The High and Beautiful Wave: A Conversation with Erik Davis
This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the iconic 1969 music festival that defined the counter-cultural “summer of love” movement of 1960’s America. But if Woodstock was the retrospective peak, then what about the descent?
In his book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson wrote: “We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave… So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
The wave rolled back but its turbulence carried through the 1970s, a strange and understudied decade that may well contain the seeds of the forces and cycles we’re reckoning with today. This is where author Erik Davis picks up in his book, “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies.”
BackStory spoke with Davis about high weirdness, the “great American centrifuge,” and the significance of zen monks hooked up to EEG machines.
BackStory: How do you define high weirdness?
Davis: I got the phrase from Reverend Ivan Stang who is in the Church of the Subgenius, one of those wild psychedelic parody religions that my book is in some ways about.
He wrote a book called “High Weirdness By Mail,” talking about how you could use the mails in the pre-internet age to get in touch with strange religions, weird cults, far–out New Age people and UFO believers. You could tap into this strange underground of American religion, American faith, American credulity.
And so really what I’m talking about is weirdness as a kind of culture, a kind of writing or fiction, a strange comic book or UFO narrative. That sense of weirdness can intensify through extraordinary experience. That’s what seems to unite the stories of Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick. I thought, “what kind of umbrella am I going to put this under?” and the phrase “high weirdness” came loud and clear.
A lot of what’s going on in the seventies opens up a weird realm between the religious or the mythological, on the one hand, and the pop cultural or the marginal or the counter-cultural, on the other. So for me high weirdness is a way of grappling with the extremes of experience in a way that parallels, but doesn’t exactly get woven into, religion or mysticism as we normally think about it.
BackStory: In the introduction you discuss the “great American centrifuge” as Bruce Shulman calls it. What causes are fed into this centrifuge in the early seventies, and what is it describing in the context of high weirdness?
Davis: The early 1970s is a fun topic historically because even though it wasn’t that long ago, it hasn’t inspired quite as much good insightful writing about it as you would think. I think in some ways the seventies is one of the most significant decades in American history, particularly in setting up a lot of historical dynamics that we’re suffering through these days.
One of those is Shulman’s idea of the centrifuge, of spiraling out away from the norm or the known or some kind of consensus. In the early seventies that happens in a number of different ways.
One aspect of the centrifuge is what happens to the counterculture after its dreams of radical transformation are clearly not going to come to fruition. So the early 1970s became a period of confusion, disillusionment, and existential turbulence for a lot of people. That feeling of spinning out, of not knowing who you are, not knowing where you or society is going, was really pervasive. It also helped fuel one of the most significant aspects of that period, especially from a religious perspective, which is this explosion of what we call cults or new religious movements, guru scenes, and new psychology.
That seeker culture became a dominant tone and continues to influence spirituality in the wellness industry today. You really see the beginnings of that at this time as people were trying to find new identities that would make sense.
At the same time, there’s another sociological shift that’s really significant. You have more and more people in Middle America who are participating in the destabilizing practices of drugs and psychedelics and permissive sexuality, and who were collectively navigating an intense and sometimes nihilistic popular culture.
You also have a real shift towards a multicultural society where there’s more room made for different kinds of people. And that’s done through policy. It’s done through popular culture. It’s done through the multiplication of consumer culture so that more and more people can craft their individual lifestyles, or tune into their identities.
We see on a political level in terms of the continuation of the civil rights movement to include gay rights, Native American rights, and the women’s movement. There is an opening up of who an American is and what it means to live an American life.
There’s a creative sense of widening of options, but that also becomes part of this centrifuge because suddenly a lot of people are starting to spin away from the norm. That basic dynamic of a multicultural society with a lot more liberalism and acceptance of different ways of being and living also creates this existential and political turbulence that undergirds, or helps explain the intensity and weirdness of the experiences that I’m focusing on.
BackStory: You write that if the medium was the message then for many seekers and psychonauts, consciousness became the ultimate medium. I’d like to talk about consciousness within the public discourse of the seventies and what it represents in the relationship between science and spirituality. Because it really seems to touch on both as a common ground for both of these worlds.
Davis: Both the idea of consciousness and the phenomenological thing itself became a place for a renewal of religion and spirituality, and what it means to be seeking a religious experience. But the field of consciousness studies also became a site to renegotiate the relationship between spirituality and science, especially psychology and experimental psychology.
The ultimate icon of this is an image which you could see in psychology books from the time of a Zen monk wired up to an EEG machine. The idea there is that spiritual practice is not just an ethical principle or transformation in one’s view of the world or the encounter with some nebulous spiritual reality. Religion was also essentially about changes and modifications in the experiential dimension of the self, which is consciousness.
What happens in the seventies is you have this idea of altered states of consciousness, which appears in the literature in the late 1960s and sets in motion a new form of psychological investigation that uses biofeedback devices, EEG machines, and an earlier understanding of neurology and what the neurosciences can tell us about human experience.
At the same time you have the widespread cultural idea that spiritual or psychological evolution involves having new kinds of experiences, and that those experiences themselves, those events in consciousness, would be the initiators or the transformers of the self in its journey towards wholeness or integration or God.
So there’s a really very interesting zone there. It you look at Psychology Today from the 1970s, there are articles about modifying the mind with vitamins alongside interviews with Carlos Castaneda about shamanism. And it’s a very popular magazine. This shows how the idea of “consciousness” provide an overlap, so that even the wildest kind of spiritual accounts perhaps tell us something about what the brain can do. And at the same time, even the interesting things that we can do with brains might actually help us evolve spiritually or psychologically.
That breakdown between secular science and new spiritual practices really helps characterize the seventies figure of the seeker. The seventies seeker is no longer strictly a religious seeker, but also a seeker of experiences, an experimenter in brain change, as Robert Anton Wilson liked to describe himself. That allows for us an even wider range of references in people’s cultural and spiritual lives, including certain forms and perspectives drawn from science. A lot of it doesn’t really hold water today, but it does suggest a change in attitude, a change in temperament that is not so hostile towards naturalism.
So there is a different sense about the role that science and skepticism can play in personal experience, a sense that these psychonauts that I’m talking about are navigating in a fairly sophisticated way. They’re navigating this new territory that emerges between traditional religious and mystical literature and ideas and new scientific possibilities of consciousness.
Erik Davis is a writer, scholar, journalist and public speaker. His latest book, “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies” is available now.