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Sage Against the Machine

Meet Rob Brezsny, contemporary literature’s Sage Against the Machine

by Damon Orion

(PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia is available at Amazon or Powells.)

On the surface, astrologer-writer-musician-philosopher Rob Brezsny seems as peaceful as they come. Longhaired, affable, the former Santa Cruz resident speaks in a calm voice that sounds perpetually on the brink of a chuckle. His horoscopes in the syndicated column Free Will Astrology are delicate, playfully crafted bits of word-origami. As distinct from a terrorist, he calls himself a “rapturist”: one who commits “acts of outrageous beauty and kindness,” be they building a shrine to love and truth in a barren PG&E yard, handing out money to passersby or simply offering a stranger a sincere compliment.

Don’t be fooled. Behind Brezsny’s benevolent words and deeds lurks the mind of a cunning combat strategist. His particular brand of entertainment, a psychedelic meld of camp, spirituality and performance art that he calls “psychic slapstick,” is a crusade against the fashionable cynicism currently polluting the collective mindstream—an artistic war against the barnacled, Pleistocene values of domination and one-upmanship.

“Everyone knows his or her own particular task [in this fight],” Brezsny riffs into the phone from his home in Marin County. “Mine is not necessarily being on the front lines of the protest against the World Trade Organization, although I respect people who do that. Mine is mostly waged in the battle for the hearts and minds and imaginations of the mass audience, and to do what I can to inject a benevolent virus into the people who seek entertainment, so as to help awaken their imagination and turn them on to the understanding that they have more power to create their reality than they might imagine, through the power of their imagination.”

A scan of Brezsny’s collected works reveals that he’s been fighting this battle since at least as far back as the early ’90s, when his Santa Cruz-based rock band World Entertainment War was whipping up a cyclone of horny, good-natured defiance. The band’s very name spelled out its frontman’s subversive agenda: to offer music and ritual as an alternative to the glammy gloom of the mass media. For anyone who managed to miss the message, there were lyrics like “Entertainment might as well be just like a rocket launcher/Too bad it’s in the hands of the enemy” and “There are 8 million stories about sex and violence/And I’ve heard them all … We want some better stories/No boring glories/No more easy lies.”

Though he retired from the rock life many years ago, Brezsny’s entertainment war is just getting started. His latest propaganda bomb is the book “Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You with Blessings.” Two hundred ninety-six pages, four-and-a-half years in the making, it’s a treasure chest of surrealist spirituality, built on the premise that the universe is fundamentally friendly. The “pronoaic” perspective Brezsny espouses is essentially optimism, but in an era when doom and damnation are foregone conclusions, the suggestion that perhaps the world isn’t such a bad place after all is downright novel, if not revolutionary. Here's an excerpt:

"You’re aware that in the future shrinking oil reserves and global warming may impose limitations on your ability to use cars and planes and other machines to travel, Brezsny writes. But you also know that many smart and idealistic people are diligently striving to develop alternative fuels and protect the environment. And compared to how slow societies have been to understand their macrocosmic problems in the past, your culture is moving with unprecedented speed to recognize and respond to the crises spawned by its technologies."

Through a festive array of stories, poems, meditations and essays—including a play-by-play of how he landed his first writing gig here at Good Times in 1978—Brezsny turns up the Brightness knob on the reader’s mindset, proposing a compassionate world view that will stay with you long after you’ve put his book down. As a counterpoint to the network news’ nightly parade of atrocities, “Pronoia” offers uplifting bits of real-life data for the modern hope fiend: the national violent crime rate declining 52 percent between 1973 and the end of 2002; Citigroup, the world’s largest private bank, agreeing to stop financing projects that damage sensitive ecosystems; the Washington, D.C., Police Department holding a gun amnesty program in which anyone who turned in a firearm was paid $100; astronomers discovering a crystal as big as our moon at the core of a dying white dwarf star.

“This is not Ronald Reagan’s version of optimism: ‘Why don’t the papers report that 2,000 planes took off today, and they all landed safely?’” Brezsny says. “That’s certainly good news, but it’s not going to be sufficient to compete with those who believe that bad news is supremely entertaining.

“We’ve got a very narrow definition of what constitutes news right now,” he continues. “A lot of it has to do with politics, and a lot of it has to do with death and decay and corruption, but who’s to say that that’s how we should continue to define the news?”

Though he withholds any conclusion as to whether the media’s obsession with negativity is a deliberate form of mind control or merely a lowest-common-denominator grab for ratings, the author offers, “I recently came across a quote from Henry Ford, the automotive pioneer. He said something to the effect of, ‘If I gave people what they wanted, they would want faster horses.’” Brezsny stops for a moment to lob a hearty laugh into the early afternoon swelter. “The executives of the entertainment industry, as well as the news industry, when asked, ‘Why do you give people such crap?’ consistently say, ‘Well, that’s what people want.’ I don’t think that that’s true.”

Apparently not—“Pronoia” recently peaked at No. 31 on Amazon, and Brezsny informs me that on the particular day we are speaking, the book has hit No. 7 on Powell’s. You may say Rob’s a dreamer, but the figures tell us he’s not the only one.

Still, with certain sections of the planet having apparently missed the shower of blessings, some audiences will inevitably surmise that Pronoia has a twin sister by the name of Pollyanna. How do we reconcile the incalculable depth of human suffering with the notion that invisible forces are petitioning for our happiness? According to the pronoiac view, every experience one has is designed to give that person exactly what he or she needs at that moment. Pronoia, Brezsny contends, is not just about how the universe gifts us with nice cars, beautiful lovers and lottery winnings—it’s also about those naughty challenges it gives us to make us smarter and more compassionate.

“I like to think of those people who make me mad as being my teachers,” Breznsy says. “Those people that have caused the greatest psychic wounds have often been those who made me a better person, a thousandfold. So, I like to extend that way of thinking to the political sphere and the public sphere and imagine those people who are wrecking things, or seem to be wrecking things from my point of view—contributing, for instance, to the mass extinction event that’s taking place—as compelling me, nudging me towards expanding my way of looking at the world so I can become smarter and counteract what they do.

“If you look at the evolution of human consciousness as a pregnancy,” he adds, “and think of it as needing to go the full nine months’ term, or the equivalent of that, then those people who seem to be holding us back are actually just working to prevent the pregnancy from culminating too soon. You don’t want it to be born five months into the pregnancy.”

Brezsny, for his part, intends to continue using his version of the Mozart Effect, singing and reading to the figurative baby in utero in the hopes of having a brighter, better-adjusted child. He’s currently working on what he calls “a soundtrack to the book”: a CD of music, spoken word, singing, chanting and kirtan called World Kiss. He expects the album to be ready for release by early next year. He’s also plotting a ceremony that he calls the Bliss Blast—“24 hours of freedom from paranoia, cynicism and sneers”—for October 20th.

And, of course, there’s his current book tour, which winds around to Gateways bookstore’s new location on Thursday, Sept. 15. In a way, the ex-Santa Cruzan’s talk will be a homecoming for both him and his book.

“I think because the book ‘Pronoia’ is, in a sense, a product of all the pronoia that came my way in Santa Cruz, it’s a way of giving Santa Cruz to the world, or at least the way Santa Cruz grew in me,” the author proposes. “And yet I think it’s the most accessible version of the Santa Cruz in me [yet]. [My previous book] ‘The Televisionary Oracle’ I also love, [but] I don’t think it was destined to reach as large an audience as this particular book is.”

Set here in Santa Cruz, “Oracle” was what Rob calls a “docu-fiction memoir”—part fabrication, part roman à clef. Brezsny says he sees the world as just such a blend of so-called objectively existing events and the many fabrications people create to convey them.

“One of my pet passions is to reveal to the world that history is written by the victors,” he says. “The version that we have handed down tends to be because that was the story that was told by the—excuse me for going all Santa Cruz—by the patriarchy, by older white guys.”

Brezsny said it himself back when “Pronoia” was just a twinkle in his mind’s eye: “We want some better stories.” As the battle rages on, the patriarchy’s grip gets tighter, but the storyteller just keeps getting wilier.


This story was originally published in the Good Times


To buy PRONOIA Is the Antidote for Paranoia, go to Amazon or Powells.

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