News and Notes
I got a puzzled email from a subscriber so I wanted to clarify how this newsletter works. Once a month, I post a Blast like this, which includes links to new Erik Davis stuff, news about publications and upcoming events, and a few short reviews. The rest of the time the list is devoted to The Burning Shore, my personal and historical exploration of “California consciousness.” I guess all this might be confusing, but hey, these are confusing times!
This month, I will also be debuting posts that will be available to paid subscribers only. Following the brilliant suggestion of Erica Morton Magill—who co-edits the totally awesome Los Angeles Yoga Club Almanac, which you should subscribe to even if you’ve never downward dogged—I will be personally recording audio versions of all of my Burning Shore pieces. These will be available only to paid subscribers. I really enjoy reading aloud, and have received great feedback about my audiobook recording of High Weirdness. I will start the recordings with “Fire Doctor,” E06, and will get around to recording at least some of the earlier posts over time. In the future I will post these recorded shows at roughly the same time as I release the written posts. Down the line I might start adding other audio content, but for now these recordings will hopefully serve as good tokens of my appreciation—and maybe provide some enticement as well…
• People continue to interview me on podcasts, and while I am basically tired of promoting High Weirdness, I still find myself in conversations about some of the many issues raised in that text. A good recent example is this discussion with The Melt. I also just recorded a livestream with Dan Abella, who curates the Philip K. Dick Film Festival in NYC and also hosts these live PKD Talks. Our conversation was great fun for me, since for whatever reason, most HW chats end up being about psychedelics, McKenna, and RAW. Here we got to geek out hard on PKD, and I even fielded a couple of questions from Tessa Dick, who was on the line.
• One of the trippiest things about living in Houston a decade ago was becoming friends with Patrick Turk. Born in Galveston, Turk is a Houston-based artist whose work is resplendently psychedelic, but not in the generic way that I have come to associate with EDM festivals, with their sacred logo schwag and often cheesy giclee prints. Patrick is a master of the Weird, but he is also a legit gallery artist, working with radical forms of collage, installation, and visual distortion.
The virus played havoc with Turk’s most recent solo show at the Art Museum of Southeast Texas, but that at least means you can go on a nice youtube tour. You can also listen to Patrick attempt to explain his wild shit. Finally, you can download the catalog essay I wrote about his marvelous and underappreciated work.
• A month ago, I participated in the Rebel Wisdom Festival, a gathering of sense-makers and thought-box escapees that included Doug Rushkoff, Jules Evans, and the amazing Daniel Schmachtenberger, one of the most intelligent and multimodal thinkers I’ve heard address our current system crisis. For my presentation, I joined up with Greg Thomas, head of the Jazz Leadership Project and a deep thinker on the Black tradition in America. We explored the idea of “rooted cosmopolitans,” and how lessons from countercultural traditions can inform our times. Normally our conversation would only be available through a Rebel Wisdom membership, but the RW team kindly passed on the link for this Blast.
• On Saturday, July 4, I will once again convene the San Francisco Psychedelic Sangha at our now regular online time of 6pm PT. After a half-hour meditation, I will offer a talk before opening it up for discussion. These are not the rosiest times for America, either as an image or as a reality, but despite the massive systematic problems we are facing, I hope we can still take a turn or two around the flag of “liberty and justice for all.” To honor this vexed holiday, I want to celebrate (some of) what is American in American Buddhism, and reflect on the creative role that radicals, pacifists, feminists, and druggies have played in giving Buddhism a lively American twist. Sign up here; dana can be tossed into the SF Dharma Collective bucket.
Lately most of my video time has been consumed with the greatness that is Japanese cinema: samurai flicks, supernatural horror, and jidaigeki (period dramas) directed by total geniuses. But I did take out time to binge-watch Devs, a refreshingly economical, 8-episode Silicon Valley science fiction from Alex Garland, who directed the solid Ex Machina and the slightly more custardy Annihilation.
Like Ex Machina, Devs explores the messianic narcissism of techlords, though here you kinda like the guy: a sad-eyed and shaggy CEO named Forest, whose qubit time machine motivates a thriller plot interleaved with metaphysical musings and grief. Like Annihilation, Devs also deploys art and design to extraordinary effect, not simply as trippy decor but as meaning, symbol, and theme. The secret development lab of Forest’s Amaya corporation, with its hieratic gold interiors, haloed redwoods, and mega-dab-rig-banger quantum computer, is a concrete poem about the Bay Area that transcends cliché.
OK, the last episode kinda blows. But like Matrix Reloaded, or Westworld, or the headier Black Mirrors, Devs raises Big Questions—determinism, big data, Everett’s Many Worlds—that resonate with contemporary subjectivity even if they remain too hairy to resolve into fully satisfying narratives. Devs might not provide the key to our enforced existence as digital lab rats, but it sure rattled my cage.
Ami Dang is a South Asian-American musician living in Baltimore whose occasional releases weave sitar, electronica, and (Indian) classically-inflected vocals into evocative, sometimes oddball blends that are blissfully free of New Age bliss. All her recordings are singular, but few are as soulful and satisfying as her recent Meditations Mixtape, Vol. 1. In our digs, this four-song EP, less than a half hour long, has become one of the most nourishing and honest soundtracks of plaguetime.
On the bandcamp page for the release, Dang writes that the album was inspired by the Sikh prayers she regularly sings for her family—prayers that took on added intensity when her aunt and uncle became very sick with Covid-19. Up til now, Dang’s music intentionally twists and resists the sacred glaze that bathes a lot of South Asian fusion music. Here, in the shadow of our dark times, she directly transmits the sustaining power of prayer and sacred song through the marvelous lens of her electronic modulations. (Aquarium Drunkard, who hipped me to the release in the first place, recently spoke to the composer about navigating the sacred.) For “Tension, Tension, Release,” a vocal meditation, she invites listeners to sing along, following her voice as she plays with the stress and resolution between two notes (“ni” and “sa” in the Indian solfege system). Unlike the oms in yoga class, which rarely budge from the placid tonic, here you don’t get the release unless you taste the tension.
Daniel Kehlmann is a well-known German writer that I didn’t know about until I read a review of his recent novel Tyell by the New Yorker’s James Wood, who leans toward the high-brow. High-brow Tyell is not, but it’s a lot of fun (and soon a Netflix series): a sometimes comic, sometimes gruesome magical-realist romp through the bleak and blasted margins of the Thirty Years War, a messy conflict between Protestants and Catholics—sort of, I said it was messy—that helped make the seventeenth century one of the bloodiest in European history. The juggling, tightrope-walking, vaguely devilish Tyell is loosely based on a trickster from German folklore named Till Eulenspiegel; here he dances and prances through a handful of sections, following no particular chronological order, that are centered on a series of other characters. That these characters include Athanasius Kircher and the Winter King and Queen (Frederick the Elector Palatine and Elizabeth Stuart) helps explain why I scarfed this thing up, and if these historical personages are already installed in your own memory palace, you should probably scarf as well.
I enjoyed Kehlmann taking the piss out of Kircher, a brilliant and nutty Jesuit polymath who wrote esoteric and scientific tomes about Egyptian hieroglyphs, camerae obscurae, and the monochord. I was less wowed with Kehlmann’s take on Frederick, whose quasi-Rosicrucian mysticism provides a delicious opportunity for imaginative riffing that Kehlmann unfortunately passes over for a portrait of a dolt. On the other hand, the aging and impoverished Elizabeth Stuart, who struts through the concluding section of the book with wry intelligence and prickly grace, is the richest character in the novel. Though sections like these justify some of the hype Tyell has received, the novel never really lives up to the weird pagan brilliance of its opening episode, where Kehlmann draws from the historian Carlo Ginzburg’s great The Cheese and the Worms to construct a world of peasant heresy and popular magic that, in high magical realist style, shapes experience just as much as it shapes belief.
I hope you enjoyed this monthly Blast from The Burning Shore. Please consider a paid subscription if you can. Or pass this post along to someone who might dig it. Thanks!