What do you do if you’ve undergone a profound, like-changing mystical revelation and you want to articulate it in a way that’s workable, comprehensible and will make people take you seriously and not simply dismiss you as a headcase? Unless you already have an appropriate platform in place, it’s not an easy one. Within evangelical churches, most everybody is a visionary and their visions have a uniformity of focus and topic. Outside of such accepted institutionalised frameworks, highly vocal ‘visionaries’, perhaps infected with manic zeal — that certainty that the whole outside world must be automatically tuned into your special wavelength — and publicly acting out accordingly, might well find themselves being dealt with under the Mental Health Act. Labelling religious zealots as ‘lunatics’ has proved doubly convenient for societies throughout the ages, since the visions can be written off as ravings and the subjects can, if needs be, contained through incarceration, medication or both. And if the visions happen to be drug induced, then this is an even greater reason for their rejection by the world at large.
In the autumn of 1979 I underwent a three-week epiphany, an elevation into a higher, cosmically connected visionary space as a result of two medium-dose psilocybin mushroom trips taken close together. I imposed a Zen Buddhist, neoshamanistic context on the experience, as they were my preoccupations at the time. So in those terms I had achieved satori, become enlightened, attained a foothold in Ultimate Reality, which was the same as ordinary reality since the Cosmos had become an undifferentiated whole. In a more conventionally religious context, I could be said to have ‘found God’. Looking at the state from a psychological perspective, it was anything but ‘psychotic’, in fact quite the opposite, being super-connected, high functioning, exuberant, ecstatic. In this it had something in common with mania and hypomania, though it never tipped into the delusion, irrationality and destructive behaviour that often accompany true bipolar disorder. Though I was extraordinarily, superlatively high — ‘on top of the world’ — I hadn’t relinquished the frame of my ordinary life and in myself I felt basically healthy.
As a student of Zen, I knew full well that any description of an ineffable, transcendental experience could only ever be that — a description, not the experience itself: the Tao that can be spoken of is not the constant Tao. Yet it is human nature to communicate, to share, and in the case of the ineffable, to find new and better means by which something of that flavour of ineffability might rub off. At the time I was twenty-four and had just completed four years at art college, so when it came to choosing a suitable vehicle, I naturally turned to art, more specifically literary art, more specifically still metafiction — the use of self-referentiality to expand the impact of a text, with the further irony that the ‘fiction’ would be replaced by actuality, unembellished real-life events. This inspiration for ‘The Novel’ came to me early on in the second mushroom trip: it would celebrate my actions as an enlightened being, and at the same time would tell of the steps I’d taken to reach this exalted state:
And because I was aware that everything I did would be recorded, I would strive to make it as interesting and dynamic and ‘novelistic’ as possible! In fact, as an enlightened being, everything I did would be filled with excellence — it didn’t matter what I did! Everything in the butcher’s shop is the best!
Shortly after that moment, my inspiration expanded to encompass ‘The Cult of the Novel’:
I envisaged a body of people hearing about my developing Novel, tuning into the message of my enlightenment and following my example, perhaps taking mushrooms and commencing novels of their own — reality novels, about what they were doing, not fabricated nonsense. They in turn would pass on the message to others and the whole thing would propagate far and wide, eventually spreading all over the world in the manner of a chain letter or a pyramid selling scheme. Disciples of the Cult of the Novel would spring up everywhere, all of them writing and reaching enlightenment as a result.
It seemed as though I had all the answers and the momentum of my newfound world-conquering mission didn’t diminish after the mushroom effects had worn off. I saw myself as a ‘mad artist’, an alchemist in the field of postmodern literary reification, and I appreciated the fact that so-called ‘madness’ within the field of art carries a certain legitimacy. Artists have more latitude here, and being eccentric, just a little mad, goes with the territory — especially if accompanied by a degree of showmanship, such as in the case of everyone’s favourite erect-moustached surrealist Salvador Dali. A Mad Artist can have his say and be listened to, perhaps, in something like the manner of the shaman, and if a cult of self-sustaining novel-life could come out of it, encouraging other to share in the vision, then all well and good
So, for the next few weeks I involved my friends in my wild overarching ideas for potential real-life plots and narrative continuums, and then I gradually came back down to earth with a soft landing and got on with the rest of my life. The Novel was never completed; in fact it never got beyond the stage of being a collection of fragments. But then in many ways it wasn’t a novel to be written, but one to be lived. Thirty years later I returned to those years in my memoir The Mad Artist: Psychonautic Adventures in the 1970s, which adds a further meta-layer to it all — the non-fiction overview of the ‘fictionless fiction’ or ‘reality novel’, call it what you will. Constantly the book makes great play on the permeability of the membrane between real life and fictionalised or novelised real life — the Kerouacian roman à clef — and by extension the whole idea of myth and how it grows through progressive mutation and embellishment into something evidently no longer ‘real life’.
Now, when I look back at those events, what still stands up for me is the purity of the idea of ‘living a novel’, embodying that special bemushroomed perspective where life is a charmed adventure and everything is imbued with prismatic significance, together with the happy notion that this view can be passed on, extrapolated into The Cult of the Novel, wherein others can also experience life as a novel — epic, resonant, meaningful and divinely plotted in a way that transcends the strictures of the everyday, whilst being part of the everyday: the state of being, in the words of D. T. Suzuki, about two inches off the ground.
Previously published on Musings of the Mad Artist.