Joe Bageant

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Joe Bageant (1946–2011) was an American author and columnist known for his book Deer Hunting With Jesus.

  • First LSD trip, 1965: Tumbling, tumbling, tumbling inward with eyes closed, I could hear the spider plant hanging in the basket overhead singing in its green subatomic plant language, a hymn to the sunlight charging my bedroom atmosphere. On the back of my eyelids spun a great wheel of existence, turning both ways simultaneously generating an unearthly mournful chant that seemed to be composed of every human voice on earth. It rose in some unknown universal tongue singing, "Wheel of life, wheel of death, Bangladesh, Bangladesh. Wheel of life, wheel of death, Bangaladesh, Bangaladesh." Millions of starving faces, young men, girls, old men, babies, crones, materialized in uncountable swarms, each face transfigured by some unnamable mutual understanding that I could not share. Then they atomized, leaving the room filled with the scent of wood smoke, shit and citrus blossoms (an odor I would instantly recognize decades later in poverty stricken Central American villages.)
No words can describe an LSD trip, but let me say that at the end of this one, I sat down and cried. For happiness. My deepest hope and suspicion, the one to which I dared not cling, had been confirmed. Life could indeed be significant, piercing and meaningful.
I first took LSD in Winchester, Virginia, thanks to my gay friend George, who was being "treated" for his homosexuality with lysergic acid and enjoying every minute of treatment. Ever since reading about LSD in a Life magazine article a year before, both of us had wanted some of the stuff. Then one day George walked into my basement apartment and threw a cellophane packet onto the kitchen table. "There it is Bageant," he said. Next day, after creating a small meditative space with plants, a Tibetan mandala, and classical music on the turntable, we took it. Five years later I was still taking it at least once a week, and to this day I consider LSD the promethean spark of whatever awakening I have managed to accomplish in the life.
  • It's a mortal sin for writers to paraphrase their betters in the craft, but I'd have to echo the late Hunter S. Thompson in his sentiment that, I wouldn't recommend drugs and mayhem to anyone, but it's always worked for me. For starters, LSD resolved, dissolved might be a better word, my bleak black/white, right/wrong judgmentalism forged in a fundamentalist childhood. But not the way one might think. As anyone who has used much of the stuff knows, acid can melt away painful lifelong imprints with a single blast of insight. But not usually. And it's potential is never quite the same for any two people, and definitely different for a redneck kid who'd been raised on Christian fundamentalism. You start discovering from the space and life experience you already know. For me, LSD began to power deep meditations upon the meaning of Christian symbols, especially of the holy cross. Not motionless sitting meditations, but physically active ones, in this case woodcarving. As the product of generations who worked with their hands, to this day my hands must always be in motion, either playing guitar, tapping the keyboard -- "talking with my hands." So for hours, days and weeks I carved every sort of cross imaginable -- plain ones, Coptic ones, Celtic ones, coarse ones and gold leafed ones, just sitting in our school bus home by dim lantern light carving, sometimes on peyote or acid.
And often the soft presence of a gentle and loving Christ would fill the air with a sense of transcendent peace. Despite my many personal conflicts with the Police Court Jehova of Christian fundamentalism, it was becoming clear that Christ was a guy whose actions were worth deep consideration, even if you considered yourself an atheist. Police Court Jehova be damned. Other times would come zappy symbolic glimpses of quasi cosmic order: Aha! The upright bar of the cross represents the onrushing spirit and mind of man through eternity, and the horizontal crossbar stands for undifferentiated matter. And where they meet one another all we know is made manifest -- all pain, all ecstasy and everything in between. Pure existence. Years later I related this to one of the numerous Asian Buddhist masters who passed through Boulder. He crinkled up his face and laughed in recognition. This mysticism, if that's what it is, was clearly not new.
LSD, by way of a discussion with Tim Leary, also delivered the question within a question: What is the question to which my life is the answer? Right away I knew I'd rather peel that metaphysical onion the rest of my life than grovel before a hollow religious institution which flails its cowering followers with the question WHY? Why does the world exist? Why does god take little children, or allow natural disasters? Why did god put so much fucking hair on my back?
So finally, I figured out that "Why?" was never the question. "Why?" was a bullshit ontological query Christianity forced upon its followers, so its priests could pretend they had the answer, and thus control the longing masses by withholding the answer. It's sure as hell worked. People raised in Christian cultures are still asking it. And still not getting an answer because there is no answer to a non question. I was very lucky in that I never completely inherited the quest for that question, despite coming from a fundamentalist family loaded with preachers. But be damned if I wasn't forced to go out and find some other unanswerable question anyway, because I did inherit their essential grim religiosity in approach to life -- the dirty cultural/spiritual genetics of misery the loving Protestant European peasantry.
Of hundreds, I only had one bad LSD trip, one in which I felt I could not get my breath and was being smothered to death. It turned out that I actually couldn't breathe, I'd always had bad lungs and I was experiencing the onset of COPD lung disease, which would later limit my life severely. If you've never experienced suffocation under the influence of a powerful mind altering substance, I'm telling you dear hearts, you can well grasp the horror of things like waterboarding and the kind of people who'd sanction such a thing. But even that experience taught me something, showed me once again the face of mortality. Eternity. Eternity without Joe Bageant in it. We may dance, make love and argue passionately, eat, shit and extrude children onto the floor of spinning speck of cosmic dust. But the universe yawns at the whole affair.
Nevertheless, once you've seen the face of eternity, you are left with the question of what to do about it. How to respond. "How will I live my life, in light of what I have seen?" I'm still wrestling with that question -- but then that's what I had wanted, wasn't it? That Great Question which would lead to the Great Answer? LSD doesn't give answers, just questions. But used with directed and sincere effort -- to the degree that is even possible -- it can make you ask the Great Questions, the only important ones. Such as "What are you going to do to eliminate human suffering? What are you going to do, Joe Bageant, now that you have seen the faces in the Great Wheel that turns both ways simultaneously? What will be your direct action?" If you really give a shit about the world, LSD will "serious your ass up real fast," as we used to say.
Grave as such propositions appear, one must, to my mind at least, be both serious AND silly about exploring consciousness to get results, do it in the spirit of enlightened philosophical levity. Even after all these years, that spirit – when and if it happens to be available at the moment -- still gets me through the day. It enables me to face the increasing sorrows that come with age. One of the nasty little truths about life is that it gets harder with age, not easier, and that there is no prize at the bottom of the box of crackerjacks. But the good news, as I see it, is that we are inherently capable of becoming stronger and more deeply resonant with the world in a way that swamps personal misery into insignificance. Denial ceases to be the first reaction to uncomfortable truths. There are billion dollar industries in this country based upon denial and our refusal to acknowledge mortal entropy. Even death is supposed to be more or less negotiable through fitness, medical science -- and we are lied to that we are as young as well feel and act. There is no inherent virtue in being either young or old. We are young when we are young and old when we are old, and any attending virtue comes with whether or not we actualize truth.
Enter Buddhism. It is damned near impossible for any literate person to launch off on a teleological trajectory without being sucked into the gravitational force of Buddhism. Especially if the launch is powered by LSD, which is the difference between a journey on foot and a ride in a rocket sled.
  • All these years later I am beginning to understand the effect living for a decade or so in a genuinely free time and place had on my life. Thanks to an ongoing attempt to understanding human consciousness, everything has changed over time. Yet nothing has changed at all, except my attitude toward everything. And yes, LSD had everything to do with it. When it comes to rewiring one's own neuro-circuitry toward ecstatic understanding and perception and playful wisdom, and real compassion, LSD and Buddhism can certainly jump start the awakening. Paradoxically, that awakening is to a dream. You come to see very clearly that the "It is the dream that is dreaming the dreamer." Such liberating insights are big as stars. And like Mad Dog says, "You don't knock down stars with a bee bee gun."