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,
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
Going under dental gas. Good-bye.
Mildly nauseous. Detached. Moving away
From the group in bathing suits.
On a terrace
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
means of Nitrous Oxide
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.'”
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
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
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.