“Put a lemon on it” is the first of several words received as I sit eyes closed beside a pool. Words overheard, duly noted, to be reimagined in the evening hours as dream material and as a step in a recipe for pasta with broccoli. There has been a desire of late, some chakra lighting up all that is. I play it records, feed it the exalted public speech of Odetta at Carnegie Hall.
A kind of love is organizing all things, Amens everywhere “all over this land.” That’s what Leary thought, isn’t it? “The history of our research on the psychedelic experience,” he writes, “is the story of how we learned how to pray” (High Priest, p. 171). Let us include among the characters in this story IFIF medical director Madison Presnell. A photograph of Presnell appears in the April 16, 1963 issue of Life magazine. A photographer with the magazine accompanies Cambridge, MA housewife Barbara Dunlap on her first acid trip. Presnell administers the drug. The caption for the final photograph in the series reads, “Dunlap smokes a cigarette while seeing visions in the seeds of a lemon.”
Indigenous ways of knowing; Black Radical thought; Surrealism; Afrofuturism; Zen Buddhism. All have been guides: blueprints for counter-education for those who wish to be healed of imperial imposition. All provide maps of states other than the dominant capitalist-realist one. Hermann Hesse describes one such line of flight in his short novel The Journey to the East, a book first published in German in 1932, unavailable in English until 1956. Timothy Leary’s League for Spiritual Discovery takes after the League in Hesse’s novel. It, too, is but a part of a “procession of believers and disciples” moving “always and incessantly…towards the East, towards the Home of Light” (Hesse 12-13). Two of Leary’s psychedelic utopias, in other words, take their names from books by Hesse: both the League for Spiritual Discovery and its immediate precursor, the Castalia Foundation.
Excerpts from several of Hermann Hesse’s novels and short stories appear as paratext to a chapter on Arthur Koestler in Timothy Leary’s experimental 1968 memoir High Priest. ‘Tis the story of Koestler’s acid trip. Koestler had written a book about the East called The Lotus and the Robot. Koestler claims in disdainful orientalist fashion that the East, especially India and Japan, suffer from a sort of “spiritual malady.” Alongside the acid trip, Leary’s book also includes accounts of Koestler’s two mushroom experiences. Leary invited Koestler to participate as a test subject in the Harvard Psilocybin Project knowing full well of Koestler’s disdain for mysticism. The Hesse paratext supplements all of this, as Hesse had already portrayed Koestler in the manner of a roman-à-clef as a character named Frederick in Hesse’s short story “Within and Without.” Frederick is a stubborn, miserly rationalist, angered by the slightest hints of mysticism and superstition. So, too, with Koestler. He returns from India proud to be a European (as quoted in High Priest, p. 139). This is the same Koestler whose “confession” appeared in the 1949 anticommunist tract The God That Failed. “If these are the good old days,” wonders the author as he ponders this history, “then why am I so lonely? Why this ceaseless longing to grow through contact with others?”
My readings lead as all roads lead: to Castalia, the “elite institution devoted wholly to the mind and the imagination.” Castalia, Castalia, where “scholar-players” play the Glass Bead Game. Castalia, Castalia, the invention at the heart of Hermann Hesse’s final novel Magister Ludi. Hesse published the book in German under the title Das Glasperlenspiel. It appeared in Switzerland in 1943. The aim of the Glass Bead Game, as Hesse imagines it, is “the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum.” Castalia, Castalia, Parnassian spring sacred to the Muses. Castalia, Castalia, remade as foundation by Leary and Alpert prior to their renaming it the League for Spiritual Discovery in 1966. Before Castalia they called themselves the International Federation for Internal Freedom. Castalia was the name they adopted in 1963 as they arrived to the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook, NY. Some group of tricksters relaunched the Foundation in 2020 with repulsive rightwing content antithetical to the earlier foundation’s spirit and intent.
The pool’s not been what I’d hoped. This is one of the ways that Mercury Retrograde has manifested locally of late, prompting in me a sense of frustration and postponement, despite my knowing that we’ve performed our planting ritual, seeds and seedlings are in the ground, things are growing. Similar processes are afoot intellectually as I continue my wanderings. In my readings, I’ve been moving crabwise among many books at once. Robin D.G. Kelley keeps it surreal with his book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Thelonious Monk appears near the book’s finale. Kelley went on to write a book on Monk. Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original. Thumbing through the latter book’s index, I land upon “Monk, Thelonious: drugs taken by,” hoping to encounter word of Monk’s relationship to psychedelics, as he’s known to have done mushrooms with Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary. Monk came to the psychedelic sacrament a seasoned pro. Reports suggest he was unimpressed. Monk had been arrested years prior for marijuana possession. Police rolled up on him after a Sunday night gig in June 1948. He liked to smoke reefer when he played, and other players in his groups relied on drugs and alcohol to keep up. The meeting with Leary occurred in January 1961. Three years later, Monk appeared on the cover of the February 28, 1964 edition of Time magazine. The cover story’s author Barry Farrell wrote, “Every day is a brand-new pharmaceutical event for Monk: alcohol, Dexedrine, sleeping potions, whatever is at hand, charge through his bloodstream in baffling combinations.”
Pranksters run loose across the country, reversing the journey West by heading east, unsettling what was settled. The future advertised at the 1964 New York World’s Fair: that was the destination toward which the Pranksters drove. Yet the Fair was just a ploy. They were also heading to New York for the launch of Kesey’s second novel Sometimes a Great Notion. With their doors of perception “cleansed,” however, the Fair appeared to them as it was: lame. The future as designed by clueless technocrats. And just as the Fair was a bummer, so was Millbrook. So they drove home and, as if in reply to the Fair, launched a series of “blissful counterstrokes”: the Acid Tests and the Trips Festival.
Awaiting the evening’s discussion, I return again to Octavio Paz’s book Alternating Current, a collection of essays written in Spanish and published in Mexico in 1967, with an English translation released by Viking Press in 1973. For Paz, the fragment is “the form that best reflects the ever-changing reality that we live and are” (Foreword). What might we learn from these essays — especially “Paradises,” on Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception? We would be reminded of the myth of the Teotihuacán paradise of Tlaloc. Huxley finds in the mescaline experience, says Paz, a “universal myth” of “an enchanted garden” where “birds, beasts, and plants speak the same language” (90-91). Light and water are special presences in accounts of paradise. The “instant of equilibrium” formed between these presences is what Paz calls “the precious stone,” by which he means not just earth or the ground of being but rather jewels, emeralds, minerals that sparkle and behave like water in the presence of light. Other essays in Alternating Current point us to Henri Michaux, the French surrealist who, like Huxley, published books in the 1950s about his experiences with mescaline.
I’m reading Postcapitalist Desire, the transcripts from Mark Fisher’s final lectures, and thinking again of “Acid Communism.” I await insight into Fisher’s thoughts on psychedelics. Did he work with them? Or did the anti-hippie sentiments that Matt Colquhoun unearthed from early-2000s K-Punk lead to Fisher’s demise?
Revolution occurs psychedelically as minds manifest new forms. History is an evental process shaped by matter, energy, and desire. “Class consciousness,” “subordinate group consciousness”: these are names for agonisms remade into unions through wish and practice.
Re-reading The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley’s classic “trip narrative” about a mescaline experience at his house in Los Angeles, I’m struck by Huxley’s disdain for modernism and his admiration for artists of earlier eras: Goya, Vermeer, William Blake. Huxley is a proponent of the “Perennial Philosophy.” He finds across time a convergence of teachings, a shared wisdom in the visionary or mystical strains of each of the world’s religions. There is for him a “universal and ever-present urge to self-transcendence” and a “need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings” (The Doors of Perception, p. 64). One of the most remarkable aspects of The Doors of Perception, however, is the fact that it’s a book about vision and visionary experience by a man of poor vision. Huxley’s eyesight was damaged; an illness at the age of 16 left him thereafter severely impaired. Huxley claimed to have overcome some of this impairment through an experimental technique known as the Bates Method, about which he wrote a 1942 book called The Art of Seeing. Huxley is thus a modern incarnation of the “blind prophet,” in the tradition of figures like Tiresias, the seer from Antigone and Oedipus Rex.