Books Consciousness Culture

Words Become You: Initiatic Storytelling and Literary Psychedelia

Art is initiation. Words are spell. Reading is becoming.

I wanted to write this because I am compelled to. Because the words have become me and I feel as a flower’s pollen. A spore. Words are like this. Stories, even more so: they expand and contract with the breath of myth. Myth enlivens you, becomes your surround. Some stories are nothing short of textual psychedelia — symbiotic lifeforms made of letters that allow you to encounter the world differently, or perhaps open up entirely new worlds in your perception.

Words themselves become ingestible: literary adaptogens, hermeneutical psychoactive substances which produce altered states and invoke alterations of consciousness in the reader.

Alejandro Jodoroworsky, in Jodoworsky’s Dune, passionately described how he had read Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune, and wanted to adapt the story into a cinematic LSD. An entheogenic encounter rendered on the big screen.

Years ago, my friend and colleague Benton Rooks coined a term, “entheogenic storytelling,” which is essentially this same idea. Whether on the big screen, through comic books, novels, or even video games, storytelling can become a form of initiation into the mysteries. Words can point the way to gnosis, stories stir the soul and point the way to archetypal drama. This is why certain occult writings were kept secret — the power they held were intended for serious students, only.

But in today’s media ecology, where consumer “junk” is all too abundant and click bait proliferates our social landscape, initiatic storytelling is a balm and a remedy. For those media producers and creators who understand their role as aesthetic magicians of popular culture, art can restore its initiatic function as a form of trance disruption and ecstatic arrest — art can break open the head, the heart, and the psyche to the impossible within ourselves and the world, restoring reality to the weird, the liminal, and the sublime. Art returns to us our faculties of spiritual perception. We need art like this now more than ever.

I write this to impart a sense of gravity and importance to the way in which we weave our words, and while I’d like to share examples of authors who I feel achieve this act of literary psychedelia — as a science fiction buff, of course — this idea of art as a portal to the sublime is not exclusive to the fiction. The act of putting words down, stringing them together in a poem, in non-fiction, an essay, in even the thread-bare event of a Tweet, can fit this definition of literature-as-psychoactive. Literature is magic. This is the code we run on, but unlike computer code, the strings of words and letters and numbers changes, like when you stare at them too long in a dream.

I suppose I should mention a few examples to you now, and the most obvious, on the tip of the tongue, is Philip K. Dick. Not long ago I wrote an article on his biography and the thematics of his work, but one doesn’t need to know that. They simply need to pick up UBIK, or The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, to get a taste of what I mean about literary initiation. Like Kafka, Dick has his own literary descriptor: we can say something is Phildickean. Meaning a story is mind-bending, reality dissolving, identity flipping. Dick, like no other writer, can infect the mind of the reader so as to have some form of reality distortion effect in their real lives. But the deconstruction of reality — the flimsy cardboard cutout of the suburbs or the dream like quality of previously substantiated worlds — gives way to deeper, theological, and mystical inquiries for Dick that leave the reader spinning off into two-parts reality vertigo, one part sublime. You may find yourself a quasi-gnostic theologian by the end of a book like VALIS.

There are many more, perhaps countless examples in the literary pharmacopeia, and I use that word in a playful but truthful way: our words are oddly linked to electronic mineralisms today but we are still attached to their arborescent origins. Paper mulch and ancient papyrus scripts denote their organic origin. Words grown from minds in ethnobotanitical gardens. We shouldn’t forget we have learned our language from nature.

As historian William Irwin Thompson describes our current digital landscape, we have retrieved the medieval illuminated manuscript for our iPads and laptop screens, we see through electronic stained glass.

Ursula K. LeGuin is another author who I must mention here: if you must read one text then read The Lathe of Heaven. If there was ever a book that dissolves the daylight mind into the twilight shiftings of dream, it is that one. But, any of her books are like portal into other realities, languages, customs and vivid myths. Inhale The Left Hand of Darkness into your mind, breath out with in fiery anarchism The Dispossessed, which opens a revolution in their soul.

We can go further and recommend Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy, specifically Annihilation, the book recently adapted into Alex Garland’s film. Borne too, invites the fantastical. Both dissolve the boundaries between self and nature and reveal the non-human dimensions hidden within us. You see: we are secretly non-human. A very big part of us, at least. We can’t really claim to know ourselves because we are liminal, too. Big mysteries. Infinite things. Strange things. If we cannot know the singularity that is a starfish in a tidal pool, how could we possible assume to know our humanity? These questions, these blurrings of the real and unreal, natural and unnatural, human and non-human, are the initiatic mysteries of the Anthropocene; right in time for a century of climate change.

Dune was mentioned in the beginning, and there’s a reason Jodoworsky was moved to adapt the film into a cinematic psychedelic, or, like a Christian iconographer, paint the images so that they became portals of sacramental contact with the divine. Frank Herbert’s Dune, especially the first novel, drips with archetypes and myth and Jungian mysticism. The psychedelic spice of Arrakis transmutes and mutates the human into the impossible. Paul Atreides, “Muad’Dib,” opens the fourth dimension of time. He becomes like Sri Aurobindo’s gnostic being — his mind breaking out beyond reason into the supramental. The reader might stumble upon such a visionary mind themselves in the turning of the pages of the book.

The lists can go on. These have been recommended to me as writers in a similar vein, but I have added a few of my own, here, too: Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Ligotti (an inspiration on VanderMeer), Doris Lessing, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, Sri Aurobindo (The Life Divine or Synthesis of Yoga will take you up), Mirra Alfassa, Teilhard de Chardin (Hymn of the Universe). Gloria Anzaldua (Light in the Dark), Lao Tzu, The Corpus Hermeticum. And let’s not forget the postmodern gnosis possible through comic books and other media, such as Jodoworsky’s The Incal, Grant Morrison’s hypersigil trilogy starting with The Invisibles, or event Alan Moore’s Promethea.

I have circled the textual medium – with some exceptions noted above — but you may add your own names to this list and offer them as sacramental letters; stories transubstantiated into entheogenic encounters. Need I remind the reader that words matter, they become the Earth, the bread, the body? That this form of initiatic reading, this literary pharmacopia, in an age of attention diaspora in the digital deluge, is a radical act of transformational attention?

Words are like a spore that we may accidentally breathe in one day and end up becoming something strange and vast and wondrous tomorrow. I think we are like this, naturally, and will become many things that we can see and many things that are invisible. Words render that truth partially visible to us, like a song we swear we’ve heard somewhere. Perhaps before we were born.

We need the initiatic path of words now to counteract the nihilism of our age and do what humans have always done: spell ourselves into the sublime tomorrow — tomorrow even in this age of climate change and complete dissolution and transformation — and thrive there.

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