site,"Although we were on welfare during that year [1977] at Little Creek, i did not want to be a drain on society. I decided that the two hundred dollars per month i received was "pay" for a job of my choice -- and what i chose to do was to pick up litter along the roadsides and to create a topical index to the entirety of my favourite comic book series, Strange Tales and Dr. Strange. Within the fictional world of these comic books, there was a grimoire or spell-book called The Book of the Vishanti, and so, in homage to two famous real-world grimoires, the Key of Solomon and the Lesser Key of Solomon, i called my project The Lesser Book of the Vishanti."

As with H.P. Lovecraft's fictional grimoire, The Necronomicon, art imitated art. So here are the secrets for the Orb of Agamatto, the Satan Sphere, the Wand of Watoomb and so much more, all indexed by comic book. Consider just one of the "spells" offered here:

"In the name of the Dread Dormammu --
in the name of the All-Seeing Agamotto --
by the Powers that dwell in Darkness --
I summon the Hosts of Hoggoth!
Lead me to the source of Evil!
Obey the words of Dr. Strange!"

We are warned in a note that "this is said to be a 'dangerous' incantation."

Beyond this, we are shown the real-life origins of Steve Ditko's "Eye of Agamatto," which turns out to be "a fairly common kind of amulet found in the Buddhist regions of Northern India. Called "The Eye of Buddha," it is a pendant, worn on a necklace cord as an apotropaic charm to ward off the Evil Eye (Mal Occhio) and to protect the bearer from misfortune." Wow. And guess what? The sponsor of this site, The Lucky Mojo Curio Company, is standing by to sell you your own "Eye of Buddha."

So enjoy this spuriously genuine book of arcane spells, True Believers. There's no better way to put a little hokey in your pocus.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

70th Anniversary of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" Broadcast

This Hallowe'en (technically October 30, 1938) will be the 70th anniversary of the "War of the Worlds" broadcast by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air. The dramatization/ hoax generated incredible panic and remains a fascinating study in the power of mass meda to shape public perception. Broadcast without commercial interruption, this adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novel convinced many that New Jersey was being attacked by Martian weapons of mass destruction, a mere 65 years before what The Village Voice called "the biggest media hoax since Y2K" led the United States into war with Iraq on false pretences.

An incredible retrospective of the original broadcast and subsequent tribute broadcasts that created similar panic and even deaths can be found at WYNC's Radiolab site. I can't recommend this hour-long show highly enough and used portions of it to craft my own plunderphonic review of this great hoax. Another revealing broadcast offers a meeting between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells in San Antonio, Texas a couple of years after the incident. Orson is touchingly deferential to H.G., and lauds him for his prophetic writings.

It's interesting, too, that Welles noted in F for Fake (itself a tasty meme filled with tricks of various kinds) that the UFO phenomenon followed his broadcast. With tongue-in-cheek, in the nine minute trailer for F for Fake he even suggests that his broadcast was done at the behest of powerful minds from outer space!

If not the original example of culture jamming, the War of the Worlds broadcast remains perhaps the most breath-taking and troubling. Manipulation through media is as old as the history of public relations. Orson Welles' trick or treat remains a powerful warning about the power of media to bend belief so that it accommodates even the most absurd fiction. It's a lesson to which governments and corporations paid close attention and it has served them very well. Sadly, the popular imagination remains very susceptible to Martians of the mind.

Keep watching the skies. And mind the airwaves, while you're at it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Spiel for a River to Nowhere

From 1979 to 1981, I worked 10 hour swing-shifts at LaSalle's Adventure at Six Flags Over Texas. Riverboats, which have now been outfitted as swamp boats in East Texas, traveled on tracks in a large circle, beginning and ending at the dock. As I wrote in "Riverboat Ritualization," a piece published in the Moorish Science Monitor in the '90s, the continuous rounds left a heavy imprint in my brain, and the entire theme park experience gave me added insight into gnosticism and the simulacrum in the fiction of Philip K. Dick.

Ostensibly a narrative about the French exploration of Texas by LaSalle, the riverboat spiel that follows was constantly being tweaked and rewritten by those using it, to make it funnier or to simply avoid boredom of repitition. This version from 1978, the one I was handed as a yellow-tag trainee, is reprinted here for fun. The ride was closed in 1982 because it wasn't a "people mover." I had the honor of delivering the very last spiel, "the nasty version," to a crew of associates and friends.

For those interested in actual history, the journals of Henri Joutel are in print and make fascinating reading about LaSalle's last voyage (he was shot in a mutiny somewhere in North Texas near the Trinity River).

In the meantime, enjoy the ride!

Good Day my friends, this is your captain speaking and I’d

like to welcome you all aboard my French Riverboat. Before we leave

the dock may I ask you all to please keep your hands and arms inside

the boat, since you never know when you might need them to swim back

to shore should the boat sink, or the captain abandon ship. The

brave at heart aboard this ship are volunteers for a very dangerous

mission as we’ll be traveling along waters much like the rivers the

French Explorer LaSalle travelled on in his search for the mouth of

the Mississippi. In addition to the Spanish, who had laid claim to

Texas when LaSalle first left a colony at Matagorda Bay, we will also

encounter both friendly and no doubt many unfriendly indian tribes

along our journey. And here is early proof of that, it would seem

that the indians have already attacked this French encampment and

that trapper has met with the same unfortunate end that many settlers

met within this wild new land.

Perhaps the most formidable four legged enemies that early settlers

faced in Texas were the gray wolves. Settlements or camps attacked by

the indians are soon taken over by the wolves, who often scatter the

bones up to a mile. Although not always as dangerous as Indians, the

Spanish had already laid claim that the territory of Texas when LaSalle

established his first colony, but the discovery of a French camp in

Spanish territory did cause the Spanish to step up their mission

programs. Mission San Francisco De Los Tajas was built in 1690 by

Father Massonet with the help of friendly indians from the area.

Many such missions are protected by Spanish Forts such as the one

up ahead. Since they fly the Spanish Flag and we’re French, we must

try to slip by unnoticed. Luckily there’s no one in the watch

tower so if you’ll all be very quiet we’ll try to make it by

....But oh no! That Spanish soldier has spotted us...they’ve

opened fire! Full speed ahead. Careful, a near miss on the port

side, another near miss, prepare to abandon ship! Women and children

first, after the captain of course. But wait! They’ve ceased fire,

it would seem as though the spanish can’t hit the broad side of a

little French Riverboat.

Over to my right you’ll see something that’s becoming very common

along the Rivers in Texas. Trading Posts appear to be an excellent

way to make friends with the indians.

Trading posts have also inspired many trappers to come to Texas.

A trapper friend of mine, Francious knows this area well, and he’s

usually around here so keep an eye out for him. There he is now in

the top of that tree...I’ll ask him in French if its safe to go on...

(away from mike) "Francious my friend, is it safe to go on?" Unfortun-

ately he’s shaking his head no, which in French means no - but, the

rivers too narrow to turn around right here, and besides, I’m not

ready to risk another pass by those Spanish cannons. So we’ll continue

on for the glory of France. I believe Francious has a small camp

along here, and perhaps we’ll be able to stop for some good food and


But no, there will be no stopping here, the camp is under attack

by indians and I’m afraid we’re caught in the crossfire! Everybody

quick, down in the boat - we’ll duck now and ask questions later.

Those bullets are real my friends, have no doubt, real enough

to ruin even those barrels of good French Wine. They really know

how to hit a frenchman where it hurts, don't they? In the wine


Mon Amis we are now entering the most dangerous part of our

journey, swamp lands, infested with huge hungry alligators. Let me

once again remind you to keep your hands and arms inside the boat

because these gaters just love to be hand fed, and once in the water,

there's not a man alive that can out swim one of these monsters.

What!?! No need for alarm, its just a bear fishing for some dinner in

the river, we probably disturbed him. Quick Look! There's something

moving in the bushes (pointing to port side) I'm sure I saw something

move up there....Look Out! Its an indian war canoe, everybody duck

down! Those arrows are tipped with poison, one scratch could mean

instant death. Luckily they didn't shoot!

On my right you'll see what they were probably trying to protect

an indian burial ground. As you can see indian customs require that

they bury their dead 6 feet above the ground. Burial grounds are

sacred, and trespassers are dealt with severely. Some tribes even

sacrifice a dog, horse, or even a woman with a dead warrior.

With a burial ground here a village can't be far, so we will

try to proceed quietly and carefully along.

And just as I thought, here is the Indian village. That medicine

man is really a priest for the tribe, and there's no tellings what

that dance he's doing is supposed to do; I just hope it's not going

to do it to us!

Luckily, I don't see any warriors around, just young braves

and squaws tanning hides and preparing some of their favorite

dishes, perhaps boiled earth worms and raw fish.

Quiet everyone, over on the shore is a black bear. I hear that

many settlers along the river call the black bear the clown of the

woods, but considering his tone of voice right now, I'd say those

sounds were more like hunger pains than jokes.

Traveling along the river can be very dangerous, but traveling

the shore is next to impossible because of the thick brush and the

many wild animals along the shore.

Here you can see a single bear fighting for his life against

some very dangerous enemies. The wolves are very careful though

because that bear's teeth are very sharp, not to mention the

power in his "bear" hands.

Quick everyone, lean to the port side of the boat; for over

on the starboard is a whirlpool. That poor soul is already on his

way to a watery grave, but you've got to give him credit, he did

save that piece of drowning wood.

To the left a pack of beavers, an important source of income to

many trappers and a source of trouble to many captains as they often

pose a menace to navigation. Look Out! Timber... Well, it that

tree had been a little longer this boat and this trip would have

been alot shorter.

I hope you are all brave for ahead lies unchartered waters and

there is no way of telling just what might be waiting for us.

Look... Indians! On both sides of the shore, everyone bravely

River and quickly duck! I'd say those Indians have only one goal, to get

a head. So it's full speed ahead for us. But wait! A waterfall

with a solid rock wall behind it. I'm afraid our journey has come

to an end if you'll all prepare to abandon ship on the count of

three, One... Two... WAIT! The waterfall has parted, the rock wall

is opening. I believe we've stumbled on an ancient Indian treasure

cave. Many explorers gave their lives in search of caves such as

this containing Indian gold and treasure.

Perhaps we should reconsider and turn back, but I'm afraid

we can't! The doors have closed and we're trapped inside. Look,

to the right, treasure! But don't take any, it's being guarded by

that skeleton. Oh no! more trouble, a rock wall ahead... but no,

I see light, the wall is swinging open. The Indians have rewarded

us with our lives for not stealing their treasure.

And there is the flag of France flying proudly above Ft. St.

Louis. Viva la France, we've made it back to safety!

I want to thank you all for being such a brave crew and accom-

panying your not-so-brave captain on this very dangerous journey. I

hope you enjoy the rest of your stay at Six Flags Over Texas and come

back and see us again real soon.

Now as we approach the dock, please keep your hands and arms inside

the boat, wait till we come to a complete safe stop, then exit on the

dock side only. You'll find it a little drier there.

On the dock we should find a beautiful glamorous French sailor

girl (or handsome, de bonair, exciting French sailor) to help you out

of the boat. But as you can see she (or he) didn't show up ... so

(name of host or hostess) will have to do.


Now mates and matees, the time has come to say mersi beau

coup and au re voir: which is Texas French for thank you very

much... and abandon ship before she sinks.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


"'As the ordeal went on, it became clear to certain of these
balloonists, observing from above and poised ever upon a cusp of
mortal danger, how much the modern State depended for its survival on
maintaining a condition of permanent siege--through the systematic
encirclement of populations, the starvation of bodies and spirits, the
relentless degradation of civility until citizen was turned against
citizen, even to the point of committing atrocities like those of the
infamous pétroleurs of Paris. When the Sieges ended, these
balloonists chose to fly on ...'"

-(Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon, Pt. I, Ch. 2, p. 19f.)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Callithumped, Jugged & Punked: Part 3

What are we to make of the crayon palimpsest of Bohemian subcultures, each one scrawling its boast over the lyrics of a previous generation, creating colorful forms that, while new, remain indebted to older eccentricities? The true iconoclast is something rare. Instead, it’s all too common for the avant garde to pillage its predecessors, sometimes with a sly wink and satirical flourish. In this way, what once was obscure is revealed in a new form or even popularized. Rock & Roll is struck from old Blues. Punk attitude owes much to the irreverence and DIY approach of old jug bands and forgotten roots music.

Is that the train that they speak of
The one I heard in my younger days
All great bluesmen have rode her
I'm jumping up gonna ride that train.

This from “Version City” by The Clash; here and there are nods to tradition, admissions of musical mummery, and signs of transitional forms. Following the punk genealogy set forth by Jeffrey Lewis, we find two precursors of punk that seem unlikely at first blush: The Holy Modal Rounders and The Fugs.

"The Rounders were the first really bent traditional band. And the first traditionally-based band that was not trying to sound like an old record," Pete Stampfel explained to Folk Roots in 1995. Together with Steve Weber. Stampfel formed the nucleus of a collection of bands real, imagined and loosely associated: MacGrundy’s Old Timey Wool Thumpers, The Strict Temperance String Band of Lower Delancey Street, The Temporal Worth High Steppers, The Motherfucker Creek Babyrapers and The Hoochie Koochie Dream Band among many others. The two met in 1963 and started gigging. Their first album, The Holy Modal Rounders, came out in 1964 and boasts the first use of the word “psychedelic” in pop music lyrics. In a natural twist of fate, the two played with The Fugs briefly in 1965.

The Holy Modal Rounders offer an interesting glimpse of musical mutation as an agent, or perhaps symptom, of sub cultural change. Their first two albums were comprised of covers of old standards, most, if not all, from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which boasted a cover by occultist Robert Fludd and selections from the dawn of electronic recording. Smith was a most peculiar man and a famous Thelemite who, though not a member of the occult Ordo Templi Orientis, was nevertheless consecrated as a Bishop in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica in 1986. In addition to being an occultist and ethnomusicologist, he was also a painter and renowned experimental film-maker. Perhaps cognizant of his own role as musical catalyst, when he received a Chairman’s Merit Award at the Grammy Awards ceremony he said,” "I'm glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music."

Pete Stampfel and Pete Weber, the original duo at the core of The Holy Modal Rounders, were no strangers to musical eccentricity. It might be safe to suggest that they were a vital part of the chain of transmission from Harry Smith in changing America through music.

In October 1962 whilst in New York, Stampfel played with Tiny Tim and Phil Ochs at a Greenwich Village Club called The Third Side. Stampfel and Weber met in New York in March 1963 and they started to gig as a duo at places like The Cafe Flamenco and The Playhouse Theatre under a series of bizarre names like the Total Quintessence Stomach Pumpers

In the period that followed Stampfel formed The Hoochie Koochie Dream Band and then, in late 1974, The Unholy Modal Rounders, who together with Michael Hurley and friends recorded the Have Moicy album, which was one of their better efforts and superior to Last Round, which was actually recorded in 1976.

There is a sort of anarchic heathen energy in the music of the Holy Modal Rounders. Even as their music is firmly rooted in the wildness found in the Smith anthology and elsewhere, their sound also pointed the way forward to the punk rebellion, squeezing juice from the older radical sounds that inspired them and allowing it to ferment. In creating a bridge from the American folk sound to the raucous rebellion and irony in which punk was steeped, they changed the stream of musical history. Their contemporaries, The Fugs, carried the torch forward into realms of freakish vulgarity, perversion and Yippie absurdity, and their legacy will be explored in Part 4 of this series

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Death of Mystery?

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”

-Albert Einstein

There is a shell-game going on and it isn’t pretty.

That hoary old bogeyman of philosophy, Aleister Crowley, once suggested that his exploration of occult and visionary states involved “the methods of science, the aim of religion.” It’s an interesting idea which is a bit analogous to the scientific method, though admittedly more subjective: try these methods and find out whether they work or not. The “methods” in question involve, at the very least, the manipulation of consciousness and will.

Lately, the often-useful and sometimes dreadful tool known as science has been making a stand as a philosophy, something referred to as Scientism. Authors like Richard Dawkins are, in a peculiar and limited way, analyzing religion through the lens of science. Or are they? Sometimes this critique is little more than an interdisciplinary bait-and-switch. Myth is dismissed after being scrutinized as history. Hearsay miracles are dismissed for their scientific irreproducibility. For the most part, “religion” is typified by the most violent and cantankerous extremists and fundamentalists. It’s as if one set out to critique science and considered only the hydrogen bomb, daisy-cutter missiles, mustard gas, napalm, Agent Orange, pollution, Chernobyl and the neutron bomb which kills people but leaves property standing. Surely this would be recognized as a straw man argument, a selective consideration of the achievements of science. But if not, think of the vast millions of bodies that could be laid at the foot of scientific discovery where it is arguably uncoupled from ethics. In a similar way, religion is selectively considered for its failures, for its political actions and for the insubstantial nature of the wilder claims of world scripture.

Largely absent from the ostensible critique is an element of religion which has actually been considered by science: religious experience. And while religious experience has been analyzed and compared with temporal lobe epilepsy, that is just one among many possible causes. And the factors that catalyze alleged religious experience are legion, if you will pardon the expression. Fasting, meditation, sex, drugs, visionary plants & fungi, music, dancing, pain and sensory deprivation can all be on the list of practices/ factors that induce what William James, the father of modern psychology, referred to as “the varieties of religious experience.” James enjoyed his own seemingly transcendental experience of the divine through experimentation with laughing gas; the methods of science, the aim of religion. But scientists like the late Dr. John Lilly, who pioneered studies in both altered states of consciousness and human/ dolphin communications, have been castigated by the scientific community for violating the objective nature of scientific experiment by becoming their own test subjects. And here is the Catch-22 of the matter, our need for another tool which is like the scientific method yet allows for subjective assessment of the content of such experiences. Failing that, the scientific study of religious experience bogs down at the limits of the tool of science: while neurophysiology can be examined, the content and importance of religious experience is beyond the purview of science. For Scientism, this isn’t a problem. Scientism presumes the veracity of the most dysfunctional model as a way of dismissing the subject. Consider the once-popular “psychotomimetic” model of psychedelic drug effects, the idea that visionary experience mimics psychosis. Consider the draconian difficulty of legitimately studying psychedelics in the United States, despite the fact that both LSD and MDMA have been successfully employed in psychotherapy. For Scientism, which not being science is free to indulge in speculative value judgments, these phenomena can be dismissed without further study as psychosis and hallucination. One wonders when science will presume to challenge the existence of love and pass sentence on its subjective bliss and exaltation.

Before we succumb to the religion of Scientism, with its untested assumptions and beliefs about what will or won’t be proven in the future, perhaps we should employ an interdisciplinary approach to not only religion but to ostensible transcendental experiences. This would include scientific methodology where appropriate: in understanding the neurophysiology and somatic mechanisms of ecstatic and religious experience. But it would also include literary criticism, mythology (not in its popularized denigrated sense), subjective experiment and praxis, psychology, ethnobotany, psychoacoustics, and statistical analysis.

Ultimately, we must look for the return of mystery, like believers waiting for a resurrection. As much as Scientism would presume to what we may one day know, it may be more important at this juncture to remind ourselves of the vastness of what we don’t know and in some cases perhaps cannot know. As humbling as the experience may be, our ignorance is unimaginable and we owe respect to what remains to be seen or known, mystery. There will always be an eagerness to dogmatically accept the death of mystery in order to relax in faux certainty. And as admittedly useful and revolutionary as science has been, one need only consider the succession of new scientific models replacing old to see that we are still far from fabled certainty in so many areas. New hypotheses are being studied with regard to issues as fundamental as time or the Big Bang.

If we seek Mystery in its oldest historical guise, we will find the old Mystery Religions with their secretive initiations which, an increasing body of evidence suggests, offered psychedelic potions as sacraments. Little more than a few hundred years ago, what we now recognize as science was inextricably intertwined with magic. For example, we know now that Isaac Newton spent as much time studying alchemy as he did regarding what we would now call science. While the Enlightenment summarily banished the occult and welcomed a world assured of knowledge discovered through modern science, we are left wondering what might have occurred if science had remained coupled with ethics and mystery. Even the oft-mischaracterized Luddites simply desired scientific progress that would be conjoined with quality of life, something that seems quite reasonable in light of our world filled with poisonous by-products and weapons of mass destruction. We have learned how to kill with obscene efficiency but in too many areas we haven’t learned to live or to maximize pleasure and ecstatic experience. Yet progress, which often seems hideously regressive with hindsight, marches on like some capricious god, conferring incredible benefits on one hand and ever-greater means of mass-murder on the other. Dogmatic certainty is not the monopoly of the religious fundamentalists, nor does it seem that we can logically look to science for answers that may be not only subjective but deeply personal, requiring more than just one tool. As much as Scientism would suggest otherwise, Mystery lives and continues to generate enigmatic surprises. In doing so, it should confer a deep sense of humility on any thinking person. And wrangling with Mystery and its meaning or lack thereof will continue to be an interdisciplinary effort that can only be carried out by assessing the strengths and weaknesses of tools like scientific methodology.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Forty Years After The Prisoner's Last Episode: Have We Escaped?

(Attached Spoiler Warnings apply only to video embeds, not to the text)

It has been 40 years since that landmark of creative television, The Prisoner, concluded its brief run with the climactic episode Fallout. This series finale was so controversial that reportedly series creator and star Patrick McGoohan had to hide out to avoid being attacked in the streets. Just as Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow was cited by an imprisoned Timothy Leary as “…an authoritative text on how to understand and neutralize the Cybervillians, the secret police of all nations...[that] exposes the weirdo psychology, the kinky sociology, the ruthless inhumanism of all the national espionage combines,” so does The Prisoner offer similar methods of resistance, revelation and escape from any given year’s Village and new Number 2.

It seems redundant to mention that a show about a retired secret agent who was “disappeared” to a place where he was held and interrogated without due process was remarkably prophetic. In the intervening four decades, ubiquitous surveillance and loss of privacy have become the norm. Even the show’s torture, though often science fictional, strikes a chord with any human rights advocates considering current events. But it was McGoohan’s genius to transcend the pop conventions of 1960s media spy fare in offering something more allegorical, surreal and cerebral. The Prisoner’s influence on other media, most notably on Lost, should be apparent. The short-lived Nowhere Man and even story arcs in Buffy the Vampire Slayer owe much to the show.

While McGoohan has resisted the many different interpretations and expressed disdain for cultish fans, structurally and symbolically his show seems akin to multi-layered Sufi teaching-stories. Pointedly, its last episode pay-off is notable for its defiance of genre conventions, its somewhat dated freak-out exposition, and daunting openness to interpretation. The very aspects which angered most fans are also the things that give the show universality while, in open reverence for the right of “the individual to be individual,” offering so much in the way of individual interpretation, depending on what one brings to the viewing experience. It has often been noted that McGoohan artfully deals with themes that will be familiar to any reader of Philip K. Dick, George Orwell and Franz Kafka. But it is seldom mentioned that there is much here for consideration of those who cherish the works of Jilaladin Rumi, Ibn Arabi and Aleister Crowley.


Four decades later, The Prisoner is more relevant than ever. Our shrinking Global Village stands exposed. The ways in which we are all, in one way or another, prisoners are all too apparent. Freedom seems like an ever-receding goal. Escape has been sublimated and replaced by escapism. Too often we rail at external authority without due consideration for the authority that is implicit in our own domestic apathy or the corporate media simulacrum that dictates everything from what’s newsworthy to fashion and behavior.


Like the best art, The Prisoner will change and teach us if we let it. Its dystopian dream remains all too familiar. Its techniques for resistance and escape remain useful. And its challenge to be a free individual is timeless and inspirational.

The door to your cell is open. What will you do now?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Bougainville, Diderot and The Earthly Paradise

Denis Diderot accompanied Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the explorer, navigator and mathematician, on his global circumnavigation/ voyage to the South Pacific. I became interested in Bougainville's voyage because my father walked in his footsteps as a Marine in World War II and was part of the first wave attack on Bougainville's eponymous island. Diderot's essay takes Bougainville's arrival at Tahiti as its point of departure.

Diderot's essay, with its colorful dialogues, seems to be a mixture of French Utopianism (many of the French, including Gaugin, regarded the South Pacific islands as the real Earthly Paradise), social satire of European mores, and philosophical/ anthropological observations. Bougainville's voyage and Diderot's commentary sparked Jean-Jacques Rousseau's thinking and led to the sterotype of the "noble savage." Pointed observations regarding sex and religion are particularly interesting and often amusing. The entire essay can be found here or collected in The Libertine Reader.

As this excerpt opens, the ship's chaplain has succumbed to the charms of Orou's youngest daughter, despite earlier protestations. His exchange with Orou continues:

OROU: "I see my daughter is well satisfied with thee and I thank thee. But pray tell me what is this word religion, that thou didst repeat so often and with so much pain?"

The chaplain, after reflecting for a moment, answered: "Who made thy cabin and its articles of furniture?"
OROU: I did.
CHAPLAIN: Very well. We believe that this world and all it contains is the work of a workman.
OROU: Then he has feet, hands and a head?
OROU: Where does he live?
CHAPLAIN: Everywhere.
OROU: Here too?
OROU: We have never seen him.
CHAPLAIN: He is not to be seen.
OROU: A poor sort of father! He must be old. For he must be at least as old as his handiwork.
CHAPLAIN: He never grows old. He has spoken to our ancestors: he has given them laws: and has prescribed the manner in which he would be honoured. He has ordained for them certain actions as good and forbidden them others as bad.
OROU: I see, and one of those actions he has forbidden as bad is to sleep with a woman or girl. Why then has he made two sexes?
CHAPLAIN: For union, but on certain fixed conditions and after certain preliminary ceremonies, as a result of which a man belongs to a woman and belongs to her alone. A woman belongs to a man and belongs to a man alone.
OROU: For their whole life?
CHAPLAIN: For their whole life.
OROU: So that if a woman slept with anyone else than her husband and a husband with anyone else than his wife -- but the case can never arise, for since the workman is there and disapproves of it, he knows how to stop them.
CHAPLAIN: No, he lets them go their way, and they sin against the law of God (for that is what we call the great workman) and the law of the land; and they commit a crime.
OROU: I should hate to offend you with my remarks, but with your permission, I will give you my opinion.
OROU: I find these singular precepts opposed to nature and contrary to reason: they needs must multiply the number of crimes and continually annoy the old workman, who has made everything without the help of head, hands, or tools, who exists everywhere and is to be seen nowhere: who endures to-day and to-morrow and is never a day the older: who commands and is never obeyed: who can prevent and does not do so. These precepts are contrary to nature because they presuppose that a thinking, feeling, free being can be the property of another like himself. Upon what can this right be founded? Do you not see that, in your country, you have mixed up two different things? That which has neither feeling, thought, desire nor will, and which one can take, keep or exchange, without its suffering or complaining; and that which cannot be exchanged or acquired: which has liberty, will, desires: which can give itself and refuse itself for a single instant, or for ever: which complains and suffers: which could not become a mere article of commerce without its character being forgotten and violence done to its nature? These precepts are contrary to the general law of existence. Does anything really appear to thee more senseless than a precept which refuses to admit the change which is in ourselves: which insists on a constancy which has no counterpart in us and which violates the liberty of male and female, by chaining them for ever one to the other: more senseless than a constancy which confines the most capricious of pleasures to a single person: than an oath of immutability between two fleshly beings in the face of a heaven which is not a moment the same: under caverns that threaten ruin: beneath a rock that falls in powder: at the foot of a tree that cracks: upon a stone that breaks in pieces? Believe me, you have made the condition of men worse than that of animals. I know not who thy great workman is. But I am glad he has never spoken to our fathers and I hope he never speaks to our children. For he might say the same silly things to them and they might be silly enough to believe him. Yesterday at supper thou toldest of magistrates and priests, whose authority rules your conduct. But tell me, are they lords of good and evil? Can they make what is just unjust, and what is unjust just? Does it rest with them to label good actions harmful and harmful actions innocent or useful? Thou canst not well admit it, for then there would be neither true nor false, good nor bad, beautiful nor ugly, except in so far as thy great workman, thy magistrates and priests thought good to say so. Then from one moment to another thou wouldst be compelled to change thy opinion and thy conduct. One day one of thy three masters would give the order kill and thou wouldst be obliged, in conscience, to kill. Another day steal and thou wouldst have to steal; or, Do not eat this fruit and thou wouldst not dare eat it; or, I forbid thee this fruit or animal and thou couldst not touch it. There is no goodness they could not forbid thee: no wickedness they could not order. And where wouldst thou be if thy three masters, falling out among themselves, took it into their heads to permit, enjoin and forbid the same thing as I am sure often happens? Then to please the priest, thou must needs quarrel with the magistrate: to satisfy the magistrate, thou must anger the great workman; and to be agreeable to the great workman, turn thy back on nature. Knowest thou what will happen? Thou willst get to despise all three! be neither man, citizen, nor pious person: thou wilt be nothing: on bad terms with all sorts of authority and with thyself: wicked, tormented in heart: persecuted by thy insensate masters: and wretched as I saw thee yesterday evening when I presented my wife and daughters to thee and thou didst cry out: "But my religion, but my calling." Dost thou wish to know what is good and bad in all times and all places? Cling to the nature of things and actions: to thy relations with those like thee: to the influence of thy conduct on thy private convenience and the public good. Thou art mad if thou thinkest there be anything, high or low, in the universe which can supplement or be subtracted from the law of nature. Her eternal will is that good be preferred to evil and public to private good. Thou mayest aver the opposite but thou wilt not be obeyed. Thou wilt multiply the number of malefactors and those made wretched by fear, punishment or remorse. Thou wilt deprave men's consciences and corrupt their minds. They will no longer know what to do or what to avoid. Troubled in their state of innocence, calm in sin, they will have lost their pole-star on their journey. Answer me frankly. In spite of the express order of thy three legislators, does a young man in your country never sleep with a girl without their permission?
CHAPLAIN: I should lie, if I asserted it.
OROU: And does the woman, who has sworn to belong only to her husband, never give herself to another?
CHAPLAIN: Nothing is commoner.
OROU: In these cases thy legislators either do or do not take action. If they do, they are wild beasts who make war on nature. If not, they are imbeciles, who have exposed their authority to contempt by a useless prohibition.
CHAPLAIN: The guilty ones, when they escape the severity of the law, are chastised by public disapproval.
OROU:: You mean that justice functions through the absence of common sense in a whole nation: that a maniacal public opinion does duty for the laws.
CHAPLAIN: The girl who has been dishonoured can no longer find a husband.
OROU: Dishonoured! Why?
CHAPLAIN: The faithless wife is more or less despised.
OROU:: Despised! Why?
CHAPLAIN: The young man is called a cowardly seducer.
OROU: Cowardly! A seducer! Why?
CHAPLAIN: Father, mother and children are heart-broken: the flighty husband is a libertine: the betrayed husband shares his wife's disgrace.
OROU:: What a monstrous tissue of extravagances are you detailing to me! And even now thou hast not yet told me everything. For the moment men are allowed to regulate at will notions of justice and property, to endow things with some particular character or deprive them of it arbitrarily, to associate good and bad with certain actions or the reverse, then, by consulting only their own caprice, the men become censorious, vindictive, suspicious, tyrannical, envious, jealous, deceitful, uncomfortable, secretive, dissimulating. They spy, they cheat, they quarrel, they lie. Daughters impose on their parents, husbands on their wives, wives on their husbands. Girls, yes, I am sure of it, girls will suffocate their children: suspicious parents will despise and neglect theirs; mothers will abandon them to the mercy of fate: crime and debauchery will appear in all their forms. I know it all, as well as if I had lived among you. It is so, because it cannot be otherwise: and thy society, which your chief praises for its order, turns out to be only a collection of hypocrites, who secretly stamp the laws under foot: or unfortunates who are themselves the instruments of their own torture by submitting to such laws: or imbeciles in whom prejudice has completely stifled the law of nature: or beings of feeble organism, in whom nature does not claim her rights.
CHAPLAIN: There is a resemblance certainly. So you have no marriage then?
OROU: Yes, we marry.
CHAPLAIN: What is marriage with you?
OROU: Agreement to share the same hut and sleep in the same bed as long as we wish to do so.
CHAPLAIN: And When you wish to no longer?
OROU: We separate.
CHAPLAIN: And what happens to the children?
OROU: Ah, stranger! Thy last question finally reveals to me the profound misery of thy country. Know, my friend, that here the birth of a child is always a source of happiness and its death a subject for regrets and tears. A child is a precious possession because it will become a man. So our care for them is quite different from our care for our plants and animals. The birth of a child is the occasion of domestic and public joy. It means an increase of fortune for the cabin and of strength for the nation, arms and hands the more in Tahiti. We see in him a farmer, a fisherman, a hunter, a soldier, a husband, a father. When a wife passes back from the cabin of her husband to that of her parents, she brings with her the children she had taken as a dowry: a division is made of those born during cohabitation: and as far as possible we share out the males and females so that each one may have about the same number of boys and girls.
CHAPLAIN: But children are for a long time a source of expense before doing any service in return.
OROU: We put aside for their upkeep and as provision for old people one-sixth of all the country's fruits. This tribute follows them everywhere. So you see a Tahitien family becomes richer the larger it grows.
CHAPLAIN: A sixth part!
OROU: Yes. It is a sure way of increasing the population and of interesting it in the respect due to old age and the rearing of children.
CHAPLAIN: Do your married couples sometimes take each other back again?
OROU: Very often. Meanwhile the shortest period of a marriage is from one moon to another.
CHAPLAIN: Unless the woman is with child; then cohabitation lasts at least nine months.
OROU: Thou art mistaken. Paternity like the tribute follows the child everywhere.
CHAPLAIN: Thou hast told me that a woman brings her children as a dowry to her husband?
OROU: Certainly. Take my eldest child, who has three children: they walk: they are healthy: they are handsome: they promise to be strong: when she takes it into her head to marry, she will take them with her; they are hers: her husband will receive them joyfully; and he would be all the more pleased with his wife were she about to have a fourth.
CHAPLAIN: By himself, I presume.
OROU: By himself or somebody else. The more children our daughters have, the more they are in demand. The robuster and stronger our boys are, the richer they are: and so we pay as much attention to preserving our girls from the approach of men and men from dealings with women before the fruitful age as to exhorting them to have children, when the boys have reached the age of puberty and the girls are nubile. You cannot imagine the importance of the service you will have rendered my daughter Thia if you have got her with child. Her mother will no longer say to her each month, "But Thia, what are you thinking about? You do not become pregnant. You are nineteen. You should have had two children already and you have not got any. Who is going to look after you? If you waste your youth like this, what will you do when you are old? Thia, you must have some fault that keep men away. Take yourself in hand, my child. By your age I had had three children."