Timothy Leary, ever the magician, pinches together his thumbs and forefingers to form a symbol of infinity, an eye out of which stream prismatic beams of light. Sarah and I sit on a blanket in a park reading beside a tree. Afterwards, on Erik Davis’s recommendation, I turn on and watch “Tones, Drones, and Arpeggios,” a BBC documentary on the birth of minimalism featuring LaMonte Young and Terry Riley in counterculture California.
[And here’s Episode 2.]
I learn about time-lag accumulation, weird spells, past dragged into the future. Interesting things start happening. A universe of cycles rather than arrows. The revolution of Terry Riley’s “In C.” Communism in action. Couple that with Steve Reich’s “Music as a Gradual Process,” and doors begin to open. (By the way, Erik Davis is the real deal. He’s been walking the freak beat for decades, his senses and inclinations honed by years of practice. I remain awed by his sharp analysis and critical takedown of the 1960s/1970s counterculture’s fetish for “consciousness tools” and “technologies of transformation”  in his book TechGnosis.)
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.
I feel intensely the privilege of my ability to live closely with Sarah, my beloved, as disgraceful American fascists round up and imprison undocumented asylum-seekers, parents and children, brothers and sisters, each one like us, each one a struggling messiah. How might we rouse ourselves from this nightmare? The “psychedelic partnership” of Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg that Peter Conners chronicles in his book White Hand Society rigorously tested a lived utopian politics and practice centered around use of psychedelics as tools to effect transformation of American society into a loving, joyful, peaceful, compassionate, East-meets-West, anarcho-communist paradise. Part of the work of this utopian project, the way it builds itself, is through distribution of LSD, a revolutionary new means for the production of consciousness. In his book High Priest, Leary proposed as a “first ethical rule” for the emerging society: “Do what you want, explore, experiment, probe your own internal and external environment however you want—but don’t force your will on someone else. Don’t fuck up their trip so you can take yours.” This makes “evangelism,” or the spread of the psychedelic gospel, a process that demands great care in the winning of consent from those still held hostage. Those who remain in the Cave. For more on the politics of the psychedelic revolution, check out Octavio Paz’s Alternating Currents.
I enjoy jotting notes to myself on my phone these days, particularly when relaxing beside a pool. Sun, water, people, thought: a perfect combination. “Bertrand Russell on mysticism,” I remind myself, playing to a future self as its stern parent. “C. S. Lewis: did he, too, die on 11/22/63, the same day as Aldous Huxley and JFK?”—a question I type onto my screen and then promptly set aside. (The answer is, quite remarkably, as I learn afterwards, “Yes.”) In his book White Hand Society, Peter Conners claims that Timothy Leary was the person who, two days prior, supplied Laura Archera Huxley with the 200 micrograms of LSD that she administered to Aldous on his deathbed. Registering the sun’s warmth, I redirect awareness toward a swim, the pool’s rippling blue-and-white surface performing a lovely hypnosis. The lower part of me submerged to just below my chin, my thoughts grow fish-like—and then with another stroke, frog-like—consciousness of the entirety of my evolutionary past remaining stored, it seems, in some code-form akin to DNA. “What are the defining characteristics of contemporary existence?” I wonder after contemplating Western modernity’s imperfect approximation of a past garden paradise. This Shanghai noon. In all observable effects, however, the pool beside which I sit is still a healthy, therapeutic spot: Blake’s Sunflower’s “sweet golden clime.” Pool-going diminishes aggression, serves as a pleasureful release from some of the neuroses of the encircling regime. The optimist under present circumstances rejoices by noticing a parallelogram formed by the play of sunlight upon a tiled surface. The machinery of capitalism, I remind myself, threatens to extinguish even this. The White Hand Society gives me hope, though. I glimpse a row of ice cream cones printed on a towel and feel myself assured again of the all-rightness of existence.
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.
I think my talents are being wasted on tasks to which I’m ill-suited. Trigger mechanisms release pent-up energy. I stress constantly about work and finances. “One misstep and game over,” I tell myself. But then I smoke and walk through my neighborhood and find joy amid simple things: birdsong, observation of budding trees, conversations with friends. “Everyone carries a piece of the puzzle,” Leary once said. “Nobody comes into your life by mere coincidence.” People in my neighborhood are out relaxing on their porches, their time late in the afternoon and early in the evening theirs to use as they please, not just as it pleases capital. As bad as it’s gotten, I can still glimpse seeds all around me, particularly on weekends, of futures worth fighting for: utopias robust enough to house gatherings and partings, innumerable adjacent paths of solitude and community.