We closed last night, or we discussed yesterday, a bumper sticker that I saw driving down here. And the bumper sticker said, “Man thinks God knows.” And then, someone had bought a second copy of the bumper sticker and cut it apart, and reversed it and put it under it. And so it said, “Man thinks God knows. God knows man thinks.” Now, it seemed to me there was a lot going on here; what was attempting to be expressed here. First of all, something about God: that God knows, that God exists in a superior state of intellection. Plato said time is the moving image of eternity. My notion of God’s cognition is simply the regarding of all points in the spacetime continuum with equal clarity: “God knows.” The limited program of knowing is thought, cognition: “Man thinks.” This is what man can do in imitation of the all-knowing and omniscient example of God. But implicit is that this is somehow a limited undertaking, this thinking of man. And some of you may recall the famous comment of Pascal, that man is a reed bent by the wind. And then Pascal added: but a thinking reed.
So then the second half of the conundrum was that “God knows man thinks.” Now this, I thought, was very interesting, because it seems to imply a relationship between the limited project of knowing (which is human thought) and the completed project of knowing (which is omniscience). “God knows man thinks.” In a way, what this is saying is that God knows that man is making his way toward God. “God knows man thinks.” God knows that man is participating in the same project of being that God regards from this higher-dimensional space. And so, then, this meditation on these four lines closes with a recurso which returns you, then, to this realization that what we’re talking about is the project of knowing—Heidegger called it—carried out on two levels: on the level of omniscience and on the level of limited being.
So then I meditated on this after we discussed it yesterday, and I thought tonight it might be interesting, then, to talk about the thinking project that is the essence of humanness, on one level. The thinking project which has, as its vector—I call it “concrescence,” following Whitehead’s Neoplatonism. One could call it “God.” Teilhard de Chardin called it the Omega Point. But the process by which knowing transforms itself from some kind of aboriginal apperception of the possibility of God into union with God. And the process that lies between these two points is the story of the evolution of human consciousness—or, more properly speaking, human history.
And the interesting thing, I think, about the Western religions generally is their insistence on the tangentiality of God and history: that God was something to be realized in the life of each individual, but that there was also somehow a collective drama of redemption that was stretched out over a very large period of time. And history, then, becomes the theater, you see, of the struggle between good and evil for the redemption of the human soul. And from the modern point of view—or let’s be more frank: from my point of view—this is primarily something to be analyzed within the context of language, and our myths about it, and its evolution, and its potential future evolution.
And this is in my personal life the great mystery to me, because I feel that my intellectual style is that of a scientist, and I take very seriously science. And yet, not only my faith, but my experience, has led me to believe that the world is not a construction of space and time and matter and energy; that that mapping is insufficient, that the world is instead some kind of a linguistic construct. It is more in the nature of a sentence, or a novel, or a work of art, than it is in the nature of these machine-models of interlocking law that we inherit out of a thousand years of rational reductionism. The world only behaves as science says it should when we confine our engagement with it to information that is at a great distance from us—like reading the New York Times every day. If you read the New York Times every day, few miracles will occur while you are engaged in that activity. Essentially, what is happening is: you are getting your cultural programming for the day—all your switches, if any need to be reset by cultural values, are reset at that point.
But when we recede into what I call the primacy of immediate experience, the rules and models that we’ve been handed by science and what’s called common sense are just totally found to be inadequate. And I don’t mean when we perturb ordinary consciousness with psychedelic drugs. I’ll speak about that in a moment. But I simply mean when we go into solitude, when we go into wilderness, when we endure great travail in our lives, or when we put ourselves in extraordinary alien circumstances. Then it’s as though the membrane between the ego and something else—which we could call our guardian angel or the Jungian unconscious or the overmind; something like that—the membrane grows thin. And the world loses its—what do I want to say?—its mundane character. And instead things previously mundane begin to become charged with psychic energy. They become carriers of meaning.
They become carriers of meaning: this is very peculiar. At a low level it’s not so astonishing. It’s a kind of generalized opening to the world because everything is imbued with significance. That tree, that person, that greeting, that conversation is imbued with a kind of depth and significance that is satisfying. It’s like living deeply. Living deeply. But this phenomenon can proceed to a deeper level of introspection and relationship to the exterior. And in that case, then, this significance which everything was previously seen to have begins to concresce, or densify, and the world begins to dissolve into animate intelligence.
Now, at this point, if you didn’t bargain for this, you’re probably very concerned about your mental condition—and if you aren’t, your friends are—because what you’re saying at this point is: the rivers talk to me, the trees whisper in my ear. What you’re recovering is the meaning, that’s all: the meaning that is self-evident in nature, but that we block. The meaning is so pregnant in everything that it can actually articulate itself in your native English tongue. And talking rocks, talking trees, talking boulders—we define this as pathology. It means in technical jargon: a severely diminished ego is in danger of overwhelmement by material from the inchoate and disorganized unconscious. But what’s actually happening is that, for the first time in somebody’s life or experience, they are meeting the resident meaning in reality with its force unblunted by conditioning and denial.
And this is some kind of a linguistic process. We (and all nature, I think) swim in some kind of sea of signification of which we are—in the same way that the amphibians were able to drag themselves out of the primitive oceans of this planet into air and exist in a completely different dimension—we (whether grandly or perversely, the verdict is not yet in) dragged ourselves out of the sea of telepathic interconnected signification that united all life, and we exist panting and pop-eyed in this other dimension called history, ego-awareness, presence of self, sense of loss, anticipation of gain. All of these dimensions of experience really have been added to what was previously animal Tao; just the howling-at-the-moon Tao of animal existence. And to this we have added a dimension of future anticipation, a dimension of regret, a dimension of “how do I make choices?” and so forth and so on.
There is not a—I don’t put a moral judgment on this, but it has to be said that, in the tradition of the West, this has been viewed classically as the fall. This is the fall into names instead of realities, into constructs of reality rather than reality itself. And this has now been inculcated into each and every one of us as both the glory and the trauma of human existence, which is our extraordinary ability to reside in and be in language. So, for instance, I’ve made this example before: a child lying in a crib, and a hummingbird comes into the room, and the child is ecstatic, because this shimmering iridescence of movement and sound and attention—it’s just wonderful. I mean, it is an instantaneous miracle when placed against the background of the dull wallpaper of the nursery and so forth. But then mother, or nanny, or someone, comes in and says, “It’s a bird, baby. Bird. Bird.” And this takes this linguistic piece of mosaic tile and places it over the miracle and glues it down with the epoxy of syntactical momentum. And from now on the miracle is confined within the meaning of the word. And by the time a child is four or five or six, no light shines through. They have tiled over every aspect of reality with a linguistic association that blunts it, limits it, and confines it within cultural expectation. But this doesn’t mean that this world of signification is not outside, still existent, beyond the foreshortened horizons of a culturally validated language.
Well, so then, classically, the path through this has been through use of psychedelic plants, or some form of ascetic practice, or fasting, or prayer and meditation—whatever; some way of breaking through—and it is literally presented as a breaking through, a penetration to another level: that culture is an imprisoning bubble of interlocking assumptions that are like a collective hallucination. I mean, I hate to say it because it’s a recursive metaphor, but culture is like a delusion of some sort. Because it isn’t true, of course. It isn’t true—if you’re a Witoto—it isn’t true that you came from the piss of the anaconda god when he had to get out of his canoe at the first waterfall. That’s not really true, but that’s your cultural myth and you live inside it. Our cultural myths—that the world is made of things called mu-mesons and anti-protons—is, of course, not true either, but it’s a linguistic construct that we culturally validate and live inside. And these cultural myths give permission for certain things. Basically, they give permission to ignore certain kinds of realities.
So our language is uniquely set up to ignore, for example, the suppression of femininity. It’s also uniquely set up to suppress the statistically infrequent. We really have no patience with that. We have an assembly-mind mentality. What we’re interested in is that things run smoothly. One can imagine a completely different mentality that cared nothing for statistical norms and only pursued the miraculous. I mean, India, in a way, is that society. They don’t give a hoot for how it works on the hum-drum level, but the alien, the peculiar, the other, the unexpected is revered; adored, even. So these kinds of cultural values shift.
But now—now we are in a global culture with the combined understandings of 500, 600, 700 language groups and half that many literatures being poured into a global database where some people are assimilating enough of this to begin to play their part in the creation of a kind of global meta-program for language. And I think it’s interesting to talk about the form that this may take, because I see this as our… this is not our salvation, but this is the angel of our salvation. If we can transform and remake language, then we can have the conversation that we must have in order to save ourselves. But we cannot save ourselves until we have a language adequate to the problem that we’re facing. And English just won’t do it, because English is a language of subject-object opposition, it’s a language of a past, present, and future, and the kind of world we’re living in is not that kind of world.
Now, toiling in the background, misunderstood and unnoticed for centuries, have been mathematicians, laboring to create what they call metalanguage of description that seemed (to them) very satisfying, to the rest of us very bewildering. And a question worth asking is: why is it that this language, mathematics (which we have so much trouble understanding), seems so tremendously powerful when it comes to the description of nature? This is not a trivial question. Why should numbers—in a sense, the most abstract quintessence of the human mind—have anything whatsoever to say about the topology of three-dimensional space and time? It isn’t clear.
What I believe is happening—and we talked about this last night, generally, in the form of a conservation of novelty throughout the history of the universe. But I tended last night to present the universe as a material thing: I spoke of atoms concrescing into molecules, into organic creatures, into thinking beings with civilizations and so forth. But another way to think of this is: take a spiritual X-ray of the material universe and then say: if matter is merely the vehicle of the transformations that we call “the life of the universe”, well, then, what is the inner dynamic composed of? What is it that is striving? What is it that bootstraps itself forward? What is it that self-reflects? Well, I think what it is, is: it’s actually information. Information is some kid of ontological modality that is capable of organizing any system in which it inhabits into self-reflection. So you pour information into matter, and you get back DNA capable of making life. But there is a persistent spiritual tradition backed up by psychedelic and shamanic experience that says that there are also hierarchies of incorporeal and disincarnate intelligence that is nevertheless highly organized.
Well, until the advent of the computer, I think we were just pretty much at a loss to form any conception whatsoever of how you could have consciousness without a body. But the computer shows us that you can have large-scale systems which have degrees—and then there’s a long philosophical wrangle which we can just stamp for another time—degrees of sentience in operating systems. So then, it seems to mean that information is the thing which uses matter, uses light, uses spirit, uses whatever it can put its hands on, to organize itself into higher and higher levels of self-reflection. Well, then: to what end? I mean, what is all this? Is it just an innate drive toward totality? Or is it a process which exists completed in some higher-dimensional space, and we are somehow trapped in a lower-dimensional matrix, and we have to endure the illusion that it is incomplete? I mean, I don’t have answers for these things. This is the business of theologians, basically: to tell us where we are in this universal machine.
But I think that what we can do to enrich our experience and to feed data into our heuristic models is to begin to think in terms of language as the material that we need to work with, instead of public opinion, or matter, or even energy. It’s meaning that we need to coax into our lives. Number one: as meaning enters our lives individually, we become more capable of raising our voices, both in joyous song and in political protest if necessary. My whole shtick, and the whole shtick of the psychedelic experience, I think, is: reclaim immediate experience. Realize that you outvote all parliaments, police forces, and major newspapers on the planet. Because who knows, they may be illusions! Complicated phenomenological forms of analysis can be carried out to show that their existence is in considerable doubt. But if you carry out this phenomenological reduction you will discover that it reinforces the notion that must actually exist and be real. So therefore, you start from that. That nub of immediate experience and real being. And extrapolation outward should be very provisional.
I mean, I don’t know how Buddhism handles this. I grant you all a strong possibility of existing, but I’m not nearly as sure about you as I am about me. And I don’t think any of you should be any more sure of the rest of us than yourself. The world could be anything, you know? It could be a solid state matrix of some sort. It could be an illusion. It could be a dream. I mean, it really could be a dream. So it pays to stay on your toes, I think.
In practical terms, what does all this come down to besides that we should speak from the heart clearly and with our minds engaged? Well, I think that—remember I said: we should see language as the stuff with which we work rather than matter? And that means creating a technology of the sayable, making the complete understanding of new puns a national priority on a par with weapons development. It means exploring the real implications of substituting Finnegan’s Wake for the Constitution. This sort of thing. Because what we’re doing, you see, is pulling the beard of the linear print heads who really believe all of this stuff, who really are lost in the labyrinth of the political errors of the last 500 years. We can’t overwhelm them by force of arms, nor should we wish to. They can actually be teased out of existence, because they themselves feel their position to be so ridiculous.
It’s very interesting how the way the collapse of our enemy in the Soviet Union has exposed the absurdity of our previous positions. All our previous positions are new exposed as absurd. But people don’t draw the obvious conclusion. It must also mean, then, that our present position is absurd. And so it’s tremendously liberating. Our culture is ruined. It’s a disgrace from which we can now simply walk away.
Well, then the question is: into what? And I believe that our persistent fascination with psychedelic states of mind since prehistory forward has been because, in the psychedelic state, from the very beginning there was an anticipation of the very end. And the very end still lies ahead of us. What it is, is that our nervous system is in the process of evolving us through a linguistic transformation where language—which at the beginning of the process was something that you heard—at the end of the process becomes something that you actually see. And this simple shift from seeing to hearing is the key to our being able to finally recognize each other and communicate. Print and linearity and what’s called ear-bias for language is what has shattered our sense of ourselves as a collectivity. A positive way of putting it is to say it’s also what created the idea of democracy, individual freedom, labor unions, the vote—all of these atomized notions of human obligation and political participation arise out of print. But so do ideas like that we’re all alike, because letters from printing presses on pages are all alike. The idea that products should be mass produced out of mass produced subunits—this is a printhead notion; it could never have occurred to anyone outside of a printing press culture, and never has.
These ideas have imparted to our existence a tremendous material opulence and intellectual poverty and spiritual uniformity. And now, literally, we have to illuminate our civilization: we have to take its shoddy, spiritually empty Bauhaus skeleton and illuminate it, psychedelicize it, let a thousand paisleys bloom. In other words, release the design process from a commitment to material values. Well, how can you do that? Because the bottom line of material values is the bottom line. It costs. The reason we build in the Bauhaus style, for whatever reason we got into it, we now build in that style because it’s the cheapest around. And once you start adding filigrees and changing things, costs soar. How can you do that in a civilization with a cult of democratic values, individualism, and print-created linear uniformity?
Well, the only way you can do it is: you have to drop design costs to zero. The only way you can do that is if you build virtually. This means you build in an electronic dimension that is added on to ordinary cultural space like an orthogonal dimension. In other words, it’s like a TV that you walk into. It’s called cyberspace. And in cyberspace things are built out of light. So it costs as much to build Versailles as it costs to build a hamburger stand, because Versailles and the hamburger stand are just two programs that look exactly the same on disk. So what this means is that the previous set of class-created values based on the acquisition and control of matter begin to break down. This is already happening in America on one level, where to live as a middle class person is to live on a better level than the Mughal emperors ever dreamed of. I mean, what Mughal emperor could stride to his refrigerator and see cases of French mineral water, juices from the south seas, pomegranates from South America? Eat your heart out, Mughal Delhi! No chance!
So, in a sense, we’re beginning to create this leveling. But we have created it by looting the material resources of the rest of the world. Conceivably, it can be created in a virtual space, where we would all live in this world a rather monkish existence, but—you know, there’s that wonderful passage in Finnegan’s Wake where he’s speaking of the red light district of Dublin, which is called Moy Cane, and he says, “Here in Moy Cane we flop on the seemy side, but up n’ent, prospector, you sprout all your worth and you woof your wings. If you want to be phoenixed, come and be parked.” Well, he was advocating death as a solution to life’s problems: “If you want to be phoenixed, come and be parked.” My solution is not so radical. I think if you want to be phoenixed, come and be parked at your local virtual reality arcade, and then you can be phoenixed in several ways.
Well, some of what I’m saying here is facetious. We talked last night about Stan Tenen’s wonderful object. For those of you who weren’t here, this is a man, a kabbalistic scholar, who has developed a piece of sculpture such that when you illuminate it from a certain angle, the Hebrew letter (aleph) appears as a shadow. And then you move the light slightly, and aleph turns into ב (bet). And then you move the light slightly, and so on. In order, his sculpture produces all of the Hebrew letters as shadows from this beautiful form which he calls The Lily. And it ties in with an experience that I had, but… well, first let me talk a little bit more about this lily thing that Tenen has discovered. He also made one for demotic Greek, which for those of us who thought it was proof positive that Hebrew was the language of God, this was a real blow to the chest. But he did one for demotic Greek, too, and it works just as well. Implying—and he’s working on Arabic!—implying that perhaps such forms exist for all alphabets. And so then I was thinking about this last night, and I said: well, if there’s a sculpture in three dimensions that throws the two-dimensional alphabets, then obviously, in a higher dimension, there must be a form which throws into lower dimensions the sculptures that make the alphabet. So that means all alphabets, all letters, lead back to a hyper-dimensional surface of some sort, which can probably then be described with some kind of weird fractal algorithm. And so then I thought: wow, this is a pretty Hebraic vision of what’s going on here. We have the alphabets of local languages being generated from higher-dimensional objects that are three-dimensional, that are then referent to still higher-dimensional objects through which the light of God’s love passes, scattering out into the radiance of what can be said.
And, in a way, this is sort of my vision of the millennium: that we will be resorbed into the word. You know, the whole story begins: in principio et verbum, et verbum caro factum est. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh.” The whole cosmic drama is the mystery of what it is for the word to be made flesh. Language is seeking to birth itself into the domain of concrete existence. That’s obviously what “the word made flesh” means. And it seems to me that, if the word can be made flesh, this implies a reciprocity. It implies that the flesh can be made word. And this brings us back to what I was talking about at the very beginning this evening, which is the curiously literary nature of reality. That it’s much more like a novel by Thomas Pynchon than it is like an equation by Ilya Prigogine. And why is that? Is it because, in fact, the flesh is word? And that understanding this is the real task of uncovering our spirituality? Somehow, it’s a riddle, it’s a conundrum, it’s a kōan. If we could correctly understand this, if the world did not disappear immediately, at least it would roll around in the palm of your hand like a spinning marble, as the I Ching promises. It’s something about the recognition of the primacy of the word, that history is the process of the descent of the word into concrete expression—I didn’t say matter—and that our relation to this retroflexive process is an ascent into the word, a going toward the approaching mystery, and a meeting there in a domain of unknowability, essentially. I mean, this is the casting into being that Heidegger talked about. This is the going to meet the stranger. This is the flight of the alone to the alone that is the driving force of Plotinus’s mysticism.
Well, that’s really all I have to say about that, so let me see what time—how am I doing? Yeah, let’s take some questions if there are any.
Do you know how to use muscaria medicinally and shamanistically without killing yourself?
I can tell you were following my argument with bated breath. Carefully, because it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it’s seasonally variable, geographically variable, and genetically variable. And that’s enough variables that you should be very careful with what you’re doing. Generally, I don’t recommend it. The attention that has been given to that mushroom is, to my mind, entirely out of proportion to its cultural importance. This is because Gordon Wasson fastened in on it with a tenacious will as soma. He decided that it was soma. Are you all up to speed on what we’re talking about here? Soma was this mysterious ecstatic hallucinogenic plant that the Rigvedas were basically composed about; the major subject of the Rigvedas is soma. The ninth mandala of the Rigveda is a peon of praise to soma, that it exalts it above all the other gods. And no one knows what soma was. The descriptions are puzzling. It seems to have been—it didn’t have leaves. It had yellow flowers. It grew in mountains. And they speak of pressing it. It was prepared some way, it was pressed, it was filtered, and then they talk about this golden liquid which they drank. And Gordon Wasson, because of the importance of the Indo-Aryan people who wrote the Vedas for connecting up all of the history of what archaeologists call Old Europe with the Neolithic Middle East and India, it was very important to try and understand what soma was.
But the problem that has bedeviled everyone who was an enthusiast for amanita muscaria as soma is that it’s a bad trip. It is not reliably an ecstatic intoxicant. In fact, it’s fairly reliably a bellyache. And people have pounded it with milk curd—there was a whole school of thought which said that the enzymes active in raw milk would decarboxylate muscarine, the poison, into muscamole, the hallucinogen. But, you know… this didn’t stand the test of human trials. It didn’t appear to be true. Then other people said you have to dry them for months or smoke them over a fire. Again, this doesn’t seem to be reliable.
So Wasson went to the grave—in his last book, Persephone’s Quest, he referred to amanita muscaria as the supreme entheogen of all time, which was just a completely wrong-headed judgment, I believe. And this was from the man who discovered the true psilocybin mushroom cult in Mexico. There was an angle on all this which Wasson completely overlooked because of his bias towards certain languages. And that is that along with all this Indo-European Vedic Hindu material, there was a Zendavestan literature based around homa: the same stuff, same word. And from there, flattery argues that it was pergamon harmala. That it was harmaline. That it was not a mushroom. That it was a higher plant in the zygophyllaceae. And I think, probably, he’s right, actually. It’s a very interesting book. Apparently, in the Avastin classical period, no one would’ve dreamed of having a spiritual experience without resort to drugs. They just put it very plainly. They’re the most matter-of-fact people. These texts are fascinating. But they don’t devalue it. They say: here’s our map of the spirit world, entirely based on our drug experiences. And here are the drugs we use. And see these angels? You must use this drug. And see these angels? This drug. And so forth. We don’t really know what these drugs were because the etymologies are lost.
But harmaline figures very strongly in all of this, and of course harmaline is a neurotransmitter present in human metabolism. In fact, I didn’t get into it tonight because I was trying to keep it off the biochemistry and that sort of thing, but this transformation of language from something to seen (that I was talking about), I believe, is a one or two gene mutation. That’s all it would take, because in the human pineal gland there is a compound called adrenoglomerulotropin—that’s what the enzymologists call it. But when you show it to a plant biochemist, he says it’s 6-methoxy tetrahydro harmaline. And so it is. Adrenoglomerulotropin and 6-methoxy tetrahydro harmaline are the same thing. Well, it’s a psychedelic harmine alkaloid, similar to what’s in pergamon harmala. It could be converted to DMT by a simple methylation. Well, a one-gene mutation would make methylation possible.
Attention, consciousness, cultural values—we don’t know how many times since the invention of language there have been significant mutations in the chemistry of the nervous system that have created significant changes in cultural programming. I mean, doesn’t anyone find it a little odd that the laws of perspective were discovered less than 400 years ago? I mean, what the hell was wrong with people before that? How can you discover the laws of perspective? I mean, I find that not credible, for somebody to say that the laws of perspective were discovered. It’s always seemed weird to me. It’s as though there was a shift, a very subtle tweaking, of the processing of visual space itself necessary to be able to do that.
You’ve spoken about the word and the word made flesh, and Dorothy Sayers wrote a book called The Mind of the Maker, in which she discusses the Trinity as really an image of what the creative process is all about. And the Father is having a great idea for a play. That’s the Father. The Son is making the thing happen on stage, bringing it into the world, and having it made flesh. And then the Spirit is the response that you have to that completed product, and how all three of them beget one another, and they nurture one another. And she talks about people who have these [???] scaling Trinities, where there’s someone who, let’s say, may only have the Father, only have a great idea, but be unable to make it into something that is physically real on a stage. And I wonder if you could pick that up as far as—
Well, yeah. I mean, speaking to it generally, I think if you think of history as this kind of a process—Western history—as the manifestation of the demiurgos ildabov jehova, and then you get this middle declension in the Christos, and then this peculiar and misunderstood promise of the redemption by the Holy Ghost. McLuhan—who’s a very interesting figure as a radical thinker in communications theory, and a devout Catholic—believed that the manifestation of the Holy Ghost was electricity. And to him the ringing of the planet by electronic media was the enfolding arms of an archangel. I mean, he literally saw electricity as God’s love made manifest. And he may not—he hasn’t been proven wrong yet. I mean, it may yet knit us all together, and make us one, and lift us off, and send us to the stars. It’s some wonderful stuff, electricity.
You know, for—I like to talk about it because, for thousands of years, electricity was this stuff which some people knew about. And what they knew was that you skinned a cat, and you dried its skin in the wind, and then you got an amber rod (a polished rod of amber), and then you would go into a dark room with your catskin and your amber rod, and you would rub it back and forth like this, and then you would pull the amber rod away from the fur, and you would see miniature lightning storms of static electricity. And that was it for thousands of years. That was it. And then, in the seventeenth century (make it the eighteenth century), people invented what were called Leyden jars, which were this tricky way of storing this stuff, so that you could store up a lot of it and then, in a dark room, you could discharge it across a gap with this snap. And from that—I mean, talk about a shamanic invocation!—from that we light cities, we smelt steel, we sink shafts miles into the earth. And it’s just this little elemental that we were able to coax into becoming our friend. Well, who knows how much of this sort of thing there is?
According to McLuhan, that’s the major thing. And the electrification of the body—you know, this is a theme you get as early as Whitman: I sing the body electric. You get it in Stephen Vincent Benét, in his poem John Brown’s Body, where he says, “I see the human body, cold electric rage.” And he pictures it as a superstructure. Electricity as information, as the lógos, as the freeing and rarefaction of thought—it’s credible. It’s credible. I mean, when you think about electricity in and of itself, as modern inventions go, it must be the most benign there is. Because other than seating criminals in electric-wired chairs, it is not a weapon of mass destruction. You cannot rain it down on your enemy’s cities. It’s pure energy in the service of light (one thing) and information. And it’s generated—I don’t know how many of you know this—but it’s generated out of stable magnetic fields. I mean, when we were in the fifth grade we made engines by wrapping nails with wires and setting them delicately balanced between permanent magnets. And you coax this stuff into being. We take it for granted because we don’t understand it, but if you’re down close to where it’s coming into being, it’s like coaxing some kind of demon out of the matrix and into the service of thought and light. Very psychedelic.
So how do you see the body being coaxed back into the word?
Well, I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to picture, isn’t it?
Well, maybe inside those Tibetan letters that start becoming real and vibrating. I don’t know.
Well, there are a number of—I think we have, like, pieces of the puzzle, but we don’t know quite how to arrange them. One is virtual reality. Do you all understand this concept? Because I mention it and it’s quickly becoming central to my references. Virtual reality is this technology now being developed where they give you a helmet and a body glove, and when you look in the helmet you see another world. And you’re in it, and you can walk around, and pick things up, and open doors. And it’s all sustained by computers. But the illusion is very real. And they’re only at the beginning of the process of creating this illusion. Okay, so that’s a technology sitting off, there, with a potential application.
Another is nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is making things very small. And there’s a whole enthusiasm for this. And people who—you know, I talked yesterday about being down at the baths and watching the stratocumulus clouds move over the ocean. The number of water droplets in a stratocumulus cloud exceeds the number of people in the world. Therefore, if we were the size of water droplets, we could simply exist in that kind of a cloudscape. Well, then—okay, so that’s another technology that’s sitting there.
Another is this wonderful fantasy that I told some of you about a few days ago, where we see a man walking on a beach, and the man—his planet is perfect. Its oceans and its atmosphere and its glaciers and its equatorial forests are all in balance. And this man is naked except for a thread, like a Hindu thread, that crosses him. And on this thread there’s sufficient space for as much as a thousand or more small beads. Each bead is a doorway into a technological potentiality that is entirely suppressed in three-dimensional space. In three-dimensional space there is just man and nature. But when this man closes his eyes there are menus, and these menus lead to other menus. In other words, the entire culture has become virtual. This is one possibility: that the culture be made virtual.
Another possibility—which is sort of the reverse of that, and there’s a company on the peninsula trying to do this—is to place a textual reality behind apparent reality, so that everything is a button, you know? It is what it is, but it’s also a button. So I look at this, the question forms in my mind: “What is this?” The “what” pushes a button, and textual accompaniment informs me that this is cypress wood cut three years ago. Do you see what this would do to the world? Now we’re well on our way in the project of making the word flesh and the flesh word. We at least have them lined up with the word behind the flesh, and in some cases the flesh behind the word—
—embedded. Embedded: ontologically arranged in a situation of mutual reinforcement.
Okay, another technology is some kind of… severing from the physical connection. And then there’s a lot of debate about: is this possible? The old consciousness without an object riffraff. Well, it has to be explored. It can’t be known. The other thing is: the persistence of the intuition of non-material worlds inhabited by self-organizing entelechies of one sort or another seems to imply that some kind of dematerialization is at least theoretically possible. I’ve talked a lot in these circles about the questions raised by the ecstasis that comes with DMT, where you actually break into a world where there are what I call autonomous, self-transforming machine elves. But what we have discussed in terms of: are these the sprites of classical European mythology? Are they dwellers in some parallel continuum unsuspected by any of our sciences or ontologies? And then, a still more unsettling possibility: is this somehow an ecology of souls? Is the eerie connectedness to the human dimension that these things have because, in fact, this is a stage of some sort in human existence? If what “God can come tangential to history” means is: human beings unraveling the mystery of physical death, then I think that would be a sufficient fulfillment of the dramaturgical demand of a denouement—that we strive toward the mystery, the mystery strives towards us, and everything is resolved in a revelation of the understanding and meaning of death. This kind of thing makes me very uncomfortable, perhaps because it’s fairly feeling-toned and emotion-laden.
It doesn’t trouble me to imagine contacting informational beings in a parallel continuum, but the notion of encountering an ecology of souls I think is hair-raising if you take it seriously, because even the most spiritual of us are so deeply programmed by the assumptions of scientific materialism that I think something like that on the short-term here-and-now really gives us pause.
In this process of [???] flesh, where do you see the function of the poets?
Well, you know, people have talked—Robert Graves and others—about what he called an Ursprache, an original speech. And Celtic poetics somewhat assumes this. I think this language that is seen is a project that the poets should take very seriously. We need to not simply make better poetry, we need to make poetry of an entirely different order. And we will recognize it when we see it, not when we hear it. It will not be heard, it will be seen. To carry language from two dimensions into three is the task of the poet and the rebel in the twentieth century.
And there is a model for this, which I will explain to you so that it doesn’t seem so outlandish, and so that we can see that nature once again has sanctioned this move, and that is: a long time ago—700 million years ago, more or less—the great tree of life made a primary division between the vertebrates (the creatures with backbones) and the invertebrates. Evolving along the invertebrate line, and reaching the greatest brain size and complexity of nervous system on the invertebrate side of things, were the cephalopods. These are the squids and the benthic octopi; the eight-armed ones and the ten-armed ones. You may not realize it, but they are actually mollusks, related to escargot. So they are an extremely primitive creature from the point of view of those of us with backbones and binocular vision and frontal lobes, and so forth and so on. Nevertheless, the interesting thing about benthic octopi is that they can change their color over a wide range. Now, you may have heard this fact and assumed that it had to do with camouflage against their surroundings, so that they can avoid predators. This is not what it’s about at all. Octopi change color, and they can also change the shape of their skin from smooth to rugose and wrinkled, and then what’s called piliate—little points all over it. They can go through all these color changes and texture changes. And octopi have extremely well-evolved eyes. In fact, evolutionary biologists always compare the eyes of octopi to human eyes as an example of what is called parallel non-convergent evolution. Because, clearly, the two are not related. But the argument is made, you see: they solved the problem the same way in two different places. So it’s a very neat example of convergent evolution.
But what is interesting for our discussion is the mode of communication of these things. They become their linguistic intent. This repertoire of blushes, dots, stripes, traveling fields, color changes, and then, because they are soft-bodied, they can quickly reveal and conceal all parts of their body very quickly. So if you watch an octopus in communication, its surface texture is changing, its color is changing, and it is hiding and revealing. It’s dancing. And it’s a dance of pure meaning perceived visually by the object of its intention, which is other octopi.
So compare this for a moment to our method of communication. We use rapidly modulated small mouth noises. As primates we have an incredible ability to make small mouth noises. We can do this for up to six hours at a stretch without tiring. No other thing that we can do approaches the level of variation with low energy investment that the small mouth noises do. A person using a deaf and dumb language is exhausted after 45 minutes. But the problem with the small mouth noises form of communication is: I have a thought. I look in a dictionary that I have created out of my life experience. I map the thought onto the dictionary. I make the requisite small mouth noises. They cross physical space. They enter your ear. You look in your dictionary, which is different from my dictionary. But if we speak what we call the same language, it will be close enough that you will sort of understand what I mean. Now, if I don’t say to you, “What do I mean?” you and I will go gaily off in the assumption that we understand each other. But if I say to you, “Did you understand what I said then?” You say, “Yes, you meant that you don’t want to sit with Harry and Sally because their pending divorce makes you uncomfortable.” I say, “No, that’s not what I meant. I meant—” So there’s misunderstanding because the dictionaries are not matched.
Now, notice what’s happening with the octopi. There is no dictionary. Both parties are seeing the same thing because my body is my meaning. I become my meaning, and you behold the meaning I have become. I am like a naked thought. Not even a naked nervous system—more naked than that. I am like a naked thought in aqueous space, unfolding in time.1 I maintain this is why octopi eject clouds of ink: it’s so they can have private thoughts. Because if you can be seen, you can be understood. Well, this is a perfect model, condoned by nature, for the kind of transformation that we want to lead our culture toward. And I don’t think it’s that outlandish. Our previous animal totems were chosen unconsciously and were rather unfortunate, I think. I take the totem of the nineteenth century to be the horse, expressed as the steam engine. And the totemic animal of the twentieth century is the raptor, the bird of prey, expressed as supersonic high-performance fighter aircraft, which is just the leanest, meanest machine you can get together these days. But these mammalian and avian images are too close to the rapacious heart of the primate inside us. Embracing an image of the soul like that of the octopi is a permission for a strange and alien kind of beauty to be let into our lives. And these things are strange and alien, let me tell you!
The situation I described with these octopi was coastal shallow water octopi, so-called circoliteral octopi. But they have also evolved into the depths, the so-called abyssal octopi, that exist below 1,500 meters in the sea where there is absolute darkness. And to carry their intention to communicate into that darkness over the past 700 million years, they have evolved phosphorescent organs and have covered themselves with lights, with eyelid-like membranes that can be rapidly blinked and flickered. So that when you descend into the abyss, you then see pure linguistic intentionality among the cephalopoidia, because they have become what we aim to become under the wise leadership and stewardship of George Bush, namely: a thousand points of light! Is this guy for real? was it a W. H. Auden line? Was it Flanders Fields? Armies clash by night, and that whole business?
Can it only be [???] in one another, or is there maybe a mechanism at work, like when yawning, this can teach us? That it’s not only watching, but actually what happens to one is transmitted to [???]?
Well, this is fascinating stuff to study. The biologists who are studying these things are actually creating a grammar and a syntax, and they are beginning to understand what certain things mean. And the level of meaning—there’s a wonderful book called Communication and Non-Communication Among the Cephalopods, and it makes the point that communication is a very double-edged thing. You want to communicate to somebody, but usually it’s also important that your message not be picked up by other somebodies. So there can’t be just a full-on drive toward apprehendability. There are also is a countervailing force toward concealment, obscurantism, double entendre, so forth. Someone said language was invented to lie. Well, in a way that’s true, because of the problem of non-communication. As soon as you have something to communicate, there are places you don’t want the message to go. And so this creates a very interesting problem.
If I were twenty years old, I would go back into marine biology just to spend time with these things. They’re quite amazing, and they have very large brain capacity. I think John Lilly was all mixed up to look for mind in the water—that it was mammalian chauvinism that drove them to dolphins and whales. Maybe they are intelligent, but the language feats, when you see videotape of these cephalopods, you realize you’re in the presence of an opera.
What kinds of things are they communicating, besides maybe fear or—?
Well, they have elaborate sexual displays—and it’s a very tricky thing, sexuality among cephalopods, because the male usually doesn’t survive the encounter. So a lot of time is spent getting it right before you commit yourself. So they have a very complicated courtship thing. And one of the things that’s always said about them is that—I mean, every child’s book will tell you this about octopi—they’re shy creatures. Well, guess why? It’s because they wear their heart on their sleeve. Everywhere they go, other octopi can tell exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. So they live alone and they only get together on special occasions for communication, basically. And the repertoire is as complex as human language, so that they could be discussing the equivalent of Spencer’s Epithalamion, or something. I mean, we don’t know what they’re talking about.
Do we have a sort of Rosetta Stone, you know, about—?
We have a primitive grammar, but it’s only for one species. And I’m not really interested in what they’re saying, because I think it would only make sense if you were an octopus. But I’ll bet that—you see, it’s a model for us: wouldn’t we like to dance for each other and be perfectly understood? And wouldn’t we like to see someone dance and to know that this was their mind and their body, somehow, at one? In a way—god, does everything go back to everything?—in a way, this is the theme of Skinny Legs and All. This is the theme of the Dance of the Seven Veils. Octopi do it, nubile Hebrew princesses do it, everybody dances toward the truth, dropping veils as they go. And then, of course, the nakedness of truth is a cliché.
You mentioned to bring it to a practical level.
Do that, yes.
You mentioned the hallucinogenic experience as being one way that—I don’t think I accelerate anything in my life. I feel that I just align with it and move in a freer way. So I wouldn’t seek out a hallucinogenic experience in order to accelerate or to get more transforming, I do it because it’s enjoyable. It’s truly exciting and passionate. And I do seem to transform in the process and grow. Are there any ways, or other ways, that you might suggest? And also, I’m interested in sound, which is—you’re talking about going from sound to light. And I have a way of starting where I am. Or again, following my excitement, which happens to be in making tones. And I’ve reproduced experiences such as, very simply, like a hot tub. Where I make a tone, and another person has an experience of being in a hot tub. They go from being cold to being very comfortable, very vulnerable, very open, very loving. And it occurred to me that I could reproduce a mushroom experience, or some of these drugs that you’ve mentioned that are in the Amazon.
That you could reproduce it with sound?
That I could make tones and such, as in Tibet. They can—tones can bring physical objects into being, and move energy and such. That’s my exploration. I was wondering if you had any ideas about that?
Well, something sort of along that line that I’ve worked with for years, and observed for years, and I find very interesting is: you know, in South America there is this plant-drug of shamanic tradition of great age called ayahuasca, or yage. It’s chemically a little different from anything we’ve discussed, and consequently, neurologically, a little different. When this drug was first discovered in the 1920s they isolated a white crystal from it, and they named it telepathine because they believed that these deep forest Indians were having some kind of state of group-mindedness behind this. And that was all very exciting; that there was a drug called telepathine. But then, later, they found out that the drug had already been discovered in another plant—in pergamon harmala, the soma plant I mentioned—and had been named harmine. So that the rules of nomenclature, that took precedent. But persistently, since then, there have been reports of group states of mind caused by this drug.
So we explored this in the 1970s fairly thoroughly. In 1971, in 1972, again in 1976, and again in 1981. And different things are going on. First of all, the people down there who take this drug are into what they call icaros. Icaros are magical songs. And the accomplishment of a shaman is judged by how many of these magical songs he has. And they’re taught to you by the spirits, they say. But the interesting thing is that the icaro, within the culture, is criticized as a work of visual art. It is not thought of as a song. It is not listened to, it is looked at. And when people criticize it, they criticize its form and its color. And in taking this drug we discovered that there is something about it—it seems to dissolve a cultural barrier between the synesthesia of sound and light so that you can make a tone, like nnnnnnnnnnn, and it emerges as a streak of cyan blue that just stands there in space as long as you—and clearly, this stripe is related to the sound: when you stop the sound, the stripe disappears. Well, then you discover that when you modulate the sound, the color is modulated. Well then, you begin breaking it up, and you discover that voices become transformed into an instrument for manipulating light. And again, it has to do with these drugs which are very close to neurotransmitters, just one gene away from being actually produced. It’s as though this is the biochemical place where what we experience as the evolution of language and our cognitive abilities to integrate and express language are happening. So that….
You know, I think this should be looked at. I think maybe the path to the kind of visually beheld form of communication that I’m talking about is to look at shamanic cultures where this may have been happening all along, and people assume it. It is true, when you go up these jungle rivers to the really bare-assed people, that the elders do get together and take this stuff, and they do have a complex collective image of what should be done for the good of the group. It’s not exactly a vision of the future. It’s more complicated than that, because they also have a three-dimensional vision of the kinship structure of the village, of a whole bunch of clan and sib group associations to plants and animals in the forest, which are hidden from the eyes of the casual visitor. It isn’t so much that they predict the future, as that they go into a higher dimension of their own cultural information space. And from there they make decisions: where should we hunt? Who should we make war on or not make war on? Where should we move? You know? And even decisions about triage of children and this sort of thing, because this does go on.
So, you know, how much of human navigation through history has been done by processing ordinary cultural information on a higher-dimensional level by perturbing neurological functioning? I mean, if there is any angle that would have given us an edge, we would’ve found it and we would’ve used it. And I’ve discussed in other lectures the way in which small doses of psilocybin improve vision, and how this would’ve fed back into a primitive hunter-gatherer system. Very simply: they would’ve just outbred everybody not using mushrooms, because a pair of chemical binoculars in a hunting environment is an adaptive advantage that could not be ignored. And so forth and so on.
By copying your hand movements it helps me see what you’re talking about. Like in the virtual reality. And that’s what they do in neuro-linguistic programming. And people who made firewalking popular, like Tony Robinson [???], where neuro-linguistic programmers—
Maybe neuro-linguistic programmers could study octopi. If I had eight hands I could really get gestural.
A funny experience involving octopi: I know a woman—I’m sure she would not begrudge me this description of her—she is a very frank exhibitionist. I mean, this is the woman who at every party takes her clothes off, and dances on the tabletops, and so forth. She is an inveterate exhibitionist. She’s totally frank about it. And I had been to the Monterey aquarium and seen the octopus there. They have a giant octopus. Well, most of the time this guy just hunkers low, and he’s sort of off in a corner, one beady eye checking you out. But, of course, because octopi have this mode of communication, they’re very set up to respond to visual display. So this woman walked past this tank, and this octopus practically leaped into the air! It came down out of the tunnel. It was pressing against the glass. It was beating against the glass! And what it was, was: one exhibitionist recognizing another. I mean, it was just clear across the species lines. The power of neurosis knows no barrier.
She also had almost orange hair, very red bright hair that the sunlight would hit.
That’s true. It was probably sending a message to this octopus that was obscene, in the very least.
Was she dancing, or…?
No. She was just trying to be unobtrusive. But this woman being unobtrusive is a showstopper.
Terence, when you talk about language, or the word when you said people talk—to me, that felt like the whole body language. When you go into print, I’m making all these unconscious assumptions of values. And what you’re saying is true partly based on your body language.
True, but body language has really faded for us, probably because of the telephone. The telephone really staunches that. And… yes, it would be—we probably were much more linguistically rich in the past. We’ve muted ourselves.
But what you’ve just said [???] I could understand you much better by watching your hands.
Terence, just to let you know what happens when you discover sparks nowadays. When I was a kid I was a science buff, and I made a Tesla coil and so on. Before that, I accidentally induced a spark in a transformer. Unexpectedly, the spark jumped. And it was sort of my first religious experience. I saw this spark and all sorts of things burst loose in my ten-year-old head. Two years later, the FCC triangulated my house for emitting spurious radiations. Because now you have to regulate all that sort of [???]. And I felt sort of like someone put a big pot lid over my head. And between that and being suckered in by that Moody Bible Institute with their big Tesla coil movie, it just left a bad taste in mouth. I’m glad we’re onto other things now besides sparks and amber. A better experience.
There is a notion—you know, in Latin “spark” is scintilla. This word exists only in English in the legal phrase “there was not a scintilla of evidence against him.” But in alchemy this idea lived on for a long, long time, and there’s a whole literature of causing the scintilla and seeing it like you did. So you were unconsciously caught up in an alchemical archetype.
Well, why don’t we knock off? I think that’s enough for this evening.
- [Curator's Note:] But where does the meaning come from? Visual skin patterns don’t have any inherent meaning; they’re just ambiguous dots, stripes, and waves. The other octopus perceiving these patterns still needs to interpret them (e.g., “dense dots” = anxiety, “slow-rippling lines” = relaxation). This requires some form of dictionary-lookup and introduces potential noise during the transmission of meaning—unless, of course, every octopus uses the exact same skin pattern to express a particular meme, and interpretation is unnecessary. ↩