Tag Archives: Jacob Rabinowitz

In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part four, the final in this excerpt series, of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

4: In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

For my part, I introduced Peter to my New York, the cafés of the Village that were open latest and left you undisturbed for hours at your table to sip your espresso and talk and smoke. My favorite was Di Roberti’s, on First Avenue near Twelfth Street, with black-and-white tiled walls and floors, and a few unrepaired bullet holes by the booth where Louie the Fish bought it back in the forties.

The fare at Di Roberti’s was unsubtle but wonderful Sicilian pastry. Around Easter the window would be filled with marzipan lambs, each holding its cross- banner in the crook of its foreleg. In the wall-covering front mirrors of that brightly lit pastry-shop you saw a miniature infinity of toy-like pink identical animals, a vista of childhood delight, multiplied into a likeness of candied eternity.

They also had Poppe di Monaca (“Nun’s Breasts”), the round dome-like cakes, filled with marzipan, topped with a cherry and glazed with white icing, through which the cherry showed, erect and roseate, an angelic and delectable nipple.

I tried to share with Peter the things that interested me, De Sade, Heraclitus and so on, but the only one he really took to was Nietzsche, whom he’d somehow missed out on. Peter treated Nietzsche like a chocolate-box full of ideas to be sampled.

He took a similar view of my conversation. When I look over the pages of TAZ I see a number verbatim phrases I can confidently claim, but I cannot say that he borrowed any of my ideas. Those didn’t really register.

I was the great beneficiary in our friendship. Peter taught me about Islamic civilization, a vast gap in my education, as it is in that of most westerners to this day. This ignorance forms a particularly appalling chasm, since Middle Eastern politics are now part of ours. Islamdom covered twice the territory (it extended from Spain to India) and lasted twice as long as the Roman empire, and was responsible for such international intellectual projects as medieval philosophy and medicine, modern algebra and chess. Algebra was created when the Arab mathematicians combined Greek geometry and the Indian concept of zero with their own system of writing numbers, which is the one we use today. Chess was an Indian board game not much better than checkers before Moslem merchants carried it across continents.

Typically Peter and I would talk all night. At five the next morning. I would go home to sleep, and then walk up to the Columbia library to get the books he’d mentioned. Thus I obtained a truly splendid education at Columbia, without Columbia’s assistance. It was in effect a graduate tutorial in Islamic {169} civilization from an expert whose knowledge had come from living in the midst of it.

Peter was also the first to tell me about Gnosticism—the antinomian heresy that beset early Christianity. This was just then becoming a modish subject due to Elaine Pagel’s vulgarization, the best-selling 1979 Gnostic Gospels. At about this time Gnosticism was also trickling into the popular culture via the last novels of P. K. Dick: The Divine Invasion, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Later on gnosticism would tinge such hits as The Da Vinci Code and the movie The Matrix. But when I met Peter, Gnosticism was still a topic largely unknown to anyone outside of academia and, on a deeper level, such it really remains. Although a few people have cashed in on it, it has largely been by citing the rediscovered gnostic scriptures to appeal to anti-Catholic feeling—never a bad bet in a Protestant country. The idea here is that the evil Catholic Church has been hiding the true scriptures so as to protect its monopoly. This ploy has been selling books since Gutenberg printed Luther’s Bible. It’s literally the oldest game in publishing.

Real knowledge of Gnosticism remains an esoteric rarity, and the book Peter referred me to, Hans Jonas’ 1958 The Gnostic Religion, remains the most valuable study of the subject available, though interested persons should now also acquire Bentley Layton’s splendid 1987 The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations, which has for the first time made the primary documents accessible to the non-specialist.

Peter was interested in Gnosticism for the same reason he embraced Islamic heresy, because it was a source of hoary authorities and tragic antecedents to legitimize his homosexuality and anarchism. He had invested far too much of his life in the spiritual path to reject religion wholesale, to be simply irreverently gay and atheistically anarchist. That might do if your only exposure to religion was a crude fundamentalism, but Peter was deeply read in mystical literature, and had considerable experience of spiritual practice.

The Christian gnostics offered a kind of liberation, but because of Christianity’s underlying ambivalence to material existence, their ventures into sacred sex and strange politics took a particularly blasphemous form. In fact, a kind of satanism. They regarded the god of the Old Testament with his list of prohibitions as the evil, stupid overlord of the physical world only, who had invented sexual morality as a further fetter upon the spirit. Thus gnosticism has always had a certain appeal for Christendom’s sexual dissidents. This excerpt from the Nag Hammadi hymn Thunder, Perfect Mind, will give an idea. Here the spirit of Holy Wisdom says {170}

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.

With scriptures like this, it’s pretty easy to see how you could have whatever quantity or character of sex you please and still end up holier than the pope!

Peter wasn’t particularly attracted to the Gnostic path; “gloomy libertines” was how he described them. But he found in them an instructive parallel to Islamic heresies, which offered pretty much the same validation of this-worldly pleasure and total individual freedom, but without the melodrama. The dualism that underlies the Islamic version of gnosticism is largely neutralized by the stricter monotheism of Islam.

Dualism may be a term too concise to be clear. It’s the notion that mater and spirit are opposed principles, forever at war in the cosmos, as light versus darkness, good versus evil, &c. Peter explained to me that, whatever gnosticism’s metaphysical shortcomings—the fact it defines the material world as evil—its dualist ideology provides a splendid tension for a novel’s plotline. Peter was particularly interested in how this appeared in science fiction: here P. K. Dick is the parade example. I would extend Peter’s insight to say that dualism is the only, though crucial, Christian element in Tolkien’s otherwise pagan Lord of the Rings, and that the entire genre of detective novel can be viewed as a secularized version of the same plot structure. The archetype of Saint Michael (the patron saint of police officers) fighting the Antichrist is always somewhere present in the roman policier.

It was through Peter that I rediscovered science fiction. I’d read a certain amount of it while a teenager, but had figured it was one of those childish things one puts away when one becomes a man. Peter made a quite compelling, though somewhat self-serving argument that SF was the modern “literature of ideas,” comparable to the didactic poetry of old, like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the great first-century BC epic poem about physics. I wasn’t, and am not, persuaded that the alternate futures and imaginary worlds of this particular genre fiction are really dealing with serious questions. Not even to the same degree as the satiric fantasy Gulliver’s Travels—at least they have not done so yet, to my knowledge. Yet Peter’s insight is to this degree valid: science fiction would be ideally suited to presenting philosophic concepts in narrative form. At present, its exponents seem satisfied if now and then they can propound a grotesque moral conundrum.

Peter would go through bales of SF novels, and refer me to the very best of what he found. In this manner I read a number of intensely enjoyable books which would have otherwise eluded me. Dick’s Divine Invasion was a {171} particular favorite, as was Gibson’s Neuromancer, both of which I read several times. I recall trying to interest Bret in this later. I thought the opening line was rather grabby: “The sky was the color of TV tuned to a dead channel.” Bret, profoundly unimpressed, responded with,

“I suppose that’s the cyberspace equivalent of it was a dark and stormy night.”

Both of these books dealt with gnosticism. Divine Invasion did so very literally, incorporating the myth of a mental breakdown in the godhead which caused the emanation of our universe. Neuromancer, with its visions of cyberspace as a disembodied network of twinkling information extending through the black non-space of pure consciousness, gave a very up-to-date version of the traditional, disembodied heaven of Christianity.

Peter was my psychopomp through all this literature, from Arabic and Persian classics to SF. He had read seemingly everything and could discuss it all in intelligent detail. There was no one teaching at Columbia remotely comparable to him in breadth of knowledge or literary sensitivity. Though Allen and Bill were immeasurably better writers, compared to Peter’s, their literary culture was limited and provincial. I’m not being a bitch: compared to Peter’s range and agility, just about about anyone looked limited and provincial. It was thanks to Peter that my cultural compass points included Confucius, the Tale of Genji, the Mahabharata and Rumi. Peter was the whole silk route (which he’d in fact traveled in person as much as through books.)

Peter also introduced me to food. My parents had taught me nothing about cooking or dining beyond some rather out-of-date table manners. As a boy, I couldn’t leave before the formal end of the meal without saying “may I please be excused.”

My mother didn’t really cook. Her culinary accomplishments were almost encompassed by meatloaf and tuna-noodle casserole. My father’s only participation in dining was grilling steaks. Were it not for our ethnicity, which vouchsafed us delicatessen food once a week, I would never have guessed that food could be good.

Peter introduced me to real dining, which I maintain is usually the same as cheap dining. I haven’t yet been to an expensive restaurant where the food was really tastier than the fare in a good inexpensive one, be it an ethnic establishment or a plain old American diner. There’s no earthly reason to ever pay fifty dollars a plate, unless someone else is paying, and even then, it’s a bore to be beholden while someone literally shoves their success down your throat. {172}

With Peter I learned to frequent the Cuban-Chinese places that were then so common on the Upper West Side near Columbia. I learned how excellent even an ordinary dish of rice and beans can be, and what delight there is in a simple cup of coffee, when it’s Café Bustelo made in an espresso machine and topped with steamed milk to make a café con leche. Henceforth it was with a grimace that I sipped the thin biter stuff Americans like, which even they have to excuse with copious doses of sugar and cream. I ate roast goat and oxtail soup, chicharrones de pollo, deep-fried morsels of chicken, and crispy sweet fried sweet plantains. All of it cheap, all of it excellent, and always served in a relaxed and courteous atmosphere without a trace of “attitude.”

On our forays into Chinatown we usually ended up at Lin’s Garden on Bayard Street. This magnificent hole-in-the-wall closed around 1990. It was famous for its deliciously greasy chow fun (broad rice noodles) which were served with the meat of your choice mixed in. Best of all was the duck chow fun. To my amazement Peter would order half a roast duck on the side to eat along with his. I’d never seen anyone consume such quantities of admittedly savory but quite rich avian fat. Although I never followed Peter as far as he led into gourmandise, it was a revelation to me that fat wasn’t bad. I’d grown up carefully trimming the white from the strips of steak on my plate. Now I realize this had been the carnivore equivalent of scraping all the butter from your toast.

Peter also opened to me the world of botanicas. These are shops that sell religious and magical supplies to practitioners of Santeria, which is West African paganism syncretized with Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the universal folk religion of Latino communities in America. It’s the Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of Voodoo, and no doubt very similar to the popular Catholicism of Europe in the Dark Ages, in its mixture of scriptural religion and uneffaced paganism.

Santeria flourishes throughout the Americas, and is in fact a highly evolved initiatory religion, with its own music, mythology and ecstatic rites. In 1980 few but professional anthropologists had even heard of it, despite there being a botanica on every block in the Hispanic areas of Manhattan. Peter’s apartment, on 107th and Amsterdam, was right on the border of a large Dominican community, and he had a botanica literally on his doorstep.

With Peter I explored these stores, full of holy cards and plastic statues of saints, as well as herbs, tinctures, novena candles in their tall glass jars wrapped with bright labels printed with Spanish prayers for every purpose, from gaining the favor of one’s guardian angel to winning a court case. Among the standard catholic statues were some genuinely odd-looking ones, like Chango, the seated Santeria Zeus, a crowned, bejeweled but mostly {173} naked human figure with shiny ebony skin and a delirious grin, like an occult Uncle Ben. He is identified with Saint Barbara, who holds a sword and a communion cup, in which the Santeros see a symbol of the mortar and pestle with which Chango produces thunder as he grinds out lightning. A storm appears above a castle in the background of St. Barbara’s image, and this seals the identification. An image of Barbara may thus be used for prayers and offerings to Chango, and indeed the two spirits more or less fuse, so no contradiction or inconsistency is perceived. For the believers in Santeria, the gods, on the most profound level, are the saints. Thus they all consider themselves good Catholics and would be horrified to hear themselves characterized as pagans. Their notion of Catholicism is simply a bit more, well catholic, (universal and comprehensive) than that espoused by the Roman Church.

Then there’s Elegua, the equivalent of Janus, god of doorways, beginnings and endings. He’s represented by a grey truncated cone-like head, like what you’d get if you used a child’s sand-bucket as a mold for concrete. Cowries are pressed in with the nubbly slots facing outwards for eyes, mouth and ears. Beyond these details the head is eerily featureless.

Peter was making collages of Santeria deities with holy cards, marbled paper, hand-watercolored gay porn and frames from “tijuana bibles.” I was edified by his appreciation of crude popular religious art, and the way he swept all the ephemera he enjoyed into the artistic mix.

As regards the Santeria imagery and Catholic kitsch, on my own I would have dismissed it as the unskilled and slightly creepy expression of vulgar, ignorant superstition, but Peter would look at the images on the magic candles or the bottles of hoodoo oil and delight in the errors of anatomy and perspective. In fact, the aesthetic shock of an untutored rendering frequently enhanced the power of the imagery. This was artistic information of a kind undivulged at Columbia’s art history classes. Being with Peter seemed to give me new senses.

Peter’s conversation had a certain acrobatic method to it. Whatever the topic, he would take up an opposite, devil’s advocate position. Not one of outright contradiction, but one that encouraged you to define your own position more clearly. The talk was a kind of genial sparring, which no one ever really “won.” Peter always made you feel like you and he were together getting to the bottom of something interesting.

He did however have a consistent theme that goes through his conversation, at least when any really interesting subject is being discussed. In a way it is the very opposite of that which preoccupied Socrates — though Peter’s method was indeed socratic. The Greek was forever testing for an underlying absolute, the ideal. Peter on the other hand always advocated the {174} mongrel and mixed over the pure, and focused on the detail rather than the pattern.

In literature he always preferred the late, the decadent, the mannerist over the classical and golden-age exemplar. In Latin, which was his major at Columbia before he dropped out to wander across India, he had no interest in Virgil or Horace, except as sources of ideas and myths that might illustrate his ideas. The author he admired and has translated is the fifth century AD poet Dracontius, of Vandal North Africa, whose works are generally considered an arid expanse of abstruse Biblical and Classical allusions, varied only by stale rhetorical tricks. Dracontius is typical of a poet of decadence, capable only of scribbling derivative imitations of the masterpieces written centuries before.

Similarly, in Greek, Homer bores Peter and the dramatists mean nothing to him, but he has read with attention the voluminous Dionysiaca, written in Greek by the Egyptian Nonnius in the fifth century AD. I don’t recall what gold Peter succeeded in panning out of that Nile mud.

The point is that Peter is interested in the moment when classical culture is melting into its barbarous surroundings. You can see this in late Roman sarcophagi, where the execution of classical motifs, say a scene from the life of Hercules or the signs of the zodiac, are becoming a crude repetition of visual formulae whose meaning is being lost at the same rate as the visual realism. Yet it has a certain barbaric energy, a power which wasn’t there when it was all still careful and correct. As the imagery yields to pattern, geometry charges the art with an energy unfelt in Classical sculpture for centuries. At the despised margins of culture Peter discerned lawless new forms, just as he fnds at the margins of society, in the dispossessed and naive, a creativity which is lost to society’s respectable circles. From the Moorish Science Temple to the hoboes to trailer trash to the die-hard hippies of failed communes, Peter took a Whitman-like pleasure in culling the fowers that grow in the ruins.

In religion, he was always interested in the heresies, the syncretisms, the crackpots and apostates. The aberrations and the byways Peter considered to be of importance equal to that of the royal road and highway of knowledge.

To give Peter his due, our sense of cultural peaks, progress and purity are rather subjective. A case can be made for everything being a mongrel admixture. The most pristine examples of cultural continuity known to history are in fact streams so polluted they catch fire by themselves twice a year. But the merits of this point of view can be overstated, as I hope I just have.

I once challenged him, “You think the incidental detail as important as the overall pattern. For you, a camel would be as essential to Islam as the {175} Koran.” Peter proceeded to maintain exactly this position, and not by connecting the camel to Ibn Khaldum (the sixteenth-century Arab historian whose great thesis was that civilization is motivated by the tension between the nomadic and the settled). No, Peter maintained the centrality of the camel on purely aesthetic grounds. Did he mean to suggest that the picture on the iconic American cigarette pack was the equivalent of a surah (chapter of the Koran)? In its way, yes!

As a primary intellectual orientation, Peter’s perspective led to some questionable conclusions, particularly evident to me when he ventured on the deep waters of archaeology and ancient history.

It was from Peter that I learned to be a scholarly trespasser, ignoring the signs that said “private property, keep out!” to draw cross-cultural comparisons, and look beyond my own specialty. Peter’s intellectual agility and really remarkable insights can all be traced to one great understanding. From a certain point of view, mutability is the rule, everything flows, fixed forms are an illusion. This is the perception that made Peter take to Nietzsche.

Change is the very life-blood of reality. Transitions and intermediate phases are more common than full development and complete realization, and they’re never neatly separated. The outmoded past survives just under the surface of the present, superstition lives hardily on within religion, repressed impulses contribute to our noblest acts.

It is not by coincidence that a Luddite love of bygone ways, sympathy for naive superstition and a trust in spontaneous desire are key features of Peter’s worldview. Peter is a partisan of the undercurrents which belie the placid surface.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Klingsor

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part three of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

3: Klingzor

Peter was working his way free of the constraints of orthodox Islam like a butterfly wriggling out of its chrysalis. The analogy is more precise and less flatering than might seem. There was an awful lot of squirming involved before he raised his drying wings in a display you might mistake for a psychedelic sunrise. Peter took a position that has been commonly adopted by mystics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These faiths, which embrace historical time as a kind of dour opaque ongoing disclosure of God’s will, all look forward to the Apocalypse as the ultimate restoration of the miraculous to everyday life. But for the mystic, Doomsday has, in some sense, already arrived. He sees the sacred implicit within the secular, the last judgment in every decision, the one-ness in the many, in Blake’s phrase, “the ocean in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”

Living, on one level, in a post-apocalyptic world, the mystic finds the rules and constraints that order temporal existence are no longer valid. He has passed beyond attachment to the fruits of action, no longer has any corrupting interest in success or failure. His soul is fully realized and autonomous, he sees reality without any subjective coloring, which puts him “beyond good and evil.” Perhaps the best account of this attainment is western literature is in Dante’s Purgatorio, where he reaches the Garden of Eden atop Mount Purgatory, which I translate:

When we’d run up the stairs to its highest step,
Virgil fixed upon me his eyes and said,

“I brought you this far with what skill and insight
I had: be guided from now on

by your own pleasure, go where you feel drawn.

You’ve left behind the steep and narrow path.
See, the sun shines before you

on tender meadows, sweet flowers, little groves
of pleasant shade, which this unplanted land
spontaneously creates.

Until the glad appearance of her whose lovely eyes,
once, beseeching and tearful, sent me to you,
wander here, rest whenever, wherever you wish,
unhurried at last. {166}

Await no further word or sign from me,
permitting this, ordaining that;
your own judgment now is healthy, correct
and free. The only error possible now
is for you not to do what you think best.

I crown and consecrate you
emperor of who you are,
by divine right, a law unto yourself.”

Living in an esoteric apocalypse, whatever pleasures, illicit or otherwise, we can get, are the legitimate rewards of the just—and arguably more fully deserved if acquired by stealth and at risk, in defiance of the demonic “powers of this world.”

Peter viewed his personal mystical liberation in political terms as well, and expressed it as a new sort of Anarchism. I cannot here enter into a detailed critique of Peter’s political thinking, where my purpose is only to offer some details of its origins, which I was on hand to witness. The key insight I have is that Peter’s approach was, at first, mystical. Mysticism is private and interior and amoral. The extroverted opposite of mysticism would be prophecy, which is extremely political and very concerned with right and wrong.

Peter came to his realizations, personal and political, from the context of Sufism, from mystical practice. This “privatized” his political thinking, and resulted in his rejection of long-term social action in favor of limited and personal, brief and private (“temporary, autonomous”) activity. There is merit in his position. Without an interior transformation, what we used to call “consciousness raising,” resistance cannot begin. But without concerted outward action, interior realizations, whatever their intrinsic merit, are politically insignificant.

At the beginning, Peter was engaged in a genuinely mystical adventure. Where this finally led him will be discussed in its place, but his original Chaos Broadsheets were sincerely meant. Peter was really and sincerely religious. He began on the antinomian path with awe and trepidation, unsure whether he’d be halo’d or struck down.

I looked with amazement on Peter’s writings. They had fervor, they were genuine, they contained in their confusing profusion authentic messages from the beyond, a somewhat garbled but unquestionably veracious record of renegade illumination. Nietzschean materialist that I was, mine was not a crude reductionism, I was no positivist. I regarded Peter’s mystical terminology as I {167} did the accounts of the gods in Homer: as a florid and poetic but accurate description of reality.

Peter’s vision of every day as the Day of Judgment, with heaven and hell entirely imminent here, was balanced on the razor’s edge of piety and blasphemy. Was he declaring the presence of God in all things, or was he vulgarizing spiritual terms to gussy up his every whim and want? Or both? In the Talmud there’s a tale of four sages who were allowed to enter Paradise while still alive, that is, they were granted an unfiltered vision of God. One of them died, one went mad, one became a scoffing nihilist, and one “entered in peace and departed in peace,” that is, he kept his interior balance—and in fact became a saint. In Jewish tradition, these are the four possible outcomes of a direct encounter with God. Peter was neither dead nor mad; had he become a saint or a scoffer?

In my opinion, he really had acquired baraka (holiness) during his decade of Sufi practice. And now he succumbed to one of the classic pitfalls of the spiritual path. Since Peter was very fond of the Arthurian legends, particularly during his early, poet period, I will take a likeness from that cycle. The Grail knight, Klingsor, best known from Wagner’s Parzival, succumbs to the sensual temptations that beset those on the quest, and in exchange for physical gratifications becomes a black magician. Then he makes a career out of luring others from the spiritual path with his garden of illicit delights. This is admittedly a rather melodramatic description of Peter’s case, but one which does justice to a certain aspect of his character. I loved him for his spirituality, which still shone about him when he returned from Iran, and I watched with dismay and disappointment as this dissipated over the years, till there was nothing left of that young man who dropped out of college for a mystical journey to India, the knight on the quest of the Holy Grail, the chevalier of the Holy Spirit, who rejoiced my soul by his mere existence, proving that such adventures and such adventurers were possible in our world.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

TAZ

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part two of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

2: TAZ

Shaken from without as much as he was troubled from within, Peter determined to make no further payments to the immensely overpaid account of contrition for his sexual disposition. He thought out his liberation in terms of the theology and symbolism of mystical Islam. Meanwhile I was trying to think my way to reality with Nietzsche and de Sade. The really important thing we had in common was that we were both poets and were looking for a new poetic vision, one that could express what was meaningful and real in our experience, after having put vast energy into trying to live in archaizing dreams. Whether we blamed Omar Khayyám or Baudelaire, we had both been blinkered by books and wandered blind till we were well lost.

Our conversations were endless. Typically I’d be in his tiny, tobacco-cloudy room, talking to him from seven in the evening till five the next morning. It was a real intellectual romance. I’d never met anyone who knew so much, or was so willing to talk, and also to listen!

We both viewed writing as a tool for psychic exploration, and both wanted to bring it into play as we explored the new world of the physical, and now permissible, in the wake of our respective personal liberations, his from sexual repression, mine from a no less crippling cultural traditionalism, which amounted to the same thing in many ways. Even though I was getting spectacularly laid, I kept that whole side of my life entirely secret from any but my closest friends, and certainly never wrote poetry about any of it.

Peter had censored his sexuality and his drug use from his poems, and narrowed his range of permissible topics to literary and conventional ones. He gave me his book of verse, Winter Calligraphy, which greatly impressed me. I no longer have my copy to refer to, but I recall it as owing a lot to Ezra Pound and Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat Orientalism. Elegant and repressed. I had word-painted myself into a similar corner with the Baudelaireanism that had commanded my energies and for some time provided the pattern for my life.

Now, we both agreed, the only poetry worth writing was that which expressed maters so urgent, important and meaningful that we couldn’t not write it. No more pretty verses and elaborate artistry! We wanted poetry that was as powerful as pornography, and if it in fact was pornography, be it so!
Having set aside my old-fashioned notions of what was properly poetic subject mater, I wanted to do away with all the transitional, framing material that makes up a story, and have it be nothing but “the good parts.” I took as my model Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only instead of just having the characters shift shape, the setting morphed as well. Contexts dissolved and {159} transmuted as each narrative structure was annihilated by its own ever-amplifying content. The hero would be propelled from scene to scene by a series of poetic explosions. The scenes transformed, with dreamlike transitions reminiscent of Buster-Keaton, I would let the content create the form and the order.

The result was Blurred Person Singular, which I thought of as an omnisexual science-fiction epic poem and map of the world. I had meant it to be my Hamlet. It was actually more like Titus Andronicus. It had maximum sexual and violent content, by turns offensive and hilarious, though one would be hard put to say where it was going or why. The best of it was the energy and enthusiasm, the sheer puppy-play of genius released, yipping and barking and chasing its own tail.

Peter began by writing prose poetry that dealt frankly with his gay interests, and though personally significant, this was not a course he long pursued, nor the one that gained him fame under the name Hakim Bey. I will consider his poetico-political writings in some detail, but first the stage must be set.

In our forays around Manhattan Peter would stop at all the shops that carried zines. Usually these were hip music stores that, in addition to CDs and cassettes of obscure punk and indie bands, carried a small selection of books on weird sex, weird politics and weird religion, a taste exemplified by RE/Search magazine, founded by V. Vale in 1980. The writings of William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, sado-masochism and body modification, anarchism and neo-Paganism, these were the sorts of things that interested hip, aware twenty-somethings in the eighties. Zines were tiny handmade magazines, usually three 8.5×11 xeroxed pages folded over and saddle-stitched to make a booklet, circulating in well under a thousand copies, on whatever curious topic interested the publisher. The genre had developed out of punk rock fanzines. In 1982, Mike Gunderloy began publication of Factsheet Five, which was three-sentence abstracts of all the zines people sent him, listing price and address. Factsheet Five rapidly became the nerve-center of the zine scene, which lasted through the eighties, and was done in, like the rest of independent print, by the rise of the internet.

In the early eighties, real estate was on its way to becoming the speculative commodity it is today, and Manhattan, like all the “destination cities” in America was losing its hip neighborhoods to gentrification, becoming a live-in mall for out-of-town yuppies. I had noted this peripherally. Lucien had picked up his loft on Great Jones Street, a few blocks south of Cooper Square, for a song at the end of the seventies. By the mid eighties, when UPI’s change of headquarters moved him to Washington, he sold it for a huge profit. When I applied to grad schools, I didn’t even {160} consider one in NYC. I couldn’t afford anything there except movies and cheap Cuban-Chinese restaurants. The bohemias of America were disappearing, a process that wouldn’t be completed till around 2010. But even then, forty years ago, you couldn’t just move to NYC, get a part-time job washing dishes, and live in the Village to pursue your art. You needed full work and had to share an apartment with several other people.

But the ever-less-expensive Xerox machines, which every office and most homes now had, and the US mail, which was then dead cheap and still the best in the world, made for a new bohemia by mail.
While print had been the world’s primary entertainment medium, from roughly 1850 to 1950, it had sustained a certain amount of eccentric, literary publishing on its periphery. Grove Press, City Lights and the like, who had made the success of Ginsberg and Burroughs possible. I grew up thinking that this was an institution, a necessary part of society. It was more like a colorful patch of weeds that thrives at the edge of a uniform and cultivated field, which is the actual “cash crop.” As print yielded its market share to TV, avant-garde and small press publishing got starved out, though it did survive, barely, into the nineties, on the last crumbs to fall from the shrinking mainstream table.
In the early nineties, the internet existed, but was accessible only through the old DOS shell, just lines of glowing green type, half of them code, on a dull screen. No easy interface, no mouse to click. You needed a dictionary of commands to use it, so it wasn’t much of a contender.

I watched puzzled as Peter went to those hip stores and dug through cardboard boxes stuffed with tiny, badly produced, blurry illiterate zines. I couldn’t imagine what the interest was. Peter intuited that there was something important happening there. He obviously didn’t understand that this was the last hurrah for literary print: no one did. In those days, the people involved in the zine scene imagined that it was a kind of literary of-of-Broadway, that success here could translate into a contract with a “real” publisher. But however he viewed it, he did view it, while everyone else walked on by.
Peter was buying the zines that had interesting literary and political content. He himself had done considerable reading and maintained a sincere interest in Anarchism and radical politics. Mild political dissatisfaction was the mood of the time among Generation X, the twenty-somethings of the eighties. Twenty-somethings are a particularly significant age group, because they’re old enough to be living independently, but not so old that they realize they have to settle down if they want retirement plans that don’t include suicide. They’re still open to new ideas, full of hope, willing to take risks, and can afford a few experiments and failures. Reagan had been {161} elected president, and would remain so for two terms. Classic punk was over, new wave and other derivatives were on the rise.

I was from the tail of the Baby Boom generation; I was born in 1958 when Eisenhower was president, so I was more of an observer than a participant in Generation X. My childhood was the sixties, not the seventies. From my perspective, it looks as though Gen X came up after the 1960’s party was over, to find they’d been left the fat beer and pizza crusts. The hippies had disappeared, many of them having morphed into yuppie entrepreneurs, adding an additional sting to the sense of betrayal and defrauding. The feeling of malaise expressed itself primarily by various shades of irony, typically retro fashion and mild transgression. Betty Page was in many ways the poster girl for Generation X.

They defined themselves in contrast to the hippies, generally despising the “peace and love” naiveté of their predecessors whose wide eyes (with their THC-dilated pupils) now appeared vacant and cartoonlike. There was of course a good deal of unacknowledged continuity, and the cultural interests of the eighties, sexual, political and spiritual were (in hindsight) recognizably hand-me-downs from 1960s. The enthusiasm for general sexual liberation had turned into a fascination with S&M; communal utopianism had skewed towards anarchism; far-eastern enlightenment and occultism had been replaced with “joke religions” like the Church of the Subgenius and Discordianism, which allowed one all the fun of running around in robes while giving piety a shrewd tweak.

This was the context in which Peter began writing essays, communiqués as he liked to call them, under the pen name Hakim Bey, which he mailed out to friends and the publishers of the zines he liked. Originally it was just a way of joining in the general conversation. His own preoccupations serendipitously matched the Gen X Zine scene tastes, so his mailouts were immediately popular, and regarded as copyright-free syndicated columns ready for anyone to paste into their xeroxed zine for instant cred and content.

Finding an enthusiastic audience for what were then halfway between prose poems and political manifestos, Peter plunged in, and gave them what they wanted, backpedaling the gay content and pushing the anarchism and the jocose religiosity of the Moorish Orthodox Church (of which more below). Soon he had enough for a book. I talked Peter up, and introduced him, to Bret Rutherford, who by then had moved across the Hudson to cheaper Weehauken NJ. Between my recommendation, the interest Peter’s work was starting to generate, Peter’s personal magnetism and the exotic qualities of his writing, Bret was easily persuaded to published a deluxe oversized book of Peter’s Hakim Bey screeds, hand-bound, in opulent William Morris-like style. I suggested the cover illustration, a “chaotic” form {162} sketched by Odilon Redon. Thus Chaos, The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism first came to print. Bret viewed the whole thing as kind of a brilliant literary hoax. Pseudo-politics dressed up in nineteenth-century Orientalism, a (marijuana) smoke-and-mirrors phantasmagoria, presenting fabulous and false mystical visions tinged with gay decadence, all of it rendered nearly believable by genuine poetry and philosophy jargon shamelessly combined. Bret’s edition was a labor of humor and love: he deliberately crafted a suitably grandiose setting for this dazzling paste gem, which he regarded as a literary jape. Bret’s assessment was not incorrect, though it did not do full justice to Peter’s achievement, nor would it account for the popular success of this work, which in its expanded edition from Autonomedia, TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, was taken quite seriously by Gen X and to some extent the Millennials.

The main thing Peter pushed was Anarchism, which he made at once wider and shallower than it had ever been. He extended the definition of Anarchism to include everything from Taoism to old-time grog drinking pirates to seventeenth-century religious radicals (Ranters, Diggers) to racial and economic groups in America (like New Jersey’s “Jackson Whites”) who were so marginalized geographically and economically as to fall below the radar of societal control. And Peter defined resistance in such general terms that playing hookey from school or gold-bricking on the job ranked as revolutionary actions. It’s pretty easy to see that this would play well to white middle-class slackers, who Peter thus empowered to imagine themselves as politically engaged and as on an equal footing with fetishized minorities.

Which leads us to Peter’s Moorish Orthodox Church. This was based on the Moorish Science Temple, a fanciful African-American version of Islam founded around the turn of the century. It was a make-pretend religion, with “scriptures” borrowed from Levi Dowling’s 1908 Aquarian Gospel of Jesus, appropriated unaltered, save that every occurrence of the word “God” was replaced by “Allah,” and republished as The Circle Seven Koran. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam arose from one of the splinter groups that formed when the Moorish Science Temple dissolved with the death of its founder, Noble Drew Ali, in 1929.

Peter had invented the Moorish Orthodox Church as a kind of private joke and pot-smoking club back in the sixties when he was at Columbia. Rents were so cheap back then that he was able to rent a storefront on the Upper West Side, which he dubbed The Moorish Science Reading Room, with facetious reference to the “reading rooms” of Christian Science. Here he and his friends burned their incense, hung their posters, smoked weed, and talked about mysticism and politics. Peter revived the Moorish Orthodox {163} Church when he became a zines celebrity, presenting it as a joke in earnest. It was a win-win-win proposition. It made fun of religion, it allowed the moral “validation” of make-believe identification with impoverished African Americans, and it was a vehicle for Peter’s insights into Islamic mysticism.

Another mater worth noting was Peter’s never-abandoned opposition to the internet. He didn’t foresee any of its actual dangers: the appropriation of private information by governments and corporations, the manipulation of news by the medium that had replaced print journalism, its role in eliminating small “brick and mortar” businesses in favor of monopolistic giants like Amazon, the death-blow it administered to literary publishing.

Peter has never operated so much as a cell phone, so his view of the internet was, in a negative sense, science fiction. He warned that the internet would further the atomization and alienation of people into discrete consumers, everyone experiencing life at second-hand through the screen. The computer age, he claimed, offered a gnostic false heaven, where even sex would be experienced without the messy complication of emotion or physical contact, an afterworld of pure image, rarefied into desire desiring itself! This prophecy bore no relationship to the facts, where the sex and shopping were realized so effectively over the internet as to replace shopping malls and pickup bars. The atomizing effect of the internet on “the social” was no more than that of the xerox machine. If we look for what destroyed the local community, we needn’t hunt further than the automobile and the speculative market in real estate. I mention Peter’s failures of prophecy here because Peter wrote about the digital age with such passionate obscurity that he was viewed by many as an authority on the age of cyberspace. Amazingly few of his admirers realized he was a luddite opponent of the digital. Difficult books, such as Peter wrote, though they may sell, aren’t usually read. Just having them makes people feel smart.

There is much in Peter’s writing that is of very substantial value. His accounts of travel through India and central Asia are mesmerizing. His writing on the mystical byways of Islam are accurate, insightful and explore in depth subjects the academics don’t dare to even discuss. His witty, sophisticated and scathing critiques of popular culture, from cop movies to food fads, are worthy of Mencken. But these things weren’t what put him on the map or gained him a decade of limited fame.
And then came the internet, covering the planet like a shallow sea. Unlike Peter, I view it as an entirely neutral tool. I believe it is our society of capitalism triumphant that has turned the Net into a global shopping mall. In the democracy of the dollar, what sells to the greatest number dominates. The result is a utopia of the utterly ordinary, producing a cultural erosion as
164

dramatic as the melting of the ice-caps. The internet speeded things up, but it was old-fashioned greed and stupidity that set the agenda.

Nowadays Peter’s success would be quite unimaginable. Had Peter debut’d his writings in a blog, I doubt he would have been heard from. Today Islam, even mystical Islam, is viewed as anything but cool, and “culturally appropriating” the pathos of an African-American pseudo-religion, would surely be a non-starter. But for the slackers of the eighties, the Moorish Orthodox Church and Peter’s screeds seemed the clever expression of many an unarticulated longing.

It’s no great feat to coldly dissect it now, thirty years later, and to do so gives a misleading impression of how aware anyone, most of all Peter, was of what he was doing. I was impressed and non-plussed; his reading public was awed by the kaleidoscope of his writings. He himself was quite baffled though very pleased by his burgeoning micro-celebrity. Now let’s go back to 1981, to that tiny filled Upper West Side room with the manual typewriter and SF books and fanzines piled high on the floor, where Peter was creating Hakim Bey.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Peter Lamborn Wilson

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part one of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey

1: Peter Lamborn Wilson

About the time I “woke to the world,” that is when I went down in fames on entering the atmosphere of the modernity, Charles Potter, my old French teacher from Columbia, with whom I was on friendly terms, told me he had someone to introduce me to. This was Peter Lamborn Wilson, who was one of Potter’s old friends from when they’d both attended Columbia. Potter finished his degree and went on to study medieval French literature in Europe. Peter had dropped out of Columbia and made the “Journey to the East”—looking for enlightenment in India. He finally wandered into Iran where he was able to talk his way into a job at Tehran’s only English-language newspaper, largely on the strength of his native, literary English. Other qualification needed he none. He parlayed this into a place in the court of the Shah, friendship with the Empress, and a central role in the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. The Shah wanted to cast the mantle of culture over his tyranny, and funded all sorts of interesting projects.

Peter spent years in Iran, during which he converted to Islam and seriously pursued the Suf path under the direction of a traditionalist spiritual master. Peter’s life there was a decade-long oriental adventure, during which he enjoyed the hashish and caviar that can be had so cheaply on the shores of the Caspian Sea, collected magnificent rugs (which he shipped steadily back to America to be stored) and explored traditional mystical Islam, siting crosslegged on fine rugs, sipping sweet tea and smoking with the Sufis.

Peter is gay, and his turn to Islam was in part an attempt to cure himself of his condition with the help of Allah. It was not a great success. I speak this sympathetically, since I undertook a similar project, though in the ambiance of Jewish New York intellectualism, the “church of Freud,” rather than in the shadow of the Koran.

Over the centuries there have been countless defections from Western Christianity to Islam, and almost none in the opposite direction. Whence this eagerness to “turn Turk?” A part of the appeal of Islam for the West has always been its comparative tolerance of homosexuality. Though this is forbidden in the Koran, it is so, like wine, in a somewhat ambiguous way. In fact, wine and boys are promised as rewards to be enjoyed in heaven, the later being appealingly described in one of the surahs as “pale youths, scattered like pearls across the lawns of paradise.” Despite periods of {153} reformist rigor, homosexuality (and for that mater drinking) has generally been regarded in the Islamic world as a minor and somewhat amusing sin, much as adultery is in the West. One may see this from even a desultory reading of the medieval Arabic classic, The Arabian Nights, where wine freely flows and boys promptly comply. In fact, Sufism includes among its more arcane byways a platonic meditation on beautiful youths, the “contemplation of the unbearded.” The reader of Yehuda Halevi’s poetry from Islamic Spain will be well familiar with the romantic praise of adolescent boys, who are described as “gazelles”—as common and conventional a trope in context as the nymphs and shepherds of Elizabethan poetry.

Islam never had Christianity’s ambivalence towards material existence and the body, so it was more tolerant of sex in general. Chastity was not considered a virtue. (“There’s no monkery in Islam” is a saying attributed to the Prophet.) The puritanism of present day Islamic fundamentalism is the rigor mortis of a religion already dead under the onslaught of modernism—exactly the confrontation that produced the Puritans and the “reign of the saints” in seventeenth-century England. This situation, “the faith purified into a caricature of itself,” in Peter’s phrase, is late, anomalous and terminal.

While Peter was in Iran, the forces of religious puritanism were held in check by the Shah, and Peter was able to enjoy the last hours of “decadence” before the neo-barbarians took control. Not that Peter was getting laid. The permissiveness of the old Islamic world was certainly off limits to him. A convert to any religion is always held to a higher standard of observance. I mentioned the ambiguity of Islamic attitudes to homosexuality only as a factor which made this religion unconsciously more appealing to Peter, and which would fascinate and preoccupy him, in a totally intellectual and inhibited way, for years.

I met Peter when he had just returned from Iran. He had made a timely fight from the already begun revolution, and now rented a room in an apartment on the corner of 107th Street and Amsterdam, a situation which he referred to a “Major Hoople’s Boarding House” (after a comic from the twenties about a boarding house full of eccentric types). The leaseholder of the apartment was a crank who brought home all sorts of junk and broken machinery from the street. The living room was impassible with dusty, unidentifiable and certainly non-functional equipment. He was quite litigious and had legally changed his name to “Joe Friendly” in the expectation that this would produce a mollifying effect on judges and juries. I only saw Joe once or twice in passing, a tall man, casually dressed, with an enormous beard. The other resident, besides Peter, was an alcoholic who lay in bed, the door to his tiny room open, coughing sepulchrally when he {154} wasn’t in a deathlike stupor. He usually lay outstretched on the bed, with glazed eyes and a gray crewcut, looking at nothing.

Peter was easily the most fascinating person I had ever met. I use the term fascinating quite precisely. He had the ability to charm anyone. When he addressed you he showed a pleased attention, and in conversation he asked far more questions than he answered, and seemed genuinely interested in all your particulars, difficulties, and events. Though he spoke of his own ideas, reading and adventures, very entertainingly and at length, it was always in response to something you had said, in amplification of whatever topic interested you. He had a way of making it seem as though he included you in his plans, that he looked on you as an equal and ally. I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t promptly capitulate to Peter’s charm, and he used it on everyone. He seemed to be more interested in you than he was in himself, and no one could resist this. And it wasn’t insincere. Nor was it something he had any control over. There are persons who need very much to be liked by everyone, who develop this brilliant sociability. Charisma is a gift, but like all gifts, it comes at a price.

He was amazingly unforthcoming about himself. He never really opened his heart or told his troubles. And not just to me. He was of an old and distinguished family, and traced his ancestors back to the Mayflower, so I think this was some sort of aristocratic white guy thing.

Once Peter had gotten his bearings in New York, he held continuous court, and has to this day a continuous stream of visitors. This is rather less of an achievement when you reckon in how uncritical his friendship is. Though he fully appreciates intelligence and expertise, and can hold his own in conversation with anyone on any subject (so vast and curious is his reading and his experience), he is equally content with the company of utter fools.

In part, Peter is a classic gay male type, of whom Bret and Harry Smith are likewise exemplars. Masters of monologue. They can go on illimitably, and if you never pipe up they will. They’re brilliant and fascinating, whether they’re telling you rare facts from Beethoven’s biography or what awful thing they saw on the way to the grocery store. I think the origin of this condition is bachelorhood. You live alone long enough, and you start talking to yourself, perhaps not aloud, but you do by imperceptible degrees become your own company. In my day, being gay and smart was plenty isolating for an adolescent to begin with: you were on the outside of life from middle school on. Then instead of having escalating series of involvements that ended with a long-term relationship, you had casual sex, or more likely no sex at all, until you were out on your own as an adult, and by then you were well used to going to museums or operas or restaurants with yourself as {155} your only company. The interior monologue develops into the exterior monologue, and thus you arrive at the Quentin Crisp-like persona, assuming you have the gray mater to carry it of.

I’m not entirely exempt from this condition, as this present feat of nattering attests. I found the talent particularly handy as a teacher. There are times when you have half an hour left on a Friday afternoon, you’re as tired of the lesson as the kids are, and though they can be extremely entertaining if you draw them out, it takes effort and attention to keep them on topic and prevent them from just talking to each other in private knots instead of making it a class-wide dialogue. So I’ve sometimes just told stories about myself, suitably edited of course. It can be quite entertaining for me to see what I’ll say next—and a bit of a tightrope walk as well, since I’m addressing a roomful of adolescents and I have to make sure I say nothing that will come back to bite me if repeated to Mom and Dad over dinner.

So, I do kind of “get” the tendency to monologue. I think I missed out on fully developing this myself because I was too interested in seeing what I could learn. A precondition of monologorrhea is the belief you already know everything. And also at a critical moment in my life’s journey, I found myself with a woman, and no conversation with a member of that gender will be entirely one-sided!

Peter didn’t know everything, but he sure knew a lot of it, and want of self-confidence was not one of his failings. What balanced out Peter’s verbosity was a particular personality type which I have seen in a number of iterations. For convenience I will call this the Don Juan persona. Such persons cannot be alone. They positively require the company and approbation of others. It is a disposition common among actors. Al Jolson and Marilyn Monroe seem to have been particularly extreme examples of this special desperation.

The secret of pleasing is the desire to please. The practice is really as simple as asking people about their favorite subject, themselves, and then staying on topic by talking about things they’re involved with. If you’re not obviously trying to get into their pants or part them from their funds, this will always work. Finesse will come with practice, but you really can’t do it too crudely. Peter was very, very good.

He could devote himself to professional sociability while working full-time as a writer since his father had fixed him up with a trust fund which gave him enough to get by on, albeit with a narrow margin. His father, Douglas Wilson, was a retired army man, a desk general who had risen through the ranks of military bureaucracy, and was quite well of. Peter was his only child. A cultivated man, whose passion was proofreading, and who had supervised inter alia critical editions of Chaucer and Emerson, Peter’s {156} father was entirely sympathetic to Peter’s literary career, and never pushed him towards conventional employment.

I met Douglas on a number of occasions. I made the mistake of trying to draw him out on Chaucer, discussing the Knight’s Tale with him. He was utterly flummoxed. Though he had read every line of Chaucer with, as it were, a magnifying glass, what really interested him was the punctuation and orthography. He was breathtakingly dull. He had had a go at being an English professor, but had been so colorless, his supervisor suggested he grow a big mustache to give himself some personality. Though he was offended at the time, he did take the suggestion. When I met him he was a great tall substantial man with a bald head and a handlebar mustache. He looked every inch the retired general.

I met Peter’s mother as well. She was a retired high school English teacher, and she’d divorced from her husband, never to remarry, when Peter was a boy. She lived down in Maryland, a warm and cordial hostess, and an excellent adventurous cook. On one of our visits she splendidly prepared muskrat which she’d purchased from a local hunter with a roadside stand.

Peter supplemented his income by dealing pot on a small scale, enough to keep himself supplied and cover occasional luxuries and nonessential expenses. He was stoned for the entire time I knew him. It was only a few years ago that a medical condition finally required him to cut out grass and cigarettes. But for the first thirty years of our friendship he moved in a fog of reefer smoke, a bearded Jove ensconced in his happy personal cloudbank. I recently asked him about what he remembered of our early acquaintance, his first years back in Manhattan. He demurred. At first I thought it was perhaps some Waspy diffidence about discussing himself directly, but I finally concluded that all that grass had prevented him from coding all the events into memory. I have rather the same difficulty regarding the periods when I was drinking. That’s the one thing they always forget to tell you about drugs. They steal your memory.

When Potter introduced us, Peter had been out of America for more than a decade. He had missed Punk and arrived at the beginning of the greed-is-good Reagan eighties. The connections he had made for the advancement of his literary career were in Iran, and London, where he’d spent four years on the Saudi’s nickel, on retainer to organize an Islamic cultural festival that never got of the ground. Happily for him, he was in London when Khomeini took over. When Peter arrived in New York, he was at loose ends and desperate to network. I was still at Columbia, never integrated into, and still disconnected from, student life, and desperately lonely. {157}

Peter was going through a spiritual crisis. Long before the revolution in Iran, major cracks had appeared in Peter’s cosmos. He had attempted to fully enter into traditional Islam, and in half-modern Tehran, this was still not impossible. The motivation was, originally, a sincere quest for enlightenment, the authentic spiritual hunger that gave the sixties in America its nobility. Peter had joined a Sufi order, and accepted the guidance of a pir (spiritual master), but the exotic charm wore of and then began the wearisome work of keeping the faith—which Peter described to me as “protecting our common failures of awareness.”

Sufi practice hadn’t freed Peter from desire either. (In the words of the Gita, “As a man’s nature is, so must he be. How could repression help?”) And Peter finally concluded, quite reasonably, that the problem wasn’t the quality of his faith, but the faith itself.

Peter gave considerable attention to the interesting antinomian heresies that had arisen within Islam. Particularly the Assassins, a heretical Shiite sect whose use of hashish in their devotions gave them their name. Peter was also fascinated by Caliph Hakim, the eleventh-century Ismaili lord of Egypt who, depending on who you ask, was either the mad Caligula of medieval Islam or a Shiite messiah. I needn’t go into detail on these interesting topics, for Peter himself has done so in a number of books. For our purposes it will suffice to say that these extreme mystics believed that the disclosures of the apocalypse and the rewards of paradise were to be enjoyed, or at least tasted, now. The initiates felt this insight entitled them to take their pleasures as a defiant sacrament—a program which was rendered even more effective if those pleasures were in fact prohibited by the religious law. No doubt Peter was to some degree aware of how prurient was his interest in these themes, but on the other hand historical research into thousand-year-old heresies doesn’t amount to much of a sin.

Peter was impelled to deep reflection and bold decision by his experience of mystical Islam, which transfigured Peter’s reality, but not his sexuality. And of course he was shaken, even shaken awake, by the fall of Iran, which had landed him in a Manhattan rented room like a man awoken from a long exotic dream. It was all sort of parallel to my crisis precipitated by the failure of the affair with Robert, when I was casting off the traces of Neoplatonism and traditional Western culture in favor of a new and radical magical materialism.

We only really reconsider our course when things utterly fail to work. It seems probable that we’d keep all our illusions and pass our lives in sweet stupidities if only everything went smoothly on and on.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake