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The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape

by Erik Davis, with photographs by Michael Rauner

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Visionary State: A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape
Erik Davis' The Visionary State, is an exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, rumination on the physical landmarks of contemporary spirituality in California. Subtitled A Journey through California's Spiritual Landscape and chockablock full of photographs by Michael Rauner, Davis wanders through the Golden State taking stock of the landscapes and architecture of the New Age, from Yosemite National Park and Mission San Juan Capistrano to Scientology Headquarters and the exquisite Christian Science church in Berkeley.

Organized thematically, Davis breaks California's spiritual and religious traditions into nine sections. From the self-explanatory "The Tabernacle of Nature" to "Weird Science" and its UFO cults, The Visionary State plunges from the sublime to the wacky, often without warning. Writing about the Arts and Crafts movement as applied by California architects to local churches, Davis writes:
Another vital element of this spiritual design movement is its often pronounced Japanese flavor. By the turn of the century, the popularity of Japanese art and design, from ukiyo-e to lacquer furniture, had firmly established itself across America and Europe. But California's position along the Pacific Rim, as well as its Asian population of farmers and landscape gardeners, embedded the West's aesthetic fascination with Japan in the soil. The power and delight of California's early Asian fusions are particularly noticeable in the work of the state's most famous exponents of Arts and Crafts, the brother team of Charles and Henry Greene. […] Both the spirit and the structural detail of Greene and Greene's homes and gardens-the projecting roof beams, exposed joinery, and overhanging gables-were inspired by the reproduction of a Fujiwara-era Buddhist temple that blew their minds when they visited Chicago's World Expo in 1893. (pp. 51-52)

After this delightfully anachronistic vision of two Victorian architects blowing their minds at the World's Fair, Davis eventually concludes this paragraph by claiming that "it's certainly true that the Western passion for Japanese aesthetics ... helped pave the way for Zen's practice of natural mind to enter American consciousness." (p. 52) Whether or not this bold claim resonates with the reader depends in no small part on what the reader brings to the discussion; Davis does not seem particularly inclined to explain or defend his remarks.
Such high-minded spiritual and architectural criticism shares The Visionary State with far wilder material. When experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger moved into the very Victorian, very creepy Westerfield House, Davis writes, "he ripped out the ceiling of the tower room to maximize its pyramid power, and started performing magick in the pentagram he painted on the floor beneath." (p. 181) This, too, Davis declines to explain or defend.

This mélange of spiritual and occult, of upright and outré, of sacred and profane, of high culture and low, is intended to more than amuse the reader. In fact, this heterodoxy is Davis' grand vision. After his introduction outlines "California Consciousness," described variously as a landscape, overlapping ecosystems, consumerism, and "polytheistic collage." Where critics might accuse Davis of being so open-minded that his brains fell out long ago, for him this riot of possibility is the very stuff of life, the material of what he recognizes as his native spiritual tradition.

The best argument that The Visionary State raises is Michael Rauner's astonishing photography, which frequently overwhelms the text with which it's paired: who can read about group therapy at the Esalen Institute when one can stare at the mist-shrouded sea beyond the cliffs, or look at the building looking about to tumble precipitously into the sea?
As a California native, Davis tends to run on and free-associate, linking ideas and concepts often without much context. Readers unfamiliar with Paramahansa Yogananda, Aleister Crowley, and Gary Snyder will get capsule introductions, but not always when they would be most helpful; a glossary of names and groups would have helped readers who may otherwise feel that The Visionary State is a little too "inside baseball."

For a book so thoroughly absorbed with notions of geography and architecture, the virtual absence of maps comes as quite a shock: the monochrome maps of Northern and Southern California (with blow-ups of the Los Angeles and San Francisco Bay areas) that grace the endpapers are the only visual cue to the geographical relations of the many sites to one another. The book, which Davis describes as a road trip in his introduction, might have been well-served with a geographical rather than thematic organization-after all, California Consciousness is defined in part by the juxtaposition of the unexpected.

As with his previous books, Techgnosis and Led Zeppelin IV for the 33 1/3 series, Erik Davis' work is best enjoyed by those willing to go along for the ride. His hazy-lazy California attitude is sure to offend hardcore skeptics, though some of those may be won over in part by Rauner's photography. Scattershot, with luminous moments sparking throughout, The Visionary State remains true to its California roots, for both better and worse.
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