Review: Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica

Review by Tobias Carroll

Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica
by Erik Davis
Yeti, 352 p.

I’ve never been to Burning Man. After reading Erik Davis’s Nomad Codes (as well as Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which also touches on the festival in question), I’ve begun to ask myself whether that represents a moral failing on my part.

I’m not entirely being tongue-in-cheek here. Nomad Codes collects several decades of Davis’s coverage of uncharted artists, thinkers, and subcultures; by the end, when he arrives at Burning Man, it comes as a sort of culmination to his studies of outsider art and temporary communities. Alternately: if one considers Nomad Codes to be a series of arguments and studies of unexpected ways of living (and their obstacles), Burning Man arrives at the end as their synthesis; it’s a point that Davis makes convincingly.

The overarching theme of the pieces here is resonance. At its best, Nomad Codes forges unexpected connections: echoes of Davis’s exploration of West African traditions turn up in discussions of figures as divergent as H.P. Lovecraft and Jack Spicer. In these moments, Nomad Codes transcends the sum of its components and begins to read like an alternate history of the twentieth century: one in which little-known artists and martyred poets weigh heavily on the history of the decades to come.

When zeroing in on the institutions established by Seattle’s Sun City Girls or deconstructing the trance scene that evolved on the Indian state of Goa, Davis is at once educator, critic, and enthusiast, willingly conveying the reader to somewhere unexpected and exploring multiple facets of the experience. And while the oldest work here dates from the early 1990s, most of it decidedly contemporary. A few pieces, however, seem more bound to a specific time and place: an essay on a surreal toy called Gak and discussions of The Matrix Reloaded and Avatar. It’s here that the book stumbles a bit, giving the impression of a particular reading of specific moments in time rather than a more timeless examination of a subject. Perhaps Davis’s fondness for transcendent moments is at the heart of this, but Nomad Codes is at its best when studying figures who seem to exist outside their time and yet exert a substantial influence over it.