The Whole Earth Catalog appears like a new thing again when viewed in light of psychedelics. Jim Fadiman peers out at me, as does Chester Anderson. I find myself wanting to hear Bubbha Thomas & The Lightmen’s Energy Control Center, spiritual jazz self-released in 1972, and a new tape of field recordings out on Alien Garage called Two Portraits by Kyle Landstra.
The more I study hippie modernism, the more I sense a path opening, reality acquiring arrows and post-horns as in The Crying of Lot 49. Lines of communication radically reorganize, and with them change the worlds they represent. The whole thing swings into focus as if it always existed that way, even though it’s been remembered and refashioned anew. “Shake the snow globe,” as Robin Carhart-Harris says, and “more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly resettles” (as quoted in Pollan 320).
Calling all Lacanians: assist me in grappling with the implications of the work of Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London — the cat Michael Pollan discusses in How to Change Your Mind. On the one hand, I regard Carhart-Harris as a justifier of hierarchy by way of the language-game “neuroscience”; on the other hand, I hear him reinventing the Freudian repression hypothesis, and with it, a way of theorizing the potential liberatory political effects of LSD. By ruse of reason, he thus lends capitalist-science ammo to the cause of Acid Communism. It’s as simple as telling a story and heads begin to change. A combination of new science and secret history. One can transmit alterations of consciousness via language. Spread by words, truth changes. This is the key linking psychedelic consciousness-raising and revolution. As Carhart-Harris puts it in the Pollan book, “a class of drugs with the power to overturn hierarchies in the mind and sponsor unconventional thinking has the potential to reshape users’ attitudes toward authority of all kinds” (as quoted in Pollan 315). We can use psychedelics to grow new organs and redraw cognitive maps. Heads are in this one sense, at least, what the Whole Earth Catalog people always said they were: tool freaks, evolving an anti-authoritarian brain chemistry into the nature of being. Tinker with the default mode networks of enough language-users and the world that we imagine to be received via the senses will appear transformed.
Consciousness needn’t commit itself to the ontological confines of Western techno-scientific rationality. The artist is one who opens portals onto other realms. Now is the time for another Dionysian awakening — for we live in an historical moment not of reason in chains but of reason unbound — automated, loosed of will — and thus free to enchain its makers. This is my problem with Michael Pollan. He wants to contain the psychedelic revolution. While acknowledging the “ungovernable Dionysian force” of drugs like acid — their effect, in other words, of “dissolving almost everything with which [they] come into contact, beginning with the hierarchies of the mind (the superego, ego, and unconscious) and going on from there to society’s various structures of authority and then to lines of every imaginable kind: between patient and therapist, research and recreation, sickness and health, self and other, subject and object, the spiritual and the material” — Pollan immediately tries to instrumentalize all of this. LSD is for him a tool to be used according to preestablished legal and technocratic protocols within a “sturdy social container” (How to Change Your Mind, pp. 214-215). There need to be rules and rituals, he says, which makes me wonder: must we accede to this alleged need, those of us hoping to build Acid Communism? Or can each one teach one — each head its own authority, its own shaman or guide?
In fleshing out the prehistory of what Mark Fisher was calling “Acid Communism,” one’s research will eventually lead to the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. It was at the Saskatchewan Mental Hospital in Weyburn that psychiatrists Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer established what Michael Pollan refers to as “the world’s most important hub” for the first wave of research into psychedelics (How to Change the World, p. 147). Osmond was lured there from England by the province’s leftist government, which beginning in the mid-1940s, as Pollan notes, “instituted several radical reforms in public policy, including [Canada’s] first system of publicly funded health care” (147).
The world operates unpredictably but for the most part pleasurably when I smoke weed; some wonderful but as-yet-unnameable “sense” or awareness enters the equation, a buzz or vibration, a field of energy operating outside space-time, in some other dimension. I enter a state of rapt, bemused fascination as I wander this new “inner space,” floating free in a sea of untranslatable semiotic matter. Lewis Carroll captured or came nearest to approximating the sensation with his description of Alice’s tumble down the rabbit-hole. In so doing, his text provides an anchor, a constant amid the experience of changing worlds. It’s how we lead ourselves from one world to another. With the comfort as well that time’s passage feels slow and dreamy, until suddenly we land and follow the rabbits of our curiosity. Is fantasy a realm of the head, a mere idealism? Or is it instead (for who is to know otherwise?) a portal to a world as actual as any other? Subjects and objects are units of language. Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) doesn’t appear to have experimented with drugs recreationally; he arrived to altered states by way of linguistics and mathematics. But Disney embraced the psychedelic interpretation of Carroll’s work as part of its marketing strategy for a re-release of Alice in Wonderland in 1974, encouraging viewers of the film’s trailer to “Go Ask Alice.” The cause of Alice’s descent is her falling asleep — daydreaming instead of completing her lesson. Doors, rabbits, magic potions: these are all manifestations of her unconscious desires projected into dream. Drugs and dreams inspire similar lines of thought: they strip the ontological ground out from under us, suspending the normal rules of reality. Instantaneously — just like that — we become convinced emanationists. “Our normal waking consciousness,” as William James wrote following his experiments with nitrous oxide, “rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality which probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded” (The Varieties of Religious Experience). Addendum: The psychedelic interpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was propagated in a number of texts of the counterculture: Grace Slick’s lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Go Ask Alice (1971), Thomas Fensch’s Alice in Acidland (1970), an anti-drug film of that name from 1969, and another called Curious Alice (1971). Mike Jay’s book Emperors of Dreams (2011) took up the question of Carroll’s relationship to drug experiences, suggesting that Carroll borrowed the psychedelic motif from Mordecai Cooke’s The Seven Sisters of Sleep (1860), a book describing use of fly agaric mushrooms among Siberian Shamans.
Around 2:30 in the afternoon, I place a tab beneath my tongue, breathe deeply, and prepare for my adventure. Initial stirrings include a flutter in my stomach, warmth behind my ears. Intimations of an as-yet-unnameable source of wonder. I putter around a bit before finding my way outdoors. Autumn leaves flutter in the air as neighborhood dogs yip and woof. Squirrels gather in the trees. “My dear friend,” I whisper invitingly as one hustles toward me. It coos lovingly back and forth with a partner. Moment by moment, the beauty of this world is staggering. With each breath I take, I feel a tremendous ball of laughter welling up inside me. ‘Tis a divine joy, this flickering of sunlight on my eyelids. Slight giddiness, one’s entire nervous system aglow with energy. Amen Dunes soundtracks a restful, languorous moment with their “Ethio Song.”
Above me, flickering, fanning sensations, mushrooms welling up beneath me, offering themselves oh-so-tenderly and ceremoniously as a bed on which to rest. Sarah and I dance and touch tips, tendrils entwined. Much of the experience, in its directness and immediacy, is too glorious to squander, too lavish for words. Humming, giggling, the body does its thing, tests its sensory manifold, expands, grows outward, despite hardship and adversity — this thing is bigger, quivering, bursting, love everywhere triumphant. Let us know ourselves as this life impulse, this spirit of generativity and generosity. Time for all things — for all things there is a season. Sun and moon shed light on all, each yeasty striving, each humble beginning, budding gods and goddesses. Each and every one a universal plentiful complete cosmic plenipotentiary, spreading the good word of being. Climbing up or down from that perch, wherever one may be, allow oneself time to pause, look, take comfort. Recognize in each moment the crown and dignity of being. As we situate, as we gather and take stock, let us body forth this love toward one and all.
Three men enter a bar and hunch together around a table at the start of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Upon finishing their drinks, the three men — writer, scientist, and ex-convict — climb into a convertible and drive around through shadows and puddles, dodging cops, following cargo trains through gated crosswalks. Heads remain constant in the foreground against a changing background as the men journey into the Zone, a realm that “wants to be respected.” Humans who disrespect the Zone and trespass against it are punished. Perhaps this relates to a dream I had last night. Having traveled to the past, I tried to prove this fact to my companions, pointing to not-yet-existing years of copyright printed on objects: a notebook I happened to be carrying on my person, the tag on the tongue of my sneaker. These demonstrations were met with confusion and disbelief. Weirded out by my claims, my companions took a vote and agreed to abandon me. As they boarded a taxi, I suddenly remembered that I’d left my bags of luggage in their hotel room. One of them agreed to accompany me up a slow elevator — a vertical, Halloween-themed passage through a shadowy interior universe. I disembarked on the seventh floor, only to have someone rush up and pluck the key from my fingers — at which point the dream ended. Perhaps my actions were a form of disrespect. The reductive universe posited by Western rationality is the nihilistic universe, the lobotomized universe — the universe without meaning. Let us ascend from that place. By integration with plant-spirits and plant-consciousness, we chemically engineer ourselves into new kinds of mythic beings. Michael Davidson’s novel The Karma Machine offers one such myth. A community of immortal heads assembles a device called the Sophia, a generator of wisdom and truth, from which they then request a meta-narrative: the grand narrative to end all grand narratives. What they receive instead is a restatement of the Parable of the Tares.