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The Altered State :: class notes // part 1

For some the end of miles is Denver, Colorado
But something always kept me moving West
I知 lately out of reach
In towns along the California shore

I知 leathery and bleached
I知 lost and I am lonesome to the core
I致e got nowhere left to go
But I知 satisifed to know
There値l be miles nevermore

Frank Black, The End of Miles


OK. Here I am with tons of notes from the first 2 meetings of Erik Davis' The Altered State, a CIIS class about "California's Spiritual Frontiers". The following is my best shot at a rundown of this course's outline and perspective, with some of the connections that Erik's lectures have so far inspired.

When I heard about this class (via Bruce Sterling's blog), I immediately knew I would attend. Erik's slant on the subject made, as always, total sense to me. I had often felt the uniqueness of California's spiritual history, blessed as it is with some of the most amazing, eccentric, rare individuals ever almost all seemingly connected with each other, all contributing to build what is probably the most cosmopolitan and multifaceted spiritual landscape on the planet. I recognized California as a sort of living Mythos, but I lacked the words and the research to really frame my recognition. Then, all of a sudden, Erik Davis appeared bringing those words and that research, describing California "as a distinct religious tradition on its own".

The time spent in class so far has been, to no great surprise of mine, compelling and engaging. Erik riffed for hours on the topic at hand, tracing compelling, hypertext-like connections with lucidity and humor. Right away, we learned that the research behind this series of lectures (and a slew of other projects, including one or two upcoming books) has a personal focus. Davis told the audience of a time when he felt envious of a friend who following a spiritual crisis decided to re-approach the traditional Judaic roots that he had originally rejected. Erik's envy came from the realization that, were he to do such a thing, he couldn't have: raised in a mostly dogma-free environment, with just about as much religion "as you could hang on a Christmas tree", he'd never had a traditional "mold" to break out of let alone return to.

After some soul-searching, and remembering all the encounters with the spiritual and religious that punctuated his life so far, the maverick scholar realized that there was indeed something common to them all. A genetic signature of sorts connected the dots, and pointed towards an answer as obvious as the ground under his feet. He did belong to a spiritual tradition after all, and its name is "California".

:: The End of Miles ::

Davis' point is that the manifold factors that shape Californian history, atmosphere and everyday life have converged to create an ideal environment for a peculiar mixture of spiritual impulses and trends (pretty much none of which originated in California). Such mixture has eventually come to constitute enough of a discrete entity to justify treating it as a tradition of sorts. Like a regular tradition, it is defined by a set of core elements, a shared cultural environment, and a characteristic way of approaching the timeless spiritual issues. Unlike a regular tradition, it lacks a central, unifying dogma and/or a set of rituals repeated throughout many generations. This does not invalidate our use of the term the point is that we are participating in a living culture, and that culture has roots, history and identity.

The point may be, granted, more poetic that factual; or it may be somewhat arbitrary. Indeed, it strikes me as a "poetic fact" like, say, the history of Hassan-i-Sabbah. Certain concepts outgrow their own factual roots, and become symbolic, infectious memes that help us redefine our relationship to reality. And that, as far as I am concerned, is Davis' real line of business. The man has a knack for drawing those connections that reawaken our awareness of Mythos in this apparently Logos-dominated world. Almost as an incidental by-product of his research, itself clearly motivated by a sincere quest for mythical consciousness, we are stimulated to explore new perspectives and become able to see how certain stories have never stopped being told; how indeed we are still participating in them. Such awareness is the hallmark of the state of poetic consciousness that precedes all existential meaning.

The stories being told in this case have a lot to do with something that we might call "the Going West". We humans started going West a long time ago, and didn't stop until we reached the end of it. Beat poet Lew Welch, in his "The Song Mt. Tamalpais Sings" muses on how "human movements, but for a few, are Westerly" following the Sun and how these human migrations eventually ended in California. California is where we finally arrived to the end of the land. "This is the last place. There is nowhere else to go", in Welch's words. California is the geographical and historical end not only of America, but of our entire human journey of discovering unknown land. It is the Frontier to end them all.

:: Nature, Experience and the Body ::

This theme is key to framing the Californian landscape, in spiritual as well as natural terms. It tends to stay in the picture no matter which point of view we take. For starters, it has to do with nature, one of the defining elements of the "California experience" as framed by Davis: the climactic conditions here are famously extraordinary, coming close, in the South, to a situation of "endless summer". We did succeed somewhat in our desperate chasing the Sun westward. Testifying to this, we still have much of California's unique natural landscape, with its huge sequoias that look like cathedrals, and the vast mountain and coastal roaming grounds that framed the nature mysticism of John Muir and Robinson Jeffers.

The first white settlers in this area must have seen it as some sort of Arcadia, a veritable Heaven on Earth, especially coming as they were from the East Coast, with its cold winters and frigid Puritan outlook. The direct experience of such pristine natural wonder must have been quite a shock to them one imaginably akin to that of religious ecstasy. In this context we find the roots of another core element of California spirituality: experience, rather than dogma or traditional belief. A tradition of questioning tradition, I might venture.

Contact with nature, especially at the untainted intensities it has reached here, tends to puncture the invisible wall between the world and our perception of it. Such a membrane is maintained by looking at the world in symbolic terms to be interpreted: seen that way, nature can become "God's Book"; its earthly plenty becomes a shadow of Heavenly abundance; those rays of sunlight, filtering down through the sequoias' impossibly high foliage, are but a reflection of Divine Light, and so forth. Well It might have been easier to relate to things that way in the Cold East, but California offered enough sensuous, opulent lushness to her visitors to make them forget such illusory distinctions: the light is the Light. The Kingdom is this kingdom. The warm breeze that caresses your skin is saying, 'I am the body of God be one with me'.

And there is little doubt that such a union will occur in the flesh at least in California. The body is the third key element identified by Davis. Here the connection with nature blurs quite interestingly: on one hand we have the nature mysticism I've already mentioned, with its implication of the human body finding spiritual fulfillment in a union with the wilderness, physicality, maybe even a kind of spiritual hedonism. On the other, the physical vessel itself becomes a self-contained way to spiritual fulfillment, one that eventually separates from the traditional notion of "nature", sometimes dramatically so. We discover we can manipulate the body, extend its life span, change its appearance, change its gender, cosmetically erase the signs of aging, and even freeze it and save it for later, better times.

This last kind of mythology tends to be quite popular around the Southern part of this Altered State, which is also as Davis pointed out the only genuinely "bipolar" state in the Union: not incidentally, earth activist and author Starhawk, in her sci-fi novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, envisions Northern and Southern California locked in a classic Manichean struggle, Utopia (North) vs. The Evil Empire (South).

At any rate, the escape from physical death and its shadow does seem to be a defining theme for the drier Southern environment, certainly more so than the Northern oneness with nature (and therefore with Earth's cycles including living and dying). Here, our going West starts to resemble the quest for the Egyptian/Burroughsian Western Lands in its trying to achieve immortality, but without letting go of the body once the "far shore" is reached...

:: Media and Techniques of Consciousness ::

The environs of Los Angeles, that apocalyptic sprawl messily clustered around Mount Olympus Hollywood, have long been stage to a vast gamut of collective fantasies. From there, those fantasies are regurgitated all over the globe via worldwide broadcast, and become media phantasms that haunt the imaginations of millions. Adventure, sex, metaphysics, epic, horror, religion, transcendence... anything can be recorded, reproduced, virtually experienced on demand; massive amounts of currency change hands in attempts to buy that which can't really be packaged or sold. Media constitutes a fourth, huge aspect to the Californian trip.

The homeland of mega-entertainment and computer culture knows how, under certain conditions, technology itself can lead to experience or, at least, to a convincing simulation of it. To some, this suggests ways to amass immense wealth; in others, it inspires art. Both recognize it as a powerful means to work different kinds of magick. It is one of the new frontiers that developed after the Western edge was reached: we are now exploring ephemeral "New Worlds" made of images, data, information and the infrastructures that such things need to get around, creating webs of intricate links that bridge our individual minds.

If we look at media as being a tool to change consciousness, we are looking at the fifth key element of this class' framework: techniques of consciousness. Psychedelics would, of course, fall within this category, but so would innumerable other technologies to alter the perceptual and cognitive faculties of the ultimate media, our body. California's cultural matrix is literally teeming with every variety of spiritual practices, ritual traditions and systems of magick, taught by an army of more or less peculiar individuals, organizations, churches and so forth. Rosicrucians, Scientologists, Thelemites, Satanists and many, many more have long coexisted mostly peacefully within the borders of the Altered State. All promise results, and offer tools to achieve them.

This approach is itself very Californian, with its pared down, hands-on practicality; a drive to get to the heart of the matter through experience. It is not hard to see how this attitude, when applied to the Spirit, might find itself at odds with orthodox religion after all, it is tantamount to "immanentizing the Eschaton". During California's early days, priests in the East considered the state pretty much as pagan as China, and sent missionaries here to counter this "straying from the path". Needless to say, their mission was not successful. A cosmopolitan variety of religious experiences, present from the very start, continued to flourish, avoiding dogma and remaining open to the new and different.

:: Evolution or Mutation? ::

This constant influx of novelty creates the question at the core of the sixth and final point in Davis' outline sketch: the evolution/mutation dichotomy. It's a timeless question, and the first settlers were already asking it, as they watched a 3000-years old sequoia being cut down and turned into a bowling alley, or the machines of Big Business thrust into the earth to appropriate its minerals. Is all this novelty adding up to some evolutionary force? Is all this change leading us to betterment, or just to more change blind, unpredictable and possibly catastrophic?

Obviously we don't have an answer at least not yet but only differing ways of looking at it. What we do know is that California features prominently both schools of thought: believers in a coming Utopia (often technological/chemical/cognitive in nature) and concerned voices warning of an imminent disaster. Both the exhilarating impression of surfing the high wave of evolution and the nihilism of mutation without meaning reach a peak in California. And, as Davis aptly points out, they are both legitimate states, experienced in response to spiritual crises or emergencies. At the end of miles, both the light and the dark sides are pushed close together against the same abysmal Void.

---

That's all for now. As the class progresses, I'll do my best (involved as I am in a whole series of other projects) to post follow-ups about items of particular interest, and/or partial summaries. Stay tuned...

[end of part 1 // to be continued]

Comments

Now I am on the other Coast, yet, "human movements, buut for a few, are Westerly." "My face is the map of the steppe" and so miss the profound pyshic connection that is West Marin, that is Bolinas, where my inner georgraphy matched the outer. Are you out there, is there connection? Dreams birng us there, derams connect us...I am reay for anew adveture and to find where :there is no place left to go."