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High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experiences in the Seventies

4.32  ·  Rating details ·  214 ratings  ·  32 reviews
A study of the spiritual provocations to be found in the work of Philip K. Dick, Terence McKenna, and Robert Anton Wilson, High Weirdness charts the emergence of a new psychedelic spirituality that arose from the American counterculture of the 1970s. These three authors changed the way millions of readers thought, dreamed, and experienced reality—but how did their writings ...more
Hardcover, 550 pages
Published June 11th 2019 by MIT Press
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 ·  214 ratings  ·  32 reviews

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Chris Harris
Jan 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
A densely academic examination of the underlying psychological, pharmacological, and psychic experiences that triggered the intense creative acts of the McKennas, RAW and PKD in the 70s is never entirely going to hit its target; the beast is too amorphous, too ambiguous, and just too plain tricksy for any third party to offer a definitive judgment of what was going on inside their heads. Given the characters involved, this is to be expected.

But what you get here is an enjoyable ride nevertheles
Apr 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Get the audiobook, Erik Davis does a great job.
Dec 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If you favor any of the three main authors being discussed you will most likely love this work. Davis's clear sighted yet non-judgemental survey of the authors' books and thoughts reminds you of all the reasons you loved them on first read and might point out some things you didn't notice before. The web of writers and thinkers he uses to discuss these authors is quite wide-ranging and added to my tbr list (as well as including one of my professors from grad school as a reference). Definitely fu ...more
Kir 'Bear'
Nov 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I listened to some really good recordings of Professor Davis giving entertaining lectures which led me to the book. He's such a great orator that his voice is narrating this book as I read it in my head, which has been so cool I now think its how it was meant to be read. He is a very distinctive thinker and writer. I do not have the qualifications or the background knowledge to critique all the material that is folded into this book, however as a fairly well read amateur I have learned a huge am ...more
B. Rule
Mar 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book basically lights up all my circuits: PKD, RAW, and the McKennas, all run through the academic machine of deconstructionism, systems theory, and religious studies. Davis is clearly simpatico with the subculture of high weirdness, but he does an admirable job of balancing keen personal interest and disinterested and cool-headed critical analysis.

It's clear that his primary focus is PKD, and his best work lies in close textual readings of Dick's published works read in the light of the E
Greg Kuchmek
Jan 08, 2020 rated it liked it
This is an odd one. If you know nothing of its subjects, you'll find yourself quite lost. Yet, if you are already well-versed in the McKenna mythos, the RAW doctrine and the PKD canon, then you'll be experiencing deja vu.

Honestly, I really like Erik Davis. He's definitely well-meaning, good-hearted and "one of us"; but this book comes across as trying way too hard. It's overly long and often overly-worded. He has the penchant for using fancy esoteric words in place of more commonly used words to
Steve Erickson
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book takes a while to get started: the section on Terence & Dennis McKenna seems much less engaged than Erik Davis' writing on Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick. That may be because the McKennas wrote (basically) non-fiction, while some of the work by Wilson and Dick that Davis grapples with pushes genres categories in order to describe real psychic experiences that the writers went through. Davis does a good job of explaining how the psychedelic extremes of the counterculture have now ...more
Daniel Elder
Sep 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book is mega, a deep dive into the weirdness of a very specific time (the early 70's) in a very specific locale (California) that, like tunneling into a fractal, flowers out to be about the deeper past and the future - i.e. the present we are currently living in. (In this, it reminded me, strangely, of Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan - though, obviously, way fucking stranger.) Just a flipped out, excellent book that makes me feel a squirmy thrill at being part of what I now see is a long ...more
Jul 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An in-depth and erudite exploration of the psychedelic and the esoteric, triangulated through the lives and work of Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick. It feels as thorough a summation as one could hope for of these weirdos and their weird era without ever going down the rabbit hole and into mild psychosis that these three thinkers themselves inhabited. It successfully walks the tight rope neither rejecting the weirdness nor being "seduced by madness" a tricky feat! ...more
Bryan Cebulski
Davis handles a considerable heft of weird, clunky material here not quite gracefully, but compellingly. He's not great at introducing topics or transitioning from one thing to the next, and he lets himself get carried away and his rhetoric winds up emulating the long winded obtuse rambling of his subjects. But it's altogether an interesting trip.

He gets better with each section. I'm still not sure what to make of the Terrence McKenna chapters, but his work on Robert Anthon Wilson and Philip K.
Sep 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
If you were there in the 70 s, or was it the 80’s, and had a certain, fringe culture frame of reference, then you will either love this or wonder if it was telling you anything new.
Darrell Reimer
Nov 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Rob Latham over at LARB has the definitive review of Davis' crackerjack book, I think -- I will defer to him and second his opinion that the portion dealing with Terrence McKenna is the least compelling.

The book broke my heart, I have to say. I lived through the 70s, 80s, 90s and the turn-of-the-Mil, and McKenna, RAW and Dick were a source of fascination for me these last 30 years. The further I followed Davis on his deep dive, the more deeply I realized that "weird" is no longer a fringe concer
Rory Tregaskis
Aug 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
The main thrust of what Erik Davis does is this book is attempt to take anomalous experiences seriously, if not literally. I really like that approach. Anything but curious agnosticism seems like keeping yourself in the dark. If you only believe in the quotidian physical of ordinary experience you close off all possibility and arguably become as ignorant as someone driven by superstition.

The book is kind of hard work though. I don't know that much about Robert Anton Wilson, or Terrance and Denn
Robert Patterson
Jul 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
High Weirdness by Erik Davis

Interesting, academic insights into the 70s thru the literally comparative and religious analysis of 3 writers/physic explorers (Terence Mckenna, Robert Anton Wilson, Philip K Dick) bordering the thin line between madness, creative genius, mystical / psychotic visions and the dynamic uroboros loop between popular culture motifs, the zeitgeist and the internal "heart of darkness" adventure that each encountered.

Davis the ultimate post modernist shows an openness to tak
Robert Hudder
Sep 23, 2019 rated it liked it
A look at a particular time through three different writers: Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick. I could spend a lot of time trying to describe what is going here but instead I'll put it another way. If you are into the uncanny and the weird then this book is for you. If you spent time in Lovecraft or even read two of those three folks then this is an interesting trip to try and explain was was happening between 1970-1975.

There is a bit at the end that tries to tie it toget
Justin Tappan
Aug 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A dense, intelligent dive into the rise of the weird in 1970s America, with an emphasis on California as a hotbed of strange esoterica. This wasn’t a breezy read, but damn it was interesting. The focus here is on Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, three psychonauts who all personified the rise of the weird in distinctly unusual ways. A great read for anyone interested in the history of the psychonaut movement, which has experienced something of a resurgence, and those inte ...more
Tom Goulter
Mar 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
The best, purest weirdness is a self-renewing resource that provides novel glimpses of the real even as it expands the boundaries of the explicable way beyond the horizons of the comprehensible. And this is that real shit. Davis is a very clever dude with a lot of love for his subjects that drives him to ask big questions about their work and bring back bigger answers. I’ve never read anything quite like it. Highly recommended.
Chris Moule
Jul 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
If you’re interested in Terrence McKenna and/or Robert Anton Wilson and/or Philip K Dick, this book is for you. The author, Erik Davis, adds rich and fascinating context to the very weird “contact” experiences of the 3 thinkers above, without diluting the mystery.
It’s one of the most interesting and compelling books I’ve come across on esoterica since Cosmic Trigger.
Oct 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Pulp fiction and high theory. I'm a sucker for this shit. ...more
Dec 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Reading Erik Davis' lengthy and dense tome brought me back to a specific yet nebulous feeling from my childhood, surfing the World Wide Web for conspiracy theories and urban legends, well before the days of the "Creepy Pasta." Davis, a comparative religions PhD, gives that exciting and foreboding feeling an academic sheen as he traces how Terrence (and Dennis) McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick grappled with and reified the American post-war and Californian post-sixties hangover of ...more
Willy Boy
Nov 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Overlong, hard to digest work that betrays it's origins as an academic thesis. The maddeningly overwrought, impenetrable attempt to define to a minute degree of precision is the mumbo jumbo of institutions of higher learning, more arcane than anything HP Lovecraft could conjure. The book is laced with interesting nuggets but they are incorporated into a bloated corpus that saps energy and interest. If one is already familiar with the works of Wilson, the McKennas and Dick, much here is contemptu ...more
Gregory Collins
Aug 29, 2020 rated it it was ok
I read this because I was interested in learning more about the McKenna brothers, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick, four colorful counterculture figures who’s work I’ve enjoyed over the years. As a casual psychonaut, I thought it might be fun. Since finishing it, I now feel like I know LESS about them, if that’s possible. This book was apparently written as a doctoral thesis and academically examines “weirdness” through the lens of these figures’ mystical/psychotic experiences in the cont ...more
Jack King
Sep 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
High Weirdness is a deep, deep dive into the experiences, experiments, theophanies and theologies of three true architects of 1970s American (especially Californian) psychedelic, psycho-spiritual "occulture" -- Terrence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K Dick. All but the final chapter was written for Erik Davis's doctoral thesis, studying under Jeffrey Kripal, so if you follow the work of either of these men, Davis or Kripal, you already have a good idea what's in store for you. HW is a ...more
Des Small
Jul 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The book sets out to think through the cosmic/supernatural/religious experiences of Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K Dick without either accepting them at face value or reducing them to drug-induced foolishness and/or pre-existing neural atypicality.

It does that very well, and presents a compelling picture of 1970s California counterculture High Weirdness in general, although the long trawl through PKD's very long trawl through his visions may have eventually left me wondering s
David Rice
Jun 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A truly illuminating book about the eerie resonances between the early 70s and today, and the delirious, inspired quests of thinkers and writers to discover a reality outside of both the mire of politics and the solipsism of their own minds... essential reading for anyone trying to grapple with the innate, menacing weirdness of the early 2020s.
Kevin Eggleston
Jan 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Thoughtful, openminded, truly intelligent look at 70s esoterica.
May 06, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Top stuff
Jun 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely remarkable. Equal parts historical treatise, philosophical deconstruction, and hilarious cultural deconstruction. Everything that non-fiction should be.
Jul 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Finally, some weirdo who's into hacking reality while keeping his eyes on the stars, and his feet on the ground... ...more
Aug 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: the-library
Not for everyone. But this book has almost all the Weird Shit™ that I love from the last 50-ish years of American culture that I love all in one place.
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Erik Davis is an American writer, scholar, journalist and public speaker whose writings have ranged from rock criticism to cultural analysis to creative explorations of esoteric mysticism.

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65 likes · 14 comments
“One important consequence of this approach is that the meaning or full activity of a drug can only be worked out and constructed in practice. A drug's effects, in this view, aren't discovered, but nor are they purely invented. Instead, they are enacted.” 1 likes
“The transitive shift from observer to participant, from gaze to encounter, requires both active engagement and a passive willingness to allow the phenomenon to reveal itself in its own terms. This visionary leap opens a dimension of experience, of ontological possibility, that is simultaneously a kind of abyss. In finding a “Thou” where before there was an “it”—as Martin Buber would describe it—the psychonaut suddenly faces all manner of risks: terror, madness, delusion, or what Terence ironically called “death by astonishment.” But to not take the chance, for some anyway, falls short of the mark.” 0 likes
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