Michael Grasso / August 13, 2019
High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies
By Erik Davis
Strange Attractor Press/MIT Press, 2019
Two months ago, I devoured Erik Davis’s magisterial 2019 book High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies the same weekend I got it, despite its 400-plus pages of sometimes dense, specialist prose. And for the past two months I have tried, in fits and starts, to gather together my thoughts on it—failing every single time. Sometimes it’s been for having far too much to say about the astonishing level of detail and philosophical depth contained within. Sometimes it’s been because the book’s presentation of the visionary mysticism of three Americans in the 1970s—ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna, parapolitical trickster Robert Anton Wilson, and paranoid storyteller-mystic Philip K. Dick—has hit far too close to home for me personally, living in the late 2010s in a similarly agitated political (and mystical) state. In short, High Weirdness has seemed to me, sitting on my bookshelf, desk, or in my backpack, like some cursed magical grimoire out of Weird fiction—a Necronomicon or The King in Yellow, perhaps—and I became obsessed with its spiraling exploration of the unfathomable universe above and the depthless soul below. It has proven itself incapable of summary in any linear, rationalist way.
So let’s dispense with rationalism for the time being. In the spirit of High Weirdness, this review will try to weave an impressionistic, magical spell exploring the commonalities Davis unveils between the respective life’s work and esoteric, drug-aided explorations of McKenna, Wilson, and Dick: explorations that were an attempt to construct meaning out of a world that to these three men, in the aftermath of the cultural revelations and revolutions of the 1960s that challenged the supposed wisdom and goodness of American hegemony, suddenly offered nothing but nihilism, paranoia, and despair. These three men were all, in their own unique ways, magicians, shamans, and spiritualists who used the tools at their disposal—esoteric traditions from both East and West; the common detritus of 20th century Weird pop culture; technocratic research into the human mind, body, and soul; and, of course, psychedelic drugs—to forge some kind of new and desperately-needed mystical tradition in the midst of the dark triumph of the Western world’s rationalism.
A longtime aficionado of Weird America, Davis writes in the introduction to High Weirdness about his own early encounters with Philip K. Dick’s science fiction, the Church of the SubGenius, and other underground strains of the American esoteric in the aftermath of the ’60s and ’70s. As someone who came late in life to a postgraduate degree program (High Weirdness was Davis’s doctoral dissertation for Rice University’s Religion program, as part of a curriculum focus on Gnosticism, Esotericism, and Mysticism), I find it incredibly easy to identify with Davis’s desire to tug at the edges of his longtime association with and love for the Weird in a scholarly context. This book’s scholarly origins do not make High Weirdness unapproachable to the layperson, however. While Davis does delve deeply into philosophical and spiritual theorists and the context of American mysticism throughout the book, he provides succinct and germane summaries of this long history, translating the work of thinkers as diverse as early 20th century psychologist and student of religious and mystical experience William James to contemporary theorists such as Peter Sloterdijk and Mark Fisher. Davis’s introduction draws forth in great detail the long tradition of admitting the ineffable, the scientifically-inexplicable, into the creation of subjective, individual mystical experiences.
Primary among Davis’s foundational investigations, binding together all three men profiled in the book, is a full and thorough accounting of the question, “Why did these myriad mystical experiences all occur in the first half of the 1970s?” It’s a fairly common historical interpretation to look at the Nixon years in America as a hangover from the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, a retrenchment of Nixon’s “silent majority” of middle- and working-class whites vs. the perceived chaos of a militant student movement and identity-based politics among racial and sexual minorities. Davis admits that the general mystical seeking that went on in the early ’70s is a reaction to this revanchism. And while he quotes Robert Anton Wilson’s seeming affirmation of this idea—“The early 70s were the days when the survivors of the Sixties went a bit nuts”—his interest in the three individuals at the center of his study allows him to delve deeper, offering a more profound explanation of the politics and metaphysics of the era. In the immediate aftermath of the assassinations, the political and social chaos, and the election of Nixon in 1968, there was an increased tendency among the younger generation to seek alternatives to mass consumption culture, to engage in what leftist philosopher Herbert Marcuse would term “the Great Refusal.” All three of the figures Davis focuses on in this book, at some level or another, decided to opt out of what their upbringings and conformist America had planned for them, to various levels of harm to their livelihoods and physical and mental health. This refusal was part of an awareness of what a suburban middle-class life had excised from human experience: a sense of meaning-making, of a more profound spirituality detached from the streams of traditional mainline American religious life.
To find something new, the three men at the center of High Weirdness were forced to become bricoleurs—cobbling together a “bootstrap witchery,” in Davis’s words—from real-world occult traditions (both Eastern and Western); from the world of Cold War technocratic experimentation with cybernetics, neuroscience, psychedelics, and out-and-out parapsychology; and from midcentury American pop culture, including science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and pulp fiction. Davis intriguingly cites Dick’s invention of the term “kipple” in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as a key concept in understanding how this detritus can be patched together and brought new life. Given Dick’s overall prescience in predicting our 21st century world of social atomization and disrepair, this seems a conceptual echo worth internalizing a half-century later. If the late 1960s represented a mini-cataclysm that showed a glimpse of what a world without the “Black Iron Prison” might look like, those who graduated to the 1970s—the ones who “went a bit nuts”—needed to figure out how to survive by utilizing the bits and scraps left behind after the sweeping turbulence blew through. In many ways, McKenna, Wilson, and Dick are all post-apocalyptic scavengers.
All three men used drugs extensively, although not necessarily as anthropotechnics specifically designed to achieve enlightenment (Davis notes that Dick in particular had preexisting psychological conditions that, in conjunction with his prodigious use of amphetamines in the 1960s, were likely one explanation for his profound and sudden breaks with consensus reality in the ’70s). But we should also recognize (as Davis does) that McKenna, Wilson, and Dick were also, in many ways, enormously privileged. As well-educated scions of white America, born between the Great Depression and the immediate aftermath of World War II, they had the luxury to experiment with spirituality, psychedelic drugs, and technology to various degrees while holding themselves consciously separate from the mainstream institutions that would eventually co-opt and recuperate many of these strains of spirituality and individual seeking into the larger Spectacle. As Davis cannily notes, “Perhaps no one can let themselves unravel into temporary madness like straight white men.” But these origins also help explain the expressly technocratic bent of many of their hopes (McKenna) and fears (Wilson and Dick). Like their close confederate in Weirdness, Thomas Pynchon (who spent his early adulthood working for defense contractor Boeing, an experience which allowed him a keener avenue to his literary critiques of 20th century America), all three men were adjacent to larger power structures that alternately thrilled and repelled them, and which also helped form their specific esoteric worldviews.
It would be a fool’s errand to try to summarize the seven central chapters of the book, which present in great detail Terence (and brother Dennis) McKenna’s mushroom-fueled experiences contacting a higher intelligence in La Chorrera, Colombia in 1971, Robert Anton Wilson’s LSD-and-sex-magick-induced contact with aliens from the star Sirius in 1973 and ’74 as detailed in his 1977 book Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, and Philip K. Dick’s famous series of mystical transmissions and revelations in February and March of 1974, which influenced not only his fiction output for the final eight years of his life but also his colossal “Exegesis,” which sought to interpret these mystical revelations in a Christian and Gnostic context. Davis’s book is out there and I can only encourage you to buy a copy, read these chapters, and revel in their thrilling detail, exhilarating madness, and occasional absurdity. Time and time again, Davis, like a great composer of music, returns to his greater themes: the environment that created these men gave them the tools and technics to blaze a new trail out of the psychological morass of Cold War American culture. At the very least, I can present some individual anecdotes from each of the three men’s mystical experiences, as described by Davis, that should throw some illumination on how they explored their own psyches and the universe using drugs, preexisting religious/esoteric ritual, and the pop cultural clutter that had helped shape them.
Davis presents a chapter focusing on each man’s life leading up to his respective spiritual experiences, followed by a chapter (in the case of Philip K. Dick, two) on his mystical experience and his reactions to it. For Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis, their research into organic psychedelics such as the DMT-containing yagé (first popularized in the West in the Cold War period by William S. Burroughs), alternately known as oo-koo-hé or ayahuasca, led them to South America to find the source of these natural, indigenous entheogens. But at La Chorrera in Colombia they instead met the plentiful and formidable fungus Psilocybe cubensis. In their experiments with the mushroom, Terence and Dennis tuned into perceived resonances with long-dormant synchronicities within their family histories, their childhood love of science fiction, and with the larger universe. Eventually, Dennis, on a more than week-long trip on both mushrooms and ayahuasca, needed to be evacuated from the jungle, but not before he had acted as a “receiver” for cryptic hyper-verbal transmissions, the hallucinogens inside him a “vegetable television” tuned into an unseen frequency—a profound shamanic state that Terence encouraged. The language of technology, of cybernetics, of science is never far from the McKenna brothers’ paradigm of spirituality; the two boys who had spent their childhoods reading publications like Analog and Fate, who had spent their young adulthoods studying botany and science while deep in the works of Marshall McLuhan (arguably a fellow psychedelic mystic who, like the McKennas and Wilson, was steeped in a Catholic cultural tradition), used the language they knew to explain their outré experiences.
Wilson spent his 20s as an editor for Playboy magazine’s letters page and had thus been exposed to the screaming gamut of American political paranoia (while contributing to it in his own inimitable prankster style). He had used this parapolitical wilderness of mirrors, along with his interest in philosophical and magickal orientations such as libertarianism, Discordianism, and Crowleyian Thelema as fuel for both the Illuminatus! trilogy of books written with Robert Shea (published in 1975), and his more than year-long psychedelic-mystical experience in 1973 and 1974, during which he claimed to act as a receiver on an “interstellar ESP channel,” obtaining transmissions from the star Sirius. His experiences as detailed in Cosmic Trigger involve remaining in a prolonged shamanic state (what Wilson called the “Chapel Perilous,” a term redolent with the same sort of medievalism as the McKenna brothers’ belief that they would manifest the Philosopher’s Stone at La Chorrera), providing Wilson with a constant understanding of the universe’s playfully unnerving tendency towards coincidence and synchronicity. Needless to say, the experiences of one Dr. John C. Lilly, who was also around this precise time tuned into ostensible gnostic communications from a spiritual supercomputer, mesh effortlessly with Wilson’s (and Dick’s) experiences thematically; Wilson even used audiotapes of Lilly’s lectures on cognitive meta-programming to kick off his mystical trances. Ironically, it was UFO researcher and keen observer of California’s 1970s paranormal scene Jacques Vallée who helped to extract Wilson out of the Chapel Perilous—by retriggering his more mundane political paranoia, saying that UFOs and other similar phenomena were instruments of global control. In Davis’s memorable words, “Wilson did not escape the Chapel through psychiatric disenchantment but through an even weirder possibility.”
Philip K. Dick, who was a famous science fiction author at the dawn of the ’70s, had already been through his own drug-induced paranoias, political scrapes, and active Christian mystical seeking. Unlike McKenna and Wilson, Dick was a Protestant who had stayed in close contact with his spiritual side throughout adulthood. In his interpretation of his mystical 2-3-74 experience, Dick uses the language and epistemology of Gnostic mystical traditions two millennia old. Davis also notes that Dick used the plots of his own most overtly political and spiritual ’60s output to help him understand and interpret his transcendent experiences. Before he ever heard voices or received flashes of information from a pink laser beam or envisioned flashes of the Roman Empire overlapping with 1970s Orange County California, Dick’s 1960s novels, specifically The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) and Ubik (1969), had explored the very nature of reality and admitted the possibility of a Gnostic universe run by unknowable, cruel demiurges. Even in these hostile universes, however, there exists a messenger of hope and mercy who seeks to destroy the illusion of existence and bring relief. These existing pieces of cultural and religious “kipple,” along with the parasocial aspects of Christian belief that were abroad in California at the time, such as the Jesus People movement (the source of the Ichthys fish sign that triggered the 2-3-74 experience), gave Dick the equipment he needed to make sense of the communications he received and the consoling realization that he was not alone, that he was instead part of an underground spiritual movement that acted as a modern-day emanation of the early Christian church.
After learning about these three figures’ shockingly similar experiences with drug-induced contact with beyond, the inevitable question emerges: what were all these messages, these transmissions from beyond, trying to convey? One common aspect of all three experiences is how cryptic they are (and how difficult and time-consuming it was for each of these men to interpret just what the messages were saying). It’s also a little sobering to discover through Davis’s accounts how personal all three experiences were, whether it’s Terence and Dennis’s private fraternal language during the La Chorrera experiment, or mysterious phone calls placed back in time to their mother in childhood, or a lost silver key that Dennis was able to, stage-magician-like, conjure just as they were discussing it, or the message Philip K. Dick received to take his son Christopher to the doctor for an inguinal hernia that could have proven fatal. But alongside these personal epiphanies, there is also always an undeniable larger social and political context, especially as both Wilson and Dick saw their journeys in 1973 and 1974 as a way to confront and deal with the intense paranoia around Watergate and the fall of Richard Nixon (in his chapter setting the scene of the ’70s, Davis calls Watergate “a mytho-poetic perversion of governance”). In every case, the message from beyond requires interpretation, meaning-making, and, in Davis’s terminology, “constructivism.” The reams of words spoken and written by all three men analyzing their respective mystical experiences are an essential part of the experience. And these personal revelations all are attempts by the three men to make sense of the chaos of both their personal lives and their existence in an oppressive 20th century technocratic society: to inject some sense of mystery into daily existence, even if it took the quasi-familiar and, yes, somewhat comforting form of transmissions from a mushroom television network or interstellar artificial intelligence.
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Over the past nine months I’ve spent much of my own life completing (and recovering from the process of completing) a Master’s degree. My own academic work, focusing on nostalgia’s uses in binding together individuals and communities with their museums, tapped into my earliest memories of museum visits in the late 1970s, when free education was seemingly everywhere (and actually free), when it was democratic and diverse, when it was an essential component of a rapidly-disappearing belief in social cohesion. In a lot of ways, my work at We Are the Mutants over the past three years is the incantation of a spell meant to conjure something new and hopeful from the “kipple” of a childhood suffused in disposable pop culture, the paranormal and “bootstrap witchery,” and science-as-progress propaganda. At the same time, over the past three years the world has been at the constant, media-enabled beck and call of a figure ten times more Weird and apocalyptic and socially malignant than any of Philip K. Dick’s various Gnostic emanations of Richard Nixon.
Philip K. Dick believed he was living through a recapitulation of the Roman Empire, that time was meaningless when viewed from the perspective of an omniscient entity like VALIS. In the correspondences and synchronicities I have witnessed over the past few months—in the collapse of political order and the revelation of profound, endemic corruption behind the scenes of the ruling class—this sense of recurring history has sent me down a similar set of ecstatic and paranoid corridors as McKenna, Wilson, and Dick. The effort to find meaning in a world that once held some inherent structure in childhood but has become, in adulthood, a hollow facade—a metaphysical Potemkin village—is profoundly unmooring. But meaning is there, even if we need technics such as psychedelic drugs, cybernetics (Davis’s final chapter summarizing how the three men’s mystical explorations fed into the internet as we know it today is absolutely fascinating), and parapolitical activity to interpret it. On this, the 50th anniversary of the summer of 1969, commonly accepted as the moment the Sixties ended, with echoes of moon landings and Manson killings reverberating throughout the cultural theater, is it any wonder that the appeal of broken psychonauts trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered world would appeal to lost souls in 2019? High Weirdness as a mystical tome remains physically and psychically close to me now, and probably will for the remainder of my life; and if the topics detailed in this review intrigue you the way they do me, it will remain close to you as well.