Saturday, April 14, 2012

Erik Davis' "Visionary State": Book Review

I live a mile from a place mentioned here; California's filled with a "spiritual landscape" of cults, movements, religions, and eccentrics who continue to flock here as they have since mission days. The place near me was once a hilltop hunting lodge, a weekend getaway for those like Charlie Chaplin or Theda Bara who needed to have their flings and fun a dozen miles east of Hollywood. Since 1925, it's been a headquarters for the Self-Realization Fellowship, whose name indicates exactly the kind of new, eclectic appeal that many of the sites featured in this handsome coffee-table book glorify in.

Michael Rauner's photographs emphasize not the more humble facades (such as the SRF h.q.) as, say, that entity's Indian-inspired sister site in Pacific Palisades. Tellingly, this Lake Shrine began as a project by a set-designer at 20th Century Fox Studios. It's filled with statues and symbols of "universal religion," a fine example of California's "theme park of the gods" in Davis' phrase.

Naturally, Rauner and Davis--an experienced chronicler of esoterica and psychedelica-- gravitate towards the odd, the sensational, and the strange, as well as the duly historic monuments. All memorialize attempts by people to connect with a higher power. Davis offers a suitably open-minded, chronological, tour in careful prose and elegant design. He starts with the petroglyphs left by natives, and then surveys the mission period, the influx of Mormons, spiritualists, and drug fiends, who seem to delight in both seeking solitude and ruining it, so as to cash in, preach their own peculiar versions of truth, or invite multitudes to share in their grand designs.

For every John Muir or Robinson Jeffers or Gary Snyder, you get five pioneers taking a month to saw down a sequoia into a dance floor stump and a hollowed-out bowling alley. Still, as Davis notes, the love of nature endured even as the ravishing of California's landscape continued, and arrivals keep transforming the untouched with their own mystic, inspiring, or demented touch. Asian emigres and those following Eastern paths into California from the other direction appeared to handle integration of place and theme somewhat more sensitively--if often more colorfully and dramatically, in contradictory fashion. Whether East, West, or blended, there seems over and over the story of the friars repeated by Theosophists and gurus: a leader comes, a community forms, idealism fades, and the settlement or structure faces decay until, perhaps, a revival or restoration or at least a remodel.

An insane asylum turns into a City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance is not a Babylonian temple mock-up, but a Vons supermarket. A Costco-sized Sikh gurdwara replaces an apricot orchard in Silicon Valley. Pentecostal and Foursquare revivalists boomed out a century go, and still reverberate, if often in more modest temples than Sister Aimee's. Proto-hippies founded Christian megachurch franchises in the countercultural age, while charismatics remained conservative yet radical in their own marketing of an ancient message for denim-clad crowds.

Davis notes how at the end of an audiovisual presentation at a certain cemetery near me, Jesus looks up--"and the kingdom of heaven looks rather like Forest Lawn." Californians excel at casting Christ in their own image. A "power evangelist" founder of Vineyard Fellowship winds up dying of AIDS. Promotion of a reforming message entangles many visionaries in their own schemes and dreams.

A chapter on "California Consciousness" begins with Aldous Huxley's attempt to learn from a failed socialist utopia in the desert. While Davis does not mention Huxley's fevered novel Ape and Essence, this period showed how the Hollywood resident took his energy from the stars, via Edwin Hubble, as well as the studio stars. Famous or not, many sought a "shared core of religious experience," as Huston Smith would later frame the ideas of William James, whom Davis notes emphasized solitude as key to the quest. The city drew many back; Huxley left the desert due to allergies, but the appeal of the open spaces infuses many urban mystics.

Davis weaves the strands well of how countercultures connect. A lesbian poet comes West to the redwoods; beatniks, Alan Watts and the porn-industry's Mitchell Brothers join her, at least for a time; Druid Heights turns a commune; Watts popularizes the houseboats docked in upscale but somehow still as bohemian as ever Sausalito. A gay bathhouse at Big Sur transforms into hippie and New Age epicenter, until now Esalen is unaffordable for "a bath with Buddha" for all but the most monied "human potential" seekers. Such a interdependence on wealth and simplicity appears to me to characterize many of the shrines and retreats in these pages, but the alternative seems ruins, as failed manifestations of spiritual searches litter the landscape, graffiti-marred, burnt, abandoned, or razed. One omission, if a fitting epitaph to the long span of eccentricity, is Holy City in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Santa Cruz, an eerie example of hucksterism for white supremacy, now abandoned.

Not far away from this epicenter, Northern California keeps shaking itself up with new trends. Tassajara's Zen ranch meets Oracle's Larry Ellison with his $150-million Zen-inspired manse; a Nichiren Buddhist devotee's mescaline draws together Satanists with Manson's cult; Kenneth Anger wanders the Aquarian Age's haunts as witchcraft and darker forces are called upon by those less privileged who pass through Hollywood in the later '60s, some winding up near Death Valley. In the desert, others look heavenward. As Hani Kunzru's 2012 novel "Gods Without Men" dramatizes, the UFO and harmonic convergence fellowships have long attracted a few into the open spaces. Science fiction marries speculative tales and ethereal hallucinations into another Californian blend.

Defense industry engineers, CIA researchers into psychic technology, and astronomers play their parts. This, too, represents a dominant genre of such a landscape. The fantasies fueling Philip K. Dick's fiction and Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters combine with spiritual liberation. They have left less obvious markers on the architectural record than their eclectic forebears, but this shift into parapsychology via psychedelics drew in those who sometimes were from more conservative ideological or political orientations than the hippies and freaks. It persists, if more underground, on the Net as its latest manifestation of the expansion of consciousness crossed science fiction and drugs. It may leave few inspiring edifices to drive past, but its "eternal" persistence appears assured.

Gays, pagans, and witches remain features of this landscape. Fantasy and science fiction enlighten many to act out their guises and to try on new ones. Catholicism and more traditional faiths continue to build cathedrals in Los Angeles and Oakland as bold as ones by countercultures, and usually far more monolithic, given the endowment. D-I-Y makers keep hammering out towers of discards or tree-trunks of curiosity in less expensive tracts, in forests or vacant lots. Jewish Renewal blurs at times and places with Kabbalah, while Latino and black Californians sustain folk shrines. Yoga, Burning Man over the Nevada border, and tree-huggers all need no introduction for today's readers.

In closing, Davis invites us to consider the Golden State as "tragicomedy." The determination to celebrate natural beauty while bending it and shaping it to our whims, in the service of claims of bettering humanity and nature, appears perplexing, and perhaps unresolvable. Arcadian and apocalyptic, those of us who call this place our home become familiar with both vivid dreams. (Amazon US 4-9-12)

Author's website


Bo said...

Massively useful---thanks. I've just been writing about Ella Young, so this will be v good to have a look at!

Fionnchú said...

Let me know if you have any trouble tracking down this book over there and I can transcribe any portions. It's well-written and attentive to detail. Long live eccentricity!