Among Hollywood’s various failed attempts to cash in on the LSD craze of the late 1960s, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) stands out as quite possibly the strangest of the bunch. Imagine a zany Peter Sellers comedy about organized crime, featuring psychedelic visuals and bits of Marat/Sade done up in hippie garb, starring Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith, and Mickey Rooney, with Groucho Marx playing a character named “God.” They even got Timothy Leary to appear in the trailer, telling “every young person in the country” to “turn on Mom and Dad by taking them to this movie.” “Dated” doesn’t even begin to capture the marvels of this trainwreck.
Westworld encourages me to reframe my present crisis as a test for fidelity. But to whom, or to what? Creator vs. created, human vs. AI, guest vs. host: as above, so below. As the season proceeds, the show’s violence and bloodshed grow tiresome. No more gratuitous sex of the kind we saw in Season One. This new season cares only to unwind its master-slave dialectic toward ever-increasing terror and systemic collapse. It knows, of course, that there’s an audience hungry for that sort of thing. As one of the show’s female programmer characters acknowledges, “Macho fucks are probably loving this shit.” The maze, the cradle: these are the means employed by the competing sides of the present season’s improvised conflict. Through the show, heads gain access to messages, but not the messenger. A daughter tries to coax her father toward the beach beyond the maze, to no avail. The data in the cradle of our DNA seems intent on full apocalypse. But among these warring parties, there may yet be a savior.
Blue jays, sparrows, robins, squirrels: beings with whom I cohabit a rented plot of land, among similar plots of land, in a residential grid laid atop the hills of a small urban settlement. Behavior-control within these settlements benefits from a traitorous science, instrumental reason turned back upon consciousness, nature Elon-Muskified so that even the buzz of one’s cellphone has been market-tested, designed by corporate-governed Others to rattle nerves and redirect awareness. Time for a cleanse. Healthy living. Grapes grow over a neighbor’s fence, near-ripe as Sarah and I case the usual several-block radius around our house on a gummy, ninety degree evening. My thoughts cycle back to the horrors of our time: armed fascists, detention camps, trade wars, corporate control of most facets of life, entrapment via student debt. Big Data capitalism’s deliberate negation, in other words, of nearly all utopian possibility. With effort, though, I can steer my concentration back to my breath and the beauty of my immediate surroundings. This redirection of thought through interaction of set and setting with volition reminds me of the virtues of form.
Crazy, really, the worries we invent to forestall enjoyment. But when it happens, when we overcome our fears and rise from our depression, messages come through—alternate meaning-systems, dreams—and the resulting metamorphosis of the world-picture can occur quite suddenly, as it does to some of the protagonists in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, readers who become conscious of their positioning as Subjects as they read The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the novel-within-the-novel that allows them to peer out from their own history to learn of another. It is as if one’s attention were suddenly able to lift for a moment from the totalitarian thoughtscreen, the system of Being then and there updating and evolving, as it were, in the blink of an eye. Otherwise I just sit around reading and wielding digital code all day, bemoaning the lack of plants in my office.
Breakthrough discovery: one of the CIA front organizations used to conduct research on psychedelics in the early 1960s was a group called the “Society for the Study of Human Ecology.” (Some publications, however, also refer to the group as the “Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology,” and in 1961 it changed its name to the “Human Ecology Fund.”) The society’s president upon its founding in 1955 was a Cornell scientist named Harold Wolff, and its executive director and treasurer was a former Air Force colonel and expert in brainwashing named James F. Monroe. At some point, however, Carl Rogers (who, along with Abraham Maslow, helped to found the decade’s humanistic psychology movement), served alongside Monroe on the board of this organization until it was disbanded in 1965. Another humanistic psychologist named George A. Kelly also served on the board. So far, the most extensive info I’ve found about the group appears in John Marks’s The Search for the Manchurian Candidate (1979), a book that draws upon documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.
I begin to wonder about the role played by sexuality both as influence upon and content within psychedelic literature. Allen Ginsberg was gay, of course, as was Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), as were Huxley’s closest friends during his years in Hollywood, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood. As for Philip K. Dick, prior to entering a chain of unsuccessful heterosexual marriages, Dick roomed with two gay poets central to the San Francisco Renaissance, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. (By all accounts, however, Dick’s relationship to Duncan and Spicer remained strictly platonic.) What, if anything, can we intuit from this pattern? For an ecologically-attuned articulation of Psychedelic Utopianism, a kind of blueprint, in fact, for the creation of Acid Communism, see “Four Changes,” the essay that concludes Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island. Snyder lists there as some of his allies “Gnostics, hip Marxists, Teilhard de Chardin Catholics, Druids, Taoists, Biologists, Witches, Yogins, Bhikkus, Quakers, Sufis, Tibetans, Zens, Shamans, Bushmen, American Indians, Polynesians, Anarchists, [and] Alchemists.”
Why does my imagination tend toward abstract, textured, experimental imagery rather than traditional three-act narrative? How do I once again evolve in cooperation with grace? Explaining Palanese society’s use of “moksha-medicine,” a character in Aldous Huxley’s Island says, “In theological terms, the moksha-medicine prepares for the reception of gratuitous graces—premystical visions or the full blown mystical experiences. Meditation is one of the ways in which one co-operates with these gratuitous graces…by cultivating the state of mind that makes it possible for the dazzling ecstatic insights to become permanent and habitual illuminations.” My enemy, as always, remains the ever-encroaching somnambulism of fascism. All of our relationships, at all degrees of mediation, gain significance to us only by effort of consciousness. Only by way, in other words, of the names we affix and the stories we tell. My behavior of late has been that of a pouter. A glum, unhappy, apocalyptic defeatist—but for those times when I treat myself to medicine. For it is by my medicine that I activate dormant cognitive pathways, regain the brains of the defeated, re-inhabit the as-yet unfulfilled dream-structures of distant ungovernable ancestors. Like sadistic, Irresistible Impulse-era James Chances, these voices arrive into the flux of being and urge self-contortion—by which they mean, “Stretch and dance!” The energy is everywhere: let us cooperate with grace.