Erik Davis on High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies

Reviewing Erik Davis’ High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies in his inaugural Blanks and Postage column, Jesse Jarnow hailed the book as a “virtual checklist of bizarre characters, drug cults, outré philosophers, comix artists, b-movies, religious practitioners, psych-rock acts, and perhaps hundreds of other freak flags, sewn together by Davis’s sympathetic and curious approach to the esoteric.”

Davis knows the world he writes of inside and out. He’s long covered the counterculture, exploring in own books, like 1998’s TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, in publications like Arthur, Rolling Stone, and Wired, and on his long running (currently on hiatus) podcast Expanding Mind, a staple listen of those craving the far out, but who also want a side dishes of humor, good natured skepticism, and empathy with their psychedelic feasts.

High Weirdness is his most heroic effort yet: a more than 400-page immersion (with another hundred or so dedicated to sources and notes) into the lives of Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson, figureheads of American weirdness. With these three serving as a psychic trinity to orbit, Davis is free to address the shifts in consciousness that occurred on the American West Coast in the 1970s. Though the book is scholarly in nature, Davis nonetheless brings his signature sense of play and wonder to the table—his enthusiasm permeates each page. Like his subjects, he’s interested in knowledge as a kind of adventure, its paths leading inward and outward.

Davis recently joined AD to discuss the book, riffing on its creative approach, the concept of assemblage and the role pop culture plays in it, and the implications his ideas hold for our own conspiracy-soaked, utterly strange moment in history. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Paperback and e-book editions of High Weirdness are available this month via MIT Press.

Aquarium Drunkard: Decades are tough things to classify. The “culture” of a decade doesn’t always directly correspond with its dates on the calendar. You’re writing about the “visionary ’70s” in your book. Where does that decade begin and end as far as this writing is concerned?

Erik Davis: The way I think about the early ’70s is that it’s a liminal period inside a liminal decade, a decade we don’t know what to do with. People often talk about decades being not quite in connection with the zero to the zero. The ’60s so to speak began in ’64, maybe ’63—definitely by ’64—and then what that thing is goes until, let’s say, ’75. I buy that. There’s something coherent about that organic kind of period. I’m working at the second half of that. I’m interested in what happens to the counterculture after all the flashy stuff is over. After 1970, after Kent state, after Charles Manson, during Watergate, as fears about environmental toxicity and pollution rise, as people began to fear terrorism and surveillance, experiencing the bummer a lot of people felt, partially economic in nature, partially because they were confused. I’m interested in the drift of the counterculture.

Terence McKenna.

AD: Your three main subjects in this book, Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson, all undergo primary mystical experiences, almost like their own superhero origin stories. Did you undergo something similar that solidified your understanding of how these three disparate people were linked?

Erik Davis: I think to honestly answer your question I have to talk about something I’ve only talked about this once or twice. One time probably 1982, something happened when I was probably a little stoned, meditating in front of what I called my altar in my room. It probably wasn’t really meditation; it was more like going into some kind of hypnotic trance that was juicy and yummy. Meditation and trance are doing a tango that most people don’t want to really acknowledge, but that’s another topic.

I was in this altered state and suddenly I heard a voice in my head and I knew, in the way that you know things even though you don’t have any proof, that I was tuning into a signal that was associated with some kind of satellite, some kind of non-human technology, that was out in space that I was tuning into with my mind. It was broadcasting. It wasn’t talking like a person. It was like a broadcast machine, like a robot, and it was broadcasting this message. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was like “God is love. God is everywhere in the universe. The universe is love. We are here. We know. We’re remembering.” Some kind of beacon was feeding this information, and I was like “What the fuck is going on?” It was very clear. It was a very specific signal. Then, it stopped very abruptly and it was clear that it was gone.

I haven’t had a lot of experiences like that. I’ve had weird experiences. Most on drugs—which you can kind of write off because there are drugs or psychedelics involved, so whatever. But that one was a full-blown weird experience. Obviously, it affected me, but I didn’t really make the connection. It wasn’t like I remembered this event and then identified with it and was like, “Oh my god, what was that? I have to find out the answer! Now I’m gonna study UFOS and mystical contact,” or anything like that. It wasn’t so linear. I didn’t really think about it very much, but I do believe that when I encountered all three of these guys, at different points in my life, there was a sense of, “Whoa, that’s kind of familiar! There’s something there!”

Something enabled me to see some continuity between them and other people as well, shared aspects connecting the paranormal, psychedelic, UFO, druggie under-culture, mystical, and new age scenes—that whole world. If there was something that informed my understanding of an experience that connects them, it was probably that.

Meditation and trance are doing a tango that most people don’t want to really acknowledge, but that’s another topic.

AD: Early in the book you refer to “a strange loop of cultural play,” in which things begin to feed into other things, informing and shaping them. As you discuss P.K.D., McKenna, and R.A.W., you’re folding in pop culture—science fiction, drugs, Mad Magazine, H.P. Lovecraft. Could you tell me a little bit more about the constructive aim of the book, and how these other elements aren’t side notes as much as integral parts of the entire story?

Erik Davis: Of all my books, this is the one most focused on this idea of assemblage. Through your concepts, references, allusions, and symbols, things you grab from other systems, through your own obsessions, your own psychology, you build these contraptions. They might be books, they might be theories, they might be lifestyles, they might be new personality avatars or whatever, but they do something. They take on a life of their own.

That’s one of the motifs in the book. You build something; you construct something; you assemble something, and then at a certain point in the right situation, it begins to move and clank. It maybe even starts giving you messages or starts talking. It takes on a life of its own. It’s like how a poem released from the poet goes into the world. It speaks to people, and it might even speak to the poet in a way that the poet never expected. I’m really interested, particularly, in the heterogeneous quality of these assemblages, meaning they’re made up of lots of different kinds of things, and that’s very representative of the era. You have this kind of collage or junk aesthetic, where you put bits of this together with bits of that, building something out of random references, pieces from different religious traditions, from psychology, drug lore, and alternative media. There’s so much stuff to build out of and that’s what these guys are doing.

AD: McKenna comes first. How did he go about that process of assemblage?

Erik Davis: Whatever you want to say that Terence McKenna experienced, one of the things that’s happening is he’s building a framework of meaning, a framework of understanding, a framework of experience, out of the bits and pieces of his life and time. In a way, it’s not that radical of a claim but I think there’s something more magical in that process than a lot of people. The typical historian would say, “Well to understand Terence McKenna you have to put him in historical context. It was a time of this. It was a time of that.” No, no, no. It’s different than that. I’m saying that they’re actually building something. When you look at what Terence and Dennis McKenna are doing with the experiment at La Chorrera, they’re not just like, “Hey, let’s take a bunch of drugs and see what’s happening!”

They’re coming up with these crazy ideas, this sort of pseudo-science, visionary science, alternative science, wild science, that has chunks of actual science in it mixed with ritual, H.P. Lovecraft, the absence produced by the recent death of their mother. All of these things get literally assembled like a Rube Goldberg machine or a circuit board. They get plugged together, and then they start to like move around and resonate and then zammo! Something happens, and they have this extraordinary experience.

From Robert Crumb’s comic on Dick’s religious experience, from Weirdo, #17 (1981)

AD: Dick worked primarily in fiction, so he was already building worlds, but he experienced a similarly evocative kind of conversion too.

Erik Davis: The funny thing about the Exegesis, this million word, private, metaphysical diary Dick wrote after his mystical experience, this messy text in which he’s constantly coming up with new cosmologies, new possibilities, paranoid conspiracies, crazy, and depressive freakouts, is that most of his ideas—religious, cosmological, and mystical—are very much concerned with transcendence. They’re very much concerned with the other world, not the broken world we’re stuck in, but the world of God, or the world of the platonic forms, a world of valor, truth, the soul, or whatever. Very much driven in a way that’s true of a lot of religions, where it’s about this other world that’s outside of our world. In the book I cite author James Burton, who says that even though the content of a lot of it is very transcendental, the form of it, what he’s actually doing, is extremely immanent, meaning it’s very much about this world and about assemblage.

It’s like he’s taking these ideas. He’s sticking them together. He’s seeing what happens when he sticks them into this circuit, and then he breaks them apart again, and he puts them into another arrangement. He’s grabbing chunks from the encyclopedia, he’s grabbing from these sort of metaphysical systems. Are there two things? Are there three things? Is there a line between them? Do they invert? It’s almost like a sort of doodley diagram of all these metaphysical principles and he just keeps doing it over and over and over. In a way, he’s in a workshop building, constructing, assemblaging, collaging, juxtaposing, working the material action of putting things together and seeing what happens when you do so. A lot of what interested me is the tension between those two. Even though I’m fascinated by religion, religious experiences, ideas of the gods, ideas of other realms, ideas of nirvana, in a way I’m more interested in what we are actually doing here in this world with all the fragments and the inspirations and the chunks of stuff and the symbol systems and the soggy paperbacks, old comic books, and the weird signals we’re getting from our phones. I’m very much in this world and interested in how that approach can sort of give us another angle on that transcendental quest.

AD: In 2019, it sometimes feels like consensus reality is in a state of disrepair. As you were putting this book together, were you struck by the realization that people are undergoing this sort of radical assemblage every day, often without even realizing it?

Erik Davis: Very much so. And more so as I wrote, especially when I wrote about Robert Anton Wilson talking about reality tunnels. He is really trying to imagine what does it mean to think about the world through multiple lenses, to be really radically pluralist. One of the things I’m trying to do is understand how that works. While I don’t spend too much time looking really directly at the implications that this has for today, it definitely haunts the book, especially at the end. I’m very pluralistic and what that means is that I’m not really sure if it makes any sense to argue about whether or not, at the end of the day, there’s really just one world. We wake up in the world when we’re kids and there are different things going on, the tooth fairy or whatever, and then somewhere along the way we’re at school and we learn how to philosophically think and be critical and start to be aware of how language relates to reality. Somewhere along the way you go, Whoa, this is crazy, the situation we’re in because what it looks like is that there are these multiple ways of constructing reality.”

It’s not that there are multiple perspectives on reality. In that view, there’s one world, and then everybody’s got their own perspective. But what if it’s weirder than that? What if it’s the case that our perspectives, and particularly when those perspectives are wedded to actions, actually produce different, let’s call them dimensions of the real? That it’s not just that we have different perspectives, but we’re actually kind of building, constructing, different kinds of worlds. Now, are they ultimately part of one world? Yeah, but not in a simple way. I don’t believe that when you say, “I know the real world that they’re all a part of because it’s science,” or, “It’s physics,” or, “It’s economic structure,” or, “It’s human evolutionary psychology.” Everybody has their pet frame. What does it mean to try to navigate the world when you acknowledge the power and validity of many different perspectives and try to stay open and awake as you pass through this kind of chaos?

Robert Anton Wilson

That very much comes from my way of taking Robert Anton Wilson and going forward and studying the sociology of knowledge, anthropology, and the history of science, and all this stuff that I’ve been into. I don’t think you can stop with Wilson; I think he’s really just an initiator into really thinking about radical pluralism. William James is also really important here. He talks about the pluralistic universe and talks about the possibility that there really isn’t, at least conceptually, any kind of universe we can really get our hands on. Okay, so now you fast forward and we’re in our situation now where this truth or this perspective, let’s say, it’s like the cat’s out of the bag. Everybody knows that now, or they at least know that they can fuck with it and weaponize it and use it to undermine civil society, to undermine the forms of consensus you need to operate, particularly in a pluralistic society like the United States—we’ve had to build very gingerly over what are really a lot of differences.

Now it’s like all of the language of consensus, of the oneness of things, even of empathy, is highly suspect because everybody is discovering, “Wow! I can insist on my own reality tunnel and fuck all those other guys!” Now what’s different is that most of the people that are doing that haven’t relativized their own reality tunnel. They think they’re in—if not the true one—then the one they want, or the one that they know serves their interest, and fuck everybody else.

AD: That’s the way we see “red pilling” often working out online: “I’m awake to the real reality and everybody else is wrong.”

Erik Davis: Yeah, it’s true. What we’re seeing is kind of like a religious event. I’m not saying it is a religious event, but it reminds me of an aspect of religion: when you first get it, you’re often extremely naïve and very militant. Your first psychedelic experience, you’re like, “Oh my god the aliens are real” or whatever it is. It’s so intense. Later on, you realize wow things didn’t really quite work out the way I thought they would, that it’s unclear actually. There’s a lot of ambiguity, a lot of noise on the signal. There’s a lot of ambivalence in the way that things show up, but it takes a while to get there. That takes maturity; some people never get there.

It’s like the difference between crazy born-again Christians and mature Christians. I love talking to hardcore Christians who have some kind of humor or wit around the whole game. They want to talk to you even though you’re coming from this different perspective. I’ve had those conversations, and I really enjoy them, but a lot of people, they’re really into the militancy. They’re really into the intransigence. They’re really into the way that it clarifies “Us versus Them.”

I feel like that’s sort of happening with political realities now, or perspectives on science, and the question of where does knowledge come from. How do we know? Why do we believe NASA? Let’s use our own eyes and go out there and look at the horizon and, “Wow, maybe the Earth is flat.” We have to understand that that too is a construction. I’m not talking about social construction—that’s the one thing important to make clear about this idea about construction that I was saying before. The line that “Oh, it’s a construction” is now very banal. “Oh, that’s just a social construction.” Like race. “Race is just a social construction.” Gender. “Gender is just a social construction.” “It’s just a story. It’s just a myth that gets propagated.”

That’s not what I mean by construction. That’s one of the important things about the book, where I’m really trying to make a difference. I mean you’re actually building something. Then when you build that thing, it’s part of reality—the way that money is part of reality. Money is a fucking fiction. It’s a poem, but it’s extremely real. That’s what I mean when I say a construction.

Flat Earth’s a great example. It’s not that science is true and these people are crazy, batshit, whatever. It’s that they have learned that you can construct barely coherent, not so coherent, but coherent enough let’s say, ways of putting together certain facts, certain perceptions, certain criticisms, and a certain kind of even a sociology of knowledge. You can build this framework within the perception that the world is flat. It’s the most logical outcome. It’s in a way worse than, “Oh there’s just a lot of bullshit and fake news and lies that are getting amplified and poisoning people’s heads.” That’s bad enough, but in a way, it’s a little worse; the tools to construct realities, to construct perceptions, to build forms of authority, forms of knowledge, that toolset is now democratized and we’re just gonna see more of it.

AD: You close the book with a note about climate change. As our planet undergoes this massive shift, do you feel like this exploration of how we construct the lenses we see the world through can help us comprehend the enormity of our reality? Not just in terms of recognizing the problem—but also in terms of what might be required to take action about it?

Erik Davis: Yeah, I mean that’s such a big question. Do these guys really help? I don’t know. They’re all sort of crazy in a way. I would never make that larger claim because I can only come from my own zone, but I would say that anything that can help you experience the rug being pulled out from under you as an opportunity for adventure, humor, and insight is a good thing at this point in the game. Anything that pulls against your tendency to hold onto any particular idea or identity or fixation is a good thing. Now these guys all held onto their own forms of identity and fixation as well. It’s very difficult to be truly free in that sense. They had their own schticks. They had their own careers.

But if it works on you—if you feel that sense of destabilization, this kind of simultaneous sense of possibility and threat, of dread and delight—then I think that’s a helpful sensibility to develop. Unless you just want to become completely, grimly realistic, and maybe now is the time to be utterly sober about things. But it feels to me more that we’re still part of this crazy civilizational experiment and all the bills are coming due. There’s this surreality to the situation that we might as well enjoy.

I have a very different view of psychedelics than a lot of the hypesters today. My view has always been a fairly mixed bag in terms of the fun or even helpfulness of the things, but I think that these guys and psychedelics to some degree just help us enjoy the weird. It’s just gonna get weirder, and it’s not that pleasant. You might feel nostalgic for a simpler world. There’s a kind of sense of oh my god, that’s like science fiction in my face! Can we put it back please? No, we’re not going back. We are going through, and we might be going down as we go through. It might become very disastrous. We all have those threats in our imaginations. But before we get there, or as we get there, or whatever, there’s still a world to be fascinated with, to celebrate, and to explore. I think that that whole invocation of the weird is one of my attempts to keep enchantment alive without pretending that it’s a rosy new age future. words/j woodbury

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