«Eros and Death»

Alienness in the circus

by Thomas Oberender

For many years now I have been listening to Terence McKenna’s voice. On YouTube you can find numerous recordings of his lectures detailing his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs, with academic cross-references to cultural history, anthropology and art. It was in this context that McKenna developed a particular way of looking at the circus. In his lecture »The Secret That Can’t Be Told”, he describes his experience with DMT as an encounter with the archetype of the circus. The lively creatures he meets while tripping, their playfulness, their magical impact, their otherworldliness, remind him of a wide variety of circus characters.

For McKenna, circus is a complex emotional structure. It magically draws children and at the same time touches adults in a childlike way. I am reminded of my first encounter with a travelling circus; it had set up camp on a large wasteland near an open-air swimming pool in Jena, away from the residential area. A site near the River Saale, surrounded by meadows and a sports field, suddenly sported old-fashioned wooden caravans with a large tent set up beside them. When my parents took me to an afternoon show, I entered a strange world where for a little extra you could see exotic animals in the smaller tents between the performers’ caravans. It smelled of damp sawdust and hay, candy floss and sweat.

Kids love circuses, says McKenna. Because of the clowns, because of the costumes, the animals, the colourful spotlights and the strafing starlight from the lit-up mirror ball on the inside of the tent. The circus is the petite woman in her glittering costume, spinning around without a net high up in the big top, holding on by her teeth. For McKenna, this image consolidates the superimposition of death and Eros that characterises the circus. In her tight, star-studded costume, this acrobat risked her life in the big top. In her unreal beauty she toyed with death for a few minutes, at once vulnerable and virtuosic.

Right alongside the attractions in the main tent are the sideshows that so fascinated McKenna, something I experienced 20 years ago in a traditional Tokyo fairground theatre – a presentation of obscure phenomena, Siamese twins, the childlike old dwarf, the wolf woman with a beard and furry back. All of these bizarre examples of what life can be, and which were celebrated with a great degree of spectacle in this tent, are circus: ruptures in normality. To McKenna, the circus performers, the characters in the carnival and sideshow are all aliens; life that exists alongside the community of the recognisably human, which expands, exceeds, examines our idea of what is human-like.