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Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica
by Erik Davis
Verse Chorus Press 
Reviewed by Jonathan Taylor, 2/1/2011

As a trained academic social scientist type, it’s a lot easier for me to critique ideas I hate, or people I think are fundamentally deluded, than it is for me to laud a writer whom I respect. I somehow stumbled upon Erik Davis’ book Techgnosis: Myth, Magic + Mysticism sometime around 2006, a good eight years after its publication. The effect this book produced in me is best expressed by the single word YES! Not since Robert Anton Wilson had I read something that connected so many interesting ideas and cultural and subcultural phenomena. I wrote to Erik, he responded in a friendly fashion, and we had a brief dialogue—eventually meeting up at a conference where he coincidentally introduced me to some folks from Erowid…

It just takes a few pages of Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica to let you know that you’re looking at a classic. This collection of Davis’ writings over the last fifteen years or so starts with a tale of his pot-hazed adolescence in Southern California. I can relate. But this is no Dazed and Confused, and cannabis in Davis’s pipe is no lowest common denominator, but rather it’s one key to a lifetime of perceptions that flit back and forth between magic and the real.

Davis is a remarkable observer and student of the sacred and profane, what he (or a publisher) terms here as “modern esoterica”, what others might call “the good life”, or at least, anyway, everything that matters. In Nomad Codes, this means Philip K. Dick, Klingons, dub, nature, Gnosis, psychedelics, Burmese transgender possession deities, technology, H. P. Lovecraft, sex, Zen, Terence McKenna, spontaneous mystical experience, goa trance, Cannabis sativa, Burning Man, and the bardo. If this sounds like the menu from a restaurant at which you’d like to eat, you’re not alone.

Davis is a postmodernist in the best sense of that term; he actually makes me want to read the poststructuralist wunderkinds Deleuze and Guattari (though not anytime soon or anything) who are clearly a key influence. This would ordinarily not count as praise in my book. But for Davis, this is never about the intellectual one-upmanship of deconstruction or the usual tribal groupthink/nihilist clique-fest from hell referred to in academe as Social Theory. It is about multiple paths going in myriad directions. Multiple spiritual paths, let me emphasize, since one of the most refreshing things about this book—and Davis’s work overall—is that it takes spirituality, religion, and mysticism seriously, though in a completely non-dogmatic and anarchic way. Things connect, but not in a predetermined linear pattern. And let me add, this is no dry soulless mapping. First of all, it isn’t a mapping, as this territory is way too weird to be mapped. Secondly, as Marcus Boon so accurately notes in his introduction, Davis is all about the juicy, yummy bits. This stuff is fun, or at least most of it is. It does get a little serious in the middle, particularly the parts on Gnosis in its ancient or modern iterations, which Davis covered much more thoroughly in Techgnosis. And while Davis can be a bit overly erudite, you know he’s not doing it to impress—he just thinks about that shit.

I like the linkages Nomad Codes makes. Links between Lovecraftian Old Ones and alien/entity encounters on psychedelic substances, for instance. “What if the truth itself is multiple?” Davis ponders. Davis makes connections, and he writes about making connections, and he traces much of this back to psychedelics, and in particular that mildest but most commonly used of psychedelics: weed. But that is the tip of the iceberg. Davis deeply understands psychedelics (and one would imagine, experientially), and he sees the formidable challenges they provoke. In one of the book’s finest essays, his comparison of psychedelics and tantra—in its realest sense, as a shortcut to enlightenment—is so on the money it hurts.

The other thing that Davis does that is important, and unbelievably rare, is to totally integrate the highest of high culture with the lowest of low; the world of intellectual theorists with the myriad subcultures of partiers who vastly outnumber them; the value of relying on science while retaining an appreciation for the essences of spiritual reality. But not in a way which leaves anything major (Sex? Drugs? Rock and Roll?) out. For instance, tackling religion and spirituality (which is at the heart of the book), Davis combines accounts of Gnosis, spirit possession, chaos magick, and simple universalist mysticism of both Eastern and Western origins, but not by reducing them, or attempting to form one all-explaining meta-narrative, or even trying the impossible task of integrating all knowledge and experience into one complex model. Davis has no such quasi-puritanical instincts, no underlying ascetic orientation, no “I’m a highly evolved spiritual being (because of endless meditative practice, weird eschatological ideas, or high-dose 5-MeO-DMT experiences) and you’re not” baggage. A polymath Renaissance man, he knows the highs and lows: the tunnel trip into darkness, madness, obsession, and the call of the light are both his bailiwick. Davis has no God-complex, no desire to proselytize, and no need to issue dire warnings—no matter how much he may himself think we should be heeding them.

Davis is one of the most important voices of my generation. He shines a light too bright for even the relentless conformity of academia (where he now pursues a PhD) to snuff out. Nomad Codes is my favorite of his books so far.

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