Erik Davis | An excerpt adapted from High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies | The MIT Press | 2019 | 35 minutes (9,207 words)
Early in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet of the future discovers a tightrope walker preparing to perform in front of a crowd. It is here, crucially, that Zarathustra announces his famous doctrine of the übermensch, the overman, the superhero of the spirit. Humanity, he says, is merely a rope “fastened between animal and Overman,” a rope that passes over the abyss.
Elsewhere Nietzsche describes the spiritual acrobats who can rise to the call of the Overman as “philosophers of the future.” Nondogmatic, often solitary, with a predilection for risky behavior, these radical free thinkers are “curious to a fault, researchers to the point of cruelty, with unmindful fingers for the incomprehensible.” Nietzsche simply calls them those who attempt. Their truths are their own, rather than general facts, and they are “at home in many countries of the spirit, at least as guests.”
Sounds to me like Nietzsche is talking about psychonauts. After all, while we are used to comparing drug visionaries to mystical seekers, from another angle, they more resemble philosophers or mad scientists compelled, beyond reason but with some sense, to put themselves on the line, risking both paranoia and pathology through their anthropotechnics.
For Terence and Dennis McKenna, serious psychonauts both, this kind of high-wire act also recalls the indigenous figure of the shaman. In their 1975 text The Invisible Landscape, the McKennas write that:
the shaman’s psychic life is not unlike the unnaturally dexterous dances he performs at the height of his ecstasy; it is a constant balancing act, as though he were a psychic tightrope walker on the razor’s edge between the external world and the bizarre, magical, often terrifying world within.
The McKennas are not really describing indigenous healers here. They are describing themselves, or Robert Anton Wilson, or Philip K. Dick, or any of the many heads, freaks, seekers, and adepts who lost their heads while trying to keep their feet on the ground during the high holy days of the way weird seventies.
All our psychonauts were, without a doubt, weirdos of a sort. But by lining up their tales in a row, I want to suggest that they are not quite as singular as they first appear. Indeed, their stories are full of sometimes uncanny resonances. There are alien downloads, pulp-fiction synchronicities, techno-media metaphysics, apocalyptic flashbacks, voices in the head. Their experiences were also haunted by the sense that, whatever experiments in brain change these men performed, some outside intelligence was also experimenting on them in turn. Compare their accounts of these experiences, and you will discover a number of similarities, including the fact that all of our subjects practiced a kind of comparison — a drive to understand and shape their experiences by mixing, matching, and laminating different systems of religion, science, and imagination into unique assemblages of concept and symbol.
These resonances should not be so surprising, given the common connections between these men, all of whom lost themselves in some of the key ‘limit experiences’ of countercultural consciousness: psychedelics, esoteric visions, paranormal phenomena, psychopathology. As voracious readers and intellectual bricoleurs, they also shaped and interpreted their experiences by drawing from a similar store of building blocks available to the book-buying seekers of their era. At the same time, they were all freethinkers and garage philosophers, at home with naturalistic and critical attitudes: irony, skepticism, humor, and an existential realism rooted in the empirical body. They preferred hypotheses to beliefs, and played science-fiction games with their texts to infect their readers with their own conundrums. They were all futurists of a sort, fascinated with time and the sense that history itself was ramping up to a kairos point.
All our psychonauts are also straight white guys, which requires a comment. Despite the radicalism of the sixties and seventies, hippie and freak scenes often reflected well-established patriarchal and racialized codes. Though there were some important “seekers of color,” and though a number of women played crucial roles in postwar psychedelic culture, the most celebrated (and self-celebrating) druggy visionaries of the era were drawn from the predictable well. White male privilege might account for the confidence to sally forth into extreme experiences that risk psychopathology — as well as the bravura to report on the journey and its supposed significance afterwards. (Perhaps no-one can let themselves unravel into temporary madness like straight white men.) But we should recognize how much these experiences and these accounts also eroded the ideological foundations of such privilege, which are welded to notions of rationality, control, individual self-possession, and mastering discourses.
Because of the lags between life and published texts, none of our psychonauts were directly influenced by one another during the initial experiences themselves. But all later recognized the sometimes uncanny similarities between their encounters.
The most concrete connection between our psychonauts is that they all shared a certain time and a certain place: California in the early seventies.
Stephen Paul Miller calls the seventies the uncanny decade — the “undecade.” Things were particularly weird in these years, which remain shrouded in America’s cultural memory, as if by a kind of smog. One reason for the haze is the period’s elusive placement between the highly overdetermined sixties — often considered by historians to last well into the subsequent decade — and the more garish icons that come to the fore later in the seventies, like disco and punk, Pong and Star Wars, Jonestown and the Bicentennial. Indeed, liminality is a key characteristic of the early seventies. Radical and transformative forces unleashed in the sixties mutated and dissipated into much broader segments of culture and society. One no longer needed to be an inhabitant of San Francisco, the East Village, or Ann Arbor to explore the creative maelstrom of drugs, uncorked sexual experimentation, and the alternative worldviews associated with radical politics or the occult revival. Thresholds were everywhere.
At the same time, and in stark contrast to the previous years, the horizon of individual and social possibilities abruptly narrowed. Whether left, right, or center, the nation drifted into a Slough of Despond perhaps unprecedented in American history. In polls taken at the end of the seventies, people looked back at a decade of “disillusion and cynicism, helplessness and apprehension,” a list we might as well round out with disorientation, paranoia, boredom, and frustrated rage. I suspect that one reason we find ourselves dependably amused by tacky seventies fluff like shag carpet, massive sideburns, and smiley face buttons is that we need to keep the trauma and perplexity of the era at bay. This is despite (or due to) the fact that so many of the era’s bummers resonate with our own: fears about terrorism and environmental collapse, surveillance paranoia, political cynicism, foreign war fatigue, and a pervasive apocalyptic undertow that tugs beneath an over-heated, desperately sexualized, fantastical, and often bleak popular culture.
Things were particularly weird in these years, which remain shrouded in America’s cultural memory, as if by a kind of smog.
The gloomy backwash of the seventies is perhaps best memorialized in the nihilistic and existential tone of so many Hollywood films of the era, populated with errant cops, ominous conspiracies, lonely lovers, and twilight cowboys drifting hard. An air of sweeter and more passive melancholy can also be heard in the plaints of the chart-topping singer-songwriters who emerged from the ferment of late sixties folk-rock. In contrast to the collective “bands” of the youth movement, these performers crystalized their songs around a lonely or isolated individual trying and failing to find connection. Artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, and Leonard Cohen told bipolar tales of anxious interiority and hedonic restlessness, of opportunities squandered or snatched away. In 1971, Don McLean had a huge hit with “American Pie,” a tune whose melancholic mood and obscure lyrics — meant to eulogize Buddy Holly and the early years of rock’n’roll — “evoked intense feelings of collective loss, of ruined innocence and diminished potency.” For people marked by the counterculture, this melancholic aftermath can be laid at the feet of one pervasive reality: the collapse of the sixties dreams of massive collective transformation, whether political or spiritual or both.
This swift and bitter sunset was captured by Hunter S. Thompson in the retrospective rumination that opens his classic book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from 1971. Standing on a hill outside the city of sin, his head momentarily cleared from the weirdness he would chronicle like no other journalist of the era, Thompson reflected on the “long fine flash” of his generation. Describing the millennialist convictions that enflamed so many, Thompson testified to the “fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.” Looking west across the Nevada desert, toward the Golden State that nurtured so much of the counterculture, Thompson writes that, with the right kind of eyes, “you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
Though we should be wary of large generalizations, the notion of “the” counterculture remains a useful way to characterize an essentially generational culture of rebellion, nonconformity, and creative experimentation with both individual and social possibility. That said, the Movement was always moving in different directions at once. Perhaps the most essential difference in the goals of the sixties counterculture was the split between outer struggle and inner transformation. The tension between these agendas — which also overlapped in a myriad of ways — inform the distinctions between New Left activists and psychedelic hippies, between Berkeley and the Haight, or between what one journalist called the “Fists” and the “Heads.” But however you divide the tribes, everyone felt the wave roll back.
As Robert Anton Wilson wrote, “The early 70s were the days when all the survivors of the Sixties went a bit nuts.”
The Experiment at La Chorrera
One evening in 1971, in the remote Colombian village of La Chorrera, Dennis and Terence McKenna, along with a white-robed fruitarian named Ev whom they had met shortly after arriving in the country, consumed a hefty pile of nineteen fresh fungi and settled into their hammocks. As they phase-shifted into their trip, Dennis began to describe a buzzing in his head that was inaudible to everyone else. It reminded him of some of the strange audio phenomena Terence had reported experiencing on DMT. Terence asked him to imitate the noise, but Dennis demurred. Then, as Terence tells it,
the drizzle lifted somewhat, and we could faintly hear the sound of a transistor radio being carried by someone who had chosen the let-up in the storm to make his or her way up the hill on a small path that passed a few feet from our hut. Our conversation stopped while we listened to the small radio sound as it drew near and then began to fade.
What happened next was nothing less than a turn of events that would propel us into another world. For with the fading of the radio Dennis gave forth, for a few seconds, a very machine-like, loud, dry buzz, during which his body became stiff. After a moment’s silence, he broke into a frightened series of excited questions. “What happened?” and, most memorably, “I don’t want to become a giant insect!”
This blast of high weirdness kickstarted the Experiment proper, unleashing a flood of conceptual production in Dennis, and giving the McKennas the core theoretical and expressive element of their experimental protocol: resonance.
Dennis provides a basic example of resonance in Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss. During high school band practice, his instructor demonstrated the principle of sympathetic resonance: plucking the pitch (or frequency) of A on a bass string caused nearby strings tuned to A to vibrate as well. Here the first string’s vibrations, rippling through the fluid-like air, encounter an energetic system tuned to that same frequency. The initial oscillations thereby feed energy to the second system, causing it to sound in literal sympathy. Resonance here describes what happens when two systems enter into an energetic relationship mediated by frequency, a mutual oscillation that, once begun, allows the second string to continue to sound even if the first string is dampened.
The phenomenon of resonance operates in many different physical systems, among molecular particles, in neural tissue, and in a host of electronic technologies. Resonance is one of the fundamental features of a cosmos that vibrates about as much as it does anything else. But resonance also resounds within symbolic and philosophical frameworks. The term derives from resonantia, the Latin “echo,” and one thing that physical resonance echoes is earlier magic doctrines of sympathy. Among the ancient Pythagoreans and Stoics, the doctrine of sympatheia established linkages between different parts and planes of the cosmos, including the famous correspondence between macrocosmos and microcosmos established in the hermetic doctrine “As above, so below.” These ancient thinkers also found proof of their concepts in the resonating strings of musical instruments.
According to the musicologist Veit Erlmann, even the strictly physical phenomenon of resonance presents a challenge to the rationalist current of modern philosophy. Resonance is a phenomenon of interpenetration and mutual participation, of the blurring of the boundary between subject and object, something that is much easier to hear than to see. For Erlmann, this dichotomy between the mirror of reason and the vibrating string of resonance lies at the root of some basic divisions in modern thought. These include Jacques Derrida’s text-based critique of the “metaphysics of presence” carried by the resonant word, as well as Marshall McLuhan’s distinction between a premodern “acoustic space” of oral communication and a linear modern world based on literacy and visual images. McLuhan saw and described electronic and electromagnetic media in terms of a paradoxically resonant modernity, an archaic echo resounding through contemporary technology.
The McKennas also heard this archaic echo. As an example, let us look at — or rather listen to — the curious transistor radio that the McKennas heard the evening when Dennis first encountered the buzz. This radio, with its solid state transistor, seems to have played a catalytic role in the production of Dennis’ eerie cry, as its “small radio sound” seemed to amplify or draw forth Dennis’ own inner audio. In the diary entry Dennis wrote the following day, he compared this inner sound to “a signal or very, very faint transmissions of radio buzzing from somewhere.” Here inner and outer have entered an uncanny loop or resonance.
In Understanding Media, McLuhan underscored the connection between the radio and the phenomenon of resonance. “The subliminal depths of radio are charged with the resonating echoes of tribal horns and antique drums,” he wrote. “This is inherent in the very nature of this medium, with its power to turn the psyche and society into a single echo chamber.” For McLuhan, radio was the ultimate example of a technological extension of the central nervous system, one that created “depth involvement for everybody” by echoing and resonantly distributing the power of the previously most important extension of man: human speech. By intimately and immediately delivering the human voice into the listener’s head, radio created a condition where “hearing is believing.”
Behind McLuhan’s claustrophobic and colonialist language — with its hint of Jung’s “subliminal depths” — is the specter of Hitler’s radio performances, and the widespread concern, among Anglo-American intellectuals both during and after the war, that the fascist ability to mobilize such irrational and seemingly “mythic” identifications on the part of the crowd was directly tied to the medium of radio and the mesmerizing power of the broadcast human voice. McLuhan also pointed to Orson Welles’ famous 1938 radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” though science fictions usually took second place in his accounts to more premodern formulations of unseen forces, such as astrology and clairvoyance. “The effect of radio as a reviver of archaism and ancient memories is not limited to Hitler’s Germany,” McLuhan wrote, perhaps providing the words for what Terence would later refer to, much more hopefully, as “the archaic revival.”
But there is a further McLuhanesque twist to all this, one that once again foregrounds the weird loop between form and content. McLuhan’s cultural language, which uses “resonance” as a symbolic and affective analogy, is replicated exactly in the operational domain of radio, since the strictly physical phenomenon of resonance defines the technological action of radio tuners. In order to select and amplify a single radio frequency out of the thousands picked up by an antenna, radios use an adjustable oscillating circuit, known as a resonator, to resound with the desired frequency. Here, then, is the secret link between Marshall McLuhan and Timothy Leary: to tune in is to resonate.
The day after he first encountered the buzz, on February 28, Dennis described the sound he heard inside his head: “something like chimes at first, but gradually becoming amplified into a snapping, popping, gurgling, cracking electrical sound.” Such sounds are a regular feature of psychedelic trip reports, especially those reflecting high doses of tryptamines like psilocybin and DMT. In attempting to give physical voice to this virtual or “inner” sound, Dennis needed to bring his body into the picture. By acoustically probing the resonating capacities of various cavities in his chest and skull, he both discovered and constructed a sympathetic vibration out of his voice. Once Dennis began imitating this inner signal, his voice and the sound “locked onto each other,” establishing a circuit in which “the sound was my voice.” This experience recalls precisely those participatory relationships that Erlmann associates with resonance: adjacency, sympathy, and the collapse of the distinction between perceiver and perceived.
He then saw something that utterly startled him: an ‘obsidian liquid’ flowing over every surface, glittering with lights.
Like the vibrations of an electrified guitar feeding back through an amplifier, the sound Dennis was making — and that was making Dennis in turn — became “much intensified in energy.” The nonhuman buzz took on a terrifying life of its own, as Dennis feared he might somehow “become” the intense vibratory circuit that he and the sound in his head were co-creating — a transformation outside of speech and language that he imagined as a B-movie metamorphosis into a giant insect.
In True Hallucinations, Terence tells us that, following Dennis’ close encounter with the buzz, he stepped in to calm everyone by telling a story. The episode came from Terence’s time in the East, and is presented to the reader as a stand-alone chapter in the book, the remarkable “Kathmandu Interlude.” Not only does this narrative device draw the reader into the scene at La Chorrera, placing us alongside Dennis and Ev, but it sets up an act of comparison that suggests the universality of the sort of experience Dennis had just had. In essence, Terence attempted to tame (or amplify) the anomaly through narrative “resonance” across time.
While living in Nepal and studying Tibetan with a lama, Terence took LSD with a British woman on the roof of his domicile. Smoking a large hit of DMT at the peak of his trip, he heard a “high-pitched whine and the sound of cellophane ripping.” He encountered the “chattering of elf machines,” which soon gave way to a vision of flight over the Great Plains of Shang in the company of an undetermined number of “silvery disks.”
Returning from his visionary fugue, Terence and the woman unexpectedly made love, howling and singing and devouring one another. “Everything had been transformed into orgasm and visible, chattering oceans of elf language,” Terence explains. He then saw something that utterly startled him: an “obsidian liquid” flowing over every surface, glittering with lights, a surface that seemed to reflect the contents of his own mind. Staring into the surface of this liquid, Terence saw his Tibetan teacher looking into a mirrored plate, a mirror that Terence realized allowed the lama to see him at that very moment. Shocked, Terence looked away.
The Experiment began on March fourth, a date whose homophonic overtone was not lost on the brothers McKenna. They drew a circle on the floor of their hut, marked the four directions, and then set drawings of I Ching hexagrams at each of the cardinal points. In the center of the circle they placed a large fresh mushroom, which they believed would provide the material template for the holographic Stone they were going to create. They then suspended the chrysalis of a blue morpho butterfly nearby, an ancient archetype for the sort of material metamorphosis they were aiming for.
Whatever mad science was running about in their brains, the McKennas had installed an experimental apparatus that clearly represents more than a “naturalist” attitude. As a ritual technology of self-transcendence, their machine crossed domains, looping together Chinese oracles, Greek literary symbols, and fungal alkaloids. As Terence himself noted, “We were operating in a world where scientific method, ritual, and participation mystique were inseparably intertwined.”
After setting up the room, Ev, Dennis, and Terence drank a small amount of home-brewed ayahuasca, ate some mushrooms, and lay back in their hammocks. After only fifteen minutes — a bit short of the usual metabolic onset of effects — Dennis tuned into the tryptamine buzz within. Three times in succession, he released an “unexpectedly mechanical” yowl that Terence compares, in True Hallucinations, to a bullroarer, an ancient musical instrument whose vaguely electronic and unquestionably psychoactive buzz was first engineered in the late Paleolithic.
As the third siren-like drone from Dennis’ mouth died away, the brothers and Ev heard a cock crow three times. But despite this biblical overtone, the mushroom in the center of the circle did not disappear, or explode, or spontaneously cool to absolute zero, leaving a lens-shaped hologram hovering over the floor. Nonetheless, the two brothers did experience an uncanny mutual hallucination. “Look!” Dennis cried, gesturing towards the stubbornly untransformed mushroom. Terence turned and saw a miniature Earth, like the big blue marble floating on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog. “It is our world,” Dennis declared.
Toward the end of the McKennas’ sojourn in La Chorrera, Terence encountered the supreme icon of paranormal pop culture: a UFO. Warned by the voice in his head to pay attention to a particular spot on the horizon, Terence watched as the haze separated into four identical lenticular clouds that subsequently merged, “as if nature herself were suddenly the tool of some unseen organizing agency.” The clouds then coalesced into a UFO shape that sped his way with a high-pitched whine. Terrified, and finally convinced “in all that had happened to us,” Terence watched as the object approached him before banking steeply upwards and disappearing from view. “It was a saucer-shaped machine rotating slowly, with unobtrusive, soft, blue and orange lights. As it passed over me I could see symmetrical indentations on the underside. It was making the whee, whee, whee sound of science-fiction flying saucers.”
These genre echoes, however, did not match the peculiarity of the three half-spheres on the craft’s underside. For Terence, these instantly recalled an infamous photo of a UFO produced by the celebrated California contactee George Adamski in the fifties. Adamski’s image was not only widely assumed to be a hoax, but had been identified by some debunkers as what Terence characterized as the end-cap of a Hoover vacuum cleaner.
Terence, who maintained strong skepticism about the UFO phenomenon throughout his life, had encountered a kind of meta-anomaly: a realistic vision of a classic flying saucer that simultaneously revealed itself as a construct, a script—and an unconvincing, ridiculous, trashy one at that. Echoing the theories of Jacques Vallee, who argued in the seventies that the meaning of UFO encounters lay precisely in the absurdity of their details, Terence reckoned that this echo of Adamski’s hoax created “a more complete cognitive dissonance than if its seeming alienness were completely convincing.”
The Sirius Transmissions
In 1975, the paperback outfit Dell published the Illuminatus! trilogy, a pinnacle of literary high weirdness written by two former editors at Playboy named Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Though intended to appear as a long single volume, which is the form in which it is mostly read today, Illuminatus! was initially broken up by Dell into three more manageable paperbacks: The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple, and Leviathan. The trilogy was marketed as science fiction, and the fantastic cover art, by Carlos Victor Ochagavia, featured dolphins, yellow submarines, half-nude hippies, and a hooded one-eyed being looming over a pyramid. In Leviathan, this strange entity transforms into an octopus.
Perfectly keyed to a countercultural readership both confused and transformed by sex, drugs, radical politics, and the occult revival, the Illuminatus! trilogy explored the lore of conspiracy theories and secret societies with a satiric, experimental, and willfully pulp sensibility. This lent — and to some degree still lends — the novel a peculiar literary charisma, a sort of low-brow postmodernism riddled with borrowings, metafictional moves, and jokey mise-en-abymes. Shea and Wilson’s work also contains all manner of appropriated subcultural voices, whose stolen thunder gives the novel an unusually dense anthropological texture, especially for a work of madcap fantasy.
Illuminatus! was particularly notable for broadcasting the existence of Discordianism, a tiny but actually existing “parody religion” whose metaphysical pranks and anarchist media tactics — principally communicated in the many editions of their core scripture, the Principia Discordia — both anticipated and engendered the freethinking mysticism that animated much of the psychedelic and esoteric underground. Discordianism not only played with the fictional dimension of religion, but attempted to affirm, with great humor, precisely the chaos and confusion that most religious formations are designed to combat or constrain.
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The trilogy also helped establish the writing career of Robert Anton Wilson, one of the most intriguing and important fringe thinkers to emerge from the American counterculture. In the wake of Illuminatus!, Wilson’s later novels continued to compound fiction with history, satire with esotericism. At the same time, his witty and iconoclastic nonfiction writings forged an innovative vision of hedonic and skeptical pragmatism. In books like Prometheus Rising (1983) and Quantum Psychology: How Brain Software Programs You & Your World (1990), he demonstrated hands-on reality hacking using concepts and tools drawn from a digressive autodidact’s grab-bag of discourses, including existentialism, phenomenology, general semantics, parapsychology, sociology, literature, and quantum physics.
While these interests are on display in Illuminatus!, Wilson’s own plunge into high weirdness became the topic of his 1977 book Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. In this memoir, Wilson provides a personal and intellectually reflective account of a long bout of paranoia, ecstasy, and speculative excess he experienced in the early seventies. These were years in which Wilson dove into psychedelics, Crowleyian ritual magic, and neo-tantric sexuality. From July 1973 until October 1974, by his reckoning, Wilson entered what he called Chapel Perilous: a persistent “reality tunnel” in which an extraterrestrial intelligence from the star system Sirius regularly sent him telepathic messages while staging ominously significant synchronicities in his everyday life.
With acrobatic acumen, and probably some luck, Wilson eventually managed to slip out of this particular cognitive framework. Cosmic Trigger can therefore be read as a record of, and a creative response to, the sorts of extraordinary experiences that occur when weirdness leaks out from its home in genre and smacks you upside the head.
During the early summer of 1973, Wilson was ratcheting up his acid magick. He principally employed Crowley’s Bornless Ritual, a performance of Goetic sorcery originally based on an ancient Greco-Egyptian rite of exorcism. Using the ritual, which Crowley had used to achieve “knowledge and conversation,” Wilson experienced a series of “deaths-and-rebirths” into other modes of being: animal, divine, stellar. The universe revealed itself as the endless orgasmic copulation of a Divine Couple — of difference conjoined, rather than unity. As a psychedelic comparativist, Wilson saw these figures as Shiva and Kali, Pan and Aphrodite, even Jehovah and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In July, Wilson decided to redo one of his hypno-tape experiments. Instead of taking LSD, he entered a “Tantric sex trance” with the help of his wife, the poet and feminist Arlen Riley, whom he charmingly refers to as the Most Beautiful Woman in the Galaxy. The following morning, on July 23, Wilson awoke from a dream and scribbled down the following phrase: Sirius is important. This dream prompt, inserted like a virus into Wilson’s already wacky weltanschauung, triggered a series of coincidences, paranormal experiences, and interlocking references that drew Wilson into what H.P. Lovecraft called a “structure of indefinite possibility and promise.” This structure, whose style and content would be instantly recognizable to readers of Illuminatus!, involved Egypt, the god Horus, the dog days of late summer (when Sirius the dog star rises), Dutch Schultz, Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Grant, and, perhaps most memorably, the “23 mystery.”
According to the Principia Discordia, one of the oldest Erisian mysteries is the Law of Fives, which states that all things happen in fives, or in divisions or multiples of five. Witchcraft pentagrams, the Pentagon, and a laterally sliced apple all support the Law of Fives. Indeed, as Omar Ravenhurst noted in the Principia Discordia, “I find the Law of Fives to be more and more manifest the harder I look.” Wilson started looking hard, discovering all manner of implications. These included the 23rd chapter of The Book of Lies, the American slang term 23 Skidoo, the 23rd hexagram of the I Ching (“Splitting Apart”), and the writings of William S. Burroughs, who told Wilson about the strange number in the first place. As the connections started to mount, Wilson half-heartedly tried to lash himself to the mast of maybe logic. But soon he could no longer deny the songs in his ears, nor their even more unsettling source: higher dimensional intelligences from the star system Sirius.
It is tempting to follow Wilson’s researching mind into the labyrinth of rabbit holes that confirmed the Sirius Transmissions over the weeks and months ahead — very much including Robert Temple’s compelling book The Sirius Mystery, from 1976. Instead, I would like to turn our attention to the mechanism that built this structure of indefinite possibility: the mechanism of meaningful coincidence, or what Wilson calls “the paradoxical paranoidal paranormal parameters of synchronicity.” Indeed, as the accounts of the McKennas, Philip K. Dick, and Wilson all suggest, both the concept and the experience of synchronicity — the perception of acausal but meaningful coincidence — is one of the central drivers and features of high weirdness.
Synchronicity was enshrined in the acid mysticism of the sixties, where it functioned like the psychedelic equivalent of Christian grace. In Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, we often find Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters enjoying, tracking, and even helping to stage uncanny coincidences, which Wolfe (but not Kesey) calls synchronicities. Prankster lore included a number of examples of this “weird shit,” like the time Neal Cassady ran out of gas driving everyone into the High Sierras, only to encounter, the next morning, a Chevron gasoline tanker that stopped and filled up the bus before heading further up the isolated road.
Dick first told the tale of the fish sign in a letter to Ursula K. Le Guin on September 23.
Synchronicity is the wink of the trickster. Emerging unbidden and in your face, a strong synchronicity suggests (without confirming) the existence of a mischievous and almost paranormal network of intentionality — what Kesey called “cosmic control” and what John Lilly attributed to ECCO (Earth Coincidence Control Office). There are thus two levels of synchronicity, one explicit and one implicit. The first level is the link formed between explicit elements of experience, like an empty gas tank and the highly unlikely appearance of a gas truck, or yet another repetition of 23. But this experiential level also suggests a second-order network that is only implied, or folded within, the explicit connection: a hidden webwork of coordinated meaning, memorably described in the Alex Cox film Repo Man (1984) as “a lattice of coincidence that lays on top o’ everything.” The explicit synchronicity, then, seems to provide a brief localized slice of this larger second-order lattice, which lies both in and outside of linear history. And it is this flicker or wink, at once revealing and concealing another order of meaning, that makes the whole thing feel so weird.
Carl Jung co-created the term synchronicity with the physicist Wolfgang Pauli in the nineteen-fifties, but he began noting the phenomenon thirty years earlier. His bedrock example occurred during an analytic session in which a female patient, who defended herself with a “highly polished Cartesian rationalism,” tells Jung about a dream in which she was given a golden scarab jewel. At that moment in the patient’s narration, Jung heard an insect slam against the outside of the nearby windowpane — a common rose-chafer beetle with a gold-green carapace. Jung then opened up the window, telling the patient, “Here is your scarab.” According to Jung, the gesture broke down her intellectual resistance to the analysis.
What is important in this story is less the appearance of the beetle than Jung’s decision to put the coincidence into play. Rather than respect the chasm that modern thought inserts between nature and human consciousness, and which would a priori reject any meaningful correlation between a dream narration and a scuttling bug, Jung turned instead to a creative act of juxtaposition. Jung did not try to establish or imply a linear or causal connection between these resonating events, or even define the nature or “meaning” of the connection at all. Nonetheless, by merely pointing out the marvel, his tuned attention remixed reality, staging a transrational event that undermined the walls of resistance. And he did so by pointing out an enigmatic knot in the tapestry of experience, one that simultaneously demanded sense (the coincidence must be meaningful) and foreclosed it (no rational cause is imaginable).
Synchronicity also reformulates one of the most archaic relationships between the human mind and the patterns of nature: the arts of divination. It is no accident that Jung introduced the term in an essay on the I Ching, for like the cracked oracle bones that lie at the origins of the hexagrams (and of Chinese writing), the event-signs of synchronicity take the form of writing, like a rebus or a series of hieroglyphs. In this sense, the lattice of coincidence also resembles the meaningful patterns that scholars, writers, and historians construct, sometimes quite serendipitously, from the archives of knowledge. That’s why, as Wilson catalogs the Sirius Transmissions in Cosmic Trigger, he comes to use the term “synchronicity” to refer to both startling coincidences and unexpected connections between texts and talk. Research too is a field of weird resonance.
Wilson illustrates this trickster link between coincidence and textual reference in a tale he includes in both Illuminatus! and Cosmic Trigger. In her book, This Timeless Moment (1968), Laura Huxley, Aldous’ second wife, describes her attempt to contact the spirit of her deceased husband through the medium Keith Milton Rhinehart. The medium told her that Aldous wanted to transmit “classical evidence of survival” — in other words, a message that could not be explained away as Rhinehart’s telepathic ability alone. Later that evening, Rhinehart passed on a message from Aldous, which instructed Laura to go to another room in the house, a room the medium had visited only briefly in the company of others, and find a particular book identified by its location on the shelf. She was then to look on a certain page and a certain line.
The book she discovered at the appointed spot was a Spanish anthology of literary criticism that Laura had never noticed before. Translated, here is the sentence she found: “Aldous Huxley does not surprise us in this admirable communication in which paradox and erudition in the poetic sense and the sense of humor are interlaced in such an efficacious form.” Though this sort of “book test” is the bread and butter of mentalist performances, the evidence here has the additional feature of wit. Synchronicity, again, is the wink of the trickster, combining paradox, poetry, and humor. When telling this story at the close of Illuminatus!, Wilson adds the coup de grâce: the line in question — the textual location that the spectral message described — was line 23.
The period of Wilson’s Sirius Transmissions — roughly July of 1973 through October 1974 — did not occur in a social (or cosmic) vacuum. These were the dog days in many ways, the time of Watergate, recession, and energy crisis. Such all-too-worldly concerns were mirrored by a good deal of cosmic activity as well. The space station Skylab was launched in May 1973, while Pioneer 10 began transmitting images of Jupiter — the location of the “Star Gate” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — in November of that year, the same month that Mariner 10 was launched toward Mercury. That October, as the Yom Kippur War unfolded in the holy land, the United States also hosted an extraordinary wave of UFO sightings centered in Ohio.
Late 1973 also saw the naked-eye appearance of the Comet Kohoutek, dubbed the “comet of the century” by the media. Though the comet’s appearance in the night sky proved to be dull, its anticipation stirred a number of apocalyptic pronouncements, channeled texts, and musical celebrations, including a concert from Sun Ra and a widely distributed doomsday claim from David Berg, the founder of the cultish Children of God movement. In early 1974, with the comet coursing meekly across the evening sky, John Lilly was riding in an airplane that had just begun its initial descent into LAX. Returning from the bathroom, where he had injected ketamine, Lilly looked at the comet and received a message from the Borg-like Solid State Intelligence, who promised to demonstrate its power by shutting down all the electronic equipment at the airport. Within moments, the captain came on the intercom, announcing that the plane was diverting to Burbank because of a power outage at LAX, which Lilly later discovered was caused by a crashed airliner. Spooked by this experience, Lilly attempted to contact the White House about the alien threat, and subsequently found himself institutionalized.
Wilson and Lilly’s alien encounters were roughly paralleled by a bout of cosmic communications reported by Wilson’s old pal Timothy Leary. Following his Weather Underground-assisted escape from a low-security Californian prison in 1970, Timothy Leary lived on the lam in Africa, Europe, and Asia, consorting with Black Panthers, Krautrockers, and psychedelic high society. By early 1973, he had been recaptured and was now in Folsom prison. Facing decades of time, locked in solitary confinement alongside Charles Manson, Leary began writing a series of very weird texts that his partner Joanna Harcourt-Smith independently published in the following months.
These texts represented a significant turn in Leary’s thought. Rejecting the “mustard cash” of hippie Hinduism, Leary described his new thinking as “PSY PHI,” or “scientific philosophy.” NeuroLogic outlined a social-cybernetic and ultimately mystical model of the human nervous system. This schema was later known as the “eight-circuit model,” which Wilson helped propagate in Cosmic Trigger and later texts like Prometheus Rising. In the late summer, Leary and Harcourt-Smith published a more apocalyptic essay called Starseed, a Kohoutek-inspired text that speculates that “life is an interstellar communications network,” and that any contact with the extraterrestrial intelligence signaled by the comet would most likely occur through a properly tuned nervous system. Leary’s transhumanist turn proved particularly important to Wilson, whose self- narration in Cosmic Trigger is not always easy to disentangle from Leary’s influence. Nonetheless, it bears mentioning that Wilson did not start corresponding with Leary until the fall of 1973, a few months after the onset of their mutual cosmic communications.
By this time, Wilson was fully convinced that contact with an alien Higher Intelligence had begun. Even sympathetic readers of Wilson, when retracing the coincidences that constituted much of his proof, will note examples of flabby thinking. Amidst a hard rain of high weirdness, Wilson often slipped into what cognitive psychologists would describe as delusions of reference, confirmation bias, and off-the-hook agency detection. Wilson considered the possibility of madness, but rejected the idea. “Was this at last the illumination of the Illuminati — the experience of skepticism carried to the point where it abolishes itself and, since you can’t believe anything fully, you are as free of skepticism as of any other philosophy and finally open to thinking the unthinkable?”
Synchronicity is the wink of the trickster. Emerging unbidden and in your face, a strong synchronicity suggests (without confirming) the existence of a mischievous and almost paranormal network of intentionality.
As the semiotic synchronicities began to lock together, the network engendered its own author. Coincidence became communication, and communication became encounter. Wilson came to experience his own dreams, intuitions, and waking visions not only as extraordinary but as relational. The unknown itself begins to shine, becoming what Wilson calls a “being of light.”
Wilson had in many ways scripted his own extraordinary experience. Cosmic Trigger describes what happens when the sort of mischievous mindfucks that Wilson had unleashed in Illuminatus! come home to roost. Religious conversions and esoteric experiences are often like this, of course. But unlike the many naive examples of such self-scripting, Wilson was perfectly aware of the elements of “fictionality” that were shaping the “four-dimensional coincidence-hologram” his life had become. The irony was that this critical awareness did not dissolve the entities who seemed to be pulling the strings.
Philip K. Dick’s earliest accounts of 2-3-74 are contained in letters he wrote later that same year, a number of months after the initial events went down. These letters suggest a long period of gestation during which Dick organized, selected, and tentatively constructed various versions of the extraordinary events.
Dick first told the tale of the fish sign in a letter to Ursula K. Le Guin on September 23, five months after his initial mention of a recent “religious experience” in his correspondence. To Le Guin, Dick wrote that, after undergoing oral surgery to remove two impacted wisdom teeth, the sodium pentothal he had taken started wearing off. A call to a local pharmacy brought a delivery woman to the door bearing painkillers; she had “black, black hair and large eyes very lovely and intense.” In the letter, Dick admits to being mesmerized by the woman. He tries to think of what to say to her; noticing her gold necklace, he asks her about it, “just to find something to say to hold her there.” The woman points out that the “major figure” in the necklace was a fish, a “sign” that she said was used by the early Christians.
In the Le Guin letter, nothing strange seems to occur until many hours later, when a “dazzling shower of colored graphics” comes over Dick that night. Dick had already offered extensive descriptions of this hypnagogic display of abstract images in earlier letters that do not mention the necklace. To Le Guin, Dick theorized that the “fish sign” was a trigger or “disinhibiting stimuli” that caused “a vast drop in GABA fluid in the brain,” releasing “major engramming” and initiating the modern art slideshow and his ongoing relationship with what he here simply calls “the spirit.”
In her 2009 memoir, Dick’s wife Tessa confirms the essential outlines of the necklace story, though she quibbles over details. But what really changed over time is the significance that Dick accorded the encounter. As late as March 1975, when he — unusually — took the time to enumerate and date the major events of the previous spring, he doesn’t even mention the fish sign. In contrast, a similar list in the summer of 1978 includes the necklace. It is also in the late seventies that Dick starts to refer to “2-3-74” rather than his earlier tag of “3-74,” which restricted his initial experiences to March.
The intensity and significance of the fish sign encounter was retrospectively inscribed with increasing depth as the years went along. In these later accounts, Dick drops his “low” motivation to chat up the attractive girl (a motive that was seconded by Tessa), and intensifies the visual and cognitive effects of the pendant and its identification. One example is his essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later,” written for a speech in 1978 that he never delivered. Here Dick describes a “shining” gold necklace with a “gleaming gold fish” that “hypnotized” him. Once the woman touches the “glimmering” fish and identifies it as a Christian sign, Dick describes his reaction with explicitly mystical and biblical language:
In that instant, as I stared at the gleaming fish sign and heard her words, I suddenly experienced what I later learned is called anamnesis — a Greek word meaning, literally, “loss of forgetfulness.” I remembered who I was and where I was. In an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it all came back to me. And not only could I remember it but I could see it. The girl was a secret Christian and so was I. We lived in fear of detection by the Romans. We had to communicate with cryptic signs…
But, of much more importance, I remembered Jesus, who had just recently been with us, and had gone temporarily away, and would very soon return. My emotion was one of joy. We were secretly preparing to welcome Him back. It would not be long.
There are a number of things to note about this passage, whose immediacy — “in that instant” — is the paradoxical result of careful construction, as Dick gingerly compresses what are elsewhere described as independent experiences into a single event. Alongside this urgency, however, Dick also invokes mediating scripts through the very terms he uses. With the word “anamnesis,” for example, Dick invokes the Platonic notion of waking up to knowledge one already possesses.
In this passage, Dick also alludes to Corinthians, where Paul writes that the last trumpet will sound “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15:52). Though the turn of phrase suggests the punctum of a moment, the reference itself opens up a broader eschatological dimension to Dick’s visual encounter. In other words, though Dick gets struck with a sacred beam, he does not have a Damascus moment of metanoia or full revelation. Instead of bringing Dick into the transcendent presence of Christ, the fish sign delivers him into the deferred condition of waiting for a further twinkling to come.
This is how Dick finds himself in the open-ended “messianic time” that, to speak theologically, stretches between Christ’s resurrection and the final parousia. Typically, parousia is considered the “second coming,” as if naming a historical event that lies at some particular number of days following the resurrection. But as Giorgio Agamben argues in The Time that Remains, his illuminating treatment of Paul’s letters, parousia is better read as presence — a presence that is yet to come, and so beyond the clutches of representation, including the calendar. As Agamben explains, Paul uses the term parousia to underscore the notion that messianic time is made up of two heterogenous times: the chronos of everyday, historical time — like February 20, 1974 — and the eruptive, immanent Now of kairos.
Messianic time is out of joint; it is dislodged from ordinary chronology but has not yet arrived at the end of time. Using one of Dick’s most memorable metaphysical terms, we might say that messianic time is orthogonal to ordinary history. This is not unlike the way that Rome, with its secret Christian remnant, superimposes itself on Orange County in a number of Dick’s open-eyed visions, as if both eras reflected an underlying archetype eccentrically poking through historical time. The cryptic fish sign does not just awaken Dick to recovered memories; it also dislodges him, both temporally and ontologically, producing what Dick sometimes called a “meta-abstraction.” In this, the fish sign resembles nothing so much as writing itself, which displaces and defers references along chains of signifiers that never finally hit home.
At the same time, we miss the power of messianic time by only understanding it in terms of waiting and deferral. As Agamben explains, the parousia yet to come paradoxically makes messianic time available across time. “The Messiah has already arrived, the messianic event has already happened, but its presence contains within itself another time, which stretches its parousia, not in order to defer it, but, on the contrary, to make it graspable.” The parousia is not just the original event or the future fullness; it is also something in between, the fragment or bit of realized time we face in the otherwise mundane moment. Paul (and Dick) capture this quality through the image of twinkling — a term that refers not only to an evanescent moment, but to an almost diamond-like play of light.
If messianic time allowed Dick to collapse seventies Southern California into Rome, it also allowed him to bring eschatological pressure onto Nixon’s America. Indeed, Dick alludes to the politics of the ἰχθύς (ichthys, the sign of the fish) months before he ever mentions the delivery woman story in his correspondence. In a document entitled “July 8, 1974: The First Day of the Constitutional Crisis,” enclosed in a letter to Bush and included in the Exegesis (his immense and sometimes tortured private journal), Dick excoriates Nixon and laments his origins in the Golden State. Ironically invoking a lyric from the Mamas & the Papas, Dick writes that, with Tricky Dick in office, “California dreaming is becoming a reality.” Dick describes this “dreadful surreal reality” as “foglike and dangerous, with the subtle and terrible manifestations of evil rising up like rocks in the gloom.”
Dick’s invocation of this weird and pernicious atmosphere sets the stage for another narration of his religious experience the previous March, when, he says, he became absolutely convinced that he was living in Rome sometime after the crucifixion. “Back in the furtive Fish Sign days. Secret baptism and that stuff…I was a Christian but I had to hide it. Or they’d get me.”
In Dick’s mind, Christianity is associated not only with political resistance to an oppressive state but with a secret community. Here we need to recall a pervasive bit of modern folklore about the ἰχθύς, which Dick himself later references. This is the notion that the fish sign was used by early Christians to clandestinely identify themselves to one another. A secret brother or sister of the faith would casually mark a single arc in the sand, a figure their partner would then complete into a fish only if they were in the know. For Dick, the ἰχθύς was not only an eschatological trigger but an insider code, both subcultural and esoteric — a “furtive” sign of clandestine recognition among spiritual and political partisans.
Superimposing the experiences of the McKennas, Wilson, and Dick, we find a number of shared motifs, like UFOs, the star system Sirius, and H.P. Lovecraft. There are invocations of the Logos and fusions with a cosmic database — what Wilson called “a kind of galactic star-network,” or what Terence described as an “enormous, cybernetically stored fund of information.” On top of such abstract technical references, there is also what one could call the “style” or phenomenological rhetoric of these events, which rely on synchronicities, temporal hiccups, prophetic dreams, paranoid over-readings, and absurd, somewhat tawdry chunks of pulp fiction that evoke a psychedelic conjunctio of sacred and profane. At its core, each experience also features an encounter with an incorporeal entity or entities whose vaguely extraterrestrial identity is expressed in terms of voice rather than personhood, and which remains strangely unthematized, even in otherwise garrulous texts.
Some of the resonances between these experiences have been noted by other scholars and students of the weird. But they were also recognized by the subjects themselves. Wilson, the McKennas, and Philip K. Dick were for the most part unaware of one another during their initial experiences — Dick, a well-known novelist, is the exception here. Moreover, their initial accounts were all written without contamination by the other accounts, which in all cases were published years after the fact. But our psychonauts all came to recognize these echoes over time, and commented in various ways on the similarities — and differences — of the extraordinary experiences they in some manner shared.
Here is a relevant example. In a 1978 Exegesis entry, Dick writes that “I just realized: my ajna[third]-eyed humanoid fit in with Robert Anton Wilson’s notion about Sirius…Coincidence?” Not only does Dick link Hindu iconography with psychotronic imagery, but the very form of his argument — “Coincidence?” — represents a bargain basement mode of comparison that is familiar today from all manner of YouTube conspiracy videos and episodes of Ancient Aliens. Less than an argument, but more than a mere juxtaposition, “Coincidence?” is used to forge patterns rather than clarify cause. By establishing such associations, the dynamics of resonance can power up further synchronistic possibilities even if the resonances themselves are biased or forced. This also suggests that the comparisons that undergird seeker or esoteric culture are intrinsically related to the logic of conspiracy thinking, which also helps explain why all our psychonauts wrestled with paranoia.
Dick notes that Wilson received his transmissions at roughly the same time as 2-3-74. Along with the Sirius motif, this historical synchronicity makes what Dick calls “2 points of overlap.” And indeed, overlap is the crucial term here. Though by no means identical, either in time or content, the Experiment at La Chorrera, the Sirius Transmissions, and 2-3-74 all feel like overlapping layers of what Dick would call a superimposition. At the same time, there is no shared “system” here, no mutual source, whatever McKenna wanted to believe. Instead, we are left with a collage of imbricated relations without a common core, a pattern of uncanny connections that surround an “absent center.”
To understand spirits, of the times and otherwise, you sometimes need to ask them for help. So here I invoke one of my favorite spectral advisors, a teaching spirit that I first encountered over thirty years ago, and that has been guiding me ever since. Early in Gravity’s Rainbow — itself a literary avatar of the early seventies weird — the ghost of the Weimar politician Walter Rathenau appears at a Berlin seance held in the late years of the Republic. In a speech dense with chemical and occult lore, which is appropriate given all the German industrialists gathered around the table, Rathenau suggests that only an uncanny hermeneutics can unpack the foreboding signs that describe the larger shapes of modernity:
These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules…You must ask two questions. First, what is the real nature of synthesis? And then: what is the real nature of control?
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Copyright © 2019 by Erik Davis. This excerpt originally appeared in High Weirdness, published by The MIT Press and reprinted here with permission.
Erik Davis is an American journalist, critic, podcaster, counter-public intellectual whose writings have run the gamut from rock criticism to cultural analysis to creative explorations of esoteric mysticism. He is the author of Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information, The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape, and Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica.
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