Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Greater New York takes a break from primary-related controversies, and Gov. David Paterson’s ridiculous allegation that he was obliged to fess up to his infidelities because of some sort of secret spy squad within the New York State Police---this not especially well connected blogger heard rumors of his carryings on before he made it public, and it must have common coin among those in the know in Albany---to note a significant passing, the death, at the very respectable age of 102, of Albert Hoffmann, the discoverer, or probably more accurately, the inventor of LSD.

It was in 1943, in a Switzerland surrounded by a Europe at war, that Hoffmann, an industrial chemist, first ingested LSD, and had his famous bicycle trip, where the world seemed new to him, its colors changed, and every flower and tree pregnant with new meaning. In the pantheon of the greatest of illegal drugs—marijuana, cocaine, heroin and various other opiates—only LSD can be limited to a particular period of time, really just a handful of years, about 1965 to 1970. (Let me say that when I was young and open to such things, I can’t recall ever trying LSD, so what follows are not the nostalgic musings of an ex-tripper.)

It is hard to imagine the late 1960s without LSD, and I suppose it is a mildly interesting counterfactual question of how “the sixties” would have been different without psychedelic drugs. Other drugs were either stimulants or depressants, LSD was neither, or both. Its worked to place people in an entirely different mental space altogether, a radical challenge to conventional notions of what the world was, and how it was supposed to work. Somehow I suspect without LSD, the late 1960s would have been much calmer.

The power of LSD was early recognized; so was its ability to be misused. The CIA experimented with in the early 1950s as a sort of brainwashing/truth serum/chemical torture drug, until several human guinea committed suicide under its influence. And Timothy Leary hijacked its use into something that was purely hedonistic and disgustingly excessive, and in the end he recapitulated the worst aspects of the obsessive consumer culture from which his followers were supposedly trying to escape.

But LSD was intended to be something more; a spiritual chemical, one that could help people unleash their hidden and unknown potentials, and put them into contact with a more elevated plane of existence. And there is considerable evidence, that for many people, LSD and other psychedelic s could do just that. I recently read, for the first time, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, famous for having its title borrowed by Jim Morrison for The Doors. It’s a remarkable work, in parts sober and analytical (he writes listening to the music of the cool serialist Anton von Webern while under the influence, about as far from “Light My Fire” as one could imagine), and in parts an ecstatic paean to the spiritual possibilities of psychedelics. Many took such claims seriously. When LSD and similar psychedelics were still legal, and Timothy Leary was still on the psychology faculty of Harvard University, he convinced Howard Thurman, dean of Chapel at Boston University, on Good Friday in 1963, to permit an “experiment” in which a group of divinity students, in a basement chapel, were given psychedelic drugs in the course of the service. One or two had bad trips; most of the rest reported it was one of the most profound religious experiences of their lives.

But with an anarchic and immature proselytizer like Timothy Leary, LSD never had a chance, and probably, given how powerful a drug it is, it was inevitable that by the mid-1960s it would have widely abused, and then made illegal. I think this is a pity. To the end of his life, Albert Hoffman was convinced that his creation had the potential to revitalize the staid dogmas of traditional religion, creating new religious experiences for every user, rather than forcing seekers to re-live second hand accounts of the past. Obviously there is no need to use chemistry to achieve states of heightened consciousness, and most of the great mystics have their thing without any drugs on board. And there is a debate on whether drug-induced highs can be legitimately compared to “natural” mysticism, and I am no expert, but I think they can be.

As this total non-mystic understands it, when mystics have their moments of ecstatic union, everything trivial falls away, and all is revealed as an interacting and deep and profound unity. This sort of mysticism, as Thurman and others have noted, can be an adjunct to social change, and when the mystic returns to the world, the goal becomes to try to overcome boundaries, and seek the unity of humanity that is the goal of all true religions. Or something like that. We certainly were not mature enough as a society in the 1960s to deal seriously with the implications of manufactured spirituality, and I doubt we are now. In the meanwhile, if it’s okay with you, I will picture myself in a boat in a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

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