January News & Notes
Sunsets and Bardo Journeys
For all its superbummers, which in my case included some stumbling blocks unconnected to either politics or the pandemic, 2020 was also the year that Burning Shore launched. (Close readers will note that I have dropped the “the” from the title, partly because I scored the article-free url.) I hope this development has been as rewarding for you as it has been for me, and it’s at least worthy of some reflection.
Writing has always served as ballast in my often jangled psychic life. The “Erik Davis” you read is, for the real me, a kind of fantastic superhero identity — integrated, good-humored, confident — that crystalizes in words what I often experience in life as an existential haze, a cloud of ambivalence and confusion, anxiety and ignorance, and a feeling of overwhelm not unrelated to the curse of being interested in too many damn things.
It’s a pure construction, this scribbled “Erik Davis” avatar, but sure has a life of its own. My writing voice is already audible in the short stories and English papers I wrote in high school, and even elementary school stuff — like a snarky 4th grade report on astrology I dug out from a mildewed box last summer — foreshadows future takes and topics. Perhaps we write our own egregores into being.
To keep the magic going, however, my egregore demands a couple things. One is that the writing stays committed to a certain “truthiness,” even in the midst of contradiction or irony or the really wacky stuff. As soon as I start to bullshit, the light fades from its eyes. That’s part of the mundane magic of non-fiction writing, at least for its producers: you may be wrong, but you are bleeding nails not to be.
But integrity and clarity are not enough to bring the egregore to life. The writing itself has to be animate as well. There must be rhythm and resonance, wit and metaphor and attention to what the ancients called rhetoric. Such “literary nonfiction,” in the broadest sense of that weak term, recalls Plato’s allegory of the chariot, in which the soul is pulled along by two horses: the rational moral urge, and the wild appetites. If you want your prose beautiful as well as true, intoxicating as well as lucid, you will must needs find yourself wrangling a prancing pony of poesy alongside the workhorse of diligent articulation. Learn to steer this chariot, which also means learning to submit, and you may arrive at the marvelous shore of what Peter Lamborn Wilson calls “poetic facts.”
This figure of the chariot reminds me of another egregore demand: novelty and change. I don’t really have a writing career — I have a careen, a steady swerve through various genres, intellectual obsessions, argots, platforms, and audiences. Every time my byline has become established somewhere, and I’ve settled into a niche or style, sooner or later I’ve had to pull up stakes and light out for the territories. In 30 years I’ve gone from record reviews to esoterica, tech journalism to art criticism, travelogues to academia — not to mention a screenplay and the libretto for a rock opera. This peripatetic drift — a corollary to the “too many damn things” thing — makes me a nightmare for the publicists I don’t have. Even High Weirdness, the academic dissertation I published as my fifth book, had less to do with planting a flag on a particular field than in clambering up an exceptionally grueling genre-mountain. I doubt I will do anything quite that barnacled with footnotes again.
In one sense, this Substack “newsletter” is a set-up for continued movement, an invitation to myself to keep following my weird, to experiment with new topics, angles, voices, and vulnerabilities. (There are solid economic reasons as well, but they are less interesting than the writerly ones.) At the same time, I wanted a thematic container capacious enough to handle my errancy but coherent enough to provide an integral terrain. The answer was simple, because the terrain in question already underlies much of my work: California. Being a Californian, or a California-ist, or a Californicator, allows me to gather those too many damn things under a single, colorful, tattered tent that has canopied me since I was a babe.
Here are some of my favorite of 2020’s all-over-the-map-points:
Watts Reverb: an exploration of the tragic loops of history and revolt, inspired by the George Floyd protests and Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 wander through Watts.
Fire Doctor: the mythopoetics and ethnobotany of poison oak.
Russ House & Gardens: the Gold Rush story of my family’s deep roots in settler-colonialist San Francisco.
The Practice of Paranoia: one of a number of posts that explore conspiracy theory beyond the usual hand-wringing (or self-serving indulgence).
Runnin’ with the Angels: the Harp of Van Halen: a deliciously fun return to a form that once housed most of my work: the pop music essay.
The hop-scotch required to link these pieces is partly my own dilletantish pleasure, sure. But my hunch is that only this sort of kaleidoscopic generalism really rises to the occasion — the occasion being the almost apocalyptic (and certainly psychedelic) meltdown of consensus reality and the structures, stories, and selves that have supported it. That meltdown is the burning you smell. Of course, there are plenty of people today who are writing directly and intensely in the growing light of our global crisis. But here I mostly write in its shadow, its flickering twilight.
In a recent “Ask Dr. D.” column, I talked about The Mastery of Non-Mastery, Mick Taussig’s great 2020 book on the current meltdown. One of Taussig’s organizing metaphors, which also depends on a “poetic fact” of human experience, is the magic hour of sunset. Taussig characterizes our imaginal, political, and writerly task today as the act of
entering into the setting sun, grasping the drama, the beauty, and the despair, all in one. This will not be the untrammeled joy of midday with blue skies and a radiant sun. It is a more complicated alchemical operation converting base metal into gold because the beauty and grandeur of sunset is larded not only with sadness but with an out-of-body sense that something is afoot.
This echoes the words I used to close The Visionary State, my 2006 book about the history and architecture of California’s alternate religions and spiritualities. There I peg California’s central logo as the sun, a fairly obvious move. But while noonday is the booster brand you know, the state’s deeper, more esoteric lessons lie in its blazing sunsets: “California’s shores stage both the fulfillment and decline of the West, its final shot at paradise and its perilous fall into the sea.” Today, as the state’s spiritual creativity sours and its pop utopias recede, the contradictions of the place grow more intense and bitter, the fires hotter and the technologies more sinister. California is where sunset is loudest.
Over the Horizon
The Substacks you hear most about are political or at least topical, many of them written by journalists abandoning the good ship MSM and taking their social media followings with them. Other newsletters identify a target topic or demographic and then plant another one of those flags as deep as it will go. My quest is a bit different. I want to see if the platform can support a sorta-underground-cult-author-with-scholarly-chops who wants to creatively range all over the map, with only nomad codes to guide the way.
It’s a risky endeavor, in a way, because it asks and assumes that readers want to follow me — ie, the Erik Davis egregore — beyond whatever topics or interests first drew them to my work. More to the point, it asks and assumes that enough of them — uh, enough of you — will want to pay for the privilege. I’m sorry, but after a decade of hosting the Expanding Mind podcast for free, I need a remunerative hamster wheel this time. It’s still too early to tell, but for now I am making more than I would have if I had published an equivalent number of (less fun) articles at typical rates. So thank you.
Looking ahead, the Burning Shore will keep changing its contours. This month, I will put the monthly column “Ask Dr. D.” behind the paywall. People seem to dig the back-and-forth (thanks to my editor Joe Levy for the suggestion), and I’ve already received a boatload of great questions. From here out, I will mostly focus on queries floated by already paid subscribers, though if you send me a real winner I will still comp you for a year if I use it.
I’ll be trying out other offerings for paid subscribers as well. This spring, I will be teaching a class on the history of esoteric California for the California Institute for Integral Studies, and I will make the recorded lectures available, along with the syllabus. I probably won’t keep offering audio recordings of my regular posts, though I love reading aloud and may in the future post audiobooklets of Cali weird fiction or other short and curious texts. Targeted discussion threads are another possibility. Happy to hear comments and suggestions from the growing community!
Outside that, who knows? I already have a too-long list of tantalizing topics to dive into. I would like to publish a bit more material per month, but so far my attempts at keeping things short and sweet have failed. While I will keep the psychic radar tuned to the daimon of inspiration — or more likely obsession — I have a busy spring ahead, with two university classes to teach, a book project, and a growing raft of personal commitments. So don’t hold your breath. I don’t want to burn out on the Burning Shore.
Born in the Kali Yuga
I have been convening monthly meetings of the San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha for well over a year now (though we won’t be a gathering this January). This group was inspired by the performance happenings and community discourses stirred up by the original Psychedelic Sangha on the East Coast, currently led by the groovy freak teacher Doc Kelley and the photographer and music writer Ethan Covey.
Last month the PS kids put out Sounds from the Bardo, vol. 1. This hour-long multimedia release grew out of a series of live “Bardo Baths” the crew staged in Brooklyn back in Ye Olde Days — feral sound-baths, inspired by Leary and The Psychedelic Experience, which wove guided vajra meditations into improvised sound-and-light shows. For this recording, entitled “Born in the Kali Yuga,” they invited me to provide the opening meditation, which invites listeners to float down the stream of psych-folk musician Prana Crafter’s hazy, crazy, rainforest surge. Purchasers can also download a matching visual score by the designer and animation wizard Aubrey Nehring. O nobly born, what could avail you more?
• As mentioned, I am taking a break from the usual SF Psychedelic Sangha gathering this month. We will return in February on Saturday the 6, still hosted by the SF Dharma Collective, and at the usual 6pm PT. Register here.
• On Saturday, January 23, at 2pm PT, I will be joining Tim Stewart in a public conversation about psychedelic culture and esoterica for the Vancouver Psychedelic Meetup. Tim and I had some great initial chats, and I’m sure this live streaming event will be dynamite.
• Last month I was invited by Jesse Jarnow to appear on the podcast he has been cranking out over the last few months for the Grateful Dead empire. A fellow Psychedelic Sangha-bro, Jesse is also an WFMU jock and the author of the fab psychedelic history Heads. On the Deadcast, he and co-host Rich Mahan have picked through the classic albums Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty song-by-song. I spoke on the episode devoted to “Attics of My Life,” which is about as close the astral pranksters ever got to a genuinely nourishing mystical hymn, which you could probably use right about now:
Fortuitously, the “Attics” episode, which also features Bob Weir, Steve Silberman, and Ira Kaplan, drifts into a fascinating discussion of David Crosby’s solo masterpiece If I Could Only Remember My Name (1971). This gave me the much-appreciated opportunity to gush over the song “Laughing,” a gorgeous high-watermark of hippie mysterioso I will write about in a future post.
• Finally, I was chuffed to talk with Earl Fontainelle, host of one of the most ambitious, focused, and engaging nerdcasts out there: the SHWEP, or Secret History of Western Esotericism Podcast. Earl, who has a dry wit and a capacious noggin, has committed to tracing the literally enchanting currents of esoteric thought and practice carefully and chronologically. Over a hundred episodes in, and the SHWEP has only just reached the Hermetica of late antiquity. Occasionally, however, Earl breaks ranks and talks to folks about more modern mysteries. Last month he invited me to record one of these “oddcasts” along with a mutual friend, the bookseller Eddy Nix. We talked about Robert Anton Wilson, Crowley, and 70s esoteric culture, as well as the Chapel Perilous that seems to have swallowed us up.
I hope you enjoyed this flicker of Burning Shore. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. Or you can drop a tip in my Tip Jar. Burning Shore only grows by word of mouth, so pass this along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!