In 1961 Harvard social science and psychology researcher Timothy Leary, then engaged in a series of retrospectively bland experiments with psilocybin, was given his first dose of LSD. In considering the long-term effects of this meeting, John Perry Barlow comments in his excellent introduction to Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Millbrook and the Sixties that: "One can make a non-ludicrous case that the most important event in the cultural history of America since the [1860s] was the introduction of LSD." The arguments and perspectives on why this might be the case are so tangled as to be impossible to unravel. With Birth of a Psychedelic Culture, however, editor Gary Bravo has put together a handsome effort in collating and presenting the voices, mementos, documents, and diaries relating to what for everyone involved was nothing less than the good fortune to have participated in a unique journey. That the memories of these experiences have all too often been forgotten, misinterpreted, or fallen into disrepute during the periods of misfortune, confusion, and deep affliction that have elapsed since then--and despite the fact that a large number of these recollections have vanished or have by legal necessity been suppressed--only makes the presenting of these experiences in a publicly accessible historical record an act of incalculable value.
In this way Birth of a Psychedelic Culture tells the story of one of the first communities of its kind and how it endeavored to change the landscape of the future. What was peculiar about this group was that they spontaneously summoned into being a mystery tradition that shook the world while working (at first) within the heart of an established culture of science that felt that everything, very soon, would be perfectly under control and that the "problem" of consciousness itself would soon be "solved" in terms of an apprehensible mechanism. Consciousness, however, seemed to have had its own ideas on the subject and was inclined to strike back. These are the stories about how it happened.
Birth of a Psychedelic Culture is an oral history of what the poet Rimbaud might call a secret religious war--which is to say that it is the story of a conflict in which the stakes were the highest ideals and possibilities of humanity. This story is told through the voices of numerous people, as no single person's viewpoint, however expansive, could hope to capture this history in a comprehensive way. Considering the nature of the psychedelic culture in question, what was of greatest value to the participants was often of the most subjective and incommunicable nature, so the collaborative collage approach is a sane way to go.
Leading this oral historical charge are the two stars of Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert) and Ralph Metzner, who sat at Timothy Leary's right and left hands. Leary, by virtue of being dead, is largely absent from the present day conversation (although a good deal of his writings and letters are included within the collection of texts in this book). Nevertheless, he counts as the single most significant presence throughout the accounts.
Much has been written by and about Leary regarding his role in setting psychedelics and American culture on their collision course. And yet I still found it refreshing to reflect on the perspectives presented within these pages by those individuals who, although equally central, by virtue of being less notorious cast a shorter shadow across "official" memory. One of the most interesting features of this book is the fact that joining Ram Dass and Metzner--whose conversations with Bravo form the bulk of the text--are a rich assortment of shorter but no less personal statements by a wide selection of surviving individuals who were involved with psychedelics in the 1960s. If Leary, Ram Dass, and Metzner were the "fathers" of the movement, then these other folks were the mothers, foster-parents, midwives, baby-sitters, mischievous aunts and uncles, fellow travelers, and simple eyewitnesses to the growth of the culture that was birthed during that time. Much of the book's charm lies in the voices of these tangential diversions from the main interviews. Additionally, it is made more engaging by including a multimedia collage of images, documents (Leary's request on official Harvard stationary to Olympia Press for a banned copy of William S. Burroughs' book Naked Lunch "for research purposes" is particularly cute), and snapshots, some of which are quite striking and haunting.
Like most ripping yarns--whether they happened as told, or not--the stories in this volume tend to settle down upon reflection into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning here covers the initial encounter between establishment-sanctioned research and psychedelic drugs, during which barriers between researcher and subject broke down, and many of those involved began to reject the scientific approach in favor of a more spiritual outlook. As the inevitable notoriety of their increasingly public statements occasioned exile from the establishment, focus shifted to the first "retreat" centers and intentional communities such as the Zihuatanejo Project in Mexico, which collapsed almost as soon as it started. These were followed by a period of wandering before Leary and his crew settled in Millbrook, New York. Now that everyone had decided that they were on a spiritual path, they needed to get down to the brass tacks of figuring out just what that path was anyway, and how they might expect to walk it.
The scene shifts again in the middle, as egos came out of the woodwork; science and spirituality were pushed aside as show business began stealing the scene. The middle section is characterized by neurotic hang-ups, internecine conflicts, the excesses of sheep among wolves, mistaking personal projections as universal truths, the fracturing of what was previously whole, etc. At one point in the narrative Metzner relays a dream he'd had at the time featuring himself, Ram Dass, and Leary as vaudeville song-and-dance men, doing their routines in front of a laughing audience. By the time that the three wise men turned three stooges started actually traveling to the East themselves, the book becomes a celebrity gossip bio-pic. It's about their rock-star status, and is co-morbid with the break-up of the movement, largely dominated by celebrity name-dropping, glamour, and the "games" associated with entropy and fame.
Concurrently, issues are raised concerning the rise of the freak culture (Ken Kesey and friends' "acid tests") and its conflicts with the now-old-guard "serious" pioneers--a break-up from within the culture, reflecting a sort-of symmetry with the increased police and political persecution from outside of the culture.
By the end of the period covered in the book, the viral memes of psychedelic culture had experienced just the sort of quantum leap Leary had hoped for, to the extent that they triggered the immune response of one of the more vengeful and paranoid establishment-cultures on the planet. The reader is thus given an excursion around the shoals against which a great many expectations were wrecked--a sadder, soberer, lost-in-the-wilderness kind of landscape characterized by exhaustion, craziness, legal hassles, and prison; the glum reverse spectacle of enthusiasm's retreat.
The pathos of this section comes from watching friendships collapse, loves fade, partnerships implode, loyalties injured, and connections permanently compromised; in short, betrayals by those people who had meant the most to one another. The book concludes with a long look back, and the churning of wisdom that only a lot of living can provide. It's nice to have it all in the participants' very own words.
A note about the importance of oral histories: people telling stories in their own voices is an essential element in creating a truly empathic bond with "history". Listening to first-person accounts is what makes it possible to care about these stories. It's what enables the engineering of an emotional bond with an abstraction like "history".
So the next question is why would a person want an emotional bond with these histories? One answer might be that if you are reading this review, chances are that these histories are your histories, too. Even those who would never identify with the stories here need go no further than to open personal computers and access the Internet in order to be in direct contact with the force with which the history of psychedelics changed the world. At the time of these histories many believed the arrival of LSD on the cultural scene somehow compensated cosmically for the arrival of the atomic bomb. Seen in these terms, the fact that we've not become a glazed protein crust on the surface of a charred rock may itself be among the sneakiest and most profound legacies of psychedelics.
John Perry Barlow's introduction seems as good a summation of the importance of the book as one could ask for from someone of the generation that lived through these experiences. It would be difficult to praise Barlow's words highly enough. They're everything that writing should be: smart, funny, sad, well-researched, and brimming with perspective. Barlow writes:
[…While Leary] and the rest of us crazy angels had truly delivered some form of apocalypse, it could not actually take effect in a couple of years or even a couple of generations. No revelation so culturally shattering was going to be universally accepted overnight. No generation that called itself Now was going to find lengthy evolution palatable, but that was what was on our plate nonetheless.
Obliquely, this brings up the question of what a younger reader, from among the "couple of generations" that followed, might be expected to take away from Birth of a Psychedelic Culture. Of all the material and memory presented, by far the most pleasure a young reader can expect to take from the text will be gotten from the "beginning", the thrill of which is watching the maddest ideas take flight and observing the high ratio of ideation to follow-through. By the time the younger reader reaches the "middle", however, there may be some degree of confrontation with jealousy. To a certain extent, it was hard to read these accounts and not feel jealousy or discouragement. Reading descriptions of tripping at the Taj Mahal with Leary and his supermodel wife simply made me cross. What is this book? Yet another desire-producing image machine? Taking it all in, however, means taking it all in, including the fashion magazine crap (hard, though, when there's so many "foxy chicks" and "exquisite men" getting high with famous people). Experiencing the "ending" could occasion depression, or at least disappointment. At worst, it can be cause for scorn. At best, it resolves into the desire to honor the dead and move forward. Jealousy as a reaction is understandable, but contraindicated. It's a waste of time, since psychonautical exploration is still possible. There are new chemical mysteries today, new sacraments to discover, new alliances to be made, and the "script" is by no means, "They were pioneers and we can't be."
With that in mind, Birth of a Psychedelic Culture offers much in the way of encouragement (from the first part) as well as a host of sensible cautionary strategies (to be gleaned from the middle and end). For one thing, a conclusion worth considering might be that if you are going to invest in the creation of a mystery school, it's not a terrible idea to keep your mystery school mysterious. The most "successful" scions of this era are probably people you've never heard of, who didn't make it into this book. It is perfectly understandable why this was not the tactic used at the inception of psychedelic culture, seeing as the race was on to avert Armageddon and transform mutually assured destruction into mutually assured enlightenment. It was understood to be a race that would be won by assuming responsibility for your own brain and your own beliefs.
For the descendents of a generation whose central question became: "Now that I realize it's possible to choose, how do I want to live?", the process of engaging with that question is among the most significant of inheritances. And it's an inheritance whose value is under almost constant attack. To be part of this community means to be part of a community under siege. Even if the cops are not kicking down your door, the fact of the matter is that consensus reality is against you, and where it succeeds, it succeeds in making you feel lame, damaged, irrelevant, just some fucking hedonist, or another sad drug weirdo in the parade of failure.
In counterpoint to this, and in one of the most charming passages in the book, Metzner reflects on their experience and likens it to the story of Marco Polo and his companions on their own, literal, journey to the East: "They were three travelers and explorers, related by family, who traveled to the East, bringing back cultural artifacts, but more importantly, knowledge of the wonders of as yet undiscovered worlds."
This book belongs on the shelves of anybody who feels a connection to these histories, and is of sneaky and profound importance to anyone curious about why their world is shaped the way it is today. As the singer-songwritter Leonard Cohen reminds us, "There is a war between the ones who say 'there is a war' and the ones who say 'there isn't.' Why don't you come on back to the war?" Well, read Birth of a Psychedelic Culture and you can.
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