Blanks And Postage: How To Weird Your Mind

(welcome to the inaugural entry of ‘blanks and postage’ — author jesse jarnow’s monthly column for aquarium drunkard highlighting the fringe…and beyond.)

Several recent books provide counterpoints to Michael Pollan’s best-selling How To Change Your Mind. “Psychedelics for normies” in writer Allison Hussey’s memorable phrase, Pollan’s 2018 book almost instantly transformed the dialogue around the substances with its clear and direct arguments about their miraculous power to heal trauma. Only on occasion, though, does it entertain a present or future in which psychedelics might be used meaningfully outside the medical model, or acknowledge the ways that’s occurred in the past. How To Change Your Mind is a skeptical book, and draws some of its power from this, an extension of Pollan’s role as a mainstream journalist, but its tone is also an act of erasure in other ways. 

“The betterment of well people” is the polite phrase often attached to what others call “recreational” usage of psychedelics. But that’s not what Erik Davis’s High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies (Strange Attractor Press/MIT Press, $34.95) is about. A 400-page scholarly and philosophical epic with a cosmic scope and lyrical voice, High Weirdness untangles (and re-tangles) the strange lives and stranger visions of Terence McKenna, Philip K. Dick, and Robert Anton Wilson. Three men connected by science fiction, counterculture, and transformative experiences, their stories are almost akin to an underground version of Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: Eternal Golden Braid, a book enfolded in its own playful meta-world of unreliable narrators. There is nothing wrong, of course, with “the betterment of well people,” but High Weirdness is a book about how weird minds might get weirder yet.

“Betterment,” “wellness” and “recreational” are not phrases that one typically associates with the psychedelic experiences of Davis’s anti-heroes, yet those experiences acted as catalysts in other ways. All three were professional weird people in varying degrees, occupying spaces even outside the traditional bounds of bohemia, and perhaps even predisposed to extra-normal states of mind: McKenna as a self-made ethnobotanist, self-described explorer, and brilliant substance cultivator; Dick as one of the most legendary science fiction authors of the 20th century; and Wilson as a Playboy editor and media prankster who nonetheless found himself tumbling down what he called a “reality tunnel.” All three were self-conscious storytellers unselfconsciously pulled into their own stories. These predispositions, exactly what controlled studies are designed to negate, are an accurate locator of psychedelics’ fringe place in American culture in the 1970s. And yet, it’s endlessly contemporary. While Philip K. Dick’s dystopian futures are always relevant, but lately the seriously blurred lines of Robert Anton Wilson’s satirical media pranks are the most brutally real.

In the cosmology of High Weirdness, psychedelics are used for disruption, not adjustment or productivity. Explaining how the weirdness got so high, Davis walks the tightrope of skepticism and knowingness, in the process creating a thoroughly entwined history of esoterica, stretching far past the title decade. The book’s index is a virtual checklist of bizarre characters, drug cults, outré philosophers, comix artists, b-movies, religious practitioners, psych-rock acts and perhaps hundreds of other freak flags, sewn together by Davis’s sympathetic and curious approach to the esoteric. Dense and playful, High Weirdness is a lot to take in, a philosophical and intellectual treatise on deeply heady topics that does its best to be friendly. 

Treated briefly (though seriously) in High Weirdness is an infamous 1975 California acid trip by Michel Foucault, also the topic of a small but beautiful new book by Simeon Wade, Foucault in California: A True Story — Wherein the Great French Philosopher Drops Acid in the Valley of Death (Heyday Books, $22.00). Published posthumously, Wade was the longhaired philosophy professor who–with his composer boyfriend–provided Foucault with the acid and accompanied him on his sole acid trip. With the frame of the LSD-touched road trip to Death Valley and the gay hippie scene in the wilds of Bear Canyon, just north of Pasadena, the book is simultaneously a fine narrative-driven introduction to Foucault’s own ideas and the skepticism with which they were treated, in part because they came from an openly gay French philosopher teaching at Berkeley and, at the time, living in the heart of San Francisco’s leather district. 

Though playful and flattering, almost fawning, Wade’s voice is also a serious one. With the manuscript approved by Foucault before his death in 1984, Wade’s questioning is relentless but focused. While Foucault sometimes seems mildly put off (and hilariously bitchy at others), it’s also easy to imagine it’s just his au natural French cool reacting to Wade’s adulation and California enthusiasms. In pictures of Wade and Foucault on the book’s endpapers, Wade is longhaired and beatific next to Foucault, resplendent with his shaved head, white turtleneck, and borrowed aviator sunglasses. In the author photo, taken with Foucault slightly later, Wade is dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, with more cropped hair and beard — a virtual double for Terence McKenna.

Foucault’s trip takes up only a small part of the story, but it is a treat, framed by Wade’s sweetness and knowing context for Foucault’s work. Blasting Stockhausen from a portable tape player, Wade and his partner–the otherwise undocumented experimental composer Michael Stoneman–the trio melt into the desert. “Glissandos bounced off the stars, which glowed like incandescent pinballs,” Wade writes.

“The sky has exploded and the stars are raining down on me,” the French philosopher tells Wade near the trip’s peak. “I know it is not true, but it is the Truth.”

Though Foucault himself spoke reverently of his psychedelic experience in the years before his AIDS-related death in 1984, it was a story often dismissed by the philosophical industrial complex, as it were. In an introduction, editor Heather Dundas details how the trip caused Foucault to rethink his History of Sexuality and re-plot what was to follow. (A long Baffler piece dives into the book’s disputed territory.) But read as a poetic epilogue to (or perhaps as a spin-off from) High Weirdness, Foucault in California is a wonderful case study for the “usefulness” of psychedelics blurs lines between seriousness and play.

Though occasionally occupied by a few of the same characters, both High Weirdness and Foucault in California sometimes seem to be set in a different galaxy than How To Change Your Mind. But while psychedelics have navigated a more mainstream place in American culture, they’ve also continued to be as weird as ever, spawning new plot threads that are redolent of both Dick and Wilson’s writings — and occasionally McKenna’s own novelty-drenched fantasies. Erik Davis himself has documented the ever-mutating recent strain of Psychedelic Capitalism, one part of a multi-dimensional spectrum that includes the first psychedelic-oriented VC firm, German financiers, Ivy League investors, the manufacture of psilocybin in Chinese chemical labs, right-wing lobbyists and military-industrial-surrealists, Dark Web drug wars, and a parallel strain of justice-oriented Psychedelic Socialism (aka Acid Communism)

One of the furthest-out lines of the psychedelic spectrum is occupied by Andrew Gallimore, who also has a lush new book, Alien Information Theory: Psychedelic Drug Technologies and the Cosmic Game (Strange World Press, $25.99). (I have not yet had a chance to read it, though interviewed Gallimore several years ago.) With veteran DMT researcher Rick Strassman, Gallimore has designed a medical protocol for long-duration DMT sessions, and an only mildly more subjective thesis to go with the results — which contemporary Anglo-Scandinavian psychedelic philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H has critiqued eloquently and respectfully.

In another perhaps equally astonishing development, psychedelics have been decriminalized in Denver and Oakland, and–though voted down–Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced an amendment to a funding bill that would’ve made it easier to study psilocybin. Loads of new scientific papers, many originating from Imperial College’s Centre for Psychedelic Research in London, are revealing wild untold dimensions, only rarely contradicting the well-accepted folklore about psychedelics. Michael Pollan, for his part, has opposed decriminalization efforts, saying that there hasn’t been enough research done yet. (Others have different feelings).

Offering an even vaster historical perspective than any of the above is Mike Jay’s Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (Yale University Press, $26.00), whose real action begins in the ’80s — the 1880s. Even so, it speaks clearly to the present moment. With nearly a century-and-a-half of perspective, Jay tracks the emergence of peyote and its derivative mescaline, bringing incredible and previously untold nuance to the complicated story of peyote’s role in the collision between Native Americans and white colonizers. Channeling the major players, including the meeting of Comanche chief Quanah Parker and Euro-American ethnologist James Mooney, the heart of Jay’s book is both gripping narrative and often tragic culture-wide cautionary tale. Jay details how peyote created a new bond across tribes as colonizers ripped them from the Land. There’s weirdness aplenty, though it’s usually on the part of the Euro-Americans, such as New York socialite Mabel Dodge, whose attempt to host a peyote meeting at her luxurious Fifth Avenue home would read as comic if it didn’t trigger such long-term shock-waves.

Outside of its continued use by the Native American Church, peyote and mescaline are mostly missing from the contemporary psychedelic landscape of microdosing, research chemicals, ayahuasca ceremonies, and DMT pens. Jay’s book is able to provide a history at wide scale, a cycle seemingly complete. Except that it’s not. A vibrant and present culture continues to exist in the American southwest. One can still tune into whole worlds of contemporary peyote meeting music, an indelible part of North America’s rich soundscape.

The most accessible of the new batch of psychedelic books–and surely the most gleeful–is Brian Blomerth’s Bicycle Day (Anthology Editions, $30.00). A gorgeous graphic novel, it depicts the most notorious mind-weirding origin story of them all — Albert Hofmann’s 1943 lab accident that unleashed a world-changing technicolor superpower. Blomerth’s rendering Hofmann’s invention of LSD in Basel, Switzerland in the years surrounding World War II is lush and overflowing, a welcoming color-swirl that will almost surely beckon repeat dives. A stunning visual rendering of Hofmann’s discovery, Bicycle Day winks to R. Crumb, Yellow Submarine, the Grateful Dead, and numerous comix conventions, unfortunately including a hyper-buxom depiction of Hofmann’s assistant, Susi Ramstein, the first woman to take LSD. 

With an excellent introduction by Dennis McKenna–Terence’s younger brother and a major character in High WeirdnessBicycle Day also opens up the idea that, perhaps, there was no lab accident at all. (Mike Jay, incidentally, has explored the mysteries of LSD’s invention.) And if Bicycle Day is far out, it’s so far out that it might prompt serious readers to further wonder about the man who invented LSD. Though he had mystical tendencies, Albert Hofmann was most certainly not a hippie, nor even really a proto-hippie, with politics that are increasingly hard to recover more than 75 years later. 

Both Hofmann’s 1979 memoir LSD: My Problem Child and Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller’s dry 2013 biography Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD only sketch out the forces swirling around Sandoz Chemicals and the Swiss Alps, but neither quite evoke them fully. The most illuminated look at Hofmann’s world is perhaps Alan Piper’s 2015 print-on-demand monograph, Strange Drugs Make For Strange Bedfellows: Ernst Jünger, Albert Hofmann and the Politics of Psychedelics. It suggests, in some ways, that Hofmann himself belongs more to the world of deep esoterica as outlined in Davis’s High Weirdness than to the psychedelic counterculture.

But, like the world at large, all that is immaterial. Bicycle Day is pure fun, a fanciful cartoon. It is perhaps the only one of these books to make psychedelics seem not only appealing but like a genuine blank slate, untethered by history or politics or any of the other topics that often seem so silly in the midst of an actual psychedelic experience. It is inside this timeless space that it is possible for one’s mind to be changed, as Michael Pollan has so powerfully framed it. These books ask the liberating follow-up: What do you change it to?

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Jesse Jarnow is the author of Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America (Da Capo, 2016), Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America (Da Capo, 2018), and Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham, 2012).