I read Jack Kornfield’s After the Ecstasy, the Laundry a couple of months ago. It persuaded me to take psychedelic drugs instead of meditate. I’m pretty confident that was not Kornfield’s intention in writing the book. So let me explain.
Here is the basic premise of the book:
Meditative practices (Kornfield is a Buddhist, but the book includes examples from several religions) can produce ecstatic and blissful states, grand unity experiences, ego extinction, samadhi, death and rebirth passages and other kinds of mystical experiences that are one of the goals of many spiritual pursuits. But these states are hard to maintain. The seeker may think his life has been eternally transformed. But then the meditation retreat is over and the seeker returns home from the mountains into the daily life of traffic, work, families and distractions. Not only does the bliss itself grow more remote, but even the realizations and intentions to live a transformed life start to dissipate. Even Asian masters who leave their monasteries to run workshops and teach classes in the west often become prey to sex, money, power and the endless distractions and worries of daily life.
Kornfield reminds us that the ecstasy was only a stage in much longer (and endless?) process of awakening. The next step is to learn to live in the moment, accept the life that you have and appreciate the small things. Learn to a life of community, daily rituals, charity, compassion, sharing, caring for the environment and hanging out with dharma friends. This is the most important wisdom that comes from meditative practices, more important than the ecstasies.
Here is why meditation is like taking psychedelic drugs:
1) The ecstatic experience is temporary, and hard to integrate into daily life. That has always been a big complaint about substance-induced psychedelic experiences.
2) Both can have positive effects on health. Proponents of mediation emphasize its utility in stress reduction, improving brain performance, treating addiction, improving sex and as an adjunct to therapy. The same claims are made for psychedelic substances. Shamanic traditions call the substance medicines, and claim an ability to cure an even wider variety of physical and mental problems. Even clinical studies in the West have had positive results in using psychedelics to treat anxiety, addiction, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, cluster headaches and for general psychotherapy (See MAPS, and Heffter Institute).
3) There is a small possibility of negative health effects. Neither technique has any proven physical ill-effects. But a bad drug trip can severely disrupt emotional well-being, especially in people who are already mentally unstable. And excessive psychedelic use can contribute to long term mental deterioration. But some meditators also experience overwhelming upsurges of negative emotions, not to mention long-term frustration and self-criticism when meditation is difficult and not having the effects that are expected. The negative feelings surrounding mediation are usually not so overwhelming as a bad drug trip—but this perhaps has more to do with the fact that many drug trips are taken without adequate preparation, whereas meditators generally have a large amount of self-discipline and awareness of what they are doing. Indeed, some bad nights (accompanied by appropriate purging) can be an essential part of an ayahuasca treatment.
As to long-term chronic effects, moderation seems again to be key. Kornfield mentions several masters who developed serious illnesses. Twenty to thirty years of sitting on your ass without much exercise is not a route to good health. (But, as with frequent psychedelic use, it is also not necessarily a route to bad health).
4) Both claim to provide access to the divine (indeed, the increasingly popular word “entheogen” to describe psychedelic substances means ‘generating the divine within’). They point to states of enlightenment or self-realization. But neither method takes you there directly or leaves you with what Jeb McKenna calls “abiding non-dual awareness.” To reach that state, you have to do some different kind of work. But both can delude you into thinking you have attained or are approaching that state already.
This kind of delusion can be actively encouraged by the proponents of each technique. Drug culture, however, is so fragmented and laden with caveats that I think it is less of a problem. The institutional force and sophisticated tones of contemporary Buddhism and the other meditative establishments are much more misleading. Here is the source of my biggest skepticism of Kornfield.
In another essay that I read a long time ago, Kornfield described the ecstatic experiences as a ‘booby prize.’ The true prize, real enlightenment, was in the next stage of being able to live in this world with enlightened clarity. This is a fairly standard Buddhist and Advaita claim. But the kind of ‘wisdom’ described in After the Ecstasy does not seem to have anything to do with this. Indeed, contemporary American Buddhism as a whole is fairly notorious for having dropped enlightenment as a goal. Kornfield talks of the continued process of ‘awakening,’ ‘realization’, and wisdom, but not enlightenment. He describes the kinds of insights that can come to many people as they become older, not just people who have been meditating for 30 years. As far as I can tell, it does nothing to apply the experiences of ecstasy and mystical experiences into daily life. Instead, it just teaches us to accommodate to the social and material obligations of this world. It is stuff that he could well have learned while earning his psychology PhD. It is a wisdom that is already everywhere even without meditation or ecstasy. (For a more extended critique of ‘consensus Buddhism’ see David Chapman’s blog)
As the tantrika in Daniel Odier’s Tantric Quest says, if the yogi can not leave his cave and be comfortable spending time in town, then the yogi has not yet really awakened. This seems to be the case with most of of Kornfield’s examples. But then Kornfield reframes their falls from bliss and awakening as true wisdom.
I don’t know if abiding enlightenment or non-dual awareness is really a possibility. I won’t know until I somehow manage to awaken to the fact that I am already there (to use the lingo of the genre). Meditation, drugs and ecstatic experiences are, at best, only tools with limited functions in that awakening.
But if I am searching for ecstatic, mind-blowing, self-therapeutic or difficult introspective experiences, I’ll choose drugs over meditation. As far as I can tell, the only reason to undergo years of meditation, muscle cramps, ‘witnessing’ that endless inane chatter in my head, and trying to persuade myself that all those hours were well-spent, is because I have some kind of bizarre work ethic. And even then, there’s no guarantee I’ll get my ecstatic experience. Although the drug experience is definitely easier in terms of time and long-term effort, this does not mean it comes without costs. A powerful experience needs good preparation and follow-up (which could include meditative practices). And it will still be mentally and physically draining.
The illegitimate and semi-legitimate status of psychedelics and entheogens combines with the power of these substances to hit you unawares to produce a much more open interpretive context. If I want to my experiences to be sanctioned and to learn how to interpret them as some kind of progress towards wisdom and better integration into society, I’ll join a meditation group. If I want challenges, confusion, adventure, endless possibility, shifting reference frames, or to just stare into the abyss with awe, I’ll stick with the drugs.
“The natural universe is neither prickles nor goo exclusively. It’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.” –Alan Watts
“All perception of truth is the detection of an analogy.” –Henry Thoreau
“I maintain that the cosmic religious feeling is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research.” –Albert Einstein
I’m at the Psychedemia conference on integratic psychedelics into academia at the University of Pennsylvania. The two quotes above are from a poster presentation by Sarah McManus, titled “Pricles and Goo: Playing with Scientific and Psychedelic Metaphors.” She argues that the even though the scientific and intuitive (mystical? psychedelic?) traditions are often grasping towrads the same insights, their different metaphorical styles make it difficult for them to speak to each other. She wants to discover common ground between reason and insight.
She gave several quotes from scientists–most of which I can no longer remember–who confess that their models are never truth but only useful approximations; that we are nowhere near understanding the basic nature of the universe; and that at best science can only capture fleeting moments in time and make very limited, context-bound predictions.
I know we could dig up several more quotes from scientists asserting the opposite: a firm belief in theories and particles; that we are at the verge of understanding everything; and only have to work out the details to work out. But I think she has a point. As I have written elsewhere, the most exciting science creates some of the most mind-boggling mystical visions around.
But after reading the poster I wondered: Why would scientists want to study mystics and mysticism? Why should mystics care about science? I don’t think they have much to offer each other yet, even when they are heading in the same direction. The divergence between the two lies in more than just metaphors. There are also fundamental differences in how to gain knowledge and what to do with it. The universe may be prickly goo and gooey prickles–but our modes of accessing it excessively emphasize either the goo or the prickles.
Although some scientists like to make big theories and philosophize, most of science is about reducing the great, holistic, super-entwined structure of the universe down into manageable chunks that can be analyzed and transformed into clear, useful, focused results. They retreat in trepidation when confronted with ineffable, unmodular holism. This is both because of the need for testable hypotheses, and because of the social pressure to justify research through practical consequences. Mystics, however, are all about dissolving our attachment to the particular manifestations of the universe. learning to be aware of the whole and perceive the undifferentiated fabric. The scientists work hard to put words and formulas to the parts that they analyze. The mystics are searching for those experiences that are beyond words.
Some scientists are curious about the mystics. They even like to brain scan meditating monks. But even that is all about breaking the brain down into its modular parts to figure out how it works. It has nothing to do with helping people to reach those mystical experiences. In fact, encouraging an over-analytic mind may even make it more difficult to obtain those experiences. At most, after they study all their brain scans and understand the chemistry, science may be able to develop more drugs to facilitate mystic experiences (Alexander Shulgin, for example–as well as more underground chemists today). But there is little incentive to do so, because such drugs would surely be made illegal.
In the end, the mystical scenarios created by scientific theorizing are held from us at arms length, beautiful ideas for us to appreciate but not to experience. At best, we must take it on their word that a few elite mathematicians are experiencing ecstasy through the symmetries and algorithms they discover.
Some mystics (and scientists) like to point to the similarity between mystical perceptions and the conclusions of scientific research. But I never find that very compelling. The analogies are often vague and sometimes misleading representations of science. And I often feel that the appeal to science is merely an appeal to authority, a way to justify mysticism to a skeptical audience. It is not an appeal that really helps us to have the experience. And once you’ve had the experiences, you realize that the science offers just one of many possible interpretation.
Most scientific research into psychedelics these days has more modest goals, usually to investigate their potential for therapy (basically the only kind of research that can get government permission). The investigators recognize that mystical experiences are often a crucial part of the therapeutic experience—an experience which may lead to quitting smoking, curing cluster headaches, or reconciling to cancer. But they have little to say about that experience (at least in their published work). Their research is still limited to correlation, i.e. showing a high number of patients who receive the psychedelic treatment have good results as compared to those who take placebos. The reasons and mechanisms remain mysterious, and the experience itself is valued mainly for its practical results.
Technology is the one other place were many people see an overlap between psychedelic mysticism and science. Many people like to give credit to psychonauts and psychedelic drugs for many recent advances in computing and networking (although the military surely deserves as much, if not more credit). And in turn, structures and metaphors of networking, computing and information are providing new ways to interpret the psychedelic experience (among psychonauts at least–less so among institutionalized scientists). But the more thoughtful of these theorists will be the first to admit that it is just fun and games. That the most difficult thing about mystical and psychedelic experiences is that the minute you try to stop it, to think about it and describe it, you have lost it. That’s no use for science, and no use for mystics.
(But there is still the possibility that continued interaction of clinical scientists with people on psychedelics confronting the ineffable unverse will have some kind of long-term effect on science, and even vice versa. I suspect that the results will look quite different from the science and mysticism we currently have–perhaps something more like alchemy?)
I ate a space cake one night in Amsterdam a while ago. When it kicked in, I walked around the city watching the clock tower wavering in the mist and the bridges stretching and flexing as the struggled to break free of the roads. I sat down next a canal, and watched the water flicker and send sparks into the windows of the houses lining the canal. My body sent out glistening threads of energy to join the sparks, and then invited them to flow inside my body to shimmer and tingle. It was getting very sensual. I imagined myself as a baby nuzzling into my grandmother’s bosom (an image that had come up a few months before during a psilocybin trip). I thought about how wonderful it would be to feel a woman’s touch right now, her hair drifting across my skin, her nipples soft and resisting between my fingers, our stomachs grazing together. The shimmering, tingling energy spread out from my body, engulfing my skin. I went to a sex club.
It was a relatively downscale club, with a small lounge where the patrons and women could meet each other. I first talked to a short, plump, dark-haired girl from Hungary with a beautiful smile. She had an open expression and easy-going manner that made me feel at ease. Foolishly I figured I should look around first (damn that impulse to be a well-informed consumer!) and she soon went off with another guy. So I approached another woman who was blonde, tall and buxom. I suspected it was a mistake from the beginning. Her expression was haughty and her voice a bit angry. But the rounded curve of her hips did not stop, and her breasts were the breasts of my grandmother. I told myself that I was not particularly articulate tonight, and wasn’t looking for conversation.
I wasn’t exactly thinking with my dick, either. I was not looking for a fuck, but to feel the soft, supple flesh. I was not surprised when I could not get an erection. My whole body was pulsating in a way that made my penis feel irrelevant. But she just kept sucking and sucking over the condom. I asked her to slow down, to rub me a bit. She only kept sucking in frustration. I told her that I didn’t need the sucking, that she didn’t need to do anything. She could just lie down and relax, and I was happy to feel her, smell her, bury my face in her body. She lay on the bed for a bit while I ran my arms and face over her legs and buttocks, felt the flesh of her armpits and smelled the crook of her neck. When I put my cheek on her stomach, she squirmed away and complained that it tickled. Then when I then put my face in her bosom and licked her nipples she said I was hurting her, no matter how softly I did it. Finally she told me to stop kissing her, that she wasn’t my girlfriend (It was the first time my mouth had touched her. Everything else was just cuddling). I looked into up her angry eyes.
“What do you want?” she asked with a strong Eastern European accent. “You want to put the whole thing in your mouth?”
“Yes, that would be great,” I said. I saw her puzzled expression, and realized it was meant to be an insult.
She said I was drunk. I told her I had only drunk Red Bull that evening, but she clearly didn’t believe me.
“What do you want?” she demanded again.
“I just want to touch you.” That was clearly insufficient, and I racked my still-foggy brain for a better answer. I was going far to deep, searching a psychological explanation. I finally explained that I couldn’t really explain what I wanted. But then suddenly it became clear to me. I smiled and said, “Maybe it has something to do with not getting touched enough as a baby.”
She scowled at me. “No, you just like women.” She said it as if it were an accusation.
“Well, yeah, of course. That’s why I’m here.” She laughed and I laughed—the only positive connection we had all night. She asked if I wanted her to suck my cock again. I said no. That made her angry again, and she walked out of the room.
It looked like suck and fuck was all I had paid for. Of course, there was no reason that she had to act as receptacle for my fantasy projections, or even just lie there quietly if that’s not what she wanted. But I was still annoyed because I didn’t think I was asking for much.
I had originally paid 5 Euro too much. She had promised to get change, but I figured that was unlikely and it would be part of the tip. Now, as I put on my clothes, I thought about how to demand my change.
She came back in to clean up. Before I said anything she told me that after she finished washing herself, she would get my change. Disarmed by this, my irritation receded and I told her to keep it.
“No, wait for it,” she insisted.
“No, you keep it. I’m sorry I made you angry.”
She looked in my eyes, “Thanks. It’s OK.”
As I walked back to my hotel I decided the encounter was not so bad. It certainly was not the kind of mechanical encounter that could be so disappointing. I did not get what I wanted, but perhaps what I needed. The mix of ethereal sparks, luxurious sensuality and grandmother’s bosom that I brought to the encounter surely set my expectations way too high. All those sensations and images pointed to something beyond sex. Sex always promises to take us to those places. And perhaps it can point the way, and even bring us a bit closer. And if we cultivate ourselves, and learn how to have sex really well and channel those pulsating energies. It may even take us the edge of the ineffable. But my grandmother’s bosom is still only a dream. In the end I’ll still have to surrender and fall into the ineffable hole.
So, last night SWIM (Somebody Who Is not Me: a common internet drug forum acronym) ingests a shitload of M without telling me. Next thing I know, he’s curled up on the floor moaning and ahhhing like he’s almost ready to come. Man, he’s trying to erase his ego again. I’m pissed. We were supposed to go to the club tonight. He knows perfectly well you can’t get past the bouncer without an ego. But we can’t even get there at all if he’s curled up on the floor like a wanker.
So I’m lying on the bed wondering what the fuck I’m going to do tonight. Then I look up, and that asshole SWIM is hanging off the ceiling staring at me. “Get out of my face,” I say, “You’ve already screwed up my night. I don’t want to deal with your shit.”
He doesn’t listen and just keeps staring. “I told you to fuck off!” I yell at him. “I just want to get high and have a good time. I don’t need your crap.”
That asshole doesn’t care about anything. He just turns around and starts ripping a hole in the ceiling. He wants to pull me in there. It’s just lights and swirls, endless fucking repeating patterns, and these big, black gaping voids. It’s a fucking mess. “No way,” I say. “I just want to get laid. I don’t see any pussy in there.”
He doesn’t give a fuck what I say, and starts pulling the hole down over my head. I get off the bed and head out the door to get away from him. But the bastard has pulled all the fiber out of my muscles. Next thing I know I’m lying in a heap on the floor and he’s dragging me right into that damn hole and I can’t do anything about it.
All I can say is that SWIM is into some weird, fucked-up shit in there. He hangs out with these total nerds: gnomes, green elves, talking little white flying fuzzballs. They’re just prancing around these castles and pyramids covered in Christmas lights, having parades with fucking Snow White and Bozo the Clown, fighting sorcerers and all kinds of geeky shit like that. It’s totally Dungeons and Dragons. And there’s no pussy anywhere. Well, unless you count SWIM’s grandma’s pussy (I told you he was into some fucked-up shit).
So SWIM takes me to this room full of filing cabinets and leaves me there while he goes and flies around with his little green buddies and parties on top of one of those pyramids. I’m pissed. They’re having a good time doing whatever shit they do, and he just left me here twiddling my thumbs. So I start digging through the filing cabinets to see if I can find any weed or blow. But all I can find are these file folders with pictures from my life. There I am feeling lonely and abandoned in the crib. There I am crying when my friends are giving me shit for pissing my pants. There is my dad calling me a moron. Shit, man, who wants to see this kind of stuff? Boring. Why does he want to save this crap here in these filing cabinets like some kind of shrine? Nobody cares about this shit.
So I’m still rifling the drawers looking for weed when SWIM comes back and tells me they’ve decided that I haven’t finished my task. I have to zip my skin back on, and they’ll send me back to earth so that I can finish doing what I was supposed to do. Fine, whatever. I’m sick of this geekdom. Maybe there’s even still time to go out and catch a buzz. I have no idea how long I’ve been in this fucking place.
Next thing I know, I’m back on the floor. I can move my hands and arms now, and kick my feet up and down. But then, just when I’m starting to feel alright, I open my eyes and there is my Mom hovering over me. At first she looks worried, but then she starts yelling at me and shaking this broken glass in my face asking how the hell I made such a mess, and what do I think I am doing, and why can’t I be like my sister, and don’t I know how much trouble I make for her, yap yap yap yap yap . . . .
Shit, I don’t need any of this. I just want to get high and have a good time. Is that so much to ask?
I have been thinking about what my next large research project will be . . . and whether I should even have one at all. I keep coming back to the idea of a global history of drugs, commercialized sex and the idea of freedom over the past two centuries. This may be something I can wrap both my head and my heart around.
First, here is what I am imagining in academic terms:
The international movement to abolish slavery from the late 18th through the 19th century established ideas of freedom and slavery that has shaped the ways that we think about morality, politics and personal values to this day. Perhaps most importantly, they established a polar opposition between freedom and slavery that were taken to be self-evident. This binary has made it difficult for us to understand the many gray areas that lie between these two poles. The temperance/anti-opium and anti-prostitution movements were the first two major major post-abolition transnational social movements of the 19th century. They latched onto this vocabulary of freedom and slavery in a big way, shaping the way we still talk about drugs and commercial sex. Ironically, these suppression movements arose in the context of expanding global capitalism, and what better exemplifies the markets, urges and consumerism of capitalism than sex and drugs? Both are commodities in nearly indestructable markets in which the logic of prices, supply and demand and all of the other capitalist fetishes survive and flourish even in conditions of repression. Culturally, sex, drugs and the fantasy of freedom virtually embody the desires, urges and dreams that are the life-blood of capitalism. Yet sex and drugs have been primary targets of global suppression in the capitalist world. And both are usually suppressed in the name of freedom: freedom from addiction, freedom from exploitation, freedom from enslavement to our passions, freedom from druglords, pimps, traffickers, chemicals . . . etc. Indeed, drugs, sex trade and the preservation of freedom are frequently justifications for intervention–often violent–into domestic lives and foreign countries. What better way to understand the paradoxes of modern life and the consciousness of globalization?
It sounds fine as an academic project. As I outline it in my mind, however, I am increasingly dissatisfied. It is all too easy for me to fall into those familiar academic patterns and analyses that will make this book indistinguishable from so many other books: some criticisms of the state capitalism and social control projects; an ironic look at the consequences of regulation and suppression; all flavored with an “I-understand-things-more-deeply-than-you” smirk. I can see where I might add something new by looking at the global dimensions and the interaction of these three phenomena that are usually kept separate. But ultimately the prospect of producing yet another critical, skeptical tome—framed in footnotes and passive voice—leaves me feeling empty.
To put it differently, the inevitable result of all my training in skeptical criticism is to turn it on my own mode of researching, writing and thinking. And when I watch myself thinking about these two topics—drugs and commercial sex—I see how quickly I start thinking of various abstractions and convolutions that will make them acceptable to an academic audience. What insights will I water down, what topics will I avoid, what conclusions will I delete? And once I produce this properly formulated academic tome, I will have contributed to the very structures that put commercial sex and drugs into this cultural hinterlands where we can’t talk about them openly. I would reinforce the very sense of illegitimacy and danger that I had intended to subject to critical analysis in the first place.
Let me explain:
Histories and classes about drug trades and controls are common. Histories of drug use less common. There seems to be a tacit knowledge among my colleagues that many of us have consumed psychoactive substances in our youths. None of us talk about our current consumption other than alcohol and caffeine. I have brought up my recently renewed consumption of psychedelic substances with a few of my closer friends at Claustrodemonic U. Their responses were more accepting than hostile. But they (with the exception of one) quickly shifted the subject away from the experiences to more familiar terrain about legality, distribution and how we might build careers by researching other people’s historical drug use.
Like many users of psychedelics, it is hard for me to forget the actual experience of taking the drugs. I want to understand it, integrate it into my life. I can usually shift the discussion towards topics that now interest me, like the history of addiction science, the psychonautic explorations of 19c doctors, and the ways that big pharmacy has created and packaged drugs from cocaine and heroin to Prozac. But these still feel trivial—modes of analysis that continue to avoid the meaning of the experience in much the way that all the doctors, politicians, temperance activists of the past have avoided it by subjecting it to excessive categorization, abstraction and rigid explanation. They betray the drug experience itself, which constantly reminds users of the limits of these kinds of analysis.
At the same time, I can not easily dismiss the political, social and institutional analyses. All the prisoners and destruction of the War on Drugs; and the ways in which science and political propaganda have shaped even our personal experiences of drug use are not at all trivial. And I am enough of a skeptical historian to get easily frustrated with the more enthusiastic attempts to show that drug use has inspired every aspect of the origins of culture and religion (the conventional methods of historical evidence are worth something). And I can easily dismiss the more utopian claims of contemporary users about how these substances can free our souls and create a society of love (yeah, we’ve heard it all before).
There has been a recent resurgence of interest in psychedelics among psychologists, therapists and doctors (watch the videos from the Horizons conference on psychedelics). While I am happy to see this (indeed, my recent experiences have been much more Freudian than I expected) I really hope the doctors don’t get too much control over the meaning of psychedelics. The goals of medical science and therapy are ultimately to make us normal by avoiding serious health disturbances (which are increasingly proliferating to include more and more forms of human behavior). They tend to see exploration into new mental experiences only as risky behavior, with consequences that will need to be cured. This is not so much a matter of the attitudes of individual doctors who have an interest in psychedelics, but of the larger structures within which they work—the therapeutic state in which the preservation of life and maintenance of bored, ‘adjusted’ normality seems to trump all other goals.
Say, by some miracle, all of our social critiques, discoveries of medical benefits and calls for freedom of choice took root—what then? Are we ready to engage drug experiences on their own terms? I don’t think so. Our mental equipment has been forged in the fire of analytical reason and criticism. We will just go spiraling in to some new mutually-repressing hell. Critical analysis is not sufficient.
It is even harder to speak openly of sex work in academia than it is to speak about drugs. By and large, the anti-commercial sex as exploitative patriarchy attitude is still the norm. There are some cracks in the edifice, but most of them are abstract and cautiously formulated. However much I might openly propose alternative facts and generalizations, I still wouldn’t dream of telling my colleagues that I have visited sex workers. To be sure, some sex workers in academia have come out to their colleagues, usually without horrible results. But it often comes at a price of having to express their activities in terms of abstractions and a critical vocabulary that does not always do justice to their experiences. (For unorthodox academic opinions on sex work and the difficulties in airing them, see Laura Augustín’s blog Naked Anthropologist).
I am not entirely sure what attracts me to this topic. To some degree, it is that sex sometimes take us into those same realms of ineffable experience as drugs. And adding some commercial exchange can make the experience significantly different—although no less ineffable—and directly links that experience to the more conventional historical topic of capitalism.
I’ve also found that sex workers write some of the most thoughtful and eloquent blogs on the internet (some are listed at the end of this post). This is no accident. The work both attracts people with independent personalities and fosters an outsider perspective, one that is built on daily experience with social hypocrisy. A sex worker daily engages with people who are often at their most vulnerable, insecure or obnoxious. A successful sex worker has to understand the human condition. A successful sex worker also learns to restrain judgment, manage difficult situations, play roles and project images, make people feel at ease, convey self-confidence, manage her or his own conflicting emotions and attachments, and deal with the self-doubt and anger that results from the relentless public criticism of their jobs. When they are good writers, this translates into a mix of emotional nuance, trenchant social critique, unique perspectives, self-awareness, unflinching observation and great story telling. It is a model for how I would like to write. It is a perspective that should not be ignored if we want to understand the modern world.
Drug literature is rarely a model for how I would like to write. Much about drug consumption is asocial and private, and the writing is often excessively personal and opaque, or else self-pitying. Even drug-taking that is about sociability and bonding has a personal dimension that is hard to express. Commercial sex, on the other hand, is fundamentally about communication and social interaction (at least if we focus on person-to-person exchanges rather than the internet). Sex workers and their writings are grounded in the material world, while still living in that liminal world where new insights and truths are more easily found. They directly inhabit the interface between practical reality, social marginalization and the ineffable experiences and emotionality of sex. And it is all mediated through money.
Most of my ideas about freedom come out of my academic experience, so the problem is different here. With drugs and commercial sex, I am confronted with the problem and limitations of translating emotional experiences into academic analysis. Here the problem is of not understanding the emotional and personal implications of my intellectual knowledge. I can elaborate endlessly on the many historical meanings and manipulations of the idea of freedom; the way the preservation of freedom so often justifies intervention into and control of the lives of others; and its uselessness as an abstract idea that can deal neither with the complexities of an interconnected society nor the needs and demands of our psyches. I find it hard to believe that freedom exists, or that it would be desirable if it did.
My historian colleagues will give me a good hearing, acknowledge the nuances of my argument, and then go right back to praising agency, resistance, freedom of choice, multivalence, fluidity or any of many vague ways of putting freedom on a pedestal and criticizing those who might block us from getting it. And I have to admit that, whatever I may convince myself of intellectually, in my daily life I still feel that freedom is something that I want, something I enjoy, an ideal I strive for. And I stubbornly pursue most of my individualistic goals and inclinations more than most people that I know (my stubborn criticism of freedom being one of those inclinations). What the hell is going on here?
I worry too much. Whatever new directions I am trying to explore, I am still excited by the nerdy historical ideas I described back in the second paragraph. The real challenge is how to combine the abstract over-analysis with these more visceral experiences and knowledge. And my black-and-white picture of academic resistance to open discussion about these liminal activities is a bit extreme. Academia has numerous pockets of tolerance and exploration (although one often has to sacrifice the career ladder in order to enjoy them). Any fear and resistance to exploring in new directions comes more from inside myself than from the outside. . . . . That’s something I’ve learned from drugs and sex.
*Some sex worker blogs that have inspired me (there are many more):
You can use the library, but beware, it’s just like a narcotic. Library books are very dangerous addictive substances. Like heroin, books become and end in themselves. I made the suggestion two years ago at Harvard University that they lock up Widener Library, put chains on the doors, and have little holes in the wall like in bank tellers’ windows, and if a student wanted to get a book, he would have to come with a little slip made out showing that he had some existential, practical questions. He wouldn’t say that he wanted to stuff a lot of facts in his mind so that he could impress a teacher or be one up on the other students in the intellectual game. No. But if he had an existential problem, then the library would help him get all the information that could be brought to bear on that problem. Needless to say, this plan didn’t make much of a hit, and the doors of the Harvard Library are still open. You can still get dangerous narcotic volumes without a prescription at Harvard
Timothy Leary, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out
What can Timothy Leary learn from history? He would learn that book smuggling network and underground reading cultures would surely develop. Certain books would develop auras of special power and magic, nurtured and ritualized by cult followings. Some followers would accumulate extensive esoteric knowledge of certain books, while others would engage in abusive misuse and misinterpretation . . . . which is not much different than current usage, except that the influence of teachers and therapeutic/educational claims would be much less pervasive. A violent legal and social struggle over the proper use and meaning of particular books might even emerge.
What can we, the professional book-pushers of academia, learn from Leary? Well, once the addiction sets in (as with most narcotics, only a fraction of the users will become hardcore addicts) the pleasure and thrill of books will inexorably decline. Reading will ultimately become a burden, one that we feel ambivalent about, both dreading and desiring at the same time—but a burden nearly impossible to quit.