Last year Bill Booker and I encountered one another on the basis that we’d both written very similar books about our respective psychedelic experiences in the 1970s. As we compared notes, we found that the incidences of crossover between our two tales were numerous and uncannny in their synchronicity. I reviewed Bill’s book Trippers here, and now he’s returned the gesture, producing an incisive analysis that really gets beneath the surface and elucidates many of the typically ’70s storylines. Thankyou Bill, and long live the Semi Secret Fellowship of Freaks—both inside and outside the pages of literature.
If, like me, you like to make reading a book a journey of discovery, you won’t want a detailed map of the terrain so I’ll just give you an idea of the pharmacy to come and a few appetising vignettes and indications.
Rather than painting the sweep of its four and a bit years in broad strokes, Roger Keen paints this never-leave-a-turn-unstoned saga in intricate detail. He describes what is going on in his life alongside his trains of thought as he attempts to understand his LSD, cannabis, opium, cocaine and psilocybin experiences, often comparing them with other psychonauts’ travellers’ tales. If you’re interested in ‘man + psychedelics (entheogens) = ?’ then you should read this.
Right at the beginning Roger tells us his first acid trip was a much anticipated milestone in his life. The Mad Artist opens on ‘a dull Sunday afternoon in December 1975’ when, after a phone call from his best friend, Henry, arranging to meet up for their first acid trip, Roger already begins to feel he ‘was now a stranger in [his] own front room.’
This trip was a mixture of wonder, awe and paranoia – and interestingly, his acid visions often inspired his art college projects: ‘Suddenly the trip jumped in intensity… […] The whole wood around me was no longer composed of trees, branches and leaves, but one composed of …letters. Letters of the alphabet.’ (p26) Later, Roger creates art out of these images. Like an explosion in a type foundry, alphabetti spaghetti recurs in other psychedelic episodes throughout the book.
At times The Mad Artist reads like a novel, at others it is very much a memoir and at yet other times it is a thoroughly absorbing blend of the two. At its best it brings Roger’s experiences vividly to life. Roger constantly attempts to understand his experiences and the psychological, philosophical and emotional concepts arising therefrom. At times he is terrified, either by the sheer power of the psychoactive substances he’s taken or from the resulting visions and concepts that are evoked. He always takes pains to provide a truthful, accurate and detailed account… Read the full review
It’s always heartening to discover another writer who, perhaps by taking a very different path, has nonetheless arrived at a very similar creative place to oneself. This happened when I saw David Shields being interviewed on a BBC arts programme about his book Reality Hunger and the broader implications of the concept. He talked about the impoverishment of traditional fictional techniques and how today’s writers are incorporating more and more ‘reality’—that is, what really happened as opposed to what they made up—into their work. There is, he reckoned, a larger ‘reality hunger’ out there, manifesting in other media, such as reality television and the less adorned, more immediate communication afforded by the internet. Listening to Shields, I thought: that could be me talking, and I was amused by the discussion session following the film insert, where several panel members disagreed with him.
So I approached the book Reality Hunger with considerable excitement, while at the same time anticipating some mild disappointment due to my high expectations. But I wasn’t at all disappointed: the book proved to be everything I had hoped it would. It’s subtitled ‘a manifesto’, and it takes the form of numbered sections of varying lengths, which each have an aphoristic or epigrammatic quality. Many of the shorter ones are actual quotes from a wide range of writers and other artists, which Shields, acting like a DJ or MC, ‘samples’ and incorporates into the overall ‘mashup’. It is very effective and underscores the book’s textual points in a textural way, much like a plastic work of art. And as for the accusation of plagiarism, he answers that in the form of a quote from Picasso: art is theft. Who can argue?
As a drug memoirist, I had a special interest because I knew from the interview that this is an area Shields touches upon, and to my mind drug writing is an important component in the spectrum of this push toward ‘reality’. Indeed he mentions the Vedas—citing them as the earliest examples of written storytelling—and also De Quincey, Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson before getting stuck into James Frey and his infamous tome A Million Little Pieces. Here is one of the finest examples of an ideological clash between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ in a contemporary book. Telling the story of a hopeless, burnt-out, twenty-three-year-old drug addict, who mends himself in a rehab centre, Frey firstly wrote the book as a novel, and when he had no success at marketing it, he rebranded it as memoir, after which it was outstandingly successful, selling in the millions.
Around three years after its first publication, details emerged of falsifications within the book, primarily that Frey had greatly exaggerated his criminal past, creating jail time that didn’t actually exist. This put his publisher in an embarrassing position, regarding the definition of ‘non-fiction’ and opened up a debate on the latitude of factual reportage within memoirs. It reached a climax when Frey and his publisher appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show and the result was a public crucifixion for the heresy of daring to place lies into a so-called work of fact. Afterwards Frey was dropped by his agent, and his publishers made him insert an apology into future editions. Past readers were even offered a refund, such was the furore the incident created.
As reported in Reality Hunger: ‘Oprah has created around herself a “cult of confession” that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleaning sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah herself on behalf of all humanity… I’m disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn’t a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be.’
Oh, that rings so many bells. Having written about my twenty- to twenty-four-year-old self in The Mad Artist, I discovered that however much you try to stick to the truth or the facts, you cannot help but turn yourself and others into ‘characters’, and characters start to assume a destiny of their own on the page. For me the writing of a ‘novelistic memoir’ was both an act of serving up reality and one of full literary performance at the same time. Read more…
I first got into Castaneda in the mid-’70s, when Tales of Power was his latest and he was a huge inspirational figure to the psychedelic movement, but at the same time was coming under attack on the grounds that his anthropological fieldwork was a tissue of fiction. What my friends and I particularly liked about the books was that we could act out their various elements, adapting them to suit our own lives. So we would go out to various ‘power spots’, partake of ‘the little smoke’ and then, having entered the correct frame of mind, ‘stop the world’. In more general terms, we also attempted ‘living like a warrior’, following ‘a path with heart’, practising ‘the gait of power’—which incredibly did work!—and we also developed Castanedaesque commentary to accompany our favourite games. Therefore to attain a maximum score was to achieve a feat of ‘knowledge’, whereas to score poorly was considered to be ‘indulging’ and succumbing to the various enemies of a ‘man of knowledge’.
When we read Richard de Mille’s Castaneda’s Journey, which attempts to tear Castaneda apart sentence by sentence, my friends and I disagreed. One friend, who had read widely on anthropology and shamanism, considered that Castaneda no longer had any credibility amongst his peer group members, such as R. Gordon Wasson, Peter Furst and Michael Harner, and ought to be honest and start calling himself a novelist. I then argued that the tenets of his philosophy still held up on a mythological level regardless of whether they had factual or fictional sources.
I wondered whether de Mille’s expose would damage Castaneda’s popularity in the long run, and shortly the ’80s came along and there was a radical zeitgeist shift, with Reaganism taking hold in the U.S. and Thatcherism in the U.K. The acquisitive cult of the yuppie was born, and there was no longer any place for teachings such as don Juan’s. But much more recently, when I looked into Castaneda again, I was struck by how venerated he is by new generations of fans. The ratings for his books on Amazon are impressively high and the number of websites and blogs dedicated to him is huge.
Seemingly today’s psychonauts are not interested in de Mille’s dogmatic wrestling with the issues of fact versus fiction, and instead, like the acid and mushroom trippers of the ’60s and ’70s, see Castaneda’s philosophy as a series of charts by which they can help map their own experiences. Back in the ’70s I saw that the strength of the books rested on their ‘how to’ elements, like recipe or fitness books, and that Castaneda had conferred the status of vicarious sorcerer’s apprentices upon his readership. Now it seems axiomatic that such a process would continue through time. As history teaches us again and again: myth is more powerful than fact.
First appeared on Evolver