Writing ... psychedelia

Spukken trippen 2

How can we acknowledge the multiplied linguistic effects of tripping? By coming up with another single name than ‘psychedelia’, already burdened by so much luggage? But which name? When subsumed under oneness or misconstrued as an origin of anything, we will have already lost the plot of this no-one-thing that—if you treat it right—can undo representation. For now we can make do with using its many-dom against notions of any single direction or main track. A drug is a remedy, always and only a means. It is a metaxu, to borrow from Simone Weil: an intermediary between the soul and God, and in this way one of those “relative and mixed good things (home, country, traditions, culture) which warm and nourish the soul and without which, short of sainthood, human life is not possible.” But as Weil points out, once we have realised this we are already moving away from them as such. The metaxu is now something else, another type of operation within the total structure.

Vladimir Nabokov’s 1962 novel Pale Fire takes its name from the eponymous 999-line poem penned by one of its two central characters, the unassuming academic John Shade. Famously, however, the bulk of the novel consists of annotations to the poem—a glut of running commentary and literary criticism written by Shade’s colleague and next door neighbour Charles Kinbote. Flipping back and forth between poem and notes, the reader finds herself bogged down in Kinbote’s fine print. His parasitical notes become progressively longer and increasingly personal, until they eventually usurp the poem they are supposed to elucidate. According to Kinbote’s self-proclaimed hermeneutic brilliance, the poem “Pale Fire” turns out to actually be about… Kinbote himself! From the enormously irritating critic’s warped perspective, Shade has disseminated pointed references throughout the poem’s four long cantos to Kinbote, his insightful primal reader. In this way, Kinbote writes, Shade clearly had in mind to acknowledge “all the many subliminal debts to me…”

This tendency is native to psychedelia, too. In so many ways it lives in the footnotes, sprouting away down there, more or less acknowledged by the main text, at risk to be claimed by an ego.

Psychedelia is a non-substance, a mediator, that feeds the supplementary and the gratuitous, and that is itself fueled and accelerated by wandering anecdotes and free associations. The body of psychedelia is constituted by many small histories, an indiscriminate assembly of loose and disparate matter. And yet the minor history of psychedelia tends to come full-circle and grow to a superform, bringing it all back home, repossessing difference under its own name, coined in 1956 by psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in correspondence with Aldous Huxley, but according to LSD guru Timothy Leary representing a “billion-year old energy dance”: the One, the Total, the Absolute: the Psychedelic, the Psychedelic, the Psychedelic. It wants to make you believe that it is “the Diamond suspended from the Christmas Tree of the Cosmos”—Nabokov again, this time in Bend Sinister. In this way, psychedelia mirrors Charles Kinbote’s literary narcissism that allows him to only see himself, seeing only “so many subliminal debts to me.” Beware, because there is entropy at work that fouls the play and lets imagination go to the dogs. Just as Foucault the sex genealogist threw his hands up and (counter-intuitively) despaired that “sex is boring,” also moine trippiste and proto-psychedelic pioneer Henri Michaux exclaimed that “les drogues nous ennuient.” It is not that you can get too much of a good thing, and it is not that they don’t do their work. They can just be so boring when you realize that their action lies elsewhere. 1

Somewhere in his hunt for the mandatory expanded consciousness in How To Change Your Mind (2018), Michael Pollan pops a rare footnote on the—supposedly marginal— subject of how “words or metaphors…inevitably deform the experience.” Pollan writes: “Henri Michaux, a contemporary of Huxley’s who also wrote about his psychedelic experiences, took a very different tact, refusing the offer of metaphor to make sense of something he believed was beyond comprehension. In his book Miserable Miracle, he aimed to be ‘attentive to what’s going on—as it is—without trying to deform it and imagine it otherwise in order to make it more interesting to me.’ Or sensible to his readers: the book is intermittently brilliant but for long stretches unreadable. ‘I had no longer any authority over words. I no longer knew how to manage them. Farewell to writing!’ I know what he means, but I’ve elected to resist, even if that means tolerating some measure of deformation in my account.” Allow me to fume in all colours now: “I know what he means, but I’ve elected to resist”??!!?! This has to be the most gnomic tripe ever uttered on Michaux, not to mention on the issue of experience and language in psychedelia. So bestselling Pollan decided against writing a masterpiece like Miserable Miracle, leaving instead no stone unturned in his meticulous mapping of US third wave psychedelia and its 20th century US history, and venturing into participant observation too. But this is so much more than a question of methodology: as if tripping didn’t (((always already))) have to do with language. While Michaux allows his text to enact deformation as constitutive to experience, Pollan, on the other hand, operates the control metrics of form and content, inside and outside, self and world, in an expedient dialectic that is reductive to both the trip and to the language in which it is impressed, and whose journalistic conservatism affects the common sensical notion that language and experience are distinct entities because the latter, supposedly, is “mine.” All the many subliminal debts to me… The middlebrow skepticism of the symbolic in itself. Doesn’t change always come from the margins, from below, and with the awareness that all experience is mediated?

1 I originally wrote the paragraphs on Nabokov, brushed up and retrofitted here, in the introduction to Bulletins of the Serving Library #4, 2012, for which they were collectively edited by Dexter Bang Sinister (Stuart Bailey, Angie Keefer, David Reinfurt).

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