Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Back From The Edge of the World (2009 Edition)

Front row: Christopher Partridge, Jeff Kripal and Michael Murphy 
Second row: George Stephanopolous, Ed May, Dulce Murphy, Dean Radin, Victoria Nelson, Mason Gamble, Erik Davis. 
Third row: Doug Moench, Paul Selig, Mitch Horowitz, Larry Sutin, CK, Collin Eyre and Scott Jones.
Well, Time flies and Time crawls. But sometimes you enter a state in which Time flows in such a manner that it seems to expand and contract in an entirely different and yet totally satisfactory fashion. 

That happens when your mind is so completely engaged morning, noon and night that each moment seems to be pregnant with significance, and therefore worth experiencing. This has been my obsession for several years now, when I first began to notice the days and weeks beginning to whiz by. I realized that the best way to moderate that flow was through interesting work, an increasing rarity in this day and age.

And so it was for the second annual conference on the Supernatural, Supernormal and Popular Culture at the Esalen Center for Theory and Research, created and moderated by the brilliant Jeff Kripal of Rice University. 

 I wrote about last year's conference here and here but that was simply a dry run for this year's blowout. This year's conference was also a lot more stressful for me in some ways since I not only presented a revised version of "The Synchromysticism of Jack Kirby" for the group, but also a public talk called "Saucers, Psychics and Psilocybin: The Mythologies of The X-Files" and finally a filmed interview for Jeff's upcoming documentary dealing with all of these topics. 

 So, as you can see from the class photo, this was a focused, high-powered collection of brains sorting through all of these issues. Jeff outdid himself in assembling thinkers who are directly engaged with the whole process of extraordinary knowledge and extraordinary experience playing itself out through ordinary popular culture. 

 I'm hoping we see at least some transcripts of this conference go up on the CTR site, because if you're reading this blog, I guarantee that you would have been fascinated by every single presentation. And throughout the week were more fascinating conversations than you could possibly keep up with. Just on the ride from the airport, even: I rode down with Larry Sutin, Philip K Dick's biographer and his wife Mab, Chris Partridge, who teaches religion at the University of Lancaster, and Collin Eyre, a Bodhisattva-in-training who's working towards his degree at the Center for Integral Studies (and really made the entire experience run like clockwork).

I was more than a bit nervous about the event, to be honest- last year there was a very strange energy over Big Sur (and I'm not using that terminology lightly), which I wasn't the only one who noticed. Combine that with a kind of cognitive dissonance arising from hearing serious, credentialed people discussing paranormal phenomena as a matter of fact, and it quite frankly freaked me out when the wildfires started.

Was this all a premonition? I don't know, but processing all of this - along with some other strange syncs that relate to Esalen - forced me into a rethink of what I'm trying to do here last summer (for instance, I decided to kick an almost 20-year addiction to Conspiratainment, which I realized was distorting my perceptions and weakening my ability to see past all of the intentional disinformation presented as hidden truths out there). But I think that all resulted in a more focused blog, which I feel paid off when the Memestream got pummeled with all of the alien/Sirius memes that Barackobamun pulled in his wake during the election. 

Revelation is not always an ecstatic process. In fact, I'd argue it usually isn't- and did so in my Kirby presentation (note: I covered a lot of material in my Kirby presentation that I haven't covered here, so keep an eye on that in the weeks to come). So, despite that very high weirdness- and those dreadful Route 1 hairpin twists and turns (that even Dramamine couldn't conquer) I was resolved to make this symposium a transformative one. 


So on Sunday, it was all wine and cheese and conversation and orientation by Jeff and Michael Murphy. Jacques Vallee was only there for a couple of days, so I went out of my way to corner him and pick his brains about the purpose of fake flaps (like the recent one in NJ) and chew his ears off about the Mithraic Liturgy, which he hadn't heard about. Poor Jacques. 

 Anyhow, there were way too many fascinating conversations about religion, politics, media, conspiracy, occultism, Psi, superheroes, supersoliders, psychedelics and all the rest of it to possibly recount here, so let me just run through the schedule and touch on some of the main topics covered. 

 OK, so Sunday night Jeff and Michael covered the basic goals of the meeting. Michael has 50 years of experience of moderating some of the brightest minds of our time, so I think everyone realized that they had to bring their A game. After that, the gabbing went on in several different circles, with this ongoing financial apocalypse never far from everyone's mind. 

Mitch Horowitz- editor-in-chief of Tarcher Penquin- kicked it all over discussing his upcoming book Occult America, in which he traces the roots of Rosicrucian-inspired groups in Europe, how they arose during the Reformation and how many of them traveled (fled, more accurately) to America. Mitch also discussed Freemasonry as being an Establishment appropriation of these free-thinker/occult philosophies. 

Christopher Partridge is the author of a two-volume set entitled The Re-Enchantment of the West, in which he did a lot of field study with new religious movements in the UK like chaos magick, Druidry, neopaganism, UFO cults and Rastafarianism. He had some fascinating insights on the process of spiritual evolution using pop culture as a medium, which he analyzes from several viewpoints- his academic work, his history in the punk and post-punk scenes in Manchester and his Quaker faith. 

Jacques Vallee did two presentations: one covering his history in and methodology of serious UFO research. He discussed his field experience, most remarkably a wave of nasty close encounters in Brazil (commonly known as the Colares flap) that the government did a thorough job of covering up. 

After dinner, Jacques changed gears and presented on the symbolism and history of stained glass, delving into his experience with the master craftsmen repairing the windows at Chartres. As with Doug Rushkoff, Jacques exploded commonly held myths about the Middle Ages and showed that there was a period of Enlightenment in the 11th and 12th Centuries that produced these masterpieces along with mystic visionaries like Hildegarde and Meister Eckhart. 

Tuesday morning Jeff Kripal presented on the mystical experiences of comics legend Barry Windsor Smith. These included some very powerful precognitive visions that were discussed at length in Smith's Opus volumes. Interestingly enough, Smith did not talk about his UFO encounter in those books. I guess there some taboos are still too touchy to break- most especially in comics fandom, which prefers its paranormal experiences to stay trapped on the page, thank you. 

 After Jeff, Larry Sutin talked about his PKD books (all of which every regular reader of this blog should own) and his experience transcribing Dick's massive Exegesis. Larry went into great detail talking Dick's troubled life prior to the 2/3/74 revelation and how that experience transformed his life. Larry also wrote the definitive biography on Aleister Crowley, which is another must-read. 

Well, last year we had Russell Targ and Jacques Vallee talking about Grill Flame, this year we had Ed May talking about Project Star Gate. This was a fascinating presentation (in all seriousness, all of the presentations were fascinating) since Ed came loaded for bear with all of the stats on the results of the project in a very crisp PowerPoint presentation. He was also candid about the limitations of remote viewing as an intelligence tool. 

The week was filled with synchronicities - my own presentation on Kirby was Stargate -oriented in a different context. Ed showed that the data for RV was rock-solid and that he himself was approaching the work from a specifically reductionist POV.

The evening's presentation was from Paul Selig, an Ivy League graduate and playwright who approaches psychic phenomena from a diametrically different approach- Paul works as a "clairaudiant" and did a channeling for the group. We we asked to close our eyes during the reading, and I had some pretty intense imagery floating in my mind's eye- geometric patterns and images of the surrounding landscape sort of meshing into a very consistent kind of interior slideshow, nothing like the chaos that usually floats around behind my eyelids. More on that later. 

 So Wednesday had comics legend Doug Moench talking about synchronicities surrounding his writing- some of which were pretty harrowing (Synchronicity was very much the subtext of the week). Doug is one of my childhood heroes, having written Master of Kung Fu, Planet of the Apes and Moon Knight, as well as the modern classics Big Book of Conspiracies and Big Book of the Unexplained (both very much worth tracking down). 

Doug also wrote some issies of the recent X-Files comic, so all sorts of connections going on there. Doug is also the unholy lovechild of Ben Grimm and Robert Anton Wilson and brought a wonderful curmudgeonly air to the proceedings. 

 Then some bloated, sweaty idiot named Chris Knowles got up and started ranting about Jack Kirby and UFOs and Stargates and ancient astronauts and clairvoyance. Luckily the paramedics came and brought him straight to the nuthouse before he hurt himself or others.* 

Dean Radin followed with an amazing presentation on the quantum mechanics of Time. Having a "for-rent" sign where my left brain should be I didn't really follow the specific details, but was completely riveted nonetheless. Dean is an absolute master of public speaking (and PowerPoint) and you can't help but be drawn into his world even if you don't have a scientific bone in your body. 

Contrary to what the Randiites might wish, there is serious science being done on the frontiers of the powers of the mind, and Dean is at the forefront of this. Consensus opinion on Psi can be confronted, but only if you're prepared with the data.

And boy, it's a really good thing that I spend so much time preparing for all of this. It's one thing to write about these topics, it's another to do a podcast on them and it's a whole different universe when presenting your crazy ideas to a roomful of professionals with credentials up the wazoo. You'd better make sure you've done the math. 

 It's then another reality paradigm entirely to do so in a roomful of those same professionals and a bunch of other people who have no concept of what we've been discussing the past week. 

Especially when that room is a legendary venue where many of your personal heroes have presented their own ideas to the world. And, oh yeah, it's being videotaped for posterity. So that was my Wednesday night. How was yours? Needless to say, I nearly choked worse than the '86 Sox. 

But I'd spent so much time going over all of this material that some obscure module of my brain kicked in and presented a reasonably cogent version of the material that many of you are familiar with from this blog. I guess this is the same principle you get in sports or military training- your first time out, you're going to choke. So you need to drill yourself in order that muscle memory gets through your baptism of fire. 

 The funny thing is that I thought I was dying out there, but everyone told me it was really interesting, so there you go. I wasn't entirely happy with my presentation- I was offering too many answers and not enough questions. Which is really a function of trying not to wilt in front of forty people. 

 I was thrown off my stride (such as it was) at one point- Paul's chair inexplicably exploded when he leaned back. Those of you skeptical about mediumship (and I usually count myself in that group) will be interested to know that the episode I was discussing at that moment was one I had had a precognitive dream about, that then unleashed a chain of synchronicities that I wrote about in detail on this very site. 

 Surely not a pleasant experience for Paul, but in my own reality these kinds of meaningful, message-laded moments usually aren't. Usually the most meaningful turning points in my life have been extremely unpleasant. 

 Happily, Erik Davis nailed my amorphous thoughts the next day in his presentation on Aleister Crowley and their ultimate influence on Led Zeppelin. The sheer mystique of Led Zeppelin- particularly in the 70s- arose from their refusal to answer any of the questions about the enigmatic symbols and messages in their records (even that retarded "backwards-masking" controversy). 

Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are the same way- they will never make a definitive answer about the mysteries of The X-Files (and certainly not about all the fascinating mythic parallels). 

The genius of that is that it keeps the conversation going, and allows the viewer to create her own reality with their framework. Erik also gets extra-cool bonus points for kicking it off with some righteous Ditko Doctor Strange panels and for clips from the 1926 Crowley-inspired film, The Magician (anyone have a copy of it out there?). 

Victoria Nelson rounded out the presentations with her amazing dissection of the growing body of juvenile vampire fiction. Point by point, she graphed the history of vampire lore, it's entry into the pop culture realm, it's collision with gothic romance leading to the early Dracula films and then all the way up to the polymorphous vampires of the Anne Rice novels to this strange mutation of vampire mythology into a weird subset of superhero lore. 

Like so much else, Victoria's talk opened me up to a whole new sphere of memes to explore. Juvenile fiction is increasingly female-oriented, and I think it's important to understand these ideas that fly under male-oriented media. 

 The schedule then finished up with a panel discussion of filming the paranormal. Jeff's project was discussed by he and Scott, and a film adaptation of Michael's classic novel Golf in the Kingdom was discussed with George Stephanopolous (no, but actually he's his cousin), 

Michael and actor Mason Gamble (who made his debut as Dennis the Menace and has also appeared in films like Gattaca and Rushmore). Pretty amazing cast in that film: Malcolm McDowell, Joanne Whalley, Julian Sands and Frances Fisher, among others. 

 Then after that we all sat down for an amazing seafood dinner, whipped up by wunderkind chef Tony and his small crew (the food at Esalen is insanely delicious). Cool experience to sit with that surreal view of the Pacific (which for some reason I don't quite understand seems to rise above the horizon line). 

 The next day my stomach and I were again harrassed by Route 1 and I stayed overnight in SF, which was bitterly cold, believe it or not. I met up with an old friend and we briefly walked the Haight, which was a grimly appropriate statement on the present condition of the counterculture. 

Half of the stores were closed (on a Friday night), and an icy Pacific wind menaced all of the homeless hippies huddling in doorways. I saw the Haight as the significantly downscale, un-hip cousin to Phila(e)delphia's South Street. Quite a comedown for the birthplace of the 60s counterculture. 

As a type of open forum for all comers, Esalen had attracted some controversy for various ideas or systems that have been discussed there in the past (which Jeff details quite nicely in his book on Esalen) as well as some attention by certain interests not otherwise given to psychonautics. 

That's not what is going on now, though. I'd recommend anyone with questions - or even suspicions - about Esalen check it out for yourself. It's probably one of the Top 5 most beautiful places on the planet, the food is great and you can get yourself a nice massage or chat with some amiable hippies in the baths. The programs are almost entirely oriented to somatic modalities- meditation, massage, drumming circles and the like. 

In fact, the only scary thing about Esalen is the drive there. What I left there thinking about were new spaces, based primarily - if not entirely- on Western traditions and contemporary culture. I was very much into Buddhist traditions (particularly Zen, specifically Alan Watts' work) when I was younger, but I find myself more and more fixated on more cerebral and more culture-appropriate modalities

Where my New Age and Eastern investigations ultimately led me was straight to Jung, who also dabbled in oriental systems but was primarily centered in the West. 

Which is to say that this blog is ultimately (and paradoxically) about a shared kind of individuation. I know that Alex Grey is opening a new space in upstate New York, and I certainly hope that not only does he succeed, but that he inspires other spaces as well. 

•Well, that probably did happen in an alternate reality, but in this one the Kirby rant went off without incident. I'll be reposting my Mindbomb series on the Seminar this week, to bring everyone up to speed before continuing with fresh research on Jack's odd abilities.