Travels with Synesthesia: “What’s Left?” October 2017, MRR #413

I stood on an outdoor train platform surrounded by snow in my fever dream. The sky was black, speckled with white, either stars or snow. The ground was white flecked with black, and as I looked more closely at the snowy ground I grew distraught. It was like looking at white skin dotted with black pores, only the skin was like a sheet of greasy virginal Crisco and the black pits were putrefaction personified. I was deeply disturbed by the dual view, the juxtaposition of silky white as seen from a distance and black rot seen up close, and this ugly double vision had a smell, like burned hair.

It was a nightmare actually, the product of a bad case of measles when I was seven years old. When I startled from the terror of that dream, the combined view persisted well into my wakefulness and I had to shake myself, blink a number of times and crane my head back and forth, to finally dispel the affect. The fever produced a couple repeats of the nightmare while I was sick, but it was more upsetting when the night terrors returned when I was no longer ill. For a few years afterwards I had the horrible dream intermittently, complete with the frightening double vision and associated smell that continued after the dream woke me. I had to get out of bed each time and move around my room to make the hallucination dissipate.

It was my first experience of synesthesia. The twisted visual dream was intertwined with the smell, two senses linked together as one, the visual creating the olfactory. I was so freaked out about the double vision thing and preoccupied with preventing future nightmares that I didn’t notice the connection until well after I had managed to suppress the dream’s reoccurrence. I accidentally singed my hair as a fourteen-year-old adolescent pyromaniac playing with freelance rocket making and the stench immediately triggered a brief episode of double nightmare vision.

My second instance of synesthesia happened after I turned 18. I had just registered for the Vietnam draft, enrolled at Ventura Junior College in anticipation of transferring as a junior to UC Santa Cruz, and started hanging out with some high school friends now attending college who were part of Campus Crusade for Christ. They gently badgered me to attend prayer circles and bible studies, triggering my latent Catholic guilt feelings about everything from masturbation to experimenting with drugs. One Saturday afternoon, as I walked through the lemon and avocado groves near my home in deep, troubled contemplation, I was visited by god.

At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Everything around me became brilliant, clear, and sparkling. I felt immersed in everything around me, and simultaneously elevated above it all. I had a sense of personal calm, but not of peace. And there was a burning firewood and slightly fruity smell. I had the sensation of being in the presence of something vast and powerful and absolutely frightening, something with which I was in communion, something that was about to change my life. For the first time I understood the meaning of the word awe, a feeling of reverence and respect mixed with fear and trembling. It was not in any way a pleasant sensation. I was simultaneously overwhelmed, exalted, and terrified.

Thus began my brief stint as a born-again Christian, where being touched by god was inextricably linked to the smell of the burning bush. It quickly evaporated into my longstanding atheism as I ultimately tried to explain away my experience. The smell, well I was in the middle of a lemon grove so maybe there was some brush burning nearby. I eventually started taking psychedelics and noticed the similarity between those chemical experiences and my spiritual one, including lots of drug-induced synesthesia. But to call my mystical experience biochemically based doesn’t say much as all our experiences are ultimately biochemical in origin. Only when I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Living with a Wild God much later did I reconcile myself to the possibility there are still mysteries to the universe to which I’m not privy.

I may never have been touched by god but I have been hammered by the migraine devil, a surefire cause for my synesthesia nowadays. I started getting migraines when I was around 43. They were rare, and both classic—with prodrome, aura, and excruciating headache—and intense, incapacitating me for 8 hours minimum. I became dissociative to the point of verbal and mental incoherence until I just went to sleep for the rest of the day, to wake sometime later with a horrific migraine hangover. Over the years, my migraines increased in frequency and decreased in severity, so that I now get one every month or so, each just a little bit of an aura and no appreciable, immediate headache. I have tried botox treatments and now do a micro-dose of an anti-convulsant drug.

A recent migraine started with sensitivity to light, then a dizzying head rush when I stood up, quickly converting to a sparkly scotoma complete with scintillating lights and jagged black-and-white anasazi lines, all sharply bordered into a blindspot that slowly floated across my vision. I had errands to run, but I took the time to let the brief aura dissipate. It did not automatically turn into a headache, but the disassociation started on the drive down the hill to a nearby commercial neighborhood. Everything appeared simultaneously vaguely familiar and utterly strange. I seemed to be in a Tyrolean Alpine village, odd and quaint, at the bottom of a deep, dark mountain ravine. And the crisp air was saturated with the odor of burnt metal.

The Greek prefix syn- means united, with, together, at the same time. Thanks to my migraines, I experience low level hallucinations and synesthesia intermittently, where my senses run together. Nothing like my childhood fever dreams or my adolescent altered states of consciousness, yet still a departure from reality. Even without the outright instances of synesthesia, I grasped that my sense of smell was somehow linked to my other senses, as when the shape of the trees in Golden Gate Park seemed connected to the park’s loamy smell, triggering vivid childhood memories from when I lived with my parents in San Francisco between the ages of three and six years old.

I realized early on that the real world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and might actually be much more than it seemed. I certainly didn’t arrive at the absurd belief that we create our own reality or that mind is the only reality, and I’m particularly disdainful of the post-truth assertion that simply believing something makes it so. Climate change, like gravity, is real, whether we believe in it or not. But it would be too facile to claim that my ability to juggle different points of view comes from these experiences of altered reality I’ve had throughout my life. I haven’t become any less tolerant of fascism simply because I can understand fascist ideology or comprehend where a fascist is coming from.

I also don’t doubt that my unconscious capacity to synthesize sensory input in part accounts for my artistic and literary creativity. But as a conscious basis for originality, synthesis is overrated. Both Alice Yaeger Kaplan and Kevin Coogan cited the French fascist Robert Brasillach who wrote that Communism and Fascism would one day be seen as “the two poetries” of the twentieth century. We now seem to be inundated by attempts to synthesize leftwing and rightwing ideologies in efforts to “go beyond” Left and Right. These calls to transcend the orthodox Left/Right political model almost all come from the Right, it must be noted. Current Left/Right crossover politics should also be pointed out for having originated in nightmare with the goal of ever greater nightmare. The separate totalitarian horrors of Communism and Fascism only anticipate greater horrors in some terrifying synthesis to come. This political combination is entirely voluntary. My fever dreams and migraines are not something I wish to relive, and even my spiritual experience was unpleasant. Plus, they were not of my choosing.

But enough about the sick joke that equates poetry with indiscriminate terror and mass murder.

 

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Anarchism of Fools: “What’s Left?” April 2008, MRR #299

Part One: Anarchism of-by-for Fools

We Fascists are the only true anarchists. Once we’ve become masters of the state, true anarchy is that of power.

The Duke in
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Pier Paolo Pasolini

Today, both communism and fascism, ideologies that the French fascist Robert Brasillach once called “the two poetries” of the 20th century, seem exhausted given the triumph of multinational capitalism. Yet periods of ideological decay often breed strange new variants, such as the “Red-Brown alliance” in the former Soviet Union, which do not easily fit into conventional political-science categories of “left” and “right.”

Dreamer of the Day
Francis Parker Yockey and the
Postwar Fascist International
(1999)
Kevin Coogan

It was the December, 1993 annual general meeting, at the old MRR Clipper Street house. The one with the spacious, downstairs record library slash radio-recording studio. It was the night of the Great Purge.

I’d been doing shitwork at MRR for almost two and a half years, ever since I moved to the Bay Area in July, 1991. I’d also written a couple of guest columns under the pseudonym “Lefty” Hooligan. Tim Yohannan liked them enough that he proposed I do a “three dot” Herb Caen-style news column for the magazine’s recently revived news section. “All The News That Fits” was a regular feature of the news section by the time of the general meeting, though no one outside of Tim and I knew I was “Lefty” Hooligan.

Downstairs was jammed with volunteers, on rumors that something big was in the works. It was Tim Yo’s show that night, and he did a pretty fair impersonation of Mao, the Great Helmsman, unleashing the Cultural Revolution. First, he axed two-thirds of the music the magazine covered, claiming that what he was excluding just wasn’t punk rock. Then, he canned MRR co-founder and conservative columnist Jeff Bale, arguing that he didn’t want political opinions expressed in the magazine that could be read in the mainstream media. Tim proposed that individual columnists could cover the kinds of music-pop punk, crossover metal, emo, oi, etc.-that were now outside MRR‘s official purview. He also offered to let Jeff continue to do record reviews, an offer Jeff refused. The compromises were choreographed, as was combining Jeff Bale’s firing with the music purge, in a heavy-handed Stalinist minuet.

Tim sought to play off the right-Jeff Bale who wholeheartedly supported the music purge-against the left-those volunteers who liked what Tim considered to be non-punk music but who also didn’t like Bale’s increasingly conservative political bent. There was a lot of protest and grumbling but, for the most part, the strategy seemed to work. The only time Tim got worried, he later confided, was when Larry Livermore tried to rally the opposition to Tim’s actions. Larry pointed out that, without the magazine’s dedicated shitworkers, Tim couldn’t publish MRR, then went on to argue that since “we all” had recently turned out the Republicans from the White House by voting for Bill Clinton, MRR‘s volunteers should vote down Tim’s proposed changes to the magazine.

I was a drinking man in those days. I was on my third bottle of Red Hook, and feeling little pain. I don’t remember if I actually interrupted Larry’s ersatz Joe Hill speech, or simply waited for a pause in his diatribe to interject my little jab.

“I kinda remember the election of Bill Clinton to the presidency,” I said, gesturing with my nearly empty beer bottle. “But I don’t remember the election of Tim Yohannan to run Maximum Rocknroll.”

That broke Larry’s momentum. Within minutes, a dozen folks were voicing versions of “yeah, this is Tim’s zine, and he has the right to do what he wants with it.” The debate shifted from Bale’s firing and the music purge, to whether Tim had the authority to do what he was planning. And even though Larry excoriated the rest of us as sheep in his next column, when it came down to it, most of the volunteers sided with Tim’s right to run the magazine as he saw fit.

I still have great affection for Tim Yo’s memory. To call him a Stalinist would not have insulted him in the least. He was a hard assed bastard, often puritanical, who prided himself on being an outright asshole, when necessary. He ran Maximum like a well-oiled machine, and he never lacked for conviction in pursuing what he felt was right. The man had balls, and while his decisions in 1993 eventually spawned HeartattaCk and Punk Planet zines in response, they also helped revitalize punk rock yet one more time by insisting on a return to musical basics. Most of us shitworkers at the time thought Tim was too dogmatic in his political opinions, and too rigid in his musical tastes. Yet we respected the man, and worked for him, not merely because he was willing to stand up and fight for what he believed. When Tim decided to take on an issue or an individual, he gave no quarter, took no prisoners and fought to the bitter end.

I was reminded of the Great Purge recently when a locally administered anarchist internet board had one hell of a time ejecting a lone, locally based national anarchist who joined up to propagandize the anarchist milieu. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. I trust that anybody with access to Google can search out the parties in question, so I don’t have to name any names here. Frankly, I don’t want to give the national anarchists any more publicity. As for the anarchist board, they’re a bit of an embarrassment. It took them over a week of some of the most spineless debate imaginable to agree to ban the anarcho-fascist, and then only after it was pretty convincingly revealed that the NA was pursuing a strategy of political entryism. With all that, the administrator only reluctantly decided to shitcan the NA because he didn’t “have the (emotional) time to be arguing about this with strangers right now.” Is it any wonder anarchists keep losing revolutions?

The emergence in the Bay Area of self-declared national anarchists that regular anarchists now have to contend with is one more turn in the syncretistic politics on the far right. There are already national revolutionaries, autonomist nationalists, and National Bolsheviks. Rather than waste column space detailing the convoluted and arcane evolution, say, of national anarchism from the pro-Catholic International Third Position and the pro-Qadddafy National Revolutionary Faction, I’d like to make some broad comments on political syncretism, left and right.

Syncretistic tendencies seeking to combine seemingly opposing political ideologies can be found across the political spectrum, of course. But anarchism has proven to be wildly, almost indiscriminately syncretistic, hence the anarcho hyphenation that virtually every anarchist employs. One is an anarcho-pacifist, -individualist, -capitalist, -mutualist, -feminist, -syndicalist, -communist, -primitivist, or some combination thereof. Why not anarcho-fascist? That fascism enters the house of anarchism through the door of nationalism should not come as a surprise. For all of modern anarchism’s vehement opposition to the nation-state, nationalism and patriotism, there are several points at which anarchism is vulnerable to the siren song of nationalism.

Early anarchist writers like Proudhon and Bakunin distinguished between nationality and the nation-state, championing self-determination for the former and abolition of the latter. In turn, early anarchist movements in Russia, China, and Mexico had a decidedly grassroots nationalist caste. It was only in response to the persistent internationalism and class analysis of Marxism, which came to dominate workers movements after the Russian Revolution, that anarchism became more critical of nationalism, and more internationalist in perspective. This populist (some call it völkisch) form of nationalism reemerged in the anarchist milieu via the British Alternative Socialist Movement and the Black Ram Group in the 1970s and 80s, which attempted to reclaim various pre-Marxist utopian and socialist concepts from the far right. Finally, a number of former Black Panther Party members, and other individuals associated with the black liberation struggles of the 1960s, rejected their previous authoritarian politics for anarchism, all the while retaining their commitment to revolutionary black nationalism.

Mention of the Black Panthers points up that Marxism’s fervid internationalism has frequently been blunted, syncretized time and again with nationalism. The social democratic parties of the Second International voted to support the war efforts of their respective national governments during WWI, and Leninism has allowed Marxism to be hyphenated, until we come to Mao who wrote: “in wars of national liberation, patriotism is applied internationalism.” Needless to say, Lenin’s own support for national self-determination and his theory of imperialism greased the slide into an almost indiscriminate support for wars of national liberation, socialist or otherwise. And let’s not forget the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran, which has managed to meld its Marxism-Leninism with orthodox Islam.

Perhaps the most syncretistic kind of politics comes from the right in the form of fascism. Historians of fascism are still at a loss to come up with a minimum definition of fascism that the field can agree upon, precisely because of its capacity to incorporate apparently unrelated, even outright contradictory political ideas. The clerical fascism of Portugal’s Salazar, the justicialismo of Peron’s Argentina, the European empire of Yockey and Evola, the electoral fascism of the British National Party, the thousand European flags of de Benoist, the faux-socialism of Mussolini’s Salo Republic; fascism is all over the place. There are even those historians, like Zeev Sternhell, who reject that fascism is a creature of the right at all, and contend that it expresses a synthesis of ultra-right and ultra-left desires for a post-bourgeois social order that essentially goes beyond right and left.

Indeed, it is possible to cite a number of individuals, such as Mussolini and Sorel, who started as socialists but who became fascists. Small sections of the syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist labor movements in France, Spain and Italy came to embrace kinds of national syndicalism in sync with fascist corporatism. Yet Robert O. Paxton’s observation in his The Anatomy of Fascism holds true. While fascists often talked a strident anti-capitalist polemic, they never walked the walk by attempting to abolish private property, liquidate the bourgeoisie, give power to the working class, radically restructure the state apparatus, or the like. At most, fascists strictly regulated the capitalist economy within the national territory they controlled, subjecting the native bourgeoisie, sometimes harshly, to what they perceived as the interests of the nation.

For it is in the exaltation of the nation through extreme nationalism that we find what is essential to fascism. Despite its bewildering diversity, there hasn’t been a type of fascism independent of virulent nationalism. Yockey’s European-wide imperium and de Benoist’s tribal ethnes are merely variations on this theme, quite easily reconciled through an updated feudalism that, like Charlemagne’s mythic empire, would continentally unite a thousand autonomous European ethnicities. National distinctions may often account for fascism’s syncretistic idiosyncrasies. Certainly, the fact that fascism’s foundation stone is nationalism defines it as of the right.

A former professor of mine likened politics to farting into a whirlwind-you never know where the smell winds up. Political syncretism can sometimes present one with the choice of working with some rather odious people who claim to be on the same side. The National Anarchist who caused such paroxysms on the above-noted anarchist board did argue that his being against the state and nation-state were what defined his politics, that his type of tribal nationalism (read, decentralized racial separatism) was incidental to his fundamental anarchism, and that anarchists of all persuasions should be able to connect, communicate, and perhaps cooperate in opposing their common enemy, the state.

Keith Preston, an individualist anarchist, has also argued on his American Revolutionary Vanguard website that left and right anarchists, separatists and secessionists should all work together to overthrow the government. It is no coincidence that these calls for left-right collaboration, like the original call to go “beyond left and right,” invariably originate on the right. The right seems to actively syncretize with the left along the axis of revolutionary opposition to the state, a characteristic not limited to fascism. In the late 1960s, a significant segment of William F. Buckley’s conservative, college-based Young Americans for Freedom split off as anti-war, anti-state, right-wing libertarians and anarcho-capitalists. Under the influence of folks like Murray Rothbard, who published Left and Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought with Karl Hess from 1965 to 1968, these right-wingers veered decidedly to the left and energetically courted left-libertarian elements on the moribund New Left of the day.

Jerome Tuccille describes all of this, rather humorously in his books It Usually Begins With Ayn Rand and Radical Libertarianism, from the perspective of one of those right-libertarian rebels. I was a left-wing anarchist at the time, and I’m here to confess that I was suckered into believing that some sort of left-right libertarian cooperation was possible. I participated in a couple of dismal efforts at seeking out some sort of common ground between left and right libertarians. I came to the realization, during a so-called left-right study group in which all the right libertarians were extolling the joys of hording gold and silver, that it was a waste of time trying to work with anarcho-capitalists.

Our supposedly minor differences-cooperative vs. competitive economics, social property vs. private property, collectivism vs. individualism-far outweighed our single, prominent commonality-our shared desire to abolish the state. We seldom attended the same events, we rarely took the same actions, and we hardly spoke the same language. What’s more, it wasn’t as if left leaning anarchists had all managed to get along, much less work together. And the shibboleth of unity on the Left was as much a pipedream, then as now. There was no good reason for left-wing libertarians to try and form an alliance with right-wing libertarians.

Just as there is no good reason today for the rest of the anarchist milieu to have anything to do with the joke that calls itself national anarchism. That won’t stop addled anarchos from paraphrasing Rodney King and pontificating that all anti-statists should try and get along. A couple of regular posters did just that on the anarchist board in question in response to calls to ban the national anarchist. At least King had the excuse that he was beaten senseless by the LAPD.

That nationalism proved instrumental in the process of syncretism in all but one of the historical examples described in this column is what’s particularly telling. As a stone internationalist of the Marxist persuasion, I’m aware of how much Marx underrated nationalism as a social force, and of how little the ultraleft has done to correct this deficiency. The same could be said for race and racism. And while these inadequacies are part of the reason I no longer call myself a left communist, this column has gone on far too long to discuss them here and now.

Next month, predictions gone awry.