In conclusion, I might say that this funky and often tedious memoir work I’ve been busy with for who knows how long now— dredging through boxes of old journals mildewed and nearly illegible, photographs cracked and worn, blurred words and broken trinkets and solitary earrings, leaves from unknown trees pressed between blank pages, rough stones from unremembered rivers, dreams and lovers and poems, lost homes and landscapes and whole continents sorted and sifted and recombined— is actually a way of bringing my own past into being, of re-creating it in retrospect, backwards from its future which is this present moment. The way a quantum observation collapses the infinite possibilities of the wave function into one, and we see at last the true thing it must have been all along. These words may be, then, not so much a way of remembering my past as a way of making it real.
But I know that doesn’t make sense to you yet. Let me start again.
Several things seem to have lined up together this week.
First, I’ve been studying up on bible prophecies for reasons that may be understandable to some of you who pay attention to world events. It’s not that I put much stock in prophecy, especially not the modern Christian kind. Of course, there may be real prophets and prophecy in the world. I don’t doubt it, actually. But I do know that most “prophecies” never come to pass. Most prophets are just crazy, or they’re really disguised profiteers, using their bullshit to sell something.
But many, many millions of people do believe in bible prophecy, specifically in some of the more recent interpretations of that psychotic, dream-like, surrealistic, hallucinatory prose poem called Revelations. And here’s the rub: our ideas and beliefs, even our wildest ideas and beliefs, have a way of influencing reality, of creating themselves through the actions of their believers. Sometimes recent history looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy in which crazy people who believe in and desire an apocalypse are intentionally creating it. Their imagined end-times dragging our present day world toward its own destruction. No, I don’t really believe in bible prophecy, but it scares the hell out of me anyway.
This morning a poem by Robinson Jeffers came into my mind, a short poem called simply “Diagram” written in 1947. I pulled it up on the web, and I read it out loud.
Look, there are two curves in the air: the air
That man’s fate breathes: there is the rise and fall of the Christian culture-complex, that broke its dawn cloud
Fifteen centuries ago, and now past noon
Drifts to decline; and there’s the yet vaster curve, but mostly in the future, of the age that began at Kittyhawk
Within one’s lifetime. – The first of these curves passing its noon and the second orient
All in one’s little lifetime make it seem pivotal.
Truly the time is marked by insane splendors and agonies. But watch when the two curves cross: you children
Not far away down the hawk’s-nightmare future: you will see monsters.
It’s a poem I’ve known for a long time, and one that— much like Yeats’ “The Second Coming”— never fails to startle me each time I read it. There’s always been some blurring of the line between poetry and prophecy, and in certain poems I see the connection strongly. “Diagram” feels like a prophetic utterance to me; it’s a tone Jeffers adopts in many of his poems. The strange self-assuredness, its abstraction of history into two curves on a graph, as though the speaker stood outside of time looking at history’s entire outline. And the ominous prediction of that haunting last line, “you will see monsters,” echoing Yeats’ “rough beast” in a way that gives me that shiver I’m familiar with in the presence of the most powerful poetry.
Later in the day, watching one of the weird YouTube videos I enjoy so much— this one about a favorite author- Phillip K. Dick, no less— I encountered a word that I don’t remember hearing before. “Retrocausality.” Cool word, but not an unfamiliar concept to me. I got the idea instantly, along with a strong tingle of that déjà vu feeling we all know. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by an aspect of experience that Carl Jung named “synchronicity.” I’ve had many of those odd moments where it feels like the line between past, present, and future blurs a little, and events are linked together outside of our traditional idea of linear cause and effect, entangled in some way that transcends time and space. Retrocausality might be a useful tool for thinking about why synchronicities happen and where those weird glimpses of possible futures that we label prophecy come from.
Since Tom Wolfe’s death a few days ago, I’ve also been remembering and writing a little about his book, The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test and how important that book was for me. In fact, Acid Test might well be the book that most shaped my life. (For better or for worse, who can say?) I first read it when I was fourteen, in 1971, living on the base in Turkey. I snagged it off my parent’s shelf. It was probably a book-of-the-month-club selection, since it doesn’t seem like a natural read for them. But it was perfect for me. Everything about that book turned me on. It was full of drugs, sex, and rock and roll, and I was ready for it! I read it over and over during the next several years. It described a counter-culture I knew nothing about. I had mostly missed the ‘60s, being too young and growing up inside the insulated cocoon of the national security state community. My only glimpses of that cultural revolution had come from radio pop music and barely-noticed TV news reports about riots or demonstrations. Before reading Acid Test, I don’t think I could have told you what a hippie was. It was in Wolfe’s book that I first heard about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It was there that I first heard about the Beatnik writers: Ginsburg, Cassady, Kerouac. Reading Acid Test was the first time I got the idea that writing could be cool. It was the first place I heard about the Grateful Dead. It was where I first learned about psychedelic culture and art, about psychedelic thinkers like Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary, where I caught my first glimpse of the philosophical and mystical traditions behind that culture, where I first heard of the I Ching. And Acid Test was the first place I encountered the idea of “synchronicity”.
So I’d like to offer you an example of synchronicity, or perhaps “retrocausality”, from my own experience, tied in with Ken Kesey, even though you may not believe it. But to do that, I need to talk a little about dreams.
You see, the core of my Communications Studies degree at Oberlin consisted of a series of classes and seminars called “Theories of the Image” taught by an eccentric genius named Christian Koch. These courses centered on a Jungian/Hillmanian analysis of dreams and branched outward into realms of critical theory like structuralism and semiotics, into mythology, mysticism and other eclectic studies. Cool stuff! In Koch’s classes one of the dream analysis techniques we practiced was to link images together, ignoring the time sequence of the dream. To think of the dream as a timeless space in which everything happens at once, and everything is connected in meaningful ways. “Over-determined.” Koch would say. So I might connect two dream images, for example ‘I open the window and look outside— my lover calls me on the telephone’ although they happened in different parts of the dream, or even in separate dreams. Then I might reverse the order, add a “when” or “so” to suggest cause and effect, poking around for some hint of meaning, for a little glimpse of the shape of the sub-conscious mind in the associational tug between the two images. Looking for signs of what I called in a poem back then, “the anonymous author of my dreams.” All this made perfect sense to me, because this is very much how images in literature work, especially in the kinds of poetry I love the most. Juxtaposition, association, connotation. The same tools I was learning to use in reading and writing poetry worked great in interpreting dreams.
Because of Koch’s classes, remembering and writing down my dreams became a habit I’ve held onto since. (Though my dreams come less to me, more recently…)
In the spring of 1986 I wrote down a short dream. In it I took an elevator into a cave with a bunch of people I didn’t know. I thought of it as the Oregon Caves, though I’d never been there in reality. About six weeks later, I had another dream, described in my journal simply as “long dream of partying with Ken Kesey, can’t remember details now”. This seemed an odd dream at the time, since I’d met Kesey only once before that. (underneath the stage on the day before the 1982 field trip Grateful Dead show, but that’s another story.) That page in my journal looks like this: [image above]
The entry about Kesey is followed immediately by a note about the earlier “cave elevator” dream starting a list of recent dreams. Why I decided to look for patterns in my dreams that particular day and list them like that, I have no idea. But because I did, I quite randomly juxtaposed those two dreams— partying with Kesey and the Oregon Caves— right next to each other, even though they happened weeks apart. It seems to me a remarkable synchronicity, if not some form of retrocausation, that a year and a half later I’d end up writing a novel titled Caverns with Kesey and a group of other grad students in the only class he taught at the University of Oregon. In fact, it’s such an odd coincidence I’d be reluctant to include it in a piece of fiction as too unbelievable, even though it’s true. Hell, I probably wouldn’t believe it myself, if someone told me it happened to them.
At some point during that year-long class, I had a conversation with Kesey about synchronicity. It seemed to me that much of his teaching in the class was aimed at dispelling our bogus, simple-minded ideas about mysticism and magic and about writing as well. He did coin tricks often. Prestidigitation, he liked to say. Magic is a trick, a real illusion. Even writing, Kesey said again and again, is a bunch of tricks. It’s not magic; it’s a craft. You learn the tricks and you do the work. If you’re lucky, a little magic might happen.
That day I sat across from him at the big table, lit up a jay, and asked if he was trying to de-mystify us, dispel our illusions. “Yeah,” he said, “I hate that mystical crap. I hate any kind of kissing the ass of God. Like so and so (a Eugene-area mystic). It’s all a bunch of bull what they do, dressing up in costumes and symbols from cultures you don’t understand, you aren’t part of. Chanting and incense and all that. All that magic new age froofraw is bullshit. Just kissing the ass of God.” “But, I can tell you believe in some of that stuff. What about synchronicity, the I Ching?” I asked him. We’d thrown the I Ching together. “That’s totally different…” Kesey sounded a little defensive to me. Looking back, I think he was working on something in his mind, working through something, perhaps related to the death of his son, Jed. I think I was listening to an early version of what was to become his “fuck you to God” speech, the one that has the line, “Look for the mystery, not the answer.” But then he got excited. “Let me show you something, Zimmerman!” he said. So I twisted up another one out of his cigar box while he grabbed a pencil and went on to offer me an elegant visual way to understand how synchronicity or retrocausality is possible, though it does involve imagining a fifth dimension. (no, not the ‘60s soul band.)
It’s easiest to visualize a fifth dimension if you know what a “world line” is. You can think of the tip of the pencil as an object, and the line the pencil draws as that object’s path through time and space. It’s a one-dimensional map of the object’s four-dimensional existence. Kesey turned over a piece of note paper and drew a line across it. “See, that line collapses all the four normal dimensions down to one. So now think of the sheet of paper as a fifth dimension, stretching out around the other 4. Got it?” Then he drew several arrows, perpendicular to the first line, their tips intersecting it in different spots. “See how a wave or some force in that fifth dimension, like these arrows, could influence several different points along the timeline, basically affecting past and present and future together. That’s what causes synchronicity and déjà vu and all that. A wave in another dimension passing across our timeline. See?” Well, sure enough, I thought I did. Kesey could get pretty animated when he talked and gesture wildly with his meaty hands. Then, when he knew he’d said something especially cool, he’d sit back abruptly, with a visible satisfaction spreading across his broad face, and drop his hands into his lap. That simple drawing lay on the table between us. A diagram of history on the back of a used scrap of paper.
Now, I’ve been fascinated with the mystery of time for as long as I can remember. As a kid, when I first learned about relativity and how time is just one more dimension of our universe like the three spatial dimensions, my mind was blown. I read the sci-fi stories about time travel and all those brain-boggling paradoxes. I just loved that stuff. The first time I got high on weed (actually some fine, fine Turkish hash but that’s another story), my experience was of time changing, warping, slowing down and speeding up. I was walking across a playing field, and it was as if I was going nowhere, just floating in one place. Each step was taking forever and no time at all. I felt I could reach the end of the field instantly. Then I felt like I would never get there. I tried to explain to my buddies and they laughed. “Ken finally got high!” The feeling was a little frightening, exhilarating, and also hilarious. I was suddenly fascinated with my mind, my perception. How could everything change like that? It felt like time was elastic, rubbery, stretching and flopping around me as I waded through it with difficulty, like wading through waist-deep waves.
That would have been almost a year before I read The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test, which helped me make sense of those kinds of experiences, maybe even saved me from drowning in them. I’ve spent a lot of time since learning to stay afloat in those waters. One of my first adolescent efforts at poetry— junior year, back in the states at Largo High on the outskirts of D.C.— ended “…two sides of the swirling river of time, no way to get across, what a loss.” Excellent metaphor, my English teacher jotted in the margin, ignoring or perhaps not recognizing the huge cliché, the clunky final rhyme. A+. Nudging me toward a future and a fate of studying poetry and struggling to write it. (For better or worse, who can say?)
Many of the papers I wrote at Oberlin and in grad school at Oregon had to do with time. Most of them, actually. Time was my main theme, a true obsession. I wrote about time in Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” (Dilsey in the prophetic role uttering “I seed the first and I seed the last” with that lovely play on the word “seed”). I wrote about time in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (“In my beginning is my end”). I gave Kesey a copy of “Four Quartets” for his birthday. I think he appreciated it, despite my inscription on the title page “Old men should be explorers”. I read about mystics and seers who claimed to step outside of time, to see like Edgar Cayce the Akashic Records where all history is stored. (I even snuck a reference to the Akashic records into one of the scenes in Caverns.) Yeats’ “Second Coming” similarly describes accessing a prophetic “vision out of Spiritus Mundi.”
This mystical idea of a realm outside of time is something like the fifth dimensional viewpoint Kesey described, though he never suggested he thought any human could actually perceive it. He certainly never seemed to think of himself as any kind of prophet, (although there is a moment in that screenplay in Garage Sale…) But just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Those events we call synchronicity could be tiny hints that point toward a cross-time or trans-time or fifth-dimensional patterning that can only be seen by its effects, as the I Ching says, like ripples on still water that reveal the invisible wind.
We talked about Acid Test a little in class. Kesey respected Wolfe’s depiction of him and his adventures, and he resented it at the same time. Kesey knew good writing when he read it; he couldn’t deny it was a fantastic book. But Wolfe wasn’t really part of things; he was never on the bus. The book misses a lot, focuses on some trivialities. There was so much that Wolfe didn’t know, didn’t understand. And more crucially, Kesey said— I think quoting something Robert Stone had told him— Electric Kool-aid Acid Test had used up some of Kesey’s own best material. That as a writer your life is the source of your work. It’s your turf, your home ground, and you have to hold on to it, claim it, and work it yourself. Kesey tried to get some of that territory back, he told us, with the long screenplay at the heart of the Garage Sale compilation, where he chronicles his time as a fugitive in Mexico. (Which brilliant piece, along with his Grandma Whittier tales, deserves to be an important part of Kesey’s literary legacy. It beats the hell out of Acid Test!) But Wolfe had depicted the prankster days too well, re-created them with his book, and Kesey sort of lost his literary rights to the territory that should have been his to plant and harvest.
That last year of graduate school at Oregon, while I was in Kesey’s class, I developed a theory of literary analysis, just a little pet idea of a way to think about the effect of literature, how it functions in a kind of structural model of prophecy. This word I’ve just encountered, retrocausality, might actually be a decent name for the theory, or at least for an essay about it. In a literary text, all the pieces are connected, so the ending might “cause” the beginning or reshape the events in the middle of the story. The writer has that kind of control, in the same way an omniscient God might have control over the events of the world, past, present, and future.
In class, Kesey talked about the writing of his novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. He told us he realized late in the writing of it that one of the characters would need to die in a certain scene. Knowing that, he went back and re-wrote that character’s role in all the earlier chapters, already completed, to make the death feel more emotional, more meaningful. (Kesey took the power of the writer very seriously, and told us that any death in fiction should be important, never gratuitous or trivial.) In a very real sense the ending of the book, unknown until it was reached, had looped back to change the earlier parts of the story, all the way to the beginning.
I honestly don’t know whether my little theory came to me before or after that conversation about synchronicity with Kesey. (Memory, similar to dream, can feel like a timeless space, a conglomeration of events in no particular order, linked by association rather than narrative.) But after our discussion, I definitely incorporated Kesey’s phrasing about a fifth dimension into my idea. It goes something like this. A literary text can best be understood as an enclosed world, with the author in the position of God, out in that fifth dimensional space beyond the timeline and history of the story, seeing both the beginning and the end, shaping all the events and images of the text into a pattern that the characters can only glimpse in moments of insight, what Joyce called “epiphany”. I thought of it then as the “poet is a little god” theory, quoting Vincente Huidobro. The narrator is in the prophet’s role, revealing fragments of the overall pattern, while the reader moves inch by inch along the narrative, only understanding how it all fits together at the end. The effect of great literature and poetry— that revelatory sensation that happens to a reader most often when reading aloud, that amazing moment Emily Dickinson described as “feeling like the back of my head is coming off,”— occurs when the reader becomes absorbed into the narrator’s voice and suddenly “gets it”, feels that déjà vu recognition of pattern, and senses a creator’s hand shaping that pattern. The reader at that moment falls into the position of the prophet, perceiving the meaningful structure of the text in the same way the prophet or mystic or saint sees the patterns in history and the invisible hand of God behind it.
Kesey showed us one writing trick to help achieve this effect. “Stitching” he called it, weaving threads of imagery and thought throughout the story like the hidden colors in a cloth that might show up in the pattern only rarely but underneath hold the whole fabric together. In an essay about Dickinson I wrote that this literary feeling of experiencing a text as a unified, meaningful pattern of events was identical with the mystical experience that underlies many religions— not the structures or tenets or rituals but the core experience, that strange, spooky, awe-inspiring feeling that everything is connected and filled with meaning. That unknown knowing that swells just outside the edge of our understanding, where history makes sense and life has a purpose that can’t quite be named, where we feel more than see the passing shadow of the unseen author’s unseen hand as it writes and re-writes our lives.
So I suppose it is possible that all these things I’ve done and studied and dreamed and written, my obsession with time, all those little synchronistic moments of my life, actually are woven together across an invisible fifth dimension into some pattern I can never understand, all of it perhaps collapsed into existence out of a wave of possibility by yesterday’s seemingly random encounter with a single word— retrocausality. Maybe all my life has simply been an attempt after the fact to put myself in a position to understand that. Maybe even to write it.
Now, to begin…
Retrocausality: A Meditation on Time by Ken Zimmerman