Psychedelic Aesthetics Lecture 4: Gaming, Future’s Pasts, and Childhood’s End

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is well known that drug culture had awful affects in the United States by the end of the 1960s, and common historical accounts of the 1960s narrate the decade itself as a kind of trip. In such accounts, the open possibilities articulated at the end of the 1950s in the United States end with violence and destruction, a breaking down of a national identity center as well as the dispersing of activist movements into different factions that cease to communicate with each other. We hear references to Eisenhower’s appeal to vigilance against the imminent military-industrial complex in his farewell speech in 1961. The end of the 1960s and early 1970s are often characterized as the political inefficacy of progressive movements, government scandals, murderous cults, and the loss of some sort of moral fabric. By and large, no matter the narrative’s location of nostalgia, for many the chaos of the 1960s returns to order – even if it is a morally corrupt one. Flower children or “beautiful people” eventually grow up and in doing so ceased to be that paradoxical western identity refracted against the corruptness of adulthood we call the child. And so another common narrative superimposed on the 1960s in the United States is one of growing up, coming of age, and losing innocence. Woodstock became Altamont.

With regard to psychedelic aesthetics, however, some will claim that the magical time in San Francisco ended well before the decade’s end; for example, with the Diggers’ public funeral for “Hippie – Son of Media” in 1967, with the failed attempts for the Merry Pranksters to make their film and push the country further – the failure of so many to pass the acid test and, as Ken Kesey would have it, “graduate.” The performative of these ideas, often expressed by Artaud-influenced groups like the Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe, importantly expresses another feature of psychedelic aesthetics which we will focus on today: attention to any performance’s own aesthetic and rhetorical construction by way of the overtones of death and rebirth. The breaking of the fourth wall, the collapse between public and private spheres metaphorically and evangelically invites audience participation in a charged atmosphere. The atmosphere is itself one of play, and so the idea of the game, so present in the first pages of Leary et al.’s manual becomes a code for a conscious or aware existence in the face of the unconscious as it is psychedelically mind-manifested by the art. Therapeautically, psychedelic aesthetics then attempt to rehabilitate a pathological culture of liberal subjects by inviting them to deal with their own shit or put it aside for something bigger, or as The Rolling Stones say, “Why don’t we sing this song all together, open our heads let the pictures come? And if we close our eyes all together, then we will se where we all come from.”

In lecture two I discussed the modern European invention of nostalgia, citing Robert Hemmings’ claim that “nostalgia is a function of the imagination, steeped in temporal and spatial longing, and the illusive object of that longing is childhood.” This temporal and spatial longing, I said, is indicative of a “European Imaginary” in which a citizen-subject is shaped by liberal political and technological forces that construct “modern man” as alienated from nature. In Romantic aesthetics, the alienated subject becomes occupied by an aesthetic binary between the beautiful and the sublime. For Nietszsche’s extensions of this binary into the Apollonian and the Dionysian (in The Birth of Tragedy), these two forces occupy a pre-human space in history. In conceiving of these forces as always already existing in Nature, Nietzsche was able to critique the entire European notion of development, Enlightenment or Bildung, and perhaps surprisingly, re-inscribe the Aristotelian idea put forth in the Poetics that Art is inherently mimetic. Transposed historically, this means that there is no direct access to anything originary. History merely becomes the history of the telling of history, of historiography, which does not mean there is no reason to do history; rather, it validates a genealogical view of history – something we might call in everyday speech ‘intellectual history.’

In The Birth of Tragedy and the Spirit of Music, as I argued earlier, Nietzsche claims that perhaps what history has called the “Golden Age” of Greek civilization – the birth of Art, philosophy, democracy, and so on – was perhaps dusk setting on a nobler previous one. The “noblility” of the prior civilization arose from its ability to fully embrace the terror of the earlier civilization. We might think of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “the horror!” We might go on to examine more closely the idea of a “will to power” that emerges out of this; that is, the claiming of something beyond morality itself in order to justify acts that would otherwise be considered atrocity. Nietzsche himself recognized the inherent Romanticism in his words, and said as much in his “Attempt at Self-critique,” written almost 15 years later. Something of this appears in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

Backward they always gaze toward dark ages: then, indeed, were delusion and faith something different. Raving of the reason was likeness to God, and doubt was sin.

Too well do I know those godlike ones: they insist on being believed in, and that doubt is sin. Too well, also, do I know what they themselves most believe in. Verily, not in backworlds and redeeming blood-drops: but in the body do they also believe most; and their own body is for them the thing-in-itself. But it is a sickly thing to them, and gladly would they get out of their skin. Therefore hearken they to the preachers of death, and themselves preach backworlds. Hearken rather, my brethren, to the voice of the healthy body; it is a more upright and pure voice. More uprightly and purely speaketh the healthy body, perfect and square-built; and it speaketh of the meaning of the earth.—

Thus spake Zarathustra.

While a detailed account of Nietzsche’s thought is beyond my scope here, we can readily see that what disgusts Nietzsche is a kind of nostalgia to which even he is susceptible. One rather simplistic answer here is obviously to push toward the future, to not look back, to overcome history itself, as fascism and futurism attempted. And that problem of history and attempts to overcome it, I have said, characterize both the twentieth century and psychedelic aesthetics.

We see over and over again this problemof the twentieth-century: a tension between vertical, sacred time (being and essence), and horizontal, secular time – the tension brilliantly pointed to by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane and the foundation of Religious Studies as a discipline separate from theology. Eliade argued 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 claimed, “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). While such binaries oversimplify the matter, Eliade’s claim articulates the European nostalgia for the pre-political and clearly presents what I have called the European Imaginary. Despite its fictional qualities, the European Imaginary has real-world consequences. In The Sacred and the Profane, Eliade writes:

Above all, we understand this: the man of primitive societies has sought to conquer death by transforming it into a rite of passage. In other words, for the primitives, men die to something that was not essential; men die to the profane life. In short, death comes to be regarded as the supreme initiation, that is, as the beginning of a new spiritual existence. (196)

In the ego-death experience promoted by classic models of the psychedelic experience, we come to see an attempt at working out of the tension between History and Eternity through the overcoming of life as being-toward-death. One could also posit this view as inherently one of reincarnation or metempsychosis. The enchanted quality of living that knows itself as miraculous performance – that knows itself to be a game or maya – cannot itself be sustained anymore than taking more and more drugs. The trick becomes a problem of maintaining access to a kind of perennial mystical state. Even Aldous Huxley had theorized this with regard to psychedelic experiences: they merely democratize access to states achieved in other ways by mystics. Huxley also theorized, as we saw in last week’s lecture, that young people and students were more likely to benefit from psychedelic experiences. This idea of “youth” of course was historically charged with the youth of the baby boom.

It is important to know, as groups like the San Francisco Diggers certainly did, that the construction of the supreme fiction of the 1960s as an exceptional era was present in criticism before the decade even happened. At the end of the 1950s, across discursive media, people seemed to be looking for something new. Anthologized in Gerald Howard’s The Sixties,an article from Esquire in 1960 by Arthur Schlesinger characterized the “rise of the Beat Generation” as “the result of the failure of our present society to provide ideals capable of inspiring the youth of our nation” (45). In the same year, Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd that “Culture is, first of all, city and patriotic culture” (57). He claims,

I shall try to show that patriotism is the culture of childhood and adolescence. Without this first culture, we come with fatal emptiness to the humane culture of science, art, humanity and God . . . Young people aspire mightily to appearances on television and other kinds of notoriety, but I doubt that many now think of being honored by a statue in the park and winning ‘immortal’ fame, the fame of big culture. (57)

The generation gap was being written into public dialogue. The youth were central, but the youth were also disaffected and alienated by modernity. C. Wright Mills even used the term ‘post-modern’ as early as 1963 to characterize an age where “the ideals of freedom and reason have become moot; [where] increased rationality may not be assumed to make for increased freedom” (74-5).

There are reverberations of what David Riesman articulated in 1950 in The Lonely Crowd and what Herbert Marcuse would extend in One-Dimensional Man a few years later. The irony of the late 1950s, according to cultural historian Lary May’s argument in Recasting America, was that although the United States had actually achieved its utopian dreams expressed earlier in the century, the effect was to bring about a state of extreme anxiety. While the perception of living in crisis was not new, “their concern, particularly in its intensity, was new: it is rare for people to be so self-aware, so self-conscious, so self-concerned” (23). According to May, one of the main reversals in the feeling of relief at America’s newfound power was in “mass participation in government.” Mediated culture had created the “youth” as an identity category to be marketed to, but this “produced” culture. We can even see this in jaded reactions to the 1960s. While Schlesinger, in the article mentioned above, presciently claimed that “national purpose . . . acquires meaning as part of an ongoing process; its certification lies, not in rhetoric, but in performance” (46), in 1971, John Lennon expressed his jadedness surrounding the period by reflecting that “nothing happened. We all dressed up, the same bastards are in control, the same people are runnin’ everything. It is exactly the same” (in Wenner). For Lennon in his freshly post-Beatles bitterness, the performance of the 1960s was not effective. It was all show. Such bitter perspectives are just as present as nostalgia for a time when “everyone” had a cause, for a time when the “personal” became “political,” when the fabrication between public and private made a public game of lifestyle. The fact that the personal could become political, however, is merely an articulation of expanded citizenship.

Mediated culture certainly challenged longstanding notions about subjectivity, perhaps especially the idea that subjectivity is a trap. In 1958, Hannah Arendt described with dismay the reactions people exhibited at the success of Russia’s Sputnik satellite. In her prologue to The Human Condition, she says, “when [humans] looked up from the earth toward the skies, [they] could behold there a thing of their own making. The immediate reaction, expressed on the spur of the moment, was relief about the first ‘step toward escape from men’s imprisonment to earth’” (1). We see in Arendt’s words that just before the psychedelic movement took off there was a culturally expressed desire for something “outside,” something more expansive in terms of situating subjectivity. It is also true that the youth of the affluent societies were growing up having their lives documented and directed in ways previously unknown to humans. This may be because youth of affluent societies grew up less as subjects than previous generations – in the sense that the standard of living afforded a great deal of expendable income to the youth. At the same time, mediated culture located youth itself as a subject. These themes dominate the literature of the late fifties and early sixties. Two especially poignant themes are a return to childhood and a critique of masculinity.

The first of these themes can be seen in a few important books before the introduction of psychedelics to the public. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, Tom Wolfe mentions the importance of Hermann Hesse and Arthur C. Clarke. Wolfe compares Ken Kesey to Leo from Hesse’s Journey to the East: “He was never openly known as the leader: like Kesey, he was the non-navigator of the brotherhood” (266). Earlier in his narrative, Wolfe explains, “For a long time, I couldn’t understand the one Oriental practice the Pranksters liked, the throwing of the I-Ching coins” (142). What the divinatory practice leads him to understand is Jung’s concept of synchronicity in which “the way the coins fall is inevitably tied up with the quality of the entire moment in which they fall.” The synchronous moment of “Now” here invokes the ancient past and ushers in the space of the perennial. It is then that Wolfe has another “ah-ha” moment:

There is another book in the shelf in Kesey’s living room that everybody seems to look at, a little book called Journey to the East, by Hermann Hesse. Hesse wrote it in 1932 and yet…the synch!…it is a book about…exactly…the Pranksters! and the great bus trip of 1964. (142)

But another book of Hesse’s that perhaps more ideologically prefigures psychedelic aesthetics work: The Glass Bead Game.


Hesse, like Aldous Huxley, was a pacifist. Hesse produced a more through rejection of politics that may also seem overly naïve and even complacently dangerous on the surface. But the The Glass Bead Game centralizes themes of childhood and the transcendence of time that are important to psychedelic aesthetics and in its influence on the psychedelic movement, as an aesthetic object it becomes politically influential. In the book, Joseph Knecht, an aging scholar, decides to leave the distinguished position as Magister Ludi of the Glass Bead Game set in the future, an “academically religious” land called Castalia – the name Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert used for one of their foundations after leaving Harvard in the early 1960s. The Glass Bead Game is, among other things, an aestheticized academic precision par excellence, and Knecht has completely mastered it. Open to the criticism of a few long-time friends, however, he comes to see that Castalia is intellectually over-privileged and thus out of touch with humanity in the rest of the world. According to Knecht’s friend, an aged Catholic priest named Father Jacobus, what Castalia is particularly out of touch with is a deeply critical account of history. In Knecht’s resignation letter as Magister Ludi, he cites the words of his friend in the following post-script:

Times of terror and deepest misery may be in the offing. But if any happiness at all is to be extracted from that misery, it can only be a spiritual happiness, looking backward toward the conservation of the culture of earlier times, looking forward toward serene and stalwart defense of the things of the spirit in an age which otherwise might succumb wholly to material things. (363)

Spirit and history are intertwined for Father Jacobus and Knecht.

Though an old man, Knecht leaves Castalia for a more “secular” territory in order to become a tutor to his friend Plinio’s son, Tito, at a remote house in the mountains. Here, his mission into the secular world seeks to re-enchant the world with a religious conception of the temporal. Rather than a complete rejection of Castalia, the move is a deepening of Knecht’s own spiritualism. On the first morning of his arrival at the families’ vacation home in the mountains, Knecht finds Tito dancing in the dawn’s sunlight:

In this moment the young man seemed to him stronger and more impressive than he had hitherto thought, but also harder, more inaccessible, more remote from culture, more pagan. This ceremonial and sacrificial dance under the sign of Pan meant more than young Plinio’s speeches and versemaking ever had; it raised the boy several stages higher, but also made him seem more alien, more elusive, less obedient to any summons. (422)

In this dance, Tito,

without knowing what he was doing, asking no questions, . . . obeyed the command of this ecstatic moment, danced his worship, prayed to the sun, professed his devout movements and gestures his joy, his faith in life, his piety and reverence, both proudly and submissively offered up in the dance his devout soul as a sacrifice to the sun and the gods, and no less to the man he admired and feared, the sage and musician, the Master of the magic Game who had come to him from mysterious realms, his future teacher and friend. (422)

Knecht, compelled by admiration for the young Pan, follows him swimming into a cold mountain lake. The cold water is too much for the old man though, and Knecht drowns. Tito, sobered by the experience, goes on to reform his recklessness, and so it would seem that Knecht, in the act of dying, fulfills his final task – a teacher till the end. But what of Tito’s sacrificial dance?

The reference to Pan, a demigod, the one who lulls with music and forgetfulness, is an appropriate image that was frequently invoked in early twentieth century children’s literature as a rise in interest in classical and pagan deities accompanied the perception of an end to metaphysics in general. In drowning, Knecht merges into a timeless pre-history. The novel then follows with a legendary account of Knecht’s life and three fictional autobiographies that Knecht had written during his student days, two of which are pre-historical as well, the other an account of a saintly life. Transcendence through a sacrifice that ecstatically disseminates a life outside of lived-time, or what Martin Heidegger might call “care” or “being-toward-death. Hesse’s book itself, as in Knecht’s three fictional past-life accounts, each account for Knecht’s various incarnations over time. The reason for being, in Hesse’s novel, points toward this enlightened transcendence, but it does so through overcoming histories. Knecht’s drowning represents a well-intentioned will that is overcome by the force of fate, and the narrative of the book presents itself as a biography of Knecht, celebrating his acts. The will acts to overcome its intention. In Heidegger’s philosophy, this is the taking up of one’s angst through one’s thrown-ness in the world in order to live the authentic life. The authentic life is to be praised, glory in the destruction of will, transcendent merge with impersonal spirit. But the metempsychosis and the return to the perennial is also crucial in relaying the fact that it is not just one time, modernity, which is to be overcome through some technologizing account of progress. Moreover, the time of one person’s life being collected as a succession of states is not the work of autobiography; it is the work of the anonymous hagiographer writing Knecht’s story. It is Art that gives witness to reincarnation.

In Hesse’s novel, Knecht’s transcendence makes way for Tito’s enlightenment and moral development while he himself achieves a sort of bliss in death. Hesse thus presents the enlightened subject who is reconstituted through an experience that occupies so much of literature, and psychedelic literature in many ways merely continues this. It performs the literary subject as the site of identification. We can now see later works, for example, such as Italo Calvino’s If upon a Winter’s Night a Traveler as psychedelic in the way that the text performs identification with the reader’s gaze. There is also an amplification of the text’s own constructed-ness. Another example to compare, albeit with a less reliable narrator and therefore less optimism, would be Nabakov’s Pale Fire (1962). In all cases, the form of the artwork stages the transcendence of transferable states of being, containing the multiple experiences.

[Break for discussion. The rest of the lecture is below.]

Childhood innocence, another production of European Romanticism, is a device frequently employed by psychedelic works. In contrast to Hesse, in the United States during the emerging psychedelic era, Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, projects a vision of the human race overcoming all subjectivity and ending itself through a kind of mass-scale transmigration of souls. The narrative of the book arrives at the space beyond humans:

There was nothing left of Earth: They [the last generation of children] had leeched away the last atoms of substance. It had nourished them, through their inconceivable metamorphosis, as food stored in a grain of wheat feeds a plant as it climbs toward the sun. (211)

In order for the book’s narrative to proceed from this point in the novel, the reader must adopt the longing gaze of the alien, Karellen, as he contemplates why his race is not allowed to evolve the way humans do. In following Karellen, the reader is invited to transcend humanity itself.

Tom Wolfe, in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, compares Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to the children in Clarke’s novel. Here, the “return” to nature is not a mere return but a fulfillment of some sort of evolutionary progress. Wolfe explicitly writes that the entire idea of the psychedelic experience involved in the acid and in the Prankster’s performance antics could be found in a long passage from Clarke’s book describing “total identification,” which was itself the product of constructed media space:

The history of cinema gave the clue to their actions. First sound, then color, then stereoscopy, then Cinerama, had made the old ‘moving pictures’ more and more like reality itself. Where was the end of the story? Surely, the final stage would be reached when the audience forgot it was an audience, and became a part of the action. To achieve this would involve the stimulation of all the senses, and perhaps hypnosis as well…When the goal was attained, there would be an enrichment of human experience. A man could become – for a while, at least, – any other person, and could take part in any conceivable adventure, real or imaginary. (in Wolfe 233-34; in Clarke 142)

The Pranksters, through their performances, through LSD, through being aware of their own construction in their movie, “re-enchant” a participatory space. Total identification became the goal of their psychedelic aesthetics, but it was not ideologically a one-dimensional goal.

In Childhood’s End, it is significant that the last human, Jan is a black man. With his characterization, Clarke expands citizenship and inverts the racist primitivism present in the early 1950s. Jan remains curious about space travel, and had wanted to be an astronaut before the Overlords had come and made the innovation useless to humans. His romantic dreams were not, however, destroyed. Jan attends a party where an alien interested in paranormal activity in humans has come. The partygoers decide to play a Ouija Board, and Jan asks it the location of the Overlord’s home planet. The board, powered by Jean Greggson’s latent psychic ability, produces the exact coordinates to the astounded crowd. Jan decides to stowaway on the alien’s ship while Jean and her husband eventually move to the artist colony “New Athens,” where people are suspicious of the Overlords’ true intentions. Clarke describes New Athens as having been founded by a Jewish man, a nod to the recently created Israeli state merged with irenic Greece:

He had been born in Israel, the last independent nation ever to come into existence – and, therefore, the shortest lived. The end of national sovereignty had been felt here perhaps more bitterly than anywhere else, for it is hard to lose a dream which one has just achieved after centuries of striving. (139)

If Wolfe’s connection to the goals of the acid tests being the total identification achieved by the children in Clarke’s novel with the Overmind, the tests also push toward deterritorialization and transcendence of nation-states. In doing so, they appear to have given up transcendent religion altogether; but secularization is also overcome through the enchantment of the psychic mind. Childhood as a theme in the works the Merry Pranksters found important was not just a return to the romantic construction of childhood innocence. Childhood works as a theme in psychedelic aesthetics to invoke the perennial through the nostalgia produced by modernity’s claim to temporal progress and alienation from nature. History is overcome by moving to a pre-political state of nature both before and beyond the nation state. Another important theme in accomplishing this goal was a critique of masculinity and the family.


Although not necessarily a psychedelic work, both the themes of childhood and masculinity are beautifully allegorized in Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita (1955). In the novel, Humbert Humbert, the double-named academic tries to reconcile European fantasy structures with American consumerism by fetishizing and attempting to possess his nymphet, Lolita. Humbert embodies the decadent authority of specialists. His attempt to control consumption itself carries to the end of the book. As Humbert awaits his own death, he writes his memoir and elegy, but then refuses to publish it:

When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion, I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head of course, but my soul. In mid-composition, however, I realized that I could never parade living Lolita. I still may use parts of her memoir in hermetic sessions, but publication is to be deferred. (308)

Humbert’s narcissism presents as a chivalry, or a parody of chivalry – as if it were not always parody of a sort: “I could never parade living Lolita.” Humbert desires for the book to be published only after Lolita is dead. His final act of control is his own metempsychosis into the transcendental realm of Art: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art,” he writes, addressing the living / dead Lolita (309). From his refuge, Humbert is still able to make threats to Lolita’s husband from beyond the grave: “That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve.” Art effects and enables control, and as Nabokov’s professor John Ray, writes in his “Introduction” to Lolita, claiming the book’s moral lessons “should make all of us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world” (6). The book parodies the desire to control, whether it is Humbert, the professor, or the reader. The narratives of the “generation” of youth in the 1960s enact a similar desire. The youth generation’s consumer freedom positions them as hyper-mediated subjects-objects. This realization accompanies a collapse of idealism in the narratives of late sixties and early seventies, as “coming down” from the trip brought baby boomers into adulthood. A liberal generation was normed.

Ian Hacking has eloquently argued in The Taming of Chance that the construction of “normal people” is developed in the late nineteenth century as an outgrowth of Enlightenment thought replaces chance as “superstition of the vulgar” (1). He says, “the cardinal concept of the Enlightenment had been, simply, human nature. By the end of the 19th century it was being replaced by something different: normal people.” Yet chance and indeterminacy came to “subvert” such rational normality in the early twentieth century, according to Hacking, by way of massive amounts of collected data and the rise of probability and statistics to account for such data (3). What arose with indeterminacy in physics and these ways to account for data was a theme of games and the theorization of play:

Games of chance furnished initial illustrations of chance processes, as did birth and mortality data. Those became the object of mathematical scrutiny in the seventeenth century. Without them we would have nothing like our modern idea of probability. But it is easy for the determinist to assume that the fall of the die or the spin of a roulette work out to the simple and immutable laws of mechanics.

One can see both the ludic and the fascination with chance in psychedelic aesthetics with the Merry Pranksters use of the I-Ching for divination and the importance of performance as self-aware. This is perhaps fully realized in late psychedelic works like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).Pynchon’s main character Slothrop comes to find that German V2 rockets land wherever he has recently had sex. Philip M. Weinstein writes:

Slothrop (thanks to his re-scriptable member) can become ‘organically’ aligned within political organizations utterly alien to his sense of who he is. Engineered to be somatically foreign to himself, but unaware of this, he is, for much of the novel, both Slothrop and not-Slothrop” (202).

What appears in the “both Slothrop and not-Slothrop” is a questioning of liberal subjectivity that marks the trauma of the psychedelic era, and the narrative seeks to overcome this mystery. Pynchon’s work, like Hacking’s, shows normalcy to be a construction, hence marking a well-known postmodern shift. While the narrative construction of Lolita, with its false introduction, also parodies the construction of normalcy and the construction of the book as consumed object through professor Ray’s moralizing message, Pynchon’s work attributes the construction to an almost enchanted interstitial and even international governing forces and conspiracies.

There are two extremes at work here, visible in the doubling of characters. Humbert is a culpable agent who, though consumed with desire, maintains a certain degree of self-identity. Slothrop, on the other hand, in his search for the V2 rocket with the impossible serial number 00000, is completely dissimulated. His character disappears as the novel focuses on the rocket itself. Slothrop’s doubling, in contrast to Humbert Humbert, is much more directly tied to the idea of a nation-State that is being destroyed by the rockets. Slothrop is a bio-political entity whose masculinity has been transfigured by the State itself. He is experimented on both as a child and an adult. Whereas Humbert Humbert’s fetishes become transcendent art, Slothrop’s sexual conduct marks and portends destruction. Whereas the forces that Humbert transgresses are cultural norms, Slothrop’s are political institutions where control and chaos are difficult to distinguish from one another. While a typical modern-versus postmodern theme about agency can be set up here, psychedelic aesthetics exists somewhere in-between the subjective perverted sexual agent, Humbert, and the objectified, dismembered soldier whose story becomes a cypher numbered rocket. The difference is biopolitcal, and psychedelic aesthetics are particularly concerned, not just with overcoming conventional morality, but with the state’s construction of it through subjugation of its citizens.

Psychedelic aesthetics, according to Aldous Huxley’s thinking presented in lecture three, must transcend into “the spiritual” which situates subjectivity and objectivity, and these aesthetics are largely evidenced in works between the late fifties and the early seventies. At the heart of psychedelic therapy is a continued reliance on the return to subjectivity.

While a critique of the European Imaginary of modern subjectivity is at work, a liberal subject remains. Institutional critique, even if it is cartoonish, exists as an earnest part of psychedelic aesthetics. These aesthetics suggest that what institutions need is not to be destroyed, but to be updated through a return to a state of nature accomplished by a psychedelic experience. Figuratively, psychedelic aesthetics accomplish this by a critique of masculinity and through the transfer of narrative perspective.

Between Lolita and Gravity’s Rainbow we can situate another major literary work dealing with masculinity: Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Here, the state institution performs a virtual castration of McMurphy’s masculinity through the normative and generic frigidity of Nurse Ratched. Normalcy conquers by lobotomizing McMurphy’s wildness, his attempts at leadership and his attempts for fraternal organizing. But the narrative perspective belongs to Chief, the sanest of the bunch, whose voice is the text itself, though he remains mute through most of the narrative. And it is only through Chief’s smothering of McMurphy that his lobotomized virility is transferred to the half-Native American, allowing him to escape the hospital. Chief performs euthanasia on the “white man,” taking his symbolic power with him. Chief is also a different kind of subject. He learns and leaves. Power is redistributed through him and re-territorialized.

Tom Wolfe explains that Kesey’s interest in normalcy is driven by his interest in controlling people. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, he writes of Kesey’s antics when asked to come talk to a conference of the Unitarian Church in California:

Kesey was, in fact, now tremendously interested in the phenomenon of…Control. He had discovered that the Paranksters had been able to control the flow of the conference, not by any Machiavellian planning, but simply by drawing the conference into their movie. The conference was on a schedule, but the Pranksters always arrived…Now, and in no time at all everyone had become a part of their movie. (190)

Kesey’s control was electric, affective and aesthetic. At the conference, Kesey lectured the crowd about “symbols we use and the games we’re in and how you can’t really know what an emotion is until you’ve experienced both sides of it” (187). His answer was an affective study. Kesey took an American flag off of the stage and began trampling it. Unitarians, one would think, would be all too aware of iconoclasm, but instead there were gasps and sobs. Wolfe frames Kesey’s intent: “don’t just describe an emotion, but arouse it, make them experience it, by manipulating the symbol of the emotion, and sometimes we have to come to an awareness through the back door.” As Kesey tries to explain his action, he refers to singing the song “America the Beautiful” as a child, but one of his Pranksters interrupts him telling him to “do it” or “sing it” and Kesey leads the whole crowd singing the song. Here again is another instance of what Agamben calls glorification over glory. Glorification exists in the affective moves of psychedelic aesthetics as an aesthetic that re-enchants superseding the power of nation-state authority.

Kesey makes essentially the same gesture in the transference of narrative perspective in Sometimes a Great Notion. While the narrative is largely about two brothers, one a weaker, suicidal hipster named Leland Stamper, who seeks revenge on his more manly, older half-brother, Hank, for carrying on a love affair with his mother, their father’s second wife. Part of the revenge plot involves winning the love of his older brother’s wife, Viv. But, as with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the narrative frame allows for a different ending. Despite the fact that character’s shift perspective throughout Sometimes a Great Notion in a fashion reminiscent of William Faulkner, the dramatic situation that holds the novel together is that of Viv Stamper relaying the mythological story of the Stampers to Union Boss, Floyd Evenwrite. While the revenge narrative emphasizes the family struggle, and the failed search for a new masculinity – Leland sets ultimate revenge on “stealing” his brother’s woman – Viv’s narrative ends the novel when she leaves town and both men. Again, the old myths are transferred to the voice of a seemingly marginalized character. Citizenship is expanded. Viv has been on a marriage trip, and on the return she has said, “no thank you.”[1]

Kesey’s novels, like many psychedelic works, valorize a “return” to the un-modern, the pre-modern, and the perennial. In the casting off of modernity the new citizen is ushered in with the consciousness of the failure of modernity. Kesey figures this return in Sometimes a Great Notion with nods to the tradition of American literature and the home. With echoes going back to Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, the home flawed at its foundation is a long-standing device for establishing familial and generational conflict.

Nine years before Kesey’s book was published, Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) was a best-seller. The book opens with the story of a crack in the wall of Tom and Betsy Rath’s house. After a marriage fight over money, Tom had “heaved” a forty dollar vase Betsy had bought that day against the wall, causing a crack in the plaster to form all the way up the wall in the shape of a question mark (1). Wilson’s heavy-handed figure is completely earnest. Tom and Betsy repair their marriage by eventually moving into Tom’s mother’s home after she dies. The house is on a large plot of land and the couple wins a zoning battle with the local city council to have part of the land turned into a subdivision. They also win a battle with his mother’s corrupt gardener who claims to have rightful inheritance to the land. Throughout the book, Tom’s manhood is in question as he struggles to be ambitious enough to please his wife. He constantly thinks about how many men he killed as a soldier in the war and a lover he left in Europe whom has contacted him for monetary support for a child he did not know he had. The settling of the situation with Tom’s intergenerational home and his commitment to build modest homes for others while stepping out of the corporate world saves his marriage and family and lets him become a stand-up father to his child overseas. Family wins over corporate ambition. Family produces a balanced masculinity, at least when the wife is understanding enough. This is not the case with Kesey’s approach to the home.

Sometimes a Great Notion opens by returning to a mythical time, gesturing toward Beowulf. Outside the Stamper household, a man’s arm hangs for the public to see. The house is on a riverbank in Oregon, was built by Jonas Stamper, who left Kansas in 1898 with his two sons. Jonas, convinced by his “seven-teen-year-old son” that “we can do better than this yere sticker path we got now” (17), acquires Oregon land by homesteading, but he quickly realizes that the land he has built the foundation of his home on is slowly being eaten away by the river: “Watching, it occurs to Jonas that it isn’t the bank that is giving way, as one might naturally assume. No. It is the river that is getting wider” (25). Jonas’s dilemma is characterized as an American generational problem. He is a religious man who has left his wife behind in Kansas.

A stringy-muscled brood of restless and stubborn west-walkers, their scattered history shows. With too much bone and not enough meat, and on the move ever since that first day the first skinny immigrant Stamper took his first step off the boat onto the eastern shore of the continent. On the move with a kind of trancelike dedication. Generation after generation leapfrogging west across wild young America; not as pioneers doing the Lord’s work in a heathen land, not as visionaries blazing a trail for a growing nation . . . but simply as a clan of skinny men inclined always toward itchy feet and idiocy, toward foolish roaming, toward believing in greener grass over the hill and straighter hemlocks down the trail. (16)

Jonas eventually loses hope and leaves his sons and wife to go back to Kansas without telling them. He is a failed father. To get money to live and finish the house, Henry Stokes must join a local co-op against his will and pride. Fighting against the expanding river, Henry builds a bank that requires constant maintenance. This is the result of the flawed foundation of the flawed father at the end of the continent. Nature itself de-territorializes the home, and the flawed father returns in the next generation.

Henry Stamper makes up for what his father lacked by becoming ultra masculine and a shrewd ruler of his house. By the time he has a family, “the domain is an absolute monarchy in which no one dares make a move, not even the crown prince himself, without first consulting the Great Ruler” (78). The “crown prince” is Hank, Henry’s first-born. His mother dies and Henry takes a trip back to New York to get another wife. He returns with a woman less than half his age with whom he has a second son, Leland, but he is too old to please her. Lonely and desperate, she develops a romantic relationship with Hank. Leland sees them together as a boy and develops a hatred for his older brother. Leland is brainy instead of brawny and goes off to college; meanwhile his mother leaves the Stamper house and eventually kills herself. Blaming his brother for his mother’s suicide, Leland returns home after his own failed suicide-attempt to take revenge on his brother.

The typological references to sibling rivalry in the book are themselves a reference to Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), which offers a perspective of individual will overcoming the shadows of history and fate. But the generational struggle is different with Kesey. Before leaving to go back home, the young hipster Leland has a session with his psychiatrist, telling him he thinks he is going mad. His doctor tells him, he is not mad.

“You, and in fact quite a lot of your generation, have in some way been exiled from that particular sanctuary. It’s become almost impossible for you to ‘go mad’ in the classical sense. At one time people conveniently ‘went mad’ and were never heard from again. Like a character in a romantic novel. But now” – And think he even went so far as to yawn – “you are too hip to yourself on a psychological level. You are all too intimate with too many of the symptoms of insanity to be completely off your guard. Another thing: all of you have a talent for releasing frustration through clever fantasy.” (71)

Leland’s entire generation has been so “normed” they do not know where else to go. The psychologist proves to be right in a way, for Leland’s fantasy becomes set on outdoing his overly masculine older brother by stealing his wife, Viv. And through the novel we see him plot with hipster leanings toward paranoid schizophrenia and “sensitive” masculinity. Hank’s masculinity is as much as trap for him as anything. Everyone wants to fight him, including his younger brother. In his ultimate confrontation with Hank, Leland performs his failure at physically overpowering Hank while demonstrating that his plot to disrupt Hank’s marriage worked. But in a characteristically Keseyan twist, the brothers unite together to save their family business in a desperate attempt to fight labor unions, and Viv leaves both of them. Like Chief at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the shift in narrative frame accomplishes an expanded sense of citizenship, even if they are only Kesey’s fantasies of Native-American-ness and femininity.

In disrupting not so much the mythological narratives that Kesey draws on to invoke a literary lineage but the perspective by which myths are told, Kesey challenges both state citizenship and transcendent religion. His use of enchantment occurs partly through his choice of character shifts – in these two examples, a half Native American and a woman from Colorado. Both are associated with a land that becomes re-territorialized through their emerging perspectives. But Kesey enchants at a more subtle level as well.

Sometimes a Great Notion constantly calls attention to its own construction through song and frequent shifts in character’s perspectives. For example, Kesey attempts to one-up William Faulkner by generally using perspective shifts between chapters while occasionally shifting from paragraph to paragraph. In addition, characters interrupt their own narratives to point this out. Leland speaking in first-person, at one point says, “Looking back (I mean now, here, from this particular juncture in time, able to be objective and courageous thanks to the miracle of modern narrative technique), I see the terror clearly” (71). And, in a technical sense, the narrative of the book moves from Viv’s frame on the last page to “Jenny,” a Native American woman, lifting her skirt for a man. These moves mimic camera-like shifts in perspective throughout the novel and point to an “electric” quality of enchantment. In doing so, they gesture outside of the medium of the written word.

Perhaps more overtly, this is accomplished throughout the novel as country song lyrics interrupt scenes from the jukebox in the bar, and even then, more significantly in the title’s allusion to “Goodnight Irene”:

Sometimes I live in the country

Sometimes I live in town,

Sometimes I have a great notion

To jump in the river and drown

Besides being an allusion to suicide by drowning and drugs (the lyrics reference dying of morphine) because a woman left, which seems to unify both Hank and Leland’s situations at the end of the novel, as well as to land and the river in the book, “Goodnight Irene” has a larger cultural significance for Kesey. “Goodnight Irene” was a popular song in the late nineteenth century, but its melody had been forgotten until a Lead Belly performance of it was recorded by John and Alan Lomax. It was then recorded by Pete Seeger and the Weavers in 1950 and became a mega hit. Kesey is directly tapping into not just a hit but also into America’s past. According to John Szwed, between the Weavers’ release of their version in July and October of 1950, the song was heard all over the country in jukeboxes and on the radio “an estimated two million times a day” (249). Although the move is subtle, Kesey uses the texture of recorded music as a way to move into the perennial.

Again, psychedelic aesthetics invoke the perennial as a way to collapse textures into a space beyond time. It is a virtual space in the fact that it is constructed and “produced.” In recorded music, the explosion of folk music during the 1950s was a way to re-territorialize the American landscape in the postwar years. It was also a way to critique state power, and so much of folk music of the time was left-leaning. It hardly needs mentioning that Bob Dylan made this more psychedelic when he “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. What made the move so shocking both to the audience and to Dylan was a perceived inauthenticity in Dylan’s use of instrumentation associated with more commercial music. Commodification removed the intellectual “status” of the austere folk aesthetic. But Dylan seemed to already be aware that there was nothing “authentic” about any of it. It was all performance, and there was nothing wrong with that.

In another way, there was nothing particularly revolutionary about Dylan’s move; in his song structure he remained committed to folk and blues forms, but his lyrics became more narrative-driven, associative and textural – and that, combined with electricity (a familiar psychedelic trope) was what made him psychedelic. What folk listeners had yet to understand was that all of it was already mediated, and their aesthetic was based in a commitment to a virtual presentation of landscape from which they could deterritorialize and the re-territorialize the political landscape. They were simply committed to a kind of naturalism they romanticized. In a nostalgia for the land and the “people” of the land, folk music collectors work to preserve territory, whether it be local, national or “world.” In psychedelic aesthetics, “folk texture” becomes one of many ways to invoke the perennial through the gesture of a return to “nature” or the land. The technological innovations in musical production destroyed any sort of claim to naturalism in recorded music. In his brilliant study, Echo and Reverb: Fabricating Space in Popular Music Recording 1900-1960, Peter Doyle traces how early uses of reverb were used to convey a kind of naturalism through a sense of vastness of space. However, by the late 1950s, musical production had shifted beyond appealing to naturalism and created entirely virtual space:

Reverberation and echo simply are sonic attributes of physical space. When discussing the nature of the space(s) inferred by the use of echo and reverb on recordings, however, especially when lyrics do not cue us to imagine specific space(s), we move further into connotation; in teasing these meanings out, we run the risk of interpreting idiosyncratically, of over interpreting, or of misreading. (14)

Again, this can be connected to the virtual space alluded to by Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood’s End with regard to the cinema and Lary May’s writings about “produced culture.” The virtual space in psychedelic aesthetics provides another access point to the perennial.

But the perennialism of psychedelic aesthetics also builds out of the modernist avant-garde aesthetics of failure, and that is why my initial chapters linking psychedelic aesthetics to European thought are important. The failure of traditional masculinity was one way to present a critique of the state. While Burroughs accomplished this with surreptitious homosexual encounters with the president in Naked Lunch, Kesey showed it to be a trap. His apathy for the inability to “graduate” from acid tests is already apparent in the fractured ending of Sometimes a Great Notion. Viv does not know where she is going, she is simply going. The only recourse seems to be some “becoming” of other that knows its failure. Of course, this failure is evident in earlier literary figures, and the most famously inspiring figure for both Kesey and Dylan is the figure of the beatnik hipster.

Power is generally redistributed in the literature of the 1950s and 1960s. When Jack Kerouac imposes his white privilege in On the Road calling the “Negro” the essential American, he expresses more than the invisibility of white power and its ability to drain who or what it others by its narrative enthusiasm. The ignorance of the power is indicative of the power itself – a power unrecognized because it is taken for granted. Because power powers, it does not recognize. As such, much of the Beat and post-Beat poetry, like the emerging avant-garde jazz of the period, is fundamentally about the intensity of energy outside of source. Taking away existing harmonic song structures essentially produces the perennial, it moves to a state preceding functional harmony. The convention in avant-garde jazz at the time was to begin a piece with a pre-written melody or “head,” and then to use that as a point of departure into free improvisation. This process dramatically performs the psychedelic experience. But in a narrative medium like fictional literature, getting to the perennial requires associative and allegorical moves. It is these moves that accomplish the transference of power by creating a state of “becoming,” as Deleuze and Guattari would say.

The perennial brings one into contact with one’s desire. Desire here ceases to be a lack. If racial essentialism is present unconsciously, in the perennial it will be overt and part of what Kleps called the “shitstorm” of enlightenment. Kerouac’s essentialism has been noted by many in passages like the following from On the Road: “I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” (180). If one takes his desire seriously, however, then one has to acknowledge that “true” American citizenship is coded as “non-white.” White power and masculinity, like the European imaginary, fail in the perennial, especially as citizenship expands and new narratives are formed – at least this is how the aesthetics figure it.

The figure of the Beat attempts to shrug off the weight of biology as it exists socially while maintaining a certain naivety concerning the fact that the choice to sacrifice himself is a self-employed consecration. At least part of this had to do with a generation feeling they were inheriting a “utopia” they had never asked for.   It is important to note that Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s narrator, fails to become an essential American. The book itself performs a kind of failure. Sal meets Dean Moriarty just after his marriage has fallen apart. His New York intellectual friends bore him with their “negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons, but Dean just raced society eager for bread and love; he didn’t care one way or the other” (8). Moriarty’s appeal initially comes to Sal as a kind of feigned or even anti-intellectualism from just as keen a mind as his New York friends. This is what makes Sal take his initial trip out west beginning his life “on the road,” because “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line I knew the pearl would be handed to me.” But the novel ends with Sal reluctantly off to a bourgeois concert with New York friends and Dean romantically off west again.

Kerouac’s personal goals for his work also perform a kind of spiritual failure. Ann Charters has noted that

Kerouac was never able to convince his critics that the Beat Generation was ‘basically a religious generation,’ but his friend [John Clellon] Holmes understood that the characters of On the Road were actually ‘on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. (xxix)

It was for Holmes an inward turn despite the outward-ness of the traveling. Even so, Sal and Dean never succeed in finding Dean’s absent father, and by the end Kerouac rests in the cold comfort that “nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old” (307). It is deeply Romantic, but more than being optimistic, it is a performance of failure.

Kerouac’s aspirations to mysticism accompany an abdication of the responsibility of privilege. The romantic “holiness” of the artist privileges the self while sacrificing the self’s power. Who it “others” may never have asked for the blood of the self-sacrificing artist. Nevertheless, the sacrifice is there – the blood of privilege that destroys itself in its last attempt to maintain control. But like any such violent act, the demonstration is itself the demonstration of powerlessness. Viv, like the Dean Moriarty at the end of On the Road, simply disappears into the distance.

The difference between On the Road and Sometimes a Great Notion, however,is poignantly revealed in narrative comparison. In the latter, the reader has more freedom to travel with Viv or to recede from the book. A certain “naivety” accompanies the Beat, embedded in the knowing-non-acknowledgment of modernism’s failure, because the enthusiasm of the spiritual quest remains genuine. The Beat believes in his holiness, but the move to self-sacrifice for the sake of holiness is larger than any individual decision to self-sacrifice. The decision to perform sacrifice itself arises from the cultural reconfiguration of power and privilege. Although Kerouac’s narrator is not emasculated in the same way Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert, Kesey’s McMurphy, and Pynchon’s Slothrop are, Sal Paradise can do nothing but go to a boring concert and think of the layered poetic figure of desire that Dean Moriarty has become – a tragic return to one-dimensionality. What keeps Kerouac’s On the Road from really displaying psychedelic aesthetics then, is its fetishization of failure – (he even later came to perform this very failure in his own life). Psychedelic aesthetics, on the other hand, track a certain masculinity that must die and be mythologically disseminated and reborn, but On the Road glorifies its own failure.

However, certainly if anyone bought into the glorification of this failure it was Kerouac’s readers and the emerging displaced affluent youth who had nowhere to turn in a utopic society overcome by its own anxiety, to put it in Lary May’s terms. And Kesey was an avid consumer of Kerouac. Becoming involved at one level requires an act of will and at another level an overcoming of that will. Groups like the Merry Pranksters sought to overcome the will through affective means, but they certainly weren’t the only group to do so. John Gruen, in The New Bohemia (1966) referred to this produced culture as “combine culture”: “The true emblem of this New Bohemia,” he says, “is action – physical, mental, emotional.” He contrasts these youth with Jack Kerouac and the beats in terms of mobility:

[The combine generation’s] highway leads not so much through the Whitmanian wonderment of these United States, as through the currently more relevant Whitmanian social awareness of the development of comradeship, the beautiful and sane affection of man for man. (9)

Mobility, process, means over ends, but also means overcoming themselves: these characteristics are present in psychedelic aesthetics, as well as a transcending of geographical place, accomplishing a more hazy distinction between ‘subject’ and ‘world.’ Artifice here ceases to be alienated from nature and instead presents as ‘organic’. As Bob Dylan sings, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” but the weathermen’s terrorism is merely the performance of a return to a pre-political state of nature. There is nothing necessarily in the return to the state of nature that means it must be non-violent. Thomas Hobbes would perhaps laugh and shrug, but he would also be deeply concerned with the complete lack of controlled meaning through associative aesthetics.

If the narrative of the trip itself becomes allegorical, a kind of pilgrimage, the story of the psychedelic experience in many ways can be superimposed onto Sal Paradise. What began as guided trips in the “overly intellectual” east coast psychology became a free for all on the west coast. As Tom Wolfe tells it, the entire trip the Merry Pranksters began with the assumption that they were all already crazy: “The trip, in fact the whole deal, was a risk-all balls-out plunge into the unknown, and it was assumed merely that more and more of what was already inside a person would come out and expand, gloriously or otherwise” (87). Kesey’s prankster was an updated form of Leland the hipster from Sometimes a Great Notion, so familiar with the symptoms of madness, he could not do anything to escape it. In such a situation one might as well recognize the entire metaphysical situation as a game. Once this is recognized, it all becomes performance. The existing social structures in America became the stage for this performance:

Pranksters were out among them, and the citizens of the land were gawking and struggling to summon up the proper emotion for this – what in the name of God are the ninnies doing. But the opposite was happening, too. On those long stretches of American superhighway between performances the bus was like a pressure cooker, a crucible, like one of those chambers in which the early atomic scientists used to compress heavy water, drive the molecules closer and closer together until the very atoms exploded. On the bus all traces of freakiness or competition or bitterness were intensified. (Wolfe 88)


Fiction becomes reality in psychedelic aesthetics.



[1] Both film versions of these novels ignore the dramatic situation implied by the storyteller, hence they miss the point of the transfer of power present in Kesey’s work and a larger thrust in his critique of modern subjectivity.

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