The Alter-Destiny


Ron Regé, “Sun Ra.”


So I’ve been saying that the Cold War never ended. In the last of my four installments on this theme, I finally got to my point: it’s not the Cold War that has continued in some new form, but a force that impelled the Cold War and that still, 26 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, can be felt in a certain collective mood. I called that mysterious force The Fear, suggesting that it “lives in each world crisis like a parasite in a host, and when the host dies The Fear moves on.” Both in its portentous capitalization and the way I described its behavior, The Fear comes off as an entity — an intelligence with its own malevolent will and designs, though not necessarily an intelligence like ours, or an intelligence we can readily understand. If we were in a occult frame of mind, we might call it a demon.


But that’s just a figure of speech, right? Some kind of literary-nonfiction rhetorical flourish? Surely no-one thinks that there really is an evil spirit loose in the world, spooking us with one world crisis after another. The unspoken deal that we make with academic or literary or otherwise respectable writing (you know, not the stuff you find in the “New Age” section of the bookstore) is that we will understand all talk of magic, demons, and whatnot as metaphor.

But to think in this way here would be to make the Philip K. Dick line I used as a jumping-off point (“the Empire never ended”) far more reasonable than it really is. When Dick said that the Empire never ended, he was ascribing agency to whatever intelligence it was that would make us believe otherwise. The nature of that intelligence was what really concerned Dick, and he never stopped theorizing about it. Those who are interested in following Dick’s exhaustive (not to say obsessive) metaphysical investigations should pick up his Exegesisin the handsome new edition edited by Jonathan Lethem. If anything is clear from even a quick glance through this thick volume, it’s that Dick believed that the doings and happenings of the everyday world are rigged up to invisible strings, pulled by unseen forces. Dick’s ideas changed constantly throughout the eight years he worked on the Exegesis, but for the most part he understood the players in the eternal contest as the Black Iron Prison and VALIS. Dick had a characteristically sci-fi way of understanding those entities (as “living information” that can reprogram reality and its inhabitants), but the basic worldview is the occult view of the world as a shadow play of Powers beyond ordinary perception.

So Dick was nuts, I hear you saying. I’ll leave that off to one side for now. I will also leave to one side the question which, if you take what I’ve written seriously, is the only one that matters: who or what is messing with us? Let’s just remain agnostic about that too. I don’t know (or for now choose not to decide) if The Fear is an intelligence or entity or world-historical force or whatever, or even if it really exists at all. For the time being, I want to think a bit more about this occult worldview, which is hardly unique to Dick.

So yesterday I re-watched Sun Ra’s sci-fi/blaxploitation film Space is the Place. I don’t know what the consensus view on this film is, but I’m guessing that most people don’t even know it exists while the hip cognoscenti treat it with indulgent affection. It seems like a goofy artifact of a musician with an endearing, way-out schtick, a free-jazz version of the Ziggy Stardust/Mothership Connection spaceman persona. But just as we tend to assume that an expression of magical thinking in serious writing will be a metaphor, likewise do we tend to assume that a musician’s talk of cosmic travel will be a persona — that is to say, a put-on, not to be taken very seriously.

But if Sun Ra’s identity was a put-on, it was surely the most sustained and serious put-on in memory. Which is pretty much the same thing as saying it isn’t a put-on at all. You might ask, “did Sun Ra really believe he travelled to Saturn and spoke to aliens?” And you might figure that the answer is either “no,” in which case he’s just pretending, or “yes,” in which case he’s nuts. But as Ramsey Dukes (a fascinating thinker you’ve never heard of) once wrote, “‘really’ and ‘believe’ are not words that go happily together in magical thought.”* One might say that magic hangs out in the in-between space denied by that “really.”

In Space is the Place, Sun Ra hatches a plan to use his music to transport African Americans to a new planet. In his earthly manifestation (“Sonny Ray”), Sun Ra plays piano at a burlesque nightclub and displeases his boss when the music destroys the club. It becomes clear that the boss — a pimp resplendent in a white suit with a gold-headed cane — is no more an ordinary hustler than Sonny Ray is an ordinary piano player. Each knows perfectly well who the other is: they are earthly incarnations of cosmic players who are locked in a duel for the souls of black people. The boss challenges Sonny and asks him to name his game; Sonny suggests the End of the World. “Now that’s what I call cooking with grease,” the boss cackles, and as Sonny tosses him the cards we see them transform into their true forms, Sun Ra and the Overseer.

between realms

Sun Ra and the Overseer now face one another across a gaming table in a wasteland that feels a little like the white room in The Matrix (1999) — a plane of reality that lies outside space and time but determines everything that manifests there. For the rest of the film, Sun Ra and the Overseer will play a game with tarot cards that determines the destiny of black people on earth.

The story shuttles between the game and the terrestrial goings-on that the cards play out. Thus have various commentators compared Space is the Place to The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays a similarly high-stakes chess game with Death. The chess game in The Seventh Seal is realized fully enough for chess fans to reconstruct it and comment on its relationship to the themes of the film. So far as I know, though, no-one has yet tried this approach with Space is the Place . . . 

More soon.

*Ramsey Dukes, S.S.O.T.B.M.E.: An Essay on Magic, 96. I’ve written about this style of thought at length in an essay, “Taboo: Time and Belief in Exotica.”

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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