There are moments when one feels free from one's own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only Being. — Albert Einstein
When people ask what it’s like to write a novel I often reply that it’s the closest I get to levitation. You can imagine my pleasure when Einstein and Wasson testify to similar experiences. Despite their endorsements, I suspect the subject deserves some elaboration if it’s going to make compelling sense to readers.
Although Wasson and Einstein were contemporaries, they were very different from one another. We all know Einstein as a physicist, or perhaps as an amateur violinist. The lesser-known Wasson was a vice-president at JP Morgan & Co. and a self-taught ethnomycologist who began the study of edible wild mushrooms on his honeymoon (must have been quite a romance!)—a pursuit that led to his personal discovery of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenic fungi. Despite these differences, both men were accomplished writers.
Wasson and his wife began to travel the world reporting on their experiments with psychedelics and the variety of transcendental experiences associated with spiritual and religious practices. His first-hand reports reveal a sense of wonder at his out-of-body journey, one that provided an elevated view of consciousness.
I’ve never heard reports of Einstein toying with psychotropic drugs of any kind. Yet I’ve come across several passages written by him that express a disembodied awareness similar to Wasson’s accounts. While he never fully endorsed any religion (he was a secular Jew), there are hints here and there that he was a pantheist, one who believes that God inhabits all things. When I read these statements from Einstein, I take them literally. I suspect there were several occasions in which he possessed a complete identification with “Being”—free, as he says, from the constraints of “evolution or destiny.”
Please be assured I’m
making no claims to identify myself with Einstein,
Wasson, or anyone else. However, many artists report
similar phenomena to those of Einstein and Wasson,
especially when their painting or composing or
writing enters a groove when the work seems to create
Some writers, for example, have revealed that at some point their characters begin to generate their own dialogue. I’ve certainly enjoyed this experience—and much more. In my current work-in-progress (somewhere around page thirty) I discovered a girl hiding in a bedroom in her mother’s apartment. I had no idea she was there, yet when she entered the narrative, she immediately demanded an important place in the novel—one so important that it drove the story in a direction I didn’t imagine when I began to write.
When the creative act reaches this point of “lift-off” it can become a form of dictation in which I simply record the text and correct bits and pieces to ensure it makes sense. Sometimes the force of this experience is so powerful that I feel as though I’m almost irrelevant to the process. All I need to do is trust it as the words appear on the page. Once that sense of trust is complete, I am free to read the narrative as a disembodied eye, to witness the unfolding of the forces of nature as they are transmitted through my being.
It’s a remarkable experience. Much safer than psychedelics.
Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. — Marie Curie
Is the world a benevolent place? These two Nobel laureates seem to hold slightly different views. As a victim of Nazi racism, Einstein’s doubts are understandable. And Marie Curie might have escaped her battle with terminal cancer if she’d feared the effects of radioactive isotopes in the test tubes that she carried about in her pockets and stashed in her desk drawers.
But what happens when a good friend—like Mother Earth—goes bad? That’s a simplification of the question James Lovelock poses in his latest book, The Vanishing face of Gaia, A Final Warning. In the 1960s Lovelock invented Gaia theory—the notion that Earth is a dynamic living system, an organic whole constantly adjusting the “harmonic thermostat” of our world. He was also first to identify CFCs and rallied international awareness to ban their use. When it became apparent that Earth’s temperature was rising at a feverish pace, once again he took up the challenge. He’s the original green genius. And green giant.
I have to confess to a certain gloomsterism about our collective future and The Vanishing face of Gaia, A Final Warning provides more than enough fertilizer for my over-ripe vision of what may befall humanity in the very near future. While Lovelock acknowledges the tireless work of the scientists who support the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (another Nobel Prize winner), he dismisses the consensus approach of the IPCC as politically motivated and a form of science heresy.
According to Lovelock, the IPCC is way too optimistic in its forecasts and it’s now too late for humans to reduce the global warming trend. Instead, governments should dedicate their efforts to prepare for the survival of those few millions lucky enough to inhabit the isolated places on Earth that may be habitable after the next 100 years: Tasmania, New Zealand, Britain and a few other spots in the northern hemisphere. (I like to think that the place where I live, Vancouver Island, is a viable candidate.)
When you consider that the global human population is currently around seven billion, I believe gloomsterism is the appropriate perspective on the changes which lie ahead. If Lovelock is correct (and I pray that he is terribly, laughably, wrong) the implications of the challenge we face are almost unimaginable. But a solution may be at hand.
Which takes me to my new work-in-progress, Exit from America, in which the central characters confront the changing world that Lovelock foresees and set about to find a new place for themselves where they can thrive. This requires a radical re-visioning of who we are as a species—a new step in our evolution.
But if there is another step in human evolution (something equivalent to the shift from homo erectus to homo sapiens) this change will be based on choice. Rather than merely adapting to a new environment (the modus operandi in Darwinian evolution) we will have to actualize our sense of human freedom and choose to become a new species so that our society can become a new kind of humanity.
A tall order? Indeed—and only those who survive will know if we succeed.