White Hand Society
The following is excerpted from White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, available from City Lights Publishers.
Leary always appreciated high culture, but under the influence of psychedelics, and in close association with Allen Ginsberg, he began to see the poet and artist in himself and in those around him. After their initial meeting and the start of their partnership, he wrote often to Ginsberg about the ways that psychedelics could turn convicts and squares into contemplative poets and art aficionados. "Work is booming. Getting prisoners out of jail, prisoners writing visionary poems. Words as colored chips. Put words of same color in pail and dip brush in and paint with words. No writers. Anyone can paint with words."
While at Harvard, he also struggled constantly with the difficulty of communicating hallucinatory experiences and revelations to straitlaced psychologists who preferred to keep their patients-and their patients' psychoses-at a distance. In short, the vocabulary for discussing, and, certainly, for quantifying psychedelic trips had not yet been invented. But Leary was working in academia and science-realms that demanded explanation.
Thus, we have Leary presenting a paper on his prison testing to his professional peers: "After three orientation meetings with the prisoners the drug was given. I was the first one to take the drug in that bare hospital room behind barred windows. Three inmates joined me. Two psychologists and two other inmates served as observers-taking the drug three hours later. This psilocybin session was followed by three discussions. Then another drug session. Then more discussions. At this point the inmates have taken the drug an average of four times. There has been not one moment of friction or tension in some forty hours of ego-less interaction. Pre-post testing has demonstrated marked changes on both objective and projective instruments. Dramatic decreases in hostility, cynicism, depression, schizoid ideation. Definite increases in optimism, planfulness, flexibility, tolerance, sociability."
And we have Leary describing the same prison tests in a letter to Ginsberg: "Big deal at the prison. Convicts love it. Hoodlums have satori, deciding to devote rest of life to keep JD's out of jail etc. Administration is puzzled but goes along with Harvard and the word of this swinging psychiatrist who has joined the team. Tremendous amount of time, tho. Unforgettable scenes-convicts lying around high, digging jazz records etc. One con controls the locked door and when the guards knock to announce lunch he lets them in etc. There's a colored cat in for heroin, a tenor sax man. Imagine his reaction. Comes these doctors from Harvard and suddenly he is turned on hi her [sic] than ever in his life understanding Rollins sax chains like never before. He has a dazed worshipful look in his face everytime [sic] we meet."
Just as psilocybin had given Leary access to artistic realms that he had revered but never experienced, Ginsberg's hip poetic slang gave Leary a language-aside from the rigid, confining language of his profession-in which he could discuss his psychedelic experiences. While at Harvard, Leary was constantly trying to balance the flash and jive of psychedelic satori with the professional communication and contact that would ensure his professional validation, and thus continued employment and support for his testing. But by the time he got around to publishing High Priest in 1968, Leary had already chosen the hip over the straight world. As a result, we read about his first mushroom trip in Mexico in an innovative literary mix of parallel narratives, quotations, prose poetry, and free verse.
Going under dental gas. Good-bye.
Mildly nauseous. Detached. Moving away
From the group in bathing suits.
On a terrace
under the bright
Leary's choice of "dental gas" as the nearest comparable sensation to slipping under the spell of psilocybin is also telling. Before meeting Leary, Ginsberg often used the experience of being anesthetized in the dentist's office as an early touchstone hallucinatory experience. He spent years working on fragments that eventually came together in the 1958 poem Laughing Gas.
It's the instant of going
into or coming out of
existence that is
important-to catch on
to the secret of the magic
Stepping outside the universe
by means of Nitrous Oxide
the chiliasm was an impersonal dream-
one of many, being mere dreams.
Later in High Priest, Leary also evokes the name of the Ginsberg's early guru, William Blake, in visionary prose poem form: "Then begins Blake's long red voyage EVERY TIME LESS THAN A PULSATION OF THE ARTERY down the blood stream IS EQUAL IN ITS PERIOD AND VALUE TO SIX THOUSAND YEARS floating, bouncing along labyrinthian tunnels FOR IN THIS MOMENT THE POET'S WORK IS DONE artery, arteriole and ALL GREAT EVENTS OF TIME START FORTH through every capillary AND ARE CONCEIVED IN SUCH A PERIOD through pink honey-comb tissue world with A MOMENT. . . ."
Yes, Dr. Leary had gone on the fantastic voyage. And, as he said of that first trip, "I learned more in the six or seven hours of this experience than in all my years as a psychologist." Allen Ginsberg would later help him to find the language and metaphors to explain it.
Fortunately George Litwin was already "initiated." So when Tim ran into him on campus in September 1960 and started talking to him about his Mexican mushroom trip, he was able to cut right to it. No jargon or reaching for words necessary. Leary got it now. As the jazz musicians and Beat poets said, he was hip. And he wanted, immediately, to get a batch of psilocybin onto campus so that he could start experimenting with subjects. And on himself. But he had no intention of making these tests into some big party. This would be a true scientific investigation into the higher levels of human consciousness, creativity, and, eventually, criminal rehabilitation. Leary's studies would be professional and psychological. They would quantify while they explored.
Once Leary knew that he wanted to use psilocybin in his campus experiments, the problem became -- where to get it? There weren't exactly well-stocked curanderas wandering around Harvard Square. Fortunately for Leary, Dr. Albert Hofmann-the same Swiss chemist who first created LSD in 1938-had also developed synthetic psilocybin pills in the 1950s.
This is where George Litwin's experience came into play. Litwin knew that the company Hofmann worked for-the Sandoz Company in Switzerland-was providing psilocybin pills to qualified experimenters. Tim and George sent Sandoz Laboratories a letter using Harvard stationery, explaining the testing they wanted to undertake and requesting a supply of psilocybin. A short time later, Litwin recalled, "they just sent us back a big bottle and said, ‘We appreciate your request and we are interested in sponsoring work in this area. Here's a starter kit to get going and please send us a report of the results.'"
r r r
Contrary to [Aldous] Huxley's belief that hallucinogens should be used quietly, by a select group, Ginsberg-in all his Whitmanic democracy-believed that everyone should have access to psilocybin. Poets, priests, doctors, students, housewives, workers, executives, musicians, soldiers, truck drivers . . . everyone should be given the option of experiencing the state of being "beshroomed." But Ginsberg also knew that hallucinogens were an inherent threat to the U.S. power establishment, starting with the government. Hallucinogens are, by nature, non-conformist. In his book Alternating Currents (1967), Nobel laureate Octavio Paz reflected on his government's fear of hallucinogens: "We are now in a position to understand the real reason for the condemnation of hallucinogens and why their use is punished. The authorities do not behave as though they were trying to stamp out a harmful vice, but behave as though they were stamping out dissidence. Since this is a form of dissidence that is becoming more widespread, the prohibition takes on the proportion of a campaign against a spiritual contagion, against an opinion. What authorities are displaying is ideological zeal: they are punishing a heresy, not a crime."
Although he was writing about Mexico, Paz's statements were equally true about the United States. By 1967 the government would go to great lengths to outlaw and demonize hallucinogens-and anyone who stood up publicly in their favor. In 1960, Allen Ginsberg, sipping warm milk in Leary's kitchen at Harvard, saw that future ahead. But he still believed that mushrooms must be made available to everyone.
As Allen saw it, the solution was sitting right across the table from him: Dr. Timothy Leary. Or, more important, everything that Timothy Leary represented. Leary was an ivy-league academic, a certified Ph.D., a well-respected psychologist, a clean-cut unknown with-and here was the kicker-access to mass quantities of psilocybin. On the other hand, Ginsberg was a known Beatnik poet with a history of drug use and mental illness. He wasn't just famous, he was infamous. American culture had already punched his ticket. As Ginsberg put it, "I'm too easy to put down."
No, what they needed to give hallucinogens a shot at safe passage into mainstream America was a respectable front. "Big serious scientist professors from Harvard." But the key would be to build up a base of supporters for the drug first. If they could combine Leary's scientific credentials with a roster of influential supporters, it would be much harder for the government to suppress the drug. That was their logic, anyway. Once again, this logic was based on democratic principles, the belief that the government would honor the will of the people. In 1960, this was an ideal that still had legs.
For Leary's part, he saw a key ally in Ginsberg, who had arrived at just the right time to boost the Harvard Psilocybin Project to the next level. As he wrote in High Priest, "And so Allen spun out the cosmic campaign. He was to line up influentials and each weekend I would come down to New York and we'd run mushroom sessions. This fit our Harvard research plans perfectly. Our aim there was to learn how people reacted, to test the limits of the drug, to get creative and thoughtful people to take them and tell us what they saw and what we should do with the mushrooms. Allen's political plan was appealing, too. I had seen enough and read enough in Spanish of the anti-vision crowd, the power-holders with guns, and the bigger and better men we got on our team the stronger our position. And then too, the big-name bit was intriguing. Meeting and sharing visions with the famous."
Allen Ginsberg may have been a media-scarred icon, but he was a well-connected one. He ran up Leary's stairs and came back into the kitchen with his address book. And then, as Leary says in High Priest, "we started planning the psychedelic revolution." Robert Lowell, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Charles Olson, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Barney Rosset, Muriel Rukyser, LeRoi Jones . . . Allen Ginsberg's address book was a who's who of New York City, and U.S., artistic leaders. As famous as he would become, it must be remembered that at this time Timothy Leary was completely unknown beyond the small, academic psychology community. Although he loved the idea of running tests on gifted and accomplished artists, to this crowd, he would have been just some square Harvard professor. His access would have been severely limited. But with an introduction from Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary would become a player. He would have the blessings of the King Bohemian.
The partnership would be thus: Allen Ginsberg would give Timothy Leary entrée to the influential world of artistic America. Timothy Leary would give Allen Ginsberg an opportunity to expose America to powerful hallucinatory visions. Ginsberg put it this way, "The idea was to give it to respectable and notable people first, who could really articulate the experience, all the while keeping it under the august auspices of Harvard. I could act as the go-between, keeping as much of a low profile as possible considering my visibility as America's most conspicuous beatnik. Really, it was a perfect role for me to play: Ambassador of Psilocybin."
In High Priest, Leary said, "From this moment on my days as a respectable establishment scientist were numbered. . . . [My] energies were offered to the ancient underground society of alchemists, artists, mystics, alienated visionaries, drop-outs and the disenchanted young, the sons arising. . . . Allen Ginsberg came to Harvard and shook us loose from our academic fears and strengthened our courage and faith in the process."
Copyright Peter Conners. All Rights Reserved.
Teaser image by pizzodisevo, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet