“I Thought That Was The Point”

Brain Waving / by John Perry Barlow, AlterNet, May 20, 2010

How LSD Destroyed God’s (and Dad’s) Rigid Authority and Ended the Dull 1950s

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 following is adapted from the Foreword to Birth of a Psychedelic Culture: Conversations about Leary, the Harvard Experiments, Millbrook and the Sixties, by Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner with Gary Bravo, from Synergetic Press.

LSD is a drug that produces fear in people who don’t take it.  -Timothy Leary

It’s now almost half a century since that day in September 1961 when a mysterious fellow named Michael Hollingshead made an appointment to meet Professor Timothy Leary over lunch at the Harvard Faculty Club. When they met in the foyer, Hollingshead was carrying with him a quart jar of sugar paste into which he had infused a gram of Sandoz LSD. He had smeared this goo all over his own increasingly abstract consciousness and it still contained, by his own reckoning, 4,975 strong (200 mcg) doses of LSD. The mouth of that jar became perhaps the most significant of the fumaroles from which the ’60s blew forth.

Everybody who continues to obsess on the hilariously terrifying cultural epoch known as the ’60s – which is to say, most everybody from “my gege-generation,” the post-War demographic bulge that achieved permanent adolescence during that era – has his or her own sense of when the ’60s really began. There are a lot of candidates: the blossoming pink cloud in the Zapruder film, Mario Savio’s first speech in Sproul Plaza, the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the Beatles’ first appearance on the the Ed Sullivan Show, the first Acid Test, the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, the release of the song “Good Vibrations,” the day Jerry Garcia got kicked out of the army. But as often as not, if you are a Boomer, the ’60s began for surreal on the day you dropped acid. And if that is when the shit hit your personal fan, you may owe a debt of ambiguous gratitude to the appealingly demonic young sociopath who conveyed the Stark Bolt of Chemical Revelation to the nice young gentlemen of the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

The essential tameness of the group that was to become so notorious is only one fascinating feature of discourse to follow between the Project’s second and third most celebrated veterans: Ram Dass ( who as Richard Alpert, PhD, was Tom Sawyer to Tim Leary’s Huckleberry Finn) and Dr. Ralph Metzner (who began as an acolyte and wound up presiding over the remains).

Thanks in very large part to the subsequent exertions of Drs. Leary, Alpert and Metzner, the experience was one shared over the following decade by tens of millions of Americans, the larger part of whom found it difficult ever after to take seriously the verities that few in Eisenhower’s America would have questioned. Our paradigm got fucking well shifted. At least mine certainly did. And so, I would venture, did that of the United States of America, during the trip we took between 1961 and 1972.

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. Before acid hit American culture, even the rebels believed, as Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman implicitly did, in something like God-given authority. Authority, all agreed, derived from a system wherein God or Dad (or, more often, both) was on top and you were on the bottom. And it was no joke. Whatever else one might think of authority, it was not funny. But after one had rewired one’s self with LSD, authority – with its preening pomp, its affection for ridiculous rituals of office, its fulsome grandiloquence, and eventually, and sublimely, its tarantella around Mutually Assured Destruction – became hilarious to us and there wasn’t much we could do about it.

No matter how huge and fearsome the puppets, once one’s perceptions were wiped clean enough by the psychedelic solvent to behold their strings and the mechanical jerkiness of their behavior, it was hard to suppress the giggles. Though our hilarity has since been leavened with tragedy, loss, and a more appropriate sense of our own foolishness, we’re laughing still.

Birth of a Psychedelic Culture is a saga of holy heroism. The people in it were like the Lewis and Clark of the Mind. But it is also a cautionary tale and contained within it is a lot of the real reason that America had such a visceral immune reaction to our sudden, terrifying and transforming “Otherness” in the middle of its consciousness.

Before delightedly steering the train off its rails, we were given a glimpse of grace and infinity. But like all that is utterly true, the lightning was brief and the thunder rolls still. In the beginning for me – and for many of us – there was the realization that religion was mostly the creation of God in man’s own image.

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Hunter S. Thompson recalled 1965 and 1966 in San Francisco like this (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, pg 68):

“There was madness in any direction, at any hour … You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. And that, I think, was the handle – that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail.”

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Since there is nothing authority hates worse than being laughed at, the authorities resolved to make themselves even less funny. The harder the acid heads laughed, the more bellicose, pig-headed, and, well … authoritarian the Powers became.

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And then, lest we forget, throughout much of this period, and scarcely mentioned by anybody, acid head or Republican Whip, was the greatest surreality of all: the almost universal belief that somewhere and some time soon, someone would foul up and launch the nuclear storm thatwould glaze the planet with our elemental constituents. And if you couldn’t laugh at that, what could you laugh at?

Now, it seems many of these horrors may be consigned to the history of a future that never happened. While new horrors surely await us, very few still believe we’re likely to go “toe-to-toe with the Russkies” in nuclear combat as Slim Pickens put it in one of the most immortal lines of the 1960s.

Better still, the worst of the authoritarian prigs have so magnificently shot their wad during eight long years of Cheney/Bush that only those savagely beaten by their own fathers or the clergy support them now.

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Aside from the coming kerfuffle over war crimes indictments and ongoing skirmishes along the Mason-Dixon Line, the War Between the Fifties and the Sixties may be finally drawing to an end. Indeed, as I write these words, the President of the United States, in addition to being black and self-admittedly smart and well-educated, strikes me as a fellow who probably dropped acid at some point. At the least, when asked if he “inhaled,” he replied, “I thought that was the point.”

Now that the worst of it may be over, perhaps it may become possible for various members of Congress, federal judges, ranked military officers, prominent clergy, and captains of industry – aside from the peculiarly honest Steve Jobs – to do as most of these, had they been brave enough, ought to have done decades ago and say in public: There was a moment, years ago, when I took LSD. And, whatever the immediate consequences, it made me a different person than I would have been and different in ways I have been grateful for all this time.

It’s long, but it’s definitely worth it. Read the whole thing here… You’ll be glad you did.


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    • Edger on June 1, 2010 at 00:56

    • TMC on June 1, 2010 at 01:07

    Pretty PET scan

    • banger on June 1, 2010 at 16:26

    I really mean it too. I dropped a fair amount of acid and I thought it brought me and some others to a glimpse of a deeper magic, a deeper reality that was full of possibilities. Acid does bring us closer to truth, in a way. In another way it is seductive and dangerous as all seductive things are. On the good side, acid indeed acted as an acid and helped dissolve the culture–but what has replaced it?

    Why do I say destructive: First of all, the state wears off after you come down and you only know that something is possible not that it exists. Second, what is actually going on when you trip is your brain is open to a stunning amount of possibilities and it has to rapidly re-organize itself to create a narrative structure this causes it imagine connections because it (the brain) requires connections of some kind even if they are pretend. So you are creating frameworks quickly and then breaking them as new information comes flooding in. At some point you just give up and you glimpse something real–then you make stuff up again. This is, in a few hours, what happens through spiritual training–only with spiritual training you don’t lose it because there is no drug to wear off–you find that the possibility is an actuality.

    The proof is in the pudding. America, after acid, went on a long trip into endless fantasy and imaginary worlds. Where we better off as a culture? No. Where we better of politically? No, absolutely not–I was in the middle of it and I saw the left virtually collapse between in the early seventies. Was it caused by acid? No, not completely, but it disoriented enough fine minds who ended up chasing rainbows in the mind.

    We stopped organizing in-part because we saw the universe as self-organizing–actually it is that we forgot that we were part of the universe and we were the part of the universe that is supposed to organize.

    It is because the intellectual left abandoned, not so much politics, but the struggle that is ongoing, as we now see. For all their faults European leftists never stopped–that’s why they have social democracies and we don’t. Acid taught us just to watch the pretty colors and look for endless stimulation and conditioned us to the virtual tripping that our culture has become.  

  1. Tells you what kind of trajectory I’ve been on. Thanks for posting this up!

  2. … who wouldn’t find it inappropriate if the U.S. posthumously awarded Timothy Leary the Medal of Freedom.

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