The Lost City of Lemuria, and Other Reasons I Hate Reading Pynchon
I hoped his California novels would help me understand my New Age upbringing—and they did, but not the way I expected
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My first language was one of transcendence. I was raised by a single, nomadic mother on a relentless spiritual journey, and my childhood was laced with chatter of ascended masters and astral traveling. When I was seven, Mom moved us from a gritty SRO in San Francisco’s Tenderloin to Mount Shasta City, California, a forested nowhere land five hours north of SF because someone told her it was a “cosmic vortex.”
Mount Shasta City and its namesake mountain, a 14,180-foot dormant volcano halfway between Portland and San Francisco, attracted people like my mother from all over the world. People seeking spiritual truths via seminars on the “Ascended Masters” and stores full of “charged” crystals the size of small children. People eager to spot a Lemurian, the rumored descendants of Lemuria, a fabled sunken continent located between current-day North America and Australia. The remaining Lemurians, by all accounts, lived underneath the volcano in a secret crystal-city named Telos.
In his California novels, Vineland, Inherent Vice, and The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon touches on key aspects of my metaphysical NorCal upbringing, characterizing a culture that encompasses pot farmers, chemtrails, and Lemuria. In Inherent Vice, Sortilège, a psychic in L.A., has recurring visions of Lemuria rising up again from the sea, a double-edged sword of a metaphor for both a sunken city and a nostalgic never-was:
He thought about Sortilège’s sunken continent, returning, surfacing this way in the lost heart of L.A., and wondered who’d notice if it did… What good would Lemuria do them? Especially when it turned out to be a place they’d been exiled from too long ago to remember.
Lemuria was pure hypothesis, a 19th-century paleontologist’s explanation for how lemurs crossed from Madagascar into India. The discovery of modern plate tectonics put the theory to bed, but Lemuria’s legend has persisted for almost 200 years. After a brief period of reclamation by Tamil nationalists, who called the hypothetical continent Kumari Kandam, the charge of Lemuria as a peak civilization lost to sea was taken up by occultists and theosophists.
Like a game of telephone, authors built on the story of Lemuria. Madame Blavatsky’s esoteric cosmology posited the Lemurians as a “root race” in human evolution. Australian professor Robert Dixon theorized that Lemuria was a stand in for post-colonial British malaise. Finally, and this is what interested Pynchon, Lemuria was a continent sunken at vague coordinates in the Pacific Ocean. And then the Lemurians came to California.
In the 1880s, Frederick Spencer Oliver wrote the novel A Dweller on Two Planets, which mentioned Lemuria in passing, but also described in detail a hidden city inside of Mount Shasta populated by a mystic brotherhood, which were later conflated to be one and the same:
A long tunnel stretches away, far into the interior of majestic Shasta. Wholly unthought is it that there lie at the tunnel’s far end vast apartments, the home of a mystic brotherhood, whose occult arts hollowed that tunnel and mysterious dwelling.
Though it was explicitly fiction and Oliver claimed he channeled the book from an entity named Phylos, the novel laid the groundwork for many of the legends still surrounding Mount Shasta. In 1913, astronomer and Hearst science writer Edgar Larkin wrote a review of A Dweller on Two Planets; a reader who went by Selvius misunderstood, and reported in a piece for Mystic Triangle that Larkin had actually viewed a Lemurian village on the side of Mount Shasta via telescope. This error was repeated by Wishar S. Cerve in his 1931 text, Lemuria — The Lost Continent of the Pacific, who wrote of the Lemurians:
Various members of the community, garbed, as was their official representative, in pure white, gray-haired, barefoot and very tall, have been seen on the highways and in the streets near Shasta. One of these oddly dressed individuals would come to one of the smaller towns and trade nuggets and gold dust for some modern commodities.
Cerve’s piece captured the popular attention of a growing number of Americans interested in mysticism and solidified the legend of Lemuria as a hidden city inside of Mount Shasta. The next year, in 1932, the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine published a piece by Edward Lanser on the Lemurian village on Mount Shasta, titled: “A People of Mystery: Are They Remnants of a Lost Race? Do They Posses a Fabulous Gold Treasure?”
During a train ride on the Shasta Limited, Lanser wrote, he glimpsed a reddish-green glow on the side of the mountain and the conductor told him it was a Lemurian ceremony. “That these Lemurians who live in California are cognizant of the disaster that befell their ancestors,” Lanser wrote, “is revealed in the fact that each night at midnight throughout the entire year, they perform a ritual of thanksgiving and adoration to ‘Gautama’ which is the Lemurian name for America.” The lineage of the Lemuria legend, just like the language used to describe it, was slippery as hell.
During high school, I’d sneak out the roof to smoke and watch as the lenticular clouds ringing Mount Shasta slipped from amethyst to tangerine, their neon colors heightening the otherworldliness of their shape, which locals insisted were a cover for UFOs. After a decade surrounded by white ladies who’d renamed themselves things like Sita Ram and Laughing Brook, I’d shut down New Age concepts and tethered myself to the earthly, mostly by dating a string of local redneck boys. Puffing on my Marlboro Red, I’d wonder what the fuck these people were really talking about.
Maybe that’s why I became a writer in the first place, subconsciously driven to locate tangible meaning in the gauze of cosmic diction. If I could strip away the fluffy outer layers, maybe I could determine what in my upbringing had been of spiritual value and what should be tossed for good.
By the time I finally read Pynchon about five years ago, I’d begun to write about my New Age upbringing in earnest and was deep in the futile exercise of trying to root out the material value of experiences like astral travel and channeling — searches that led me to an endless landscape of web pages with inexplicably capped text and flashing angel GIFs. Since Pynchon’s work encapsulates this particular nook of the West, I’d always assumed reading him would be like coming home. I’d avoided it the way I sometimes avoid the things I know will change me for good, things that burn so close I need to be ready to handle all their epiphany.
So it was with great pomp and circumstance that I finally cracked the Crying of Lot 49. I was ready to dive back into the esoterica of my childhood, and I figured Pynchon, both a notorious hermit and brilliant stylist, might illuminate my murky personal history with his incisive language.
My aversion was immediate and visceral. Flooded by the frenetic language and names used as caricature and metaphor, I felt myself spinning into a nonsensical world I’d worked so hard to escape. Next, I tried Vineland, but my anxiety grew at Pynchon’s accumulation of language, which doesn’t so much create meaning but badger you into an altered state of mind. Which, for me, was too much like the hypnotic effect of New-Age diction as a whole. From Vineland:
If patterns of ones and zeroes were “like” patterns of human lives and deaths, if everything about an individual could be represented in a computer record by a long strings of ones and zeroes, then what kind of creature could be represented by a long string of lives and deaths? It would have to be up one level, at least — an angel, a minor god, something in a UFO. It would take eight human lives and deaths just to form one character in this being’s name — its complete dossier might take up a considerable piece of history of the world.
Still, l didn’t give up. After the film came out and seemed almost a bright, almost pop-y thing, I tried to read Inherent Vice. It was the book concerned with Lemuria and most accessible of the three, but the cadence and nonsensicalness of the prose both mirrored and made farcical firecrackers of the rhetoric I was bred on. Pynchon’s layering of symbolism was so rapid-fire as to render the banal obtuse, to write the overripe absurdity of New Age prose sharper and faster and hipper than it really is, or honestly, even wants to be. This master of my domain, a writer I’d been saving for last, was, for me, unreadable.
Throughout the nineteenth century, theories of lost cities and land bridges stood as explanations for things we couldn’t explain about human history. Lemuria, like fellow sunken legends Mu and Atlantis, was mythologized as a utopian civilization — enlightened and artistic.
“Human beings fall easily into despair,” Karen Armstrong writes in A Short History of Myth. “From the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.”
Maybe for my mother and Laughing Brook and all the Lemurian hunters and crystal kids, it was not Lemuria they sought, but a place where New Age gods and angels governed. Maybe for them a lost city existed to fill in the gaps — a sunken Rorschach onto which they could project their need for merger with the divine.
Once, a therapist told me I was raised in a world with no edges. That made sense. On her brown floral couch, I envisioned myself trying to box up concepts like cosmic consciousness, grand unifying theory, goddess, god, all the names for an unseeable force, into tidy takeout containers. Like those who sought Lemuria, maybe I’d hoped Pynchon would distill numinous language into artistic, intellectual terms that would help me reconcile my own seeking. If I could encapsulate the nebulous beliefs of my community into something tangible, then maybe I could extract what had value and scrap the rest. And maybe, I thought, as long as Pynchon remained unread, the answers I needed to distill my history into usable guidance were still afloat. There was still hope that I could make sense of it all.
But reading him simply reiterated that nothing mystic is truly explained. That the further we move from a tangible object or experience, the more language has to stretch to encapsulate it. And in that gap language can function as a veil, a rhetorical cover for anyone who wants to manipulate its meaning — because that gap requires us to rely on faith. I wanted language to be an anecdote for the ambiguous. I wanted there to be subjects and objects. I wanted someone to be held accountable.
I’ve been saying them about those who chased Lemuria, but maybe I should say us. Maybe Pynchon was my Lemuria, my land bridge, my lost city that would somehow fill in the gaps. I’d fashioned myself a cynic, but by virtue of my desire to believe there existed an answer somewhere — in books or science or the dissection of language — I, too, was a reluctant mystic. While the Laughing Brooks of the world sought psychic or corporeal proof that humans could become enlightened — that in other places and times, they already had — I sought to understand what exactly “goddess” or “utopia” or “divinity” meant. Not because I wanted to be subsumed by the transcendent, but because I needed to know how much I should invest in the earthly. Did a 401(k) matter? How could I “stay present” if my future might be sinking to the bottom of a dark sea?
In Inherent Vice, Pynchon writes:
There is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have that claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire.
But Pynchon doesn’t want Lemuria to rise again, and we don’t want to find lost cities. They only serve us when they’re lost. Myths may connect truncated narratives that have morphed over time. Myths may save and teach us. But lost cities let us believe that the best has already existed. That we once knew more, lived better, touched transcendence — and by clinging to that, we have some hope that it will happen again. If we found Lemuria, we’d see that they, too, were flawed; that there never was or will be a time that we were above the glorious slop and muck of being human. As Thomas Jones writes in The London Review of Books, “Utopias are what the paranoid imagine when they’re on a good trip.”
After all the anticipation and waiting, Pynchon did nothing but spin smarter words into the myth-making of my mother and her peers. And just like finding Lemuria to be true and not legend, dissecting the lexicon of epiphany renders it fairy dust. There is nothing there, really. Maybe the simple truth is that I can’t read Pynchon because I, too, want to keep believing. I want to believe that someone, somewhere, can explain in concrete terms the seekers of lost cities, the not-of-this-earth, those leaving behind broken histories and families, searching for a way to disappear and, in turn, find themselves.