A book more made-to-order than What the Bleep Do We Know?
There's an unspoken school of thought that alt.weekly critical prose should embody café-style disaffection with a heaping spoonful of sarcasm, especially when it comes to any cultural artifacts which display an excess of earnestness. True, such a stance has often served as a valuable tonic to the unquestioning piety of more mainstream criticism; and frankly, since The Birth of Tragedy cultural criticism has been all about antidote.
So at first I sought something, anything, in Rob Brezsny's newest text, Pronoia, which would allow me to dismiss it. Calling it a text isn't mere affectation-there actually aren't many other convenient ways to classify the thing. Pronoia reads like a compendium of lifetime knowledge; like his hero William Blake, half-mad Emanuel Swedenborg or outsider artist Henry Darger, Brezsny has created an illustrated workbook beyond workbooks, hefty and alarmingly comprehensive, concerning the philosophy that has been coalescing in his mind for quite some time now. And where Pronoia will be shelved in a bookstore is the least of his concerns; in an online essay at Powells.com, the well-known horoscope author suggests he's had "a mythical trans-genre operation." He's long maintained that the horoscope form of Free Will Astrology is merely a way of getting "paid a decent wage to write disguised poetry in a widely syndicated newspaper column."
Brezsny defines "pronoia" (a term originally coined by Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow in the '70s) as "the understanding that the universe is fundamentally friendly…. Evil is boring. Cynicism is idiotic. Fear is a bad habit. Despair is lazy." If you find this intriguing, there's 295 more pages where that came from, as Brezsny skims pure cream from his experiences at Burning Man, as a performance artist, as a student of alchemical mysticism, as an astrologer and a pagan and a general disturber of the peace.
Like some voluble combination of HL Mencken and a Sufi whirling dervish, he writes with disarming fluidity while still remaining acerbic. Pronoia's style is too sinuous, too wriggly and difficult to classify, edgy and uncomfortable and literally kick-ass (he advocates the athletic kicking of one's own ass with some regularity). He's not just spouting "sentimental tales of generic hope [or] contrived happy endings," nor regurgitating the orthodoxy of that yogini-in-a-Range-Rover "Commit Random Acts of Kindness" bumper sticker. Each chapter of the book contains suggested "Pronoia Therapy," which is reasonably tough stuff: "Push hard to get better, become smarter…cure your ignorance, shed your pettiness, heighten your drive to look for the best in people and soften your heart."
If all of Santa Fe adopted the exercises he suggests, ranging from the goofy to the scary (such as standing in traffic with a cardboard sign reading "I love to help, I need to give, please take some money"), we'd really be the City Different. Imagine an overnight drop in wearisome environmental complacency ("don't look at me-I voted for the other guy"). Perhaps Hispanic-descended people would voluntarily converge in the Plaza to pull down for once and for all the offending obelisk (possibly replacing it with an ornamental flower-brimming invagination), while Native-descended people would roast marshmallows over the flames of all the burning liquor stores and Anglos would have to sit at the Palace of the Governors all weekend, hawking artifacts of their Celtic/Slavic tribal cultures. Au Boudoir would sell out of vibrators before noon and Cheeks would replace its concrete-block walls with glass panes, offering free virgin piña coladas to any man willing to dance exuberantly naked in broad daylight.
This is exactly the kind of world Brezsny charges you to realize-to voluntarily envision paradise rather than purgatory. He's not the Antichrist; he's the Antidante. Once, when I was a starry-eyed firstie at St. John's, a get-to-know-you-quiz meme made the rounds. On it was the question "Why is the Inferno better than the Paradiso?" I felt ashamed of my instinctive inner protestation that I liked the Paradiso-but hastily buried the thought in favor of joining my generation, preferring feeling comfortably included in its Foucault-cum-Tarentino present-tense preference for violence and disaffection.
Yet perhaps Brezsny is addressing even more urgently the generation immediately preceding mine, that of the exhausted left-those burnt-out hippies who now specialize in a certain brand of don't-blame-us-for-this-mess malcontent. It's as though having been dissident for so long (and so fruitlessly) has left those who came of age in the 1960s bellicose and fractious for its own sake. Perhaps there's an idea that, having lost two elections, we're all entitled to a little bitterness-a little of what he calls "pop nihilism"? According to Brezsny, not if we still hope to change the world, or even ourselves. Instead, we must become "lyrically logical, lustfully compassionate Masters of Rowdy Bliss"-and I for one will give it a whirl.