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 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.
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.
To prepare myself for the new CBS Jack Parsons show, Strange Angel, I dedicate my evening to avant-garde occult cinema. The evening’s programming begins with feminist experimental filmmaker Suzan Pitt’s surrealist animated short, Asparagus (1979), after which I watch two counterculture films starring Marjorie Cameron: Curtis Harrington’s The Wormwood Star and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
To my surprise, however, a pattern forms among these films as the night proceeds, as all of them can be interpreted as frightening sex-magical critical revisions of the myth of Adam and Eve. The Anger film took as inspiration for its title the opium-influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem, “Kubla Khan”—a poem that begins, “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / a stately pleasure-dome decree.” Very very nice. Pan that. Quality never in doubt. Wax comma hex comma spells. I barely have a boat, big chump, where’s the boat, where’s the lawyer. Here’s the thing, man. I got family. I’m not lively, nor am I adventurous. I don’t just jump right in, I step in and enter gently, in stages. “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome is a mythographic film,” argues P. Adams Sitney, “in its aspiration to visualize a plurality of gods” (Visionary Film, p. 107). To Sitney, however, the myth revived in Anger’s work is not the Eden myth, so much as “the primary Romantic myth of the fall of a unitary Man into separate, conflicting figures, a myth that dominates the prophetic writings of Blake and finds expression in the Prometheus Unbound of Shelley” (110). If there is to be an intervention, I conclude, if there is to be a resistance against present conditions, it will have to be countercultural, it will have to be by way of magic. Consciousness will have to draw a circle around itself, spin an imaginary wheel, and select from this wheel a provisional belief system for itself as if at random. As soundtrack for this ritual, happenstance recommends Mount Everest Trio’s Waves From Albert Ayler.
“The instrument of evolution now is culture,” murmured a middle-aged Julian Huxley to a 10-year-old Oliver Sacks during Sacks’s childhood in Hampstead Heath. How does the universe order itself? A poet might say, “Through memories unlocatable in time.” Macro quantum events. Insides becoming outsides. Deterministic chaos. Self-organization. Sudden transformation. Everything can be generated from within. My evening self, for instance, orders my daytime self to look for D.S. Savage’s book The Withered Branch and for Sacks’s essay on “the Odd.” Look as well, it says, for info about Gerald Edelman and his theories about “recategorization.” Floating cell structures, floating synchronic portraits of games of Go. The world fires back, though, with news of a TV miniseries based on the life of Jack Parsons, and two recent biographies by Spencer Kansa: Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, and Out There: The Transcendent Life and Art of Burt Shonberg. Beaches are parts of the labyrinth strewn with the bones of our predecessors.
Heads dive down and unearth an important side note in the history of psychedelic mysticism: Oscar Baradinsky and his “Outcast” chapbook series, published in the late 1940s in connection with Baradinsky’s Alicat Book Shop in Yonkers, NY. The tenth chapbook in this series is a work printed in June 1947 by British pacifist poet and critic D.S. Savage titled Mysticism and Aldous Huxley: An Examination of Heard-Huxley Theories. As I dip in, I feel a sudden urge to read with great haste a number of works by Huxley: first and foremost, his 1936 novel Eyeless in Gaza, but also his early defense of mysticism, Ends and Means. Before long, however, Savage’s chapbook launches an attack on what it calls “the general upside-downness of Huxley’s theories.” In consequence, my attention lifts from the page and wanders ‘round the room. Out of the intricate wordplay of Springsteen’s “Blinded By the Light” comes instruction for anti-imperialists: “Dethrone the dictaphone / Hit it in its funny bone / that’s where they expect it least.” Manfred Mann covered the song on The Roaring Silence. If one listens to the rest of side A of that album, one comes upon a great heady stoner-prog instrumental called “Waiter, There’s a Yawn in My Ear.”
Some funny bone jammy-whammy hit the deck pout. Glowing boat bat-symbol. Known entities confer without commonality either of language, focus, or faith, as the Other crosses its arms, sits smugly and asks, “Which of you does the talking?” As a “personalist,” Savage finds fault with what he describes as Huxley’s “naive materialism,” and in particular, his “ubiquitous and unexamined assumption of the existence of the universe as a totality, a whole, superior to, and independent of, the perceiving individual consciousness.” To me, though, Savage’s personalism sounds eerily solipsistic. One has to keep in mind, though, that Savage’s target is also a pre-mescaline Huxley, seven years younger than the one who writes The Doors of Perception. And Savage’s personalism, it turns out, is not as solipsistic as it first appears. He of course affirms the reality of subjective, personal experience; this, after all, is what makes him a personalist. But the work of living, he argues, is the work of relating one’s own world, the world centered around individual, microcosmic personal consciousness, with a totality consisting of a potentially infinite number of other such centers, other coevolving, spirit-imbued self-organizations of matter.