What happens to those initiated into a world of magic, made to embark upon a path or journey by way of psychedelics? More specifically, what happens when this process begins in absence of teachers and institutional containers — when shamans and rituals, in other words, are not part of the initiate’s lifeworld, the initiate stripped of these on account of having rejected the religion of his ancestors in his youth? The search for a new framework becomes part of the initiate’s quest, does it not? One doesn’t even know at first that the process has begun. Advice arrives, though, as one asks around. One learns from fellow heads. Elders pass along teachings by book, by song, by word of mouth. Writings appear on walls, counseling one to pray and meditate. Days fill with makeshift, self-invented rituals — practices adapted to local conditions in the course of one’s travels. We become weird ones — lonely experimentalists sitting Indian-style in the dark. Are our adaptations legitimate ones, or are they products, as René Guénon warns, “of a merely individual caprice” (Perspectives on Initiation, p. 4)? Guénon would call those about whom I speak “mystics” rather than “initiates.” “In the case of mysticism,” he writes, “one never knows just where one is headed” (8). For Guénon, “the mystical path differs from the initiatic path in all its essential characteristics, which difference is such as to render the two truly incompatible” (9). Given subsequent right-wing uses of Guénon’s philosophy by monsters like Steve Bannon, however, we must take care not to place too much stock in this distinction.
Students in my classes produced presentations on Beats, Hippies, and Millbrook. The third class was more comprehensive in its coverage — though none of the groups mentioned the new religions and religious organizations formed at Millbrook: the Neo-American Church, for instance, and the League for Spiritual Discovery. Practitioners of religion were targeted by government. These were utopian communities of love and peace: open, welcoming communities founded not through settlement but through sacramental use of psychoactive substances. They modeled for the civilization the Alternative, the solution to the economic and environmental crises. They also modeled, however imperfectly, an attempt at alliance with anti-racist, anti-colonial groups like the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement — a point neglected in the histories presented by my students. Is there more I could say to help them vote? Or is the action we must take vaster than that? Let us trust that the texts will lead the way, permitting us to say what needs saying.
Ishmael Reed may have been present at the founding of the East Village Other — indeed, he seems to have been the one who gave the paper its name! — but many of his poems of the 1960s, the ones gathered in Conjure: Selected Poems, 1963-1970, are quite scornful in their assessment of the counterculture. In his “Neo-HooDoo Manifesto,” for instance, Reed calls out Theodore Roszak, noting that in the latter’s famous book The Making of a Counter Culture, “there is barely any mention of the Black influence on this culture even though its members dress like Blacks talk like Blacks walk like Blacks, gesture like Blacks wear Afros and indulge in Black music and dance” (20-21). Speaking of neglected black influences upon the counterculture, why am I only just now learning that the acid trip sequence in Easy Rider was shot at or near Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1? Hopper and Fonda filmed the sequence guerrilla-style, without permission … while tripping on acid. Reed’s collection also includes a poem called “catechism of d neoamerican hoodoo church” — a self-conscious response of sorts, I imagine, to Millbrook resident Art Kleps’s Boo Hoo Bible: The Neo-American Church Catechism and Handbook. Several of Reed’s associates were participants in the psychedelic revolution — including East Village Other co-founder and publisher Walter Bowart. Bowart’s second wife was Peggy Hitchcock, the director of Leary and Alpert’s International Federation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Peggy’s brother Billy is the one who arranged for the Leary crew to live on the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook. Bowart went on to publish an important book on MK-Ultra in 1978 called Operation Mind Control.
Di Prima was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1934. Her maternal grandfather was an active anarchist — a friend and confidant, in fact, of another author I’m teaching this semester, Emma Goldman. Like her fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg, Di Prima grew and evolved over the course of her long career alongside the leading countercultural movements of her time. She protested the Vietnam War; she experimented with free love and lived communally with others; she promoted mind expansion through use of psychedelics. After editing a newsletter called The Floating Bear with Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Di Prima spent much of 1966 with Timothy Leary’s crew of utopian psychonauts and psychedelic spiritualists at Millbrook. Her Poets Press published the first two editions of Leary’s Psychedelic Prayers in Spring 1966.
I circle back as in a refrain toward M.C. Richards, her theme “the act of centering” returning again amid radical declarations, revolutionary self-fashionings, “Movement” speeches, street writings, prison writings, books like Abbie Hoffman’s Woodstock Nation and John Sinclair’s Guitar Army. The personal was fused with the political for these authors. They took psychedelic civil disobedience as locally staged stoned action and amplified it via seizure of airwaves, campuses, streets, courts of law. Kesey and the Pranksters did something similar a few years earlier, though without the militant intent. Theirs was more of a traveling roadshow, coast-to-coast trips across America, La Honda to New York and back. Minds changing themselves on the road, and in so doing, changing the minds of others.
A neighbor broadcasts at a faint volume a punk song while birds sing in the trees. I sit at an old weather-worn picnic table, out of the center of which grows a cute tuft of fungi. Onto a table of another sort, a virtual turntable, I drop Foodman’s Dokutsu EP and rouse myself to help others. It needn’t be a trial. Yet part of me, stimulated by electronic nervous system, wonders, “Where’s the fun? Where’s the joy?” Roger K. Green’s book lands me into new territory: Leary and Alpert’s Castalia Foundation, named after the society that serves as the fictional setting for Hermann Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game. It also appears to be a town here in North Carolina — though too far from me to be of much use. The Hesse novel is one I wish to read so as to better understand the psychedelic utopianism of Castalia and Millbrook. It seems to have had upon Leary and Alpert an impact as great as Huxley’s Island. Reading it must be like opening a door and going through it and then always going back out again. Intentional passivity as a form of action.
Discovery of the AMC series Lodge 49 sends me back to Thomas Pynchon’s slim but not slight second novel The Crying of Lot 49, a book I read many years ago as an undergrad. This time around I’m delighted to be re-acquainted not just with the book’s heroine Oedipa Mass, but also with her shrink Dr. Hilarius, a psychotherapist running an experiment in a community hospital in the book’s version of 1960s Southern California, “on effects of LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, and related drugs on a large sample of suburban housewives” (17). Hilarius calls the experiment the bridge, or “die Brücke,” as in “The bridge inward” (17). At the back of the book, my twenty-year-old self had written a set of clues to the book’s decipherment, composed as if they were a type of verse: four lines, four simple statements: “lot 49 equals tristero. / tristero equals the disinherited. / oedipa awaits the crying of the disinherited. / auctioning off america … who will win?” The morning after receiving a phone call from Hilarius begging her to participate in his experiment, Oedipa experiences an altered state of consciousness, an “odd, religious instant.” Looking down a slope over a vast sprawl of houses, Oedipa discerns a pattern of sorts. “The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle,” Pynchon writes, “sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. […]. there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out). […]. As if, on some other frequency…words were being spoken” (24-25). I begin to wonder: is what follows an acid trip? Did Oedipa unwittingly take one of the pills Hilarius had given to her?
Once one encounters a theory of the Unconscious, once one recognizes oneself as internally divided, how does one integrate this knowledge, how does one reconstitute a sense of Self? The Surrealists arrived at one solution, the Althusserians another. Fredric Jameson absorbs the best of both of those solutions, synthesizing the insights of the whole of the Western Marxist tradition in his theory of the “political unconscious.” Once Marxism undergoes an encounter with psychedelics, however, its understanding of ideology changes, as does its relationship to language, other people, everything. Consciousness regains a degree of semi-autonomy, having pierced the veil, having escaped for a time, returning only to save the others. Capitalist economies as rendered by number-crunchers like Doug Henwood are still just a bunch of reality tunnels — and paltry ones at that. Why disabuse people of their ideologies if all one can offer in place of these is the anger and perpetual dissatisfaction of struggle against what has thus far been an unbeatable foe? I’d rather think about allegory and its relationship to the art of memory. “Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “what ruins are in the realm of things.” Who put the Hermes in hermeneutics? That which is Unconscious, that which escapes knowability: the complex system, the totality. By developing new allegories to represent these, Jameson argues, one can participate again in the production of reality, or the coining of the realm. This thing around us, Jameson says, this vast social construct, “needs to be converted and refunctioned into a new and as yet undreamed of global communism” (Allegory and Ideology, p. 37). Jameson’s approach strikes me as a bit reckless, however. It makes the accelerationist wager, refusing to grant nature any kind of prior or autonomous being, viewing it rather as a thing always-already mixed with human labor and thus fit to be terraformed, transformed — humanized through collective effort.
Reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest again with students, I find us wanting as readers to separate the book’s countercultural critique of the Combine from its racism and its misogyny. On race, as on gender, Kesey maps power-relationality ass-backwards. The novel erupts into an episode of cruel racial violence when black orderlies threaten to hose down the book’s white male patients. When one of the orderlies sprays a germophobic character named George, the book’s redheaded TV-cowboy brawler protagonist Randle Patrick McMurphy lashes out with racial epithets and starts swinging. In reality, of course, it was black children, not white men, who were sprayed with fire hoses on the streets of Birmingham, AL by racist white police officers on May 3, 1963, just one year after the novel’s publication. By teaching the book, the country’s racism lies there exposed: Oregon’s history as a white-only state, with laws forbidding black people from living in its borders upon its entry into the union in the midnineteenth century; the persistence of antiblack sentiment more than a hundred years later even among 1960s counterculturalists like Kesey. These are sobering facts, are they not? Even among those who had found the enlightenment of LSD, these ideas persisted. Granted, in Kesey’s case, enlightenment came courtesy of MK-Ultra. Not the most auspicious set and setting. Yet this, too, is part of the tale’s appeal. Kesey was there, present as a participant in events of world-historical importance, the effects of which are still being felt today.
I stand on my back deck staring at fallen leaves, listening, building a sense of place, attending to sights and sounds generated by neighboring beings: birds, squirrels, planes, trees, automobiles. A small bird lands beside me and sings to me, dancing in rapid increments. It pecks, it eats, it leaps, flitting to and fro. Capitalism encloses us in its habitus, its time-discipline, its states and estates. Yet there in its borders and interstices, in its gutters and margins, fugitive life proceeds apace. Imaginary bagpipes drone betwixt dueling leafblowers. A sound blown in honor of comrades who died 40 years ago today in the Greensboro Massacre. Mysterious books call out to me, rise off shelves and land in my hands, ready to be read. By these means, I happen upon The Knee of Listening by Franklin Jones, aka Da Free John, sensing immediately in his use of language evidence of a fellow head. Jones began graduate study in English at Stanford University in 1961. He must have been part of Ken Kesey’s cohort. At the very least he volunteered as a subject in the same drug experiments as Kesey, MK-Ultra experiments run out of the Veterans Administration hospital in the early 1960s.