Welcome to Afterglow, a newsletter that will change your mind. My name is Charles Bliss and I'm a psychedelic journalist from Norwich, UK.
This week, we are exploding back in time through Richard Linklater's cinematic lens to remember our grandmothers. Lights, grandma, action!
On the weekend of the Queen's platinum jubilee, my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday. The festivities were confined to a hospital room in Southend-on-Sea, where nurses gathered around her bed as she breathlessly reminisced about sleeping out overnight in front of Buckingham Palace to see the royal procession after Elizabeth II's coronation. She died two days later on Sunday, 5 June 2022.
In the days following her exit, I decided to re-watch three of Richard Linklater's films — Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) — because I remembered that a recurring theme of his Before Trilogy is the death of grandmothers. But I also saw a number of parallels in Linklater's work with Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception, discussed in last week's Afterglow newsletter, and his interest in how psychedelics like mescaline and LSD can facilitate mystical experiences.
When asked his feelings about time while on mescaline, Huxley replied: "There seems to be plenty of it." This is not a sentiment that the two protagonists and star-crossed lovers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy), would share. The ambulatory films depict three days in the life of two strangers who meet on a train, disembark together, wander around a city and begin a doomed romance consigned to the clock. Each of the films is set nine years apart from the last and is structured almost entirely around conversation and walking.
Their meetings are always tyrannised by the unremitting beat of time and the straitjacket of the self from which they seek liberation. Time is imbricated with mortality, and the couple discuss the different methods people use to transcend both time and the ego, including art, religion and chemicals.
In a passage evocative of Robin Carhart-Harris's findings in his seminal paper The Entropic Brain, Jesse seeks to escape the mental grooves his mind is stuck in with the ecstasy of transcendent experiences like love, dancing and consciousness-altering substances:
Jesse: It‘s just, usually, it’s myself that I wish I could get away from. Seriously, think about this. I have never been anywhere that I haven’t been. I’ve never had a kiss when I wasn’t one of the kissers. You know, I’ve never gone to the movies when I wasn’t there in the audience. I’ve never been out bowling if I wasn’t there, making some stupid joke. That’s why so many people hate themselves. Seriously. It’s just they are sick to death of being around themselves. So of course I’m sick of myself. But being with you… it’s made me feel like I was somebody else. I mean the only other way to lose yourself like that is… you know, dancing or alcohol or drugs.
The problem for Jesse is that the overbearing ego is in such total control that it precludes the possibility of transcendence and connection. The rational mind imposes such strict order on reality that it is unhelpfully restrictive — like Huxley's reducing valve:
"Certain persons, however, seem to be born with a kind of by-pass that circumvents the reducing valve. In others temporary by-passes may be acquired either spontaneously, or as the result of deliberate ‘spiritual exercises,’ or through hypnosis, or by means of drugs."
But, as Céline suggests, the rapture of being alive is closely connected with being open to the mystery of existence — that there is even a universe at all.
Céline: There's an Einstein quote I really, really like. He said if you don't believe in any kind of magic or mystery, you're basically as good as dead.
Jesse: Yeah, I like that. I've always felt there was some kind of mystical core to the universe.
The mystical core to the universe that Jesse alludes to has been explored in psychedelic-assisted therapy with the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire in a number of studies. The mystical experience is an altered state of consciousness that consists of an intimate union with the divine, nature or the universe. It is characterised by a sense of pure awareness or merging with an ultimate reality. All things are revealed to be alive, sacred and interconnected.
A scene from Before Sunrise, in which Céline has her palm read in a city square, beautifully illustrates this. As she dances away, the fortune teller sings:
“You are both stars, don’t forget. When the stars exploded billions of years ago, they formed everything that is this world. Everything we know is stardust. So don’t forget: you are stardust."
Returning from the moon on Apollo 14, NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell had a mystical-type experience which revealed this insight to him. In the documentary In the Shadow of the Moon, Mitchell says:
"The biggest joy was on the way home. In my cockpit window, every two minutes: The Earth, the Moon, the Sun, and the whole 360-degree panorama of the heavens. And that was a powerful, overwhelming experience. And suddenly I realised that the molecules of my body, and the molecules of the spacecraft, the molecules in the body of my partners, were prototyped, manufactured in some ancient generation of stars. And that was an overwhelming sense of oneness, of connectedness.”
It's also right there in the Holy Bible: "For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
I'll leave you with one more image of the perpetually unfolding fractal of nature — this mystical core to the universe. In When the Drummers Were Women, Layne Redmond writes:
“Before we were conceived, we existed in part as an egg in our mother’s ovary. All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old foetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother. Each of us spent five months in our grandmother’s womb and she in turn formed within the womb of her grandmother."
If you start thinking of your evolution in terms of this matryoshka doll effect, not only will you feel more connected to your mother and grandmother, but you might be able to project all the way back into the thermonuclear supernova from which all life came.
These are exactly the kinds of experiences that Dr Stanislav Grof found that patients could access during LSD therapy, as documented in his book Realms of the Human Unconscious, which we will explore in the next edition of Afterglow.
In loving memory
🤯 Mind at Large
A breakdown of mind-blowing ideas I encountered this week:
📖 Article – I can also recommend this gorgeous article by Michael Koresky for Criterion about one scene from Before Sunset in which the characters stand before a poster for an exhibition of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat. Huxley recognises Seurat as one of the supreme masters of "mystical landscape painting" and claims that Seurat was a "man who was able, more effectively than any other, to render the One in the many".
🎨 Art – Yayoi Kusama's Chandelier of Grief:
"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed."
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