David Bowie and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the 1970s

[Aleister] Crowley does not figure on Bowie’s debut LP, but by the time of Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), he would be an influence directly on Bowie’s lyrics and continued to influence Bowie’s lyrics, ideas, and philosophies throughout the 1970s. Of particular interest to this chapter are Crowley’s experiments with drugs and his ideas about how drug use is related to creativity and religious experience, two ideas that Bowie also pursued in his work.

Eric Pellerin, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 69-70

Between 1970s’ drug culture and its ultimate origin, Romantic-era drug literature in the works of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), lies Aleister Crowley’s (1875-1947) Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), the seminal work of an author who became a central figure to many rock figures of the 1960s and 1970s, even appearing in the upper left corner of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Diary of a Drug Fiend is generally considered a roman à clef: a work of fiction based upon real people and actual events. Crowley, in my opinion, is generally misunderstood in some ways that he would find flattering and in other ways that he brought upon himself, and it’s not clear to me that the work needed to understand him would yield much in the way of real benefit. But he deserves the dignity of honesty about his legacy–while I’m not a Crowley scholar, and never will be, I will attempt to tell the truth about him as someone who is neither an adept in his religion nor hostile toward him as “the most evil man alive.”

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend follows the life of Sir Peter Pendragon, a minor English aristocrat who, early in the story, on a single night meets a woman whom he marries without knowing and takes cocaine for the first time. Their honeymoon consists of a drug-fueled romp across Europe that becomes part tragedy and part comedy of errors, as Pendragon’s judgment is badly impaired by drug use. They progress from cocaine to heroin, rapidly degenerating into a serious addiction that leads them to the point of suicide until rescued by Basil King Lamus, who had been their guide through drug use from the beginning and is a leader in the religion of Thelema. On the one hand, the narrative propagates the myth that even heroin use can be controlled to lead users to higher states of consciousness, but on the other hand, it is graphic, detailed, accurate, and unflinching in its depiction of the worst aspects of heroin addiction.

Thelema in this novel and its follow-up, Moonchild, is a syncretist religion that appears to me to use the Sefirot (Kabbalah’s Tree of Life) for its conceptual structure, the teachings of Christ for its moral consciousness, and then associates the insights of other religions and empirical science on different nodes of the Sefirot. Adherents of this religion practice “magick,” which because of Thelema’s study of nature is able to create real effects in the world (according to the religion). “Magick” is therefore not an occult practice as commonly understood but the proper understanding of the relationship between human beings and the natural world, the ultimate integration of empirical science, philosophy, psychology, and religion.

The fundamental principle of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt,” but it’s carefully distinguished from “Do as thou wilt,” the former being the practice of deliberate action moving toward carefully chosen goals while the latter is the practice of caprice or mood without regard for consequences. Thelema and the practice of magick by its own account should be distinguished from Satanism and the practice of black magic: while Crowley could write poems like “Hymn to Satan” in the very early twentieth century, probably working with a gnostic view of Satan, by the 1930s he would compare practicing black magic to a mouse trying to make a pact with a cat. Thelema, overall, is conceptually naive in that it makes identifications among objects based on superficial similarities alone, and it is dependent upon early twentieth-century science only partially understood by the author. However, in many ways, it’s not hard to see how so many rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s would be attracted to Crowley — Diary of a Drug Fiend at times reads like a user manual for a 70s’ rock star: the life of someone wealthy, aristocratic, young, and free.

Eric Pellerin in chapter 4 of David Bowie and Romanticism, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie,” covers the ground described in his title, locating Bowie’s 1970s’ lifestyle and songwriting about drug use at the end of a lineage of drug literature that begins with Coleridge and De Quincey, moves through Baudelaire and Crowley, and then moves on to David Bowie with additional discussion of contemporaries such as Jimmy Page.

Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism: you can order the book from The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it for you.

Eric Pellerin is Assistant Professor and the Electronic Resources & Serials Management Librarian at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. His research interests include genre theory, authorship in film, and Hong Kong cinema.

Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress – The Washington Post

It’s nice to feel a little bit proud this time of being raised Catholic.

via Transcript: Pope Francis’s speech to Congress – The Washington Post.

Pulp Fiction and Religious Consciousness

Pulp Fiction Movie PosterI posted the following to a Facebook conversation with my buddy and movie critic Marc DiPaolo (check out his books on amazon.com). Marc had asked if Pulp Fiction is a “deeply religious movie.” What follows is my response, slightly edited.

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If Pulp Fiction is a deeply religious movie (which I think it is), then the suitcase is a modern incarnation of a golden calf, or a concentrated image representing our culture’s worship of money and power, which mob boss Marcellus Wallace holds and everyone else wants. What makes Sam Jackson’s character (Jules) the most “spiritual” is his willingness to get it for someone else without keeping it (or even wanting to keep it) for himself, much like Frodo and the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

Once Jules has attained that level of development, he increasingly becomes uninterested in serving power structures at all, so like a prophet he seeks only to “walk tha erf” protecting the weak and innocent from the strong and powerful, per his mangled, fictional Biblical quotation.

Bruce Willis’s character (Butch) represents another path of spiritual development, one that does not compromise on principle (represented by his memory of his father’s watch) in the face of despair over his personal advancement (he will never make it as a boxer) or personal gain (Wallace paying him off to take a dive in a boxing match). Butch accepts the payoff from Wallace in order to retaliate against the criminals using him by betting on himself for a change (which he’d never done all his life, “betting on himself” representing faith in oneself and one’s principles). He then wins the fight so violently he inadvertently kills his opponent.

GraceBut Butch is not himself completely criminal, because even though Wallace has now become a sworn enemy, Butch respects Wallace’s basic human dignity enough to protect Wallace from being killed by the “pawnshop rednecks” who have already started to rape him. This act of decency wins Butch his freedom from Wallace, who forgives Butch’s betrayal. Butch rides off to collect his money with his girl on a motorcycle that has the word “Grace” spray painted on the tank — he has received grace (in the form of freedom from revenge by power and money) because he stuck to all of his principles, even at great personal risk to himself: saving Wallace proved he wasn’t just another con man.

The “pawnshop redneck rape scene” extends the film’s commentary to a commentary Pulp-Fiction-Vectoron the distribution of wealth and power: white people (yuppies in the hotel room; white racist rapist uniformed security) keep trying to take it from black people (Wallace). Wallace, though a criminal, isn’t totally evil: he forgives Butch, allows Jules to leave, trusts Vincent Vega with his wife. He works on a basic principle of fairness and even trust although he makes his living as a criminal, which may extend Pulp Fiction‘s commentary to metadiscourse on society: lawful society has become so criminal that only criminals free of law can act on any kind of principle. Wallace’s revenge on the racist rapists may anticipate the revenge fantasy theme in Tarantino’s later films, such as Django Unchained or Inglorious Basterds. 

Merry Christmas

“O Holy Night” by 1. King’s College, Cambridge, 2. Jewel, and 3. Tracy Chapman.

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Americananity

GenevaBibleRevisedBlackLeatherLrg.1__47984.1291496242.1280.1280A website called The Patriot Report (subtitled Supplies for the Conservative Revolution) is currently advertising a 1599 Geneva Bible, buy one get one free for $49.99. It looks like an attractive enough product, and if it’s an exact reproduction of the 1599 Geneva Bible it’s worth having. There’s no disputing the historical significance of this specific English edition of the Bible. I don’t think I would pay the full price of $69.99 for any bonded leather Bible, or even the regular sale price of $49.99, because bonded leather is very cheap and falls apart in pieces over time, but around $25.00 isn’t too bad a deal.

What interests me is how this website is marketing this product. Consider this language from the final paragraph of the ad page:

For nearly half a century these notes helped the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland understand the Bible and true liberty. King James despised the Geneva Bible because he considered the notes on key political texts to be seditious and a threat to his authority. Unlike the King James Version, the Geneva Bible was not authorized by the government. It was truly a Bible by the people and for the people.

The final and strongest selling points for this Bible reside in the political circumstances of its production: it’s not enough that it is, presumably, the Word of God. The Geneva Bible is a better Word of God than that Other Word of God, the King James Bible (which used to be the fetish of far-right Christians who insisted that if “the King James Bible was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me”), because the Geneva Bible is an anti-monarchical and anti-government Bible. It’s a better Bible because it

1. Threatened the authority of King James, and

2. Was not authorized by the government — so presumably the King James Bible is actually now a socialist, big government, left wing Bible.

There really isn’t a better illustration of how even the Bible itself is subordinate to correct politics within American right wing Christianity — particularly the far right  — which leads me to think that American right wing Christianity has essentially become an anti-Christian cult in which Christ is a marginalized figure upon which right wing ideology is hung, and the Bible is only useful to the extent that it can support this state of affairs. I think we should rename this new religion Americananity. . .

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