I have decided to lay off the Beckett. I had such a monstrous crisis of disassociation when I read the last few pages of "Murphy" that I think continuing to investigate that particular mindspace is no longer productive at this present time. Perhaps it will be at some point in the future. Perhaps that was just the moment I needed to read Beckett, and that moment has passed.
But Beckett really just did me in. As I read the last 13 pages of "Murphy", I felt like I'd taken some kind of drug precisely attuned to whatever psychic malady or derangement that was festering within me. But the drug was not a cure, it was an agonist, something that potentiated the disease and brought it forth. Like a poultice on a boil, perhaps, to expand the metaphor.
At the end of the book, the titular Murphy, flat with anomie and having just played his last nonsensical chess game against an inmate in the Psychiatric Hospital (where Murphy is a male nurse) ensconces himself in his garrett. The gas, rigged up by his frenemy Ticklepenny, comes on, and he burns to death in a conflagration. There is some incomprehensible conversation about this event among his compatriots, all of which I didn't quite understand. I don't suppose I was meant to. At the end of all of this the coroner sends him to be cremated (which, now I think about it, if he died in a gas fire what was there left to cremate?) and his ashes are taken away by one of the book's functionaries, an alcoholic man-of-all-work who ends up getting in a bar fight and throwing the ashes at someone. The ashes end up on the bar-room floor and are later swept away with the rest of the night's detritus.
But the book doesn't end with Murphy. It ends with Celia, his prostitute-lover, who, I suppose, is really the main character of the book. Or at least the most relatable. Murphy is a cipher, a symbol, a force. Celia is the object the force (or rather, no-force, the force of absence) acts upon and responds to. The book ends with her, and her grandfather, and the horrific tragedy of their both still being alive. Not the tragedy of their specific lives or circumstances (though those are tragic enough, she a prostitute, he an aging invalid in a chair whose only pleasure is flying kites) but the tragedy of their living at all. Both outcomes (Murphy's immolation, Celia's existence) are equally drab and meaningless.
All of this is to say that I guess I have learned that one of the reasons Beckett is accounted a great writer is that he can literally make you feel insane. And when you are already somewhat dubious of your own sanity, he is perhaps not the ideal tonic. Rather like taking laxatives when you already have diarrhea.
So I have switched to Burroughs--which, perhaps, is equally ill-advised. But there is a solidity to Burroughs which I appreciate, and resonate with. He can write about insanity, and the experience of madness, in the most detached and matter-of-fact way. It almost makes you feel comfortable, like a couple of old war veterans swapping stories.
And, furthermore, reading Burroughs is leading me back to the other narco-philosopho-mystics of his era. Ginsberg. And, at the moment, Robert Anton Wilson.
I've always appreciated Robert Anton Wilson but I don't think I've ever been ready for him. He's always been a bit too far out there for me. But today at the library I picked up "Prometheus Rising" (dedicated to Timothy Leary and William Burroughs, neatly) and I am already finding it extremely pertinent to my current phase of karmic inculcation.
It is a deeply magickal book. From the first page there are resonances with the writings of Phil Hine and Peter J. Carroll, both seminal authors on the subject of Chaos Magick. None of this should surprise me, of course; Wilson's "Discordianism", described in the Illuminatus Trilogy (which I really must reread, now that I am possibly old enough to understand it) was central to (or at least illustrative of) many of Chaos Magick's central tenets.
In Prometheus Rising, Wilson proposes "exercizes" [sic] at the end of each chapter. After reading the first chapter I felt it important to make an effort to at least try the "exercizes" proposed (though, to be fair, the ones proposed at the end of chapter one would take months, if not years, to complete fully, and my library loan of the book won't last that long, so pace Frater Wilson, I may have to cut some corners.)
Anyway, one of the exercizes at the end of Chapter One was to deeply visualize finding a quarter on the sidewalk, then to go for a walk and look for a quarter and see how long it took you to find one. Now, this exercise (I'm not going to bother with Wilson's "z" going forward, I'm just going to assume it's one of his goofy Merry Pranksterish affectations, and not actually meaningful, though I reserve the right to be disproven in that) seemed right up my alley, as I am always scanning for change on the sidewalk. It is part of my ritual practice. When I find a coin on the sidewalk I bring it back to my Kali shrine and put it in a jar as an offering.
I say my Kali shrine because I have many shrines. I have a crow shrine, and a St. Expidite shrine, and many other little shrines just scattered around. I have to make a circuit of them when I light candles, thanking the deities and so forth. I don't know why I give money to the Kali shrine (it's not even really a shrine to Kali, that's just the picture that seemed to go there best.) All my shrines are random artistic accumulations of trash and junk and shiny objects. There was a jar beneath the Kali picture, and the jar was good for holding coins, so it became part of the Kali shrine.
Anyway, I digress. The point is, finding coins has become something I'm good at because I've trained myself to be good at it, because I have a reason to be good at it. Thus, I thought, Wilson's initial exercise would be a doddle. I was sure I could find a quarter with just a brief walk. And I needed a walk (having been very sedentary recently) so I started off.
I looked and looked. My knowledge of practice made me aware that it was very likely I wouldn't find anything, simply because I was looking for it. Lust of result thwarts achievement of result. That's a standard understanding in all magickal practice. But I thought, "what will I find when I am looking for something I'm sure I won't find?"
First, I found some free irises. Someone had been cleaning out their iris bed, apparently, and there were many to be had. I stopped for a while and pondered them. I do like irises. But I didn't know where I would put them. And I didn't want to carry them. So I noted them and passed on.
I decided to loop back through the forest behind my old elementary school. I have been thinking about guerilla-sowing some woodloving mushroom spawn in the copious barkpiles that strew the paths, and I thought I'd scope it out. As I walked down the hill I was aware of just how good my body felt. My feet felt good and strong, my shoes fit well. I thought, this is nice.
The paths in the woods behind my old school wind down and through and in a steep ravine, carved out by a small creek. The light sparkled on the creek, and there were drifts of cottony fluff everywhere. I can't say it felt magickal (that's too trite) but it did feel meaningful.
Then, I found what I was looking for.
The fascinating thing is I didn't know I had been looking for it, and I didn't realize it was what I had been looking for until later, when I was walking home, shaking and bruised and scratched and scared.
I know, this sounds very dramatic. Don't worry, it isn't really. Only kind of. But it was scary.
As I said, this is a ravine, with a creek, crossed and intersected by footbridges and stone crossings. At one point in the path there was a thick log crossing a high place in the ravine. It was definitely wide enough to cross, and I thought I would cross it. But it was very high and I didn't know if I could. But the tree was wide.
Conundrum! When you know you can do something, but you don't know if you should. Or why you should even try.
For whatever reason, I thought I would try. I got halfway out and my courage failed me. But by then I was 15 feet above the ground and I realized suddenly that turning around would probably completely unbalance me and I would fall.
I drew a breath, turned carefully (keeping low in case I did need to fall) and hurried back to "shore". By the time I got to safety I was moving too quickly, and, already unbalanced, I fell down the hill on the far side.
(I'm not describing this very well. I apologize. But it is still rather raw in my memory, like the raw scrapes on my palm and knees.)
I fell hard and slid down, dust rising around me. I felt intense panic. Not for what had happened but what could have happened. Why on earth would I have even thought of doing something so silly? What was wrong with me?
I dusted myself off and started to walk, trembling. I walked quickly, feeling myself out. I had twisted my ankle just a bit, and had a few scrapes. I was fine. But I was shaking uncontrollably. I could have broken something. I could have killed myself. What the hell am I even doing? What the hell am I even out here looking for?
As I walked I breathed calming breaths, told myself I was all right. But I couldn't convince myself of this. I wasn't physically harmed. But was I "all right"? I couldn't convince myself I was. It felt both monstrously portentous and ludicrously banal at the same time. It was stupidity, danger, threat, death. But also, it was the ultimate avoidance of those things. The acceptance of a small injury in exchange for being spared a larger one.
I limped home, walking off my twisted ankle, acutely aware of how different I felt now to when I had felt strong and good walking into the forest. This is not meant to be a pathetic sentence (though I see how it can be read that way.) The lesson here is not "oh, isn't life terrible, how you can be feeling great one minute and limping the next!" ... No, that is not the lesson here. The lesson here is, one minute you may notice something that is connected to something that happens next. And then, you must carefully examine what that connection really is, not what you think it is, not what narrative convention has taught us to expect it to be. Narrative convention teaches us that "character feels good -> character takes a risk and falls -> character is hurt and feels regret = lesson about taking risks = conclusion that risk should not be taken." But there are many other alternative narrative constructions that could be considered. One could as easily write this story as a celebration of risk, or a celebration of the mitigating benefits of caution, or any one of a million ways.
Anyway, I think what I was looking for, I found. I don't quite know what that is, I am still thinking about it. It wasn't a quarter, that's for sure.
I guess that's the point of this story, to the extent that there is a point to anything. You will always find what you are looking for. The catch is, you will not know what you are looking for until you find it. And when you find it, you might not even know what it is.