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Erik Davis
Erik Davis Speaks...
Interview with Erik Davis
by Jon Hanna
Winter 2006
The Entheogen Review
Citation:   Hanna J. "Erik Davis Speaks...". The Entheogen Review. Winter 2006.
Erik Davis was once described by astrology guru Rob Brezsny as "the next Terence McKenna." While some author-lecturers in the psychedelic community might actively vie for that title, when I mentioned it to Erik, he just laughed. It is unquestionably true that, on one fundamental level, Erik is nothing at all like Terence. You won't find him pimping Chicken Little theories about the world ending in 2012, he shies away from self-promotion, and he clearly has no interest in acting as the leader of a ragtag band of drug enthusiasts looking for guidance.

On the other hand, there is a level on which Brezsny's comparison fits like a glove. Erik finds "the oddball" engaging--worthy of study and commentary. As a lecturer, he is well-informed on a myriad of arcane topics, has a keen grasp of history and pop culture, and is never at a loss for words. He speaks extemporaneously, without needing to consult notes, employing a well-honed wit and sharp insight. He has worked as a contributing writer for WIRED, and has written prolifically on the topics of art, music, technoculture, and contemporary spirituality. His articles have appeared in countless magazines and anthologies, and his books include Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, and Led Zeppelin IV. Erik and I recently spoke about his current offering, the sumptuous hardcover coffee-table book The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape, featuring the photography of Michael Rauner. Ranging from televangelism to Neopaganism, UFO cults to Zen bootcamps, The Visionary State weaves together the threads of the Golden State's rich and eccentric spiritual history into a strange and vivid tapestry Erik calls "California Consciousness."

_____

Hanna
What inspired you to look at California spirituality through the eyes of its geography and architecture? Was it a situation where you frequently traveled around the state, and after going to a lot of interesting places, you decided to present those in the format of a book?
Davis
No, not at all. After 9/11, for a couple of years, I was pretty freaked out. I like to think I have a decent zeitgeist radar, that I can tap into the spirit of the times. I can see the way in which a certain detail illuminates a whole world view. So this was not a particularly fun time to be tuned into the global mind-frame. And part of what I went through during that time was feeling extremely rootless, and buffeted around by all sorts of factors in my life. I really wanted to have a sense of rootedness--knowing where I was, knowing my identity, knowing what my goals were. At this same period of time, I had a friend who was going through some big changes in his life, and he got back into Judaism. Although he was raised a Jew, he had not been a practicing Jew; so he started going to temple. Now, it was a very Bay Area hipster affair, with a lesbian rabbi, and they did a lot of dancing and kaballah meditation. But it was still Judaism. And I was really envious. I didn't have any annoying religion that I could turn back to as some way of understanding where I came from!
Hanna
You were envious that you didn't have some annoying religion?
Davis
My tradition is California's rootless, restless, experimental, countercultural, proto-New Age; whatever you want to call it, that's what I get. I mean it's like something you have to wrestle with. It's like a family: however you want it, your parents are your parents. And they're still around, and they're probably annoying sometimes, but they also provide a sense of continuity; where did they come from, what is their story, what's their parents' story? This all gives us a sense of identity and helps us organize who we are, even if it can be kind of annoying.
Hanna
This is something that Americans in general may struggle with, since we don't have a long lineage behind us--we're a relatively young country. Which could also be why there is so much spiritual experimentation in the United States.
Davis
Exactly. I think that is very true. And it is particularly true of the west, of California, even more so than the east coast. I think that those things are related, and they're why there are so many wacky experiences out here. And so I was thinking about my own upbringing, which involved very, very little Christianity. I grew up in southern California in the 1970s. My mom knew people who were Moonies. It was a weird time. And finally it hit me that, for better or worse, that is my tradition. My tradition is California's rootless, restless, experimental, countercultural, proto-New Age; whatever you want to call it, that's what I get. It's not going to be any more than that.

Of course, nobody thinks about that as a "tradition," the way that they talk about Judaism or Christianity or whatever. And this caused me to ask, "Well, where did all this come from? Let's find out where it started. Who are the people who carried the tradition? Who are the ancestors? Who are the great names? And what are its key points?" I was driven by the intuition that there was something shared about all of these different kooky sects, psychedelics, New Age philosophies, the Grateful Dead... there was something bringing it all together--something about California. So that was what got me going. It was a personal quest, as well as an intellectual one, to understand the history, the major players, and to come up with a sense of how it all fit together.

I started writing what was going to be a conventional history book, with maybe a few black and white photographs, 300 pages, etc. But it wasn't working out too well. I couldn't quite fit it all together. I was trying to organize it, to get the big picture, and to sell the book to people in New York, and it just wasn't really happening.

As I was doing the research, I started to visit the places that I was writing about. I'd be reading about the first Hindu temple in San Francisco, the old Vedanta temple on Webster and Filbert; even though I live in San Francisco and had driven by it, I had never been to check it out. So I went to check it out. And I discovered that there was something that these places were communicating to me that wasn't just a history or a story--there was some kind of atmosphere, or vibe, or even a sort of teaching. The thing about sacred architecture is that it embodies ideas and cosmologies and religious principles in the actual building. So when you visit, and put your body in the space, checking out the details of how it is arranged, you learn something visceral about the religion. So I started to do this with all of the places.

It provided a reason to travel around California, which I hadn't done much. I'm kind of an urban dweller, I don't go out cruising all over the country that often. I'm a traveler, and I like to travel, but I hadn't really seen very much of California. So it gave me a great excuse to do that. I really fell in love with these places. They intrigued me. There's something about the architecture, and a lot of them are quite beautiful, and some of them are very strange, and no one had really ever dealt with it. It seemed like typical California stuff, and even though there is so much attention given to California culture and it has been so important--especially in the 20th century--to the United States and the world, nobody had really ever looked at all of this weird spirituality as an aspect of this bigger cultural force. So it all kind of came together.

There was this one specific night where I realized, "I know how I will do it. I'll present it as a photography book, where there are pictures of all of the places, and then I'll tell the story about the places shown in the photographs, and that's how the big story will be conveyed." I wouldn't attempt to make it into a single narrative, but instead it would document my traveling around the state, looking at these places and finding out the stories of what happened there. So that was how the book developed. I had some real questions regarding the history and origins of the counterculture in California, and why stuff happened here, and how long it had been happening, and where did it start. But the book was also really driven by my personal quest to understand the place that made me. I'm a fifth-generation Californian, I absorbed a lot of this stuff in my youth, I went to Zen places, and chanted Hari Krishna. In seventh grade my English teacher was some weird kind of white light occult guy who read my aura. And a former EST guide taught a class in my public high school called Epistemics. I had just picked up all of this weird shit about California. So working on the book was a way for me to start to understand where I came from, as an attempt to create roots in a very rootless place.
Hanna
I grew up in California, too. And in reading your book, I realized how little I know about California's history. This struck me as a great failing of the public education system. I had maybe one class, or only half of a year in one class, that dealt with state history. I got The Gold Rush and some basic stuff, but not much else. And here you've put together this immense, dense, thick volume of history that doesn't even deal with the primary story--it's the story of spiritual niches, and it features very little that one might come across in any regular history book. To think that this much exists when focusing on a fairly narrow topic of California's culture, one has to be blown away by how many other things must exist in California's history that we have never been made aware of.
Davis
I know what you mean. I was in the same boat. While I've always enjoyed reading history casually, I had never really looked at a single place over a 200 year period. And there was no way to understand my story without understanding all of these other things about California, and politics, and technology, and race relations. So all of this stuff suddenly became part of a story, which was kind of overwhelming. But it wasn't so huge that I couldn't get some sort of a handle on it. There are books that we are blessed in California to have; there's this series of books by the former state librarian--a guy named Kevin Starr--who has an encyclopedic ability to coalesce huge amounts of data. He's written six or seven of these fat books that start in the middle of the 19th century and peter out around the end of the 1940s. These books are great. Starr is kind of a conservative guy, so he doesn't really understand the countercultural stuff, but otherwise his books helped me put state history into context. It is such a fascinating story. California is a microcosm of the modern world, so all of this spiritual stuff has a larger resonance--it's not just about the fact that a buncha wackos made their way out to the west coast. There's an experimental, exploratory edge to the culture here, that is trying to deal with--consciously or not--larger problems of the modern soul and society. California offers a playground with which to experiment, but the things that are being experimented with reverberate outward.
Hanna
The Visionary State can be enjoyed in two different ways. The first way is as a coffee table art book, where one is not reading much of the text, but simply paging through to see the incredible photographs. And then the deeper way to enjoy it is to actually read the history and learn about what is being depicted. But strictly from an artistic standpoint, the book's images are beautiful, and moving, and strong. How did it come about that you got so many great pictures?
Davis
When I flashed on how I was going to tell the story, part of that insight was realizing that if all I did was capture a bunch of images of these nifty places--and people see the range of the architecture and get a visual sense of the locations--then I had done half of the job. So I needed a photographer, and that happened fairly synchronistically. It made sense for a San Francisco publisher to produce the book, and Chronicle produces attractive books, which are fairly inexpensive, and which feature lots of photographs. So I spoke with a friend of mine who is an editor at Chronicle Books, and he said, "Yeah, I know this guy, Michael Rauner."

I met with Michael, who is primarily a portrait photographer, and when he heard about the project he got excited. He's a native Californian. He had done earlier photographic projects about the missions and about amateur bullfighting in California, which he sees as a sort of residue of a sacred ritual. So he was sympatico in a lot of ways. And when he heard about the project he went out and took a bunch of photographs of places just to get the gig. It ended up being a great collaboration. I went to most of the locations before he did, and chose which ones would work. But he had tons of input and introduced the idea of including interior spaces. Many of the places that ended up being featured in the book are there because they are visually interesting. If there was a story that was good, but if there wasn't a good building associated with it, then we didn't put it in. We put in stuff that looked cool. Because there was so much stuff to say, so many different things to talk about, why not put in the things that looked interesting? When we discussed the strategy of how to do the photography, we were both really interested in the idea of not depicting any people in the book. This gave the images a more enchanted, spooky quality, with all of these empty places, and it also presented a bit more of the character of each building. When you see a person in a photograph, you don't pay so much attention to the building, because you are drawn to look at the person.
Hanna
It is an interesting choice. It allows the book to work much better on an artistic level. It inspires great ease in flipping through, to get a sense of the incredible locations depicted. But then when I actually started reading the book, it is clearly a book about people--the people who were at these locations, who built them, who inhabited them, who interacted with them. And on that level, the sole focus on architecture and geography started getting a bit weird for me. Because I wanted to see what the people I was reading about looked like.
Davis
That's true. But I loved the idea of working with one photographer--someone who was going to capture everything and be consistent about it. And since at least half of the people discussed in the book are dead, that makes including photographs of individuals somewhat harder. I mean, you want to see a picture of Yogananda, right? You don't want to see a picture of some guy in a robe who is his disciple, simply because he is the only person available for a photograph. So if the people were to be included, that would mean accessing archival photography, and that would have ended up being an entirely different sort of book. But I appreciate the criticism. It was a weird choice in some ways. It may have put people off from the book a little bit. Photographs of people might have more easily drawn in those readers interested in the story of people, whereas they might now look at the book and presume that the text focuses on architecture--and maybe that's not their thing.
Hanna
I don't think that the presentation could possibly put people off, because the photographs are so beautiful that they do draw the viewer into the book.
Davis
That was the whole idea. People would be drawn in by the images. And if that was all they wanted, great. But if they were intrigued, they would do more reading.
Integratron
Hanna
Did you visit any of the places more than once?
Davis
Yeah, there are a couple of places that I went to a bunch, mostly those places that were my favorites. I loved the Integratron, which is this building/alien technology that was built in Landers, which is near Joshua Tree. In that high desert area around Joshua Tree there's a lot of intense energy. There's a bunch of artists there, and assorted UFO enthusiasts, and it's got a kind of magical feeling. I had never been there before I did the book--I had been to Joshua Tree, but not to the places surrounding it. It was a great spot. It's this weird rotunda designed to create an electrostatic field that was supposed to somehow retard aging. The plans to build it were "given" to a guy named George van Tassell by some alien he met. It is a well made, beautiful building, with attractive wood construction. So there's something about the conjunction of this goofy, crackpot origin story with a space that feels like a special atmosphere, like a temple.
Hanna
The aliens are pretty good architects.
Davis
In this case, yes, they did a pretty good job. So that's a nifty place. And like a lot of the buildings, the Integratron now has a different purpose to it. One of the things that I was interested in with the photographs was to show how traces of these stories and experiences still remain, even if the founding members and the whole sect are gone. The buildings live on, housing enchanted stories.
Hanna
In the book you describe the boon of interest in Spiritualism in the later half of the 19th century. You talk about the Fox sisters in upstate New York and their communication with the dead, and the pianist Jesse Shepard who claimed to channel music, and how the Winchester mansion was designed to baffle angry ghosts. And one of the things you mentioned, which I wanted to bring up in order to tie it into an idea associated with traditional shamanism, is the founding of Stanford University. You said that the inspiration to build this school came to Leland Stanford through a dream, or via communication with the Stanford's dead son. And you describe how in 1911, Thomas Welton Stanford--Mrs. Stanford's younger brother--donated fifty thousand dollars to the University for psychical research. And what caught my eye was that some of the "paranormal items" he donated to the Stanford library were physical objects that were supposed to have mysteriously materialized out of thin air.
Davis
Right. They're called "apports."
Hanna
So that's magical. It's incredible. And it reminded me of that part in True Hallucinations, where Terence and Dennis McKenna were in the Amazon. Dennis had wigged out, and at one point Terence claimed that Dennis had been talking about some old music box they had as kids--one of those boxes whose little sliding wood pieces conceal a hidden compartment holding a key that will open the box. And then, as Terence told it, Dennis opened his hand and the key from this music box from their past was right there in his hand. The idea being that Dennis had magically materialized this key out of thin air. Which blew Terence's mind. In questioning the reality of what he was presented with, he had a hard time believing that Dennis would have carried this key from their childhood all the way to the Amazon, simply to pretend that he had pulled it out of thin air. But within reports from traditional shamanism, the purported practice of being able to materialize some object, or a fluid, or something that has particular metaphysical powers, isn't unheard of.
Davis
Spiritualism was a huge thing all over the western world in the late 19th century. While it was ripe for California's style, it was also pretty pervasive. It often attracted wealthy, educated people, a fair number of whom were scientists. A lot of people were draw in to this thing that now is very hard for us to wrap our heads around. But one way of describing Spiritualism is that it was a way of rediscovering particular aspects of the shamanic world view within this weird context of Victorian industrialism. It arose right at the point at which we entered the modern, urban, media-saturated, mechanical, factory-infused world. It even has a similar mixture that you find in shamanism, of tricks and hucksters and spooky things--the uncanny, synchronicities, marvels. If you look at a shaman in a tribe, on some level you might think that he's just learned a lot of tricks and has the ability to manipulate social reality in order to create certain effects--because he is interested in keeping the tribe going, and healing people. But it's not like he is actually pulling quartz crystals out of the physical body of a person he is treating, even though it looks like that. It's a trick, right? Well, in a way, the Spiritualists were full of tricks.

The whole dynamic around Spiritualism became focused on whether or not it was true. You would have scientists going in and trying to measure what these mediums were doing. And they were doing really outlandish stuff. They would have instruments playing out of nowhere, for example. Another one of the things that they did was to have these objects coming out of their bodies, similar to the quartz crystals in a shamanic healing situation, except that they would be composed of ectoplasm or threads. When you see photographs of this stuff, most of it looks totally fake. But it is hard to tell. If it was that fake, how could anybody believe it? Clearly tons of people believed it--really smart people believed it. So you start getting close to that weird place where reality seems to have gotten a bit bent, and these occult practices can open up the possibilities of other dimensions--even if we stay in a rational world. Spiritualism was the classic old occult world view returning during an era of electronic technology and machines and science. The rise of science allowed for the discovery of new powers--new hidden waves: radio waves or X-rays. We were moving into a world of invisible media--media that these days we take for granted. But when they were first discovered, there was a kind of magical residue to them, and Spiritualism played with that ambiguity of science and the paranormal. A lot of Spiritualists presented themselves as being scientific, and a lot of scientists were attracted to Spiritualism. It acted as almost a rival to fundamentalist Christianity, but still answered some of the topics that religion deals with, like death, and the horrible fear that you're never going to speak with your mom again. They had an answer for death, because now you could talk to your dead mom.
Hanna
And it continues today--that same sort of...
Davis
That TV show with that guy, who talks about how he is feeling the presence of dead relatives...
Hanna
Right, Crossing Over. But even more than that. I recently saw a TV news program discussing these mysterious itchy fibers that people claim to have infecting their skin. The mother of a child who supposedly had the problem ended up coining the name "Morgellons disease" for it. Most dermatologists write it off as Delusional Parasitosis--the sort of thing that we might call "crank bugs" when a meth-head has scratched sores into his arms due to the insects crawling under the skin. There's that great scene at the start of the animated version of A Scanner Darkly, right? But some people who have the problem won't be so easily placated with the answer, "It's all in your head." The TV news story claimed that someone had some of the fibers subjected to analytical testing, and they apparently were not composed of any known physical elements. Could it be a case of technology from another dimension?
Davis
Whoa! (laughs) Indeed, it is still going on today. Alien implants are another manifestation.
Shulgin Lab
Hanna
Shifting gears, clearly one of the things that strongly impacted California spirituality has been the use of psychedelics. Your book presents photographs of Sasha Shulgin's lab [...], and the Fillmore, and Esalen, and Burning Man--which started as a California event--and in various chapters you talk about Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, and others.
Davis
It's no accident that California became ground zero for modern psychedelic culture. Even though individuals were exploring, and scientists were taking things, and little bohemian scenes were growing up around psychedelics in other places early on, it wasn't really until California in the 1950s that a modern psychedelic culture began forming--one where there was a richness of different kinds of people with different kinds of ideas of how to take these drugs and move forward collaboratively. It makes total sense. It fits in perfectly with California's profile. One of the things about California spirituality, which I talk about in the book, is that tremendous emphasis is placed on personal experience. Religion is not about a belief structure, following a dogma, mindlessly aping a ritual, it is about having experiences--unusual, powerful, altered experiences--and that these are the source of your insight, of your faith, of your further practice. And that gets emphasized from John Muir to the Zen guys--it's one of the major themes, and it carries on today in all sorts of ways.
Hanna
Your book mentions the impact that Yosemite had on Fitz Hugh Ludlow.
Davis
Exactly. There's a visionary quality to that landscape, and there's a direct consciousness-altering experience that it makes accessible. And that quality can also come through meditation, through dreams, and through psychoactive drugs. So there is already that tendency, and there is a sort of openness to experimentalism and an embrace of novelty. California is a place driven by novelty, in terms of culture, in terms of technological development--a huge amount of technology came out of here. And there's a relationship between technology and synthetic psychedelics like LSD--there's a kind of shared spirit of using the technology created by our brains in order to hack material reality, to create little machines or media units that are able to change our perceptions or open up new dimensions. All of these things laid the foundation for the particular histories that happened with Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and the Merry Pranksters, and everything that made psychedelic culture so important. I wanted to show that it didn't just "happen"--that there were all of these people who were taking a lot of psychedelics and culture moved forward from that point; I wanted to show that the groundwork was already laid--it was already part of the story of the place before Huxley took mescaline in the Hollywood hills. California culture was already in that kind of space, so it made sense that it became so huge here--that the Pranksters happened here, and that the Grateful Dead happened here...
Hanna
My friend Lorenzo Hagerty commented to me last year about the possibility of bringing Myron Stolaroff, who's 86 years old, and Sasha Shulgin, who's 81 years old, and Ann Shulgin, who's 75 years old, out to Burning Man. He wanted to show our elders this incredible visionary landscape that resulted largely as a product of psychedelic thinking, even in an environment where psychedelics have been proscribed and repressed. Wouldn't it be amazing for these pioneers to see what the kids are doing these days, right? And then, how cool it was that Sasha and Ann actually made it to the playa--and Ann even drove their behemoth rented R.V. all the way from the Bay Area to make the trip!
Davis
Absolutely. Burning Man, more than any other contemporary phenomenon that I talk about in the book, is the fruition of many of the threads that run throughout the book: the emphasis on personal experience, the emphasis on psychedelic culture, the use of architecture to create enchantment and humor and sacred temple environments, the sort of D.I.Y. quality, the sense that it's one grand experiment--that spirituality and experimentation actually go hand-inhand. Whereas, with a lot of religions, it is the opposite: spirituality exists only within the realm of old school tradition. But in California, our tradition is to pull the rug out from under tradition--which is what people here have been doing for well over a century.
Hanna
Your original impetus for the book was your sense of lack with regard to a personal historical tradition to fall back on and wrestle with. Did completing the book help to fill that void for you?
Davis
Yes it did, in the sense that history can add density. When you know about a place, when you know about the people who lived there before, about why they came there, even if they are not directly in your life, there's a kind of extra thickness that the place takes on--even as you experience the place in your normal day-to-day life. When you know more about local history and about how the area developed, this adds a richness to your experiences. So in that way, it helped very much. Now when I go to Burning Man, I can see all of these layers--I can see all of these things that led up to our current time in history. Even though it's in many ways a frivolous thing, or a goofy thing, or a hacked together thing, it makes more sense to me because I can see where it comes from. It becomes something that has more of a sense of continuity. People have been out here for generations--literally--exploring this edge, trying to find a new way, or an individual way. And because it is always changing, it's not like you get a tradition that you can follow. But it's more like there's a wider circle of peers, and a wider circle of elders, who maybe can't give the answers exactly that you need, but they can show you how their questions were answered, or the way that their lives developed. So I think that it did help me in that way, and I hope that this comes through in the book. I hope that readers themselves will start to better understand, "Oh, that's why I like that place."
Hanna
I studied art in college--that's what I got my degree in. Once while visiting the New York MOMA with my wife, she had the typical knee-jerk response to some of the art that "our seven year old daughter could do better paintings." It may only be by knowing why some piece of art made a profound difference in the world, that you gain appreciation for a work that doesn't speak to you on an aesthetic level. Like you said, such knowledge adds a density to your life's experiences. Otherwise you're only skating through life, and the surface level doesn't provide a lot of satisfaction.
Davis
Right. Knowing history is good. Buy my book. ✠

The Visionary State

The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape can be explored and purchased at www.visionarystate.com. Erik Davis' web site is www.techgnosis.com.