High Weirdness Part 1: The Roots of the Absurd

philip k. dick

“If you sincerely desire a truly well-rounded education, you must study the extremists, the obscure and “nutty.” You need the balance! Your poor brain is already being impregnated with middle-of-the-road crap, twenty-four hours a day, no matter what. Network TV, newspapers, radio, magazines at the supermarket… even if you never watch, read, listen, or leave your house, even if you are deaf and blind, the telepathic pressure alone of the uncountable normals surrounding you will insure that you are automatically well-grounded in consensus reality.”
― Ivan Stang, High Weirdness By Mail

From where I’m standing (rather, sitting, at my corporate job desk) the world seems to have taken a sharp turn for the mundane right around the end of the 90’s. As a young adult not that many years ago, I felt like an archeologist sifting through the remains of all the glorious weirdness that was fringe culture from a time when I was probably still watching Saturday morning cartoons.  I was always the weird kid in school, so once I got some sort of autonomy as an adult I was ecstatic to find things like The Church of the Subgenius and TOPY, Deoxy, the Zine movement, and then promptly disappointed to find these groups were kind of fizzling out, if not already gathering dust.  I was too late.

High Weirdness: A much too brief introduction

A quick primer, what the hell is High Weirdness anyway, and why should we capitalize it?  You wont find a neat and clean wikipedia article about what exactly High Weirdness entails. There are no official definitions or centralized consensus on what is or is not High Weirdness.  High Weirdness was probably popularized as a term by the book by Ivan Stang, High Weirdness by Mail published in 1988. It examined ‘weird culture’ with topics like UFOs, drug culture, and other general weirdness that fell between the cracks of the mundane world the ‘normals’ experienced.  Since then, perhaps retroactively it’s come to include various subjects that fall outside the mainstream cultural paradigm, usually referring to work by authors such as Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, and the works by groups such as TOPY, Church of the Subgenius, and the artwork of outsider artists like Paul Laffoley.  All of these various and varied people and groups had one thing in common, they shrugged the cultural status quo in favor of the creation of artifacts, writings, and performances that often embodied the absurd, uncomfortable, and the strange in hopes that the rest of us would see things in a slightly different light.

When I first sat down to write this article I thought it’d be something relatively easy, open and shut. I’d give an overview of the people involved in the High Weirdness movement, and everything that came after.

I was utterly, completely wrong. It’s a damn rabbit hole, a fascinating one that I think will be of great interest to those in pursuit of the more esoteric paths. A rabbit hole that’s going to necessitate me breaking this whole thing up into parts, and, for once in my life utilizing my Art History minor.

‘Pataphysics and the Sublime Absurd

Alfred Jarry

Alfred Jarry possibly under the influence of absinthe

Though we could probably go back forever, we’ll pick a point in the modern era where things really started to congeal, an event in which some scholars point to as the advent of Modernism in the arts, though the ripple effect on our how we view consciousness and society was profound.  The performance of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry on December 10th, 1896 in Paris caused a great stir in the cultural minds of the day.  Reading the script as a modern viewer, it plays out closer to a Monty Python Sketch than 19th century theater.

Watch this clip:

Now read these quotes from the play Ubu Roi (preferably in John Cleese’s Voice):

UBU: (throwing gold). Catch. This is for you. It hardly amuses me to give you money, but you know, that’s what Mama Ubu wanted. At least promise me you’ll pay your taxes.


UBU: Are you finished? Then I’ll begin: twisting of the nose, extraction of hair, penetration of the ears with a small stick, extraction of the brains through the heels, laceration of the bottom, partial or even total suppression of the bone marrow – if that will remove the spininess of your character – not forgetting the cutting open of the bladder, and finally the grand beheading a la Saint John the Baptist, the whole drawn from the holy writings of both the Old Testament and the New, set in order, corrected and perfected by the here-present Master of Finance! How does that suit you, fathead?

It doesn’t take much imagination to see the roots of the modern manifestations of the absurd here. Jarry and his Parisian friends were very much the counterculture of their day. It’s said that Jarry, in a most definitely inebriated state, once painted his face green and rode through the streets on his bicycle in honor of his personal muse, absinthe. Perhaps under it’s influence, or as a cultural play off the Symbolist movement he was closely tied to, Jarry originated a science he called ‘Pataphysics, which is described thusly:

Pataphysics deals with “the laws which govern exceptions and will explain the universe supplementary to this one”. In ‘pataphysics, every event in the universe is accepted as an extraordinary event.

Jarry then went on to live out the rest of his life in the exact way you’d expect from a person this devoted to completely shrugging contemporary culture.  Drinking heavily and living in a tiny flat in poverty, he spoke in absurdities and adopted a nasally pitched speaking voice. While you probably have never heard of Alfred Jarry before reading this article, several well known artist were influenced by his ongoing living performance art.  Pablo Picasso (who acquired Jarry’s revolver after his death), William Butler Yates, Max Jacobs, were influenced by Jarry, and through them the advent of the Cubist, Dada, and Surrealist movements.

And Now for More Magick!

symbolist painting

This is all well and good, and certainly these characters make for interesting studies, but the rabbit hole goes deeper, and much weirder.

Paris in the 1890’s was a hotbed for Avant Garde culture.  No surprise that much of our modern thought springs from this time period, where culture was approaching the end of the stuffy Victorian Era. Much of the artistic output by the Avant Garde in this era was a direct reaction to the structured and restrictive practices in many facets of life at the time.  Art was created and displayed a certain way. Theater was performed a certain way. Manners and social activities followed a certain set of rules that just were.  Also thrown into the mix were the rising middle class that sprang from the success of the industrial revolution.  As more and more people were becoming wealthier, more of them were falling victim to greed and complacency and the allure of power.

Seeing these cultural norms as pillars waiting to be shaken, the zeitgeist of the turn of the century rose out of the foundation the Symbolists had created.

And what a foundation it was.

Inspired by mysticism, philosophy, and the occult, Symbolists looked inward to create, rather than outwards at the physical world. This doesn’t sound all that exotic to us, but at this time art followed a definite set of rules, falling mostly into landscapes, or portraits, or structured literature and poetry that followed rules set in place hundreds of years prior. Though the Symbolists often drew from these artistic norms, their approach was a very different one, one more akin to gnosis and mysticism than their predecessors and peers were taking part in. They were basically constructing their own mystical correspondences and going crazy putting them into verse and canvas. Synesthesia was a prized experience because it naturally did what they were trying to do, to overlay the senses to create new and exalted modes of thought.

Symbolist poems sought to evoke, rather than to describe; symbolic imagery was used to signify the state of the poet’s soul. Synesthesia was a prized experience; poets sought to identify and confound the separate senses of scent, sound, and color. In Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” which also speaks tellingly of forêts de symboles — forests of symbols—

There are perfumes that are fresh like children’s flesh,
sweet like oboes, green like meadows
— And others, corrupt, rich, and triumphant,

having the expansiveness of infinite things,
like amber, musk, benzoin, and incense,
which sing of the raptures of the soul and senses.

Just for reference, during this period A.E Waite was translating and publishing Eliphas Levi’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie, the Eiffel Tower was erected, Aleister Crowley was initiated into the Golden Dawn, Spiritism was raging on both sides of the pond, and the Theosophical Society was in full swing.

Once that particular ice was broken, the way was made clear for culture to riff off this even further and out sprung all manner of modern movements, Surrealism, Cubism, Dada, and, later on the Psychedelic and Consciousness Exploration movements of the latter half of the 20th century.

From Consumption to Creation

ubu roi

What I love about the period before the turn of the 19th century is that it feels very much like the time we live in now, and since hindsight is 20/20, there is a lot we can learn from those who came before.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the never ending cycles, a pendulum swinging back and forth between radical thought and conservative materialism.  In many ways we are in the same boat. Industrial advances (usually made on the backs of slaves) have given us luxury beyond what our great grandparents could even imagine, but the double edged sword has also given us unrestrained consumerism paired with withering desire to challenge any of the societal rules foisted on us by those who benefit from our lack of empathy and action.

While they didn’t call themselves magicians, the Symbolists and co. were partaking of a decidedly magickal act, radically realigning their reality with one of their own making.  In rebellion to a society that was elitist, classist, and nationalistic, they chose to do their Will instead of and despite living in a time when oppression to these ideas was very strong. Often this meant creating outspoken opposition to contemporary politics, organized religion, military expansionism, greed, and unfair working conditions.

The word of Sin is Restriction, as Crowley says.

Sounds a lot like today.

Before I wrap this up, and move on to the next part, I want you all to think about creativity and weirdness in your life.  Do you consume what is handed down (and carefully curated by PR companies) or do you make weirdness (rebellion) in your life?  Do you accept social norms or do you fight against them, even in small ways? Perhaps Alfred Jarry is a rather dysfunctional example, but in the face of expanding consumerism and shrinking basic human rights, perhaps it’s what we need to shake the masses out of their sleep walk towards the cliff of totalitarianism.

Do one thing this week in the spirit of High Weirdness. Something totally original, something weird, perhaps even something offensive. Write a poem and make copies to paste up in a public place.  Criticize that which we accept without thinking, and actively push back against it with art and prose. Dress oddly, make people wonder.  Because if they wonder, then they are thinking, and we need more thought in the world these days.

I’ll leave you with this quote by Philip K. Dick:

The authentic human being is one of us who instinctively knows what he should not do, and, in addition, he will balk at doing it. He will refuse to do it, even if this brings down dread consequences to him and to those whom he loves. This, to me, is the ultimately heroic trait of ordinary people; they say no to the tyrant and they calmly take the consequences of this resistance. Their deeds may be small, and almost always unnoticed, unmarked by history. Their names are not remembered, nor did these authentic humans expect their names to be remembered. I see their authenticity in an odd way: not in their willingness to perform great heroic deeds but in their quiet refusals. In essence, they cannot be compelled to be what they are not.


Next Up we’ll be moving forward to the Dada Movement and the Surrealists!

Leave a Reply