High Weirdness provides a definitive portrait of the great conflagration of high and low culture.
When the world exploded somewhere in the mid-‘60s, culture (namely American popular) became less stringently defined as elements of Eastern ideals, esoteric thought and general weirdness began permeating the underground and, by the end of the decade, bubbling up into the mainstream. It was as though a Pandora’s box of ideas both new and old were unleashed on a public already in the midst of consciousness expanding practices. Whether it be the practices of Eastern mystics, magick, occultism, the paranormal, or any other number of esoteric practices, each offered entrance to a whole new world of thought. With many an open mind now experimenting with all manner of psychedelics and other consciousness-altering substances, this strange new/old world was ripe for discovery and cultural (mis)appropriation by seekers, visionaries, artists, musicians and writers.
High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies offers a deep dive into the lives three such individuals, each of whom were affected by the proliferation of “high weirdness” and in turn effected further change within the culture through their own work. Erik Davis offers a highly detailed bit of expository scene setting that helps lend a great deal of context to the times in which Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick were making their way through the world and absorbing its many weird wonders into their respective theses.
For McKenna, along with his brother Dennis, the driving force was drugs (namely DMT) and their mind-expanding potential and experiential qualities contained therein. Davis takes as his central focus on McKenna the storied expedition in the early ‘70s the brothers took into the Colombian Amazon that would come to serve as a life-changing and career-defining adventure that shaped his way of thinking for the remainder of his life. Following the death of their mother, the brothers, along with a handful of like-minded psychonauts, ventured off in search of oo-koo-hé in order to experience its hallucinogenic effects courtesy of the DMT it contained.
From there, the brothers – though primarily Terence – latched onto the idea that they could tap into a sort of universal consciousness and the collective memory of all humanity. This was experienced through the ingestion of Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms which in turn granted McKenna access to a divine voice which helped elucidate the mysteries of the universe and subsequently led him on a life-long path praising psilocybin mushrooms, their use and the vast sea of knowledge awaiting discovery through their usage. McKenna went on to become a fixture in the counterculture and renowned for his philosophical “raps” that could go on for hours at a stretch. Making much sense of out of some of these – as admitted by Davis – required a very sympathetic mind.
For Wilson, it was his time working in the Playboy Forum, along with collaborator Robert Shea, that drew him into the world of conspiracy theories and the wild cast of characters inhabiting the world of post-JFK fringe thinkers. Together with Shea he put this wealth of weird knowledge to great use in the form of the Illuminatus! Trilogy and its densely structure world of pseudo-sci-fi conspiracy theory and all manner of cultural weirdness (secret societies, magical symbolism, the occult and all points in between). In this, Wilson and Shea helped popularize some of the fringe theories, taking the ideas put forth in Discordianism (and Principia Discordia).
Lastly, Dick, the most influential of the trio in terms of a lasting legacy in terms of modern popular culture, is explored through his purported paranormal experiences. The primary focus of this is his legendary “2-3-74” in which he experienced a series of hallucinations that increased in both their frequency and length. This in turned heightened his fringe thinking, leading to a series of personal philosophies that were largely cobbled together from a handful of esoteric sources. Whether actually experienced or an amalgamation of the myriad philosophies running rampant at the time, Dick’s experiences were nevertheless indicative of the world in which he existed.
No easy read, High Weirdness, particularly in its expository passages, reads more like a highly academic, almost philosophical examination of fringe culture in all its mind-numbing minutiae. But this exhaustive attention to detail and scene-setting helps place the experiences of McKenna, Wilson and Dick within their proper cultural, social and historical contexts, lending credence to what might otherwise seem like fairly left-field ways of thinking. In this, High Weirdness provides a definitive portrait of the great conflagration of high and low culture, fringe thinking, ancient religions, the paranormal and all manner of “high weirdness” that continues to this day.