Monday, February 17, 2014

Barbara O'Brien's Operators and Things: A Remarkable Account of Schizophrenia in the Age of the Organisation Man.

How very odd, I mused, that my unconscious mind should call itself an Operator and call my conscious mind a Thing.
Barbara O'Brien, Operators and Things.

First published in 1958, Barbara O’Brien’s Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic is a fascinating lost classic in which a woman gives a first-hand account of her sudden decent into schizophrenia and a complex hallucinatory world dominated by hidden psychic controllers called the Operators.  It was first published in hardback by a little known firm called Arlington Press, but gained wider exposure as a paperback issued in 1960 by science fiction/pulp specialists Ace Books.  (The company were noted for their two-for-the-price-of-one Ace Double imprint, the format in which Burroughs’ debut Junkie first appeared, as well as several of Philip K. Dick’s novels.)  Ace published the memoir under a “truth stranger than fiction” banner, in a style largely indisguishable from its regular wheelhouse of pulp sci-fi.  This, however, was not entirely inapt, as the ambience of O’Brien’s schizophrenic experience often evokes the monochrome surrealism of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, and John Frankenheimer’s cult classic Seconds.  Operators was later republished in the 70s, marketed with a mind to tap the post-60s boom for alternative psychotherapies, particularly the anti-psychiatry movement popularised by RD Laing.  After that it went off the publication radar for a couple of decades, finally re-emerging in recent years with a small but enthusiastic cult following.  Though a slim volume, the book was fascinating to me for many reasons.  O’Brien’s invented world of Operators and Things evokes literary precursors like Kafka and Burroughs; her story offers a sidelong glance into the cold, alienating underbelly of office life during America’s golden age of postwar stability and conformity; most intriguingly, the latter sections of the book offer an extended meditation on themes which have been a lifelong personal fascination: the relationship between the conscious and unconscious parts of the brain, and the closely related mysteries of inspiration, intuition, and creativity.

(I should note that it is possible that Operators is actually a work of fiction – that it is one of those trickster books which invent a non-fictional frame almost in the manner of an allegory.  It could be that some author invented “Barbara O’Brien’s” story, in order to dramatize a critique of 50s  corporate culture, and present his or her speculative theories regarding the nature of schizophrenia and the unconscious.  I’m not really going to address that possibility in the following essay, as I don’t have enough information to speculate one way or the other, and the qualities of the book remain undiminished regardless.)  At the beginning of her narrative, Barbara is a stable, capable, if perhaps a little timid, professional woman working in the offices of the family-run Knox Company.  In a manner reminiscent of many later alien abduction narratives, her life is abruptly thrown into disarray by the appearance of a trio of strange figures at the foot of her bed:
 I awoke one morning, during a time of great personal tension and self-conflict, to find three grey and somewhat wispy figures standing at my bedside.  I was, as might be imagined, completely taken up by them.  Within a few minutes they had banished my own sordid problem from my mind and replaced it with another and more intriguing one.  They were not Men from Mars, but the Operators, a group in some ways stranger than Martians could be.

As O’Brien points out, her interlopers are not extraterrestrials, but turn out to derive their chief characteristics from a more mundane and immediate milieu; according to Michael MacCoby in the Introduction,  Barbara’s hallucinations “are not, however, the gods and devils common to another age; they are the horrors of Organisation Man; they are reactions to forces blocking attempts at creativity in work and attempts to enjoy relationships of trust with others.”  Published a couple of years before Operators, William H. Whyte’s The Organisation Man would, alongside Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, become an iconic document of the American workplace in the buttoned-down, conformist 50s.  Both works spoke to a sense that America, having won the war, was now drifting into a torpor of materialistic, suburban mediocrity.  Whyte feared that the American workforce was trading the country’s traditional values of individualism and self-sufficiency for a new collectivist ethos centred around the corporation or company.  The frontiersmen, the cowboys, and the rugged GIs were drifting into memory, and gradually being replaced, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, by a horde of indistinguishably suited company men and office drones, preoccupied only by their salaries, pensions, and easy chairs by the television.  As a side-note, it is interesting that the increasing incursion of bureaucracy and office manners and dress-codes has had such a pointed impact on American folklore and mythology.  A decade earlier witnessed the emergence of the Men In Black, one of the most enduring and intriguing of modern American archetypes.  The Man in Black was an elusive type of the Organisation Man whose employers (and employer’s goals) must remain utterly mysterious; their appearances and questions are, they assure us, simply a matter of formality and routine.  The archetype retains its vigour to this day, serving the function of angel in one place, and devil in another.  In the writings of John Keel, the Men In Black emerge as peculiar, automaton-like beings, presenting us with an often amateurish imitation of the human.  Perhaps there is some weird parallel between the Men in Black’s stilted imitation of authentic humanity, and the fact that the organisation men and women of the office-space were forced to adopt an imitation of something less than human, insofar as they were forced to mould themselves to the regular, predictable, and emotionally repressive dictates of office life.

If Whyte feared the loss of the individualistic impulse in the corporate office milieu, however, he was only half right.  The impulse towards a Darwinian type of competition seems to persist in most collectivist institutions, where it simply moulds itself according to the behavioural norms characteristic of the institution in question.  Since direct, physical confrontation was untenable to the modern, civilised veneer presented by the office, a new species of competitive behaviour had to evolve, one which was subtle rather than overt, and which concentrated on the adroit manipulation and control of other people, so that they became the apparent agents of their own  downfall.  It is an exposure to this type of institutionalized office sociopathology which precipitates Barbara O’Brien’s mental breakdown, and provides her with the idea of the hook operator,  the central image of her subsequent schizophrenic fantasy:

But standards are manufactured things.  You don’t create them, you accept them.  And there are too many men like Gordon and McDermott for me to feel now that all of them are twisted.  In a way, they have adapted themselves superbly to a certain type of business environment.  Both Gordon and McDermott cut the most direct road they could find to where they wanted to go.  That they both knifed a few men getting there was totally unimportant to either of them.  ‘Such men are immoral,’ people say of Hook Operators, and of course this is true.

        Behind him stands the Hook Operator.  Having operated his hook successfully, the Hook Operator stands by with his other instruments, the knife and the hatchet.  He watches the trashing man, speculating, considering.  If necessary, he will move in and cut the victim’s throat, or with his hatchet cleave through the victim’s head.
It is this Machiavellian office environment which feeds directly into the extraordinary hallucinatory world which Barbara is thrust into after her encounter with the Operators.  She learns that the world is populated by two distinct types of human being: Operators and Things.  Operators differ from Things simply by virtue of brain-chemistry.  Operators are born with a special variety of cells which they call “the battlement.”  These cells give them a vastly heightened psychic ability, which allows them to read and manipulate the minds of ordinary humans, whom they christen “Things”:
 Hinton sighed.  ‘Things.  Yes, of course.  Think of the word with a capital initial, if you like.  It may help your ego a little bit.  All people like you are Things to us – Things whose minds can be read and whose thoughts can be initiated and whose actions can be motivated.  Does that surprize you?  It goes on all the time.  There is some, but far less, free will than you imagine.  A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind.’
Here we find the quintessence of extreme paranoia: the idea that our minds are subject to invasion and manipulation by nefarious external agencies.  These types of beliefs are a mainstay of paranoid schizophrenia, and the cultural expression of the paranoid schizophrenic tendency which we find at in the fringes of the conspiracy community.  The belief that our minds can be controlled from afar often embodies a technological component, as was first noted by Freud’s pupil Victor Tausk in his influential 1919 monograph On the Origin of the “Influencing Machine” in Schizophrenia.  Tausk’s case studies describe a machine of “mystical nature” which is capable of producing as well as removing thoughts and impressions in the patient’s brains by means of “waves or rays or mysterious forces which the patient’s knowledge of physics is inadequate to explain.”  To invert Clarke, any sufficiently advanced diabolism is indistinguishable from technology.   The great Outsider Artist and schizophrenic visionary Richard Sharpe Shaver invented a dense mythology around the idea of nefarious mind-manipulating technology, in which the wielders of the influencing machine are found to be the “Abandoderos” (or Dero for short, dero meaning “detrimental robot”), an underground-dwelling race of degenerate fiends whom Shaver describes as “fearfully anaemic jitterbugs, small, with pipestream arms and legs, huge protruding eyes and wide, idiotically grinning mouths.”  Proving that paranoia loves company, the publication of Shaver’s ideas in the pulp Amazing Stories prompted a flurry of letters which seemed to corroborate the existence the Deros.  Let’s not run paranoia down too much; there is always some fire behind the wispy forms of mythological smoke.  Published a year before Operators and Things, Vince Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders shockingly exposed the new psychological and sociological subtlety with which ad men were attempting to read and manipulate the minds of the masses via technological channels.  In the late 70s, Jerry Mander invoked the Influencing Machine in his polemic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television:  “Doubtless you have noticed that this ‘influencing machine’ sounds an awful lot like television….In any event, there is no question that television does what the schizophrenic fantasy says it does.  It places in our minds images of reality which are outside our experience.  The pictures come in the form of rays from a box.  They cause changes in feeling and….utter confusion as to what is real and what is not.”  To many hard-line Marxist critics of capitalist ideology, the earlier quoted statement from the Operator Hinton is an apt enough description of reality:  A Thing does what some Operator wants it to do, only it remains under the impression that its thoughts originate in its own mind’

In the form of the Operators, Barbara O’Brien discovers the ultimate hidden persuaders, a species of mundane, corporate Archon who are perhaps like a white-collar division of Shaver’s monstrous Deros.  Part of the reason why O’Brien’s book didn’t cause the same furore of true believers and fellow-travellers as the Shaver Mystery is probably that the world of the Operators is largely a reflection of our own.  Like us Things, Operators work for companies (with sometimes Burroughsian names like The Western Boys); these organisations broker “charters” on Things, charters being the exclusive right to operate, or manipulate, Things.  Operators then artfully manipulate Things (and other Operators) in order to win “points.”  One particularly cruel method by which points are accrued is called The Game: a group of Operators take turns implanting distressing thoughts in the mind of an unwitting Thing, and the Operator to cause the most intense emotional distress wins the pot of points.  Points are to Operators what money is to Things:
 ‘What you’re overlooking is that a Thing can be influenced chiefly because of its desire for money and power.  An Operator’s security and self-esteem revolve around Operator’s points just as a Thing’s revolves around money.  With sufficient points, an Operator can do anything in an Operator’s world.  He can be a great power.  He can own an organisation and buy the charters of hundreds of Things.  He can be safe from other Operators.  How does that make him more despicable than a Thing?  The hell of it is, Operators and Things are motivated by similar desires.   We’re both in the soup, Operators and Things alike.’
In some respects, O’Brien’s Operators resemble the Nova Mob postulated in William S. Burroughs’ endlessly fascinating and infuriating Cut-Up Trilogy (The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express.)  Described by its author as an attempt to create a “new mythology for the space age”, the trilogy posits a Gnostic scenario in which planet earth is subject to the incursion of various parasitic entities known collectively as the Nova Mob, who invade and manipulate human beings in order to maximize conflict and suffering, on which the Mob subsequently feed:
nova criminals are not three dimensional organisms – (though they are quite definite organisms as we shall see) – but they need three dimensional human agents in order to operate – The point at which the criminal controller intersects a three-dimensional human agent is known as “a coordinate point” – And if there is one thing that carries over from one controller it is habit; idiosyncrasies, vices, food preferences – (we were able to trace Hamburger Mary through her fondness for peanut butter) – a gesture, a special look, that is to say the style of the controller – A chain smoker will always operate through chain smokers, an addict through addicts – Now a single controller can operate through thousands of human agents, but he must have a line of coordinate points –  (The Ticket That Exploded.)
Like Burroughs’ Nova Mob, the denizens of Lynch’s Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, and the Reptilians of David Icke’s popular conspiranoid mythos, O’Brien’s Operators subliminally manipulate human beings in order to feed on their distress and alienation; like Burroughs’ hypostasis of absolute Control, they are controlled by their need to control.  Habit patterns form an interesting component of O’Brien’s scheme.  In the language of the Operators, Things’ habit patterns are referred to as “latticework.”  In a grisly operation known as “dummetising”, the latticework of a Thing can be removed and effectively reprogrammed by their Operator:
‘It’s a process by which most of a Thing’s latticework is removed and new latticework is allowed to grow in,’ Nicky told me.  ‘Latticework is the growth in your mind which stores your habit patterns.  It’s called latticework because it looks something like the wooden latticework they use to support rosebushes.  Once latticework is removed, a new latticework will grow in quickly, but it may be a very different kind of growth.  The kind of habits you’ll develop will depend on the Operators working on you while it’s growing in.’
What is perhaps more intriguing is a point stressed by several of the Operators: once a Thing has had its latticework removed, it is in a state of maximum pliability, and can be controlled with ease by any Operator.  This is because Things (us, in other words) are constituted almost exclusively by their habit patterns; their capacity to think spontaneously and independently of ingrained, automatic mental patterns is extremely limited or non-existent.  Hence, O’Brien’s hallucinatory controllers echo the central insight of Gurdjieff and his initiated predecessors: we are asleep, and move through this life on an autopilot or trance of calcified mental habits and routines.  Ever abrasive towards the ego of the Things, the following passage suggests just how limited is our capacity for creative thought:
‘That’s a dummy with a topknot,’ said Rink.  ‘And whenever an Operator runs into one of those, he knows that the Thing is not responsible for anything that it does.  It’s being controlled entirely by an Operator.  A Thing’s control is in its habit patterns.  When it has nothing but its thinking ability left, the most feeble Operator can control it, because Things can think only to a very limited degree.’
‘How limited?’
‘I’ll tell you this’, Rink said with finality.  ‘If it weren’t for Operators, Things would still be wandering in and out of caves.’ 
That is a rough outline of the complex world which O’Brien inhabits during the period of her schizophrenic fugue.  The Operators tell her that she is the subject of an experiment, whereby a Thing will be allowed to observe the normally secret activities of their Operators.  For the next six months, she travels fitfully across America on Greyhound buses, following the dictates of various bickering and omnipresent Operators.  Finally, after many misadventures, she abruptly ceases to see and hear her interlopers, and comes to the painful realization that they were all along only figments of her unwell imagination.  She makes a slow progress back to a kind of normalcy, being at first perfectly stable, but intellectually and emotionally inert.  It is in this interim period, however, that O’Brien experiences some of the books most curious phenomena.  The machinery of her conscious mind (which she refers to as the dry beach) is completely incapacitated by the trauma of her schizophrenia.  She is, however, aided at times by her still acute unconscious mind, which she describes as sending waves to the dry beach.  These waves help her out in small ways, alerting her to things she has forgotten about, helping her in mundane situations that her exhausted conscious mind is not capable of dealing with.  This, however, is where things start to get weird.  In the traumatic reorientation of her mental functioning, the powers of her unconscious mind seem to have been temporarily heightened to a staggering degree.  She first writes a novel at breakneck speed; but her conscious mind seems to have no input whatever into what she is writing:
  I would sit at the typewriter, put my hands on the keys, and start in.  I had almost no comprehension of what I was writing and no memory whatever of what I had written, once I had closed the typewriter.  My fingers seemed to know which keys to hit and that’s all there was to it.  Apparently they were being guided by the department below the sandy shore which contained the knowing waves and the perfectly synchronised clock and which seemed completely capable of forming the waves, operating the clock, and writing a novel without any assistance from the dry beach.
More alarmingly, her unconscious mind seems to be temporarily experiencing a series of wild talents which she refers to as Something.  These abilities appear to include telepathy and precognition; she experiences a “four day period of growing apprehension, knowing before people spoke what they would say, knowing, before they turned corners and appeared, that they were coming.”  Finally, Something compels her to go to Los Vegas:
Something kept me rooted at one wheel and Something urged me violently to play a certain number at a certain time.  I played a dollar chip and won.  I waited, rooted, got another strong urge, played, won again.  I played six times, won six times, and found myself with a purse full of money.
Then Something too departs from her mental functioning, and she returns gradually to a relatively normative mental health.  The whole experience spurs O’Brien to embark on a fascinating series of speculations regarding the nature of inspiration, creativity, and the unconscious, which reminds me frequently of the theories underpinning Julian Jaynes’ mind-bending 1976 masterpiece The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  In the conclusion of this essay, I’m going to consider Operators and Things in relation to Jaynes’ controversial theories.

Conclusion: The Subterranean Craftsman

Psychology does not know much about creativity.   Freud analyses Dostoevsky as a neurotic, but he admits ‘Before the problem of the creative artist analysis must, alas, lay down its arms.’  In a similar way one can explain William Blake’s hallucinations and his denunciation of the Royal Academy’s Hook Operators, but the music of Blake’s words, the form of their content, and the fact of creativity, rather than stagnation, remain an awesome mystery.

Michael MacCoby, Operators and Things, Introduction.

The waves were far more clever than the dry beach.
                Barbara O’Brien, Operators and Things.

                It is surely a peculiar kind of book which can count among its admirers Daniel Dennett at one end of the spectrum, and Philip K. Dick, William Burroughs, Alan Moore, Robert Anton Wilson, and Grant Morrison at the other extreme.  The Origin is surely the only such book.  To Dennett, its appeal probably lies largely in the fact that it offers a neurological explanation for the emergence of religion – but the book has also been name-checked by just about every significant countercultural writer of the modern period because it remains one of the boldest and most elegantly expressed speculations on the nature of human consciousness and history ever produced.  It is eminently a book for what used to be called “heads”  - adventurous thinkers whose fondness for mind-blowing drugs is merely a subset of a deeper fascination with the nature of consciousness, and an equal predilection for mind-blowing ideas.  Jaynes begins his odyssey by asking: how many of the things which we tend to associate with consciousness actually necessitate the use of conscious thought?  Following the testimonies of various artists, mathematicians, and scientists, Jaynes concludes that surprisingly few actually do.  The best way to begin to think about this would be with the example of trying to remember something.  You rack your conscious mind – it’s on the tip of your tongue – but the required information just won’t come.  Then, at some point, maybe a moment later, maybe a day, the answer just pops effortlessly into your mind.  Something – not your stumbling, bumbling conscious recall - has gone into the files and retrieved the data.  Jaynes argues that precisely the same process occurs with mental tasks of far greater complexity.  For the scientist or the mathematician, there is a process of conscious priming,  whereby a problem is kicked around in the conscious mind.  The conscious mind exerts itself considerably, before finally reaching an impasse – the problem appears intractable.  Then sometime later, in the shower, shaving, waiting for the bus, when the conscious mind is thinking about something completely different – wham, Eureka, the solution surges forth, fully-formed and unbidden.  Again, Something (to borrow O’Brien’s capitalization) – not the scientist’s stumbling, bumbling conscious problem-solving capacity – has somehow put all the pieces of the jigsaw together, without the scientist even being aware of it.  It’s like that peculiar phenomenon (or subjective impression) recorded by many who have dabbled casually in fishing: you only hook the fish as soon as you’ve stopped thinking about hooking a fish.

                Barbara O’Brien’s experience of rapidly writing a coherent novel with no apparent input from her conscious mind prompts her to consider the same mysterious properties of inspiration and creativity.  She also finds that the writer, when he or she is working at their optimum ability, always feels as though Something else has gotten into the driver’s seat:
Other writers who produced work of a higher calibre said almost exactly the same thing.  ‘The story wrote itself,’ was the phrase usually used to describe the birth of some story for which the writer had become best known.  Attempting to explain what was happening to them while they were in the flush of creation, writers drew revealing pictures.  ‘I felt like a receiving station for a programme coming in.’  ‘It flooded my mind like a faucet being turned on.’  (Operators and Things)
From these tentative early speculations, Jaynes arrives at a stunning hypothesis: that up until about three thousand years ago, human beings did not possess full self and meta-consciousness, but rather existed in a mental condition which Jaynes christened “bicameralism” (“two-chamberedness”).  This effectively meant experiencing the two working hemispheres of the brain as separate entities – that is that the brain worked in a largely unconscious manner according the same type of habit patterns which the other animals exhibit (and which the Operators refer to as “latticework”).  However, when bicameral man encountered a problem which the habitual latticework was incapable of coping with, the right hemisphere produced a solution which the left then perceived as an auditory command coming from an external source.  That is, the left hemisphere perceived it’s smarter, problem-solving, big picture grokking right hemisphere as something wholly other from itself – and as Something whose voice must be obeyed.  (Recall the Operator Rink’s assertion to Barbara O’Brien:  ‘I tell you this.  If it weren’t for Operators, Things would still be wandering in and out of caves.’)  Eventually, the bicameral mind brakes down, the hemispheres become – to a large degree – experientially and conceptually united, and modern self and meta-self-consciousness is born.  But from that initial experience of the smarter, gestalt-comprehending right hemisphere as a commanding and external presence, emerged all our conceptions – religious and societal - of the higher authority which must be obeyed: all our gods, all our chieftains and god-kings, all our ancestral spirits, all our mediumistic channels, all our Hidden Chiefs, Ascended Masters, and Benevolent Space Brothers.  Jaynes posits that all human cultural history – right up to the present day deification of the physical sciences – is haunted by a nostalgia for the bicameral mind, and for the immeasurable comfort of yielding to that apparently external voice of absolute authority and wisdom. 

It seems to me to that while Jaynes’ theory may not be completely (or even substantially) correct, he was still most definitely on to something.  It does often feel as though a radical alteration of some kind occurred to to our consciousness from which we have not quite recovered; that some fissure opened up which has made us, uniquely in the animal kingdom, of two distinct and often inharmonious minds, the uneasy denizens of two distinct worlds.  Ian Gilchrist, exploring and extending similar ideas to Jaynes in his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, suggests that “many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bihemspheric structure of the brain.”  To those sceptical of over-literal, pop psychological treatments of the hemispheres, Gilchrist acknowledges that his division of specific modes of apprehending the world according to the left and right hemispheres may ultimately be a metaphor, albeit one which refers to real attributes of human consciousness.  (Gilchrist’s title – The Master and his Emissary  - can be easily mapped on to O’Brien’s Operator/Thing dichotomy.) 
However one feels about Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, Operators and Things makes for a fascinating illustration of many of its tenants.  Discussing the fantasies of schizophrenics, O’Brien notes that the common feature of schizophrenic interlopers – whether diabolical, extraterrestrial, or technological – is that of absolute, unquestionable authority:
 I should like to note, at this point, that schizophrenics, long before writers dreamed up science fiction, had – as they still have – a consistent way of developing mental worlds filled with Men from Mars, devils, death ray experts, and other fanciful characters.
Regardless of their individuality, they seem to have certain characteristics in common: they are figures of authority who can command with considerably expectation that the dry beach will obey; they are superhuman and beyond the powers of human authorities who might interfere, such as policemen and doctors.  Once they appear, the dry beach speedily gets the general drift: either you do what these characters say, or else, for no other human can help you.
The crucial lesson which O’Brien learns in the course of her experience is that the unconscious (or silent right hemisphere, or whichever metaphor you prefer), rather than being the broiling sea of atavistic and irrational impulse which Freud imagined, is in fact a creative and immeasurably smart entity.  O’Brien presents her runaway unconscious most frequently as a kind of effortless master artist:
In most cases of schizophrenia, however, the unconscious appears to prefer not the techniques of the actor, but those of the director.  It does not create a new personality, but instead stages a play.  The major difference is that the conscious mind is permitted to remain, an audience of one sitting lonely in the theatre, watching a drama on which it cannot walk out.
Without stopping for a deep breath, it gets its Martian, or whatever, going.  With speed and apparent purposefulness, it escorts the conscious mind to a box seat, makes it comfortable, and projects the shape or shapes it has created, and the voice or voices it has chosen.
Many of the lessons O’Brien derives from her traumatic experience are not flattering to the ego.  The dry beach of daylight self-consciousness is a tiny spit of sand in a vast ocean of which it has only the most limited and fleeting knowledge; the ego, the would-be controller of its world, is a mere plaything in the hands of a variety of Operators who can see right through it at a glance.  All of  these things O’Brien learns obliquely through a kind of six-month Twilight Zone mental radio play.  However, the picture is not entirely bleak.  Connected somehow with the dangers of extreme loss of control, trauma, and madness, are the hidden wellsprings of creativity, of almost supernatural-seeming intuition, of all the higher potentialities of the mind; potentialities whose outer limit, O’Brien intriguingly suggests, we can scarcely conceptualize:  “Possibly, conscious man knows so little about the odd talents, that there is no language or concept by which the unconsciousness can explain its unusual processes.”  Of course, in the commonality of the delusion, the dream, and the painted canvas or flickering cinema screen, art itself remains the primary candidate for this difficult and ongoing exchange.

The vintage Operators and Things cover is from THE CHISELER - A THING TO REMEMBER

            The Scanner Darkly cover is from Art Is A State.
            The picture of the suburbs is from Electric Sunshine.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Akashic Record: HP Lovecraft, Psychedelia, Ancient Astronauts, and Occult Theories of Creativity

(Parts 1 and 2 here and here.  This conclusion is a tad long but I decided to post it in one go rather than breaking it up.)

This is the conclusion of a series of essays about HP Lovecraft.  In the previous instalments, we looked at Lovecraft as a proto-psychedelic author, noting similarities between certain of his tales and the experiences recounted by much later psychonauts under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen DMT, and suggested that perhaps psychedelic voyagers and writers of visionary fiction (imaginauts?) were accessing similar mental terrains via different routes.  In this final instalment, we’re going to look at Lovecraft’s work in relation to two mythic archetypes much beloved of esotericists: the akashic record of the Theosophists and the Hall of Records fabled since the days of the “Sleeping Prophet” Edgar Cayce to be buried in a hidden cavern beneath the Great Sphinx of Giza.  First, however, we’ll look at one more of Lovecraft’s deeply psychedelic tales, and return to that theme in the essay’s conclusion. 

                The feeling of doing DMT is as though one had been struck by noetic lightning. The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced, not only with a hallucination, but a hallucination whose alien character is its utter alienness.  Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium.

                Terrence McKenna.

                Hypnos is perhaps one of the most intriguing of Lovecraft’s shorter and lesser known fictions.  The germination of the story goes back to a succinct plot summary recorded in the author’s commonplace book which scooped the basic premise of Wes Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street by several decades: “The man who would not sleep – dares not sleep – takes drugs to keep himself awake.  Finally falls asleep - & something happens.”  The story can be read as a combination of Lovecraft’s two preferred literary modes: Dunsanian dream fantasy and the author’s own brand of cosmic, visionary horror.  The Decadent literary movement also provides a strong influence; as in Celephais and Ex Oblivione, we find a preoccupation with the idea that sleep and drugs can operate as doorways into other worlds and wholly separate planes of existence.  Hypnos, however, is unusually sparse and vague as a tale.  An unnamed narrator (who is a sculptor) encounters a mysterious man at a train station, and the encounter has a profound effect on him.  He recognises both an ideal artistic subject, and a man with a deep knowledge of hidden and ineffable things: “ – for I saw that such eyes must have looked fully upon the grandeur and the terror of realms beyond normal consciousness and reality; realms which I had cherished in fancy, but vainly sought.”  Our narrator thus adopts his new friend as a guru and guide in attaining states of non-ordinary consciousness.  They move in together, the mysterious stranger modelling for the narrator’s sculpting by day, and the pair taking drugs by night in order to plunge deeply into alternate realities beyond time and space.  They become essentially harbingers of a counterculture several decades yet to be born: a pair of boho acid heads, and perhaps, one might cheekily suggest, lovers.

                Of course, Lovecraft nowhere directly implies a sexual relationship, but Hypnos is infused with a peculiar ambience of homoeroticism (any kind of eroticism, however subdued, being an unexpected departure from the norm of the Lovecraftian universe.)  The narrator is rhapsodic in his description of the stranger’s physical aspect:
            I think that he was then approaching forty years of age, for there were deep lines in the face, wan and hallow-cheeked, but oval and actually beautiful; and touches of grey in the thick, waving hair and small, full beard which had once been of the deepest raven black.   His brow was white as the marble of Pentelicus, and of a height and breath almost godlike. I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this was a faun’s statue, dug from a temple’s ruins and brought somehow to life in our stifling age only to feel the chill and pressure of devastating years.
Afterwards I found that his voice was music – the music of deep viols and of crystalline spheres.  We talked often in the night, and in the day, when I chiselled busts of him and carved miniature heads in ivory to immortalise his different expressions.
To make the whole thing rather like a blunt Freudian pun, the story is dedicated to Lovecraft’s friend, the homosexual New York poet Samuel Loveman.  (Would it be cheap and obvious psychoanalytic blundering to suggest that Lovecraft’s profound sense of alienation and physical loathing may have stemmed from a deeply repressed homosexuality?  Probably – although it is interesting to note that the only time Lovecraft seems to pay any attention whatever to physical beauty is in this particular instance.) 

Anyway, after that digression, back to our main theme: tripping balls.  Around this vague and suggestive premise, Lovecraft weaves some of his most otherworldly prose poetry and some of the most strikingly psychedelic ideas and images in his entire output.  The image which completes the following paragraph reminds us again of William James and his nitrous oxide revelation of different modes of consciousness parted from everyday reality by the “filmiest of screens”:
 Of our studies it is impossible to speak, since they hold so slight a connexion with anything of the world as living men conceive it.  They were of that vaster and more appalling universe of dim entity and consciousness which lies deeper than matter, space, and time, and whose existence we suspect only in certain forms of sleep – those rare dream beyond dreams which come never to ordinary men, and but once or twice in the lifetime of imaginative men.  The cosmos of our waking knowledge, born from such a universe as a bubble is born from the pipe of a jester, touches it only as such a bubble may touch its sardonic source when sucked back by the jester’s whim.

Again, as with From Beyond, there are striking parallels with the DMT experience.  In the parlance of DMT users, no concept is as crucial as the “breakthrough”.  In essence, the difference between properly breaking through and not is like the difference between foreplay and full intercourse.  Fail to get enough of the harsh, burnt plastic tasting-DMT vapour into your system, and you’ll just experience a pleasant but mild display of the type of visuals typical of LSD and mushroom experiences.  Get the full hit and you’ll experience the sensation of a full (in many cases out of body) breakthrough into a wholly immersive and astonishing audio-visual realm – a natural Virtual Reality tech which is aeons ahead of the synthetic variety.  Here’s Terence McKenna describing the breakthrough sensation:
And this is taking, you know, thirty or forty seconds, and there’s this rising hum, this – nnnmmMMMM – that rising tone; the flying saucer tone of Hollywood B-movies.…you actually hear this thing.  And then, if you’ve taken enough DMT (and it has to do entirely with physical capacity; did you take, did you cross the threshold?) something happens (McKenna claps) for which there are no words.  A membrane is rent, and you are propelled into this “place”.   And language cannot describe it - accurately.
Compare McKenna’s language to that of Lovecraft’s description of the sculptor and his muse’s drug voyages in Hypnos:
Human utterance can best convey the general character of our experiences by calling them plungings or soarings; for in every period of revelation some part of our minds broke boldly away from all that is real and present, rushing aerially along shocking, unlighted, and fear-haunted abysses, and occasionally tearing through certain well-marked and typical obstacles describable only as viscous, uncouth clouds or vapours.
A breakthrough, then.  In fact, Lovecraft agrees with McKenna in both the metaphor of breaking through a membrane or veil, and in the essential inability of language to adequately encapsulate the experience.  This is the defining characteristic of all peak psychedelic and mystical experiences: they elude the whole mental machinery by which the bulk of our experience is structured into a grammar of causality, continuity, and comprehensible meaning.  In this realm, meaning is felt as already complete and fully self-sufficient; it does not and cannot be translated into words and familiar concepts.  From Hypnos:
Among the agonies of these after days is that chief of torments – inarticulateness.  What I learned and saw in those hours of impious exploration can never be told – for want of symbols or suggestions in any language.  I say this because from first to last our discoveries partook only of the nature of sensations; sensations correlated with no impression which the nervous system of normal humanity is capable of receiving.
There was a night when winds from unknown spaces whirled us irresistibly into limitless vacua beyond all thought and entity.  Perceptions of the most maddenly untransmissible sort thronged upon us; perceptions of infinity which at the time convulsed us with joy, yet which are now partly lost to my memory and partly incapable of presentation to others.
                There is one other point about the astral voyaging in Hypnos which I note in passing.  While in the midst of their trips, the narrator is unable to see the body of his teacher; however, he maintains an awareness of his presence by means of a peculiar invention which Lovecraft calls the “memory face”.  Here Lovecraft’s astral realm begins to feel peculiarly like a computer-generated environment or Virtual Reality, as I think the “memory face” conceit would remind many contemporary readers of a computer avatar:
   When we were together, my friend was always far ahead; I could comprehend his presence despite the absence of form by a species of pictorial memory whereby his face appeared to me, golden from a strange light and frightful with its weird beauty, its anomalously youthful cheeks, its burning eyes, its Olympian brow, and its shadowing hair and growth of beard.
To wrap up, then, we find in the ambiguous conclusion of Hypnos a version of the now familiar William Wilson/Fight Club twist.  It appears that the mysterious stranger never existed at all, or at any rate, all that remains of his body is a sculpted bust which the narrator is assured is a likeness of himself at the age of twenty-five.  Was he then a figment of the narrator’s imagination, his mind having gone febrile with exotic drugs and weirder ideas?  It may be that for Lovecraft there is a complex, almost unconscious symbol at work here, the bust representing how the feverish interior journey into horror and madness finally solidifies into the balanced harmony of creation and art, or how the narrator’s daimon, having pierced the final veil and journeyed completely beyond matter and time, is now frozen as a timeless icon, a condition which must have held some appeal to Lovecraft.  At any rate, for the present essay, it is sufficient to note once again the peculiar affinity of Lovecraft’s imagining of dimensions beyond time and space, and the actual experience of later psychonauts experimenting with strong hallucinogens.  Also, there is the undeniably mystical compulsion, which infuses so much of Lovecraft’s stories, to escape from and transcend all the limits of the human condition: to go beyond the body and its narrowly circumscribed senses, beyond even the temporal/spatial dimensions within which the body assumes its morphing and frail form.  In the conclusion of this essay we will explore the contradictory relationship of this mystical tendency to Lovecraft’s outward materialism and Schopenhauerian pessimism.

Nature’s Memory: Shadows Out of Time.

I recalled the awesome records that once lay cased in those rectangular vaults of rustless metal.
There, said the dreams and legends, had reposed the whole history, past and future, of the cosmic space-time continuum – written by captive minds from every orb and every age in the solar system.
H.P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time.

The akashic record and the Hall of Records are two great, closely related occult mythologies.  They are quintessential occult archetypes because they speak to what is by general agreement the greatest spur to the occult imagination: the idea of a massive trove of hidden, forbidden, and preferably ancient knowledge.  Like gnostics and conspiranoids in their divergent fashion, occultists are always looking for the motherlode of information which will result in the ultimate unravelling of the established order of the world – which will make, even if only in the mind of the recipient, the whole world utterly anew.  The akashic record and the fabled Hall are vast libraries, then, with the first being immaterial or metaphysical in nature, and the second having an antique and long hidden physical form.  They are both frequently presented as a means of acquiring knowledge of mankind’s hidden pre-history, and even, in the case of the akashic record, of his distant future existence.  The origins of the idea of the akashic record go back to the Astral Light theorized by Eliphas Levi: “ agent which is natural and divine, material and spiritual, a universal plastic mediator, a common receptacle of the vibrations of motion and the images of form, a fluid and a force which may be called in some way the Imagination of Nature…..the existence of this force is the great Arcanum of practical Magic.”

Perhaps what was appealing to later occultists about Levi’s “universal plastic mediator”, vague as the concept was, was its capacity to absorb and record the psychic contents of our widely dispersed and transitory minds; in the hands of the Theosophists, the Astral Light became the Memory of Nature.  In essence, the idea of the akashic record is that some property of nature records all the thoughts, desires, and ideas of living beings as a kind of condensed visual/immaterial library or database.  If this weren’t grand (and crowded) enough, for many theosophists, this database was trans-temporal – it records not only those thought-forms which stretch back into the distant past, but also those which are yet to realized in the future.  Nobody has ever accused Theosophists of dreaming small.  According to Alice A. Bailey:
   The akashic record is like an immense photographic film, registering all the desires and earth experiences of our planet. Those who perceive it will see pictured thereon: The life experiences of every human being since time began, the reactions to experience of the entire animal kingdom, the aggregation of the thought-forms of a karmic nature (based on desire) of every human unit throughout time. Herein lies the great deception of the records. Only a trained occultist can distinguish between actual experience and those astral pictures created by imagination and keen desire.
                However one is to take this idea (and Theosophical notions rarely cry out for a fully literal reception) there is something undeniably intriguing at work in it.  Levi’s Astral Light and the Theosophical akashic record have always reminded me a little of the internet, or perhaps it would be more apt to say that the internet always reminds us of some its grander theoretical precursors: James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and particularly Teilhard de Chardin’s planetary exo-consciousness the Noosphere.  It seems that the yearning has been in our minds for a long time to externalize and immaterialize a vast quantity of information; to make of the world a mind in the same way that the world made of our brains a mind capable of surveying things vaster than itself.  In some respects, the akashic record scoops contemporary posthuman dreams of preserving individual consciousness by means of conversion into potentially immortal digital memory.

                From the akashic record we move to a more tangible yet still elusive library.  Edgar Cayce is yet another chapter in the fascinating history of American grassroots religion and spirituality, the same history which produced Joseph Smith, the Fox sisters, L.Ron Habbard, and so many more, plucked from the obscurity of a bustling continent by visions, feints, and skulduggery.  But Cayce doesn’t appear to have been a scoundrel, and, unlike Smith and Hubbard, didn’t really start a new religion.  Instead, he preached a sometimes uneasy mixture of conventional Biblical piety with the more contemporaneous notions of Theosophists and occultists – trance mediumship, the reading of the akashic record, reincarnation, and the ubiquitous preoccupation with Atlantis and the lost antediluvian civilisations of human pre-history.  To his supporters, Cayce was a trance healer (whose clients included Woodrow Wilson), a clairvoyant, and a prophet.  Most famous among his prophetic utterances was the assertion that Atlantis (or is it Ry’leh?) would rise again, and that a library of Atlantean history would be discovered in a cavern beneath the Sphinx.  According to Cayce, the Hall of Records contained a “record of Atlantis from the beginning of those periods when the Spirit took form, or began the encasements in that land; and the developments of the peoples throughout their sojourn; together with the record of the first destruction, and the changes that took place in the land; with the record of the sojournings of the peoples and their varied activities in other lands, and a record of the meetings of all the nations or lands, for the activities in the destruction of Atlantis; and the building of the pyramid of initiation, together with whom, what, and where the opening of the records would come, that are as copies from the sunken Atlantis. For with the change, it [Atlantis] must rise again.”  (The Sources of channelled wisdom have never been accused of elegant prose.)

Among Cayce’s followers, the search for the Hall of Records still casts a potent millenarian spell.  It was been discovered that cavities do exist under the Sphinx, and Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) are a significant component of the nexus of interested parties that hover around the Giza Plaza and contribute to its perpetual air of intrigue.  The full story of these shenanigans – involving Cayce devotees, Egyptian authorities, Alternative Egyptologists, Freemasons, John Michel Jarre, and the Devil or Tsoukalos knows who else – would probably weave a history every bit as tangled and bizarre as anything contained in the putative Hall, were it to be known in full.  However, for the purposes of this essay, we are simply examining the power of the idea of the Hall of the Records, which is again a mainstay of esoteric mythology: the idea of an ancient knowledge which has been preserved, this time in a physical form, for a much later generation to rediscover.  The rediscovery of this lost knowledge may be of initiatory import to the individual, or, in the case of lost pre-histories like the Hall of Records, of millenarian or apocalyptic import to the society as whole; apocalyptic because the “un-covering” or disclosure of the true past annihilates the false world as it is conceived in the present.

The significance of these ideas should be reasonably apparent in relation to Lovecraft’s literary creations.  In roughly the same time period that Cayce was making his as yet unrealized prophecies, the wreckage of antediluvian cities was rising out of the ocean, and libraries of long lost human pre-history were re-emerging from the mists of the deep past – in Lovecraft’s stories.  Dagon (1917) is the first truly “Lovecraftian” tale in the cannon – an oddity in that the author seemed abruptly to discover his specific voice and vision, and then lose it again until the much later “Mythos” stories.  In this early tale, we find two crucial motifs: the return of the pre-historical repressed in the form of fragmented Cylcopean masonry, and the discovery of a kind of pictographic record of earth’s long lost and scarcely guessed at history.  The shipwrecked narrator finds himself on a slimy spit of putrid earth which he conjectures to have been spewed up from the ocean floor by volcanic activity, “exposing regions which for innumerable millions of years had lain under unfathomable watery depths.”  Later on, upon investigating a “vast and singular object”, he experiences that characteristically Lovercraftian emotion: the shock of profound terror mixed with a kind of awe upon the realization that the deep past of our planet is not at all as we imagined it.  Cue Also Sprach Zarathustra:
That it was merely a gigantic piece of stone, I soon assured myself; but I was conscious of a distinct impression that its contour and position were not altogether the work of Nature.  A closer scrutiny filled me with sensations I cannot express; for despite its enormous magnitude, and its position in an abyss which had yawned at the bottom of the sea since the world was young, I perceived beyond a doubt that the strange object was a well-shaped monolith whose massive bulk had known the worship of living and thinking creatures.
Carven on the monolith is Lovecraft’s first tentative expression of the Hall of Records motif, and his first foray into forbidden history: “The writing was in a system of hieroglyphics unknown to me, and unlike anything I had seen in books; consisting for the most part of conventionalized aquatic symbols such as fishes, eels, octopi, crustaceans, molluscs, whales, and the like.  Several characters obviously represented marine things which are unknown to the modern world, but whose decomposing forms I had observed on the ocean-risen plain.”  Lovecraft’s earth, then, is like a person a shouldering a series of repressed memories; the memories keep coming to the surface, bubbling up from an unconscious in the watery oceanic depths and dark, cavernous inner-earth.  That Lovecraft would return again and again to these core images and ideas so briefly sketched out in Dagon – with an obsessive, repetitive, almost monomaniacal intensity – plays no small part in the existence of many occult readers of the author, who interpret his work as transcribed vision rather than mere literary invention.  Without taking a firm stance on this issue, there is certainly an odd compulsiveness about Lovecraft’s art, and it is arguable that the idea of some kind of race or genetic memory lies at the centre of his thematic obsessions – that the many visions of primeval architectures and vast bas-relief histories in his stories constitute an effort to access some kind of genetic or akashic database in a pulp fiction shorthand. 

We next encounter the Hall of Records motif in The Nameless City, a 1921 tale in which an explorer in the Arabian desert discovers the remnants and records of a not quite extinct reptilian civilisation.  Not knowing that Lovecraft had replaced the largely anthropomorphic visions of the Theosophists with a teeming bestiary of biological and metaphysical alienage, the explorer at first takes the reptilians to be allegorical depictions of primeval man: “Now that the light was better I studied the pictures more closely, and, remembering that the strange reptiles must represent the unknown men, pondered upon the customs of the nameless city.  Many things were peculiar and inexplicable.  The civilisation, which included a written alphabet, had seemingly risen to a higher order than those immeasurably later civilisations of Egypt and Chaldea, yet there were curious omissions.”  The Nameless City, of course, was little more than a dry run for Lovecraft’s grand elaboration of the Hall of Records motif in the centrepiece of At the Mountains of Madness: the long, visionary section where Dyer and Danforth decipher the history of the Elder Things through their perusal of an elaborate sequence of hieroglyphic murals.  Here is the Hall of Records as apocalyptic revelation: all traditional western worldviews crumble, as man is found neither to be made in God’s image (as the Christians supposed), nor to stand at the intellectual summit of terrestrial evolution (as the humanists of the Enlightenment supposed.)  Dwarfed by Cyclopean dimensions and the span of incalculable aeons, man becomes the measure of very small things indeed.  Unless, of course, he find some means to extend the scope of his vision in time and space.

In The Shadow Out of Time, on the other hand, we discover a library which contains elements of both occult myths we have been discussing, and a race who have achieved precisely this expansion of vision.  Like the Hall of Records, the library of the Great Race is a physical structure which is now hidden underground (“a colossal subterranean structure near the city’s centre”, “this titan repository surpassed all other buildings in the massive, mountain-like firmness of its construction”); like the Akashic Record, it is trans-temporal, in it that encompasses knowledge of both past and future, accumulated by means of telepathic projection across the aeons:
This, they indicated, was the greatest race of all; because it alone had conquered the secret of time.  It had learned all things that ever were known or ever would be known on the earth, through the power of its keener minds to project themselves into the past and future, even through gulfs of millions of years, and study the lore of every age.  From the accomplishments of this race arose all legends of prophets, including those in human mythology.
In its vast libraries were volumes of texts and pictures holding the whole of earth annuls – histories and descriptions of every species that had ever been or that ever would be, with records of their arts, their achievements, their languages, their psychologies.  With this aeon-embracing knowledge, the Great Race chose from every era and life-form such thoughts, arts, and processes as might suit its own nature and situation.
The Great Race had collectively attained to a condition destined only to the few solitary voices raging in the ephemeral wildernesses of every subsequent civilisation; the condition of Blake’s Bard in the Songs of Experience, who “Present, Past, & Future sees.”  They have also achieved that mystical goal which we find in so many Lovecraft characters – the impulse to transcend utterly one’s present space-time moorings – and they do this, as every mystic must, not with their physical bodies but only with the mind alone (“their senses could penetrate all material barriers, their substances could not…”).  It is interesting to note in this mystical connection that we find in The Shadow Out of Time a very rare acknowledgement in Lovecraftian fiction that expanded knowledge of the universe, despite its horrors, constitutes an intensely exalted experience.  Of the minds held captive in the era of the Great Race, Lovecraft notes that they were allowed to “delve freely into the libraries containing the records of the planet’s past and future.  This reconciled many captive minds to their lot; since none were other than keen, and to such minds the unveiling of hidden mysteries of earth – closed chapters of inconceivable pasts and dizzying vortices of future time which include the years ahead of their own natural ages – forms always, despite the abysmal horrors often unveiled, the supreme experience of life.”

Conclusion:The long telephone wire of history, which goes back two billions years, and which is buried somewhere inside your brain and mine.”

I recognise a distinction between dream life and real life, between appearances and actualities.  I confess an overwhelming desire to know whether I am asleep or awake – whether the environment and laws that affect me are external and permanent, or the products of my transitory brain.
H.P. Lovecraft, A Letter On Religion.

                H.P. Lovecraft has had a perhaps suitably weird posthumous legacy.  His American Gothic predecessor Poe has been canonized and made respectable, and hence his presence in popular culture now feels a little like a dusty heirloom or museum piece.  Lovecraft, however, penniless and ignored during his own lifetime, now has a more vital pop culture profile than almost any other pulp writer of his era.  The Cthulhu Mythos, for whatever reason, is part of the lingua franca of the internet, and Cthulhu, to his dubious honour, has become a mainstay of the daily distraction stream; what incongruous Cthulhu-related thing will the internet show us today?  The result of all this is that not only is Lovecraft widely read today, but his ideas and iconography have saturated culture to the point where they are immediately recognisable to many people who have never and probably will never read him.  The internet, I suppose, brings previously marginal and underground material to the foreground; not, however, without breaking them down into a sometimes trivial byte-size.

                Perhaps more interesting than the scale of Lovecraft’s readership is the type of readings the stories have accrued through the years.  Lovecraft identified himself during his lifetime as a staunch materialist and atheist (he is included, for example, in Christopher Hitchens’ anthology The Portable Atheist), and yet no fictional writer as had such a major impact on the contemporary occult world.  Though the vortices of ancient astronaut theory and chaos magic, Lovecraft has engendered a comparatively rare type of reading whereby many have felt that his fictions contained some essential truth.  This is different, to an extent, from the normal kind of obsessive fandom whereby devotees behave as though the worlds of Tolkien and Star Trek were real.  This is the widespread belief that the author was, in that nebulous but perfectly comprehensible expression, Tapping into Something.  To square this with his publically stated philosophical views, one would have to conclude that either a great many people were misreading Lovecraft, or that Lovecraft’s stories were expressing a fundamentally different sensibility than he himself did in everyday life.

                There are some more obvious reasons why Lovecraft’s fiction should have moved into this liminal, speculative territory.  Positioned where he was historically, Lovecraft was ideally situated to tap into two contrary cultural streams.  On the one hand, he was absorbed in the modernising tendency of the empirical sciences, which were themselves becoming considerably exotic and mind-bending during that period.  On the other, the real bread and butter of Lovecraft’s inspiration came from a contrary, anti-modernist cultural tendency, best represented by the Occult Revival, Ignatius Donnelly, the Theosophists, and Charles Fort’s serio-comic philosophical assault on the orthodoxies of both science and religion.  Now, all of these influences taken together sowed the seeds of various cultural manifestations that would explode in the postwar period of the twentieth century, becoming major popular preoccupations and quasi-real entities at the speculative edge of mainstream reality: UFOs, the still reverberating Ancient Astronaut craze, Alternative Archaeology, and so forth.  Lovecraft not only pre-empted these soon to be widespread cultural fascinations in his fictions, but he also captured perfectly their ambiguous nature precisely as quasi-real entities.  This is because he was a truly Fortean writer.  The supernatural or extraterrestrial could not be taken for granted in his stories; it produced ambiguous evidence in the form of blurry photographs, footprints, tape recordings, and anomalous historical discoveries whose veracity, meaning, and implications had to be carefully considered by sceptical academics.  As in the case, for example, of John Keel’s Fortean classic The Mothman Prophecies, we have to remain alert to the possibility that an unreliable narrator may be misinterpreting the overall pattern into existence from a perspective of heightened paranoia.  Hence, anybody who had first read a much later book on UFOs or speculative archaeology would instantly recognise that Lovecraft’s stories were written in a similar mode of quasi-realism, or what Pauwels and Bergier labelled “fantastic realism” in their Fortean masterwork Morning of the Magicians.

                So then, to sceptical readers of the Lovecraft phenomenon, the author had simply plundered the works of the Theosophists for exotic story ideas (siphoning off all their cosmic optimism in the process), and in a final riposte from fate, a generation of posthumous readers simply didn’t get the position of rationalistic materialism which he was really espousing.  This would certainly be the view of Joyce Carol Oates, who writes in The King Of Weird that weird fiction “can only be a product, Lovecraft saw, of an age that has ceased to believe collectively in the supernatural while retaining the primitive instinct to do so, in eccentric, atomized ways. He would hardly have been surprised, but rather confirmed in his cynicism regarding human intelligence, could he have foreseen how, from the 1950s onward, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of purportedly sane Americans would come to believe in UFOs and “extra-terrestrial” beings with particular, often erotic designs upon them.” (It seems doubtful that Oates has read much Kenneth Grant.)  Or Jason Colavito, who, in The Cult of Alien Gods: H.P. Lovecraft and Extraterrestrial Pop Culture and elsewhere, has written extensively on the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos on the popularity of ancient astronaut and alternate archaeological theory.  Although I haven’t read Colavito’s work, the gist of his argument I take to be an attack on the latter on the basis that it derives, in some part, from the ideas of a fiction writer who did not himself take the ideas in his stories seriously.  However, how seriously Lovecraft did or not take the content of his stories, and to what extent his publically espoused position of rationalistic materialism is an accurate representation of his inner life, seem to me to remain an open question.  Looking closely at the stories as a kind of psychological autobiography, we find instead a figure deeply preoccupied and enthralled by the power of his subconscious imagination, and possessed of an uneasy and even contradictory philosophy pitched somewhere between a mystical idealism and a materialistic despair.

                Much of Lovecraft’s writing addresses itself to the crisis of modern consciousness which Huysmans expresses so beautifully and succinctly at the end of A rebours (Against Nature):
   ‘Lord, take pity on the Christian who doubts, on the unbeliever who would fain believe, on the galley-slave who puts out to sea alone, in the night, beneath a firmament no longer lit by the consoling beacon-fires of the ancient hope!’
                What is one to do in a world which seems no longer fashioned for man to exist in?  A world, in fact, where man’s existence appears like a tiny, transitory accident that might as easily never have happened, with no lasting or discernible effect on the whole?  Lovecraft examines these questions throughout his fictions, and a consistent enough reply emerges.  Again and again, we see a figure that finds life in the modern world utterly unbearable, and constantly seeks escape.  This recurring character can find solace and meaning in neither religion or science.  Instead, he finds peace only in a motion towards the past, both in the sense of his own childhood and the deeper, wider past of the species, a motion which is facilitated by dreams.  It is, in fact, always only dreams and the imagination which provides sure escape from the emptiness of modern life, and engenders a sense of solace, harmony, and purpose where everything else leads only to cul-de-sac.  We find this figure etched out in the dream piece Celephais:
   The more he withdrew from the world around him, the more wonderful became his dreams and it would have been quite futile to try to describe them on paper.  Kuranes was not modern, and did not think like the others who wrote.  Whilst they strove to strip life of its embroidered robes of myth, and to show in naked ugliness the foul thing that is reality, Kuranes sought for beauty alone.  When truth and experience failed to reveal it, he sought it in fancy and illusion, and found it on his very doorstep, amid the nebulous memories of childhood tales and dreams.
                Again, in the fragment The Descendent we find the would-be gnostic escapee who can find no peace in either “formal religion” or in the “close vistas of science”:
   During the ‘nineties, he dabbled in Satanism, and at all times he devoured avidly any doctrine or theory which seemed to promise escape from the close vistas of science and the duly unvarying laws of Nature.  Books like Ignatius Donnelly’s chimerical account of Atlantis he absorbed with zest, and a dozen obscure precursors of Charles Fort enthralled him with their vagaries.
That this is Lovecraft speaking autobiographically is confirmed, I would suggest, by the fact that we find the same basic character and ethos elaborated upon in the figure of Randolph Carter in The Silver Key (1926.)  The Silver Key is the closest thing in Lovecraft’s stories to a philosophical autobiography, and his most direct tackling of the problem of modernity – perhaps unsurprisingly the readers of Weird Tales “violently disliked it.”  Here Lovecraft, through a Randolph Carter sliding into middle-aged ennui, surveys all conceivable adaptations to the modern condition, and finds all wanting.  Religion, despite its mythical charms, is a done-deal, dodo relic; the “popular doctrines of occultism” show themselves to be as “dry and inflexible as those of science, yet without even the slender palliative of truth to redeem them.”  Interestingly, though, the scientific worldview proves to be as futile as the rest of them:
  When he complained, and longed to escape into twilight realms where magic moulded all the little vivid fragments and prized associations of his mind into vistas of breathless expectancy and unquenchable delight, they turned him instead towards the new-found prodigies of science, bidding him find wonder in the atom’s vortex and mystery in the sky’s dimension, and when he failed to find these boons in things whose laws are known and measurable, they told him he lacked imagination, and was immature because he preferred dream-illusions to the illusions of our physical creation.
Here we find a kind of idealism creeping into the picture, in that Carter asserts that both real life and dream life consist only of sensations (“pictures in the brain”) and there is no reason to privilege one set of sensations over the other: “Wonder had gone away, and he had forgotten that all life is only a set of pictures in the brain, among which there is no difference betwixt those born of real things and those born of inward dreamings, and no cause to value the one above the other.”  Yet, oddly, Carter continues to maintain Lovecraft’s dour doctrine of the “blind cosmos” that “grinds aimlessly on from nothing to something and from something back to nothing again.”  Why, one would wonder, does this particular speculative idea of the cosmos hold a privileged status among the set of “pictures in the brain”, since it is presumably derived from “real things”, and as such, according to Carter’s earlier assertion, holds no special significance or value over and above things belonging to the imagination and the dream-life?  In the same paragraph, Carter critiques the “superstitious reverence for that which tangibly and physically exists”, and yet continues to maintain in the same breath Lovecraft’s putative materialistic philosophy of the blind and meaningless cosmos.  There is clearly something very contradictory afoot here.  The two ideas – idealistic privileging of the imagination, and materialistic despair in the face of the universe’s pitiless intransigence – only barely hold together. 

My personal feeling is that Lovecraft was in his essential nature a mystic (and even Joyce Carol Oates concedes this to an extent: “Despite Lovecraft’s expressed contempt for mysticism, clearly he was a kind of mystic, drawing intuitively upon a cosmology of images that came to him unbidden, from the “underside” of his life….”), but was drawn to a pessimistic variety of materialism because of the contingent emotional and psychological circumstances of his life.  The death of his father in an asylum owing to untreated syphilis when Lovecraft was seven; the difficulties of his relationship with his mother; the fact that, for whatever reason, he seemed to possess little or no sexual drive to render the physical dimension of his existence purposive and meaningful; all of these factors made the idea of a blind, meaningless material cosmos emotionally appealing to Lovecraft.  The bleakness of his emotional existence would make sense in such a cosmos.  Yet his mystical tendency drew him in a different direction, and out of these contradictory impulses emerges the specifically Lovecraftian creation of cosmic horror, that is, the mystic part of the brain seeking vast, mind-expanding epiphanies, and the despairing materialist part colouring those epiphanies decisively with a sense of deep inadequacy and physical loathing and disgust.  Lovecraft becomes a negative gnostic for whom the flash of true awareness only cements the despair of imprisonment; he becomes what Huxley in The Doors of Perception calls a negative visionary:
And then there is the horror of infinity.  For the healthy visionary, the perception of the infinite in a finite particular is revelation of divine immanence; for Renee (a schizophrenic), it was a revelation of what she called ‘the System’, the vast cosmic mechanism which exists only to grind out guilt and punishment, solitude and unreality.’  
For them, as for the positive visionary, the universe is transfigured – but for the worse.  Everything in it, from the stars in the sky to the dust under their feet, is unspeakably sinister or disgusting; every event is charged with a hateful significance, every object manifests the presence of an Indwelling Horror, infinite, all-powerful, eternal.  (The Doors of Perception.)
Bearing these contradictions in mind, it seems to me that however one feels about Kenneth Grant’s occult reading of Lovecraft, he was surely right that the author was enthralled and terrified by the power of his subconscious imagination.  In fact, it isn’t difficult to see a distinct autobiographical echo in the predicament of Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, the narrator of The Shadow Out of Time.  Like Lovecraft, Peaslee is haunted by vivid, alien dreams which he desperately wants to be nothing more than figments of his imagination: “the glimpses still seemed damnably like memories, though I fought off this impression with a goodly measure of success.”  Haunted by the vividness and consistency of the alien world of his dreams, Peaslee must console himself with rational explanations which ultimately make his dreams insignificant delusions:
 Suppose I did see strange things at night?  These were only what I had heard and read of.  Suppose I did have odd loathings and perspectives and pseudo-memories?  These, too, were only echoes of myths absorbed in my secondary state.  Nothing that I might dream, nothing that I might feel, could be of any actual significance.
Hence, in The Shadow, we find both the culmination of Lovecraft’s fictional art, and the perfect expression of the myth of Lovecraft: the artist as dream-haunted pedant, bitterly conflicted between the modern, daylight realm of reason, and the deeper wellsprings of the unconsciousness, which show him visions of puzzling consistency and vividness, and draw him always further back along a vast ancestral stream.

Since we started by drawing comparisons between Lovecraft stories and DMT trips, it’s time to wrap things up by looking at the story of an anthropologist who consumed a large dose of ayahuasca, and experienced something peculiarly like a HP Lovecraft story.  In 1960-61, Michael Harner was living with and studying the customs of the Conibo Indians in the Peruvian Amazon.  Attempting to better understand the religious traditions of the Conibo, Harner drank something in the region of a third of a bottle of ayahuasca.  After several intense visions involving a “carnival of demons” and “large numbers of people with the heads of blue jays and the bodies of humans, not unlike the bird-headed gods of ancient Egyptian tomb paintings”, Harner became convinced that he was dying.  What follows is pure Lovecraft, and worth quoting at length (from Jeremy Narby’s The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge):
 Then he saw that his visions emanated from “giant reptilian creatures” resting at the lowest depths of his brain.  These creatures began projecting scenes in front of his eyes, while informing him that this information was reserved for the dying and the dead:  “First they showed me the planet Earth as it was eons ago, before there was any life on it.  I saw an ocean, barren land, and a bright blue sky.  Then black specks dropped from the sky by the hundreds and landed in front of me on the barren landscape.  I could see the ‘specks’ were actually large, shiny, black creatures with stubby pterodactyl-like wings and huge whale-like bodies….They explained to me in a kind of thought language that they were fleeing from something out in space.   They had come to the planet Earth to escape their enemy.  The creatures then showed me how they had created life on the planet in order to hide within the multitudinous forms and thus disguise their presence.  Before me, the magnificence of plant and animal creation and speciation – hundreds of millions of years of activity – took place on a scale and with a vividness impossible to describe.  I learned that the dragon-like creatures were thus inside all forms of life, including man.”
Narby’s thesis in The Cosmic Serpent is worth dwelling upon for a moment.  He concluded that when in trance, shamans “take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain information related to DNA.”  The idea in essence, however, was not entirely new.  Timothy Leary had come to more or less the same conclusion after experimenting with mushrooms and (copiously) with LSD.  In a television interview from the Millbrook days, Leary spoke of gaining access to “the long telephone wire of history, which goes back two billion years, and which is buried somewhere inside your brain and mine….we are neurologically and biochemically in touch with thousands of generations that came before us, and the record of these previous evolutionary attempts are there, it’s just that our mental/symbolic minds can’t decode these messages.”  In the idea of an accessible database of genetic memory contained in our DNA, we find a new quasi-scientific metaphor for the major idea which has recurred throughout this essay, be it the Platonic Mind At Large of Huxley, the occult Akashic Record of the Theosophists, or the Indiana Jones-like lost temple of Cayce’s Hall of Records.  In his treatment of Leary’s eight circuit model of consciousness in Prometheus Rising, Robert Anton Wilson calls this the Collective Neurogenic Circuit, which “processes DNA-RNA-brain feedback systems and is “collective” in the sense that contains and has access to the whole evolutionary “script”, past and future.”  All of this speaks to a fascinating notion which is perhaps preeminent among the religious ideas of the modern west: that our minds contain something far older and smarter than ourselves, and with which we attain a fleeting communication in the shared register of myths, dreams, and the fantastic or weird.  To attain communion with these deeper strata of consciousness is perhaps the shared heretical goal of Jungians, surrealists, psychedelic voyagers, and a certain type of fantastic or popular artist who embodies elements of all of the above, sometimes unconsciously.  Philip K. Dick observed that the symbols of the Divine appear first in the trash stratum.  William James conceded that many religious manifestations and visions could be accounted for by appealing to the individual's psyche and unconscious, but he left it open that the unconscious might itself be precisely designed to receive the influx of higher transmissions:  "The notion of the subconscious self certainly ought not at this point of our inquiry be held to exclude of notion of a higher penetration.  If there be higher powers able to impress us, they may get access to us only through the subliminal door".

Whether such vast storehouses of ancestral and possibly futuristic knowledge actually exist or not, and whether it happened that a Providence misanthrope of dubious literary reputation was tapping into one due to nightly soakings of DMT from his overactive pineal gland, I leave as usual to the reader to decide.  Interestingly, though, the idea of the Hall of Records within seems to have occurred to Lovecraft, as we find in the conclusion to the earlier quoted fragment The Descendent:
There rose within him the tantalizing faith that somewhere an easy gate existed, which if one found would admit him freely to those outer deeps whose echoes rattled so dimly at the back of his memory.  It might be in the visible world, yet it might be only in his mind and soul.  Perhaps he held within his own half-explored brain that cryptic link which would awaken him to elder and future lives in forgotten dimensions; which would bind him to the stars, and to the infinities and eternities beyond them.