Theorizing the Psychedelic Experience (Chapter 4 of Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Political Theology, and Literature)

May 29, 2014 § Leave a comment


R. A. Durr’s Poetic Vision and the Psychedelic Experience (1970) is a model text for the period with respect to theorizing psychedelic aesthetics. Durr uses a perennial approach to literary criticism, focusing on the interrelatedness of all poetic experience from Plotinus to Eckhart to Blake to Wordsworth to Traherne to Yeats and Huxley…the list is expansive and exhaustingly inexhaustible. Durr’s focus on poetry allows him to discuss his subject matter over time, and it allows him to make claims about mysticism and writing. There certainly are features of poetics that cannot simply be situated in a period study. More importantly, Durr’s book offers a glimpse at an earnest acceptance of the value of psychedelic experience. He is not writing from a “Woodstock-became- Altamont” or post Charles Manson perspective. In addition, the sense of failure that psychedelic aesthetics inherit from the European avant-garde is not apparent in his entirely optimistic criticism. Durr’s book, therefore, works better as an historical artifact than a detailed literary-aesthetic study. The book presents a native disposition from the late 1960s with all its seeming naïvete.

Durr arranges the book beginning with a description of the imagination; then he moves onto ego-loss, cosmology and the usefulness of “play.” His basic structure begins by making observations about the psychedelic experience, usually citing contemporary psychological studies, and then delving into broad citations in no particular historical or geographical order. What is assumed is a kind of “Great Books” mentality where Human culture, established by tradition, automatically takes on sacred spiritual qualities. Durr is fairly ecumenical and he enchants the secular. The poets he cites have as much spiritual authority as any religious figure – Walt Whitman appears alongside gospels and The Upanishads. It is all one: perennial.

A similar approach to literature appears as a bibliographic appendix to Ram Dass’s classic Remember Be Here Now (1971), which is an extensive “further reading list.” Like Abbie Hoffman’s attempt to spread the gospel of good music along his journey inWoodstock Nation, Ram Dass also spreads the gospel of good literature. There is even a kind of hierarchy implied by various section titles: “Books to Hang Out With,” “Books to Visit Now and Then,” and “Books It’s Useful to Have Met” (126). The first section is largely filled with books from the world’s major religions accompanied by Theosophical literature and, of course, Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy. The second section contains mystical poetry, a few novels by Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood as well as numerous books from the American New Thought tradition. The final section is more of the same, but more western philosophers are included and more literature – Isaac Asimov, Jorge Borges, John Fowles, Henry Miller, Ken Kesey and J. D. Salinger among them. Although Ram Dass and R. A. Durr both refer to authors ancient and modern from all over the world, they maintain a level of optimism with roots in American New Thought movement, an attention to self-help through thinking positively and caring for the spirit and soul. There is less overt social critique than in the sociological and activist literature and poetry. In both Durr and Ram Dass, the perennial works to transcend both time and national territory. The space of the perennial is where one accomplishes spiritual “progress.” The critical move expands globally.


It also accounts for the newly emergent. In High Priest, Timothy Leary is perfectly comfortable interweaving Genesis and the I-Ching with The Magus by John Fowles, published in 1967 and R. G. Wasson’s writings on hallucinogenic mushrooms. Always the trickster, Leary is to a certain extent being intentionally “sacrilegious.” But his use of paratext or marginalia literally frames his personal narrative with perennial accounts of culture. One of the more charming aspects of psychedelic critical literature, however, remains the complete openness to accepting emergent aesthetic work as part of the discussion, yet even this is historically loaded. Many of the writers Ram Dass suggests, for example, spent time with Vedic philosophy. Philip Goldberg, in American Veda, discusses some of these writers’ relationships to Vedanta, which arrived in the United States in 1893 with Swami Vivekananda – a student of Sri Ramakrishna – at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago (Goldberg 67). With regard to any theory of the psychedelic experience, perennialism must be understood within the contexts of Vedanta and New Thought.

According to the Vedanta Society of California, where Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood studied with Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood edited the collection Vedanta for the Western World,

the word “Vedanta” is revealing: “Vedanta” is a combination of two words: “Veda” which means “knowledge” and “anta” which means “the end of” or “the goal of.” In this context the goal of knowledge isn’t intellectual—the limited knowledge we acquire by reading books. “Knowledge” here means the knowledge of God as well as the knowledge of our own divine nature. Vedanta, then, is the search for Self-knowledge as well as the search for God. (“A Brief Overview”)

Psychedelic aesthetics inherit this approach to knowledge, which then affords a perennial approach. Vedanta also generally refers to the study of the Upanishads as closing commentary on the knowledge of the Vedas. Accompanying the knowledge itself is really a kind of disposition or attitude, easily written off as naïve andoverly general, especially when the attitude is applied, as in Durr’s case, to literary study. Psychedelic aesthetics are Vedantic in the sense of using knowledge toward its end, and such knowledge is not determined necessarily by period or culture. This can easily be confused with an overly humanistic epistemology. This disposition, present in Durr, Leary and Ram Dass, gives many psychedelic works a “how to” quality, as well as particularly notable degree of earnestness. It is perhaps easier to accept when a book like Ram Dass’s advertises itself as a self-help manual and more difficult to accept in Durr’s book, which advertises itself as an academic survey.

Durr’s book is certainly not the only one of its kind; in fact, structurally it owes much to Aldous Huxley’s prototypical Perennial Philosophy (1944)– another broad collection of citations from various sacred sources around the world, accompanied by brief commentaries by the author. Huxley wrote it in the context of the Second World War and it builds upon his defense of pacifism in Eyeless in Gaza, Ends and Means, An Encyclopedia of Pacifism,and The Grey Eminence as well as his self-help book The Art of Seeing. The difference between Huxley and the others is that Huxley is all too aware of the problem of superficiality. He writes in his introduction to the Perennial Philosophy:

Unfortunately, familiarity with traditionally hallowed writings tends to breed, not indeed contempt, but something which, for practical purposes, is almost as bad – namely a kind of reverential insensibility, a stupor of the spirit, an inner deafness to the meaning of sacred words. (vii)

Huxley is warning of the dangers of perennialism, and he intentionally tries to sidestep such insensibility by categorizing his examples according to a critical distinction used by the 9th century Indian philosopher, Shankara. He distinguishes between Shruti and Smriti texts. Shruti “depends upon direct perception [while Smriti] plays a part analogous to induction, since, like induction, it derives its authority from an authority other than itself” (Shankara in Huxley vi). This seems similar to common distinctions between primary and secondary sources in literary study. As above, Ram Dass’s book presents itself as a primary text insofar as it is a “how to” guide, but R. A. Durr’s survey loses some of its authority by being primarily a secondary source, passing as merely inspired commentary. What lies behind Durr’s book more than Ram Dass’s, however, is the perennial Vedanta model more articulately expressed in Huxley:

Philosophia Perennis—the phrase was coined by Leibniz; but the thing—the metaphysicthat recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychologythat finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethicthat places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent. Ground of all being—the thing is immemorial and universal. Rudiments of the Perennial Philosophy may be found
among the traditional lore of primitive peoples in every
region of the world, and in its fully developed forms it
has a place in every one of the higher religions.

If we read Durr and Ram Dass with this attitude in mind, we begin to see how the move toward perennialism distorts linear, historical time intentionally and makes the author a kind of guide to the divine, a vertical move. In psychedelic aesthetics, the speaker occupies the space of a guide. This secularization of the priestly role certainly has precedent in liberal mystical religion, most notably Quakerism, where every member has the authority to speak.

But the “guiding” author is also personalized in a particular way in psychedelic works. Durr, citing Alan Watts’ Joyous Cosmology (1962) and Malden Grange Bishop’s The Discovery of Love (1963), writes:

most of the personal accounts of the psychedelic experience relate in various ways this sense of joyousness or happiness, the certitude that life is at its heart purposeless play, ‘joy for the sake of joy,’ however many and apparently disparate – or desperate – the games of human composition. (195)

A kind of eudaimonia is at work here. In his introduction to Malden Grange Bishop’s book, Dr. Humphry Osmond comments on the necessity for psychedelic therapy to include personal history: “The background here is the whole of the author’s life and unless we know what manner of man he is, we cannot hope to follow, let alone understand, his account of the mind manifesting experience” (Bishop 8). So, just as with Masters and Houston argue in Psychedelic Art, the personal “experience” of the initiated author is necessary. This is indeed the liberal “personalism” Farrell discusses in The Spirit of the Sixties. The evangelical impulse of psychedelic aesthetics is present here as a defense of liberalism.

The tradition of Enlightenment “experience” formulated in a liberal subject who can account for his or her actions also remains essential. The experience itself conditions the subject, which is why the psychedelic experience must include a return from an expanded ego. During the merged, perennial part of the experience, however, subject-object distinction breaks down. The evangelical aspects of psychedelic aesthetics merge the audience with the work or the artist as “guide” for that work, as in the earlier example of Leary’s listing description erasing first-person and avoiding “to be” verbs. The English language’s heavy reliance on subject-verb-object syntax lends itself to easy poetic clichés here, but it also matched Leary’s emerging concepts of collaborative experiences between patient and therapist in the late 1950s. The personal aspects here point to medicinal conceptions of the psychedelic experience. In theorizing psychedelic aesthetics, one cannot forget that the entire concept of the psychedelic experience arises as therapy – whether in Artaud, Eliade, Huxley or Leary – and early models are usually in one way or another entrenched in psychoanalytic theories. Eliade’s narrative of the double “fall,” first as a fall away from the state of nature and then as a repressed desire for return is useful here as a reminder that early psychedelic theory is steeped in critiques of the European imaginary.

In psychoanalytic theories of the European tradition there is almost always a locating and recovering of self from past trauma. The frame implies a fallen condition, and certainly there is an overlap with the avant-garde aesthetic impulse toward failure here. The value implied by early psychoanalytic models is a stable individual, a person who is “normed” to some sort of social system in tension with the trauma that necessarily warps life; that is, the “normal” has necessarily and successfully overcome some sort of initial trauma, implying that trauma of some sort is fundamental not just to the person psychologically injured but to any normal person. Artaud’s antipathy for Lacan in the late 1930s rejected all of this, even though Lacan does not present nearly as “normed” a paradigm as Freud. For Freud, the steps toward well-adjustment appear as “stages,” which even he admitted to C. G. Jung were more stably structured and argued for the sake of founding the discipline rather than as a presentation of truly fixed stages. In other words, one cannot simply write-off the discipline as being overly “rationalistic” – though one is tempted to when Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents implies that the “oceanic,” sublime feeling of religion is for those who, unlike him, are rationally weak – but the very idea of the unconscious, founded in an aesthetics of the sublime, assumes that we gain something through the analytic process. Structural and post-structural accounts, across disciplines, merely perform a dialectical pattern collapsing subjectivity and objectivity, form and content, analyzer and analysand, ethnographer and people – State and citizen. Both Freud and Jung transfer care for the individual into care for the State.

For Jung, what is gained through psychoanalysis is a particular kind of care for the liberal individual. In a passage from a late essay (1957), Jung’s remarks seem prescient for the coming 1960s:

Happiness and contentment, equability of mind and meaningfulness of life – these can be experienced only by the individual and not by a State, which, on the one hand is nothing but a convention agreed to by independent individuals and, on the other, continually threatens to suppress the individual. (60)

Following this passage, Jung suggests that the role of the psychologist is to enable the individual to be free from “illusions,” a guide of sorts. For him, these illusions are the fantasy structures of European society itself, which traditionally attempted to present a fully realized rational person. In this sense, Jung might agree with Antonin Artaud, whose avant-garde aesthetics rail against psychology: “Psychology, which works relentlessly to reduce the unknown to the known, to the quotidian and the ordinary, is the cause of the theater’s abasement and its fearful loss of energy, which seems to have reached its lowest point” (The Theater 77). Normed culture anaesthetizes art, in other words, and according to Artaud makes way for the necessity of a theater of cruelty.

One cannot downplay the importance that psychology as a discipline had to pervasively critique the idea of a homogenized culture in the 1950s. Perhaps the most widely known articulation of such a critique appeared in David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, which characterized two fundamental human revolutions: the first taking place with the advent of European markets in the Early modern era and the second being a “shift from an age of production to an age of consumption” (6). Riesman was by no means a lone voice, but when coupled with Jung’s take on the psychologist’s role as being to help the individual rather than society or the State, we can begin to see the climate in which the theorists of the psychedelic experience were working and from which they built their critiques of subjectivity. This was indeed serious academic study for the period. The discipline of psychology was a fertile ground for theories of the psychedelic experience, but there were literary and philosophical counterparts as well.

It was in a letter in 1957 to Aldous Huxley that the term “psychedelic” was first coined by Humphry Osmond. Following Huxley’s own positive experiences with the Vedantic society and his personal experimentation with drugs, first with mescaline and later with LSD 25, which provided the grounds for The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), Huxley came to see the potential social benefits of drug-use for intentionally expanding consciousness. In their correspondence, Huxley and Osmond tried to find a less pejorative name than the term “psychotomimetic” for the drugs, implying an artificial production of a state of psychosis. This term largely derived from the development of psychoactive drug research into finding a “truth serum” to use on enemy soldiers during World War II in concert with the Office of Strategic Services, which after the war became the CIA. The central theory of psychotomimetic drugs was established in a paper by Dr. Paul Hoch, which “reported that the symptoms produced by LSD, mescaline and related drugs were similar to those of schizophrenia: intensity of color perception, hallucinations, depersonalization, intense anxiety, paranoia, and in some cases catatonic manifestations” (Lee and Shlain 20). Just a year before The Doors of Perception was published, “Allen Dulles, director of CIA, lectured at Princeton that the Soviets had started a ‘sinister’ battle for “men’s minds.” To deal with the problem in the emerging Cold War, Dulles authorized MK-ULTRA, (although it was Richard Helms’s idea) (27). MK-ULTRA became the umbrella project that provided funding for widespread behavioral modification research, often involving unwitting subjects (and sometimes unwitting researchers), surreptitiously tested on all demographics of United States citizens. One cannot explore the psychedelic without excursions into State bio-politics, both at the philosophical and material-historical level.

The term “psychotomimetic” aligns with the research development goals for the State. The CIA was so paranoid about the Soviets developing mind-control techniques before the United States that it “authorized the purchase of 10 kilos of LSD in 1953 for $240,000 from Sandoz Laboratories because ‘a CIA contact in Switzerland mistook a kilogram for a milligram’” (24). Despite the hilarious mistake which probably had a significant role in production and distribution of LSD 25, this reveals CIA’s interest in keeping the drug in their control, which of course did not work. Huxley and Osmond had different research goals.

Although Huxley’s Brave New World had presented a dark view of a drug-induced society in the early 1930s, a view that seems to be explored implicitly by MK-ULTRA, Huxley had changed his mind about the drugs’ potential for social liberation by the early 1950s. Even so, Huxley’s characteristically sardonic take on consumerism remained intact throughout both periods. For example, employing his propaganda slogans made famous in Brave New World in the 1930s, Huxley suggested to Osmond the verb ‘phaneroein’ “to make the visible manifest” compounded with “thymos” for soul as a replacement for psychotomimetic (Moksha 107). Huxley ends his letter: “Phanerothyme – substantive. Phanerothymic – adjective. To make this trivial world sublime, take half a gramme of phanerothyme.” Eventually, Huxley and Osmond settled on “psychedelic,” literally mind-manifesting, as a replacement. And while psychedelic was a less pejorative term, Huxley’s rhetorical agenda was also based on his aesthetic sensibilities.

Huxley saw his role as a “literary man” (he had wanted to become a doctor but his problems with his eyesight prevented it) as being able to keep scientific specialists aware of the ethical concerns surrounding their work. While the bioethical concerns are clear in Brave New World, he also lectured heavily at conferences on psychology and parapsychology, as well as at the Vedanta Center. Ultimately, Huxley believed that giving public access to psychedelics with entheogenic properties could help bring in a new stage of human civilization by giving people the opportunity control their own minds. In this, Huxley is the premiere theorist of psychedelic experience and its political-theological ramifications.

Huxley built his agenda out of scientific, philosophical and psychological thought current at the time. In 1953, trying to obtain the mescaline with which he planned to experiment on himself, Huxley wrote to Osmond:

It looks as though the most satisfactory working hypothesis about the human mind must follow, to some extent, the Bergsonian model, in which the brain with its associated normal self, acts as a utilitarian device for limiting, and making selections from, the enormous possible world of consciousness, and for canalizing experience into biologically profitable channels. Disease, mescaline, emotional shock, aesthetic experience and mystical enlightenment have the power, each in its different way to varying degrees, to inhibit the functions of the normal self and its ordinary brain activity, thus permitting the “other world” to rise to consciousness. The basic problem of education is, How to make the best of both worlds – the world of biological utility and common sense, and the world of unlimited experience underlying. I suspect that the complete solution to the problem can only come to those who have learned to establish themselves in the third and ultimate world of ‘the spirit’, the world which subtends and interpenetrates both of the other worlds. (Moksha 29-30)

Huxley presents a good glimpse at his metaphysics here. Humans, by the nature of their limited consciousness, have limited access to reality. Through a myriad of ways, both good and bad, the limits can be expanded, at least temporarily. However, what is “outside” the limit is not necessarily “more real” than the inside. The “other world” in this passage seems to account for both the physical world and the unconscious. The “ultimate world of ‘the spirit’ fuses both. Optimistically, humans can learn “to establish themselves” in this world. This, it seems, would require a certain degree of self-control, however. One must consider this view of spirit in tandem with the cosmology presented in The Perennial Philosophy.

Huxley’s letter goes on to lament the poor state of learning in the world and especially the United States, where Huxley believes education destroys “openness to inspiration” outside of the Sears-Roebuck catalogue “which constitutes the conventionally ‘real’ world” (Moksha 30). In order for human society to progress in such a state, Huxley believes that people’s minds must be opened, even if by artificial means. Although it was a decade before Herbert Marcuse would publish One Dimensional Man, Huxley, one might say that Huxley thought of drugs as a potential way out of one-dimensional society. He goes on:

In such a system of education it may be that mescaline or some other chemical substance may play a part by making it possible for young people to ‘taste and see’ what they have learned about at second hand, or directly at a lower level of intensity, in the writings of the religious, or the works of poets, painters, or musicians. (Moksha 30)

Young people, students, are particularly situated to benefit from drug use here, but they benefit from aesthetic enhancement that helps them better understand art. For Huxley, consciousness may be expanded both intentionally and unintentionally, internally through self-reflection and externally through drugs, but not to infinity and not for long periods of time. Consciousness is a non-static form, but it is still a form, and the process of limiting it is necessary to survival. Embodiment is necessity because form coincides with the ability to perceive form. A theory of psychedelic experience begins to take shape proceeding from the notion that consciousness is dynamic and expandable, but at the same time a limiting shape of consciousness heuristically establishes itself. It is not necessarily through the willed-act of the individual that consciousness takes shape – that seems to be a ‘natural’ ordering property of the brain – but the will can have an affect on the size and shape of consciousness.

Although Huxley seems optimistic about the will and self-determination in relation to consciousness, he is simultaneously deeply critical of subjectivity. One of the benefits of drugs is the ability to transcend selfish solipsism. In 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. Like many other thinkers at the time, 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 echoing William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience here, in which James argues that

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). As his burgeoning theory suggests, Huxley’s concerns rest on an evolutionary anthropology in which humans move toward “spirit” as the realm into which an individual may situate him or herself to find a balance between subjectivity and objectivity, where objectivity includes both the physical world and the latent unconscious.  This accounts for Huxley’s interest both in physical science and the paranormal, and he was not alone in this interest.

Although more sinister in both agenda and execution of their agenda, CIA was also experimenting across the board during the 1950s, and it was keeping tabs on Huxley too. Admiral Stansfield Turner’s (then Director of CIA) testimony before the Senate Subcommittees on Intelligence, Health, and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources explaining project MK-ULTRA, Turner mentions research on hypnosis, as well as

aspects of magicians’ art useful in covert operations . . . developing, testing, and maintaining biological agents for use against humans as well as against animals and crops . . . electro-shock, harassment techniques for offensive use, analysis of extrasensory perception, and four subprojects involving crop and material sabatoge. (Project MKULTRA 11-12).

CIA was interested in enchantment at all levels. The paranoia was so great that the American government was willing to transplant and hire many Nazi scientists to break the Nuremberg Treaty it helped set up that prohibited testing on human subjects without consent.

The surreptitious testing by CIA had a direct impact on the dissemination of psychedelic drugs in the three largest artistic centers in the United States during the 1950s: New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Lee and Schlain note

George Hunter White “rented an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, and, with funds supplied by the CIA he transformed it into a safehouse complete with two-way mirrors, surveillance equipment and the like. Posing as an artist and a seaman, White lured people back to his pad and slipped them drugs.” Transferred to San Francisco in 1955, White opened two more safehouses and initiated project Midnight Climax, where drug-addicted prostitutes were given $100 a night to bring johns back, have sex with them and drug them while CIA agents secretly observed. (32-33)

There is simply no way to extract the cultural aesthetic developing out of the use of psychedelics from the CIA’s involvement in disseminating and testing the drugs. Science, the paranormal and magician’s art were all areas of exploring enchantment. Further, one cannot extract these scientific and aesthetic studies from Huxley’s inherently political-theological critique of the State from his interest in Vedanta.

In CIA research, agents were at times dosed with drugs so that they could be aware of the effects if captured by an enemy. In addition to testing the effects of drugs on people without their knowing, it was a practice among CIA agents in competing projects within the agency – all of which ultimately came to fall under the MK-ULTRA umbrella – to surreptitiously drug each other. Agents were expected to develop knowledge of the symptoms of having been drugged so they could recognize the symptoms early on and hopefully avoid giving over information in interrogation.

Not all agents, however, saw drugs as being merely “psychotomimetic,” and such experiences created converts to the therapeutic use of LSD within the CIA. In fact, Captain Al Hubbard, a former OSS officer known as “the Johnny Appleseed of LSD,” was responsible for both distributing LSD across the US and Canada as well as helping to develop therapeutic uses for LSD. Hubbard had a mystical experience on his first trip, leading him to be an outspoken proponent of its use. Hubbard worked with Dr. Humphry Osmond in Canada developing psychedelic therapy; “using religious symbols to trigger psychic responses, he attempted to assist the patient in forming a new and healthier frame of reference that would carry over after the drug wore off” (Lee and Shlain 49). These sessions were “geared toward achieving a mystical or conversion experience. The procedure involved high dosages of LSD, precluding any possibility that the patient’s ego defenses could withstand psychic dissolution” (56). Hubbard was responsible for turning Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, on to LSD. Wilson believed in the drug’s religious potential as well as in its treatment potential for alcoholics. Hubbard was also responsible for acting as guide for Aldous Huxley’s first LSD trip in 1955. Huxley had already written The Doors of Perception based on his first mescaline experience in 1953. Like many universities and researchers in the 1950s, unwittingly, both Huxley and Humphry Osmond were surrounded by CIA agents overlooking their work.

At the same time, Huxley’s status as a public intellectual was allowing his writing to set the tensions for the entire debate surrounding the term “psychedelic” that was to develop in the 1960s. In the process, Huxley’s theory of experience and his metaphysical notions are carried over during a period that demanded behavior adjustment regarding citizenship. This adjustment depended on a revaluing of the individual’s relationship to the State. Both Aldous Huxley and the agents of the MK-ULTRA project explored to what extent an individual’s conscious use of drugs might influence and redraw notions of citizenship. It is in this respect, and no mere conspiracy theory, that much of the psychedelic movement was a planned social experiment – not just in behavior modification, but also in citizenship modification, and the best way to analyze this is in the aesthetic artifacts produced at the time.

After coining the word “psychedelic,” Osmond used it 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 both a substantive and an adjective given to name and describe certain pharmaceuticals – almost always with relation to LSD 25 – 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, the Oxford English Dictionary reports the introduction of “psychedelia” to the language. A synthetic drug thus became metonymic for cultural products and attitudes by offering some degree of controlling ego-expansion and retraction, of controlling experience itself. Even an overdose in this respect is an attempt at controlling one’s liberal subjectivity. The entire debate around the illegalization of psychedelics centers on the question of citizenship in a liberal nation-state, on subjectivity itself.

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 translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead,which they titled The Psychedelic Experience (Lopez). This book tapped into a cultural longing that Huxley had already identified. Religious scholars such as Huston Smith and Mircea Eliade too were also influenced by Huxley, and of course also popular bands like The Doors in the mid 1960s.

But it was the Harvard psychologists: Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner who employed Huxley’s ideas most deliberately in early psilocybin tests and later research in the sixties. Increasingly indiscriminate use of test subjects and political enemies within the institution, combined with controversy over how scientific their methods were, forced the removal of Leary and his cohorts from the university. In Leary and company’s view of the psychedelic experience, the therapist and the patient tripped together. The question became, how could the therapist maintain a scientifically “objective” stance to conduct research? Going solo, first to Mexico and then, with the financial help of Billy Hitchcock, to the Millbrook estate in New York, Leary founded the International Foundation for Internal Freedom (IFIF). Along with Alpert and Metzner, Leary produced The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964). The book is a “how to” manual for achieving a psychedelic experience, thus performing a step towards Huxley’s vision of democratizing mystical experience. For Leary, building on Huxley, “a psychedelic experience is a journey to new realms of consciousness,” and although drugs are not necessary for such an experience LSD, psilocybin and mescaline have the democratic importance of “making such an experience available to anyone” (11). The therapist-patient model reveals the influence of psychoanalysis in its descriptions of a guru, or guide, through the experience, but also the monks’ role in the death experience as described in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. The monk is to guide the dead person to enlightenment, but Leary, et al., emphasize the coupling of this with therapeutic methods used by psychologists in the late 1950s, methods that combined administering LSD with many hours of psychoanalysis before the acid trip. This is no small amount of screening. Such experimentation was not only in practice at Harvard. Interest was wide all over the psychological community.

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 – assumptions rooted in European conceptions of subjectivity and selfhood, in the European imaginary.

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. Huxley’s theory had the effect of reconciling the scientific and religious or occult aspects of the psyche by combining Freudian and Jungian conceptions with the Evans-Wendtz translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which, as Donald Lopez has shown in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West, was inspired by the theological-political agenda of Theosophists like Helena Blavatsky, Henry Steel Olcott, and Annie Besant. Jung, of course, also wrote an introduction to the Evans-Wendtz translation, and so the tensions of politics and of a conception of self that is not merely contained within one individual’s unconscious but rather in a collective sense of unconscious come to be in concert with Theosophy’s global and ecumenical spiritual and political concerns. All of this is to say, the neologism “psychedelic” is itself a cultural product with metaphysical assumptions inherent in it, every bit as much as psychotomimetic, and perhaps even more so, as it comes to symbolize a re-incarnated liberal citizenship. In order to parse this out more clearly, it is important to see how psychologists built upon Huxley’s theories.

The Professional Discourse of Psychedelics in the 1960s

In Tripping: An Anthology of True-Life Psychedelic Adventures, Charles Hayes reports, “by 1965 there were more than two thousand scientific papers describing the treatment of up to forty thousand patients with psychedelic drugs. Success was commonplace” (9). Looking at psychotherapy and psychology journals in the late 1950s and 1960s, 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’” (119). In this theory, the experience is one of recovery, not of having one’s mind blown. We can read into the term “psychedelic” a cultural tendency to intentionally produce consciousness expansion, but also the inherent return from a perennial state of nature or ecstatic experience.

During the administered LSD trips, 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 qualified as suitable music early on – 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” (119). The article reports: “she was told that life was a beautiful though sometimes awesome pattern which we spoiled by turning away from it.” The use of suggestion, itself arising from mesmerism and trance therapies in the nineteenth century, along with its use in American New Thought, has not been emphasized enough in popular conceptions of the psychedelic experience. When accompanied with the “guide,” taken from the 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 also 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, but his attitude illustrates an attempt at controlling the superficial through scientific expertise, something that is recurring in the literature and historical documentation of the field, especially with regard to Timothy Leary. For many later psychiatric and psychological professionals, Leary’s outlandishness single-handedly has had the effect of stalling almost all “respectable” scientific research on psychedelics between the late 1960s and the 1990s. During the 1960s, Costello and others were quite optimistic about LSD’s therapeutic uses, a sentiment generally echoed in much of the professional psychological journals in the 1960s, even when professionals show antagonistic attitudes 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” (316). Remaining positive about the therapeutic value of LSD, Levine and Ludwig provide a more balanced approach while relying, perhaps naively, on the power of scientific method to sort out the controversy.

By 1966, perhaps through the public attention gained by Leary, the meaning of “psychedelic” clearly broadens in professional journals. In “Some Psychological Aspects of Privacy,” Sidney M. Jourard, writing in the journal, Law and Its Contemporary Problems,uses both Freudian language and the all-pervasive language of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (inner and outer-directed personalities) to describe the social dangers of pressures to conform. Jourard argues that repressed desires help maintain the individual in society, but 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’s take on the psychedelic evidences a kind of liberal 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. The psychedelic experience, for him, not only releases one from the shackles of social conformity, it potentially increases liberal innovation by reforming subjectivity. To take part in the psychedelic experience is to be active in the sense of social activism during the early sixties, to make oneself accountable through a civic gesture, to become a politically responsible citizen.

No matter how superficial the drug scene may have become by the end of the decade, the underlying intellectualism in the action of participating coded a civic stance. At the same time Jourard’s statements are a reminder that the psychedelic experience through drug use is merely one of many methods to attain a sublime and spiritual experience. This is of course a sense of the spiritual as integrating subjectivity and objectivity, which as Huxley describes, owes its lineage to enchantment and mystical experience. The drugs merely democratize access to the experience. Jourard also echoes the sentiments that Ken Kesey expressed in the post-trip return with regard to “graduating” from acid tests. The psychedelic experience carries with it political concerns relating to education, citizenship and personal liberty in tension with governmental control; it is a means toward a political end.

The articles 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. This was a civic gesture, and state control over drug-use establishes enmity between self-determination as an act of social progress and “institutional” authority. The state here becomes the enemy of the liberal agenda by imposing an authority that appeared to limit access to even something as undetermined as “happiness,” but more accurately here as a revised version of subjectivity itself. State authority was something to be transgressed, and that transgression was a civic act. Psychedelic aesthetics perform this transgression.

Works of art displaying psychedelic aesthetics ideologically express the notion that seeking an “inner experience” promotes both individual freedom as well as social action. One need not take drugs to achieve it, but to do drugs so was to make public one’s transgression. In post 1960s decades, this transgression became ritualized (and trivialized) in the United States. But in its early ideology, the psychedelic created a “better” citizen than the “conformist.” Overcoming of mere subjective interiority through a psychedelic return to the perennial also out-moralizes the State. Beyond the state, in the European imaginary, the psychedelic experience produces a communion with the divine lost in the modern era. This is a return to enchanted space of the pre-political begging the following questions: When we consider the deep critique of modern subjectivity in the psychedelic experience, are the affective responses of the individuals who intentionally seek mystical and psychedelic experiences more civically useful than the Enlightenment rationality that founds the modern state? Moreover, in the civic transcendence of the State, does the psychedelic experience end with a revised subjectivity that is akin to globalized cosmopolitanism? American civic foundations certainly occurred in a literal state of nature, giving American politics a long history of enchantment.

The theory of the psychedelic experience applied to aesthetic works, and we can now begin noting some ideological and ethical characteristics present in psychedelic aesthetics. The term “psychedelic” applied to aesthetics signifies a collection of tendencies among artistic works which each exhibit an attempt to represent either something metaphysical in a unique form, or to represent an expansion in consciousness – in other words, artistic attempts to represent the outside, exterior, and the infinite in necessarily finite circumstances. 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. There is a therapeutic quality in the aesthetics, a recovery attempt from both individual and cultural trauma. In this recovery attempt there is inherent critique of the past coupled with an attempt to distance the past or even transcend it. Insofar as there is an overlap with avant-garde aesthetics, like those present in Artaud’s “theater of cruelty,” which he presents as anodyne for the state of emergency brought on by the “plague” affecting European culture in the late 1930s, psychedelic aesthetics in the United States generally express a more optimistic view, but there is more to the picture.

Aesthetically, the inherent violence of avant-gardism remains the “Hell” of the psychedelic experience – a hell that saturates the work of avant-gardists like William Burroughs’ seedy and junky global consumerism, the films of Kenneth Anger with his nods to Aleister Crowley, and articulated in the depense of Hunter S. Thompson’s work as “fear and loathing.” The flipside to such hell is the “soma state” or “moksha” experience of re-attunement and return to enchanted consciousness. Articulations of soma and moksha are where psychedelic aesthetics and political theology meet beyond crass representations of a globalized free-for-all. I will return to such issues in a later chapter.

The well-worn “Heaven and Hell” and the less known Soma state / globalization binaries are discursively helpful and aesthetically identifiable at times, but they are both at work in the same experience. Psychedelic aesthetics, as Huxley would suggest, include both of Blake’s “Heaven and Hell.” In terms of ego-death and return to a revised notion of liberal subjectivity, I have chosen to characterize the entire experience along the theme of metempsychosis or reincarnation as a way to broaden the aesthetic cosmology. There are violent and starry-eyed representations in psychedelic aesthetics. I make no allegiance to either. What is more important is that in the process of these aesthetics, a kind of sacred violence is imposed on the State. Such violence accompanies the fantasy return to the “state of nature” attained through dissimulation of the ego during the psychedelic experience, and this is what accounts for much of the use of sacrifice, religious and mystical symbols in psychedelic works. It also accounts for the evangelical nature of psychedelic aesthetics and the aestheticized figure of the exploding citizen or “terrorist” in the post-psychedelic era. It is at this point that the psychedelic experience aestheticized produces political deliberation and where psychedelic aesthetics and political theological meet. The eruption of the perennial operates through deterritorialization of both subject and State in order to produce a primordial space for rebirth and poetic making.


For Works Cited entries, please contact Roger Green

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading Theorizing the Psychedelic Experience (Chapter 4 of Beware of Mad John: Psychedelic Aesthetics, Political Theology, and Literature) at


%d bloggers like this: