Whatever the merits of my academic training, it certainly didn’t inspire confidence in my performance as a writer. Instilled instead were a series of neuroses. Paralyzing self-questioning of consciousness, of inner speech. Steps toward an ecology of fear. To treat these neuroses, I smoke some weed and play John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Born in a Prison,” the song that follows their revolutionary blues number, “Attica State.”
I blast these tracks from the pair’s saxophone-haunted Acid Communist masterpiece Some Time in New York while stomping atop the sidewalks of my sadly city-less, corporation-occupied late-capitalist abode. All of that a linguistic distraction, though, I remind myself, from direct contact with being. Literary self-consciousness of this sort — the sentencing of experience, in other words, for the sake of this blog — remains premised upon a daily act of will to seek and accept flow-like absorption in conditions of solitude. Better, perhaps, to set one’s phone in one’s pocket and zoom back down into the path, hand extended to caress the railing. I observe for a moment even in the pavement itself patterns of kissing, connection, embrace. Leafy profusion, surfaces heavy with seed. Tantra unleashes the imaginal into all realms of embodied practice. One lives it, in other words, in each and every moment of encounter as a joyful pairing of self and other through underutilized modes of sensation. Thumbing through Frederick Perls, Ralph F. Hefferline, and Paul Goodman’s Gestalt Therapy, I recall to myself entire systems of thought that used to exist to promote this kind of awareness-expansion. To what extent, though, the academic in me knows to wonder, is this latter expression synonymous with what writers like Marx and Lukács called “the raising of consciousness”? If one speaks in the old base-superstructure register, agency is left largely to an airy though somehow simultaneously heavy, coercive abstraction known as “material conditions”; whereas in Gestalt terms, agency to love is there for the subject’s taking. Nothing to lose but unconscious chains of reified, habit-encrusted behavior. What I prefer by far, though, as the synthesis of these goals of consciousness-raising and awareness-expansion, is the practice of “Psychedelic Utopianism,” or the belief, as articulated by figures like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Allen Ginsberg, that mass ingestion of mind-altering substances can change society for the good.
The plot thickens considerably as I delve further into the history of the psychedelic revolution. As I reported previously, first-wave psychonaut Aldous Huxley died on 11/22/63: the same day as C.S. Lewis and JFK. As per Huxley’s wish, his wife Laura injected him with 200 micrograms of LSD on his deathbed—and the supplier of these 200 micrograms was none other than ‘60s acid guru Timothy Leary. (The Moody Blues would eventually include a popular song about Leary called “Legend of a Mind” on their third album In Search of the Lost Chord.) But grok this: as Don Lattin notes in his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club, Leary’s first meeting with Huxley occurred on November 8, 1960, the same day JFK was elected President. There’s also substantial evidence suggesting that JFK may himself have taken LSD during his time in the White House. Kennedy’s mistress Mary Pinchot Meyer, ex-wife of CIA official Cord Meyer, seems to have been the conduit. Leary claims in his book Flashbacks that Meyer visited him while he was at Harvard, asking for his help. Her goal was to usher in a peaceful, loving Age of Aquarius by turning on world leaders, under the assumption that acid would make them less violent. Toward this end, Meyer conducted a series of acid experiments, with prominent men in Washington as her test subjects. All of this occurred while she was involved in an affair with JFK. However, Meyer eventually returned to Leary in a panic after someone involved in these experiments threatened to go public. Leary lost touch with her for a while, only to learn about a year after the assassination that she, too, had been murdered — shot, execution-style, in broad daylight, while walking on a towpath beside a canal in DC. Hollywood explored the incident in partly fictionalized form in a 2008 film called An American Affair, starring Gretchen Mol.
I feel intensely the privilege of my ability to live closely with Sarah, my beloved, as disgraceful American fascists round up and imprison undocumented asylum-seekers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, each one like us, each one a struggling messiah. How might we rouse ourselves from this nightmare? The “psychedelic partnership” of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg that Peter Conners chronicles in his book White Hand Society rigorously tested a lived utopian politics and practice centered around use of psychedelics as tools to effect transformation of American society into a loving, joyful, peaceful, compassionate, East-meets-West, anarcho-communist paradise. Part of the work of this utopian project, the way it builds itself, is through distribution of LSD, a revolutionary new means for the production of consciousness. In his book High Priest, Leary proposed as a “first ethical rule” for the emerging society: “Do what you want, explore, experiment, probe your own internal and external environment however you want—but don’t force your will on someone else. Don’t fuck up their trip so you can take yours.” This makes “evangelism,” or the spread of the psychedelic gospel, a process that demands great care in the winning of consent from those still held hostage. Those who remain in the Cave. For more on the politics of the psychedelic revolution, check out Octavio Paz’s Alternating Currents.
I enjoy jotting notes to myself on my phone these days, particularly when relaxing beside a pool. Sun, water, people, thought: a perfect combination. “Bertrand Russell on mysticism,” I remind myself, playing to a future self as its stern parent. “C. S. Lewis: did he, too, die on 11/22/63, the same day as Aldous Huxley and JFK?”—a question I type onto my screen and then promptly set aside. (The answer is, quite remarkably, as I learn afterwards, “Yes.”) In his book White Hand Society, Peter Conners claims that Timothy Leary was the person who, two days prior, supplied Laura Archera Huxley with the 200 micrograms of LSD that she administered to Aldous on his deathbed. Registering the sun’s warmth, I redirect awareness toward a swim, the pool’s rippling blue-and-white surface performing a lovely hypnosis. The lower part of me submerged to just below my chin, my thoughts grow fish-like—and then with another stroke, frog-like—consciousness of the entirety of my evolutionary past remaining stored, it seems, in some code-form akin to DNA. “What are the defining characteristics of contemporary existence?” I wonder after contemplating Western modernity’s imperfect approximation of a past garden paradise. This Shanghai noon. In all observable effects, however, the pool beside which I sit is still a healthy, therapeutic spot: Blake’s Sunflower’s “sweet golden clime.” Pool-going diminishes aggression, serves as a pleasureful release from some of the neuroses of the encircling regime. The optimist under present circumstances rejoices by noticing a parallelogram formed by the play of sunlight upon a tiled surface. The machinery of capitalism, I remind myself, threatens to extinguish even this. The White Hand Society gives me hope, though. I glimpse a row of ice cream cones printed on a towel and feel myself assured again of the all-rightness of existence.
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 Sadler’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.
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.
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.