But how describe the world seen without a self? There are no words. Blue, red -- even they distract, even they hide with thickness instead of letting the light through. How describe or say anything in articulate words again? -- save that it fades, save that it undergoes a gradual transformation, becomes, even in the course of one short walk, habitual -- this scene also.
-- The Waves, Virginia Woolf
It all started this time with two strange books, widely different and seemingly unrelated, both containing pivotal references to an even stranger third book.
The first two books are A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and True Hallucinations by Terence McKenna. Each, somewhat surprisingly, give significant mention to H.P. Lovecraft’s weird fiction story, Through the Gates of the Silver Key. The three, taken as a set, illuminate one another. Each is a gate unlocked by the same key, gates beyond space and time and comprehension.
The opening sections of Through the Gates of the Silver Key, written by Lovecraft with assistance from E. Hoffmann Price in 1932-3, can be briefly summarized more or less as follows:
Randolph Carter, a recurrent protagonist in Lovecraft’s stories and dream cycles, is a writer of strange fiction, a former (and future) prodigious and lucid dreamer, and a mystic and occult explorer of some renown. At the outset of the story, and carrying on the narrative of an earlier Lovecraft tale, The Silver Key (1926), four men are gathered at a New Orleans home to discuss the possible sale and division of Carter’s estate.
Carter himself has been missing for four years and is now widely presumed to be dead. This is certainly the opinion of Ernest B. Aspinwall, a hard-nosed and “apoplectic” attorney representing Carter’s distant maternal cousins who desire that the rich Carter estate be divided among themselves.
Aspinall, though, is opposed in this view by the three other attendees of the gathering: the host and executor of the will, Etienne-Laurent de Marigny, also a friend and mystic associate of Carter’s; Ward Phillips, another old occult buddy; and the exotic yet awkward, Swami Chandraputra, “an adept from Benares with important information to give.” The consensus of these three, contra Aspinwall, is that Carter is not dead at all but is alive in some form in another realm or dimension.
The four first discuss the established facts of Carter’s disappearance. Carter’s car was discovered parked and unoccupied alongside a country road leading to the deserted Carter homestead adjacent to the wooded hills “behind hoary and witch-accursed Arkham.” Inside the car was found an ancient and sinisterly carved wooden box containing an untranslatable and equally ancient parchment.
Missing from the box -- which Carter had previously informed the three mystics about -- was a large silver key, although both de Marigny and Phillips possessed photographs of it. Presumably Carter removed the key from the box and took it with him on his hike to the old homestead and beyond into a haunted cavern, known locally as the “Snake-Den.”
Nothing was known of what happened to Carter, if anything, in the cavern. But largely dismissed rumours of Arkham rustics spoke of the discovery of footprints in the shape of the squared-toed boots that the ten-year-old Carter used to wear when visiting his now-deceased relatives at the homestead. And these, however paltry and unsatisfying, were the official facts of the case.
From here, however, Chandraputra took up the thread of the story, claiming to have somehow heard Carter’s account directly. Wielding the singular key, Carter tramped his way to the “Snake-Den,” and then entered an even more hidden chamber at the back of the cave that Carter had discovered as a boy. Carter knew that this inner chamber contained a “pylon” -- a kind of ancient temple gateway -- which could, he felt certain, be opened by the silver key.
Along this journey, however, Carter’s fifty-year-old adult form mysteriously merged in simultaneity with his ten-year-old previous self, perhaps explaining the puzzling footprints. With the key Carter managed to open the pylon gate and then entered into another dimension, a kind of threshold realm or an “extension” of our own world, but not yet the infinite which howls beyond the distant second gate.
What happened then is scarcely to be described in words. It is full of those paradoxes, contradictions, and anomalies which have no place in waking life, but which fill our more fantastic dreams, and are taken as matters of course till we return to our narrow, rigid, objective world of limited causation and tri-dimensional logic.
And it is in this scarcely describable passage through the first and second gates that Lovecraft’s story begins to intersect with the accounts, autobiographical and philosophical, of both McKenna and Deleuze/Guattari. A very similar passage is described in all three texts.
Terence McKenna’s tale of the “experiment at La Chorrera” has now passed into legend, becoming at once an idealized archetype of similar epic psychedelic or “shamanic” journeys undertaken by serious psychonauts since the 1960s, and as a particularized precursor of what was to have taken place (and/or is still in the process of happening?) on the Winter Solstice of 2012.
Put briefly, True Hallucinations tells the tale of how Terence and his brother Dennis, along with three other friends, made an expedition to the Colombian Amazon in the early months of 1971 to experiment with indigenous psychedelic plants.
As it turned out they did not find the specific plant they were seeking, but instead encountered and ingested both ayahuasca and copious amounts of psilocybin mushrooms. And the “experiment” they devised, partially or fully inspired by the “Logos” of the Mushroom itself, went far beyond anything they could have imagined previously. Terence McKenna quotes from Dennis' journal from March 2, 1971:
The opus can now be briefly summarized:
• The mushroom must be taken and heard.
• The ayahuasca must be taken and charged with overtonal ESR of the psilocybin via voice-imparted, amplified sound.
• The ESR resonance of the psilocybin in the mushrooms will be canceled and will drop into a superconducting state; a small portion of the physical matter of the mushroom will be obliterated.
• The superconductively charged psilocybin will pick up the ESR harmonic of the ayahuasca complex; this energy will be instantly and completely absorbed by the higher-dimensional tryptamine template. It will be transferred to the mushroom as vocal sound and condensed onto the psilocybin as a bonded complex of superconductive harmine-psilocybin-DNA.
This is Dennis's own summary of the experiment, but what would conceivably result was extrapolated by Terence after many hours of intense and manic conversation with his brother. Terence recorded his brother's ideas of what was expected to happen in True Hallucinations:
More, however, than a chant-induced, collective synesthesia was promised. He was saying that the laws of acoustics and low amperage bioelectrical phenomena, and our bodies, could be manipulated to give the experimenter a doorway into exploring states of matter and realms of physics involving high energy and low temperature that are, currently at least, supposed to be the exclusive province of researchers totally dependent on extremely sophisticated and powerful instruments.
Instead of requiring these expensive and cutting edge technologies, however, Dennis had discovered, in agreement with shamans of old, that the human body itself was the most advanced instrument available. All that was needed was the body, the imagination, the voice, and the plants that would synergize and activate the process. And with these "tools," already at hand, the experiment could be conducted and the whole of reality be alchemically altered.
But this is what Dennis was saying: We had somehow stumbled upon or been led to the trigger experience for the entire human world that would transform the ontological basis of reality so that mind and matter everywhere would become the same thing and reflect the human will perfectly.
Yet the experiment did not produce the anticipated results. The Stone was not immediately revealed. The “concrescence” -- a kind of Whiteheadian version of the Singularity -- did not readily occur. But arguably something far more uncanny happened. In varied yet complementary ways the McKenna brothers went “mad,” and the impact of their madness continues to reverberate today.
Dennis, especially, became unhinged; to the point where two of his alarmed companions wanted to get him out of the jungle as quickly as possible and into the care of a mental “health” institution. He lost all sense of himself as a separate individual, as a human being, as bound to this Earth, and as being materially embodied at all.
And it is Dennis’ journey from psychic dissolution and back again that most closely resonates with Carter’s own passage through the gates of the silver key. And curiously this is also the point where both of these stories overlap with ideas expressed within the most mind-shattering and difficult work of Deleuze and Guattari.
A Thousand Plateaus cannot be easily or even adequately summarized so I won’t even try, but it’s worth narrowing in on the sections of this dense tome which discuss Lovecraft, and specifically Through the Gates of the Silver Key.
There are precisely five references to the horror writer and his story in A Thousand Plateaus. Four of these occur in a relatively famous chapter or “plateau” of the book entitled “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible...” which is explicitly concerned with the psychic and physical transformations and transmutations of the artist or shaman or sorcerer.
But the earliest reference is contained in an opening chapter, setting the stage for the whole book. The third plateau, “10,000 B.C.: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?),” is explicitly framed as a lecture by a Lovecraftian protagonist. The lecturing professor, Dr. Challenger, is clearly a version of Randolph Carter as well as being a weird fiction adaption of Deleuze/Guattari themselves.
He (?) claimed to have invented a discipline he referred to by various names: rhizomatics, stratoanalysis, schizoanalysis, nomadology, microploitics, pragmatics, the science of multiplicities. Yet no one clearly understood what the goals, method, or principles of this discipline were.
The names of this “discipline” are of course names which D&G alternately use throughout the book in order to characterize their own ideas. These names are essentially synonymous, although each contain particular nuances and pertain to different yet converging orders or fields of knowledge/existence. They are at once playfully absurd and seriously precise.
While to definitively explain the philosophy of A Thousand Plateaus is far beyond the scope of the present exploration, it is centrally related to our narrative so a few words should be attempted. This philosophy could be called a “pantheism,” but it would be a pantheism that rejects the absolute inclusion and sameness of the All of “pan,” as well as the transcendence and centralized authority of “theos” or God, and it would especially refuse the systemic or ideological implications of the “ism.”
A pantheism, therefore, without pantheism. A comprehensively anarchic non-system that favours immanence over transcendence, openness over closure, becoming over being, the excluded and the marginalized over the dominant and privileged, the fluid over the fixed, rhizomes over trees and roots, radical horizontality over vertical hierarchy, plateaus and planes over peaks, the crazy over the sane.
It is a sort of all-embracing dynamic systems theory that includes but is not reducible to geology, biology, sociology, history, linguistics, semiology, technology, politics, states of consciousness and sorcery. And it is this last aspect or field of study which most resonates with Lovecraft and McKenna.
Sorcery, although it is not explicitly mentioned until the later “Becoming-Intense...” chapter, is all about transformation and becoming, and this is first demonstrated in the Challenger lecture/plateau.
In fact, what is primary is an absolute deterritorialization, an absolute line of flight, however complex or multiple -- that of the plane of consistency or body without organs (the Earth, the absolutely deterritorialized).
Again, all of the above terms -- “deterritorialization,” “line of flight,” “plane of consistency,” “body without organs” -- allude to a similar thing: to a multi-contextual process of continuous becoming that is free of territory, category, central organization, strict definition. This is really the “subject” of Dr. Challenger’s lecture, but as he proceeds his audience, increasingly disturbed or scandalized, gradually leaves.
The only ones left were the mathematicians, accustomed to other follies, along with a few astrologers, archaeologists, and scattered individuals.
And even these few, not altogether non-hostile, begin to notice changes in the professor. His (?) discussion of lines of flight, etc. appear to be affecting certain changes in his own person. His voice, broken with “an apish cough,” is becoming hoarser, more mechanical, and finally his body itself seems to be breaking apart.
The double-articulated mask had come undone, and so had the gloves and the tunic from which liquids escaped. As they streamed away they seemed to eat at the strata of the lecture hall, which was filled with fumes of olibanum and “hung with strangely figured arras.” Disarticulated, deterritorialized, Challenger muttered that he was taking the earth with him, that he was leaving for the mysterious world, his poison garden.
Challenger is then described as slowly hurrying towards the “plane of consistency,” escaping through a particle Clock. D&G then quote a slightly modified long passage from the final section of Through the Gates of the Silver Key:
The figure slumped oddly into a posture scarcely human, and began a curious, fascinated sort of shuffle toward the coffin-shaped clock....The turbaned figure had now reached the abnormal clock, and the watchers saw through the dense fumes a blurred black claw fumbling with the tall, hieroglyphed door. The fumbling made a queer clicking sound. Then the figure entered the coffin-shaped case and pulled the door shut after it.... The abnormal clicking [ticking] went on, beating out the dark cosmic rhythm which underlies all mystical gate-openings.
In the story, it is the Swami Chandraputra -- who may or may not have been unmasked as the returned Randolph Carter and/or a tapir-snouted, crustacean-clawed wizard from the extremely distant planet Yaddith -- who may have vanished through the coffin-shaped clock in de Marigny's parlour. But most fascinatingly, tagged onto the end of this quote in A Thousand Plateaus is “-- the Mechanosphere, or the rhizosphere,” as if it is this which also "underlies all mystical gate-openings."
But what is the Mechanosphere, and what gate-openings does it underlie? Within the chapter containing Challenger's lecture the term is "defined":
What we call the mechanosphere is the set of all abstract machines and machinic assemblages outside the strata, on the strata, or between strata.
As clear as mud, right? It sounds like a sample of Dennis McKenna's 1971 trip journal or the ravings of a Lovecraftian lunatic high on his own necrotic theories. But A Thousand Plateaus is a very methodical lunacy.
Abstract machines, in turn, are characterized within the final section of the text as always being "singular and immanent" as opposed to Platonic ideas which are defined as "transcendent, universal, eternal." Accordingly, abstract machines "know nothing of forms and substances."
Abstract machines consist of unformed matters and nonformal functions. Every abstract machine is a consolidated aggregate of matters-functions.
Abstract machines, then, are singular and particular flows of both material and function, temporarily consolidated clusters of becoming and intensity in contrast with the fixed and defined structures that D&G call "strata." And the abstract machines that flow outside, on and in between these strata -- which may only be fixed and defined in an apparent sense -- are potentially everywhere. And the whole or the set of all of these abstract machines is the Mechanosphere, subsuming everything.
There is no biosphere or noosphere, but everywhere the same Mechanosphere.
And the Mechanosphere is such an crucial concept that it is actually the very last word in the body of A Thousand Plateaus:
Every abstract machine is linked to other abstract machines, not only because they are inseparably political, economic, scientific, artistic, ecological, cosmic -- perceptive, affective, active, thinking, physical, and semiotic -- but because their various types are as intertwined as their operations are convergent. Mechanosphere.
This begins, then, to give us a clue of what to expect beyond the gates of the silver key. All becomings start to converge on this point and all flow out of it. It is both everywhere and at every moment present, but it is generally imperceptible to most people at most times.
Only with very enhanced perception, and only with the necessary formula, the ritual and the key will its secrets become unlocked, will it be grasped as experience. And this involves total transformation of the self, to the point where the self becomes obliterated. Yet this process, perhaps, follows stages which can be somewhat mapped out.
On passing through the gate, which we will get to next, Dennis McKenna may have also passed beyond the confines of time and space, as well as the limits of his own mind/body.
Quite apparently, he became telepathic, he had knowledge of events in the past and future that he did not witness personally, and he seemed to have some ability to alter physical reality and even manifest objects at will. And at one point, just days after the "experiment," he seemingly produced out of nowhere a silver key:
He reminded me that one of our alchemical analogues for the philosopher's stone, which we shared in our private code of associations as children, was a certain, small, silver key to a box of inlaid wood with a secret compartment that had belonged to our grandfather. I reminded him that the key had been lost since our childhood. I said that the ability to produce that key right then would prove the reality of Dennis's shamanic powers and ability to transcend normal space and time.
It is instructive to pause McKenna's account for a moment to examine Lovecraft's own story on the origin of the key which is told, appropriately enough, in The Silver Key:
Then one night his grandfather reminded him [in a dream] of a key. The grey old scholar, as vivid as in life, spoke long and earnestly of their ancient line, and of the strange visions of the delicate and sensitive men who composed it.... He spoke ... of that Edmund Carter who had just escaped hanging in the Salem witchcraft trials, and who had placed in an antique box a great silver key handed down from his ancestors. Before Carter awoke, the gentle visitant had told him where to find that box; that carved oak box of archaic wonder whose grotesque lid no hand had raised for two centuries.
In the dust and shadows of the great attic he found it, remote and forgotten at the back of a drawer in a tall chest.
The coincidence of both the McKennas and Randolph Carter finding an old wooden box once owned by their grandfathers and connected with a silver key is sufficiently strange, but stranger still was how this key (the same one??) suddenly appeared on the edge of the Colombian Amazon. McKenna continues:
The conversation took the form of a question-and-answer session that ended with Dennis demanding that I hold out my hand, and then, slapping his closed hand into my open one, letting out a loud, ludicrous squawk, and depositing in my palm a small, silver key.
At the time I was thunderstruck. We were hundreds of miles from anywhere. He was practically naked, yet the key before me was indistinguishable from the key of my childhood memories. Had he saved that key over all those years to produce it now, in the middle of the Amazon, to completely distort my notion of reality? Or was this only a similar key that Dennis had been carrying when he arrived in South America, but that I had somehow not noticed until he produced it? This seemed unlikely. He was confined to a room far from our stored equipment, and it was difficult to conceive of him becoming calm and organized enough to go to the baggage and carefully sort through it to find the secreted key. And anyway, it was I who had conceived of asking for the key; had he somehow tricked me into asking for the one object that he had brought with him to deceive me? This matter of the silver key, whether it was the original key or not, has never been satisfactorily settled. The original box was lost long ago, so the key was never tested.
In his 2012 book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, Dennis McKenna gives his own take on the episode of the silver key:
Once, when I got tired of Terence demanding that I produce the stone, I produced instead a tiny silver key. We had been talking about that key, or one just like it, which opened an inlaid wooden box with a secret compartment that had once belonged to our grandfather. Terence was keenly aware of the key’s special importance in our childhood as one of our earliest “alchemical analogues of the philosopher’s stone.” It was he who challenged me to produce the key as a way to prove my new skills, so I did, placing it in his hand. He was shocked. We had assumed the key had long since disappeared, along with the box, and to this day I have no idea how I conjured it, or at the very least one just like it. Interestingly, while rummaging through some stored family boxes recently, untouched for decades, I stumbled on this box, but not the key. Presumably it has disappeared back down whatever wormhole had coughed it up that day in the pasture.
Evidently Dennis' account largely agrees with his brother, but with the added detail that he happened to stumble upon the long lost wooden box. Alas, on this occasion the key was not present so the "test" was again not conducted. What Dennis neglects to mention, though, that Terence provides is the influence on both of Through the Gates of the Silver Key.
A final ironic note is added to the episode by the fact that both Dennis and I are fans of the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and so were aware of his story "Through the Gates of the Silver Key," a tale seething with many dimensions, strange beings, a cosmic time scale, and reckless, oddball adventurers like ourselves.
And in both of the brothers' accounts of this revelation of the silver key it is coupled with Dennis' insistence that the uncanny post-experiment pocket of the world that they were then inhabiting was somehow fashioned by James Joyce. Joyce was the local Demiurge in the form of a cock and his wife Nora -- in the fashion of a hen -- was co-creatrix. HCE and ALP. Inexplicably the brothers McKenna had burst into, or made physically realized, the pages of Finnegans Wake.
And significantly the key (or keys) also turns up precisely as the Wake closes and cycles on once more to its opening. Hidden also, perhaps, is a sly nod to A Thousand Plateaus embedded precisely into the cyclic turnover that D&G, as we'll see, criticize about Joyce's writing.
Till thousandthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's...
The key has been given, passed on down from mystic ancestors summoned in dreams and/or materialized out of thin air. The ritual has been performed, the key has been fitted into the lock of the pylon gate and turned. And we step across the threshold and through the first gate. Welcome to the Mechanosphere. Eh? The McKennasphere?