Though LSD was first synthesized more thall twenty years ago, national illumination as to the effects of psychedelics did not occur until the Harvard scandal of 1962-63. University authorities objected to the "use" of undergraduates in experimeats begun in 1960 by Professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Forced to leave Cambridge, Leary and Alpert, with research fellow Ralph Metzner, began a hegira, first attempting to found psychedelic communities in Newton, Mass , then in Mexico, then on a Caribbean island, finally at the Castalia Foundation in Millbrook, NY, where Leary lives and works with a small group devoted to the exploration of the consciousness-expanding drugs. On the way, a great deal of straight-out evangelism has been generated for the experience in scores of lectures and discussions, as well as in a scholarly journal, The Psychedelic Review, and a book, The Psychedelic, Experience (University Books, 1964), which is a manual based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Further manuals—on scienstific, therapeutic and aesthetic models—are promised).
Ihe double-edged promise of psychedelic exstasis—psychosis/enlightenment—is sufficiently fearsome to keep many potential voyagers from taking a trip. The danger of flipping out—permanently losing touch with reality—is quite real, although casualty rates on psychedelic experiences are hard to come by, and perhaps fewer than one in 10,000 experiences results in lasting mental damage.
LSD has been used with varying degrees of success, in psychotherapy, as well as in the, training of psychiatrists ("this is what psychotics feel like…"), the treatment of alcoholics, and the reduction of anxiety in terminal cancer patients. Further, as Aldaus Huxley put it, today’s "aspiring mystic" would be foolish to try self-flagellation and prolonged fasting. He should, Huxley advised, knowing "the chemical conditions of transcendental experience…turn for technical help to the specialists…"
So far LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, et al., are legally available only to professional investigators, who have filed their research programs with the Food and Drug Administration (psychedelics, which are not addictive, do not come under narcotic codes), but the drugs are not hard to obtain from local connections. And now that marijuana, which is a mild psychedelic, is acknowledged kid stuff, the use of wonder drugs can be expected to increase dramatically.
For all the talk. testimonials and debate, however, there have as yet been n o public sessions—after all, the drugs are illegal, and who wants gawkers anyway. But how to translate the experience into terms the uninitiated can understand by subjective reports? Scientific analyses? How-to lessons? Humble question-and-answer sessions? None of these stratagems do the job, since, ultimately, either you have or haven’t taken a trip yourself.
Luckily, art imitates life, and lectures-cum-demonstrations were introduced this spring at the Village Vanguard in New York. A series of Monday night sessions, opened June 14 at the New Theatre, 154 East 54th St. The lean, tanned, Giotto-saintlike Leary calmly announced on the first night that in the past six months the psychedelic revolution had been won. There are now available (1) the accounts of explorers, spokesmen and publicists, (2) manuals and maps for the trip; and (3) materials to go up on.
"And tonight," Leary continued, "we are going to run a session for you. We are going to try to turn you on."
But short of a real drug-dole, how, if the experience really is Something Else, can the ordinary audio-visual techniques produce a trip? The key to the possibility of a psychedelic theatre is the notion of the "contact high"—an experience attained solely by being with—tuning into—someone who is up on the drug. Further, it seems to be possible, even though chemical traces of LSD do not linger in the brain, to lapse into or recapture psychedelic intoxication long after the actual experience.
William S . Burroughs, today’s De Quincey, who attributes many scenes in Naked Lunch to psychedelics, tells of a Proustian reactivation of the experience when "the precise array of stimuli—music, pictures, odors, tastes" encountered during the experience are duplicated. "Anything that can be done chemically," says Burroughs, perhaps presaging a neo-neo-Freudianism, "can be done in other ways, given sufficient knowledge of the mechanisms involved."
The psychedelic theatre attempts to stimulate multiple levels of consciousness by audio-visual bombardment. Its creators, a Woodstock, N.Y., trio publicly known as USCO, comprised of former Playboy correspondent and poet Gerd Stern, ex-Pop artist Steve Durkee, and electronic technician Michael Callahan, call the barrage of films, slides, kinetic sculpture, strobe lights, tapes and live actors a "multi-channel media mix."
These fancy terms are partly a tribute to the University of Toronto’s communications commentator Marshall McLuhan, who takes a prominent place in the philosophical background of the psychedelic theatre, supplying contemporary technical insights to balance the Oriental mystic of such figures as Meher Baba, who "in ancient times was called Jesus the Christ, Gotama the Buddha, Khrishna the Lover and Rama the King."
McLuhan argues that media study should concentrate on the effects of the technology on the environment, on social organization and thought, not on the programmatic content the media transmit. "The medium is the message," says McLuhan, who recalls how the invention of movable type provided universal access to the word and led to secular learning, individualism, nationalism and the assembly line. These forms, for McLuhan, are based on the model of the line-of-type, which is linear, sequential and bi-dimensional. In the electronic age, however, the model is circuitry, which offers multiple, simultaneous connections, as in the analog computer, Telstar and world government.
In other words, explains the USCO group, while the old-fashioned, single-screen movie with its sequential, frame-after-frame progression, worked once, we now need simultaneous, multiple images. More than that, we need a new theatre that will provide a total art, a grand combination of media.
At the New Theatre the media are a half dozen film and slide projectors which wander and blend images over a huge screen which fdls the proscenium arch, two "analog projectors" which are forms of lumia or color-organs developed by Richard Aldcroft, four diffraction hexes which are boxes in which revoke hexagonal figures studded with diffraction gratings (they break up the light like a prism) two NO-NOW-OW boxos which flash those combinations of letters with much clicking, as in an electronic brain, one presentation oscilloscope the size of a TV set, a strobe light which danced behind the screen; several sound channels ranging from the Beatles to erotic breathing; as well as a live drummer and, for the opening moments of the session, sitting on mattresses amid the media, a live "voyager" and two "guides," one of whom would—if it were for real—go up, while the other remained down, to serve as ground control.
Enumerating the equipment does not indicate its effect. The experience, like a real one, was ineffable: The oscilloscope gave out wave forms, the analog projectors oozed phantasmagorias, the film and slide projectors beamed out Buddhas, ‘traffic signs, trampoline leaps in slow motion, rocket launchings, living cells, a woman’s body. At (times you could look at everything all at once. At times nothing. Horror, boredom, ecstasy, mild amusement. Though for want of time, skill and money the presentation is amateurish, especially when compared with those masterpieces of multi-screen film at the Johnson’s Wax and TBM World’s Fair pavillions, the psychedelic theatre is tremendously ambitious, whether it turns you on or not.
"One reason artists experiment with psychedelics," says Dr. Melvin Roman, sculptor and assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, "involves the kinds of pressures society puts on the artist to do what the ordinary human being can’t do. Many artists are panicky. They are searching for some perhaps magical way to remain in touch with themselves and still comply with the irrational demands of society." At the first of two discussions held recently at the Coda Gallery, currently showing an exhibit of psychedelic art, Dr Roman joined several other mind doctors to evaluate the ways an artist might profit or suffer from psychedelics. Many of the doctors had not had the experience themselves and may perhaps have been too easily tempted to dismiss it as a crutch or short cut, to reject the art as (simply) similar to that produced by psychotic patients in a mental hospital. But the next week at the Coda, the discussion involved the artists themselves. They insisted that art remains hard work, that during the experience itself they usually had no interest in painting, that the experience opened up whole new realms, led to totally new self-conceptions, gave much inspiration and material for work. One artist who found great pleasure in painting while high, said he also tried to incorporate into his work the pain of coming down or losing the effects of the experience. Another artist, dissenting from the general enthusiasm, said he was probably a better craftsman without psychedelics, inasmuch as the experience made him too anxious to make a statement.
On the first program, Dr. Ralph Metzner of the Castalia Foundation, complained about the traditional Western concept of the artist as an individual engrossed in trying to express his own personality. According to Metzner, psychedelics might have the effect of renewing a more traditional view of artistic work, in which the artist remained anonymous, part of a group whose major effort was directed to turning on the viewer.
At the New Theatre, Leary added another slant to the possibilities of psychedelics: "The problem in the past has been how to achieve release [from normal banality] but now, visionary experience is available to everybody. And the problem is how to come back, how to incorporate what you see on the trip into everyday life."
So far the art produced as a result or under the influence of drugs may not seem of great importance. (The Burroughs of modern painting is Henri Michaux, who showed at the Cordier and Ekstrom Gallery this spring). But something new is happening, and it may be wise to suspend judgment for the moment. To ride with the Castalian rhetoric:
"…the human race has come to the juncture where it must decide where to be content with the subjugation of the material world, or to strive after the conquest of the spiritual world, by subjugating selfish desires and transcending self-imposed limitations."
Howard Junker is a documentary film maker who frequently contributes to film magazines.