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:
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.
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?
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.