A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To Enlightenment


edited by J. N. Reilly & Ira Cohen,
[£30, 406pp,  R&R Publishing Glasgow, 2003, Hardback]


One of the best pieces in this 'alternative' anthology is Ian MacFayden's essay, 'The Mysterious Case of the Little Man Who Was', a speculative and irreverent exploration of the 'homunculus' in art. He writes about his own experiences of the 'little men', and discusses their appearance in the work of several other artists:

     'special beings which I first encountered in the fever and nightmares of childhood
     illness, and subsequently came upon in dreams and half-waking hallucinations. They
     were devilish little doll men, only a few inches high – slippery, translucent, with
     pointed little heads and malformed limbs, dancing jerkily over the eiderdown and
     projecting their squeaky, gibbering voices directly into my head. (175)

Robert Louis Stevenson, Max Ernst, Aubrey Beardsley and Brion Gysin all had flirtations with them, as well as William S. Burroughs, who MacFayden happens to be an authority on. MacFayden's piece is the philosophical core of the book, emphasising the absolute importance of the dreaming imagination. It also complements another theme of this collection – the use of drugs to achieve these states of vision and hallucination: the alternative reality of the collective unconscious.

     Later, certain drugs allowed occasional limited access to the domain of these special
and I was able to watch them eating bitter apples with big spoons and
     swinging from chandeliers made of soap bubbles… (176)

MacFayden writes of 'the psychological importance of the homunculus: man's desire to create himself, to become the self-created – to overthrow the female and acquire her procreative power – and so transcend the human condition, the biological happenstance of birth and death.' (176-177)

This connects with what Burroughs talks about in his lecture to the Planet Earth Conference in France, printed here as 'The Four Horseman of The Apocalypse'. He says that homo sapiens
is a moribund species, and we have to evolve beyond our built-in limitations: the next step in human evolution will take place in space, the next plane of existence. MacFayden quotes Burroughs when he writes of the limits of the imagination: 'When it comes to seeing, [...]– Everything is permitted.' (178)

'The Mysterious Case of the Little Man Who Was' reminded me of the scene with the homunculus from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy
. There is a same disregard and gleeful breaking of the rules in many of the pieces here as there is in Sterne's masterpiece. Most of the writers presented here have rejected traditional forms and conventions in order to get closer to reality, to the chaos and irrationality of it. They have started out with the golden rule that there are no rules. This freedom is bigger than the page they write on, finding its root deep in themselves – a need or desire to live unconventionally and break the rules of society, to explore different ways of behaving and thinking. Reading the mini-biographies at the back of the book, I found that many of the writers travelled away from their countries of origin to places such as South America, Morocco, Tibet and India, and were consequently influenced by the literature and culture they discovered there. They went in search of enlightenmen – to where Buddhist wisdom and chemical preparations abounded in copious abundance.

'Ayahuasca', John Brandi describes how as a young man he went to Ecuador and settled among the Jivaro people, where he had his first experience with psychotropic plants, and 'time flight', when he had a vision that changed his life. 'Like a powerful scanning electron microscope, my whole body was an eye.' (365) He experienced a Baudelerian synaesthesia: 'Seeing music, hearing shapes' (365), and learned that 'dreaming was to be counted among the deepest needs of humans.' (366). His search for adventure and the thrill of defamiliarisation led Brandi to his powerful inspiration.

Many of the writers are wanderers, travellers, nomads, straying
outside of civilisation, far away from capitalism and 'the cruelties of consumerist culture'. They go to places where there are no restrictions on the imagination. They are 'counter-culture' artists, going against the mainstream and working to undermine it, upsetting conventional ways of thinking and writing. They are always looking elsewhere, or transforming here into somewhere else. And if they don't go to other countries in body, they go in mind, as Jörgen Ploog writes in 'Facts of Presence'. 'Writing takes me to a lost city which I found through experimenting, ignoring all the rules of reality.' (118) Rupert M. Loydell's 'Preparations for a Journey' is a paradigm of this. The poem describes occult and mystical preparations for a journey of the imagination – which is, of course, the poem itself – and reads like instructions for a voyage into the unknown.

One of the prime examples of this wandering nomad aesthetic is Paul Bowles, who lived in and wrote so much about Morocco, as well as transcribing lots of Moroccan literature, some of which is included here. And of course, there is Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch in Tangier, and all of those who followed in their footsteps. The debt to Burroughs by the contributors is shown in the numerous references to him, and to the other Beat writers, and the obvious influence of style and subject matter. Indeed, the pieces written in the 60s, by writers who were part of the Beat movement and had connections with its leaders, appear the most dated, and while recognisable as avant-garde and underground in their time seem slightly old-fashioned now.

Burroughs, however, doesn't date.
He will never enter the mainstream. He will always be counter-culture – because he is anti-culture, anti-state and anti-religion. It will taken hundreds of years for him to be absorbed fully, and still he will be disruptive and frowned upon by those in power. He thinks for himself and inspires other people to do so. In this sense, Burroughs and the Buddha are the twin gods of this offering.

One of the purposes of this book is as an acknowledgement, and in a large part a belated introduction to the ordinary reading public, of writers who belonged to the so-called underground or avant-garde, and haven't make it onto the shelves of Waterstones, but who deserve to be read. It's for people like me who want to read something different, but don’t know where to look. I now have a list as long as my arm.

The writing in this anthology is always reaching beyond in an effort to get behind the ordinary – which striving produces a lot of surreal imagery and apparent nonsense, as the writers bend the normal grammar of thinking and imagination to achieve or express their visions. Because of this approach, some of the poetry is difficult to get into.
A good example is Marty Matz's 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Enlightenment', the first piece, and a suitable introduction. I couldn't get along with it all at first, but when I read it again on its own terms, and didn't try to understand, it began to make sense by itself, and its own dream logic was gradually revealed. This was a familiar experience as I struggled and persevered with the more obscure pieces.

A common feature of many of the poems is a lack of punctuation and an absence of classical form. Meaning slips and slides between the lines, so you have to adopt a Buddhist approach to reading it, taking one line at a time, forgetting what happened in the last line and not thinking about the next. You have to forget how to read. It encourages an openness to the text, and is surprisingly effective in helping you break out of conventional ways of thinking. The surrealist combinations of images don't yield to logical thought. The meaning changes as you read through the sentence. It has more in common with music than writing, in that you are aware only of what you are reading right now, with only a peripheral awareness of what comes before and after.

The best artists in here can be called 'Now' poets. They are shamans, visionaries, priests, whose art is a kind of religion – the artist is somehow in touch with forces outside of him: he is chanelling spirits, letting the divine speak through him. This can be achieved by different means and strategies – be it meditation (Osho talks about dropping the ego and letting the 'divine' speak through you), drugs, free-writing, or cut-up. I remember the scene in Jean Cocteau's film, Orphee, when the 'hero' is listening intently to the radio in Death's black Rolls Royce, and noting down the mysterious words the voice repeats. These transmissions occur in the dead time between broadcasts, between the commercial and formulaic programmes that most people tune in to, half-listening to their banalities as they burble in the background. Orpheus doesn't know where the lines are coming from or exactly what they mean, but he is sure they are meant for him, and he records them like an Oracular priest.

This book reawakened my interest in poetry and clarified my tastes. I like poetry that is concrete, full of images, and treats words as objects which have the same weight and value as the things they refer to. I detest poetry that is abstract, which refers to itself – poems like mathematical equations, or pseudo-mystical invocations of the spirits of truth and beauty. Half of the poetry here is abstract, the other half is good. There is a roughly equal split between the real shamans and the false, the pretenders. I am stumped as to how the editors selected such a mixture of very good and very bad writers. The values and principles that the good writers stand for (mentioned above) seem completely lacking and contradicted by the 'work' of some very bad writers.

One of the highlights for me was Terry Riley's delightful 'Seven Songs' (198), which read like a musical by Ezra Pound.

Chinaman in Chinatown
Enchanted with an ancient gown
Sits down
Just to see embroidery like this can be

Only bliss around him now as Chinalady brings a Smoke to stroke his memory

And then you come across something like John Power's abysmal 'Four Songs'–

     I just wanna be thinking
     Thoughts that I think
     Dreaming my dreams and drifting within
     I don’t know where I going
     But I know where I been
     Come on
     Look within
           (187, 'Live The Dream')

– which defies comment.

I have reservations about the evangelical tone of the editorial –– J. N. Reilly's prefacing 'Welcome' sounds like an evangelical circus showman.

We have gathered together
four generations of counter-culture artists
there is no other kind of artist
veritable warriors fighting on the frontiers of existence
battling against the cruelties of consumerist culture
stripping away lies and untruths
severing chains of prejudice and slavery
to reveal the source of freedom.

It goes on, and ends : 'We hope you will join us.' Reilly invites the reader to 'take the cure', highlighting the therapeutic value of art, and of this book. Although this fanatical enthusiasm is a little off-putting, the idea of art as therapy is very important, and is taken up by David Levi Strauss in his fascinating essay, 'Take As Needed _– Therapeutic Art & Images in Context'. He states that '...images and symbols are real, and [...] the crystallisation of a desire or concept in the form of an image can become a potent agent, directly affecting the course of event.' (145) As for myself, I am more affected, infected, and stimulated by Burroughs' description of the erogenous red sores of Red Fever, a terrifying sexual disease, than ... well, I can't remember.

Strauss is against 'agreeable', easy-to-understand art that is soothing and congenial, and in favour of art that is homeopathic, shocking in its true representation of reality, charged with meaning, with a force that might have a therapeutic effect. It may offend, disturb or upset, but you shouldn't treat illness – ennui, censorship, cultural stagnation – with a palliative, but burn it out with real art, return it to robust health with real images. The notion of art as therapy, that you must shock in order to heal, by breaking taboos of society and literature, breaking out of conventional, clichéd thinking and language by experimentation and travel, is the message of this book, and is full of writers doing just that. It has made me question my own writing, as well as my reading – not just who and what but also the way I read. It is a manual for thinking and writing differently that I recommend to anyone who doesn't like Simon Armitage.

     © Paul Rowland 2004