The Downward Spiral: Leave Society
Dean Kissick returns from his summer hiatus (ascetic, solitary research, perhaps?), restored and brimming with renewed hope. Eat vegetables, get Tao Lin-pilled, and revel in the beauty of the universe: the modern-day equivalent of "turn on, tune in, drop out"?
It’s time to slow down. To put the phone down. Do you really trust these vaccines? You think 5G is good for you? Have you read An Electronic Silent Spring? The Chalice and the Blade? And listen, do you believe in the Big Bang? Are you aware of Electric Universe Theory? Do you listen, really listen, to Chopin? Is your face like a muggy, low sky? Do you ever feel so alone? We’re bathing in the forest, we’re flapping in the park. Have you heard about the ancient city of Çatalhöyük? The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis? Ever think your dog is trying to tell you something important? How often do you trip? Did your friend who brought the DMT work for the CIA? Is the CIA messing with artists and writers again? Isn’t life just a novel, just a dream under the sun? Edgar Allan Poe came up with the Big Bang, did you know that? Why did the FBI confiscate Tesla’s papers when he died? Turn your phone off. Throw away your Yuval Noah Harari. Pour your mouthwash down the drain, forget everything you know. It’s the year of the giant sloth. Do you believe you have a soul? Do you believe you can change? What do you see when you close your eyes? Have you heard of the mystery? The mystery, have you heard of it? Take this, in my hand, so you’ll keep living in the oasis, keep having your cultural experiences. Or would you rather –
When I interviewed him about his last novel Taipei, around 2013, I asked Tao Lin if he was taking as many drugs as his character Paul, a version of himself, who documents his drug intake in daunting and vertiginous lists, while writing it. He told me he was probably taking a lot more. Paul spends the book strung out on downers and uppers at the same time, unable to understand or even feel much of his dulled emotions, wandering aimlessly around Manhattan with nowhere much to be, accompanied by an indistinct, shapeless feeling of melancholy. That felt like a perfect distillation of Millennial life at the time, and now feels like decades ago.
Toward the end of one of his polydrug binges, after he’d finished writing Taipei and was about to go out and promote it, Lin received a message in a trip. “Four days before the book tour,” he recalls in his new book, “he’d eaten psilocybin mushrooms alone in 4K and deleted much of his internet presence in a trip whose main message seemed to be ‘leave society.’”
The new book, Leave Society, is a tale of recovery and departure. His character’s now called Li. In different stages of life, a person can assume different names. Most of the story takes place in Taipei, where Li goes to visit his parents for ten weeks in 2015, eleven weeks in 2016, twelve weeks in 2017 and ten and a half weeks in 2018. Millennials often have fraught relationship with their parents, the Boomers. Many books, essays, posts and e-girl song-and-dances have been written blaming Boomers for ruining society and dooming our lives. One of the major threads of Lin’s novel, however, is his process of learning how to better communicate with and understand his Mom and Dad, and to help them with their own problems. Not to blame them, but to blame himself. These slow, gentle, comic scenes of everyday life in Taipei are blended into summaries of some of the outsider thought Lin’s been researching, and a smattering of his own theories about life’s mysteries. Everything flows together into a personal cosmology of Tao Lin. This is a novel of ideas, strange ideas. If Taipei was a novel of pills dropped, dissolved, mixed, crushed up into lines, Leave Society is a novel of pilling. A cosmic pill; a way to glimpse the truth in fragments, and catch sight of other worlds.
Autofiction (“autobiographical fiction”) tells the story of an inner life. This book explores where that story comes from, taking a materialist approach to tracking the sources of emotions, feelings and pain, and understanding how to change them. Why do I feel like this? I don’t feel how I’m supposed to. Why, his characters keep asking, are we like this?
“Li had suspected since middle school that he was constantly being poisoned and/or that he was cursed,” he writes. “Tracing his feelings back to things and culture, to molecules and ideas, the past two years, he’d sometimes felt a surreal wonder, realizing that both and more were true – he was radioactive, malnourished, dysbiotic, degenerate, brainwashed, brain damaged.” Today’s lives revolve around meaningless trivia, around reacting to the same kinds of things over and over on a loop, performing pointless roles, horseshit jobs, polluting our minds and bodies every day. The solution, then, is to leave society entirely. But how?
To drop out of society todaY is to abandon mainstream media, search-engine-optimiSed forms of knowledge, which form Google’s paid-for mirage of the world, streaming platforms, big pharm, institutional astrophysics, the academy’s takes on reality: the way we live now.
Lin’s approach is to leave both mentally and chemically. In the years since Taipei he’s abandoned most drugs, culture, his friends and social life in favour of smoking and eating weed, and reading books about and delving into his new interests: nature, good health, psychedelics, family, and history. In this account of life in the late 2010s, politics is only mentioned in passing; as a source of familial arguments and conflict, a form of brainwashing beaming in from the evening news.
To drop out of society today, he suggests, is to abandon mainstream media, search-engine-optimised forms of knowledge, which form Google’s paid-for mirage of the world, streaming platforms, big pharm, institutional astrophysics, the academy’s takes on reality: the way we live now. It’s to break free of the scripts and the algorithms, the poisons and their medicines. That’s where a new Walden Pond might be found. He also imbibes marijuana or acid nearly every day, to make the world brighten, and help open up his mind to new ideas.
Our culture (pop culture, the arts, social media) feels terrible and offers no possibility of transcendence. And while society does not owe us happiness, surely it owes us a path towards transcendental meaning. If not, then what are we doing here?
The solution to a dreadful culture is, as it always has been, to craft your own alternative. Lin has long been a refreshing presence in literature and posting because he does things differently. A couple years ago he went through a period (his green period, his vegetable-pilled period) of tweeting about sleeping, for instance, with orange flowers and vegetables in his bed. Why is he doing this, I’d wonder? Where’s he getting these plants? What’s happening? Now we can hear, at least in part, an explanation. His story begins with a trip to the surgeon, and ends with a leaf on the ground.
“The Big Apple,” Lin writes, “seemed to suck people out of countrysides and suburbs, out of other cities and countries, and toxify their blood and minds, sterilizing and dispiriting them.” Leaving society is now about more than just fleeing cities for the countryside, but that can also be part of it. In Michel Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles (1998, titled Atomised in Britain), the author’s namesake and scientist-hero Michel ends up retreating to Ireland’s Clifden Peninsula, on the Westernmost edge of continental Europe, where he marvels over the complexity and harmony of the illuminated patterns of the Book of Kells and becomes inspired to make a new kind of human. Houellebecq also moved to Ireland, to Bere Island and County Clare for a time, to hide from society and mordantly dwell on the end of Europe from its boundary. Lin ends this novel having moved to Hawaii, on the edge of the West and the East, in the middle of the Pacific, drawing intricate mandalas, exploring hidden beaches and ethnobotanical forest gardens, following a stranger’s dog through lush tropical undergrowth. While Houellebecq’s Michel discovers a way for post-humans to reproduce themselves perfectly and sexlessly by cloning their genetic code, and in so doing become immortal, Li goes in the other direction, returning to biology and, after years of voluntary celibacy, love. He also spends much of his time researching forgotten histories. So many of us want to renounce contemporary society. Often this involves a return to tradition; but which tradition? Which way, Western man?
Ted Kaczynski wants to destroy industrial society. Reactionary architecture accounts dream of small-town life in 19th-century Europe. The Lindy Man, recently profiled in the New York Times, suggests we only trust ideas and activities that have stood the test of time and remained popular for centuries; Lin’s own fondness for weed and books, by this measure, is deep lindy. Anarcho-primitivists would like to return to the days of hunter-gathering, before the Agricultural Revolution ca. 10,000 years ago. Lin, however, finds solace in lost, forgotten Goddess-worshipping civilizations. He disagrees with and challenges Yuval Noah Harari’s 2014 worldwide bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which it’s suggested that Native American hunters were responsible for the extinctions of late-Pleistocene megafauna, that our societies have always been violent, cruel and led by men, and that as humans we’re inherently evil – he believes aborigines built heavens on Earth.
The story of his first kiss with his new lover Kay is woven into, in alternating paragraphs, English archaeologist James Mellaart’s description of the lost utopian city of Çatalhöyük (ca. 7,100 to 5,700 BC) in Southern Anatolia, a flourishing community with a loving Goddess culture, on a volcano-ringed plateau by the river:
“Li went to hug her and they kissed. He asked what she felt about the kiss. ‘I liked it,’ said Kay.
Mellaart called 40 of the 139 houses he excavated ‘shrines’ due to their abundance of Goddess symbology – paintings of childbirth and excarnation; sculptures of the female form; reliefs and cutouts of zoomorphised breasts and pregnant deities; rows of bucrania set into benches.
Li said he hadn’t kissed anyone in four years.”
Modern life is cut through with antibiological currents: a sharp decline in the number of young people having sex, plummeting sperm counts, chimeric viruses cut together in laboratories, death-spiraling destruction of the climate and environment, phone addiction, drug addiction, the sinking world of screens and Bluetooth speakers. But this is a book that walks through the meadows and collects leaves and flowers, and falls asleep with them. That rests its face on fruit, that touches grass. A book that talks to the animals, and features his family’s poodle Dudu as a complicated and morally ambiguous character. That celebrates the role of the biological in healing and in art, and then goes way further.
The broad thesis is that nothing is as it appears, and we don’t understand anything. We don’t understand our own past, or the limits of reality, and increasingly act like it’s a waste of time to even explore such things. “The true version of history seemed harder than ever to know,” writes Lin, “the past kept growing and the theories about it kept multiplying – while personal histories, archived on computers and the internet, seemed more accessible than ever.” A problem with autofiction, and society, is a surfeit of personal history, so he writes a personal history that grows into something much larger. Ordinary scenes become like sci-fi in his telling, in passages such as, “They entered a public rose garden. Li and his dad filmed Dudu as she tumbled vigorously through a rosemary bush with her mouth open, stretching and squirming like a giant, short worm, inhaling phytoncides, anions, and microbes.”
His story leaps across orders of magnitude, from electrons spinning round, to the creation of life on a microscopic scale, the sperm welcomed in by eggs and the fusing of gametes, to the collapse of the universe. It’s a meta-autofiction that takes on the grandest of themes – the metaphysical structure of the cosmos, the journey of a soul across the aeons, the space beyond death – in the hopes of understanding them, and also of creating feelings of awe and wonder in the reader.
Tao Lin seems to channel, and perhaps helps to manifest through his writing, a tragic (in the classical sense) generational arc of Millennials over the 2010s, from the hopeful and sincerely optimistic promise of alt-lit, right at the start of a bright new decade, to the bleak, wandering pharmaceutical interzone of Taipei, to dandelion-patch foraging and fennel stalks in the bed, and the rejection of and escape from society; a story of healing and recovery, and with it the possibility of redemption and transcendence. He’s interested in the end of history and what comes after the end of history. Between scenes of dinners with his parents and walks in the park, his prose frequently veers gleefully off into n-dimensional Asian-futurist visionary romanticism. “Humans,” he suggests, “seemed to be deep into a brief, fallible transition called history – a twenty-millennia release from matter into the imagination, a place that was to the universe as life was to a book: larger, realer, more complicated.” He writes that life wishes to be immaterial, and that an abandoning of reality, a turning inward to dreamworlds, is how we’ll get there:
“Humans everywhere were nudged and shoved and pulled and lured away from matter, toward the increasingly friendlier dimension of the imagination – away from inflamed, deformed, poisoned bodies and the ad-covered, polluted outdoors, into beds, books, computers, fantasies, dreams, memories, art.”
I’m glad to hear writers and poets are having visions again, and hope it might return us to more of a Blakean mode, to more songs of innocence and visions of angels in the trees.
Writing about Anselm Kiefer’s painting Varus (1976) in his autofiction epic My Struggle (2009–11), Karl Ove Knausgård laments to a friend, “I’m sorry the world has disappeared. The physicality of it. We only have pictures of it. That’s what we relate to … I write to recapture the world. Yes, not the world I’m in. Definitely not the social world. The wonder-rooms of the Baroque age. The curiosity cabinets. And the world in Kiefer’s trees. That’s art. Nothing else.” As Knausgård writes to recapture the world, Lin writes, in a sense, to destroy it. He believes that writing, making art, having and sharing dreams, falling in love, and so forth, can shift reality in profound ways. He believes that our ideas have metaphysical agency. Like many novelists, he writes about writing fiction. But unlike many novelists writing today, he also makes wildly ambitious and visionary claims for literature and what it might do:
“Maybe slowly was the only way to reach the other side of matter – not crashing through with time machines or electromagnetic interferometry, but crafting a planet-sized art object, a context lasting and magical enough for greater magic to appear.
The final, history-ending spell could be a book or a relationship.”
He appears to believe, or to want to believe, in a singularity of dreams in which our own creative thoughts, our slow and considered fantasies, rather than artificial intelligences or technological acceleration, might move us into the immaterial realm beyond: the imagination. The imagination as he describes it seems like a sort of heaven. As such, it mirrors other ascending spiritual movements of the past decade, from the popularity of shamanic ritual and ayahuasca ceremonies, on the West Coast in particular; to the revival of churchgoing among New York’s it girls and literary bratpack; to the cult of Angelicism (who notes, on his blog, “According to Leave Society, cosmology is kinda MKUltra, that is, what Badiou calls an ideology of finitude. In other words, any fear of extinction is just a default horror trope, and needs to be worked through”) or the nascent movement of “Network Spirituality,” which might be framed as a virtual heavenly community that rejects old models of individuality and reality. It’s in the imaginary realm, Lin suggests, that we can be free. He notes that of all the primates, it’s humans that spend the highest proportion of their sleeping hours dreaming. This might be our preordained role in the universe, to dream; and those dreams might contain the wherewithal to remake the cosmos.
Art should show us the world afresh, and how to look at the world differently. Lin shows us phenomena that may not even be there. Like the “microfireflies” that form a recurring motif and are pictured on the cover: glowing, effervescent sprites that don’t appear to be in the world, or in his eyes or his mind, and seem neither material nor immaterial. “Maybe,” he wonders, “microfireflies were the other-dimensional flickerings of a personal, specieal, or global emergent property. Had humans achieved a sufficient density of interconnection for an overmind to emerge?”
He recalls seeing them for the first time while lying down in Washington Square Park, outside NYU’s Bobst Library. A couple times this month I’ve gone and lain on the grass there, on different lawns, and hoped to see them myself, but no joy yet; that’s what I wrote a couple days ago, although, this evening, after my salted caramel cold brew, I can see a tingling around the leaves on the branches outside my window, and can see the whole sugary, caffeinated and poisoned world shimmering, brightly illuminated in unexpected ways.
I suspect Lin’s probably just seeing fireflies because of his regular weed and acid consumption, or his long tail of other psychedelic experiences, or the many esoteric practices he details in the book. But then it doesn’t matter whether he’s hallucinating, or having an individual moment of enlightenment, or catching an early glimpse of an intergalactic paradigm shift, a new emergent property; the point is a new space is revealed, and I’m glad to hear writers and poets are having visions again, and hope it might return us to more of a Blakean mode, to more songs of innocence and visions of angels in the trees. Rather than retreating into ourselves and our emotional subjectivity, which is the dominant approach in autofiction, social media, and the general contemporary condition, Lin writes to destroy the ego, to escape the atomisation of modern man and the feelings of despair, that life is meaninglessness and/or hopeless. He reassures us that we’re all going to die and there’s nothing to fear. This might be the end of autofiction. This might be a story greater than history; told by an unreliable narrator, who perceives holes in the world, sees pinpricks of celestial other-dimensional light, and may have found the way to transcendence. I recommend Leave Society.
Leave Society will be published by Vintage on August 3, 2021.
DEAN KISSICK is Spike’s New York Editor. The Downward Spiral is published online (roughly) the second Wednesday of each month.