Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica
Portland, Or.: Yeti Publishing, 2010
“I find the internet-driven pressure to make pieces short, data-dense, and crisply opinionated — as opposed to thoughtful, multi-perspectival, and lyrical — rather oppressive, leading to a certain kind of superficial smugness as well as general submission to the forces of reference over reflection.” — Erik Davis
Nomad Codes collects about twenty years of Erik Davis’ essays and journalism. Some has appeared in rather obscure ’zines and websites, but much of it comes from mainstream outlets like the Village Voice, Wired, Salon, and Slate. That, along with titles like “The Technofreak Legacy of Golden Goa,” “UFO Epistemology,” and “My Date with a Burmese Transvestite Spirit Medium,” might lead you to pass it by, but that would be a mistake.
What’s distinctive about Erik Davis’s journalism is a unique combination of immersive reportage from the most eccentric subcultures — think Tom Wolfe among the Pranksters or Hunter Thompson riding with the Hell’s Angels — with the kind of profound insights derived from a lifetime (at least since the release of Led Zeppelin IV) of practical study of the mythological and esoteric realms that Wolfe or Thompson could only dream of.
A Klingon Con, for example, is revealed to me rather more than a sad collection of acned-scarred basement-dwellers — an awful lot seem to be drawn from law enforcement or the army, which Davis notes is a hotbed of Neopaganism as well; he quotes one Klingon saying that “The Klingons are very similar to the Norse” and then draws back to offer some commentary:
But as good myth-weavers know, the potency of myth lies in the magic of ambiguity. . . . No matter how much you allegorize Klingons, as Russkies or black nationalists or creatures from the id, they are compelling because they retain a certain nomadic volatility — what the ’zine Katra calls “outliness”
Further along, after observing a Klingon ritual and noting that everyone is aware that it’s “not real,” he neither scoffs like a Huffington Post secular bigot nor sniffs about “inauthentic pagan reconstructions” but makes the same point we have been arguing from in our own reviews of pop culture:
Both fans and witches share a very concrete sense of the power of imagination, seen not as an elite realm restricted to “artists” (or TV producers) but as a vital phantasmic faculty that links the realms of fantasy with the here and now. . . .
By performing their spiritual sensibilities in the trapping so a TV show, Karizans also revived the oldest derivation of the word “fan:” fanaticus, a devotee of the ancient mystery cults.
The term Davis likes to use for this kind of intersection of the sacred and profane is “occulture”:
the place where popular culture meets the underground and very real currents of magic, mysticism, and the esoteric — a stream that has always been with us, but which was rediscovered and reaffirmed, in not always healthy ways, in the ’60s. “Occulture” is also a way to claim the occult or the religious fringe as a kind of cultural identity or playground, rather than an overly serious and hidden realm.
I try to look at the mysteries from both ends — I think its important to look at, say, the contemporary ayahausca scene as a scene, with dress codes and slang and rock stars, not as a sacred separate realm. (Even though sacred things can and do go down there.) At the same time I think it is important (or at least more rewarding) to look at our often junky world of late capitalist culture as a place where the seeds of insight and vision might be found, if only you look at the landscape in just the right way . . .
Davis unpacks this idea right from the start by opening this collection with what he (or his editors) dubs a “Prolegomenon” in the form of an autobiographical account: “Teenage Head: Confessions of a High School Stoner.”
[P]ot also gave me something that has stuck with me far longer than the urge to bake the 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?
Davis then adds this intriguing note:
It’s no accident that many kids start taking drugs at about the same age when children in traditional societies are tossed into a terrifying rite of passage, often involving some freaked-out combination of blood, darkness, self-sufficiency, and secrets. For better or worse, acid, ’shrooms, and massive bongloads now perform this rite, leaving marks that are both scars and the deep patterns of change.
That’s where subculture steps in, collective identities which can shore up the threat of dissolution and excess.
Teenage cults of drugs and music (psychedelic, heavy metal, trance, as opposed to the squeaky-clean world of pop and the thug culture of [c]rap) are the modern equivalents of the traditional adolescent rites of passage, where drugs, music (and sex) are used to break the bonds of childhood and forge new ties with the adult world, or perhaps a “subculture” such as the Männerbund, the military, or the priesthood.
[T]hat aimless and reckless quest for the silliest of grails (a party, pot, a parent-free abode)
The particular role of drugs (to an extent shared with music and sex) is to produce a state Michael Hoffman has called “loose cognition,” where the tight bonds of what passes for common sense (Kuhn’s “normal science”) are loosen or broken, allowing new combinations to arise (Kuhn’s “new paradigm”).
Phasing between the reveries of a bookish childhood and the hormone-fueled angst of teendom, my mind liquefied, running through the cracks and creases of a suddenly unfolded world.
For some, the shamanistic, shall we say, a lasting taste for such adventures in perception is retained, ideally combined with some ability to maintain an ability to function in normal society. The point is not to gain some new dogma, but to retain the ability to see.
Acid doesn’t give you truths; it builds machines that push the envelope of perception. Whatever revelations came to me then have dissolved like skywriting. All I really know is that those few years saddled me with a faith in the redemptive potential of the imagination.
It produces a bubbling, crackling connection-machine which quickly sinks into the mire. Trivial objects, words, and glances stitch together webs of deep and intense meaning that uncomfortably thicken—once a Greek salad in New Haven set off a rumination on the flows of Western history which overwhelmed my puny mind like a tidal wave.
But I take great satisfaction in the fact that many people acquainted with either my writing or my person assume I’m a total stoner.
But Deleuze and Guattari are fairly down on drugs themselves. To quote them quoting Henry Miller, the point is to get drunk on a glass of water.
Or, to quote William Burroughs, the self-styled “master drug addict” himself, “Learn to make it without chemical corn.”
This is somewhat like what Peter Lamborn Wilson, subject of another fascinating piece — “The Wandering Sufi” — calls “sacred drift,” which Davis calls “a magical mode of writing: recombinant, luminous, fragmentary.” Even so, as Davis notes, “for an anarchist, he has a remarkably traditional respect for rigor and cautious argument, as well as a real love of the dusty bibliographies and arcane disputes of classic scholarship.” (He was, after all, part of Seyyed Nasr’s Iranian Academy of Philosophy, and remembers their patroness, “Mrs. Shaw,” with great fondness).
Unlike the kids, not everyone likes the Drift; for example, H. P. Lovecraft, who even though he was dead in his forties, had long since taken to referring to himself as “Old Grandpa.” In “Calling Cthulhu,” Davis describes the then-nascent cult of pop-Cthulhu, and noted that Lovecraft’s “dread” and “horror” seemed to belong to a 19th-century materialist confronting vast new vistas opened up by science, not unlike those opened by the ’60s drug culture; as he describes it in a later article on Cthulhu porn:
In this tangy bon-bon of nihilistic materialism, Lovecraft anticipates a peculiarly modern experience of dread, one conjured not by irrational fears of the dark but rather by the speculative realism of reason itself, staring into the cosmic void. . . . This terror before the empty and ultimately unknowable universe of scientific materialism is what gives the cosmic edge to the cosmic horror that Lovecraft, more than any other writer, injected into the modern imagination (though props must be given up as well to Arthur Machen, William Hope Hodgson, and, in the closing chapters of The Time Machine at least, H. G. Wells). While many secular people proclaim an almost childlike wonder at the mind-melting prospect of the incomprehensibly vast universe sketched out by astrophysics and bodied forth by doctored Hubble shots, Lovecraft would say that we have not really swallowed the implication of this inhuman immensity—that we have not, in other words, correlated our contents.
Or, as Davis says in “Teenage Head”:
Whether or not the sense that everything fits together is perceived as a holistic liberation or a dire trap depends a lot on how tightly you are clutching to your frame of mind.
“Calling Cthulhu” also explores the “curiously literal dimension” of Lovecraft’s cult, “made all the more intriguing by the fact that Lovecraft himself was . . . philosophically opposed to spirituality and magic of any kind.” Yet in his work, thanks to the “tension between fact and fable” called magic, “ancient and amoral forces violently puncture the realistic surface of his tales,” drawing the reader “into the chaos that lies ‘between the worlds’ of magic and reality.” Davis calls this “Lovecraft’s magical realism” but we have elsewhere suggested that it also resembles what has been called “archeofuturism,” the continued accessibility of the past in the future, now.
The resurgence of weed as cultural icon may not be a matter of returning to nature but recovering its flow in the urban milieu: how to slip through the cracks in the concrete, how to grow wilderness in the most degraded or rigidly stratified of circumstances. That’s not a spoon or a needle or a bottle on all those caps around town. It’s a leaf.
Speaking of Cthulhu, and theurgy (acting on the gods) in general, Lovecraft, in “The Call” and elsewhere liked to bring in voodoo cults and other darkie woo-woo to suggest parallels, or equivalents, to his fictional cults of the Elder Gods; Lovecraft the Village Atheist no doubt also liked to imply this was the real nature of more respectable religions like Puritan Christianity.
Here again, once you make the connection, you can’t really control where it will take you (“sacred drift”); perhaps there’s more to those “primitive” cults, perhaps as much as the White man’s fancy theology? “Trickster at the Crossroads” explores African cults that may make the White “neopagan” uncomfortable, but may have something to teach us moderns.
Perhaps that discomfort arises not (only) from “a lingering afterimage of colonialism” but from an uncomfortable similarity:
As one Neopagan I know put it, “why be interested in these grotesque and parasitic deities?” You could answer that these deities are not so much grotesque as rich with character, not so much parasitic as deeply and reciprocally bound up with the daily lives of their devotees.”
Though they possess godlike powers, the orisha are not transcendent beings; rather, they are idiosyncratic personalities thoroughly bound up with ritual, practice, and the sort of exchanges that define human community.
In short, rather more pagan than the alien Christianity imposed on us. Traditionalists like Guénon and Coomaraswamy scorned the whole notion of “primitive” peoples, either as vertigoes of a past left behind by religious or scientific “progress” or as role models to be emulated, considering them rather as degenerate traces of lost primordial civilizations; but the degenerate culture, by definition, bear some connection to the healthy, unlike the deviationism of Judeo-Christianity and Modernity.
In fact, in the spirit of archeofuturism, the orisha suggest not merely the past but the present future:
In our wired world, Eshu can also be seen as the spirit of the network, nomadic lord of the codes and protocols that tie movement and trade, images and perspective, data and sex. Of all the orisha, he perhaps speaks most forcefully to us today because he is about the very process that we engage in order to understand and recognize him: the tangle process of communication itself, ever sacred, ever vexed.
Now, I know what many of you are thinking: this Davis cat is just another aging neo-hippie, and no doubt some kinda eco-friendly anti-Westerner, peddling more new-age pap. Admittedly, there are times when Davis does seem to lean perilously close to becoming some kind of Burning Man trendster (see “Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man”)
or just another fruity California nut (see the section on “Kalifornika” as well as his historical/spiritual/psycho-geographical travelogue, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape).
But at his best, which is most of the time, Davis is made of sterner stuff. Take “Snakes and Ladders,” an important Gnostic manifesto that echoes, not only in the title, James Hillman’s “Peaks and Vales.” Here the “tension” we’ve seen is abstracted into
two contrasting modes of spiritual movement, two pervasive “styles” or religious impulses. One the one hand, the desire to establish an intense, deeply wedded connection with the imaginative matrix of the natural world; on the other hand, a desire to overcome desire, to ascend towards virtual light, to escape the demands of matter and wake up to a new order of knowledge and being.
This wariness of what Ken Wilber might call “premature unity” leads him to suggest that
the impulse to transcend—the Neo-Platonist’s ascent through the spheres, the Gnostic’s sudden awakening, the desert monk’s rejection of the élan vital—is not simply a philosophical error or the mark of patriarchy, but is fired by an intensely lucid yearning for the highest of goals: liberation.
Davis avows that he distrusts
[A]ny easy attempt to shove them under one roof. It’s too simple to paper over their real differences be appealing to the supposed unity of mystical experience or the clichéd notion that various religious languages describe the same truth from different perspectives. What if the truth itself is multiple?
Like Hillman, Davis sees that polytheism is not — or should not be — just another dogma like monotheism:
The polytheistic alternative does not set up conflicting opposites between beast and Bethlehem, between chaos and unity; it permits the coexistence of the psychic fragments and gives them patterns in the imagination . . .
On the other hand, Davis is admittedly given to the usual knee-jerking; he can’t help but interrupt an account of his first encounter with the OnStar system — when he sets it off accidentally in a rental car — without wondering not just what the cops in Skokie would do if they had arrived and he was black. (The answer, of course, is “Nothing as bad as the brothers would do if they found you in Compton.”)
But even so. Constant Readers will find his positive take on “The Matrix Way of Knowledge” — “the Wachowski brothers realize that the cybernetic problem of control reboots the hoary old struggle between freedom and fate” — to be an interesting contrast to Trevor Lynch’s disgust, and his musing over
What, then, is the proper rejoinder to determinism? The Oracle tells Neo that “You are here to understand why you made the choice, not to make the choice.” I take this to mean that, to an awakened one, events and decisions have always already occurred, but that understanding and compassion can still dissolve their karmic hold.
intersects nicely with our own obsession with finding the rather more amoral “passing the buck” motif — escape from karma through a scapegoat or “sucker” — in genre flicks.
“Intersection” is really what it — and Erik Davis’ writing — is all about. Knowledge may be fragmentary, but Wisdom arise from the intersection — ever repeated — of the fragments. This collection will expose the intrepid spiritual adventurer to many of those “Shards of the Diamond Matrix,” from jazzbo Islamic heresies, to the hash-addled surf epiphanies of California teenagers, to “Scratch” Perry churning out dub from Switzerland. Like another one of its own topics — how appropriately fractal — it is truly “a mighty bizarre volume known as The Secret Museum of Mankind.”
Yeti has done a great service to esoteric adventurers by bringing out this collection. It has a great personal introduction by Marcus Boon, but one does miss — in the spirit of Peter L. Wilson, and Davis’s “bookish” boyhood, if not Melville’s Sub-Sub Librarian — a list of first appearances rather than just dates; moreover this sort of writing calls out for an index to guide the reader who is sure Davis mentioned something about something somewhere.
But perhaps they hope the reader with enter into the spirit of the thing, and just dive in and wait for the sacred drift to take them . . . somewhere.
1. Klint Finley, “Erik Davis – Technoccult Interview,” November 23, 2010, here.
2. In the interests of full disclosure, our paths first intersected through mutual interests in lectures given at the New York Open Center when Erik was writing for the Village Voice; in the Wild West days of the Internets I passed for something of an expert, believe it or not, and lent research assistance to a piece, post-Oklahoma City, on neo-Right websites; later, as guest editor of an issue of FringeWare Review, he solicited an article on my involvement with the Da Free John sect.
3. See his Led Zeppelin IV, #17 in the “33 and 1/3” series (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005).
4. See Greg Johnson’s “Interview with James J. O’Meara,” here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro: Masculinist Meditations on Politics and Popular Culture, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012), where I discuss Jeremy Reed’s appropriation of the pop culture “fan” as a model for the intense awareness of the “mundane” that characterizes the poet, and the relationship of this notion to Archetypal psychology (Moore, Hillman) and Sufi mysticism (Peter Lamborn Wilson, to be mentioned later); see also Michael Hoffman’s egodeath.com for research on, among much else dear to the hearts of Davis and myself, psychedelic rock music as modern mystery rituals.
5. Compare my discussion of the role of dress codes and themes as constitutive of anti-modern zones in “Mad Männerbund?” and “Fashion Tips for the Far From Fashionable Right” in The Homo and the Negro.
6. He means of course “filled with junk” (in “The Technofreak Legacy of Golden Goa” he refers to “junky speakers”) but the link to Burroughs’ Junky, his one piece of hardboiled realism, is interesting.
7. Antonio Lopez, “Follow your Weird: A Conversation with Erik Davis,” Reality Sandwich, here.
8. For drugs, sex and the Männerbund, see the work of Wulf Grimsson, generally, and my review of his Loki’s Way here and reprinted in The Homo and the Negro; for drugs, music and loose cognition, see the work of Michael Hoffman collected at his egodeath.com.
9. I too have had this ambiguous pleasure: “Reading James O’Meara is a psychedelic experience.” — Jack Donovan, jacket copy for The Homo and the Negro.
10. Wilson is another seminal influence on my own writing and research, as noted in my interview with Greg Johnson.
11. “Calling Cthulhu: H. P. Lovecraft’s Magical Realism” in op. cit.
12. Erik Davis, “Cthulhu is not cute!”
13. Thus Ed Wood’s Grade-Z films, an equivalent genre to Lovecraft’s pulp fictions, paradoxically produced real effects in the present day (“Future events like these will affect your lives in the future, as Criswell predicts) due to the principle that “any endeavor pursued with sufficient vigor [e.g., magick, even performed by a non-believer] will achieve results, those results potentially surpassing the endeavor’s original intentions.” Lovecraft might be compared to the bogus psychic is Wood’s Night of the Ghouls (a rather Lovecraftian title) whose fake séances actually raise the dead and bring about his doom. See my “Getting Wood: Closely Watching the Cinematic Alchemy of Ed Wood, Jr.,” here.
14. Cf. the Situationist slogan from ’68: “Beneath the pavement, the beach!”
15. E.g., “The Dunwich Horror” as a blasphemous reworking of the Incarnation and Crucifixion; see my “Knowing All the Angles: the Lovecraftian Fiction of Don Webb,” here.
16. See the essays of Collin Cleary, here and collected in Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-Forsaken World, ed. Greg Johnson (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2010) and most recently “What is Odinism” in TYR 4 (Ultra, 2014) reviewed here; also, Greg Johnson’s “The Philosophy of Collin Cleary,” here.
17. Tellingly euphemized in Canadian PC-speak as “First Peoples.”
18. See “Shamanism and Sorcery,” chapter 26 of The Reign of Quantity (Ghent, N.Y.: Sophia Perennis, 2001), especially the cautions expressed on p. 181. In the same way, the stoner culture Davis emerged from is a degenerate modern version of the ancient rites of passage, and so more valuable than mere bourgeois normality.
19. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.
20. Davis quoting James Hillman, A Blue Fire (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 44.
21. “About twenty minutes into The Matrix Reloaded I was feeling sick to my stomach — literally.” See his review here and in Trevor Lynch’s White Nationalist Guide to the Movies (San Francisco: Counter Currents, 2013).
22. See the discussion in “Getting Wood,” above.
23. Melville, of course, was a pioneer of the esoteric methods of linguistic warp and woof; see Harold Beaver’s 300-page commentary attached to the Penguin English Library edition of Moby Dick (New York: Penguin, 1972), and my recent comments here.