October 23, 2009

The transition had been a matter of seconds

A theme was touched on last night which is one of the centerpiece themes of aboriginal shamanism: the felt presence of some kind of alien intelligence. An intelligence that is somehow co-present with the human sense of self, for different people, in different ways, with varying degrees of intensity in different times and places. At the bedrock of shamanism is the notion that life is really finally a mystery wrapped in an enigma, but without resolution. Nevertheless as you close distance with this mystery there are a series of analogical metaphors that don't really suggest themselves but that are communicated to you by the other.
One of these analogical metaphors is the presence of an alien intellect, an organized other that is folklorically present in tradition as fairies, gnomes, elves, jinns, afreets, sprites, tree spirits – that sort of thing – and anecdotally present in rural cultures throughout the world as the poltergeist and the milk-souring fairy – these things seem to reside in a curious area that is not epistemically clearly defined for the culture.
Among aficionados of these domains the question of, "is it real or not?" is thought to be mildly tasteless. You would intuitively sense if you were drinking in an Irish pub and people began to spin leprechaun stories, that the question "is it real?" is a real bring down. It isn't really like that because the question "is it real?" can ultimately be shown to be infantile in any situation. I mean, is the Bank of America real? Immediately we realize that ordinary experience is simply assumption skating over the mystery.
But I choose to talk so much about the felt presence of the other because it was for me such an astonishing personal surprise. I was raised Roman-Catholic and indulged in the kind of theological fiddle-faddle that that involves. And then grew out of that into atheism, into agnosticism. By the time I got to college, I was reading Jean Paul Sartre, Husserl and these people. My intellectual ontogeny had followed historical phylogeny and I had arrived in the 20th century. And then having thought I had absorbed the lessons of LSD, which seemed to me to be to reinforce and confirm the theories of Freud concerning the dynamics of the psyche: that it was about repressed memory, repressed desire, sexual neurosis, parental foul-ups and the imprinting of traumatic behavior experienced in infancy.

And then someone came to me one rainy February evening, in 1967, really a mad person, a kind of a social menace and intellectual criminal. A person who had said to me only months before, "we must live as if the apocalypse has already happened." Here he was on my doorstep and he wore little black suits that he buttoned up to the throat. Anyway, he came in and he said: "here's something that you might be interested in" and brought out a sample of di-methyltryptamine that he had somehow come into contact with. And I said, "well what is it?" And he said, "well, it's short acting – it's a flash." And I said, "how long does it last?" – that was my first mistake. He said, "oh it doesn't last long." So I said, "okay, we'll do it," and we did it.
And I discovered, I had, I guess it's called a peak experience, or a core revelation, or being born again, or having your third eye opened, or something, which was a revelation of an alien dimension: a brightly lit, inhabited, non three-dimensional, self-contorting, sustained, organic, linguistically intending modality that couldn't be stopped or held back or denied. I mean, I sank to the floor ... I couldn't move. I had become a disystolic hallucination of tumbling forward into these fractal geometric spaces made of light, and then I found myself in the sort of auric equivalent of the Pope's private chapel, and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them. And I was aghast, completely - appalled - because the transition had been a matter of seconds and my entire expectation of the nature of the world was being shredded in front of me. I've never actually gotten over it.
And it all went on: they were speaking in some kind of ... there were these self-transforming machine-elf creatures, were speaking in some kind of colored language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Faberge eggs, but crafted out of luminescent super-conducting ceramics, and liquid crystal gels, and all this stuff was just so weird, and so alien, and so "un-english-able" that I felt like it was a complete shock. I experienced the literal turning inside-out of the intellectual universe and I had come to this – I thought – fairly intellectually prepared: a kid, but nevertheless double-Scorpio, art history major, Hieronymus Bosch fan, Moby Dick, William Burroughs.
And as I came down ... this went on for two or three minutes, this situation of disincarnate dimensions orthogonal to reality engulfing me. And then as I came out of it, and the room sort of re-assembled itself, I said: "I can't believe it. It's impossible. It's im-possible!" That to call that a "drug" is ridiculous. It means that you just don't know, you don't have a word for it and so you putter around and you come upon this very sloppy concept of something which goes into your body and there's a change – it's not like that, it's like being struck by noetic lightning.

The other thing about it, which astonished me, was: there is no clue in this world, you know. In the carpets of Central Asia, in the myths of the Maya, in the visions of an Archembolo or a Fra Angelico or a Bosch – there is not a hint, not a clue, not an atom of the presence of this thing. When you look at the religious hierophanies of the human species, it doesn't have the same vibe, it doesn't the same charge. Religion is all about dissolving into unitary states of love and trans-linguistic oceanic unity and this sort of thing. This was not like that. This was more multiplistic than the universe that we share with each other. It was almost like the victory of neo-Platonic metaphysics – everything had become made out of a fourth-dimensional tesseractual mosaic of energy.
So, I was quite knocked off my feet and set myself the goal of understanding this. There was really no choice, you see? And I don't know how it hits other people. I mean, there are many things that can be said about introducing a chemical into your body. They've shown that certain people are 50,000 times more sensitive to the odor of certain compounds than other people. And part of the unique genetic heritage of each of us are our complement of synaptic receptors for psycho-active alkaloids. So that there may be something to the notion that the Celts tend to be poets, that certain peoples tend to be expressive in certain artistic modes, or certain senses seem to be accentuated for certain human sub-groups. But whatever the explanation for how it hit me, I felt it like a call: there was no turning back from trying to understand that, because there is no place for it in our world and yet it is overwhelmingly, existentially real. You see? And easily accessed. I'm not peddling that you have to go some place in India with poor sanitation and put yourself at somebody's feet for a dozen years or something like that. The enunciation of the presence of this dimension should inspire some kind of coming to terms with it. It's preposterous that we can entertain in our popular journalism the titillation of the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and prop up all these reductionist guys and trot them out to give the statistics on the distribution of G-type stars, and all this sort of thing. Because the fact is, what blinds us to the presence of alien intelligence is linguistic and cultural bias operating on ourselves. The world which we perceive is a tiny fraction of the world which we can perceive, which is a tiny fraction of the perceivable world. You see?

We operate on a very narrow slice based on cultural conventions. So the important thing, if synergizing progress is the notion to be maximized – and I think, it's the notion to be maximized – is trying to locate the blind spot in the culture: the place where the culture isn't looking, because it dare not. Because if it were to look there, its previous values would dissolve. You see? And I think, for Western civilization that place is the psychedelic experience as it emerges out of nature. And as human societies interact with the psychedelic experience in nature, they inevitably secrete the institution of shamanism. Like a pearl around a sand grain, a nexus point, a loci of interdimensional data flow, which is really what it is. It's the point that under certain conditions, which have to do with these molecules that have evolved in these species which have this weirdly quasi-symbiotic relationship to our species, you punch through the veil! You know, Melville said: "if you would strike, strike through the mask." And that's what's done, you strike through the mask of the coordinates of apparent reality. And then, this thing is there which to me is a miracle. It transcended any miracle I could ever ask for, because it not only had the quality of a miracle as I imagined it, it had the quality of a miracle as I could not have imagined it. It was entirely charged with the energy of the other. It had the ambiguity of a pun: a kind of zany, impossible, improbable, hysterical revelation of the joke, the self-contradiction, the provisional nature of it all – that it really is a Marx Brothers movie in some sense.

So I pursued it. First to Nepal, and involvement with pre-Buddhist shamanism in Tibet. The thing that puzzled me most – I guess because I was an art historian – was this absence of the theme in the artistic productions of human kind. I felt that maybe there was a trace of it in the artistic conceptions of the old pantheon of Tibetan shamanism. And that Central Asian Tibetan shamanism had actually created astronauts of inner space that had gotten good recon on this same area. The Dharmapalas, the guardians of the Dharma, are not Buddhist deities per se, they are autochonous Tibetan folk demons that protect the Dharma by virtue of the fact of having been overcome in magical battles by great Buddhist saints who came to Tibet. In fact, there are, or were before the Chinese occupation, monasteries in Tibet where the vow of fealty to the Dharma, on the part of the Dharmapala, had to be renewed by the monks every 24 hours or the thing would run amok and be on its own and bust up the countryside – I'm just telling you what they told me.
It seemed to me that the raw sense of the shamanically accessed demonic realm was there, and I also saw traces in Hellenistic gnosticism and alchemy. But such thin traces. So I went to Nepal, immersed myself in those studies, and decided ultimately that it was inaccessible. I wasn't sure whether it was there or not. And then I placed myself in the context of nature by moving my sphere of operations to eastern Indonesia. To the climaxed, continental rain forests of the ancient continent of Sundaland. You see Indonesia was a continent until as recently as 120,000 years ago. And then with the melting of the glaciers and the subsidence of the land, it became a vast group of islands. It was my good fortune, or the fortune of my fate – because it was prudent for me at that time in the late sixties to remain outside the United States – and so I sort of had to become the hero I had pretended to my friends that I was. Which I wasn't, I had an around-the-world air ticket and was entirely a preppie poseur, but suddenly, return was not a possibility. So I became, and my apologies to Buddhists in the audience, a professional butterfly collector, and I pursued this blood sport for many months in these remote montane jungles of eastern Indonesia.
And it was there that the missing link in the quest for the resolution of the meaning of DMT and spirit fell into place. Because I saw what most of us only see on National Geographic specials, which is the real fact of the rain forest, the real fact of organic nature, and how nature is communication. Not only are the species that comprise the biota linked by pheromones and acoustical signals and color signals and other various methods by which communication is seeping around. In fact, nature ultimately resolves itself into a self-reflecting, syntactical metasystem – you can pursue this right down to the DNA. DNA working as it does with nucleotide sequences that code – code, right? code that means arbitrarily assign association – code for certain amino acids: it means that organic objects are essentially utterances in three dimensional space and express of some kind of universally distributed linguistic intent. This is what it means when it says, "In the beginning was the word." Nature is that word. This infinitely self-adumbrating, fractal, syntactical hallucination that has an infinite number of facets for potential regarding and self-regarding.

And having said all of this, I might invoke here Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, which as I'm sure many of you know was Kurt Godel's brilliant contribution to theoretical mathematics where he showed that the possible set of true formal statements, generated by any formal system, exceeded the possible set of true formal statements, which the rules of that system allowed. He showed this for simple arithmetic. And what this means, friends, is that what was called truth up until the beginning of the twentieth century, is absolutely impossible – that's what Godel's Incompleteness Theorem secures. It shows that there is no ultimate closure in an effort to describe.
And so in a way, my take on nature, and culture, and man, is that human language is a meta-linguistic system, generated out of the necessary formal incompleteness of nature. You see? If that nature is a self-describing genetic language and yet out of it arises something which is not formally predicted by its constraints and rules. There's a symmetry break there, and a so-called emergent property comes into view. This emergent property is our unique ability to provisionally code sound to meaning, so that we then can freely command and reconstruct the world. We imagine that we do this for our own purposes of communication.
The analysis that I'm suggesting would seem to indicate that actually we do it, because we are complicated enzyme systems that are moving linguistic charge around inside some kind of metasystem. A metasystem that is very important for the emergence of new order out of nature. You see? And I talked about that a little last night: the fact, that it is contrived, provisional, is very interesting. It doesn't arise out of the gene structure. Rather it is agreed upon by individuals who are living at the time that the linguistic structure, whatever it is, emerges into consciousness. Since individuals are replaced, the language is much more in flux than the genome. You see? The genetic component of an organism is a physical structure, stabilized by atomic bonds, possibly stabilized by a phenomenon like room-temperature's superconductivity. The way nature works is to conserve the genes. And so molecular machinery has evolved to do that. But there is no mechanism in nature with the same kind of binding force that conserves meaning. Meaning is some kind of freely-commanded, open-ended, self-evolving system. The rules are that there are no rules.
Meaning consequently addresses itself to a much larger potential modality of expression than the genes. The genes basically repeat themselves, over and over. Almost like Homeric poetry, where the idea is that it be memorized and repeated. And that's what sexuality is about, is memorizing and repeating gene structures, handing on parts of the story. But the epigenetic domain is different, the creation of linguistic systems, where meaning can be freely commanded, allows very rapid evolution of cultural norms.

And what I suggested last night and want to say more about it tonight is, that this process is mediated by plants. It is synergized in human beings by plants of all sorts. I mean, we are obsessed with drugs and short-term spectacular effects, but think about the effect on a culture of the presence or absence of say: sugar, or the presence or absence of coffee. What human culture can essentially be seen to be, is a series of plant-established developmental creodes for a higher mammal. The fact that we are omnivorous lays us open for the formation of weird relationships to things in our food chain. Everybody is taught in school that the Renaissance, the close of the Middle Ages, the rise of urban culture all had to do with the search for spices, right? Bringing spices back to Europe. Why was it so important, you know, that a drive to simply broaden the palate of Europe is given credit for the re-defining of post-medieval civilization? Very strange.
Hofmann and Ruck and Wasson showed that the Eleusinian mysteries, which were the philosophical and experiential linchpin of the ancient world's cosmology, the Hellenistic cosmology, was a cult of ergotized beer. There every September at Eleusis, this mystery was carried out, and everyone who was anyone participated in it. The rule was that you only got to do it once in your life so you had only one opportunity to understand it.
The point is clear: as you look in human culture in all times and places, the way in which our cultural institutions have been molded by these so-called tertiary compounds in plants is very suggestive. It seems to me that the felt presence of the other, the alien intelligence felt as being from outer space, is actually co-present with us on this earth. And that the problem is not the finding of it, but the recognizing of it when it is seen. In the same way that in the present cultural crisis everyone is crying "answers, answers, we have to have answers," the fact is we have the answers. The question is to face the answers.
The answer to self-empowerment lies in the psychedelic experience. The answer to dissolving the hierarchically-imposed set of mythical conventions that disempower us, lies in the psychedelic experience. Because what is really happening is a return to the primacy of feeling. And feeling is not something you convey to people the way you convey facts to them. Facts can be handed down every week through Time magazine, and the latest issue of Science News and Nature. But feelings will not lend themselves to that marketable, hierarchically-distributed system. And consequently, feelings represent a backwash against that. Yet feeling is the modality in which we all operate. So as long as we are under the umbrella of the print-created, linear, post-medieval institutions that promote the myth of the public, the notion of the atomic individual, the notion that we are all alike, basically, then we are going to be unempowered.
The amazing thing to me about the psychedelic experience, is that it can be kept under wraps. That people don't insist. That somehow we're leaving it to experts to figure it out. But did you know that the experts are not allowed to work it out? That in this particular area, the entire human race has been relegated to an infantile status. It is not really professionally possible to do work with these things. Nevertheless, our cultural crisis is deepening ...