Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The religion of the masses posted by Adam Marks
In 1938 Albert Hoffman developed the most important drug of the 20th century. I am speaking of LSD-25.
LSD is a twentieth century drug. Invented, perfected and propagated in the twentieth century. It reached the height of social significance during a period of upheaval and challenge. People placed great significance on it. Its various advocates saw it as a cure for alcoholism, a lever for psychiatry, a chemical weapon, a sacrament and the agency of revolution.
The period of upheaval is, of course, the nineteen sixties. The fallout from the sixties helped create the stasis of the 80s, 90s and 21st century. It helped make us who we are today and for that reason its worth looking at. It’s also worth noting that acid a social phenomenon will probably never come again.
Why the focus on mind altering substances? More or less for the observation Hunter S Thompson made at the end of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: consciousness expansion went out with the sixties. Looking back in 1971 he recalls:
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour... booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turnoff to take when I got to the other end... but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: no doubt at all about that...
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda... 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. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
The sixties were a culmination of a slow awakening from the war nightmare (by the way, what a wonderful passage that is!). The war babies had become post war adults. Scarcity and violence had been abolished. The world of virtue and delayed pleasure, the world their parents inhabited, made no sense. What’s rational is actual. The world was ripe for overturning. What do we want? When do we want it?
The extent to which the world fought back to a greater degree determined the political level of youth culture. In America there was the obvious clash with the Vietnam war draft and Jim Crow. I don’t want to dwell on it, but it’s easy to imagine Sgt Pepper in America as an uptight bureaucrat or politician instead of a charming bandleader.
The sixties were made for uppers, consciousness expansion. Unlimited horizons draw people on, trying to reach vanishing point. Take the spiritual dimension of LSD. Religion in the west taught delayed pleasure and humble worship through powerful institutions (catholic faith has to travel through a middle man, the priest, there is no other way). The youth movement did look to eastern religion for inspiration and a spiritual centre, varieties of Buddhism and Hinduism. But you still have the problem, why wait for pleasure and enlightenment when you can get it all for 3 bucks a hit?
Historians and HST fans know the next line:
So now, less than five years later, you can up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark – that place where the wave broke and rolled back.
Their energy didn’t simply prevail. The kids didn’t break on through to the other side. Youth/drug culture of the seventies was locked in a “survival trip”. Downers became the vogue: “whatever Fucks You Up – whatever short circuits your brain and grounds it out for as long as possible”.
It’s a neat illustration of social change as viewed through drug consumption.
As long as people have had minds they’ve had minds to alter. There is the Terrence McKenna theory of the legend of the fall of man (the tree of knowledge held an ergot infected fruit, which first galvanised our ancestor’s minds). An example: the Chinese were the first people reckoned to have cultivated cannabis, around 2,600 BC. Herodotus, meanwhile, was the first western historian to have recorded its use as drug (in Scythia people used to throw seeds on hot stones, inhale the vapour and “howl with joy”).
But we can already see the interaction of drug and society is more complicated than good times/bad times. Return to the spiritual theme: one of the most famous proselytisers of LSD was Timothy Leary. He promoted LSD as both a force for revolution and the foundation of a new religion (originally predicted by Aldous Huxley).
What he was driving at was the parallel between (in particular) Buddhist concepts of death and reincarnation and familiar psychedelic experiences (ego-loss, oceanic consciousness, “I know what it’s like to be dead” etc). He tried to reconcile these different experiences, to this end he wrote The Psychedelic Experience, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was written to be whispered to the dying as they passed between incarnations.
On this basis he was able to sell LSD as a sacrament to an affluent but alienated generation. By the sixties, western Christianity had long been in decline, its basis worn away by numerous scientific and social discoveries. Perhaps its sole appeal remained as a communal focal point, the ritual being an end in itself (best described, and critiqued in the bleak lyric of Eleanor Rigby: perhaps the Beatles most blunt social commentary).
This had very little appeal for a generation that felt it didn’t have to wait for the afterlife when it knew it could have heaven on earth. But why wasn’t there heaven on earth? Now we get onto the first part of Leary’s prescription.
We've talked a lot about the rise of the military/industrial complex in WW2 and the determining effect it had. While the permanent arms economy was able to deliver a long boom and keep the working class sated it thoroughly smothered all life and vibrancy.
Leary was a renegade Harvard psychologist. His philosophy has been described as a blend of “post-Freudian psychology, zen and New Left utopianism”. When regarding society he drew on the model of the Id, Ego and Superego. The id is unbridled desire: I want, I need. The superego is the conscience: I should, I ought. Where these two meet the ego, the outward personality is formed. What people feel they should or ought to do is determined by society.
In Leary’s (and our) age this is industrial capitalism. If people were so intensely atomised, moulded and reorganised by the capitalist system, introducing a powerful hallucinogenic drug such as LSD, with its sense enhancing, ego-shattering power, could easily catalyse social revolution.
This was a widely held model, from Kesey’s Merry Pranksters to Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies to the Situationists. Sensory disruption, the freak out, the acid test, became a standard tactic for political activists. The fact that any Russian populist could have told them the limits of the “propaganda of the deed” didn’t matter. The target was the head, the military/industrial complex, the rational machine that processed young people into crew cut drones fit for the factory, office or army. Acid would break people’s commitment and belief in that system.
Which is an irony as LSD was, if anything, the creation of the scientific (and military) establishment.
The hallucinogenic properties of LSD-25 were first discovered on April 19th 1943, 5 years after it was created, when Albert Hoffman experimented on himself in what’s now known as the Bicycle Day (Hoffman asked his assistant to escort him home on a bicycle after the effects began to kick in).
LSD was introduced into America in 1948 and was soon hailed as a cure-all for schizophrenia to criminality to alcoholism. In the 50s it was common to use the drug in psychiatry. Between 1950 and 1975 over 1,000 research papers were written into LSD and other hallucinogens. Many of them were connected with research conducted for the American government, who investigated its potential as a truth drug, a form of psychic torture and even a chemical weapon (there’s some wonderful footage still around of the effects of LSD on military discipline).
Thousands upon thousands of people participated in these tests, from Timothy Leary to Ken Kesey to the actor Cary Grant. It was out of military bases, hospitals and, in particular, university campuses that LSD made its way into wider circulation, becoming a recreational drug.
What of drugs and society today? LSD will probably never have the same importance it did forty-fifty years ago. The common reaction to alienation and exploitation over the past twenty-thirty years has been flight. Autonomism came out of Marxism. It was refined into a theory that proposed instead of promoting and organising social confrontation, radicals should aim for immediate, small-scale (but, presumably spreading) rebellion, creating an autonomous space free from capital.
An early example of this would be the flight of the New Left in southern California to agricultural communes in a “back to the land” movement. We might suggest that widely practiced autonomism would be just as unsuccessful as the communes of the sixties and seventies. Without a stable axis, New Left politics and in particular LSD culture, drifted from oceanic consciousness to introspection and finally to outright self-regard and avarice… just in time for the eighties!
The neo-liberal era drug of choice has been ecstasy. In Britain the Second Summer of Love, the anti-poll tax movement and the fall of Thatcher came hot on the heels and complimented each other. They were pivotal in creating modern Britain. MDMA is the running theme of that period.
We live in an age where people are fighting to recover class-consciousness, ideas such as solidarity and social well-being. The job is still at hand. While LSD has a great past Ecstasy could still have a momentous future.