Unqualified delight. Process-oriented pleasure. Figures like Willis Harman, Gerald Heard, Al Hubbard, Myron Stolaroff. Places like Trabuco College. Events like the Sequoia Seminars. My thoughts as I sit in a park mid-afternoon condense around these and other found bits of language. Abraham Maslow, I learn, was close friends with fellow Brandeis professor Frank E. Manuel, coauthor with wife Fritzie P. Manuel of the important study, Utopian Thought in the Western World. I quickly realize, however, that beneath these thoughts lies their absent cause: an ever-darkening political reality. Simon Sadler investigates an earlier conjuncture’s encounter with this Scylla and Charybdis in his essay “Mandalas or Raised Fists?: Hippie Holism, Panther Totality, and Another Modernism.” As my metaphor’s competition with Sandler’s title suggests, he prefers revolutionary agonism, a universe that demands sacrifice, a universe spoken into being by the antagonism of an either-or, whereas I prefer the universe that allows the safe passage of an oceanic both-and. I can aim my ire at the clearly-felt capitalist core, the Death Star at the center of our current Primum Mobile, even as I simultaneously slough off this ire and unburden myself of ego-oriented wants and desires, refusing to identify, in other words, with the positioning asked of me, and entering instead into a kind of “flow-state,” the ecstatic waking dream, as consciousness reunites with being.
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.
A proper theory of psychedelic utopianism requires a reassessment of past and present theories of psychology. In particular, it requires a critique of contemporary cognitive-behavioral approaches (not unlike the Frankfurt School’s critique of positivism), and a revalorization of certain elements of the “humanistic psychology” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Jessica Grogan’s Encountering America provides an entry-point into the history of the latter movement. I’m thinking here of figures like R.D. Laing and Abraham Maslow, but also encounter groups, Esalen, and the so-called “human potential movement” more broadly. Finally, this reassessment would also have to engage with humanistic psychology’s successor, the field of “positive psychology.” Among contemporary scholars operating in this field, I’m particularly interested in the work of Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner and the UC system’s Greater Good Science Center. On the other end of the political spectrum, however, we have figures like Martin Seligman and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks. (This latter figure, by the way, also serves on the advisory board of Charles Koch’s Well-Being Initiative.) For more on positive psychology, check out Daniel Horowitz’s book Happier?: The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America.
Were I to lack the opportunity to escape a pseudo-totality, were I hemmed in by a false world-picture, I would nonetheless devote myself to peering beyond it. I would gaze out a small rectangular window near the ceiling of my cell. I would perform under the expectation that my performance could be rewound and fastforwarded at some later date. And everywhere around me, I would imagine signs left for me by a benign deity. I would suddenly find myself super high at a party in a basement among friends. I might worry for a moment about my heartbeat, an anomalous rapid fluttering in my chest. “At what point should I start to feel concerned,” I might wonder as the owner of the basement DJs for the group, lays the mood with some Junior Murvin.
Friends and I agree: “Drink or Treat” ought to be a new local holiday. Street parties. Radical hospitality. This is where one would situate a utopian novel. Here we come wassailing the neighbors; friends perform the role of hallelujah choir. Bring horns, bring dope, bring whatever. In our communist utopia, we’ll build trolleys running us house to house. In summer, we’ll pitch tents. Sometimes we’ll dance in windows. I’ll share with others the story of a time from my past when the Real intervened and posed for me a situation analogous to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I appear to myself as a drunken flâneur, wandering among the wires the city has strung among its towers, dedicated to something dangerous. In the event, I tell the others, the potential for tragedy subdued the Faust in me and caused me to flee. “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” suggests a friend. “Magda Szabo’s The Door,” suggests another. Alas, I am too narrow an instrument to gauge much of reality. But I welcome and appreciate the help of friends. It is one of the ways the world responds, leaves signs, invites study. In this case, it tells me I am but an individual with my own distinct subjective response to particular chemicals. Even if I could wake tomorrow morning to a “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” kind of universe, I would still be too ordinary and too weird in my particulars to represent for others some “new communist subject” of the future. Representatives of that sort need not exist in such a universe.
Days blaze like a road in morning sunlight out in front of me. Car culture limits our ability to merge into larger communist groupings. Yet we’re forced to participate, both because we need to commute to work, and because we need experiences with which to refurnish our supply of concepts. To satisfy this latter need, Sarah and I attend “You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences,” an exhibition currently up at the NC Museum of Art. The show features a number of works of a psychedelic bent, including Yayoi Kusama’s wonderful infinity room, “Light of Life.” Heads peer through portholes into a shadowy antechamber as galaxies of lightbulbs flash in kaleidoscopic profusion across the room’s mirror-box multiverse. Afterwards I attempt to meditate using a mindfulness app on my phone. My “Best Possible Future Self,” to use the name of the thing the app asks me to visualize, is itchy minimal. No, scratch that. Har har, some “uncle” humor. Crash landing. #kneetoface “Come on, Subject — liberate yourself!” coaxes the voice of the revolution. “Come one, come all,” it says. Space Invaders. Critters. Mind at play. During my first pass through the exercise, the antinomian in me imagines the worst. I’m hiding somewhere. It’s chaos. Will they allow me to work (flow, thrive, persist, whatever they call it) if I challenge reason? If, in other words, I question the enterprise of our knowing? How about if I show up to work in a trashcan? My “Best Possible Future Self,” I think to myself as I begin again. What a sad, peculiar exercise! Would live intentionally, in a self-designed home, with nods to Dwell and Nowness and the Whole Earth Catalog. Sarah and I would read, write, cook delicious healthy meals together, raise a brilliant happy child. All of the above, certainly. But what, pray tell, does this Self wish of the world beyond its household? After all, it must wish something, no? Just as it takes a village to raise a child, so too it takes the oikos of an entire planet, a whole integrated system of economy and ecology, to reproduce the oikos of the family. Let us, then, in dreaming our “Best Possible Future Selves,” also imagine our Utopia.
Up next: live textual re-enactment for the blogosphere of the “Dr. Edward Jessup” role from Ken Russell’s psychedelic thriller Altered States. A tongue-in-cheek model of sorts for one of my personae here at Trance-Scripts — minus, of course, the primatological regression, the obligatory serpent in the garden, the film’s return to propriety after its initial prodigality, its surrender to disciplinary mechanisms, its obedience to traditional morality in its final half. Neoliberalism does everything in its power to provoke this turn historically, and to emphasize it in the accounts it allows the culture to tell of what we thenceforth come to think of as the “failed revolutions” of the late 1960s. “Disarm the utopian potentials of psychedelic communism,” read the instructions for this ideology. “Stage elaborate spectacles of punishment and retribution. Contain the figure of the acid freak within narratives that end unhappily.” The wonderful documentary The Cockettes, for instance, bows to the weight of this narrative arc — as does Wild Wild Country.
What are the main differences in terms of form or orientation that distinguish the psychedelic from the weird? Both refer to anomalous modes of experience—but the psychedelic is the more utopian of the two sensibilities, is it not? Let us pursue this as our working hypothesis. Where the weird ruptures the circular selfsameness of consensus reality in a way that generates, as Erik Davis says, “a highly ambivalent blend of wonder and horror,” the psychedelic skews instead toward a more fully joyous cosmology, one that allows for ecstatic realization in the unconcealed immediacy of the here and now of what others might call the utopian, the eudaimonic, and the sacred. Speaking of which: The universe tosses me multiple 23s as Sarah and I drive with a friend of ours to visit an iris farm. So many varieties: Shaman, Catalyst, Closed Circuit, Lime Fizz, Desert Thistle. Petals hang in the sun, fluttering gently in the breeze. Before leaving, I’m drawn to a final flower. “Hidden Message,” reads the placard on the ground beside it. “How appropriate a name,” I think to myself, despite a certain skepticism, a reluctance to trust the world’s signage, not least because of a painful self-consciousness regarding the partiality, the incompleteness, and thus the potential incorrectness, of my conceptual inheritance. “By what means might we seek to inquire? And if hidden, by whom?”