Plunging Into the 1970s’ Altered States of Awareness
Buzz Poole on Erik Davis’s High Weirdness
Remember Pizzagate, the insane 2016 conspiracy theory claiming that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were involved with a child sex-trafficking ring being run out of the basement of Comet Ping Pong, a Washington DC, pizza joint? Completely and utterly false.
Comet Ping Pong doesn’t even have a basement. Nonetheless the story went viral, culminating with a heavily armed guy charging into the place and shooting it up, to save the kids. This is an extreme example of how misinformation and outright lies can be passed off as truth and lure people into action.
And how about UFOs? For decades we have been assured that they are hoaxes, illusions, conspiracies. Turns out that they are probably real. In unpacking three extraordinary drug-induced experiences documented by brothers Terrence and Dennis McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson, and Philip K. Dick, Eric Davis’s High Weirdness is mandatory reading to help make sense of our current moment in time when it is hard to differentiate between popular culture, politics, and religion.
The “high” in this book’s title is self-explanatory but “weirdness” is such a slippery word. As Davis sees it, the weirdness under his kaleidoscopic magnifying glass originated in William James’s embrace of accepting subjective experiences to validate encounters and events too elusive for traditional objective research to classify, coalesced in 1970s California, and from there has accumulated into a disorienting white-out of information and content in which it is increasingly difficult for people to orient themselves.
If you remember the Animal House stoned quandary of how the solar system might just be one atom in the fingernail of some other giant being, Davis has ingested and internalized all the ways into thinking about such a concept and readily dispenses roadmaps that are equally erudite and poppy; ideas from Jacques Lacan and Félix Guattari are slotted under section titles like “Shroom with a View” and “Romancing the Stone,” and the pages are peppered with terms like “mindfuck” and “coinkydinks” but not to be cute or offhanded about the subject matter; quite to the contrary, such a truly holistic approach to culture, to existence really, is the only way to begin trying to understand how the book’s primary subjects strove to understand moments when, in the words of Dennis McKenna, the brain is “experienced not as part of the self, but as the ‘other.’”
Much is made of Dr. Albert Hofmann’s April 19, 1943, bicycle ride home from his lab at Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland, contending with the first ever intentional LSD trip. It was the first, and last time the drug would be taken and experienced without the baggage of preconceived expectations infiltrating the several hours of a trip. Hofmann, a chemist, had taken the 25th variation of a synthesized compound of the fungus ergot and from there, using samples and reading material provided by Sandoz in the name of white-jacketed research, scientists and psychiatrists experimented with LSD-25, attempting to determine the best uses for the substance.High Weirdness helps make sense of our current moment in time when it is hard to differentiate between popular culture, politics, and religion.
After decades of tests and case studies, which produced thousands of scientific papers presented at conferences and published in journals, in 1968 much of the research was driven underground after the drug was criminalized in the United States and elsewhere. By then, of course, it was too late, it had already been siphoned out into the public: by the late 1950s Hollywood stars like Cary Grant sang the praises of LSD therapy; Ken Kesey commandeered doses of the stuff he’d been paid to take as part of the CIA’s MKUltra program, spiriting into existence the Merry Pranksters and the Acid Tests; and by the time Timothy Leary, who’d bucked academic rigor for the sublimely suggestive tropes of Eastern religions and mythologies, exhorted the crowd gathered in Golden Gate Park for the Human Be-In in 1967 to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” the media didn’t need any more fodder to truly freak out the establishment about the dangers of LSD.
Within the context of High Weirdness, however, perhaps the most important takeaway from Hofmann’s first trip is the fact that he’d isolated LSD-25 in 1938; when it did not yield the desired effects of being a circulatory and respiratory stimulant, Hofmann moved on to LSD-26. But then, five years later, he returned to LSD-25, because of a “peculiar presentiment” and on April 16th he accidentally dosed himself, which led him to take a quarter-milligram of it on April 19th. What exactly was that “peculiar presentiment” and what do we make of such odd but no less real occurrences that are part of life, these “coinkydinks” in High Weirdness speak? How are we supposed to fold challenges to consensus reality into the accepted and vetted status quo?
As Davis documents in exquisite detail, the McKennas, Wilson, and Dick all worked to make sense of patterns, symbols, and messages they received in the name of elucidating greater truths about the world, truths that to this day most people only appreciate as drug-induced hallucinations that were products of misguided and addled minds: on a 1971 vision quest in La Chorrea, Colombia, the brothers McKenna ate substantial quantities of fungi and heard frequencies and saw visions that, to them, indicated “a revolution in the nature of reality itself”; Illuminatus!, a novel that confuses history and fiction like some pulp hybrid of Ragtime and Gravity’s Rainbow co-written by former Playboy editors Wilson and Robert Shea, establishes a conceptual framework for how “the world is considerably more malleable than it at first appears,” which led to “an extraterrestrial intelligence from the star system Sirius regularly [sending Wilson] telepathic messages while staging ominously significant synchronicities in his everyday life”; a glimmering necklace defined by a “fish sign” set off for Dick a series of uninvited transcendent visions, which became part of what he called “2-3-74.”
Outlandish and implausible as this all sounds—and this is a most cursory gloss of these high-dose plunges into altered states of awareness—they are not fictions. We are not discussing a Philip K. Dick novel; we are discussing his life and the lives of three other individuals who believed with unwavering conviction that their experiences revealed and spoke to something beyond religion, what Davis has coined as “weird naturalism”: not signs of a separate reality but as mutated manifestations of this one.The visions seen and communications received contain “forbidden truths.”
There is no appreciating what these men went through without understanding they are inheritors of the weird, dating back to figures like Charles Fort, who published books in the first decades of the 20th century that documented centuries worth of unexplainable occurrences, such as oddly colored, viscous material raining from the sky, as well as numerous stories of mysterious airships. As Davis astutely points out, Fort’s project “showed that science, like all ‘systems,’ strives to maintain and extend itself by ruthlessly policing its borders.” What work like Fort’s proves is that, in Davis’s words and one of his book’s linchpins, “anomaly is a characteristic of the real” and “the narrative implications that [Fort] wove from his collages of wild facts were in many ways indistinguishable from the occult tales and ‘scientific romances’ being published in the pulps around the same time.”
Enter H. P. Lovecraft, whose fictions conjured strangely eerie horrors that overlapped with the accounts Fort collected. Lovecraft in fact had a working definition for “weird”: “whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” As Michel Houellebecq writes in Against the World, Against Life, his ode to Rhode Island’s most famous misanthrope: “Lovecraft uses the multiform descriptive methods of science: the obscure memory of fertility rites practiced by a degenerate Tibetan tribe, the baffling algebraic particularities of pre-Hilbertain spaces . . . to evoke a multifaceted universe where the most heterogeneous fields of knowledge intersect and converge to generate the poetic trance that accompanies the revelation of forbidden truths.”
The visions seen and communications received by Davis’s subjects—all of which shared the essence, in Terrence McKenna’s words, of an “uncanny presence”—contain these “forbidden truths” but such truths are myriad, and undermine or discount other established truths. Raising the question: What is truth?
When anthropologist Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, the first in a series of “authentic” accounts of Native American sorcery, was found out to be more fiction than anthropological research, readers kept buying the book because they were introduced to shamanistic concepts that were new to them, and seemed useful, indicating “how permissive the idea of spiritual ‘truth’ had become.” From Fort and Lovecraft, through the devastation of World War II to the material abundance bestowed upon the Baby Boomers, political coups, assassinations, and the ever-present tales of UFOs and alien abductions, by the 1970s, the American psyche was primed to accept almost anything that could find cultural purchase.
As Davis concedes, his research, thoroughly impressive and engaging as it is, presents countless of ontological problems. But let’s face it, what do most people care about ontology? It’s what we feel that matters, and this emphasis on an individual’s sense of self is a core component of why Davis’s subjects all had their encounters in the 1970s, what Tom Wolfe dubbed the “Me Decade” in a 1976 New York magazine article that connects the unguarded admittance of one young woman wanting to rid her life of hemorrhoids to America’s Third Great Awakening. As Wolfe saw it, this was the result of “unprecedented post-World War II American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self.” And, of course, this rise in reflection on the self resulted in no shortage of capitalist enterprises devised to keep people constantly thinking about themselves, like the hemorrhoid sufferer, who announced her affliction to over 200 people attending a seminar in the banquet hall of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.Before Dr. Hofmann invented LSD people the world over had been taking psychoactive drugs.
When Wolfe announced a new great awakening for America he was referencing a belief held by Gnostic Christians that the light of God is present in all, but concealed under “the junk heap of civilization” (that’s Wolfe, not the Gnostics), and while most aren’t able to let this light burn brightly, it can. Wolfe argued that “Every major religious wave that has developed in America has started out the same way: with a flood of ecstatic experiences.” There is no denying that Davis’s subjects describe and believe in their respective experiences with pious verve, but so too do people who have made contact with aliens. And here is the High Weirdness through-line, everything Davis covers shares “a similar mix of sacred and profane, of extraterrestrial possibilities and paranoid conspiracies, of mystical databases, redemptive psychoses, and turbulent time loops.”
The cultural and medical value of psychedelics have been receiving renewed interest over the last few years in books like Jesse Jarnow’s Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, Ayelelt Waldman’s A Really Good Day, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, and the catalogue for the 2018 exhibition Altered States: Substances in Contemporary Art, which revolved “around the effects and potential of various substances, economic interests, and highly profitable black markets, as well as subcultures and their capitalist appropriation.”
Jarnow, using the Grateful Dead as the point of entry, links the psychedelic warriors borne out of the Acid Tests with the overriding spirit of DIY ingenuity that pumped through the 1960s and 70s. In High Weirdness, Davis reaffirms that “countercultural creativity can be seen as a massive and decentralized construction project designed to replace or outpace a corrupt order of technocracy . . . all manner of freak pragmatists attempted to build new frameworks of possibility.” To that end both books cover figures like Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand.
Pollan reports on how LSD and psilocybin benefit those with ailments like depression and anxiety, and along the way goes slightly gonzo with his own trips, and hangs out with people like mycology madman Paul Stamets; while Waldman’s book is a month-long diary of microdosing LSD to combat a mood disorder, ingesting ten micrograms once every few days as a sort of mental recalibration.
Davis’s and Jarnow’s books are of a piece in that they document individuals who intentionally pushed limits with psychedelics and other controlled substances. Waldman and Pollan are skeptics who come around; the former never looking for a transcendent trip in the first place and the latter having ones that he admits are more than drugged-out indulgences. Taken together, these books chart how contemporary Western psychedelic culture has gone down the rabbit hole and come back out, or burrowed all the way around. Much of the artwork that comprises Altered States takes aim at the corporate presence behind drugs today, like Suzanne Treister’s “HFT The Gardener” series, which explores, in her words, the “holographic nature of reality through the use of psychoactive drugs and shamanic ritual.”
Before Dr. Hofmann invented LSD people the world over had been taking psychoactive drugs. But Hofmann’s discovery happened as a direct result of corporate auspice, inherently forging the promise of unlocking profound insight with bottom-line interests. In this sense, there is a noteworthy connection here to the birth of the internet; as Heads documents, many of the programmers working in labs at Stanford and MIT, developing email and other modes of virtual communication through the nascent ARPANET, found great intellectual and innovative value in LSD.
Against the backdrop of the ever-present weird, the techno-utopian visions of early internet pioneers were taking shape, and being primed for corporate intervention. And this is why Marshall McLuhan’s prescient sound bites pop up throughout High Weirdness. The weird and the drugs had been there all along, but now the media ecology was connecting people with any and all ideas faster than ever, to the extent that consciousness became “a tweakable or hackable interface.” Here, then, we arrive at the network society where, in Davis’s words, “information becomes a thing-in-itself, an almost metaphysical substance that . . . massively shapes both individual and collective existence.”
The import put on the constant flow of information today is undeniable, whether we’re talking about social media influencers or news outlets. The navel gazing of the 1970s has morphed into endless screen time, where it seems like the self is subsumed, dissolving into newsfeeds and updates, likes and reposts. There is a great deal of potential baked into this reality, a landscape that has been simultaneously colonized by every interest imaginable. As this has happened, it has become harder and harder to tell where things begin and end, from content and advertising to truth and fiction. Our activities are tracked and predicted by network systems, essentially wiring us into these systems, making us components in them. In Evelyn Underhill’s seminal 1911 book Mysticism she wrote “the watchword of all mysticism [is] Surrender.”
Surrender we have, and plenty of people have projected mystical values onto our hyper-connected existence. This existence has also produced no shortage of “ecstatic experiences,” lending our era, for some, the spiritual mystique of transhumanism or other such techno-utopian ambitions. Could we be on the cusp of a new great awakening, or headlong into severe somnambulism?
High Weirdness isn’t about answering that question, but with prose as fluid as his subjects’ beliefs regarding consensus reality Erik Davis brilliantly dissects three otherworldly experiences and in doing so makes clear how “a decentralized and postmodern nation—the nation Americans still live within, even more fractiously—became codified.”