Unqualified delight. Process-oriented pleasure. Figures like Willis Harman, Gerald Heard, Al Hubbard, Myron Stolaroff. Places like Trabuco College. Events like the Sequoia Seminars. My thoughts as I sit in a park mid-afternoon condense around these and other found bits of language. Abraham Maslow, I learn, was close friends with fellow Brandeis professor Frank E. Manuel, coauthor with wife Fritzie P. Manuel of the important study, Utopian Thought in the Western World. I quickly realize, however, that beneath these thoughts lies their absent cause: an ever-darkening political reality. Simon Sadler investigates an earlier conjuncture’s encounter with this Scylla and Charybdis in his essay “Mandalas or Raised Fists?: Hippie Holism, Panther Totality, and Another Modernism.” As my metaphor’s competition with Sandler’s title suggests, he prefers revolutionary agonism, a universe that demands sacrifice, a universe spoken into being by the antagonism of an either-or, whereas I prefer the universe that allows the safe passage of an oceanic both-and. I can aim my ire at the clearly-felt capitalist core, the Death Star at the center of our current Primum Mobile, even as I simultaneously slough off this ire and unburden myself of ego-oriented wants and desires, refusing to identify, in other words, with the positioning asked of me, and entering instead into a kind of “flow-state,” the ecstatic waking dream, as consciousness reunites with being.
Sarah passes on to me along our walk gleanings from her readings on occult philosophy in Elizabethan England. We pass a bluebird, a cardinal, roses, peonies, neighborhood flora and fauna offering to the senses an abundance of sights and scents and sounds as sunlight yellows the greens of a world ripening its way toward summer. Afterwards I purchase a new shirt for myself in preparation for an upcoming trip to Los Angeles—and for once, I allow myself to disengage a bit from the grudge I usually hold (and thus the tensions I usually bear in my back, chest, and shoulders) in reaction to the wage relation, so as to enjoy for a few moments both the cerebral and the sensorial pleasures, the simple bodily procedures and the imaginative comparison and assessment of potential fashionings of self, involved in the act of shopping. Nonjudgmental receptivity of this sort is essential now and then if one’s hope is to grow, I tell myself. In his essay “Eupsychia—The Good Society,” Abraham Maslow suggests as a guide for this mode of being a book by British psychoanalyst Marion Milner called A Life of One’s Own. Milner’s book is the product of a seven-year experiment in introspective journaling — a technique that resonates, of course, with the one informing these trance-scripts.
The “rise and fall” framework informing Jessica Grogan’s book Encountering America leaves much to be desired, not least because it imposes onto history an imaginary moral economy, one that equates moderation with virtue and radicalism with vice. I found this unexamined framework to be particularly intrusive, for instance, in the chapters of the book dealing with Esalen and LSD. Throughout these chapters, Grogan pins the blame for humanistic psychology’s alleged downfall on what she repeatedly refers to as the chaotic “excesses” of the counterculture — by which she seems to mean some combination of romanticism, hedonism, popular withdrawal of support for institutional authority, and unsupervised experimentation with mind-altering substances. Figures linked with these tendencies include Allen Ginsberg, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Frederick Perls, and William C. Schutz.
The research I’m conducting on the history of humanistic psychology has already begun to yield some interesting discoveries, especially in light of my effort to construct a theory of psychedelic utopianism. I learned the other day, for instance, that the Journal of Humanistic Psychology included among its original board of directors none other than Aldous Huxley, a figure central to my theory. [See Jessica Grogan, Encountering America, p. 87. June Deery also makes a case for Huxley’s centrality to this nexus of thought in her book Aldous Huxley and the Mysticism of Science.] The journal published its first issue in the spring of 1961, one year before the publication of Huxley’s final novel, Island—a book depicting a utopia where, among other things, citizens consume a fictional psychedelic substance called “moksha.” As it turns out, however, Huxley wasn’t the only author connected to the Journal of Humanistic Psychology to imagine a utopia during these years. Abraham Maslow, often regarded as the founder of humanistic psychology, developed an explicitly utopian vision of his own in an article published in the journal’s second issue called “Eupsychia—The Good Society.” One of the questions I’m hoping to answer as I dig into Huxley’s papers in the weeks ahead is whether or not Maslow’s article had any influence on Huxley’s novel—for this latter served as the primary inspiration for Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert’s first attempt at psychedelic utopianism, the Zihuatanejo Project, an intentional community and training center located for a brief time in the town of Zihuatanejo in Mexico. [For more on this project, check out Richard Blum’s book, Utopiates: The Use and Users of LSD-25.] At the very least, I know that Maslow and Huxley maintained a correspondence of some sort during these years. That much is apparent from Edward Hoffman’s book, The Right to Be Human: A Biography of Abraham Maslow. Gorman Beauchamp pursued a related line of inquiry (though without any reference to Maslow) in a 1990 article published in the inaugural issue of Utopian Studies called “Island: Aldous Huxley’s Psychedelic Utopia.” I also need to consult the essays gathered in a collection on Huxley edited by Harold Bloom.
Thought seeks an object suitable to its aims as the one who thinks departs from procedure amid distractions posed by others. How best may I advance my cause? Perhaps by listening to “Session Add” by Skee Mask — a track that evokes IDM of the kind promoted around the turn of the century by labels like Mille Plateaux.
The track puts me in mind of some relatives of mine visiting from out of state — probably because these relatives happen to be “digital natives” obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Upon their arrival a few days ago, these relatives immediately invited me to tag along with them as they met up with fellow players IRL in order to conduct a “raid.” Because I’d never played Pokémon Go before, the relatives had to explain to me that a raid is an event where players gather in public and collaborate with one another to take down powerful “boss” characters. Intrigued by what I consider to be the as-yet-unrealized potential of augmented reality games, I assented to the invitation. I’ll play Tom Wolfe to these Pranksters, I told myself. I’ll fashion myself for an hour or so as a kind of amateur ethnographer. And so, there I was, watching as a diverse group of strangers came together in the streets, a bit like a smart mob or a local chapter of the direct action cycling group Critical Mass. Unlike the latter, however, “raids” and “community days” offer little by way of direct action’s collective pursuit of demands, given the profoundly indirect, cellphone-mediated nature of players’ interactions with one another. Minus a few references to how many times players had seen the new Avengers film, conversations at the event I witnessed revolved almost exclusively around the game itself. “How many points have you earned?,” players asked one another. “How many creatures have you captured?” This on a day when, elsewhere in the country, students were being gunned down in their classrooms by a self-described “incel,” or “involuntary celibate.” So much for new media and its promise, I thought to myself on the drive home afterwards — at which point, as if in reply, Spotify’s algorithms selected for me the old Bad Religion song, “Fuck Armageddon, This Is Hell.”
A proper theory of psychedelic utopianism requires a reassessment of past and present theories of psychology. In particular, it requires a critique of contemporary cognitive-behavioral approaches (not unlike the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism), and a revalorization of certain elements of the “humanistic psychology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Jessica Grogan’s Encountering America provides an entry-point into the history of the latter movement. I’m thinking here of figures like R.D. Laing and Abraham Maslow, but also encounter groups, Esalen, and the so-called “human potential movement” more broadly. Finally, this reassessment would also have to engage with humanistic psychology’s successor, the field of “positive psychology.” Among contemporary scholars operating in this field, I’m particularly interested in the work of Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and the UC system’s Greater Good Science Center. On the other end of the political spectrum, however, we have figures like Martin Seligman and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks. (This latter figure, by the way, also serves on the advisory board of Charles Koch’s Well-Being Initiative.) For more on positive psychology, check out Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America.
Space poses obstacles to eat away at time. The only tolerable alternative, for those of us whose time is absorbed in this way, is to view these arrangements of matter not as obstacles but as puzzles or riddles. We live amid the confusion of an occulted truth, catching glimpses now and then of an ineffable something beyond the outer edges of meaning. Part of me views this condition as a blessing rather than a burden, even as another part of me sings along to “Suspended in Gaffa.”