Soma Toughts (in progress)
March 31, 2011 § Leave a comment
Draft of the Introduction to Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics in Literature and Music
This restless Soma – you try to grab him but he breaks away and overpowers everything. He is a sage and a seer inspired by poetry.
King Soma, do not enrage us; do not terrify us; do not wound our heart with dazzling light.
(Rig Veda 8.79)
In this introduction I will discuss soma – a Vedic deity and entheogenic plant – and the scholarly concerns surrounding its study, as a way to frame a discussion about psychedelic aesthetics insofar as those aesthetics exhibit notions of citizenship often via the significance of drug usage. Beginning with word meanings, I will be creating a conceptual model which allows me to shift registers of meaning with fluidity. In doing so, I hope to transcend mere wordplay and produce conceptual overlap simultaneously by invoking a polysemous term to create a texture to think through, allowing topics which typically evade discussion by seeming vacuous or peripheral be more central.
What is organized historically and etymologically is not meant to provide a thorough history of the subject. It is rather to display a web of meanings and associations that will help clarify my approach to psychedelic aesthetics in the twentieth century. Polysemy is part of the nature of mythological criticism. Myths operate in a trans-historical literary space; hence, the historical usefulness of structural approaches to mythology. My method should not be confused with structural or poststructural criticism, though it will have elements of both structural and post-structural terms. The historical necessity for adding “post” is itself part of the historical period I am terming “psychedelic,” and I use this term – convoluted as it may seem at first – partly in order to avoid a jargon-filled discourse which currently alienates both academic and non-academic audiences from the issues I want to discuss.
In the following I will create a web based on trans-historical concepts of soma and sacrifice in order to ground my discussion of psychedelic aesthetics. As the argument gets more complex and historically laden, I will move to talk about how the themes relating to soma occur in twentieth-century criticism generally and psychedelic aesthetics specifically eventually, coming to an understanding of the term “psychedelic” itself.
Soma, in The Rig Veda, has multiple meanings. In “On the Significance of Soma,” Sanskrit scholar Biswanath Mukhopadhyay historicizes the development of the term as follows: “soma first meant the inebriating juice of plants, secondly, the plants bearing soma, thirdly, the elixir of life and delight and lastly the god” (6). It is unclear what Mukhopadhyay’s rationale is for this specific temporal placement, other than the fact that he generally moves toward the more abstract concept. He does mention that it is derived from the Proto Indo European root, su, meaning “to press” (7). Soma is also related to music, along with the deities Agni and Savitr, and it is particularly associated with the Anustubh meter in the creation of the sacrifice (Rig Veda 10.130). In a related article, “The Song Celestial,” Mukhopadhyay discusses the distinction between divine and mortal soma, saying, “it is through the power and inspiration of this drink alone that the victorious god Indra accepted the task of killing the fearful demon, Vritra” (28). Soma is also associated with Srikrsna’s celestial singing and the Samaveda, which along with the Rig Veda date as far back as 1700 B.C.E. Soma persists through later Indian literature; Srikrsna tells Arjunn “that Krsna is Arjuna himself” (Mukhopadhyay 29).
In order to attempt understanding the ancient meaning of soma, it must also be linked to the part it plays as oblation in the sacrifice, and that part is to be a unifying aspect of the mortal and the divine. Jarrod L. Whitaker notes that Thomas Oberlies “argues that access to the divine draft soma signifies political power and legitimizes rule” (417). Whitaker disagrees with Oberlies’ assertion that “the terms ‘presser’ (susvi) and ‘non-presser’ (asusvi) represent a separation of Vedic society into two halves; one that participates in the soma cult and one excluded from it.” Nevertheless, access to soma was still meant for those who were privileged and those who were “non-pressers” were looked down upon for not participating in the cult (425). While it is unclear to what extent soma pressing determined Aryan citizenship, it is certainly a term that distinguished an identity group, even if that was only a group of priests. If Mukhopadhyay is right in relating soma to the relationship between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita (a much later text than the Vedas), then it appears that the conception of divine inspiration and merge transcend the sacrificial ritual and eventually relate to dharma, or upholding the natural order of things. If ingested, soma would then inspire one to act rightly. In acting rightly, one performs a kind of citizenship in the cult. To press and drink soma was part of a ritual sacrifice which traveled from India to ancient Greece, where the word’s meaning changed to represent “body.”
It is necessary to point out, however, before moving into soma’s Greek meaning that in the past sixty years there has been much debate concerning the identification of the soma plant. Mushrooms, water-lilies, tall grass, and even the mandrake have all been contenders. These recent debates occur within larger discussions concerning entheogens in general, and because of that, they play a large part the psychedelic movement. Awkward as it may seem at first, the ancient concept of soma which I have described above takes on special importance during the psychedelic era – especially insofar as the concept relates to citizenship and controlled substances. Therefore, one must read the scholarly political agendas at work in many of the sources I cite as transcending a “disinterested” representation of ancient history. To be involved in the study of entheogens is itself a civic gesture.
Of course, intentionality will often filter and skew subject-matter, and people often have agendas. The experimenter’s gaze is always part of the experiment. There is nothing wrong with that; but there is something in the intensity to “find” soma which drives scholars to recast Western history in terms of esoteric knowledge. On the one hand, this has allowed an opening in scholarship to more creative ways of thinking about alchemy, magic, and non-institutional or unofficial religious experience through the ages. On the other hand, it continues a reductionist gaze that has maintained a fixed notion of knowledge as hidden truth – that all we need is the missing link. This approach performs a longing similar to Mr. Casaubon, the aged professor in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, who believes he is on the verge of finding “the key to all mythologies.” That is certainly not my intention here. Rather, I am interested in how these recastings of ancient history display a concern with citizenship particular to Western nations in the mid to late twentieth century. For example, most scholars and theorists in recent years have tended to move away from structuralist approaches to world religions because those scholars have become aware of the problems of inherent ethnocentrism in methods that gloss over difference in favor of universals. Causubon’s lock and key metaphor is a frame that does not hold for contemporary scholarship, yet most of the research surrounding entheogens has continued with a universalist agenda that is currently unpopular in the academy. The problem is not that there are not valid aims in looking at similarities between religious experience and aesthetic perception; it is that the official nature of institutional knowledge often becomes unethical in practice, when it comes to both religious experience and citizenship. Enacting discernment concerning difference becomes a political act. In difference there is recognition, and therefore less of a tendency to speak arrogantly for the voices of the invisible. Yet the very employing of a gaze, the gathering of a perspective or theoria itself commits an act of violence in which the speaker’s presence silences others. There arises a civic responsibility for the speaking. Like the privilege of taking the soma described above, citizenship implies an act of substitution.
In the late sixties, the mantra “the personal is political” – often attributed to Carol Hanisch’s essay of the same title – evidenced a particular concern with citizenship. Similarly, reading the concern with entheogens and mystical experience in the twentieth century reveals ultimately religious and spiritual concerns that play out in seemingly secular notions of citizenship. As we shall see, the discourse of Religious Studies evidences that very fact. The word soma in its Aryan sense does not appear in the English language until nineteenth-century scholars began to study Vedic texts. Up until then, soma in the West would imply the material aspects of the body. The history of the study of soma already operates within a western discourse with European and American centered ideologies.
Much of the use of soma in its modern sense derives from Aldous Huxley’s use of it in his 1931 utopia, Brave New World, which I will return to in the second half of this chapter as well as in Chapter 1. Many of the scholars I cite below owe much to Huxley’s work, and in many ways Huxley frames the late twentieth-century of entheogens. This does not, however, discredit the scholars, and Huxley himself was extremely well-educated. I point out the framing because this book is a work about psychedelic aesthetics in the 1960s which develop from a Western enquiry into entheogens and mysticism rooted in the nineteenth century and a European longing to narrate the history of the human race. With that, I turn to the soma of the Greeks.
The meaning of soma, as it moved from Aryan culture into Greek culture, can be roughly traced both through mythology, etymology, and philosophy. In The Apples of Apollo: Pagan Mysteries of the Eucharist, Carl A. P. Ruck, Blaise Daniel Staples and Clark Heinrich discuss soma by focusing on entheogens, particularly the hallucinogenic mushroom, amanita muscarita, which they trace from its usage in the Rig Veda through the Indo Aryan and Indo European nomadic cultures which transported both entheogens and ideas about sacrifice to ancient Greece. Ruck et al. discuss the myth of Perseus, the “mushroom picker.” They read what other scholars have read as a tiny detail – Perseus’ picking of a mushroom on the site of the city of Mycenae – as “the culmination of his career” for plucking the mushroom and decapitating Medusa appear to be “one and the same” through analysis of artistic depictions on a Greek vase from the fourth century BC. Moreover, they note that in the Garden of the Hesperid sisters, Medusa’s head “is equated to the Golden Apples of the tree – and with a pair of mushrooms” (43).
Ruck et al. base much of their research on the ethnobotanical work of R. Gordon Wasson, a banker turned ethnomycologist whose article, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in a 1957 issue of Life Magazine, brought the subject to a wide public. Wasson and his Russian wife, Valentina Pavlovna Guercken, were obsessed with different cultural attitudes to mushrooms between Russians and Anglos, developing theses concerning how cultural attitudes toward vegetation parallel other developments in civilization, especially religious practice. In the article Wasson recounts a trip to the Catskills with his wife in 1929:
In ecstasy she called each kind of by an endearing Russian name. She caressed the toadstools, savored their earthy perfume. Like all good Anglo-Saxons, I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt that the less I knew about those putrid, treacherous excrescences the better. For her they were things of grace, infinitely inviting to the perceptive mind. She insisted on gathering them, laughing at my protests, mocking my horror.
Wasson’s research led him from Mexico to India and Southeast Asia during the 1960s, after he heard about soma myths. He believed he could prove the soma plant was a mushroom. In 1969 he published, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. However, Wasson’s work did not go unchallenged. In “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma,” a 1972 article by Huston Smith, Smith defends the validity of Gordon Wasson’s claim to have identified the soma plant as an hallucinogenic mushroom against those who deemed Wasson an amateur, citing the approval of a variety of famous scholars, including Claude Levi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson, who was a close friend of Wasson and Pavlovna. Wasson’s 1986 collaboration with Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott and A. P. Ruck, Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion, mentions that entheogens “are extraordinarily rare in the Eurasian botanical world, and Amanita muscaria was the entheogen of the ancient world. The citations of Soma in the Rig Veda are all consistent with this reading” (33). Wasson sees challenges to his theory as evidence of a Eurocentric aversion to mushrooms. He is so sure of his work by 1986 that he claims, “We are well beyond the stage of hypotheses” (16). It is unclear if Wasson is referring to Amanita muscaria or if he is referring to the thesis he and his wife first developed about cultural attitudes toward plant life. In any case, a large body of literature now surrounds Wasson and his intellectual peers like Carl A. P. Ruck, Huston Smith, Jonathan Ott, and Albert Hoffman – the discoverer of LSD 25. This group of intellectuals, beginning in the late fifties and continuing today have made a large impact both on Religious Studies and broader culture as well.
That Huston Smith chose to reprint the article in his self-selected anthology of his work, Cleansing the Doors of Perception, in 2000, attests the author’s continuing acceptance of Wasson’s claim, despite numerous other hypotheses about the nature of the original soma plant. It is now generally understood that soma was not a single plant, and as far back as 1978, Mukhopadhyay has asserted this (“On the Significance” 7). Soma, then, in ethnobotanic and religious discourse since the late fifties has broadened in meaning as it has joined a larger discussion about entheogens in general and their relationship to human civilization, and this broadened meaning has itself affected ancient scholarship. This is evidenced by Huston Smith, who in the same article discussed above, credits Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) with “introducing entheogens to the contemporary west” (63). It is strange that Smith, a famous professor of Religious History, would so quickly gloss over William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience – a text that is recurring even in Huxley’s own writings, in which the subject is addressed. Therefore, Smith’s statement should be read as referring to the popular nature of Huxley’s audience and to the perception that the discourse changed in the 1950s. That change is the nascent psychedelic movement. And it is not surprising, therefore, that Huxley’s work also finds resonance in Ruck’s The Apples of Apollo.
Huxley’s Heaven and Hell (1956) characterizes the experience of entheogenic drugs and visionary experience as both producing mystic ecstasy and horror. This too can be found in the account Ruck et al. give to soma in The Apples of Apollo, and this soma is the more conceptual one, developed by scholars since the late fifties. So, along with Perseus, Ruck et al. claim
Prometheus stole soma in the form of spiritual fire (23). They also cite Euripides’ Ion, which tells the story of Creusa, the Queen of Athens, who receives two drops of Medusa’s blood, one which “was intended as the consecrating anointment for the city’s dynastic sovereign. The other sprang from the Gorgon’s serpents and was a lethal poison” (43). Ruck et al. build their definition of soma from the following epithets they attribute to it: “golden apples, an eye, a multiplicity of eyes, golden water, honey, lightning bolts, golden urine, golden semen, golden rain, golden snow, estrual cows, bellowing bulls, golden hides, pelts, phallus, vulva, wings, etc” (41). But they also suggest that tracing soma occurs etymologically, and not just as a collection of epithets: “‘It rains’ in Greek is the impersonal verb huei, and if there is a subject, it is Zeus; but the verb is cognate with Sanskrit sunoti, which means “to press out the juice.” The Vedic entheogen Soma is named as ‘the pressed one’” (69). According to Ruck, this concept carries all the way into Christianity with the story of Gethsemane. Gethsemane, in Aramaic, means oil press. Thus,
The agony of Gethsemane took place at the Oil-Press, perhaps an element of the mythologizing: for Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, anointed, as it would now appear, with the same amber feverish pharmakon that Apollonius discovered amongst the Brachmanes. This act of pressing is significant, since not only does it yield the oil of chrismation, but also the juice of the grape, the wine that will be transubstantiated into the blood of Jesus. The Soma of the Brahmans was named with the epithet the “Pressed One,” pressed in sacrifice from dried mushrooms soaked in water, to produce the drink of blood. In the Hellenistic age of religious syncretism, it would have been inevitable that Soma be confused with the Greek word for “body,” soma (although its cognates are probably to be found in Greek sus, and English “swine,” the boar being a common metaphor of fly-agaric). The communion experience of the Eucharist was real and profound. (211)
Ruck et al. suggest a confusion of meaning between the Greek soma as body and the juice / deity in Sanskrit. Rather than confusion, it seems to me that the term went through linguistic narrowing between Homer and Christ, and that this narrowing parallels the burgeoning philosophical discussion of the western state and the citizen’s relationship to governing bodies. While the narrowed term of soma as “body” may have had a more fixed meaning linguistically, it also had philosophical counterparts in Greek culture that maintained some of it the contextual aspects of its original meaning, those relating to sacrifice.
Sacrificial ceremonies differ according to culture, and contemporary scholarship surrounding soma has often glossed over those differences. One brief way to conceive of this is to consider ancient Mesopotamian sacrifice in relation to Semitic and Greek notions. Tzvi Abusch has argued both that sacrifice “may serve to maintain a group that is drawn together by, or whose identity is based on, some common characteristic” (46), and that a comparison between Semitic sacrifice and Mesopotamian sacrifice reveals an important difference. For Mesopotamians, according to Tzvi, sacrifices had to do with the temple, which was a storehouse of food. Food was offered to gods as a part of a relationship where the gods created humans to serve and feed them. After the prepared food was offered to the gods, it was distributed to the members of the cult. The Semites, on the other hand, organized their sacrifices around kinship and blood ties.
For the Semites, then, it was the family, the tribe, and the wider tribal territory that defined identity and power. This remained true even of the Semites of northern Babylonia and northeastern Syria. For while they absorbed the culture of the urban Mesopotamians of the south, they did not give up their own identities; rather, they transformed the culture that they had assimilated, introducing new images into it that were consonant with their own background and social situation – images such as the blood that they introduced into the Mesopotamian mythological tradition of the creation of man. (45)
As part of the cultural assimilation, the Semites introduced blood and liquid aspects of sacrifice, which related to kinship relations and the transference of governance by family lineage. This ultimately replaced the Mesopotamian, female-centered fertility social structure. Tzvi discusses the Mesopotamian creation myths where human bodies were formed out of clay and covered in flesh and blood of a sacrificed god. The god’s flesh gives life to the clay. As Tzvi argues,
The addition of flesh and blood reflects a new point of view. While the flesh is the source of the human ghost, the blood, […] is the origin of the ability to plan, that is, of human intelligence, and is, ultimately, the source and etiology of the personal god or, rather, the family god who is passed down from generation to generation by a male progenitor. The personal god is not simply the god of an isolated individual; rather, he is the god of the individual as a social being. (45)
The liquid aspects of the blood sacrifice are reminiscent of Vedic soma, and it would be worthwhile to track down the historical diaspora of Aryan and Semitic cultures to see cross-cultural contact. However, that would be its own book-length study. What we can glean from what I have presented here is the possibility that the blood and liquid aspects, which Tzvi claims are the roots of intelligence, merge with the liquid aspects of the Aryan soma, and that the liquid and material aspects begin to divurge in Western culture, eventually becoming the distinction between soma and psyche. One can see this with respect to the Yom Kippur festival and the idea of the scapegoat and the sacrificial goat. One goat was offered to the god while the other bore the sins of the people and was taken out of town by a “prepared man” and thrown off a cliff (Stokl 209). Daniel Johannes Stokl argues that “with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the Temple ritual lost its natural geography. The centre of Jewish worship shifted from the destroyed temple to the synagogues, and its ritual was transformed into a bloodless service of liturgical memory” (210). So, while Tzvi sees a connection between the personal god and blood sacrifice, Stokl sees a decentralization of the sacrifice in Jewish and early Christian cultures. While I cannot, at this point, trace a direct lineage of the western meaning for soma back to Aryan ritual, knowledge of how Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural mixtures helps to understand that a separation was occurring between body and soul, but that separation, as Tzvi suggests, is in relation to a personalized deity which maintains a unified identity structure for particular groups of people. In order to continue the discussion about soma, it is then necessary to touch on one of soma’s Greek counterparts: psyche.
Religious scholars and classicists are not the only scholars to have been interested in soma. Historians of western medicine and philosophy have studied it as well. According to John P. Wright and Paul Potter, the editors of Psyche and Soma: Physicians and Metaphysicians on the mind-body problem from Antiquity to Enlightenment, in the western tradition the concept of soma can be traced historically in the following way.
The soma, which is contrasted is with psyche, is seen variously as the shell of a real person, a kind of counter-self with desires and goals of its own, the sensible and affective part of ourselves, the unactualized potentiality of a living being, the ‘nature’ of the organism which carries out the operations of life the community of Christian believers, a mechanical automaton, a mechanism which is in a state of constant corruption. (7)
While Ruck et al. have connected soma to Gethsemane and the Eucharist, Wright and Potter trace it to Christian conceptions of corrupted flesh. This is an inversion of the Mesopotamian idea that it was the fleshy parts of the sacrificed god which gave clay men life. So as the word “soma” changed meaning from Sanskrit to Greek, entering a western discourse based on tensions between mind and body, its meaning narrowed to signify something seemingly more materialistic. In Greek discourse, tension arises between soma (body) and psyche (breath, life, soul). As a result, psyche takes on some abstract, liquid, and vaporous qualities of soma (which, as we shall see, are especially important insofar as western aesthetics are concerned). One cannot understand the concept of soma in the west without understanding the meaning of psyche. Wright and Potter claim that psyche, like soma, means a variety of things.
the life principle of the body, the principle of sensation and purposeful movement, the morally significant part of the human being, the principle of a being which has self-movement, the intellectual part of the self, the ‘form’ of a natural body possessing the potentiality of life, the inner person who can reflect on himself, an intellectual being constantly required for the maintenance of the body, a force that represents the teleological and integrative processes of the living organism. (7)
Yet Beate Gundert discusses how the usage of the word psyche changes throughout the Hippocratic corpus, saying among other meanings “it refers to the male and female seed as the vehicle of life” (33). So, it does retain material qualities. Gundert asserts that
for the Hippocratic physician mind and body are two distinct, yet related aspects of human nature. According to Regimen, both soma and psyche consist of the same substances. The characteristics of both are shaped in a similar fashion by external influences and inheritance […] the division is not absolute: symptoms change from mental to somatic, and vice versa, as a disease moves from one part of the body to another. (31-32)
This concept had, according to Gundert, changed since Homer, and here again the division between body and soul gets thematized.
For Homer, psyche is the life principle that leaves the body [soma] after death and persists as image in Hades […] Between Homer and Plato […] psyche, while originally meaning ‘life’ – albeit now the living person – comes through a fusion with the many specific expressions for perception, thought, and the emotions to denote in addition the mental correlate to soma: the pair psyche and soma stands for the living person in his totality. (13-14)
Even as far back as Homer, then, soma designates body or corpse for the Greeks, losing its liquid qualities and becoming static and taking on the physical aspects of sacrifice, for it is a body that is sacrificed, and we can see this easily with the pharmakon and human sacrifice, even the sacrifice of Iphigenia – who was the real one to launch a thousand ships. Soma in western culture thereafter takes on more nominative and / or accusatively-fixed linguistic meaning. In contrast, the development of the concept of psyche, while never completely separate from soma, often relates to the capacity for feeling, for sense, and perception.
Soma as characterized by Wright and Potter as “unactualized potential” needs psyche to activate itself. In this capacity, then, are the notions of mind, intellect, and thought (nous, dianoia, gnome) (33). While the totality of the human body is an aggregate of soma and psyche, aisthesis (sense, perception) “provides a paradigmatic case-study in relations between soul [psyche] and body: sentience becomes possible only through the interaction of the mutually dependent body and soul, yet it is necessary to both” (von Staden 86). This is especially important for ancient Greek thinkers’ notions of aesthetics, and it has important implications in the twentieth century philosophy and psychedelic aesthetics.
The beautiful was for ancient Greeks, in a very real sense, attunement of body to soul. It is not until after Christ, when Galen discovered nerves, that sense began to be more associated with body than psyche, and major Greek philosophers’ – Plato and Aristotle’s – conceptions of the soul driving the body, while still influential, began to change (von Staden 116), eventually becoming much more codified in the modern era after Descartes, when the body became viewed much more mechanistically (Wright and Potter 9). The European Enlightenment can, especially when we consider the concept of soma, indeed be characterized as codifying rather strict relationships between subjects and objects, a result of emerging liberal societies as well. The secularization that occurred in the Renaissance is in some ways a recapitulation of the separation in the ancient world between polytheism and monotheism. As Tzvi argued, the blood sacrifice was derivative of Semitic kinship relations and transference of power through patriarchal lineage. This form of governance continued through Europe’s conceptions of royalty, corporation, and the body politic. Yet even in medical discourse, Francois Aznouvi has argued that the enlightenment distinction between body and soul became a distinction between the moral and the physical. This was then refined in the nineteenth century,
when, as a result of the Cartesian revolution, soul became synonymous with thought and body with movement, the need arose to develop a new term to designate the opposite of material reality, to designate the realm to which we refer to today with the word psychique – in English, ‘psychological’ – a new term as indispensable as it is vague. Moral, then, would be the ancestor of psychique, referring to something non-material, which is nevertheless not pure thought. (270)
The excess aspects of soma, particularly those related to ritual and sacrifice, public and state, thus became an abstract “morality” with the rise of the modern, liberal subject. Morality became synonymous with a version of society with which the liberal subject was always in tension. God’s laws were replaced with civic apparatuses and social contract philosophy. The development of the social sciences, particularly the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, evidence this shift, as does Nietzsche’s genealogical approach to enquiry, which valorized ancient views of the good over and against modern views.
Carl Raschke argues in Fire and Roses: Postmodernity and the Thought of the Body that “It is not historically coincidental that the advent of the discipline known as religious studies in the 1960s coincided both with the Nietzschean “murder of God” and the liberation of body throughout Western culture” (120). Characterizing modernism as a kind of faith, Raschke argues that its founding myth is a myth of “the transformative.” Raschke is part of a younger generation of scholars who criticize – while not discarding – structuralist approaches to mythology and religion. Rascke sees Nietzsche’s “death of God” as a sacrifice itself. Discussing regicide and the Greek idea of the Pharmakon (scapegoat and sacrificial victim) Raschke returns to Vedic ideas of sacrifice. Building from the work of James Frazier, Rene Girard, and Bruce Lincoln, Raschke notes
The priest slays the king to let lose the transformative energies that he possesses. To put the matter in nonmythological language, we can say that “humanity” as priest sacrifices a vital aspect of itself (i.e. the “king”) to attain a higher state of existence, to be reunited with the three quarters that are “immortal in heaven.” (130)
Thus, Raschke sees modernism’s myth of transfiguration as culminating in personal transcendence through an attack structuralism’s centrality. Poststructuralism and the work of Jacques Derrida thus become especially important for religious studies as they focus on the deconstruction of the state and the body politic. Both Raschke and poststructuralist thinkers like Derrida and Michel Foucault then evidence an examination of the entrails of the sacrificed body of the state. But it is not just a somatic body; it is a psychic one as well, because psyche is what is inside the body politic. Of course, Rene Girard’s Violence and the Sacred argues for a view of sacrifice via Freud’s Oedipal complex. Raschke echoes this saying, “the sacrifice of the god was the recapitulation historically of, as well as the mythical token of the Oedipal wish for, the murder of god” (156). In my view, Freudian psychology continues a long-standing parallel in western medicine between psyche and soma. The Western concept of soma is deeply attached to the concept of the State and bodies of power; thus, a sacrifice on the state itself cannot only occur in terms of institutional bodies – even if those bodies are in some Marshall McLuhan-esque or Foucauldian way a social extension of a popular body. In order for the sacrifice to be complete in the west, psyche must be sacrificed along with soma, and that is what the psychedelic revolution has attempted and continues to attempt. “Psychedelic,” a word coined in 1958, literally means “mind-manifesting.” The search for soma and entheogenic religion thus arises out of this historical situation in which individuals radically assert themselves over and above the out-moded authority of the state. One can see evidence of this throughout the Protestant Reformation, but more specifically the development of the New Thought movements and New Age religion which influenced the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s. Consciousness changes and paradigm shifts can be understood as the psychic counterpart to the somatic sacrifice of institutional bodies. In searching for the mythical soma and entheogens, scholars attempt to usher in the new age of religion. In experimenting with drugs in the 1960s, populaces partook in the sacrifice of the state by reorganizing the notion of citizenship.
This reorganization is evidenced in extremist religious groups today in surprising ways. For example, Olivier Roy has argued in Globalized Islam that the same forces of globalized secularism which produced neo-fundamentalism in discussions of “Islam” post 9/11 are the same forces which have produced conservative Christian fundamentalists with their intensified interest in affective and personal relationships with God. John Caputo, in The Weakness of God, has turned even evangelicals on to Derrida and postmodern thought while arguing for an uninstitutionalized reading of God. Don Cupitt has argued for an anarchic reversal of European universalism in Mysticism after Modernity; he believes that postmodern writing is itself a form of mysticism and writers like Derrida perform it. In our current era, faith has become increasingly more subjective and based on charismatic gnosis which, like the counterculture in the 1960s, challenged traditionally authoritative institutions. Neo-fundamentalism has roots in New Age thought and strategies of the 1960s; neo-fundamentalism is therefore largely “psychedelic.” Inherent in all of this thought is the dissemination of individually-oriented, mystical experiences and deep concerns about citizenship and dynamic approaches to identity, which I have been trying to understand in terms of soma and psyche.
Soma, in western discourse, becomes dualistic but it also becomes secularized. An early secularization happens with the emergence of the Greek polis and later the Roman res publica. Greek citizenship was controlled and select. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1475 text on English government as the first instance of the term “body politic.” A second secularization occurs during the Renaissance, and a third has been occurring since the middle of the nineteenth century as characterized by Nietzsche. It is more complex than merely using the terms “modern” or “post-modern” or “paradigm shift” will allow, because the writers of those texts impose those shifts for political ends driven by large historical forces. For example, Alasdair MacIntyre characterizes this shift in his intellectual history, Three Rival Conceptions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopedia, Genealogy, and Tradition. According to MacIntyre , the “traditional” moral enquiry of Aquinas and Augustine develops in tension with encyclopedic enquiry and the genealogical enquiry during the Enlightenment. It builds, not from just an authority of God, but that there is an implicit agreement to external authority before a subject begins to learn. The pupil is already enculturated. For the traditional Thomist, the text reads the pupil as much as the pupil reads – and ultimately transforms – with the text. Encyclopedic knowledge, in the Kantian tradition sees traditional enquiry as dogmatic. Similarly, “the genealogical accusation [in both Nietzsche and Foucault] is not just that theism is false because it requires the truth of realism, but that realism is inherently theistic” (67). Each version of moral enquiry is at odds with the other two, making purely linear approaches to history impossible, and especially complicating narratives of human progress.
Twentieth century European scholars often begin their historical reflections by glossing over western history since the Renaissance in an attempt to trace the arrival of modernism with the development of nation states. Michel Foucault’s work evidences this, but so does the work of Max Weber and more recently, Reinhardt Koselleck. Discussions of postmodernism, in their radicalization of subjectivity or their break from the modern, most often tend to stem from an historical perspective. What I have tried to do thus far in this essay is to add to that conception because, as I will argue, western concepts of the state and citizenship are very often characterized in terms of sacrifice. But we must understand what is to be sacrificed. Postmodern theory has had much to say about body, psyche, and identity boundaries; and theories about these three issues drive much of twentieth-century discourse on art and politics. I have chosen the term psychedelic as a different approach to the reasons behind twentieth-century theoretical shifts, and indeed the critique of the very possibility of theory in the early twentieth century.
The term “psychedelic” applied to aesthetics signifies a collection of common tendencies among artistic works which each exhibit an attempt to represent either something metaphysical in a unique form, or an expansion in consciousness – in other words, artistic attempts to represent the outside, exterior, and the infinite in necessarily finite circumstances. It is a kind of chora, in the sense that Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida use the term, as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. As James DiCenso summarizes, “The chora represents a psychical condition referred to retrospectively but never known as a subjective position as such ‘in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of an object and as the distinction between the real and the symbolic’” (71). The psychedelic, in this sense, relates to a cultural condition where consciousness, which has been rapidly expanded and destabilized, begins to re-orient itself in light of what it has seen. It is a recovery from trauma which may not be so much final as necessary for discursive continuity in a community that is looking for what its sacrifice is; that is, what holds communities together in the posthumanist and postmodern age.
The concept of sacrifice itself is ancient, but nevertheless remains constant even through secularization and the rise of modern states. Because modern states and modern academic discourse has privileged “secular views,” concepts related to sacrifice get relegated to the superstitious, unintellectual, and the “anti-modern.” In terms of academic study, sacrifice arises in religious studies which, at least since Eliade, have taken on structuralist narratives. Structuralist narratives either “transcend history” by claiming universalism or they attach themselves to modern narratives – as when Freud claims in Civilization and its Discontents that he has no longing for the “oceanic” feelings accompanying religious people, presumably because he is a more rationally evolved specimen of the human race, or when Eliade praises primitive man’s ability to maintain contact with nature and laments modern man’s alienation from such primordial urges. Both of these views implicitly historicize. And yet, even a poststructuralist critic like Foucault, who was mentored by structural mythologist Georges Dumezil, implicitly maintains elements of sacrifice in his own thinking and activism. Thus, concepts such as Foucault’s “governmentality” can themselves be thought of as evidencing psychedelic aesthetics. The western concept of self is informed by more than modern subjectivity – no matter how radical.
As a secular manifestation of ultimately religious concerns, psychedelic aesthetics should not merely be perceived as part of the deinstitutionalization and moving away from church authority characteristic of Enlightenment thought. That the “secular” manifestation common to New Thought and New Age thought is part of an historical process is undeniable, but the social function or “need” for religion should not only be read as a breaking away from European-derived cultural forces. The forces are much older. But even to discuss such forces risks reinstituting a kind of European Universalism through a kind of theorizing. As a result, scholars like R. Gordon Wasson and Huston Smith may seem merely popular, “armchair academic” material which continues to send an Enlightenment-fueled message that human knowledge will overcome all adversaries, like one of Joseph Campbell’s heroes, while poststructural scholars will dissect the possibility of knowledge itself.
Take, for example, a more recent book entitled Soma: the Divine Hallucinogen, by the ethnobotanist David L. Spess, which argues that soma is based on Indo-Aryan magic, where cosmology overlaps with human soul (breath, prana) and the “inner man.” This leads him to claim soma’s influence on the Greek conception of logos and the mystical beginning to The Book of John. Spess claims: “The entheogenic soma drink’s inner formation of this body coupled with the soma ritual, not only influenced all Indian religions, but it appears to be the original source of influence upon later Western conceptions of the subtle body” (92). This leads Spess to the grand claim that the soma ritual informs not only all western alchemy and hermeticism, but also Chinese, Greco-Egpytian and Islamic alchemy (161). If he is right, then soma may indeed be the “key to all mythologies.” But for my purposes, it is more important to see Spess as continuing a tradition of scholarship into entheogens that is fueled by the psychedelic movement in the 1960s.
During the 1960s, drug usage and the discourse surrounding it center on behavior control and become central to citizenship. Of course this can be traced to earlier sources, especially various governments’ enquiries into a “truth serum” during World War II, as Lee and Shlain’s social history of LSD and projects like the CIA’s MKULTRA during the 1950s and early 1960s attest. Suffice it to say that drugs and entheogens are the meeting place between psyche and soma in the west. Psychedelic aesthetics enacts this citizenship by asking people to participate in the sacrifice of the state through both self-reflection and ecstatic mystical experience. The artwork of the liberal democratic countries, especially the United States and England in the 1960s evidences the complex playing-out of soma and sacrifice as they relate to notions of citizenship. And as the two following examples show, much of the orientation of western artists derives from the willing inclusion of the mysterious through a complex kind of orientalism which exalts as it others. This study’s aim will be to centralize and ground these sacrificial aspects of psyche and soma through close analysis of literature and music during the psychedelic era – roughly the period from about 1958-1975. Below are some brief examples of psychedelically aesthetic works.
Alan Watts’ This is It exemplifies psychedelic aesthetics both in form and content. Originally released in 1962, it is a sound recording of Watts talking about the self mixed with various “tribal” and ritualistic ambience. On the second track, entitled “Onion Chant,” Watts speaks the following.
“Be unself-conscious.” “Be natural.” The student tries everything, to act in the master’s presence without guile, with total sincerity. But he realizes, the more he does it, that in trying to be genuine he is split from himself. He’s standing aside from himself, looking at himself, criticizing himself. And then he begins to stand aside from the one that looks and criticizes and criticize that and so on and so on and so on. Eventually he reaches the point where he sees that he’s absolutely incapable of doing anything natural. He is artifice, insincerity, through and through and through, but that is a great discovery. Because in discovering that you are a fake, in discovering that the more you know about yourself, the more you’re just a big act, you’re something like an onion, and you peel off skin after skin after skin with nothing left under…
At this point in the monologue, as indecipherable chanting and drumming drown out Watts’ voice, performing the very dissolution of self Watts was just discussing. What replaces his voice is the western manifestation of “otherness” embodied by tribalism and the east, a classic example of Said’s Orientalism. Watts’ album exemplifies psychedelic aesthetics, however, partly because it performs its content, and partly because it directs itself toward its audience. Watts begins his sermon in the third person, but then he switches to the second person abruptly: “you are a fake.” Watts invokes the listener’s participation as the drumming and chanting begin to overpower his own voice. The listener merges identity with Watts and then they both dissolve into the collective goings-on. On the opening and closing tracks of the album, human voices repeating “love you” are expanded through the early use of tape echo, a recording technique that would become popular in 1960s music. Watts’ recording evidences an early example of consciousness expansion and psyche sacrifice through a manifestation of the psychedelic.
The same year that This is It was released, Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island, was released. Island reads as much like a philosophical dialogue as a novel. In some ways, it seems stylistically archaic for 1962. Conceptually, however, it goes much further than his more famous Brave New World in terms of its analysis of modern society. It in many ways predicts a future that came true, just as Brave New World did. The novel’s main character, Will, finds himself a stranger on the island of Pala, a kind of intentional community both informed by modern science and anti-modern at the same time. The society is regulated by a New Age philosophy which has recognized the necessity for symbolic spiritual activity but has done away with the perverse contradictions of European religion and embraced a kind of Mahayana Buddhism. Will, who injures himself while infiltrating the island for the business prospects of a rich oil man, is cared for by locals who explain the intricacies of their post-industrial society. As in Brave New World, the society helps maintain emotional balance by having liberated views of sexuality and drug usage.
Huxley’s views on drugs change significantly between Brave New World and Island. Brave New World describes a dystopian future where the happiness of civilization is controlled by ingesting Soma, a fictional drug based Huxley invents by invoking the substance described in the Rig Veda. Unhappy with his place in the “World State,” Bernard Marx searches for self-determination by limiting his Soma intake and exploring “primitive” life on a southwestern Indian reservation. Marx and his friend Helmholtz’s dissatisfaction with a “doped-up” existence eventually results in their banishment from society; they choose the authenticity of an existence that includes unhappiness and pain. In Brave New World, the banishment of intellectuals like Marx and Helmholtz helps maintain a society of status quo individuals. The state determines and maintains moral authority, yet banishment is certainly not death. Soma ingestion, in Brave New World, performs Karl Marx’s oft quoted remark about religion being the “opiate of the masses,” thus solving the problem of modern humanity’s alienation from meaningful labor.
This is at least partly as a result of his growing interest in mysticism and entheogens, drugs ingested for religious purposes. “Heaven and Hell,” “The Doors of Perception,” and “Brave New World Revisited,” all extremely influential on the psychedelic movement, document his concerns about drugs and civilized behavior.
In Island, Will comes to actualize his believe in the ideals of Pala through a trip on “moksha,” a drug Huxley invents reminiscent of mescaline, LSD 25 and psylocobin. At the climax of his trip, Will has an intense awareness of his subjectivity.
This dark little inspissated clot that one called “I” was capable of suffering to infinity and, in spite of death, the suffering would go on forever. The pains of living and the pains of dying, the routine of successive agonies in the bargain basement and the final crucifixion in a blaze of tin and plastic vulgarity – reverberating, continuously amplified, they would always be there. And the pains were incommunicable, the isolation complete. The awareness that one existed was an awareness that one was always alone. (341)
Will’s trip convinces him that the ideals of Pala are right just as Pala is being invaded by an army that will bring western industrialization and commerce to the island. Thus, Will’s consciousness expansion during his trip reinstates him into a new moral perspective as he comes down and a new and much scarier reality sets in.
In his personal life, Huxley developed an interest in entheogens, substances which, when ingested, effected mystical experiences as a way of coping with the alienation of modern life, estranged from “deeper” meaning. Echoing Huxley in the late 1950s was Eliade, who argues in The Sacred and the Profane that modern man is out of touch with “sacred” space, living in the world of the profane and forgetting the centering potential of “primitive” religious thought. He claims, “the sacred reveals absolute reality and at the same time makes orientation possible; hence it founds the world in the sense that it fixes the limits and establishes the order of the world” (30). Wishing to escape the confines of modern colonial thought and its alienating conditions, thinkers like Huxley and Eliade represent a tendency to fetishize exotic “otherness” in search of “essential” meaning, a process that redraws the distinction between same and other, ego and id, and also sacred and profane. Process, a pre-existing modern theme, becomes intensified in 1960s literature, especially in groups like the New York School poets and the members of the French literary group, Oulipo. “Redrawing” identity boundaries works on both social and individual levels as a form of authentication and insulation of identity, maintaining a certain necessary violent representation.
The social concerns of the 1950s, especially the civil rights movement, redrew public notions of citizenship. While one could go back to (and many have) important thinkers like W.E.B. Dubois on race, it is sufficient here to note that the cultural context produced in the twentieth century different reasons for exploring the human tendency “to other.” And African American History itself is in many ways a history of otherness and citizenship. The civil rights movements must also be contextualized within the political aftermath of World War II. For example, Iain Anderson has documented the political use of jazz music by the U.S. government on diplomatic visits to counter critiques from Russia about America’s treatment of blacks during the 1950s. More than well-intentioned social progress, the successes of civil rights movements owed much to rethinking what counted as the American identity. Europe and the Soviet Union saw the United States’ treatment of blacks as hypocritical. Similarly, psychedelic aesthetics proceed from the notion that consciousness is dynamic and expandable and that one gain’s moral authority by seeking mystical experience outside the confines of subjectivity. Like the civil rights movements, it was a critique of hypocritical governance. But psychedelic aesthetics were in some ways a more radical critique insofar as they superseded the state’s legitimacy to govern, and with this critique that one can understand why a radical group like the Weather Underground would seek to break Timothy Leary out of prison and transport him to a Black Panther refuge in Africa. And Leary himself was greatly influenced by the much more politically neutral Aldous Huxley, who played a part in coining the term “psychedelic.”
In Aldous Huxley’s 1958 essay, “Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds,” an article commissioned by The Saturday Evening Post (Horowitz 146), he claims that human society is moving closer to the one he described in Brave New World faster than he ever could have imagined. Huxley begins by lamenting the trap of modern subjectivity, going on to say,
Correlated with this distaste for the idolatrously worshipped self, there is in all of us a desire, sometimes latent, sometimes conscious and passionately expressed, to escape from the prison of our individuality, an urge to self-transcendence. It is to this urge that we owe mystical theology, spiritual exercises, and yoga – to this, too, that we owe alcoholism and drug addiction. (9)
Huxley is partly echoing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience here. James claims,
the sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour. Sobriety diminishes, discriminates, and says no; drunkenness expands, unites, and says yes. (387)
Later in the article, Huxley takes his discussion to the level of the state, particularly addressing Cold War issues and Russia. He predicts the availability of drugs to help men find happiness and the complex relationship between drugs and personal liberty. He says, “it may soon be for us to do something better in the way of chemical self-transcendence than what we have been doing so ineptly for the last seventy or eighty centuries” (10). Thus, Huxley’s writing sets the tensions for the entire debate surrounding the term “psychedelic.” Only Island, however, evidences psychedelic aesthetics as it asks the reader to identify with the allegorical “Will” as he trips and comes to a new moral sensibility.
The word “psychedelic,” literally meaning mind-manifesting, or making the mind visible, was coined in 1956 by Dr. Humphry Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley and then later used in a research paper entitled, “A Review of the Clinical Effects of Psychotomimetic Agents” (“Psychedelic”). It came into wide use within a decade of its introduction to the language. While it was originally a name given to certain kinds of drugs – almost always with relation to LSD in particular – it later became a term for the experiences of a drug-induced state, and finally a catch-all term for a cultural style. By 1967, “psychedelia” enters the language (“Psychedelia”). Why, one might ask, would a synthetic drug become metonymic for cultural products and attitudes?
Because of Huxley’s public intellectual status, his influence spread far and wide. Huxley’s 1954 Doors of Perception profoundly impacted new age gurus like Alan Watts, as well as Harvard psychologists Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner, who would build off Huxley in their reworking of Evans-Wentz’s Theosophically-influenced translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Lopez), which they titled The Psychedelic Experience. This book tapped into a cultural longing that Huxley had already identified. Religious Scholars like Huston Smith (and eventually Eliade too) were also influenced by Huxley, but also popular bands like The Doors in the mid 1960s. Leary’s book is especially significant because it is a “how to” manual for achieving a psychedelic or mystical experience. For Leary, “A psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness,” and although drugs are not necessary for such an experience LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and DMT have the democratic importance of “making such an experience available to anyone” (11). It also reveals the influence of psychoanalysis in its descriptions of a guru, or guide, through the experience.
While many people are aware that the monks’ role in the death experience as described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead is to guide the dead person to enlightenment, less emphasized is the coupling of this with therapeutic methods used by psychologists in the late 1950s which combined administering LSD with many hours of psychoanalysis before the acid trip. In his 1958 article, “Psychotomimetic Drugs,” Henry K. Beecher uses the term “psychedelic” in a list of a “new class” of drugs used to treat – incredible as it may sound now – schizophrenia (254). He particularly associates “psychedelic” with LSD, asserting that LSD has had “more profound changes in the results of Rorschach testing than any other drug studied in this laboratory,” and it was more useful treating alcoholism than schizophrenia (280). If the literal definition of psychedelic means to manifest the psyche, the early usage of the term may seem accurate on the surface, but it is philosophically convoluted in its assumptions about what the psyche is. As LSD was used in psychoanalysis with the Rorschach test, the “latent” psyche made “manifest” reveals a Freudian influence. It is only one step away to say psychedelic drugs make the unconscious manifest. One need not look as far back as Theosophy to see an example of the western influence on Leary’s manual. The neologism “psychedelic” is itself a cultural product with metaphysical assumptions inherent in it.
Looking at psychotherapy, it becomes clear that the “psychedelic” experience refers to only one part of a larger process, or “trip.” In “Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD 25) and Behaviour Therapy,” C. G. Costello uses “psychedelic” in reference to only later stages of an LSD experience. He says, “the psychedelic experience [occurs when] the experience is stabilized and the patient establishes ‘order and organization to the unhabitual perceptions’ (Blewett Chwelos, 1959)” (119). To return then to aesthetic examples such as Huxley’s Island and Watts’ This is It, as well as the American “claiming” of jazz music as evidencing democracy, we can read into the term “psychedelic” a cultural tendency to intentionally produce consciousness expansion, but also the inherent representational process of making artistic works. That is, works attempt to understand and codify understanding, even if the works attempt to code something ineffable.
Interestingly, during the administered LSD trips, psychoanalytic suggestions and affective music were also used during controlled sessions. Costello’s studies document the use of “soothing music” in LSD sessions. Offenbach and Mahalia Jackson apparently qualify – although in one case the patient was “agitated” by Jackson’s music, and the therapist “suggested” the psychedelic stage to her saying, “to face whatever ideas, thoughts or pictures were presenting themselves to her. She was told that life was a beautiful though sometimes awesome pattern which we spoiled by turning away from it” (119). The use of psychoanalytic suggestion, itself arising from mesmerism and trance therapies, has not been emphasized enough in popular conceptions of the psychedelic experience, even with the “guide” taken from role monks traditionally played in the Bardo Thotol. Costello’s work reads like a direct application of Leary, Alpert, and Metzner’s Psychedelic Experience, yet he is critical of using LSD in certain environments: “The effects have apparently been harmful when LSD has been administered in a party atmosphere embellished with beatnik and occultist jargon” (128). Unfortunately, he offers no citation for such circumstances. Still, Costello is optimistic about LSD’s therapeutic uses, a sentiment generally echoed in much of the literature in professional psychological journals in the 1960s, even when it is antagonistic toward Leary and his crew.
In “The LSD Controversy” (1964), Jerome Levine and Arnold Ludwig emphasize benefits of LSD in therapy for alcoholics, addressing the LSD controversy by noting journalists’ interest in Leary and the Harvard school. The authors are quite critical though, claiming that Leary and his cohorts helped create “an aura of sensationalism”: “neither critical scientists nor laymen could see very much therapeutic or scientific value in the ‘educational’ hallucinatory flights or voyages taken by the mental astronauts of IFIF [International Federation for Internal Freedom, the organization Leary and Alpert formed after leaving / being fired from Harvard]” (316). Remaining positive about the therapeutic value of LSD, Levine and Ludwig provide a balanced approach while relying, perhaps naively, on the power of scientific method to sort out the controversy.
But by 1966, the meaning of “psychedelic” broadens. In “Some Psychological Aspects of Privacy,” Sidney M. Jourard, using Freudian language, describes the social dangers of pressures to conform and argue that repressed desires help maintain the individual in society: He attaches “psychedelic” to transformative experiences and healing.
Each time a man reveals himself to another, a secret society springs into being. If the healer sees himself in the role of teacher or guru rather than as a further agent of socialization, he will aim at helping the sufferer gain a perspective on the social determiners in his existence and how he might transcend them. Just as drugs, like lysergic acid and marijuana, have a kind of releasing effect upon the consciousness of the user, so teachers and gurus have a “psychedelic” (mind-manifesting) effect upon those who consult with them. True consciousness-expansion (education) yields a transcultural perspective from which to view one’s usual roles and the society within which one enacts them. (313)
Jourard evidences a kind of logic: psychedelic drugs are like teachers; they help people distinguish their roles in society by liberating them from the repressive social structures blocking their potential.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists appear to have had great hopes for the use of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments in conjunction with psychoanalysis, it is necessary to understand the term conceptually as it comes to mean more than merely “mind-manifesting.” It becomes “consciousness-expansion,” “mystical experience,” certain drugs, and eventually an aesthetic style. The term occupies an ambiguous semantic space between the sciences and the humanities. It also carries with it political concerns relating to citizenship and personal liberty in tension with governmental control. This is present both in Huxley’s writings as well as in government operations such as MK-ULTRA.
The term “psychedelic” applied to aesthetics signifies a collection of common tendencies among artistic works which each exhibit an attempt to represent either something metaphysical in a unique form, or an expansion in consciousness – in other words, artistic attempts to represent the outside, exterior, and the infinite in necessarily finite circumstances. It is a kind of chora, in the sense that Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida use the term, as a hazy boundary between the conscious and the unconscious. As James DiCenso summarizes, “The chora represents a psychical condition referred to retrospectively but never known as a subjective position as such ‘in which the linguistic sign is not yet articulated as the absence of an object and as the distinction between the real and the symbolic’” (71). The psychedelic, in this sense, relates to a cultural condition where consciousness, which has been rapidly expanded and destabilized, begins to re-orient itself in light of what it has seen. It is a recovery from trauma which may not be so much final as necessary for discursive continuity.
The few articles presented here exhibit the tension in the public air at the time. With them, one may speculate that, with the illegalization of LSD in 1966, illicitly taking psychedelic drugs became seen as an assertion of self against governmental control, and that such an assertion was coupled with an intention to seek out a mystical experience. Works of art displaying psychedelic aesthetics ideologically express the notion that seeking an “inner experience” promotes both individual freedom as well as social action. The mystical experience creates a “better” citizen than the “conformist,” while subjective interiority (or privacy) out-moralizes the state; communion with the divine both transcends state control while making a “better” state, full of “enlightened” citizens. Communion with the divine in ancient rituals was done through the use of the entheogens soma, which entered and influenced western society’s earliest roots. Are the affective responses of the individual who intentionally seeks mystical and psychedelic experiences more useful than the Enlightenment rationality which founds the modern state? Perhaps looking at the artistic productions of such experiences can help answer the question, for it is seems to be a cultural answer, not an individual one. By analyzing works of literature and music, Beware of Mad John, which takes its name from a song by the British psychedelic rock band, the Small Faces, seeks to ground in discussions of artistic works, discussions central to the way western society is conceived today.
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