The 1970’s was an era characterised by social, political and economic instability. American culture experienced a breakdown of consensus as hippies, ex-radicals and the wider middle class experimented with new forms of living. Occult spirituality entered the mainstream as “public media and private lives were populated with zodiac signs, Tarot cards, I Ching hexagrams, eastern lore and western magic, psychic tests and rumours of UFOs.”
The author, Erik Davis has examined 70s culture in his seminal work, “High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience”, in which he examines the weirdness of the decade in the context of three infamous psychonauts – Robert Anton Wilson, Terrance McKenna and Phillip K. Dick.
So, who exactly were these thinkers? What kind of weirdness did they experience? And what do these experiences tell us about the nature of reality itself?
The McKenna Brothers
In 1971, Terrance Mckenna and his brother Dennis were a couple of budding psychonauts when they left to explore the remote jungle village of La Chorrera. Terrance had been studying at Berkley University, where he was exposed to the radical politics of the countercultural revolution. Now he found himself in a paradisal landscape where he could let his imagination run wild. It was here that the brothers consumed a species of magic mushroom known as Psilocybe cubensis. In a journal entry of February 23, they describe a “gentle and elusive trip” in which the mushroom assumed the role of a shamanic instructor. While the McKenna’s had nibbled on these mushrooms before, the ‘trip’ had a lasting impact on the brothers’ lives and marked the beginning of a long and profound relationship with psychedelics.
After many otherworldly ‘trips’ at La Chorrera, the brothers were convinced that psychedelics could materialise a new spiritual technology, akin to that of the Philosopher’s Stone. Dennis believed that resonance was the key to this “biophysical technology” and it could be manifested through a particular vocal effect. On March fourth, the brothers drew a circle on the floor, marked the four directions and placed drawings of the I Ching hexagrams on each of the cardinal points. They ingested a small quantity of ayahuasca and psilocybin before Dennis released a ‘mechanical yowl’. Although the Stone failed to manifest, Dennis was convinced that they had ushered in an eschatological rupture that would awaken humanity to a transdimensional galactic citizenship; Terence also believed that his brother had come into communication with a higher form of intelligence, which could answer any question posed to it.
Terrance crystallised the extraordinary experience at La Chorrera into a mathematical theory called the Timewave. The theory was inspired by the I Ching, an Eastern oracle that consists of sixty-four hexagrams, each one made up of a unique stack of six solid and broken lines. As Davis states, “by multiplying the number of hexagrams by the number of lines in each hexagram, he came up with a number (384) that is nearly equivalent to the number of days (383.89) in a thirteen-moon calendrical period …. By further multiplying 384 by 16, Terrance also ‘discovered’ a cycle of time – 67, 29 years – that would become instrumental in his later assignation of the date 2012. Another pattern that caught Terence’s fancy was the King Wen Sequence, a traditional series of the sixty-four hexagrams that does not follow a calculable series. Intrigued, Terence counted the number the number of lines that chance between each hexagram in the sequence and then mapped the resulting values.”
An important feature of the Timewave is that the shape exhibits self-similarity across scale, in the same way a fractal pattern does. But what exactly did the Timewave indicate? Here, Terence borrowed an idea from one of his favourite thinkers, Whitehead – the concept of novelty – which proposes that the course of human history is altered by ‘novel’ events. Examining the patterns in the Timewave, Mckenna assumed that the acceleration of technology in the twentieth century indicated we had entered the final stage of the novelty cycle. “Terance elected August 6, 1943 – the date that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima – as a point of maximum novelty. Adding on the 67,29-year cycle, he came up with the final end date of November, 2012” – a year that many new age thinkers believed would signal the ‘end of the world’.
While there are obvious problems with Mckenna’s theory, as Davis states, “leaving aside the its mathematical problems, the Timewave served as an oracular or poetic mirror of our dizzying posthuman acceleration. But for Terence the Timewave was, or had to be more than this. Though he maintained a certain negative capability about the Timewave publicly, the theory was also the lynchpin for the reality of the Experiment … Ironically, this most enchanting of story-tellers needed to construct more than a story.” In this sense, McKenna is a perfect example of ‘high-weirdness’ since his experiences and theories lie somewhere in the murky interzone between fact and fiction, blending mathematics, eastern mysticism and history with psychedelic experience.
Robert Anton Wilson
Another thinker examined by Erik Davis is Robert Anton Wilson, author of the Illuminatus trilogy, a science fiction series that blend sex, drugs and the occult. Interweaving a complex web of narratives, the reader is left feeling both confused and enlightened. Wilson was heavily influenced by discordianism, a philosophy that proposes reality can be ‘hacked’ by subverting all established norms, values and belief-systems. As Stephens states, discordianism was “highly self-conscious and media-wise, full of periodic gestures, drawing extensively on motifs from popular culture for its language of protest … enduring the conviction that reality amounted to nothing more than a series of mediated images.” The illuminatus trilogy is a perfect example of discordian literature, combining conspiracy theories which have some credence with more outlandish and bizarre theories.
Several years after Illuminatus! Trilogy was published in 1975, Robert Anton Wilson published a nonfiction book called Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati. The book promotes a psychedelic pragmatism based on the notion that “the only ‘realities’ that we actually call experience and can talk meaningfully about are perceived realities.” In this regard, Wilson follows in the footsteps of many other influential thinkers, such as Timothy Leary, H.P Lovecraft and John Lily, all of whom rejected social and political dogma. Wilson’s unique brand of pragmatism was influenced by his early experimentation with psychedelic drugs, which induced communication with plants, “waves of transcendental bliss and superhuman consciousness”. However, it was also shaped by his interest in occult, particularly the works of Aleister Crowley, who is considered one of the most controversial and successful occult practitioners of the early 20th century.
While Wilson rejected Crowley’s politics, he was intrigued by his writings on the kabbalah, ceremonial magic, demonic evocation and magical correspondence. Delving into the strange world of the occult, Wilson found himself in a farmhouse in Mendocino county in 1972, where he performed Crowley’s Mass of the Phoenix, a solo ritual described in The Book of Lies. After ingesting 250 micrograms of LSD, Wilson “found himself surrounded by a ring of slavering dog-faced demons who stood out solidly against the room’s actual furniture. Faced by this terror, he directed his imagination to feeding the demons with a phantasmagoric snack – in this case, shrimp cocktails. Once they were sated, the entities transformed into dwarf-sized replicas of the nuns Wilson recollected from Grammar school”. This bizarre encounter led to Wilson concluding that “all the entities invoked in Magick are part of our minds”, however, “it would best to not even think of it as a synchronicity.”
Wilson’s life became even stranger when he became convinced that he was in contact with an alien intelligence between July 1973 and October 1974. During these years, the space-station Skylab was launched, while Pioneer 10 began transmitting images of Jupiter. Many Americans also witnessed unidentified objects in the sky and late 1973 also saw the naked-eye appearance of the Comet Kohoutek, dubbed the “comet of the century”. Amidst this cultural obsession with space exploration, Wilson began hearing voices in his head, which were supposedly transmitted from the star, Sirius. However, he also wondered whether his “new consort was the Holy Guardian Angel described by Crowley or an extraterrestrial being using a cosmic “ESP channel” that Wilson had tuned into through his experiments with brain change.”
Although, Wilson’s experiences were evidently metaphysical, he never interpreted them through a singular perspective. Instead, he believed that quantum physics offered “insight into the peculiar imbrication of consciousness and physical reality that paranormal phenomena like synchronicity points towards.” Wilson’s perspectivism enabled him to walk the tightrope between madness and reason, toying with the boundaries of human experience. As Davis writes, “what makes Wilson’s agnosticism important here is that it represents a novel and influential example of how naturalistic and reductive explanations about extraordinary experience “re-enter” the meaningful exploration and production of such experiences themselves. For even if the outside is a feature of the inside, it still functions as a beyond.”
Philip K. Dick
The final thinker examined by Davis in his book, High Weirdness, is Phillip K. Dick. Since his death, Philip K. Dick has become one of the most renowned science fiction authors, his books inspiring a myriad of films and television series over the decades. His complex and eccentric persona has attracted much fascination and popular accounts of his life and work routinely describe his paranoia, experimentation with acid and amphetamines as well as his outrageous number of younger wives. But the most extraordinary aspect of his life is the visionary experiences that began in 1974, which he often described as “religious” or “mystical” and lend themselves to the languages of epiphany, mental illness and speculative fiction.
It is difficult to distinguish between reality and fiction when discussing Dick’s visionary experiences. At times, he sounds like a mystic, when he describes how, during the darker periods of his life, a benevolent higher power “intervened to restore my mind and heal my body and give me a sense of the beauty, the joy, the sanity of the world”. But this higher power had a variety of different forms: an alien satellite, the Gnostic-Jewish wisdom figure Sophia; Russian psychotronic devices and the cosmic database he commonly referred to as VALIS, an acronym that stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence. Dick also received oracular messages in his dreams and on many occasions saw a vision of ancient Rome appear through the landscape of Orange County. Dick ascribed a number to these experiences – “2-3-74” – in an attempt to create a sense of continuity between them.
During his life, Philip K Dick experimented with many different psychoactive compounds. In May 1970, Dick felt an “overwhelming love of other people” while on mescaline. He also consumed amphetamines on a regular basis. As Erik Davis notes, “by the early sixties, his consumption of speed was prodigious and pragmatic … Speed shaped and supported the rapid-fire, immersive and deeply personal way that Dick wrote his books.” Moreover, Dick experienced intense dreams in which he would “receive information”. The first months of 2-3-74 exploded with hundreds of dreams about religions and mythologies of antiquity. Dick stated “as soon as I close my eyes, information in the form of visual matter such as photographs, audio stuff in the form of phonograph records”.
Philip K. Dick was also prone to hallucinatory episodes. However, unlike with Wilson and McKenna, they were often Christian in their imagery. In a letter sent to Ursula K. Le Guin on 23 September, Dick wrote that, after undergoing oral surgery to remove two impacted wisdom teeth, the sodium pentothal he had taken was beginning to wear off. A telephone call to a local pharmacy brought a delivery woman to the door bearing painkillers. Noticing the gold necklace she is wearing, he asks her about it “just to find something to say to hold her there.” The woman points out that the major figure in the necklace is a fish, a symbol used by early Christian sects. Once she touches it, it begins to dazzle with exceptional luminosity. Dick describes his reaction in scriptural terms, stating “I suddenly experienced anamnesis – a Greek word meaning “loss of forgetfulness”. I remembered who I was … The girl was a secret Christian and so was I.”
What is particularly interesting about Philip K. Dick is that while he attempted to describe “2-3-74” in religious, esoteric and hermetic terms, he was also a sceptic. As Davis writes, “What makes Dick’s construction of 2-3-74 both unusual and representative of the centrifugal seventies is that he never settled on any attribution or meaningful explanation of his experiences. Nor on the other hand, did he resolve this ambiguity by writing the whole thing off as temporary experiences … At the same time, Dick regularly punctured his speculations with doubts, both sceptical and despairing … This relentless interpretive instability was a strategy, however, one that tied uncertainty to the possibility of future revelation.”
Implications of the Weird
Erik Davis’ examination into the lives of Terence McKenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick provides us with an important insight into the ‘weird’. While all three thinkers were unique, there are common themes that characterise their encounters. For a start, they all experimented with alternate states of consciousness through the use of psychoactive compounds. As Davis observes, these substances have the potential to transform our awareness and challenge our fundamental assumptions about reality. They enable us to access unseen worlds and reveal the stranger aspects of our cosmos by breaking down structural modes of thinking and allowing higher, more imaginative parts of the brain to become activated.
They also experimented with a psychedelic form of pragmatism. Terence McKenna was a naturalist, seeking to contextualise his hallucinatory experiences within an empirical framework; however, he was also immersed in the mythology of the I-Ching. When Robert Anton Wilson was contacted by an extraterrestrial intelligence, he described it in Crowleyan terms as his Holy Guardian Angel but also in neurological terms as the left-hemisphere of his brain communicating with the right hemisphere. Moreover, Philip K Dick interpreted his visions through the lens of Christian theology but was also interested in mysticism, alchemy and hermeticism. As Davis states, “all three of the guys I look at in the book are sceptics, they’re interested in science, philosophy, and psychology. They have a secular sensibility, but that’s not enough … They want to understand the secrets of reality.”
It is difficult to determine whether their psychedelic pluralism facilitated their encounters with the ‘weird’ or vice-versa. This type of feed-back loop is characteristic of ‘high weirdness’ and reveals an interesting quirk of human consciousness – that our experiences are shaped by reality but also the other way around. As Davis states, “you can think about these thinkers in terms of the loop between writing and experience. When you’re writing about visionary experiences, the writing themselves have a certain charge, an infectious quality. That’s part of the weird. It’s the rug being pulled out from under you and then becoming the very thing that you’re wrapping around. It’s a strange dynamic process and it happens in culture as well as consciousness.”
Our encounters with the weird demonstrate that there is a symbiotic connection between consciousness and reality. The weirder we assume reality to be, the weirder it becomes. The same principle applies to the phenomenon of synchronicity. When we assume that the world is full of mysterious coincidences, we start seeing them everywhere in numbers, events and people. This is not to say that the phenomenon of synchronicity is entirely imagined. Rather, it exists in an objective and subjective paradigm simultaneously. And this is exactly what high weirdness can teach us! That the world is neither objective nor subjective but a strange and murky interzone between the two, a dynamic interplay between consciousness and history that can provide insight into the deeper aspects of reality. The lives of McKenna, Wilson and Dick demonstrate that there is a complex feedback loop between our imagination and what we perceive, which lies at the heart of all mystery.
About the author and the book
Erik Davis is an American writer, journalist and public speak who has written on a wide range of subjects, including rock criticism, cultural analysis and esotericism. He is most renowned for his work, “Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information”, which examines the intersection between mystical experience and technological communication. Born in Redwood California, in 1967, Davis attended Yale University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English. He wrote his thesis on the writings of Phillip K. Dick and has since published a number of articles about his mystical experiences. Davis has also contributed to a number of well-known magazines, including Rolling Stone, Wired and Spin.
The following interview focuses on his most recent book, High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience, which explores the peculiarity of 1970’s culture in the context of Terrance Mckenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Phillip K. Dick, all of whom plunged into the depths of their own psyche and questioned the fundamental nature of reality. We ask him about how he became interested in 70s culture, the feedback loop between culture and consciousness and the impact of the war on drugs on the nature of psychedelic experience.
Jack Fox-Williams: Hello, Erik. Thank you for agreeing to speak to me today. I recently read your book, High Weirdness, and was interested in how you became interested in 1970s culture and its importance in the history of psychedelia?
Erik Davis: I have always been interested in the 1970s, even when I was in college during the 80’s. Usually, the previous decade isn’t that interesting to you, it’s the decade before that. But my friends and I were really fascinated with the 70’s. We would get together and watch Kojak returns and enjoy disco music and look at fashion magazines and even wrote a journal based on 70’s culture. It was a joke academic journal but it turned out to be part of our real lives. Some of those also went on and became scholars who did work on culture during the 70’s.
The 70’s was also the era I came of age but it was also the first world that I was aware of. When you’re a kid, you’re in your family world and then you open up and realise there’s a bigger world out there. You learn about who the President is and that sort of thing. The first president I knew about was Richard Nixon, so there is something about that whole era of ‘70s funk that is very intimate to me. I grew up in a post-hippie college town on the beach so I was exposed to a lot of that countercultural energy. For me, that difference has always been really important too. That’s partly why I’m fixated on the ‘70s and not just counterculture in general.
I also think there’s more resonance between the ‘70s and our time today than any other era in many ways. It’s a bummer time, a lot of people aren’t having a great time for a good reason. There are fears about the environment, pollution and climate change. There are fears about energy and there is political malfeasance in the White House at the highest level. A very strong polarisation exists within the United States. At the same time, there is a real vitality around culture and communication. There’s a cult revival. I was just reading in the New Yorker about the popularity of astrology these days and there are all these astrology mobile apps and astrology YouTube stars and people are referring to it more and more. The journalist said, “this is the first time it’s been like this since the 1970.”
So that’s a similarity, as well as the return of psychedelia. Even though the ‘90s was a psychedelic time with rave and chill-out music and a lot of mystical imagery, there is something much deeper and denser about the psychoculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I think we are flashing back on that stuff as well.
So, that’s part of my angle. I’ve always been interested in that time and what worked out with this project was, originally, it was going to be about Phillip K. Dick and his religious, mystical experience of 1974, which used to be something people didn’t really want to talk about. However, the more I thought about the project, I realised I wanted to broaden it and bring in other characters who were also exploring the outer reaches of weirdness in the 1970s. So, I was able to treat my larger concern with the era and go into these individual studies and show how different people were wrestling with the craziness of it all.
J: What I really like about the book is that while it portrays the 70s as an important time, both socially and culturally, there is a slight cynicism over the era. When the 1960’s came to an end, there was a sense of nostalgia and despair. This gave charlatans the opportunity to capitalise on the public’s existential anxieties. On the one hand, you have individuals genuinely looking for spiritual answers during a deeply confusing time but also opportunists looking to turn
E: Yes, I think that’s accurate, and of course, things get weirder because sometimes they’re both. That’s where things get funny, where there are experiments, gurus, scenes, celebratory musical worlds, really cool stuff happening and people are into it but at the same time people are also after their own, so it gets confusing.
We are in the modern world, so that is always an aspect of it. I mean, we imagine that the ‘60s was a very organic and spontaneous phenomenon, but if you really look at the record, it’s very clear how quickly Madison Avenue recognised the new vibe and started to circulate it back to the kids. This is not to say that there weren’t authentic, more radical experience; there were obviously many of them. But there’s always an element of commercialisation. In the case of the ‘70s, I think there’s less commercialisation than, say gurus, the idea that somebody knows something, that someone can help you navigate the world, that there’s an expert out there who can resolve your existential confusion. That’s a very human impulse. It’s a very natural one.
One of the reasons why I am interested in psychedelic and the thinkers I have focused on in the book is because they have all wrestled with this problem. While they all had guru elements to them, they were also sceptics, they were questioners and they were aware of their environment – the trashiness of modern America, the crassness of people who were selling things, that kind of entrepreneurial crassness.
In a way, I think psychedelics are really important in this light because they don’t lend themselves as well to guru situations. At the end of day, it’s just you with your nervous system, with the compound, facing whatever you’re going to face. That doesn’t mean there aren’t psychedelic cults. There are some now, there were some then, and obviously, there’s an element of religion in it today. People see shamans and, while shamans aren’t gurus, they think they’re holy, when they’re just dudes or dudettes who assume a shamanic role. That’s not who they are, that’s not how function socially, it’s not their anthropological character. So, people get confused because they’re still adhering to a guru-narrative.
J: One of the things I found particularly interesting about your work and, 1970’s culture as a whole, is that it points to a mysterious relationship between history and consciousness the interconnection between the two. When you look at the lives of Terrance Mckenna, Robert Anton Wilson and Phillip K Dick, you find that the more they immerse themselves in the ‘high weirdness’ of ‘70s culture, the more experiences they have that validate that weirdness. It’s almost like there is a feedback loop between history and subjective experience.
E: That is very precise. I talk about that in the book but it is definitely one of the main themes. As we enter this realm, we enter a feedback loop that makes it difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on and you can talk about it as history and consciousness or culture and consciousness. That’s how my thesis advisor, Jeffery Kripal, contextualises it. He has written about this sort of thing in regards to the paranormal, where he discusses the fundamental tension between culture and consciousness.
You can also think about those particular thinkers in terms of the loop between writing and experience. We think, normally, that there’s writing over here and then there’s pure experience over there. We sit on a pillow, or take a drug, or do yoga or whatever, and we have an experience, and then we might turn to writing to express it, or turn to books to understand what has happened to us but it’s more complicated than that.
When you’re writing about visionary experiences, the writings themselves have a certain charge, they have an infectious quality. They get under your skin, at least for some of us. Many people read them and they say, “this is crazy. I don’t care.” But some of us read them and we’re like, “there’s something here. I don’t know. I kind of want more. Then, as you read more material like that, if you read a lot of Jung, and you read about synchronicities, you’re probably going to start to have these experiences.
Does that mean it’s just your mind making it up? That is a little bit too far but what you’ve done is you’ve entered into a loop and that loop is also inscribed in the very idea of how a psychedelic experience works. That’s part of the weird. It’s this warp. It’s the rug being pulled out from under you and then becoming the very thing that you’re wrapping around, keeping yourself warm. It’s a strange dynamic process and it happens in culture as well as consciousness.
J: I found it particularly interesting that you focus on thinkers who were both scientific and spiritual. Many people within the new age community see science as antithetical to spirituality when they are sides of the same coin – they are both attempting to explain the fundamental nature of reality. When you talk about McKenna’s life from a purely biographical perspective, for example, you see that he was very questioning of all belief systems. He was searching for a spiritual truth but was also highly educated in history, mathematics, physics and computer science.
E: I think you’re right. Much of new age culture either turns its back on science or misunderstands it so profoundly that when it talks about, say, quantum physics and consciousness, it’s not really talking about quantum physics, it’s a fantasy of quantum physics. On the other side, there’s a tendency to reduce it all and say, “spirituality is really about the world of science.” I’m more of a pluralist. I think that there are multiple modes with which we experience and uncover reality. Reality has many domains and some of them are highly appropriate for a scientific approach, and some of them less so. A proper experimenter can work on multiple levels.
Terrance is a great example of both and a reminder of how contradictory it can be because he saw himself as a rationalist. I call him a weird naturalist. What I mean by that is he was naturalist in the sense that he was interested in butterfly collecting, rock collecting, he knew about natural history, he knew a lot about evolution, he was always subscribed to Scientific American, which he thought was the most psychedelic publication available. So, he was that kind of guy, and yet, he was also a freak, meaning that, for him, science and mystery were fundamentally interconnected. He was willing to explore the more mysterious aspects of reality but did so as a naturalist.
His approach, particularly to the space of DMT, was not that we were entering into the hallucinatory capacity of the nervous system nor that it was some kind of supernatural reality that only the religions of the past knew about. Instead, he treated it as a real place. So, he was like a 19th century explorer with a pith helmet going into DMT land, paying very close attention, trying to track the butterflies, trying to observe the mineral pattern, trying to understand the logic of it. He approached it as an exploratory experimental naturalist, rather than a mystical seeker.
He wasn’t a seeker in any conventional sense. Although he was interested in metaphysics, religion and magic, he saw them, ultimately, as part of being a person on the planet, on a very weird planet, that’s a lot weirder than your average scientist will acknowledge. When you look at his career, he has this extraordinary experience, or set of experiences with his brother in La Chorrera and he comes back, convinced that he’s discovered the fractal structure of history from reading the I-Ching, this ancient Chinese divinatory system, and that you can create a computer, or ask somebody to create a computer, to map the structure out. It’s this classic, albeit very interesting kook idea – that science and metaphysics can blend together.
All three of the guys I look at in the book are like that but in different ways. On the one hand, they’re sceptics, they’re interested in science, philosophy and psychology. They have a secular sensibility, but at the same time, that’s not enough. They want something more, they want a metaphysical revelation, they want to understand the secrets of reality. Phillip K Dick was even more this way. He was very much a religious seeker. He wanted to find god but he was such a sceptic, or such a doubter, that no vision ever sufficed, so he was just left with his questions.
In a lot of ways, I think that’s where we are. We have to acknowledge that we are people who are drawn to these stories, these experiences of mystery and profundity – with synchronicity, UFOs, Bigfoot and other mysteries. But we are ultimately creatures of the secular world, with a respect for science and criticism and sceptical thought, so we inevitably find ourselves in this between place and that is okay. In a way, that’s one of the deeper stories in the book – how these three guys, and other people along the way, find their own way to be in between, to walk, what I call, a tightrope – where you keep your balance, you keep your wits about you, you keep your sceptical intellect functioning, but you go deeper and deeper into weirder and more marvellous worlds, and that tension is a real key, both to my book but also to the modern sensibility of spirituality.
J: You have discussed the similarities between the ‘high weirdness’ that characterised the 1970s and our current era, particularly in regards to the existential problems we are facing. How do you think the war on drugs has impact our ability to experience the ‘weird’ and the value of having those experiences? The writers you discuss in the book were clearly influenced by their experimentation with psychedelics, especially Mckenna. I wonder whether the availability of psychedelic substances during the ‘70s facilitated the kind of weirdness you explore in the book?
E: That is a wonderful question and I wrestle with it a lot in the following sense. In the modern world, where official reality is very much, also a capitalist reality and scientific reality, official reality is a hard place to find the mystery. One of the features of the drug war is that it created a place of criminality of underground that was not part official reality. But if you grew up and found yourself in the underground, it was easier to access the mystery because the criminality kept you at one step removed from the logic of official reality.
In terms of people, particularly on psychedelics, they’re not like other drugs, they don’t produce addictive behaviour. They can make people crazy but they tend to make them relatively kind. Of course, there’s exceptions. There’s psychotic reactions and murderers, I’m not trying to make it a rosy story, but there was a space for existential discovery, and to feel like you were touching something outside of official reality so it gave it a certain air of mystique.
Is that worth all those destroyed lives? Is that worth the 30-year sentences for dealing LSD? No, I guess not, but it was part of what was happening. Now, we’re in a new kind of weird. The old weird that I write about is a weirdness of the underground that’s on the edge of official reality, inside of drug-culture, inside Satanism, inside comic books, inside hippie pornography. There’s this place that quite woven into the official reality, but now official reality is increasingly giving the stamp of approval to psychedelics. There’s a psychedelic renaissance, there’s an explosion of corporate interest, of research interest, of psycho-pharmacological interest, and there’s a lot of utopian feels and earnest do-gooders who believe that these substances are going to help the mental health crisis that we’re in throughout the developed world.
So, in a way, it’s another question. Is the healing mystery of these psychedelic substances going to be unintentionally sapped away as they become incorporated into official reality? The utopians think, “No, it’s fine. You go into a clinic that your insurance is paying for, you have end-of-life anxiety or you’re addicted to smoking. You go into the room and there’s a formal procedure. It’s a doctor’s office, there’s a nurse practitioner, or somebody who is checking in with you.” The hope is that the experience will make your problem go away because of the healing potential, the neural plasticity inducing shifts of this new medicine.
But my hunch is that some of what had made psychedelics so transformative, so spiritual, so entertaining, for a lot of people for decades in the West, is that they are not part of official reality and once they become woven into official reality, that logic shifts. The very capacity of these experiences to marvel and amaze decreases as they become integrated into therapeutic languages of integration, as they become consumer products.
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