09 February 2006

Papier-Mache Flashbacks

I was at the beach yesterday, staring off into space as I often do if I've forgotten to bring a book, and noticed something disturbing about the cliffs at each end of the cove.

Well, "cliffs" may be a bit grandiose, particularly by California standards; let's just say they were prominent outcroppings, consisting of granite, some grassy knolls, and a couple of astutely placed palm trees. Had I had my camera with me, I would have taken a picture for you, but my camera was at home, sitting on top of my book. Therefore you must trust me when I tell you that these cliffs, erm, outcroppings, were about as picturesque as you'd expect to find at a relatively mundane beach on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area.

In fact, if I squinted my eyes ever so slightly, I could almost imagine I was on some tropical South Sea island, and being that this is a sub-tropical (or sub-sub-tropical) South Sea continent, it wasn't too hard to maintain the illusion. But it wasn't the squinting and the illusion that was disturbing me.

No, it was the way that the scene looked so perfectly fake, as in better than real. It was if I were staring at a exquisitely painted 3-D backdrop, the kind that you could only afford to use on Broadway or in a Major Motion Picture. It was not like regular scenery, which always has some distinctive flaw: some bozo has spray-painted graffiti across the rocks or you can see the smokestack from a nearby oil refinery protruding over the otherwise exquisite vignette. No, this picture was absolutely perfect, so perfect that I felt sure I could reach out and punch a hole through it.

At that point I felt a little shiver go through me, and this was in full sunlight on a 30C/86F degree day. I'd been here before, seeing mountains or skyscapes as painted-on papier-mache backdrops. It started around 1970, when my LSD hallucinations switched from the traditional melting walls and swirling colours to the ultra-clarity of seeing the world as it had always appeared, but under the blinding white light of hyper-perception. Or so I told myself: on one hand, I swore I could see right through to the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure of everything surrounding me; on the other, it all looked very suspiciously like a papier-mache backdrop.

This first occurred near downtown San Francisco, sitting in a park. Earlier that day I'd run into Jack Leary (as in son of Timothy), who'd given me a small paper bindle containing (he thought) the equivalent of 30 to 50 doses of pure crystal LSD. As was my wont in those days, I immediately sniffed the lot, and spent the next 24 hours having a rather intense internal dialogue that seemed to centre around the apparent fact that the world was made of electrically charged papier-mache that I could almost but not quite see through and almost but not quite put my fist through.

I periodically resolve not to try and describe hallucinogenic drug experiences, as they tend to be both boring and opaque to all but the person who had them, so I'll go no further, other than to say that once I'd determined that the world was simultaneously real and illusory, I went out and started my own religion... No, seriously, I actually arrived at a state of great tranquility, one in which I became utterly and completely at ease in the world, in which all my questions and problems had been resolved, and this enormous tranquility was to stay with me for, oh, about 24 hours, which was when I found out that my boyfriend had been cheating on me again.

But I digress; the point I set out to make was that seeing those perfectly fake yet perfectly real backdrops on the beach in Sydney Harbour was the closest I've come in years, perhaps ever, to a genuine acid flashback. It wasn't scary or alarming or anything like that, just, as I said at the beginning, vaguely disturbing.

It's been quite a few years since I've taken any mind-altering drugs, and though my mind continues to alter both itself and reality unassisted, it tends to do so in a more moderate fashion than, say, my last really horrible freakout, when the Canadian Rockies started closing in on me with the apparent intention of crushing me in their stony maw. And I actually have a theory that hallucinations are not hallucinations per se, but merely a sensory overload, somewhat akin to the squealing blast of feedback you get from your amp when it gets more input than it's capable of processing.

Another, equally if not more plausible explanation for this whole papier-mache backdrop fixation of mine, has far more mundane origins. During the Great Depression, the federal government created the Works Project Administration as a way of employing the otherwise employable, i.e., artists. Some of them were paid to create murals in post offices and other public spaces, many of which survive today as a great tribute to a more enlightened age. Others were assigned to such characteristically San Franciscan boondoggles as "improving" the cliffs at the top of the Great Highway by adding a new layer of impressive-looking boulders. Boulders which were made out of, yes, papier-mache.

The new, improved cliffs were quite a hit at first, and made the whole vista even more dramatic than it had once been, but by the 1970s, what had been good enough for government work was coming undone. Holes began to appear in the papier-mache boulders, some caused by wind and rain, others by random vandals, and though observers like Herb Caen frequently made sarcastic or downright bitter remarks about how shabby and tacky it looked, nothing was done about it for years. This was, in fact, a time when not much at all was done in San Francisco apart from a great deal of drug-taking, navel-gazing, and promiscuous sexual activity. An era which you might understandably suspect has largely continued until the present.

However, sometime around 1980 somebody finally got it together to haul away the wreckage of the papier-mache cliffs and restored what was left underneath them to a less dramatic but far more natural state. My problem is - and I was out there with some visiting Canadian relatives only a few months ago - is that the "real" cliffs, beautiful as they may be, look more unreal than the old fake ones. In fact, I was on the verge of crossing the road to try and put my fist through one of the rocks, until I remembered I'd already tried that back in the 80s, when I at least had the excuse of still being on drugs. One set of bloody knuckles in the pursuit of scientific inquiry seemed sufficient for a lifetime.

Anyway, I don't know if this explains anything. Probably not. I went back to the beach again today, and the rocks still looked as though they were made of papier-mache, but for some reason it no longer bothered me. In fact I found it kind of comforting.

No comments: