With daily practice I develop greater strength and control in my left hand. Exercised with concentration, the hand’s ability to drum shows noticeable improvement. In between these exercises I think about indigenous drum ceremonies like Powwows, and instruments like rattles. How might we account for the Christian West’s antipathy to drums and percussive noise throughout most of its history? Horns, bells, and strings have their charms, but they evoke entities different in kind from those conjured with sticks and skins. With Dustin Laurenzi’s Snaketime providing productive accompaniment, I descend back into Gerald Heard’s essay on his close friend Aldous Huxley, a piece called “The Poignant Prophet,” published in 1965, two years after Huxley’s death. Right away, I’m troubled by Heard’s Darwinian emphasis on Huxley’s heredity (the “ancestral pressures” placed upon the latter due to “the intellectual nobility of his forefathers,” etc). Yet there are also moments when Heard offers glimpses of Huxley as the latter struggled to grow beyond his early reputation as a satirist. The two kept up a tradition of “afternoon walks-and-talks.” We learn of their joint investigations of groups like Moral Rearmament and teachers like Ouspensky. The most interesting part of the account, of course, deals with the transformation in Huxley effected through the latter’s encounters with psychedelics like mescaline. “Was there any effect that was permanent, that manifestly altered his everyday character in relation to others,” asks Heard, “giving his actions a new strength of conviction and initiative of encouragement? Could he thereafter persistently see the common day in the full light of this masterly comprehension, and so go forward as a guide? I think there was evidence” (66).
1953, the year Gerald Heard first tried mescaline, was also the year he began writing for ONE, the first openly gay periodical in America. In the years that followed, he held seminars for the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay rights groups. He also helped shape the curriculum for the first gay studies institute in the United States, the ONE Institute for Homophile Studies in Los Angeles (Falby 139). For Heard, gay rights and psychedelics both signaled the arrival of a new stage in the history of consciousness. Humanity was undergoing spiritual evolution, a transformation similar to the one imagined by astrologers and New Agers who saw around them “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Meanwhile, I’m humming Madonna’s “Holiday” while walking beneath a Harvest Moon. It’s a magical night, moonlight back-lighting a cover of cloud. Lovely energy, air pulsing with life. A good night, perhaps, to listen to Craig Leon’s Anthology of Interplanetary Folk Music Vol. 1, or to lie in a chair and read Anne Kent Rush’s Moon, Moon.
“The first revelations came,” Rush writes, “by allowing myself to make place for the moon in my daily living. These moments have remained the strongest and most palpable knowing. I started with the recognition that because the moon was shining on me at night and pulling on me during the day, it probably had been ‘speaking’ to me for a long time, and i had not been listening. I had to learn its language. I decided to begin my research at night by standing and looking out an open window” (21).
Fiction, with its fabulated particulars, helps us see among these an implicit grammar, communication from a shared unconscious, truths indiscernible elsewhere. Yet here I am reading an intellectual biography, Alison Falby’s Between the Pigeonholes: Gerald Heard, 1889-1971. I respond skeptically to Falby’s characterization of Heard from the late 1940s onward, after the dissolution of Trabuco College — the Heard, in other words, of the psychedelic revolution — as a “counter-cultural conservative.” Ideologically, he was an odd bird, heterodox and hybrid; of that, we can be certain. I guess Falby is right, though. Her argument is as follows. “Heard’s career,” she writes, “reflects the intersection of spiritualized psychology, religion, and conservatism in postwar America. He became a religious counselor to several libertarian businessmen as well as to Clare Booth Luce, the writer, diplomat, and Republican Congresswoman. Although he advocated self-transcendence, he ultimately entrenched individual selfhood with his spiritual prescriptions of yoga, meditation, and LSD. Although he subverted the individual in his theology, he affirmed individualism by putting his spiritual system at the service of libertarianism” (Falby 121). By the early 1960s, she says, Heard was a fan of Barry Goldwater, supporting the latter’s bid for the presidency in the 1964 election. His views had already turned markedly to the right by the late 1940s. A book of his from 1950 advocates reform of criminals through techniques similar to brainwashing. This same book of his (Morals Since 1900) also contains praise for the surveillance work of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. During the same year, Heard also published a bizarro book about UFOs — and this was all several years before he tried psychedelics. By the mid-1950s, Heard joined with libertarians Edmund Opitz (1914-2006) and James C. Ingebretsen (1906-2000) to form an elite spiritual organization called The Wayfarers. Heard convinced several of these right-libertarian patrons and friends of his to try acid during this period. He and Aldous Huxley were both elitists in this regard, thinking it appropriate to share psychedelics only with a select few. Huxley’s elites were often cultural progressives, however, whereas Heard’s were spiritually-minded business executives and captains of industry.
Do words play some role in helping us assemble? Can we with them raise consciousness, as does the hornplay of Ornette Coleman’s “Beauty Is a Rare Thing”? Sit back, I tell myself. Close eyes, listen to the mad scramble of “Kaleidoscope,” and then scramble downstairs, assemble and play drums. Repair what needs repairing, tune what needs tuning.
After performing these tasks, I return to my office and read a weird tale from Gerald Heard’s AE: The Open Persuader, the final part of the book, when AE leads L to a “Fulfiller Dome” in Antarctica, home to reindeer and a Baleen whale. Through AE, Heard gives voice to a radical cultural pessimism, wearied to the point of despair. Another voice intervenes, however, with news of a “psychic ‘thaw out'” made possible by “Polar radiation” (258-259). Under the glare of the latter, “ideological-conditioned fanatic ideologies, defrosted, fall off” (259). The voice warns, though, of a further false step along the ladder of enlightenment, the retreat inward to escape suffering, claiming that “the greatest brains in the world” have fallen prey to this error. As example, the voice points to what it calls “those stupendous body-mind hypertrophies, the Baleens,” the voice regarding these large-brained creatures as “living specimens of the utmost terminal state of false samadhi” (261). By this point I’m out of my element, exhausted by the book’s elaborate eccentricity, as well as the occasional cruelty of its worldview. One way to approach the book would be to read it in light of José Esteban Muñoz’s ideas about “queer futurity.” Ideas from Lee Edelman’s book No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive also seem relevant and applicable.
I perambulate the lush pages of Gerald Heard’s AE: The Open Persuader (1969), a work of gay transhumanist utopian science fiction — surely one of the most peculiar books I’ve yet encountered, published under a pseudonym (“Auctor Ignotus”), read I’m sure by at most only a few hundred people planetwide. In certain ways, the narrative is fairly straightforward. As is common to the genre, a traveler arrives to a previously occulted utopia and, after being sketched in biographically in a bewildering first chapter titled “The Interviewer Interviewed,” receives a tour from a mysterious host. Heard’s prose is so maximally cultured and so mannered, however, that one has a difficult time determining who’s who. The guest character, in his relative innocence a stand-in for the reader, responds to the name “Ulick Stackpole” (or, later in the novel, the name’s abbreviated form, “L”), his initials reflecting his county of origin, while the more experienced “host” character, dialoguing at length on the workings of the utopian creation, answers to several titles: Preter Praetor, the Lord Persuader; Arbiter Elegantiarum; AE. Because utopias are inherently political, consensus reality encircled, relativized, compared and contrasted with another, I find myself wondering at Heard’s aims. What is the nature of this utopia? In trying to imagine the evolution of humanity toward what he calls “total uprightness” (in which one should also hear “erection”), Heard seems to have crafted a secret gay separatist demimonde, home to a race of immortal or at least semi-immortal elites. As AE’s various titles indicate, there’s no great fondness for democracy or self-rule in this utopia. One should thus be wary as one reads, noting questions and concerns. Why is the utopia set in Uruguay, for instance? Why has the book’s author invented elaborate fictions about money manipulation featuring European refugees fleeing to South America during WWII?
An ant explores the surface of a sunlit outdoor table. I sit across from it observing and writing on my in-laws’ back patio. A neighbor waters a garden next door as I read Erik Davis’s review of the “Hippie Modernism” exhibition for Frieze magazine, written two years ago, when the show was up at BAMPFA. This is the show that inspired the course I taught this past spring. There’s an elegance to the review’s list of the show’s achievements. My eyes dwell for a time on an image included in the review, a digital reproduction of a 1965 painting by Isaac Abrams called Hello Dali.
I see echoes of the painting as I look over at flowers in my in-laws’ garden. I let this work motivate me to complete my project. I watch videos, like the radical Italian design group Superstudio’s “Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on the Earth,” a film of theirs from 1972.
Balm applied, the goad to work kicks in. I note down books I need to order, like Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro’s Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art. After a breakfast of homemade waffles and orange juice, I burrow away and watch Davis’s recent talk, “A Brief History of Queer Psychedelia,” where I learn about Gerald Heard’s involvement with the Mattachine Society, one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.
Isocrates was the pseudonym that Heard used for the articles he published in the society’s magazine, the Mattachine Review. He also wrote articles for ONE, another early gay publication, under the pseudonym D.B. Vest. Davis also unveils a weird book of Heard’s written in the late 1960s called AE: The Open Persuader published under the pseudonym Auctor Ignotus (or maybe W Dorr Legg). Tartarus Press published a collection called Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard in the early 2000s. That, too, is a book worth tracking down. By midafternoon, elements have clustered together to cause me to wonder at the overlapping histories of psychedelics and ritual magic. The famous LSD chemist Augustus Owsley Stanley III noted that his early experiences with acid coincided, for instance, with his reading of The Kybalion. Most of the first-generation Western psychedelic crowd took up at points with Eastern tantric currents. Some folks also explored Western pagan and esoteric traditions. This outburst of spiritual yearning and experimentation remains for me in its utter mysteriousness a source of fascination. In my state of unknowing about it, the topic seems rich with narrative potential, like there’s a story there waiting to be told. Like the fate of Pedro Salvadores in the Borges story of that name, it strikes me as a symbol of something I am about to understand, but never quite do.