The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
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).
I return home from work exhausted, the energy left from teaching and climate striking enough only to kick back and stare at squirrels. Though by doing so, I’m replenished. I relax, I lay back, contemplating tree-crowns teeming with life. Smoking helps me bring consciousness into accord with Nature, its correspondent other. As Shayla Love notes, psychedelics “recreate the core feeling of relatedness…the sense that nature is a part of us, our bodies, our lives, and that we are a part of it.” Ego dissolves, boundaries between self and other break down. When we emerge on the other side of that threshold, we possess new powers, new ways of seeing, a new sympathetic cosmology.
Honey bees forage around a fence overgrown with ivy, the latter’s blooms providing the bees with sustenance this time of year, the early weeks of autumn. I sit beside them, imagining myself a visitor to their utopia, newly arrived via miniature Montgolfier balloon. A package arrives by mail containing Brian Blomerth’s beautiful new graphic novel Bicycle Day. The bees doing their thing, I enter the book’s retelling of the story of “mystic chemist” Albert Hoffman’s April 19, 1943 discovery of LSD. Intense stuff, particularly upon entering the trip proper, the famous bicycle ride home from Sandoz. In some sense, these scenes reinvent the classic superhero tale: the sudden, terrifying discovery of superpower. Hoffman didn’t know what was happening: the event was without precedent, a burst of pure novelty. He feared he’d lost his mind until his blissful day after, a time of rainbow-colored well-being and renewal. “Everything Glistening in the Soft Fresh Light,” he wrote afterwards of the experience. “The World was as if…Newly Created.”
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.
I think about the practice of “time-sharing” from the early history of computing, when students gathered ’round campus labs, multi-programming and multi-tasking at terminals connected to a shared system. Machines are in our lives, buzzing all around us, as are people, plants, and animals. With them, we communicate, we interact. Perhaps because of all of that buzzing, I find myself reconsidering the value of the Christmas tree as ritual and pagan act of worship. A celebration of life, death, rebirth. Time spent in homes with family. This year will be a special one, a year of loving reinvention and change. New responsibilities, girl drummer. Life’s about to get really groovy. Sweet states of being. New friends, a new relation. A new mood to support learning and growth, bookmarks synced to devices, heads working in harmony. To prepare, I read about the launch of a new Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine. Psychedelics are interesting well beyond the Center’s medical framework. If faculty connected with the Center are not yet collaborating with faculty in the Humanities, they should. Time to help bridge former disciplinary divides. (Judging from how it’s funded, however, the Center at Johns Hopkins isn’t likely to bridge these divides — so the work will have to happen elsewhere.) “Blue skies with pink clouds,” notes a neighbor. She and her brother circumnavigate and watch the sunset, riding their bikes in wobbly circles up and down the street.