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.
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.
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.
My seeking returns me to the Stanford Research Institute, and to Willis W. Harman in particular. I first heard of Harman about eight years ago, while I was researching writers connected with SRI whose paths intersected with the Whole Earth Catalog and its various 1970s offshoots. Harman, it turns out, was a close associate of CIA operative Al Hubbard. Some have called Hubbard “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” Because of his connection to Hubbard, Harman proved instrumental in launching and directing SRI’s “Alternative Futures Project,” the main goal of which was to “turn on” business and thought leaders by introducing them to LSD. Harman also led “The Expanding Vision,” the first seminar at Esalen Institute. Later on, he founded an equally strange, equally “New Age”-oriented organization called the Institute of Noetic Science. Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain mention him several times in Acid Dreams, their social history of LSD and the counterculture. For more on figures like Harman and their links to LSD and the Human Potential movement, check out James Dennis LoRusso’s Spirituality, Corporate Culture, and American Business: The Neoliberal Ethic and the Spirit of Global Capital. Take a look as well at Marion Goodman’s book, The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege.
I admire the lyrical persona who sings raw and afloat amidst lonely journeys westward. That was a story some imagined community used to tell itself. The nation imagines itself through its heroes. When these heroes hail us, we become sutured, stitched up in selves until, with desire for change, the cycle begins anew. What would it take to make the imagination over again into a genuine threat to capitalist reproduction? Isn’t that what we’re getting at: selves who, like Melville’s Bartleby, would prefer not to? I’m so far gone, thinking up here. Reality refracting into inward-regressing, multi-dimensional nested sinkholes. It gets messy. A small giggling reverbed spazz-voice floating in the void of a recording studio soundboard. New aesthetics rupture into the realm of the known all the time: just look at Netflix Original Neo Yokio. Bored prep school anime existentialist tells his robot bodyguard / handler, “I’m simply too blue for lunch.” The future is an interminable pool of wackness, he says, thus provoking the wrath of bank fees and debt collectors. Poor Bartleby. No more than a ghostly riddle, an exception-state — a martyr whose death would surely have gone unmourned, were it not for the intervention of Melville’s narrator. Invisible forces tug at the edges of a branded, logo-covered object-world. May a great wind sweep down and lay waste to the Empire and its effects. Following up on a recent recommendation from a friend, I spent my commute yesterday to and from work listening to a special episode of The Discourse Collective podcast titled “Psychedelic Politics.”
As much as it pleases me to witness LSD’s rising fortunes again among certain folks on the Left, hippie-phobic, 60s-bashing podcasts like this one illustrate the persistence in our time of some profound misunderstandings about the past. On the whole, a disheartening experience. But also a reminder: it’s time to correct some of these misunderstandings. If I don’t write “Notes Toward a Theory of Psychedelic Utopianism,” who will?
In today’s episode, language blows about the room, the latter’s surfaces pulsing, oscillations occurring in rapid unit time intervals. Nothing works anymore; media bubbles have us quarantined. The ungraspable totality leaves us lost by the river, our hours stolen away from us, leaving us little time to think. Consciousness drops anchor, sinks part of itself down into objects. I’m also trying desperately not to get sucked back into another asceticism. Object-worlds: can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. (Thanks, folks, I’ll be here all night.) Friends throw shade, say “Take a look at yourself.” None of this happens: I’m just making it up in my head. Isn’t that sometimes a fantasy of ours? The DIY primitivist aesthetic. By Season Four, the characters on Halt and Catch Fire have become the early 90s Silicon Valley types hallucinated into being via Wired magazine. One of these days, I’ll get around to writing something about videogames and their relationship to the psychedelic aesthetic. Osamu Sato’s LSD: Dream Emulator will certainly figure prominently, as will Fernando Ramallo’s Panoramical.