a programme note for ‘I Am Dandy’ (1999)
Back in the days when gentlemen’s style magazines were attempting a balance between chesty starlets and feature articles of substance, rather than the current formula designed solely to dance in your well-lagered lap, the pioneering and much missed Editor of GQ, the late Michael VerMeulen, invited me to fly to Las Vegas in order to nail the alien thing. Las Vegas is as close as you can fly to Area 51, also known as Dreamland, a swathe of land attached to the gigantic acreages of Nellis Air Force Base in the Nevada desert.
VerMeulen was happy to pay fees and air fares for a feature that we both knew would signally fail to deliver anything of substance if substance was to comprise the uncovering of an unwholesome relationship between the American government and extra-terrestrial creatures able to bend gravity to their passionless will. The Editor, a man of strong views often delivered across crowded rooms in a stentorian manner, regarded the whole alien thing as bullshit. He had, however, a taste for material that attempted to understand what lay behind beliefs that were impetuously adopted yet widely distributed. My brief was to cover a lot of ground, some of which lay between Nellis and Roswell, New Mexico, much of which would focus on tales and fragments that could be found flying at ever increasing speed through the cloud chambers of the contemporary mythosphere.
My own fascination with impetuous belief derives in part from an eager and immersive experience of the Sixties. To wind back that far is to make a shortish story far too long – it will be sufficient to submit that I did everything you were supposed to do in those years of letgo and associated with some hardened practitioners of the art of Living in Vagueness. The mastery of the vague, which loosened so many from the austere and straitened materialism of the Fifties, was to become, in the ensuing decades, the invaluable philosophical instrument of those for whom the confusion of the outer with the inner would constitute a strategy for survival.
I must try to be precise about what I mean by vagueness. So totally uncool did the material world become in the course of the 60s that systems of analysis originating from it were summarily dismissed from usage. The act of evaluation was similarly curtailed – it was okay to love or hate things but not, like, as an ego. Things were good because they emanated their goodness – all you needed to do was submit to these essences in order to appreciate them. This was not the reluctant strategy of the Self under fire, it was a voluntary liquidation in the interests of attunement to a universe of essence and vibration. At the street level it meant that a lot of the people you knew consistently stopped short of saying what they thought or felt in favour of a fulsome, celebratory issuance of vapour. Psychology still existed but it was recomposed in terms of value-free interiority – the further you travelled inside, the closer you came to formless essence. The psyche was certainly not a place of intensification or contradiction.
I went along with a fair amount of bollocks back then but the business of valorising vagueness unsettled me. It seemed to involve little more than the worship of Nothing and, as such, had advanced no further than the faiths and beliefs of the straights and normals who had constructed the horrid world that we wished to supplant.
The idea that certain monolithic and enduring spiritual institutions are based on Nothing has never ceased to astound me. The idea that a subscription to Nothing might get you through the night hardly seems fair. The decisiveness and efficiency with which many people lead lives based on a vague belief that there is some overall purpose to their activities leads me to conclude, sourly and enviously, that there must be something in all this Nothing. Clearly it would be comforting to believe in some of this bullshit but really, life’s too short.
Over the last thirty years I have been involved in a personal yoga of disentanglement featuring the assumption of a variety of difficult and ineptly balanced positions. For several years, once the Sixties wound down into 1973 or thereabouts, I was simply relieved not to have to affect a childlike openness to experience in the same breath as a demonstration of worldweary, omniscient cool. This was a double bind well worth consigning to oblivion. It was not until the late Eighties that I began to realise that my encounters with the Vague, always a source of irritation, were on the increase again and were, this time around, accompanied by the feeling that Vague had gone mainstream. It is tempting but possibly romantic to speculate that the psychic counterpoint to the craven, Thatcherite engorgement of the wallet was an anxious yearning for emptiness.
The entangled dance between these extremes is nowhere more eloquently performed than on the Strip in Las Vegas. Locked in a slow, humid conga, thousands of tourists shuffle past the spectacular hotel and casino facades whose incongruous pastiches induce a love of flying – far, far away from the roulette wheel to places of adventure, grandeur and timeless wisdom. The Luxor Hotel is strong on the latter commodity – a scale model of the Great Pyramid of Cheops fronted by a painted Sphinx as long as a 707, it offers ensuite apartments terraced all the way up to the pyramidal apex and, at no extra cost, the implied possibility of communing with the cat and dog gods who inspired men to make mummies and move masonry.
At this intersection of the ancient astral and the American attraction I took a buffet lunch with a man who lived in a trailer town right next to Area 51. Glenn Campbell was author of The Groom Lake Desert Rat, an electronic newsletter from the front line of contemporary mass hallucination. His wry, sceptical field reports had captivated me for months. Campbell, aka PsychoSpy, wrote regularly about the exotic characters who either lived in or made pilgrimages through Rachel, Nevada (pop 103). Despite the amused distance he kept from the subjects of his reports, Campbell was patently enthralled by some of the detailed accounts that he had extracted from those privileged to reverse engineer anti-gravity devices alongside helpful aliens in heavily secured hangars.
When I visited Rachel myself, I met Sharon, the young woman employed by Campbell as his assistant at the Area 51 Research Centre – an archive and sales outlet housed in a weather-beaten trailer. As I poked around she let me in on a truth about the whole alien thing. The grey tourists with toddlers’ bodies, it transpired, were actually the fallen troops of Satan, abetted by members of the New Age movement. They had been despatched to deceive us about the imminent Rapture, wherein the righteous would ascend to Heaven for ‘a seven year party’ while those bearing the Mark of the Beast would stay behind, standing on their heads in a sea of excrement. Or something like that. I may be conflating two accounts here, one of them last heard some considerable time ago, in the shadows at the back of the bike sheds.
To move from Glen Campbell’s futurism to his assistant’s medievalism in the space of a car ride from Las Vegas to Rachel was to embrace the unfussy inclusiveness of contemporary hysterical belief. The historical sequencing of folklore seems to have collapsed, leaving a pick’n’mix that subverts the notion that the things people believe in are invariably determined by certain specifics of their time. At the end of the 19th century flying objects were often identified as extraterrestrial blimps or gas balloons. Our 20th century sightings of flying saucers are informed by our passage into the age of jets and rockets. This sort of analysis is useful but as a model it does not stretch to an explanation of our concurrent sightings of angels, spirits, fairies and Satanic ritual abusers.
As Elaine Showalter points out in ‘Hystories’, her account of contemporary hysterical epidemics, the clinically efficient late 19th century diagnosis of hysteria, then restricted almost entirely to women, has little value a century later, when modern media have the capacity to disseminate anxiety about a wide range of topics on a global scale. The pervasiveness of this ‘anxietised news’ contributes to the formation of a new style of hysteria characterised by what could be called a broad-minded credulity afflicting men and women alike and drawing on centuries of superstition as well as a predictable menu of fashionable hot topics.
To drive, as I did, from Nevada to New Mexico and back again was to snorkel through some fairly turbid undercurrents. In a motel in Arizona I took a room next to the one used by the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, when he was planning his destruction of the Federal Building, a deed that would result in the deaths of 168 people. The motel manager assured me that McVeigh was ‘A very nice young man, very nice. Very polite.’ After his arrest, McVeigh claimed that he was compelled to do what he did because the US Army had implanted a mind control microchip in his buttock.
Somehow the idea that McVeigh was very nice seemed to be a precondition for such an invasive procedure. If he had been a very nasty young man then the attentions of a malign implanter would have been superfluous. Obviously, a very nice young man would not dream of doing what he did unless he had been tampered with. This predilection for the remote control of innocent citizens is something the US Army shares with extra-terrestrials, whose favourite orifice for such lodgements, according to the literature, is the nose. All this is to place the cart before the horse, however, for we are first obliged to ask who or what it was that implanted the extraterrestrials in the minds of very nice people. And while we’re about it, we should wonder about the implantation of fairies and angels, spirits and demons, the madness of cows and the vague feeling that there is a pattern behind, like, everything.
In her essay ‘On Circles’, presented elsewhere in this programme, Carole Silver persuasively demonstrates the persistence of certain structures beneath some of the implantations. She compares the activities around fairy rings to 20th century alien abduction scenarios then describes the manner in which hundreds of years of folklore can come full circle, as it were, when crop rings and alien visitations are fused into a single narrative. Originality is under attack here – despite the obligation to update the trappings of these tales with references to contemporary technology, it seems we can only dream or imagine according to templates that are as old as the hills.
These supernatural events are not, of course, seen as imaginary. Things are being done to us. In this sense there is a continuum running from a delight in faerie to a conviction that central government is out to get us and will use all the covert devices necessary to bend us to its will, to disarm us, if you like. Politics, presumably, begins at the point when the things that are being done to us are attributed to agencies in the real world. The Oklahoma City bombing, as a response to things being done to a very nice young man, is, in these terms, pre-political. This notion, however, begs so many questions that I’ll just move along now.
If we could resist suggestion none of this would be going on. Suggestibility is the key and suggestibility is the ultimate concern of ‘I Am Dandy’. Before a suggestion can take hold, attention must be monopolised. Everyone knows how to do this. It’s what you do when you want people to pay attention to you. No conversation would work without it. Our minds would wander, registering an attention deficit.
Attention seekers may monopolise against our will, when we will feel brainwashed,bullied or hectored. They may install a monopoly without our knowing, in which case we might, if we found out, claim to have been subliminally influenced. There is a special case, though, in which we actually consent to the reduction of our resistance to the monopoly. This might be called hypnosis.
The example of the pioneering and innovative hypnotist Milton H. Erickson forces a reassessment of hypnotism in general. Rather than commandeering attention, Erickson appears to slip in through the back door and, before his subject knows it, behave as if he were the lodger. Erickson talks constantly to the subject, in a low-key manner, eschewing explicit instructions in favour of rambling, chatty small talk. Present in these ramblings are unobtrusive suggestions, often disguised as convivial invitations to sit back and take it easy. Single words associated with pleasure and relaxation are worked quite repetitively into sentences – again, not as instructions but colloquial embellishments. Using what at least sounds like rather monotonous and unremarkable conversation, Erickson delivers his subjects into deep trance.
If Erickson can do it, why can’t we? Sounds easy enough. Notwithstanding the tremendous craft and subtlety deployed by Erickson, it may be that, as keen amateurs, we all have some of his skill and much of the suggestibility of his subjects. It may be that we are endowed with the capacity to facilitate trance in others and ourselves. The same sort of thing has been said of telepathy, of course, and the evidence for such a latency is practically nonexistent. But if trance is seen as emerging from the close control of attention, wherein the subject becomes indifferent to all but a narrow range of input then our everyday lives suddenly seem rather entrancing.
To be entranced readily is to be available, it may be a precondition of hysteria. All the wild scares, all the mad enthusiasms – and their equally energetic disavowals – put down their roots in such easy capture. ‘I Am Dandy’ seeks to examine a continuum that runs from everyday persuasion and cajolement to unconcealed hypnosis. It suggests that the seeds of mass hysteria and moral panics are to be found in the most commonplace transactions. Featuring scenes in which members of a group use a range of overt and covert hypnotic techniques to enforce their will, the show alludes not only to ordinary bullying but to some of the rather more controversial phenomena that constitute the hysterical landscape. The broad-minded credulity of its characters facilitates their immersion in the warps of recovered memory and the transports of abduction, possession and delusion. The idea that in trance there is truth offers them something that is simultaneously fragile, focused and nourishingly vague.