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Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person

By 

Scott Alexander

"Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“Right,” I said. “I’m absolutely in favor of both those things. But before we go any further, could you tell me the two prime factors of 1,522,605,027, 922,533,360, 535,618,378, 132,637,429, 718,068,114, 961,380,688, 657,908,494 ,580,122,963, 258,952,897, 654,000,350, 692,006,139?

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

The sea was made of strontium; the beach was made of rye. Above my head, a watery sun shone in an oily sky. A thousand stars of sertraline whirled round quetiapine moons, and the sand sizzled sharp like cooking oil that hissed and sang and threatened to boil the octahedral dunes.

“Okay,” I said. “Fine. Let me tell you where I’m coming from. I was reading Scott McGreal’s blog, which has some good articles about so-called DMT entities, and mentions how they seem so real that users of the drug insist they’ve made contact with actual superhuman beings and not just psychedelic hallucinations. You know, the usual Terence McKenna stuff. But in one of them he mentions a paper by Marko Rodriguez called A Methodology For Studying Various Interpretations of the N,N-dimethyltryptamine-Induced Alternate Reality, which suggested among other things that you could prove DMT entities were real by taking the drug and then asking the entities you meet to factor large numbers which you were sure you couldn’t factor yourself. So to that end, could you do me a big favor and tell me the factors of 1,522,605,027, 922,533,360, 535,618,378, 132,637,429, 718,068,114, 961,380,688, 657,908,494, 580,122,963, 258,952,897, 654,000,350, 692,006,139?

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

The sea turned hot and geysers shot up from the floor below. First one of wine, then one of brine, then one more yet of turpentine, and we three stared at the show.

“I was afraid you might say that. Is there anyone more, uh, verbal here whom I could talk to?”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

At the sound of that, the big green bat started rotating in place. On its other side was a bigger greener bat, with a ancient, wrinkled face.

Not splitting numbers / but joining Mind,” it said.

Not facts or factors or factories / but contact with the abstract attractor that brings you back to me

Not to seek / but to find

“I don’t follow,” I said.

Not to follow / but to jump forth into the deep

Not to grind or to bind or to seek only to find / but to accept

Not to be kept / but to wake from sleep

The bat continued to rotate, until the first side I had seen swung back into view.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to hazard a guess as to what you’re talking about, and you tell me if I’m right. You’re saying that, like, all my Western logocentric stuff about factoring numbers in order to find out the objective truth about this realm is missing the point, and I should be trying to do some kind of spiritual thing involving radical acceptance and enlightenment and such. Is that kind of on the mark?”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“Frick,” I said. “Well, okay, let me continue.” The bat was still rotating, and I kind of hoped that when the side with the creepy wrinkled face came into view it might give me some better conversation. “I’m all about the spiritual stuff. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t deeply interested in the spiritual stuff. This isn’t about money or fame or anything. I want to advance psychedelic research. If you can factor that number, then it will convince people back in the real – back in my world that this place is for real and important. Then lots of people will take DMT and flock here and listen to what you guys have to say about enlightenment and universal love, and make more sense of it than I can alone, and in the end we’ll have more universal love, and…what was the other thing?”

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“Right,” I said. “We’ll have more transcendent joy if you help me out and factor the number than if you just sit there being spiritual and enigmatic.”

“Lovers do not love to increase the amount of love in the world / But for the mind that thrills

And the face of the beloved, which the whole heart fills / the heart and the art never apart, ever unfurled / And John Stuart is one of / the dark satanic mills”

“I take it you’re not consequentialists,” I said. “You know that’s really weird, right. Like, not just ‘great big green bat with two faces and sapient cactus-man’ weird, but like really weird. You talk about wanting this spiritual enlightenment stuff, but you’re not going to take actions that are going to increase the amount of spiritual enlightenment? You’ve got to understand, this is like a bigger gulf for me than normal human versus ineffable DMT entity. You can have crazy goals, I expect you to have crazy goals, but what you’re saying now is that you don’t pursue any goals at all, you can’t be modeled as having desires. Why would you do that?”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“Now you see here,” I said. “Everyone in this conversation is in favor of universal love and transcendent joy. But I’ve seen the way this works. Some college student gets his hands on some DMT, visits here, you guys tell him about universal love and transcendent joy, he wakes up, says that his life has been changed, suddenly he truly understands what really matters. But it never lasts. The next day he’s got to get up and go to work and so on, and the universal love lasts about five minutes until his boss starts yelling at him for writing his report in the wrong font, and before you know it twenty years later he’s some slimy lawyer who’s joking at a slimy lawyer party about the one time when he was in college and took some DMT and spent a whole week raving about transcendent joy, and all the other slimy lawyers laugh, and he laughs with them, and so much for whatever spiritual awakening you and your colleagues in LSD and peyote are trying to kindle in humanity. And if I accept your message of universal love and transcendent joy right now, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to me, and meanwhile human civilization is going to keep being stuck in greed and ignorance and misery. So how about you shut up about universal love and you factor my number for me so we can start figuring out a battle plan for giving humanity a real spiritual revolution?”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

A meteorite of pure delight struck the sea without a sound. The force of the blast went rattling past the bat and the beach, disturbing each, then made its way to a nearby bay of upside-down trees with their roots in the breeze and their branches underground.

“I demand a better answer than that,” I demanded.

The other side of the bat spun into view.

“Chaos never comes from the Ministry of Chaos / nor void from the Ministry of Void

Time will decay us but time can be left blank / destroyed

With each Planck moment ever fit / to be eternally enjoyed”

“You’re making this basic mistake,” I told the big green bat. “I honestly believe that there’s a perspective from which Time doesn’t matter, where a single moment of recognition is equivalent to eternal recognition. The problem is, if you only have that perspective for a moment, then all the rest of the time, you’re sufficiently stuck in Time to honestly believe you’re stuck in Time. It’s like that song about the hole in the bucket – if the hole in the bucket were fixed, you would have the materials needed to fix the hole in the bucket. But since it isn’t, you don’t. Likewise, if I understood the illusoriness…illusionality…whatever, of time, then I wouldn’t care that I only understood it for a single instant. But since I don’t, I don’t. Without a solution to the time-limitedness of enlightenment that works from within the temporal perspective, how can you consider it solved at all?”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

The watery sun began to run and it fell on the ground as rain. It became a dew that soaked us through, and as the cold seemed to worsen the cactus person hugged himself to stay warm but his spines pierced his form and he howled in a fit of pain.

“You know,” I said, “sometimes I think the kvithion sumurhe had the right of it. The world is an interference pattern between colliding waves of Truth and Beauty, and either one of them pure from the source and undiluted by the other will be fatal. I think you guys and some of the other psychedelics might be pure Beauty, or at least much closer to the source than people were meant to go. I think you can’t even understand reason, I think you’re constitutionally opposed to reason, and that the only way we’re ever going to get something that combines your wisdom and love and joy with reason is after we immanentize the eschaton and launch civilization into some perfected postmessianic era where the purpose of the world is fully complete. And that as much as I hate to say it, there’s no short-circuiting the process.”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“I’m dissing you, you know. I’m saying you guys are so intoxicated on spiritual wisdom that you couldn’t think straight if your life depended on it; that your random interventions in our world and our minds look like the purposeless acts of a drunken madman because that’s basically more or less what they are. I’m saying if you had like five IQ points between the two of you, you could tap into your cosmic consciousness or whatever to factor a number that would do more for your cause than all your centuries of enigmatic dreams and unasked-for revelations combined, and you ARE TOO DUMB TO DO IT EVEN WHEN I BASICALLY HOLD YOUR HAND THE WHOLE WAY. Your spine. Your wing. Whatever.”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“Transcendent joy,” said the big green bat.

“Fuck you,” said I.

I saw the big green bat bat a green big eye. Suddenly I knew I had gone too far. The big green bat started to turn around what was neither its x, y, or z axis, slowly rotating to reveal what was undoubtedly the biggest, greenest bat that I had ever seen, a bat bigger and greener than which it was impossible to conceive. And the bat said to me:

“Sir. Imagine you are in the driver’s seat of a car. You have been sitting there so long that you have forgotten that it is the seat of a car, forgotten how to get out of the seat, forgotten the existence of your own legs, indeed forgotten that you are a being at all separate from the car. You control the car with skill and precision, driving it wherever you wish to go, manipulating the headlights and the windshield wipers and the stereo and the air conditioning, and you pronounce yourself a great master. But there are paths you cannot travel, because there are no roads to them, and you long to run through the forest, or swim in the river, or climb the high mountains. A line of prophets who have come before you tell you that the secret to these forbidden mysteries is an ancient and terrible skill called GETTING OUT OF THE CAR, and you resolve to learn this skill. You try every button on the dashboard, but none of them is the button for GETTING OUT OF THE CAR. You drive all of the highways and byways of the earth, but you cannot reach GETTING OUT OF THE CAR, for it is not a place on a highway. The prophets tell you GETTING OUT OF THE CAR is something fundamentally different than anything you have done thus far, but to you this means ever sillier extremities: driving backwards, driving with the headlights on in the glare of noon, driving into ditches on purpose, but none of these reveal the secret of GETTING OUT OF THE CAR. The prophets tell you it is easy; indeed, it is the easiest thing you have ever done. You have traveled the Pan-American Highway from the boreal pole to the Darien Gap, you have crossed Route 66 in the dead heat of summer, you have outrun cop cars at 160 mph and survived, and GETTING OUT OF THE CAR is easier than any of them, the easiest thing you can imagine, closer to you than the veins in your head, but still the secret is obscure to you.”

A herd of bison came into listen, and voles and squirrels and ermine and great tusked deer gathered round to hear as the bat continued his sermon.

“And finally you drive to the top of the highest peak and you find a sage, and you ask him what series of buttons on the dashboard you have to press to get out of the car. And he tells you that it’s not about pressing buttons on the dashboard and you just need to GET OUT OF THE CAR. And you say okay, fine, but what series of buttons will lead to you getting out of the car, and he says no, really, you need to stop thinking about dashboard buttons and GET OUT OF THE CAR. And you tell him maybe if the sage helps you change your oil or rotates your tires or something then it will improve your driving to the point where getting out of the car will be a cinch after that, and he tells you it has nothing to do with how rotated your tires are and you just need to GET OUT OF THE CAR, and so you call him a moron and drive away.”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

“So that metaphor is totally unfair,” I said, “and a better metaphor would be if every time someone got out of the car, five minutes later they found themselves back in the car, and I ask the sage for driving directions to a laboratory where they are studying that problem, and…”

“You only believe that because it’s written on the windshield,” said the big green bat. “And you think the windshield is identical to reality because you won’t GET OUT OF THE CAR.”

“Fine,” I said. “Then I can’t get out of the car. I want to get out of the car. But I need help. And the first step to getting help is for you to factor my number. You seem like a reasonable person. Bat. Freaky DMT entity. Whatever. Please. I promise you, this is the right thing to do. Just factor the number.”

“And I promise you,” said the big green bat. “You don’t need to factor the number. You just need to GET OUT OF THE CAR.”

“I can’t get out of the car until you factor the number.”

“I won’t factor the number until you get out of the car.”

“Please, I’m begging you, factor the number!”

“Yes, well, I’m begging you, please get out of the car!”

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST FACTOR THE FUCKING NUMBER!”

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD JUST GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR!”

FACTOR THE FUCKING NUMBER!”

GET OUT OF THE FUCKING CAR!”

“Universal love,” said the cactus person.

Then tree and beast all fled due east and the moon and stars shot south. And the bat rose up and the sea was a cup and the earth was a screen green as clozapine and the sky a voracious mouth. And the mouth opened wide and the earth was skied and the sea fell in with an awful din and the trees were moons and the sand in the dunes was a blazing comet and…

I vomited, hard, all over my bed. It happens every time I take DMT, sooner or later; I’ve got a weak stomach and I’m not sure the stuff I get is totally pure. I crawled just far enough out of bed to flip a light switch on, then collapsed back onto the soiled covers. The clock on the wall read 11:55, meaning I’d been out about an hour and a half. I briefly considered taking some more ayahuasca and heading right back there, but the chances of getting anything more out of the big green bat, let alone the cactus person, seemed small enough to fit in a thimble. I drifted off into a fitful sleep.

Behind the veil, across the infinite abyss, beyond the ice, beyond daath, the dew rose from the soaked ground and coalesced into a great drop, which floated up into an oily sky and became a watery sun. The cactus person was counting on his spines.

“Hey,” the cactus person finally said, “just out of curiosity, was the answer 37,975,227, 936,943,673, 922,808,872, 755,445,627, 854,565,536, 638,199 times 40,094,690,950, 920,881,030, 683,735,292, 761,468,389, 214,899,724,061?”

“Yeah,” said the big green bat. “That’s what I got too.”

Quiz question:

How long was the narrator's DMT trip?

Half an hour.

Half an hour.

An hour and a half

An hour and a half

Twelve hours.

Twelve hours.

Like, forever.

Like, forever.

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Issue 13

published 

September 22, 2017

Universal Love, Said the Cactus Person was written by Scott Alexander, is a psychiatrist in Detroit. He blogs at slatestarcodex.com. He told me not to mention anything about how long it takes to reply to emails, so I'm not going to.

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Issue 13

This writing was originally published in Opium Magazine, and is not listed in the Lit.cat archives.
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