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Erik Davis – The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape (Chronicle Books, $40 US hardback).

Erik Davis is our foremost chronicler of the mutant forms religion and/or spirituality take in contemporary culture. As such, his research has taken him to some rather strange places. His first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information brought together an encyclopedic collection of examples of apocalyptic spirituality, all of them mediated by technology, from scientology, to Philip K. Dick, to psychedelics to Marshall McLuhan. His second book is a remarkable 150 page exegesis of that great artefact of 1970s rock and roll, Led Zeppelin IV whose grungy but glorious spiritual aspirations, encrypted in citations from Lord of the Rings and Aleister Crowley Davis documents and appraises in a humorous but sympathetic tone.
Perhaps no surprise then that here Davis offers us nothing less than a history of spirituality in California, told in a series of meditations on particular places of significance to that history, and illustrated with photos by fellow Californian Michael Raumer. Like most of his previous objects of investigation, California has the status of a degraded object, the archetypal, parodic embodiment of New Age, credit card assisted spiritual delusions and dreaming. The clichés and indignation that accompanies them have a long history, running all the way back to Thomas Lake Harris, who founded a Theo-Socialist commune in Santa Rosa in 1875, espousing celibacy, practices of “Divine Respiration” and visualization techniques that Davis likens to “Victorian Tantra”. Harris was forced to flee in 1892 after being exposed by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter to whom he made sexual advances. Harris, along with California as a whole, is “cheesy” but “juicy” to use two of Davis’ favorite adjectives. Davis obviously loves the paradoxes and contradictions that come with the territory, and shows how deeply California, as place, as idea is entangled in notions of spiritual renewal and reinvention, figured in a series of booms, busts and eternal returns, that run from Mormon renegade Elder Brennan, founder of the first spa in California to today’s Burning Man festival.
Davis acts as an archeological guide to a land littered of ruins, most of them built within living memory. Asian religions fare relatively well in this spiritual demolition derby: the Kwan Tai taoist temple in Mendocino, still active today, dates back to 1882 and the early waves of Chinese immigration to the west coast, while Ramakrishna and Vivekenanda’s Vedanta Society Old Temple in San Francisco dates back to 1903. Yogananda wrote his Autobiography of a Yogi in Encinitas, still the home of a thriving ashram. Isherwood, Alan Watts, Huxley, Leary, the whole parade of literary and spiritual pranksters who made their homes in California at one time or another are here.
Davis’ conclusions, embedded in a final meditation on Californian sunsets, are optimistic: “In contrast with established religions, California consciousness affirms the modern condition, in all its vertiginous freedom. But it also seeks to transcend the narrow materialism of secular rationality, even as it reconciles spirit with a cosmic sense of the material world. Awakening today is a physical matter, rooted in the body of sensation and the ecological realities that pin us to this spinning ball. But consciousness also continues to surf the cusp of novelty, discovering a Promethean sensibility that is not content with limitations, earthly or otherwise.” It is unclear what the ocean here is – America? Capitalism? Nature? The Divine? – but there’s no question that the waves keep rolling in.

Originally published in Ascent, 2007.

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