Anyone who studies millennial movements also ends up studying cults, which figure heavily in any study of how the end of the world intrudes upon normal life. In this review for Culture Wars, John ties in Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test [Amazon link] as well as Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger [Amazon link]. As disreputable as many millennial cults are, it isn't surprising their influence is subsequently swept under the rug.
Ecstasy Club (A Novel)
by Douglas Rushkoff
Approximate Length: 283 Pages
Probable Price: $17.50
[This review is based on uncorrected proofs.]
The Persistence of the Future
Douglas Rushkoff probably needs no introduction, if you follow Generation X literature at all. If you don't, then perhaps you are nevertheless aware of him as a man in his mid-30s who makes a remarkable amount of money advising media corporations on how to tailor their products for twenty-somethings with short attention spans. Certainly this novel is full of the sort of stuff that young adults are supposed to interested in. You get raves [an appalling sort of party], smart drugs [most of them not controlled substances], 90s psychedelia [much it electronic], one or more universal conspiracies, and enough paranormal incident (in the words of one character) for three seasons of the "X-Files" [an old television series]. Turning the story into a screenplay will be a no-brainer in every sense of the term.
Still, it will not do to dismiss this novel as the work of an O2-cool airhead. One suspects that Mr. Rushkoff is trying to do on purpose what Charles Reich did inadvertently in "The Greening of America" (1970), that is, to articulate and to close a whole countercultural era simultaneously. (As Hegel used to say, you can only bag the owls of Minerva when the fat lady sings.) Maybe his sense of timing is right. In any event, "Ecstasy Club" is yet more evidence for the proposition that the 90s are simply the 60s with all of the toxins and none of the sentiment.
One way to look at the book is as the story of how the protagonist outgrows his youthful enthusiasms to settle down with a wife and kid in the suburbs. Another way to look at the book is as an apocalyptic novel. The principal characters are, after all, quite consciously trying to end the world. Unlike the Aum Shinri Kyo, they are not manufacturing poison gas or building earthquake machines. Rather, they intend to accomplish their goal by organizing a series of raves in an abandoned piano factory in Oakland, California. These parties are supposed to provide a catalyst that will break down the conditioning that certain malevolent forces have injected into late 20th century popular culture. The dark archons of this age have deep historical roots, of course, but their modern incarnations are neo-Malthusians who are preparing the population to accept a massive human die-off. Their agents, at least in the opinion of the people in the piano factory, include the Grateful Dead and a brainwashing cult called "Cosmotology" that resembles the Church of Scientology in only the most superficial and non-actionable way. When the dampening effects of these forces have been weakened in a sufficient number of people, the pace of cultural novelty will accelerate to infinity and history as we know it will be over.
The folks at the piano factory are, of course, a cult. They live under the direction of Duncan, a young Englishman of highly informal immigration status, who broils their incipient paranoia to a golden brown using a combination of psychological gimmicks and genuine charisma. He is a manipulator, but not quite a fraud. The company includes an albino economist, various slovenly hackers and a small assortment of long-suffering women, including the leader's girl friend who eventually runs off with the protagonist. The protagonist describes himself as a "Connecticut Jew at King Duncan's court." His surname is Levy, and he repeatedly reflects on the parallels between his position in the piano factory and that of the Levites of old, whose job was to clean up the blood after the sacrifices. He actually only has to clean up a little blood, but he does sweep the floors after the nightly raves and attend to the numerous bureaucratic hassles inevitable to an enterprise that steals its electricity and squats in city-owned property. It is not so much that he is a Jew as that he is the one with a working car.
Not myself knowing a great deal about raves and clubs, especially on the West Coast, I have to take the author's word about how these things operate. The piano factory has raves for different subcultures on different nights, so we get a look at each in turn. For some reason, the Industrial music kids (shaven heads and Nazi sympathies) get the same night as the Goths (Romantic vampire-fanciers), with the result that the former routinely beat up the latter. Since the club is in the Greater San Francisco area, there are special nights for different varieties of ambiguously-gendered persons.
On a business level, it is remarkable that, although the cult members begin by sleeping on concrete floors in abandoned buildings and diving for food in dumpsters, they have no trouble commanding the services of the technicians and media needed to get the Ecstasy Club off the ground. Partly it is just that the cash-flow from a rave can be considerable, but it also becomes clear that behind most of these homeless bohemians stand trust funds and indulgent parents. Several seem to be just taking time off after getting an advanced degree of some sort. What better way to unwind after graduate school than a little noetic engineering?
The action of the story largely concerns the increasing harassment and ill-luck that the Ecstasy Club experiences as its activities begin to become well-known. The police, for instance, inexplicably refuse to remain satisfied with their bribes. (The incident in which they drive a tank through the piano factory wall to extract a larger take would no doubt be exaggerated even in Los Angeles). The club is panned by both "Rolling Stone" and a magazine called "Plugged" that bears a family resemblance to "Wired." More and more links between the club's harassers and Cosomotology come to light. The hackers become infected with a computer virus that can lodge in the human nervous system. Nikola Tesla is found to be mysteriously active many decades after his death. There is arson. There is murder. There is a wholly unnecessary orgy. Finally, Duncan leads them all on an expedition to kidnap the founder of Cosomotology to make him confess to disrupting the time-space continuum. The upshot is that Duncan and the founder agree to make the Ecstasy Club a Cosmotology franchise. That is when Levy and Duncan's girl friend decide to move to the suburbs. Smart kids.
The disconcerting thing about the mental world the characters inhabit is how little of it the author had to make up. The notion of drug-sodden parties as instruments for ending the age is scarcely new. Yeats presented a similar device in "The Rosa Alchemica" (and perhaps gave the idea a test run at his castle in Sligo). The end-of-the-world celebrations in Stuart Gordon's 1981 novel, "Smile on the Void," are not only raves in all essentials but are set, at least in part, in San Francisco. Even the idea of a climactic reconciliation between the forces of good and evil has a subcultural precedent in the eschatology of the Process Church of the Final Judgment, a group that is alleged, not very convincingly, to have influenced some of the last quarter-century's better-known serial killers. (See Adam Parfrey's 1987 compilation, "Apocalypse Culture.")
Mr. Rushkoff makes occasional reference to Tom Wolfe's "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" (1968). Actually, though, "Ecstasy Club" resembles nothing so much as Robert Anton Wilson's apparently autobiographical memoir, "Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati," published in 1977. Wilson is, of course, best known as the author of "Illuminatus," a playful confection of conspiracy theories and esoteric notions involving most of the people worth mentioning in the 20th century. "Cosmic Trigger," in contrast, is a first person narrative that describes how Wilson began to take some of these notions seriously and developed a serious case of paranoia in the process. It covers most of the esoteric material that is alluded to in "Ecstasy Club," from the Tesla mythology to the teachings of the ever-dreadful Aleister Crowley. (Can it be a good sign that the latter is apparently familiar to otherwise subliterate 25 year-olds?) Both Wilson and the protagonist of "Ecstasy Club" end up taking the cosmic struggle in a more metaphorical sense. The difference is that Levy clearly becomes sick of it.
The continuities between the world of the Ecstasy Club and that of the psychedelic wing of the 1960s are clear enough. When Ray Manzarek of the Doors was interviewed by National Public Radio in 1991 incident to the release of Oliver Stone's ill-regarded biopic of Jim Morrison, the old key-boardist started to go on at length about the psychedelic ideology of the Doors and how the movement for spiritual transformation that the Doors represented was making a comeback in the 1990s. The reporter shut him up, apparently because he did not know what Manzarek was talking about, but the world of the Ecstasy Club seems to be it. The pharmacopeia, legal and illegal, has grown more complicated, but the quest for gnostic conversion is the same.
On the other hand, some things have changed dramatically. A major change is that the leftist politics has pretty much evaporated. For instance, one piece of reportage that gets the Ecstasy Club particularly upset casts them as a group that is protesting property laws by squatting in the abandoned factory. In reality, to the extent they have any politics at all, the members of the club are libertarians. The fact is they were squatting simply because doing so is cheaper than renting. Their flakiness does not extend to business practice, at which they are collectively astute.
There have also been changes in vocabulary. The dialogue and the protagonist's reflections are heavily informed by popular versions of chaos theory and neo-Darwinism, as well as a fixed determination to recast all mental and social processes in terms of linear programming. The interesting question is not whether the author understands these subjects himself. What he does show us are examples of science turning into superstition, in rather the way that popularizations of early work on electricity and radioactivity affected the early Theosophists. Maybe it is a sign of Generation X detachment to refer to ideas as "memes" (mental "genes") and to discuss intellectual history as a Darwinian struggle for memetic survival. At any rate, if one must have scientific superstitions, the current crop is probably an improvement over Freudianism.
The most important thing that is different from the counterculture of 30 years ago is that the innocent optimism of the 1960s is quite absent from the people of the Ecstasy Club. (Well, if not quite innocent, at least good-natured.). Despite the fact the Ecstasy Clubbers say many of the same things their parents said at like age and even ingest many of the same chemicals, clearly they live in a much darker world. Generation Xers like to think of themselves as peculiarly undeluded, and maybe they have a point. Perhaps, like the leftist politics, the optimism too was not essential to the spirit of the 60s. In the time that has intervened, these inessential things have been eroded away, leaving exposed a core of horror that had been there all along.
The Ecstasy Club cult members are not interested in transforming society. They are not even interested making money, except instrumentally. They are really trying to end the world, though what is to follow no one clearly articulates. The sad thing about them is not their squalid manner of life, which is voluntary and temporary, but the darkness even of their ideals. It will, of course, be even sadder thing if they have recourse to these ideals for inspiration in later life.
This article originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Please click on the following line for more information:
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly