Dr. Gregory Bateson was an old guy, tall as a basketball player even though he was a little stooped. He didn’t wear socks. He had lung cancer in remission. We were at Esalen, a New Age retreat in California. He was there writing a book and teaching science to astrologers. I was there letting Claude Monet’s ghost use me to make paintings.
Esalen was a weird place for a scientist. There were alternative healers, co-ed nude baths, and lots of massages. I wasn’t the only one holding séances.
It started one time when my girlfriend and I “opened the doors of perception” and I played with her art supplies. I couldn’t draw or paint, but a really nice field with a summer sky appeared. We took it to one of her teachers who joked that maybe Monet’s spirit was working through me.
My girlfriend took the idea seriously, and we did a ritual with candles and incense, and I turned out another one—this time sober. She took the pictures to a gallery in Berkeley, and told the owner that I was a medium and Monet was working through me.
It turned into a great college job, selling channeled Monets and doing séances at rich people’s houses. I wound up at Esalen on a sort of fellowship.
Esalen sits on 120 acres of hot springs and steep coastline in Big Sur. A couple of hippies started it, thinking about Aldous Huxley and human potential. Bateson supported it, even though he sneered at the New Age stuff, because he thought New Agers were looking for relationships and unifying patterns, while guys at universities were going down dead ends, looking through stronger and stronger microscopes at less and less, not making any connections.
I no longer believe, if I ever did, that the ghost of Claude Monet was working through me. We know things we don’t realize and can make surprising inferences if we turn off our inhibitions.
They weren’t necessarily good Monets, and I didn’t come up with anything that Monet himself hadn’t, but you could paint a convincing Monet even if you’ve never seen a Monet.
I hung my pictures around the lodge and in the cabins where visitors stayed. People oohed and ahhed and asked me questions. It was nice having all those people pay attention to me. Especially women.
I came across Bateson once, studying a picture I’d done a couple days before. He was the kind of guy who’d seen actual Monets, not just postcards and pages in books. He had his head cocked back and a boney, old man’s index finger extended against his upper lip. He gave me a sidelong glance and grinned. “It’s quite an accomplishment.”
Later, a little girl added yellow crayon scribbles to my accomplishment. People got excited. They said there was something sacred about channeled paintings done 50 years after the painter’s death.
There was a lot of chatter, then a meeting in the dining hall. Someone wanted to punish the little girl, who was only three years old, and they got support from this group of hippies. “She’s just a baby,” her mother said. “She didn’t know.”
“I know,” said one unforgiving woman, “but she has to be made to understand what she’s desecrated.”
That’s when Bateson stood up and said, “I’ve been sitting here, just listening, and it occurred to me that there’s a possibility nobody’s brought up. I think the ghost of Claude Monet resents someone else trying to add to his legacy. He possessed the girl to scrawl a protest on one of the offending canvases.”
“No way!” “That’s preposterous!”
“There’s no evidence for it, of course, but what evidence is there for the artist’s claim that he’s channeling Monet? If we wish to believe without evidence, we should allow others the same privilege. I believe the girl was the channel for Monet’s ire.”
I seconded this and, soon after, left for graduate school. Now I teach art history. Sometimes at a party I’ll crank out a channeled Monet.