Infinity War


This movie is one of the Avengers series, and as such is an excuse for lots of violent action and cute dialogue, as well as plenty of special effects. One could be excused for thinking the resulting movie totally trivial, but maybe there’s something significant to be seen in it.

In this movie the super-villain threatening the universe is Thanos (derived from from Thanatos, the personification of death in Greek mythology?), who has embarked on a project to kill half the populations on over-populated planets across the universe, fairly, without reference to any social or political status. According to him, he sees himself as a benefactor who makes the depopulated planets into paradises. To do this more efficiently, he seeks gems with magical powers, some of which are held by individual Avengers. One of them he can only obtain by sacrificing his “daughter” (whom he had rescued from one of the planets in which he has committed genocide). Why is his goal so compelling that he can bring himself to make this “sacrifice’?

One could contemplate genocide in the abstract, but not everyone would be willing to undertake the concrete actions to slaughter people. Thanos’s claim to altruism is unconvincing. Our historic experience with genocide, whatever the rationale for them, has generally included hatred for some particular ethnicity or political group. What else would provide the emotional drive to commit such atrocities?

This reflection reminded me of Mary Renault’s retelling of the Theseus cycle of Greek myth, The King Must Die, and The Bull from the Sea. The novel follows Theseus from his childhood in a small kingdom, where he discovers he is the heir to the king of Athens, through his trip to Athens, his sojourn in Eleusis, and his determination to travel with the other young people demanded by the Cretans (who, as the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, have to be propitiated by most other governments) where they are to be sacrificed to (in the myth) the Minotaur.

Renault depicts the situation in Crete more realistically. Central to the story is the bull dance, which Sir Arthur Evans found artistic renderings of when he investigated Knossos. Renault (and maybe others) saw this as a religious event, a human sacrifice to ensure the well-being of the Cretan nation. But the bull dance evolved (or devolved) into a sporting event (as Renault describes it) observed by the nobility in particular, and bets placed on which dancers would survive their dance with the bull. Theseus, having been raised in a milieu where religion is taken very seriously, is shocked at the rather secular attitude. He is more shocked by the behavior of the Minotaur–in this telling the heir to the throne–who, as Theseus sees it, is willing to sacrifice others for power. Theseus has been brought up to be a king, and the ethic in which he believes is that when a sufficiently severe crisis besets a kingdom the king is supposed to sacrifice himself for the good of the people.

Our archetype of self-sacrifice is Jesus; here is an example of the same idea some thirteen centuries earlier, and Renault cites some other examples of the ethic in ancient Greece.

Compare this ethic with the rationale articulated by Thanos. Whether or not his idea is valid, who is he to impose his solution on anyone? How is it appropriate for him to sacrifice others to achieve his goals? And again, what is it that drives him to kill so many when so many oppose him?

My hypothesis is that relieving the universe of excess population is only the rationalization for his actions. His REAL desire is power to avoid death himself; thus his desire to find the magic gems so he can employ them for his own security, as much as for his self-imposed task. “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” He has become obsessive, and fallen into the psychological condition of inflation: he sees himself as more than he is, identifying himself with God, and believing that the actual God must want the death of anyone he sees as enemies.

One can see this motive in the great mass-murderers of the 20th century, too. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao tended to see themselves as necessary to their countries, which made it necessary to murder their opponents. The black and white aspect they shared of their individual visions encouraged the idea that destroying their evil opponents would produce a paradise on earth. Few (other than extremists) venture to seriously advocate genocide as a solution to anything, but dehumanization hasn’t ended, so the idea remains a possibility. Fear and scapegoating can allow history to repeat itself.

The movie ends with Thanos having achieved his desire but, as my grandson assured me, there will be a sequel to this movie. The Avengers franchise isn’t going to allow their series to end on such a hopeless note.


A Very Strange Dilemma


Author James Baldwin asked, “Why does white America need niggers?”

The first obvious reason has always been cheap labor. Black labor played a large part in the development of America, especially in the South (for which they received few benefits). But it seems as if there’s always been more to it than that.

The slave trade in North America really took off in the 18th century, if not the 17th. Was it really necessary? Weren’t there enough white people to provide labor in the colonies? In retrospect it doesn’t seem to have been very efficient to go all the way to Africa to get slaves and have many of them die on the return voyage. But the slave trade continued right up to the beginning of the Civil War.

And that’s in spite of the fear and resentment whites felt towards blacks. Part of the fear was because slave owners used their slaves sexually (probably not all owners), as can readily be seen by the range of skin colors in the black community even today. Southern whites in particular were afraid of black men doing the same to white women, and lynched a number of those they even suspected of the desire.

Another part of the fear was because on large plantations especially whites were badly outnumbered by blacks. They used brutality to intimidate blacks, and consequently feared what blacks might do in return.

One result of slavery in the Unites States was identification of it with black skin and further resentment of blacks after the Civil War supposedly fought to free them. In the Old World slaves could be of any nationality or skin color, and could fairly readily become free, even powerful. Identification of slavery with black skin necessitated the rationalization that blacks were inferior, and that having been brought to this country was somehow in their interest. But how could it be beneficial to have their own cultures erased and to be made to feel inferior because of their skin color, the different texture of their hair, their culture, etc?

The oddity of the relationship between white and black is underscored by the fashion for minstrels in about the 1850s, in which white musicians used makeup to look black when performing. What was THAT about? Was it done just to make fun of blacks, or was there something about the culture whites wanted to emulate? If so, what might it have been?

Could it have been an emotional and/or sexual freedom blacks possessed and whites usually didn’t? Knowing little about the era, I can only guess, and not with much confidence. Whites were later more willing to make use of black influence, if not to credit them or reward them financially. Jazz became the first purely American musical art form, but it was white musicians who more readily profited from it.

Whites came to resent blacks for their presence in the country they never should have been brought to. Perhaps the rational thing would have been to apologize and start over again, but whites were generally unwilling to admit their mistake, didn’t want integration, and sending blacks back to Africa, however desirable, wasn’t practical. Nor did all blacks want to go.

But a look at history reveals that blacks in general are perfectly capable of succeeding in America–when they’re allowed to. In each generation there were a few who became doctors, lawyers, or teachers in spite of the odds against them. In the 20th century particularly blacks were successful in music (though often taken advantage of by record companies and having their music copied by whites) and athletics. In the second half of the century they became successful in politics too. If not for segregation in most parts of the country, a form of white affirmative action which prevented competition no matter the rationalized reason, they would most likely have been successful in a wide variety of other fields too.

As it is, the resentment continues. James Baldwin’s question could be extended: why did Europeans need Jews? A recent article in The Atlantic focuses on the late 1930s when Nazi persecution of the Jews reached a higher gear, but before the Holocaust began, when Jewish professionals were forced to clean streets with toothbrushes. The article points out that they were treated this way not because they were subhuman, but because they were obviously human, to humiliate them. But for most of 2,000 years they had been Europe’s favorite group to persecute. Why was that? And why did blacks get awarded that position in the New World?

It seems to me the institution of slavery need not have taken the direction it did in the Americas. It would probably have been a corrupt institution anyway as power imbalances usually are, but it didn’t have to become identified with dark skin, nor did it have to be so cruel.

Why DID we need niggers? What does that say about us?



Like much of my generation, I was thrilled by rock & roll, beginning in my case with the Beatles. It was an amazing musical time. Maybe it’s like that for everyone when they discover music, but it still seems different to me. Music was coming from all over the place and cross-fertilizing, getting more complex and exciting all the time.

In the late 1960s I began to be disappointed. After Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band I liked what the Beatles were doing less, partly because I had left high school, left home, was working for a living, and was pretty depressed about it. Bob Dylan also changed radically in a way I didn’t like.

There were other bands coming along, though, a great explosion  of them, so I remained a musical addict for some years more. But eventually I lost interest in contemporary popular music. Part of it was because of new styles, metal, disco, punk, and eventually rap, none of which I liked much. But I think part of it too was that the musicians I had loved got decadent.

At the time I thought drugs like marijuana and LSD were a good idea, or at least not bad. That may have been naive, but I wasn’t naive enough to think that speed, cocaine, heroin, barbituarites, or too much alcohol were a good idea, and not only did I begin hearing more about those, but the music started to be less good too. A book, Live at the Fillmore East and West informs me that there was even more over-indulgence in that period than I’d known. Lots of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin. With all this seems to have gone a lot of very egotistical behavior. Not very inspiring. It seems as if when musicians became successful they also graduated to harder and more addictive drugs. It’s disappointing to think so many heroes of my youth were so insecure–at least that’s what I presume it was.

Of course, I started picking up addictive behaviors too, though most of them were legal, unlike a lot of my musical heroes. I smoked marijuana, for a short time took (what I was told) was LSD and mescaline, but took very little else that was illegal. I began smoking cigarettes (to learn how to smoke marijuana), and that became habitual, lasting some forty-seven years. I also started drinking, and for several years drank like an alcoholic. After awhile I got tired of being hung over all the time, and began losing my tolerance (that may have been because I had Hepatitis C, unbeknownst to me), and began drinking less. And my very first addictive behavior had been reading, beginning from the time I learned, and continuing to this day.

I think it’s pretty clear to most of us that addictions usually have to do with pain. Sometimes it’s physical pain. I think even more often it’s emotional pain. We don’t want to fully experience that, so we run away from it. An interview I listened to yesterday suggested that meditation is a good way to approach emotional pain, not that it’s an easy fix–it still takes a lot of effort–but it’s a method of looking at pain objectively in which one focuses not so much on the pain as its characteristics and where it comes from. But it’s always tempting not to try to do anything effective about it, and just keep running. It’s certainly not a problem I’ve solved to any extent, even at my advanced age.

There’s always been drug abuse in this country’s history, especially if you count, alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. There was an explosion of illegal drug abuse beginning sometime in my youth. Exactly when it began is debatable. It really got going among white people in the late sixties, but it had become a plague in Harlem about 1950, when heroin hit town. Now heroin is no longer an urban phenomenon. It’s a plague in rural America too. Overprescription is frequently blamed for the latest manifestation, but I think the main temptation for addictive drugs is hopelessness.

There are some objective reasons for hopelessness in this country, as well as reasons that are more subjective. Many of us grow up unhappy with our parents, with school, or many other things. But we shouldn’t ignore objective reasons too.

One is financial. In my early life I didn’t find it hard to support myself ( I also didn’t have a wife or children), but for people much younger than me this was much less true. I won’t try to go into the reasons for the financial instability of many, but only say it’s a major reason for lack of hope.

Along with financial instability, rapid cultural changes of all kinds have had a bad effect on people. Divorce has broken up a lot of families, which has caused economic and other kinds of instability. Do children feel more neglected now than they did a couple of generations ago? I don’t know, but fewer families have both parents now. And not only is there neglect, but other forms of abuse. Those kinds of problems generate feelings that many people try to deal with by self-medicating.

So do problems like bipolar disorder. I don’t know if disorders like this, ADD, and ADHD are more frequent now than they were before the diagnoses were formulated, but in any case, the medications are available, so the temptation is always there. As long as we have drugs they’re going to get used, unless our culture changes tremendously.

Heroin took over Harlem for awhile, and spread across the country, because people’s lives in ghettos like those were not very happy, and drug use was an acceptable way out. It still is, no matter how people preach about it. The only way to end drug abuse, as far as I can see, is to get to the roots of it in each individual case, which would be very difficult and inconvenient. People adopt addictive behaviors often because they feel unloved. Loving them effectively would take a tremendous effort that many people don’t want to make. And since we live in a capitalist society, as long as there’s a market for addictive things (drugs or other) there will be someone to supply them. If you’re selling things you have to consider addiction as part of your market strategy. If people can’t get along without your product, you’ll have a steady income.

It’s a shame this is how we live. It’s not how humans were meant to live, and getting really caught up in addiction can make us less than human. But our addiction as a society isn’t just to drugs, but to our whole lifestyle that is destroying the natural world that allows us to live. It’s a shame we live the way we do, that drugs destroyed the music and many of the musicians we’ve all loved, and that most of us don’t have the courage to turn away from that. But that’s dwarfed by the way in which we’re destroying not only our individual worlds, but the great world around us too. And it’s much easier to just go with the flow than to actually do anything effective about it.


An Interesting Time


We live in a fractured nation, and some of us hardly even know it because we’ve imposed a de facto segregation  on ourselves, and often hear few opinions we disagree with, except on TV.

But there is disagreement, and it’s virulent. Conservatives think conservatism is the natural way to be, and think liberals are hypocritical and malicious. Liberals feel the same way about conservatives. Neither lives up to their best ideals; both feel the other wants to impose their views on a whole range of issues. Not just abortion, but in religion, schools, etc. Part of the problem is economic: an expanding economy and good pay makes up for a multitude of sins, but a lot has to do with cherished beliefs too. A Dominionist Christian is quoted as saying other denominations should have their religious liberties taken away. This is extreme, but isn’t different from past Christian attitudes. It’s contrary to the vision our Founding Fathers had, though.

The Founding Fathers weren’t, in many cases, conventionally religious. They amended the Constitution to include religious liberty because of the still remembered (by some) religious wars of the 17th century. One way to avoid these was to allow every religion to practice, but none to impose its views on any other. The monotheistic religions tend to produce fanatics, and fanatics like to impose their own beliefs. Perhaps we periodically need to be reminded how well that works.

Daryl Davis attended Howard University intending to become a spy or a diplomat. He became a musician instead. He also acquired an unusual hobby: he began talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

This may have begun accidentally. He talked to someone after a performance who appreciated how he played piano. That person was a Klan member, and maybe other contacts followed from that one. Davis’s attitude towards him and other Klan members wasn’t accidental, though. He said his question was, How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? It turned out not many could. All many of them wanted was to be listened to. After he listened to them, many began feeling different, and got out of the Klan. Those leaving no longer had any use for their robes, and gave them to him. In the PBS program about him he estimates he has twenty-five or six such robes.

That part is inspiring. He has justified his faith that people can change. What is sad is when he talks to three activists in Baltimore who don’t believe white supremacists CAN change. I couldn’t really blame them: nothing in their experience leads them to believe that, and they feel Davis is a traitor.

They’re not the only people who feel others are traitors, or are angry for other reasons. According to Sidney Blumenthal, our 45th president has always pined for the love of New York City, which has resolutely withheld it from him. This may account for the resentment he displays, and also for his ability to engage the resentment of others, which enabled him to win his campaign. It’s possible we will suffer because New York City didn’t love Donald Trump enough, but many people feel unloved. Christianity told us to love one another, but didn’t teach us how to do that. Consequently, we have done a miserable job of it.

In Mary Renault’s novel about ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, one character quotes Socrates as saying, “Be what you wish to seem.” This expresses much of the exasperation various groups in America feel about each other: not necessarily their views, but that they don’t behave according to those views. Shaming opponents for believing differently doesn’t change their minds, it causes resentment.

It’s not hard to understand why many people oppose abortion. At least until they know someone who wants to get one because of, for example, rape or incest.

Homosexuality is a similarly hot-button issue. Sexuality is a difficult issue for almost everyone, and the idea of not only having sex outside of marriage but with one’s own gender seems alien to most. Some can be persuaded that it’s not so evil when they know someone who is gay, but not all can. Some parents reject their children when they discover they have AIDS. They seem to believe their children have chosen a life of evil, but aren’t objective enough to ask why they would choose an orientation that so many people detest. When asked that question, they take it very personally, as an attack on their faith, as in some ways it is. Faith in the literal truth of the Bible is a kind of anchor for many who find any analysis of its text to be personally threatening. That’s much of the quarrel of a certain kind of conservative with liberals: liberals make them think unwanted thoughts. That some of these thoughts may embody the sort of compassion Jesus Christ taught doesn’t improve matters. We all prefer the religion that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

When such a resentment is present, it’s not hard to play on it and encourage hatred of others. How did Daryl Davis persuade white supremacists that their views were mistaken? He didn’t judge them. He listened to them and, he says, they persuaded themselves.

Not all will be persuaded, though. The 45th president may or may not emulate Hitler in every way, but there’s a family resemblance in their resentment. Hitler’s father abused him. The president’s father may not have, but the president does seem to feel unloved. Whether it’s New York City he feels rejected by, or whether the rejection comes from elsewhere, it seems likely many of us are going to be punished for it because many others share the feeling. Liberals are an enemy many can agree on, so liberals will be punished. Ordinary people may find that as liberals get punished, so do they, and regret their vote, but by then it will be too late.

Perhaps less justly, Muslims and Hispanics will be punished too. They too seem alien to a lot of people, so are easy to stereotype. It’s not hard for people who don’t know any Muslims to believe they all are terrorists. That few of the Muslims in this country are, that few are likely to get here, and that we have terrorists of our own seems harder to process, especially if one sympathizes in some respects with the white terrorists. Fear of immigrants is easy to take advantage of. The mechanism seems to be that many fear new immigrants will do to us what our ancestors did to Native Americans and imported black slaves. We all know we haven’t treated minorities well, which gives us good reason to fear them. Because of our fears, we mistreat them again, which won’t resolve our difficulties.

Anger can be a potent fuel, but it doesn’t help us harmonize with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the time seems ripe for a holy war. War certainly releases tensions, though it would be nice if we could release them in a more productive fashion. But that’s a matter of individual decision. Perhaps enough individuals will find a better way to behave than they are being encouraged to. This is an interesting time, in the Chinese sense.

Robert Anton Wilson’s Journey to Expanded Consciousness


Robert Anton Wilson is a philosopher of sorts whose acquaintance I first made some forty years ago with the Illuminatus trilogy. Recently rereading it for the first time in decades, I found it wasn’t as compelling as back then, so I went on to his memoir, Cosmic Trigger, which was.

In that book he tells how he grew up in an Irish Roman Catholic home, jettisoning his Catholicism when it conflicted with his sex drive, and reached adulthood interested in lots of things. For one thing, he tried joining a lot of different groups (Ayn Rand and Trotskyite groups, for instance) which made him realize that there were a lot of different ways to see the world, and that different groups have different things they accept and reject. This means that virtually no one sees the world as it actually is: there’s always something being rejected or ignored which provides a different perspective on things. Wilson called these tunnel realities.

And humans tend to dislike different perspectives. Christianity in particular has dictated what people must and must not believe. A lot of people and organizations have imitated them. We’ve become very aware that people give us propaganda instead of truth, and resent it, even if we’re not good at telling the difference.

Wilson got caught up in the psychedelic experience of the early sixties before it became well-publicized. He took peyote first, then LSD when it became available. On one of his peyote trips he observed a green-skinned humanoid figure dancing. This was before Carlos Casteneda began publishing his books, when the green-skinned figure would become known as Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote. As the sixties progressed he met Timothy Leary to interview him, and they realized they had a lot of interests in common. Leary suggested he investigate Aleister Crowley, and Wilson did so, with increasing interest.

Crowley practiced magick (the spelling to distinguish it from Harry Houdini sleight of hand), and found it a rich source of unusual perspectives. Wilson had heard Crowley was a junkie, but also that he had climbed higher on Chogo Ri (a mountain in the Himalayas) than anyone else, which seemed unusual for a junkie. He began reading Crowley’s books, many of which suggest exercises to expand consciousness. Wilson began practicing a number of these, sometimes in conjunction with LSD or other psychedelics, sometimes without.

One such was to go a week without using the word “I” and punishing himself (Wilson bit his finger) whenever he slipped and said it. He found his state of mind changed pretty dramatically, and began to see his ego as an inconvenience.

Another practice was to invoke various gods or goddesses of the pagan past. He would decorate with colors and symbols associated with each, pray to them, and recite various invocations that Crowley had written. He found that these practices began changing his worldview too. Once he began getting results, he would start invoking a different god or goddess.

Wilson had also met William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch most famously), who told him about strangeness associated with the number 23. Burroughs had discovered it when talking to an ferry boat sailor named Captain Clark, who told him he had sailed the ferry 23 years without an accident. That day Burroughs heard that Clark’s ferry had sunk, killing all aboard. Then he heard about an airplane crash, piloted by another Captain Clark. It was flight number 23. Wilson began looking for 23s, and began finding them synchronistically. Synchronicity is a pattern which doesn’t seem to have a cause, but appears too meaningful to be merely coincidence. The more Wilson looked for 23s, the more he found, and the more meaningful they were. He records numerous examples, one being that sperm and egg each contribute 23 chromosomes to what becomes a human fetus. There are many more.

He was also interested in UFOs, and their significance. Such incidents are often witnessed by lots of people, though not all agree on what they see. The incidents seem to contradict the laws of nature, and it’s uncertain what their cause is. They’re similar to reported incidents prior to the twentieth century which people used to attribute to encounters with angels, or with fairies. They can be pretty bizarre. My favorite was reported by a man living in Wisconsin, who said a UFO landed in his yard, an alien got out and handed him some pancakes. That seems a nice thing to do, but what was the significance? The pancakes, incidentally, turned out to be ordinary pancakes when analyzed. Wilson thinks such an incident (and many others) indicate that when we’re confronted with something completely unfamiliar, like a technology well in advance of our own, our consciousness tries to change it into familiar terms, however senseless (or hilarious) those terms turn out to be.

Besides the magickal practices and psychedelic drugs,  Wilson had been reading as many of Crowley’s books as he could obtain, and found that Crowley had been practicing Tantra, or sexual magick, which consisted of various ways to postpone orgasm which would make it extremely powerful and psychedelic. In the early 1970s in the midst of these practices Wilson began to believe he was receiving messages from the area of the star Sirius.

Sirius is the brightest star in our sky, and has a very interesting history. When he began to research it, Wilson found that the Dogon tribe in Africa had told people (Including Robert Temple, who wrote a book about it) a lot of information about Sirius no one would have expected them to know, including that it was a double star, and that the second star (invisible until the twentieth century to astronomers until they had telescopes powerful enough to see) was much smaller than the primary, which is the one easily visible. Sirius, known as the Dog Star, contributes heat to the “dog days” of summer, and would contribute much more if the universe weren’t expanding, and Sirius receding from us. When asked how they had found out these things, the Dogon said aliens from Sirius had told them.

When Robert Temple researched further he began to believe there had been contact with aliens in the Middle East about 4500 years ago, and that knowledge of this had traveled across Africa to the Dogon. If such a thing happened, and if his timeline was correct is difficult to say. Egypt already had a great deal of interest in Sirius well before 2500 BC. They identified it with the goddess Isis, and in building the Great Pyramid, constructed a shaft to the south through which they could observe the star. When Wilson looked into this further he found that a LOT of people claimed to have received messages from Sirius, including Crowley.

George Gurdjieff seems to have known about this too. When writing his most important book he realized that he had made some passages more plain than he intended, and said he needed to bury the dog deeper. When asked if he didn’t mean the bone, he said, No, the dog, and that the dog was Sirius. Sirius is also said to be the star portrayed on the card by that name in the Tarot deck. Some say the Tarot was put together by Sufis, and Sufis provided at least some of Gurdjieff’s education in the occult.

By the time all this was happening, Wilson had quit his job at Playboy, and was trying to earn his living by writing. He was having some difficulty. He and Robert Shea, who had also worked at Playboy, had written the Illuminatus trilogy, satirizing many conspiracy theories they came across while working at Playboy. The Illuminati were composed of people from the Freemasons who had achieved higher consciousness, but their organization located in Bavaria was outlawed in the 18th century. Some saw them as heroes, many saw them as villains, and the more the two authors researched the group the more probable it seemed that they had a long ancestry which may have extended back to ancient Egypt or even further. Learning about them fit well with Wilson’s desire to expand his own consciousness.

He and Shea had finished writing the novel, but were having trouble getting it published, so Wilson was poor. He and his family were living in San Francisco with poor people, since they couldn’t afford a great place to live. He was doing a Sufi exercise to open his heart, and was often horrified at things he saw poor people have to go through.

Such things touched his own family too. His youngest daughter, who was aware of his occult interests, and shared them, got beaten up by a gang of black kids, but understood that if she held a grudge against them, it would only continue the negative energy–so she forgave them, and never showed any fear or dislike of anyone black. Wilson was amazed that a girl in her early teens could be so wise.

By this time Timothy Leary had been busted for possession of pot and imprisoned. He managed to escape and spent some time overseas before being kidnapped in Afghanistan and brought back to the USA. Just why the authorities were so hysterical about the threat his advocacy of LSD posed may be clearer when one realizes that his interest in the drug was because of its ability to change what he called “imprints”, impressions that cause the mind to see things in certain ways. Governments prefer that people see things in ways they prescribe. Anything that allows them to see independently is threatening. Leary had incautiously advertised his intentions, trying (as Wilson sees it) to reserve the use of LSD to competent professionals who could use it as a tool to safely help people. That he publicized it so effectively helped to spread its use, and many used it less than safely. Of course the main effect of government prohibition was to drive LSD into the black market and prevent scientists from studying it. But before LSD became illegal Leary had used it in a project with prisoners that was very successful in preventing recidivism. With less public hysteria, and with good training, mental health could have been greatly improved.

When Leary was released from prison he no longer wanted to talk about drugs, but about immortality and space travel. He had theorized a model of various higher “circuits” that LSD, other drugs, and various practices can induce to begin operating in human beings. Four of these he said were the ones we use in our ordinary life on earth. There are, he said, four others which are rarely experienced, and which are for use in outer space. He wanted to become immortal and journey in a starship which need not go faster than light if its passengers were immortal. He expected science to discover a method (or methods) to attain immortality quickly (this was in the mid-1970s). This was where I began to part company with the ideas in the book.

For one thing, immortality would cause immense problems if people in general stopped dying. Nature, as experienced on this planet, is organized around death: each generation has to make way for the next. All living organisms reproduce, therefore all must die. Their deaths help provide, through decomposition, the food that will nourish all the organisms that support life on the whole planet, which is already overpopulated with humans. An order of magnitude more would even more rapidly deplete the natural resources which could provide for them. And not enough space ships could be built–at least until we can easily mine the asteroids or moon– to take more than a small percentage to other star systems. There’s also a possibility that the bulk of the human race has responsibilities here.

Leary and Wilson seem to have been confident that human science would rather quickly find a way to stop death and keep humans healthy and happy for hundreds, thousands, even billions of years. That was forty years ago. Why haven’t we heard anything about it since?

One reason is that immortality is something the powerful wouldn’t want ordinary people to have. If a method of immortality was discovered, powerful people would want to keep it for themselves. If such a thing has been discovered, I suggest that is exactly what has happened. Immortality would be a powerful tool to obtain even more power.

That section of the book seems almost insanely optimistic, reminding me of something Wilson says he learned about Crowley from someone who knew him well. Crowley, his acquaintance said, often believed that the illumination he had attained was shared by many of the people he met, causing him to trust wrong people. Israel Regardie, a biographer of Crowley, who has worked as his secretary in the 1920s stated that Crowley had unresolved issues which caused him to have blind spots. He was, in some respects, wiser than many, but he wasn’t perfectly wise. Regardie’s autobiography stops before 1914, by which time he had had and assimilated most of the visions which had so deepened his perceptions. He had written most of the works for which he is known, and had also lost all his money. He lived more than thirty more years, but Regardie didn’t find his later life inspiring.

Another example of the optimism Wilson shows is his view of the acceleration of knowledge. Human knowledge took a long time to increase in the past, especially knowledge shared with the largest part of humanity. With the beginning of science about 500 years ago, knowledge has been piling up at an ever increasing rate. Some were predicting forty years ago that by this time the human race would be entirely transformed, with many obstacles passed very quickly. This has obviously not happened. The human race remains stuck in sorrow and suffering.

But much of the book remains exciting, though I can’t agree with all of it. It’s a sort of detective novel in which the author tries to understand more and more of how the world operates, and goes further and deeper than usual understandings. That can be pretty thrilling.

Wilson ends the book by telling how his daughter was beaten to death by an unhappy man who couldn’t have understood what he was doing, and how he resisted allowing that to crush him. As terribly as he suffered from that, he found that many people loved him and his family, and wanted to help in any way they could. One psychologist made a point of visiting a couple of times a week to talk if anyone needed him. Wilson later called such kindness bewildering, and was grateful and amazed it should exist. I don’t know if one should see such a crushing death as some kind of punishment for Wilson or anyone else in his family, but if he had done wrong, he was certainly punished.

He ends the book by asking Timothy Leary what he did when he was overwhelmed by negativity. Leary replied, “Come back with all the positive energy you can.” This, said Wilson, was how he learned the final secret of the Illuminati.




Addiction is complex, and isn’t just about illegal drugs, as problematic as that issue is. It’s not just a metaphor, but literally encompasses a great deal of human behavior.
Illegal drug use has spread and become more persistent. Heroin used to be an urban problem. It’s part of the rural landscape now too.
The War on Drugs has been going on for more than forty years, and we’re losing. One big reason for that is that illegal drugs intersect with something very American: capitalism. There’s an immense demand for illegal drugs, and as long as that’s true there will be people to supply them. Illegal drugs are among the most valuable substances there are, and the behavior around the others is comparable.
This was true of alcohol during Prohibition. One might think lawmakers might have learned from that, but maybe they learned the wrong lesson. A business that profitable probably supports legislators, as well as others. Prohibition only lasted long enough to give us organized crime. The War on Drugs has given us organized crime on steroids.
But illegal drugs are only a small part of addiction. Alcohol is legal again, tobacco always has been, but both are very destructive. Alcohol can destroy families as thoroughly as drugs (it may or may not take longer), and tobacco is good for destroying health.
But these are still only part of the story. Sugar and salt are the two substances that sell most processed foods, even though we know too much of them is bad for us.
I used to drink like an alcoholic, but had increasing trouble tolerating it. I haven’t taken a drink for at least a couple of years, but it took a very long time to quit entirely.
It’s been almost a year since I last smoked. I don’t feel the desire too strongly, but know that if I started again I probably wouldn’t stop. I’ve smoked most of my life.
I like sugar in particular about as much as anyone, though I also like salt. But those aren’t my only addictive behaviors.
I’ve read more than most people all my life, which takes us out of the realm of substance abuse as ordinarily understood. In this sort of category are TV, movies, computers, and video games. I’ve probably been less addictive about TV and movies than most, and I’ve hardly played video games at all. Computers are another matter.
Computers are an immense resource in the sense of available knowledge, as well as a great way for merchants to advertise and sell. I’d be willing to guess a major part of computer use is to interact with others, though. That was the initial attraction for me, as it seemed easier than trying to meet people in bars, for instance. That can be positive. but trolling is a familiar word now.
In any case, other forms of behavior can also be addictive. Sex is probably as addictive as anything else people do, since it’s intensely pleasurable, as well as being a fundamental drive.
Nor does it stop there. Few of us are entirely authentic. We identify with whatever we say “I” to, and identification is a form of “sleep”, which is a way of not being conscious, and addiction is a way to avoid consciousness, because consciousness can be painful.
How did narcotics come to be abused? They kill pain, and not just physical pain. There are plenty of people with chronic physical pain, but arguably even more with chronic emotional pain. Illegal drugs will numb both. So will legal drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, to say nothing of tranquilizers. You can add coffee, sugar, and chocolate to that list too. And money.
In this country, and much of the rest of the world, we are convinced that buying things will make us happy. There’s evidence to suggest there are limits to this happiness, but few of us are willing to give up all we own, as Jesus recommended. We make the people who sell things very happy, and many of them happily cut corners to make themselves even happier.
A lot of what is sold can be called convenience. Central heating, cars, computers, and cellphones are all convenient. We’d rather not have to do the intense physical work our ancestors did even a hundred years ago when technology had already begun to make a real impact on our lives. Nor do we care that the convenient products tend not to be biodegradable, or to pollute in other ways. Our desire to be less conscious masks the natural world for us, and how our behavior harms it, and ultimately ourselves. Ideology about individuality has as much to do with the right to pollute and mistreat one’s employees as anything else, it seems.
It seems obvious that the way to be happy is to do pleasurable things, but the great religions contradict that picture. Jesus talked about it being more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than pass through the eye of a needle (the eye of the needle was a very narrow gate into Jerusalem, which a camel could enter only if its baggage was removed). Capitalism seems largely to be about selling us pleasures, if not entirely. It does pretty much reduce the world to buying and selling, and strongly implies that these are the means to happiness.
William S. Burroughs observed of his experience with narcotics that the perfect customer was an addict “who will crawl through a sewer to buy”. Look at advertising anywhere and ask yourself how much of it is to sell anything people really NEED. In very many cases, perhaps most, it’s trying to stimulate a desire to be satisfied by buying something, and an awful lot of the time it’s not something really NEEDED.
Anytime we say “I” to any of our desires, whether it’s to buy something, or to behave in a certain way, that can be called identification. Or attachment. Either can be seen as a form of addiction. And addiction is essentially lack of balance.
George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the last century, said that non-desires should predominate over desires. Another way to say that is that we should discipline ourselves and refuse to indulge. How many of us actually do that, no matter what we tell ourselves?
It is the constant temptation of manufacturers and merchandisers to amass more profits than they really need by selling products to people THEY really don’t need. What is the consequence?
On the production side, the person has more wealth and possessions than they know what to do with, which makes little sense on an individual level, since they know (but may not believe) they’re going to die, and can’t take their money or possessions with them. If they have family or friends to leave them to it makes slightly more sense, but it’s questionable how much good the money does their descendants. It keeps them out of poverty, but suppose all that is taken away. Like any other addiction, once it’s withdrawn, the former possessor may go into withdrawal. But keeping the bequest may lead to arrogance. Rich children sometimes are able to earn their own money–especially if their inheritances give them a great advantage–and sometimes not. But they tend to see themselves as better than others, and others do too. I doubt that’s good for them.
For those of us not wealthy, are the consequences much better? If we amass money and possessions that leave us below the wealthy level, are we better off than the really rich? We still can’t take our possessions with us. Our children need to learn how to make their own livings too, and without the advantage wealthy children have.
Perhaps the worst thing is living in the money universe and believing it’s all there is. Actually, we live in worlds within worlds. The natural world, which is what keeps us alive, is seen as a bank we can withdraw from without depositing. It’s also seen as a place we can dump our trash without consequence. That’s a dangerous way for us to live.
Addiction also makes us self-centered, no matter the substance, behavior, or anything else. Addiction makes us desperate too, willing to do almost anything to anybody for our own satisfaction. We as a nation are addicted to oil to power our buildings and vehicles, which has led us into destructive behavior in the Middle East, not least to ourselves.
It’s not like we have no idea about this. The ostensible reason for the War on Drugs, as well as Prohibition, was to protect people from addiction. It was never the real, or at least only reason, though. It was used to feed other addictions, not only to money, but to power as well.
Power may be the worst of the addictions. It promises us the ability to change the world. Our motives may be good or not so good, but if we’re drawn to power, we may well be corruptible.
Of course power is a reality in human life. Some individuals and classes will be inevitably more powerful than others. Some will also be more responsible with power than others. Plato thought in an ideal society those who were to be trusted with power should not be allowed other pleasures, like sex and family. They should also not DESIRE power. Is this humanly possible? Not to a very large extent.
We see in our own country that power has corrupted our political and economic leaders to greater or lesser extent. The power of being able to possess has also corrupted the rest of us. Few of us want to have less. We almost always want to have more, and given how many of us there are in the world, this is not sustainable. That’s not hard to see, but we prefer not to see it.
Suppose we have a catastrophe that destroys our capacity to produce electric power or fuel our buildings and vehicles. How will we survive? It would be nice to dismiss that as impossible, but it isn’t. If it happens, a great many people will not only struggle to survive (quite possibly in not very nice ways), but will enter more than one kind of withdrawal.
That’s the kind of change we live in fear of, and which explains at least some of the hateful rhetoric and actions many of us indulge in. We fear to lose what we have, with which we (more often than not) have an addictive relationship. Look at drug and alcohol addicts who have quit. Often they simply exchange one addictive habit for another: coffee for alcohol, for instance. Reality is still too fearsome to experience “naked”. What will happen when we lose things that seem even more necessary than drugs, with which we also have an addictive relationship?
I’m not better in this area than most people. I too want to live comfortably. I hope not to see social collapse in this country, or anywhere else. We’ve already seen it in Asia and Africa, and it’s not pretty. It would be nice to believe it can’t happen here, but that would be stupid. And unless we begin to be willing to change our behavior in very fundamental ways, it’s almost inevitable.

Fear and Jerry Garcia


I’ve been a fan of the Grateful Dead for a long time, though far short of being a Dead Head. I just started rereading an interview conducted with Jerry Garcia in 1971, when the band was still expanding in reach, technique, and material. Comparing what he was then and later is instructive.
In the interview he seems enlightened, though that might be exaggerating. At least he seems happily engaged in his music, the band, and with his common-law wife, in spite of money and other problems with the band.
He speaks, at one point, of how some people fear, and put up walls to protect themselves, and says this isn’t necessary. Ironically, a few years later, he would begin putting up some very high walls around himself when he began using heroin. Why was that?
There seem to have been several reasons. One is a fairly unhappy childhood: his father died when he was quite young, he didn’t get along well with his stepfather(s), and rarely found school very interesting. So he joined the army at age 15, didn’t last very long, and then lived on the street. He had an unsuccessful marriage, then emerged into the Grateful Dead.
He was lead guitarist there, wrote and sang most of the songs, was very smart and articulate. That made him the focus of a lot of people’s interest in the band, something he always felt at least ambivalent about. No doubt it helped him pick up women (he did his share of running around), but he didn’t like the demand on him to be something like a messiah. He wanted to just play his music and be able to live like a normal person.
Accordingly, he began using heroin, left his wife, and became more and more isolated as he descended further into that process. The band, which had been expanding for its first ten years, seemed to begin to contract.
I base that at least somewhat on their studio albums, which was never the best way to judge them. But as Garcia got more strung out (and he wasn’t the only band member with drug problems), their outstanding performances got fewer too.
According to his friends, he never entirely lost his optimism and interest in the world, even though his darker impulses had surfaced and become stronger as he gave into them. Later he seems to have become cynical, perhaps (at least in part) due to his shame at his own behavior. In a much later interview, he said that there was a part of him that always said, “Fuck you!” when he tried to get himself onto a more positive path, and that he was reluctant to force the issue, since he felt that part of him was important.
But as he allowed heroin to take over more of his life, it began to detrimentally influence his health. Getting busted in the mid 1980s influenced him to quit heroin, and a severe diabetic coma that left him extremely weak influenced him to get healthy again. That only lasted a few years, though. He slipped back into heroin use and other bad habits.
Who knows if it was necessary for him to experience the negative side of life as he did? It seems a shame, as he appeared to be such a positive voice, and also seemed to recognize his shortcomings, without allowing them to take over–until he did allow them.
His story is probably not so unusual, it only happened in circumstances few of us experience. It takes something to resist our less appetizing desires, something we see quite clearly today, when so many of us are activated primarily by fear. Fear may not be necessary, but it’s a barrier difficult to surmount.