Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica by Erik Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is another case of a beautifully unclassifiable book; baffling to marketers and bookstore shelvers, a marvelous revelation to those of us whose minds work like an ever-evolving kaleidoscope of ecletctic quirkiness. It would be shameful to pigeon-hole Davis' essays into a bucket or even to imply that each has a definite "subject". That's not to say that they are incoherent, no, quite the contrary! They are just . . . shifty . . . and very, very interesting. Erik Davis' interests are, as the title implies, esoteric. The essays in this volume are adventures in UFOlogy, psychoactive drug use, spiritual deep-dives, strange religions, philosophical explorations, anthropological pieces about Trekkies and Cthulhu-cults, modern poetry, Philip K. Dick, and Gak - yes, the slime toy Gak. If this review seems like an incoherent rambling, well, that's probably a fair assessment. I can't hope to plumb the depths of Davis' thoughts, I can only offer a topographical map of his insights at their highest (and lowest) points. That said, let's adventure!
The volume begins with a confessional: "Teenage Head: Confessions of a High School Stoner". I was immediately thrust under the hypnotic influence of Davis' thoughts. Davis, like myself, was a child of the '80s, although he was a couple of years older than me. Still, we shared a lot of the same experiences, exploring the psychotropic landscape. In his words:
Pot led me into a tangible world of bubbling micro-perceptions, haunted winds, and hilarious malformations of the data-stream. But pot also gave me something that has stuck with me far longer than the urge to bake my brain: a love of slippage, founded in the realization that altering perception alters the claims reality makes on you. The various social agendas of parents, teachers, and the ghost of God could be sidestepped - not only by sullen monosyllables and the worship of unwholesome heavy-metal guitarists but by tinkering with consciousness itself. What greater rebellion than rewiring one's experience of the world?
And I'll echo his sentiments. Though I haven't smoked weed for, let's see, 28 years now (haven't drunk alcohol since then, either), I still hold that "love of slippage". It's not played out in drug use, but in other, far less dangerous ways: My bizzare sense of humor; love of art in a variety of forms; love of heavy metal, punk, trippy electronic, and modern classical music; the insatiable addiction to tabletop roleplaying games; a deep spirituality; existential philosophy; dark chocolate (milk chocolate is for "normals"); ginger beer that will clear your sinuses; the desire to take long, meaningless (or is it meaningful?) walks just to be alone with my thoughts, cleanse my soul, and give me perspective; bizarre, off-kilter reading material; and, of course, my writing, which I am told is rather strange, at times. All of these, pretty much all the non-people that I love and live for, are a manifestation of that same drive that steered me toward pot (etc. . . .) back in the day. The fact is, I have little use for "normal," except that it keeps me employed and that I love my relatively normal wife. And, yes, she reminds me, often, that I am weird. I wouldn't have it any other way. Our kids swing wildly between normal and weird. People can't quite figure our family out, but society largely seems to like us, so long as they know that our strangeness is all played out with good intent.
But I digress . . . and I'm just blathering on about myself . . . and being indulgent . . .
Which are all things that Davis excels at! Only he's better at it than I am.
Whether it's Burmese Ladyboy-possession cults or Klingon neopagan religion or Gak, Davis is never at a loss for words. He is an able Virgil to your Dante-brain, though you might be confused, from time-to-time, as to which level of hell or heaven you are on, exactly. Somehow, it all makes sense . . . mostly. And Davis' obvious penchant for the study of religious phenomena gives him a voice of authority on such matters. You feel as if you can trust his word throughout, though you might not completely understand everything he throws at you.
For instance, "Snakes and Ladders" is an attempted reconciliation of early Christian Gnosticism ("floating," as it were - my word, not his - in the ethereal realms of the spirit) with pagan nature-religions (grounded in the Earth) through Manichaeism, while co-opting some pieces of mainstream Buddhism along the way. This is not light reading. And while I have enough of a background in religious studies to "get" the high points, some of the connections were lost on me. But though I couldn't explain all the details, I felt that his argument was succesful enough for me, the ignorant layman, to say that he might just have something there. Something I don't entirely understand, but something that seems to be a passable argument. Unfortunately, I don't have the time, and the library doesn't have the institutional patience, to allow me a thorough examination of all the fine points. I'll let professors of religion argue those out. That's what they get paid for, right?
On the other hand, I found "The Paisley Gate" quite open for my examination. It is an interesting song with converging and diverging lines split (and conjoined) along the lines of drug-fueled psychedelic trips and the cosmic enlightenment of tantric Buddhism. The essay is a liminal Mandelbrot Set of simultaneously conflicting and complimentary warpings of perception. My brother is a practicing tantric Buddhist, so I know as much as the uninitiated are allowed to know, and those drug-fueled trips . . . well, I've known that territory . . . very well. Davis does an excellent job of adjusting scope in and out so that the reader can see where lines cross and where they might seem to cross, but don't quite do so.
"Diamond Solitaire" was a piece that really touched me, since I have had several "Diamond Solitaire" experiences myself - brushes with the cosmic whole (not to sound too much like a hippie or new-age crystal-dolphin lover - apologies if you are either) that warp perception (or, if you will, clarify perception) suddenly, without warning, and without the kick-start of psychedelic drugs. These revelations have been some deeply meaningful experiences for me, experiences that I don't really share much because they are, to me, very sacred. It felt good to read about Davis' experience, another shared view on life and our place in the greater whole of the universe.
Davis does well to not just focus on such illuminating experiences. He is also in touch with the banal. Who can go on for four solid pages about the slime toy, Gak, and hold, nay compel the reader's attention, even making his observations of the toy intellectually stimulating? Davis can!
He can also (and did) deliver the best synthesis of of Lovecraft's influence and the confluence of "chaos magic" I have ever read in "Calling Cthulhu". In "Saint Phil," he crafts a nicely written essay about the crazed genius science fiction writer and the fuzzy border between reality, imagination, and insanity. Then, while Davis never claims to crack the code of The Matrix in his essay "Matrixter," his peek behind the curtain of technology (by way of lucid dreaming!) reveals that the Wachowski brothers may have inadvertently cracked the tinted window of reality and exposed us all to the disturbing question: "What is control"? As any great essayist will do, he leaves the answer up to us.
Not every essay was as mindblowing as the ones I've outlined above, but most of them were. If you're blown away by one of his essays, chances are you'll be blown away by at least a couple more. I, for one, will be seeking out more of his work. Feel free to tag along. We've got a lot to talk about . . .
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