Cults had vacuumed up the survivors of entheogenic breakthroughs, the wide-eyed, the fearless, the utterly unprepared. Did the ‘shattering of the ego’ always lead to greater peace of mind? Without an ego, it was difficult to tell. It had just come out that the FBI had sent agents to teach bomb-building skills to the Weathermen, or so the rumour went. Taste in music was no guarantee that a radical could be trusted. The most violent of subversives could be agent-provocateurs. The Lords of Deep Time had appointed Altamont1 to be the Mother of All Battles. She had, quite unexpectedly, announced the end of an era. She buzzed like angry wasps. Rolling thunder was her jewellery. She set the tone for the next decade, but she only hinted at the disillusionments to come. The Age of Aquarius had lasted for five years or so. Having skipped a beat, the Kali Yuga had returned.
There was, in fact, no shelter to be had. There was no deferment for the bourgeois psyche, no evolutionary safe room at Big Sur. With breathtaking stealth, in a triumph of the behaviourist black arts, the Revolution had been corporatised. Many objects only looked like objects; they had morphed into commodities. The orgone would continue to darken until there was no way to distinguish a real vision from its logo. Mescaline was out; speed was in. It would soon be replaced by cocaine. Free love back-to-the-land communes had gone the way of Atlantis. The free love, in some approximate form, survived. By the mid-1970s, STDs had staged a full-frontal assault on the dream that sex led to liberation. AIDS – then working undercover in the Belgian Congo – would soon make its debut. Already, having whet its teeth in the Golden Triangle, the CIA was testing its joint-venture model with South and Central American drug gangs. The scent of paranoia was as common as the scent of marijuana. A knock on the door meant that it was necessary to escape onto the roof.
It was said at the time, ‘All politics is personal’, which led us to assume that each small act was being scrutinised. It was also true that global forces were in motion, and we would learn that our anxieties did not go deep enough. There was no way to put a face on the decentralised plutocracy. It was everywhere. It was nowhere. Hundreds of thousands of jobs per year were already being outsourced, and once-middle-class workers were beginning to suspect that they had been repurposed as serfs. Through the rows of broken windows at the factories, the birds flew in and out. There were no trains in the freight yards. Many sensed that there was something wrong. What it was, who knew?
In 1978, when I graduated from art school, there was a new alternative scene forming up in the lofts of these abandoned factories. The energy of the counterculture had not yet disappeared, or at least, not quite. Rather, its participants had become more fatalistic. We had resigned ourselves to existing, somewhat joyously, on the margins, with no hope of having an impact on society at large, with no expectation of being seen or understood. Writers, artists and musicians from every contradictory style mixed freely and cross-fertilised each other’s sensibilities, ideas and projects. When a Baroque organist insisted that I listen to the Ramones, I could not at first believe that he was serious. His love of Duchamp’s ‘readymades’ did not stop him from playing at Emmanuel Church. Reichian theories of liberation consorted with apocalyptic wet dreams. Surrealism was big. There seemed no amount of chaos we could not reframe as an art form.
With the dawn of Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’, however, a new sense of alienation slipped beneath the skin of many of the artists, writers and musicians that I knew. Given that we already existed on the margins, this new and colder sense of alienation did not at first seem possible. An exile should not be forced to lose his innocence more than once, let alone a third time, or a fifth. Even as artists in their early 20s had started to make millions, even as hedge fund managers had discovered the beauty of graffiti, its grand historical importance, the assurance of compound rates of return, much of the air seemed to have been sucked from the lungs of the avant-garde. In cellars and closets, the pods had broken open. Blakean galas were held to toast the Imminence of the Brand. There, one could share a skullcup of pinot grigio with Artaud2 and chat with Marx about the recontextualisation of the sexual genius of the body.
At artists’ cold-water lofts, the rents went up, and then they kept on going up. Working behind the scenes with the IMF, Ananke forced most Enfants Terribles to apply for better jobs
At artists’ cold-water lofts, the rents went up, and then they kept on going up. Working behind the scenes with the IMF, Ananke forced most Enfants Terribles to apply for better jobs. No pierced cheeks were allowed at the Bank of America teller window. Ah, the good old days of 1979, back when it was still a great adventure to be poor! While there was still an adequate supply of Southerners and Midwesterners left to shock, there were also more and more sophisticates who desired to be shocked. The line between transgression and the trendy had been blurred. What fun was that? Self-referential concepts had replaced the cutting-edge events they once described. With each month that went by, there were fewer events at artists’ lofts, which made me feel less guilty about going to fewer and fewer of them. My growing disconnection from the cultural moment pushed me towards the spiritual, towards a sense that the new edge might be other than aesthetic. With the dawn of the 1980s, a kind of subterranean shift had taken place. As in the movie Dark City, the whole structure of reality had been rearranged while we slept.
For me, a deepening awareness of this transition happened slowly, and then all at once. Up until this point, I had continued to think, to some extent, in terms of simple oppositions. I was against war and for peace. I was for justice and against corruption. I was for the small and against the big. I was for the improvised and against the institutional. I was for Us and against Them. I was for the handmade and against the mass-produced. I was for the deep and against the shallow. I was for the natural and against the technological. I was for the creative and against the corporate. And then, one afternoon, within the space of two hours, I saw just how naïve I had been. I had been far too literalistic in my concept of the Underworld, and I had vastly underestimated the subtle genius of its agents.
In 1981, not too long after Reagan was sworn in, I had a kind of upside-down visionary experience, in which dread and horror were the dominant emotions. I was visiting my family at our house in Worcester, the house where I grew up, and I was starting to doze off in my bedroom. This was a room in which I had many out-of-body experiences, at first involuntary, and as time went on, more voluntary, if not completely under my control. I was used to strange things happening there. In any case, I was just lying on my bed, when all of a sudden, an incredible kind of a rip occurred, as though the top layer of North America had separated from its under-layer, as though I had been sucked through some jagged opening into the darkness underneath. It’s certainly possible that I had drifted off to sleep, or rather to the edge of sleep, to what Sufi mystics call the alam al-mithal, the imaginal realm, but I did not experience any real break in my awareness. It’s also possible that I was just beginning to wake up.
The experience was intoxicating, in a way, in that it involved a sense of vast expansion, as well as a kind of split-second initiation into a layer of secret knowledge. I saw darkness swirling in intricate and yet chaotic patterns, like rivers of oil flowing into lakes of oil, a kind of world war of kaleidoscopic clouds, boiling beneath the surface of the Earth. It struck me that Earth’s overlords all had knowledge of and access to these forces, which the greater part of humanity was quite content to ignore, much as we choose not to think about the insides of our bodies, particularly our digestive systems. The dominant reality here was power: acts of naked power and the lust for ever more power and contempt for those with less power and the incantation of key words of power and raw magical assertions of the will.
I felt that, with each act of power and magical assertion of the will, a piece was being ripped out of the whole – which I saw as being a luminous egg, or a sphere without a circumference, or the subtle fabric of the ether, or the body that pre-existed and gave birth to all later and more fragmentary bodies – a whole whose structure had originally been self-evident, but which, through the aeons, was becoming more and more difficult to see or to imagine. What was seized by forces in one part of the whole was taken from another, until only an underground sea of darkness, heaving with ill-gotten wealth, was left. As I said, the experience was a visionary one, but with none of the sense of liberation that usually comes with such experiences. I was traumatised, and barely able to function for several weeks. At first, I couldn’t speak about or conceptualise the experience at all.
As important as it was, I have seldom written about the experience too directly, perhaps because the darkness did not have clear-cut edges and because the information came at me in an overwhelming rush. Perhaps, too, I suspected that the experience was, at least in part, catalysed by my recent and very difficult reunion with my father, a high-powered businessman, who had disappeared to Mexico when I was 11, in 1965, and whom I had not seen again until I was married and out of school in 1978. The reunion was, for a short time, at least, a joyful one, but it had also called my attention to a wound that had never healed. When my father informed me that he had sold his company in Mexico City to the Nicaraguan dictator Augustin Somoza, I asked, ‘Dad, didn’t it bother you that you were dealing with a man who had monopolised almost every industry and resource in his country and routinely had his opponents tortured and killed?’ My father said, ‘Why would it? They all do things like that down there.’
This struggle with my father was a personal one, of course, but it opened up a whole realm of archetypal conflict, in which I began to see beneath the surface projections which limit our perception of the world to the intricate patterns of power and knowledge that turn like cyclones underneath. What was particularly disturbing about my afternoon vision in Worcester, however, was that I was not at all a hygienically sealed observer who stood apart from this archetypal war, this hypnotic counter-creation of Demiurgic lust. No, not at all. I shared many traits and interests with my father, even if these manifested in almost opposite ways. I was not an innocent child, the victim of oppressive cosmic forces, nor were these forces entirely beyond my use or understanding. These forces and elements were my raw materials, and this experience of the Underworld was my call to respond to an alchemical challenge, a challenge that was as terrifying as it was impossible to avoid.
It took me more than a year to begin to incorporate some of the insights gained in that descent into my work. In the four decades since the surface of the Earth ripped open, I’ve come to realise that this for the secret order of the Underworld was not only, or even primarily, a metaphorical one. Instead, it was a preview of the political, cultural and economic forces that would manifest, like a death flash video, in the events of the external world. A sceptic could argue, of course, that I had only come to see what was always there, what had been there – at a minimum – since the fall of the Dvapara Yuga. This was true enough, but it was also true that the powers of the Underworld would become increasingly solid.
The secret order of the Underworld was not only a metaphorical one … it was a preview of the political, cultural and economic forces that would manifest, like a death flash video, in the events of the external world.
No longer would they feel some archaic need to hide. No, they would give TED Talks and launch media conglomerates. They would teach courses on Zen and the Art of Conscious Bitcoin Investment. They would share their warnings about the Global Elite on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They would show how the human was one more problem to be solved, that is, when it was not simply a resource, a form of wealth like any other. They would show, with the help of satellite photos, how the Earth was actually flat. They would show how there was no curve in a cycle, how our culture moved in a straight line towards the future, how the poor were growing wealthier by the day.
They would show how any view could be turned into its opposite, how the many could be taught to prune the dead wood from the masses. They would claim that ‘We’ was the opposite of ‘Us’. They would argue that Carthage must die, that God had scheduled the New Rome to spring from the steppes of Mother Russia. They would show how war was peace, how strife was love, how sickness was health, how hypnosis was freedom, how suffering was joy. They would, after years of total progress, bemoan the fate of the five large media conglomerates, which still controlled only some 60% of the arts.
They would show how a ruler did not have to be right, no, not at all, how it was just as good to be wrong. They would claim that the living must pay tribute to the dead, that the debt was large and could not be repaid. They would swear, on the lives of their children, that the Singularity would soon purge the last ghosts from the ocean. They would craft an algorithm to pump aeons of black gold from the air. They would claim that down was up, that left was right, that the plutocrat was the only true embodiment of the People. Then, through their saying, they would somehow make it so.
NOTES ON TEXT
1 Altamont, or the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, was a concert organised by the Grateful Dead that was held on 6th December 1969. There was considerable chaos and violence at the event, with dozens of fist fights, a hit and run accident, an LSD-induced drowning in an irrigation canal, and the stabbing of an armed audience member by one of the Hell’s Angels the Rolling Stones had hired to guard the stage. In the US, the event is remembered as a kind of Anti-Woodstock. Along with the Manson killings, it is seen as a key turning point in the counterculture, as a sign that ‘peace and love’ had turned dark.
2. Antonin Artaud (1896-1948), was a French poet, essayist, dramatist, visual artist, actor and theatre director. He is known for his surreal, confrontational and transgressive work, and he exerted a major influence on the development of avant-garde theatre through his Manifesto of the Theater of Cruelty and The Theatre and its Double.