Fifty years ago today, Timothy Leary, a lecturer in Psychology at Harvard University, delivered a paper in Copenhagen at the 14th International Congress of Applied Psychology. Entitled “How to Change Behavior” Leary championed the use of LSD as the most efficient means of expanding consciousness.
All through 1961 Leary had been busy recruiting “distinguished creative people; artists, poets, writers, scholars” to experiment with the new drug and report back to him their experiences. The following is a recruitment letter sent to Hungarian scholar, Arthur Koestler:
Things are happening here which I think will interest you. The big, new, hot issue these days in many American circles is DRUGS. Have you been tuned in on the noise?
I stumbled on the scene in a most holy manner. Spent last summer in Mexico. Anthropologist friend arrived one weekend with a bag of mushrooms. Magic mushrooms. I had never heard of them, but being a good host joined the crowd who ate them. Wow! Learned more in six hours than in the past sixteen years. Visual transformations. Gone the perceptual machinery which clutters up our view of reality. Intuitive transformations. Gone the mental machinery which slices the world up into abstractions and concepts. Emotional transformations. Gone the emotional machinery that causes us to load life with our own role-ambitions and petty desires.
Came back to the USA and have spent last six months pursuing these matters. Working with Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg the poet. We believe that the synthetics of peyote (mescalin) and the mushrooms (psilocybin) offer possibilities for expanding consciousness, changing perceptions, removing abstractions.
For the person who is prepared, they provide a soul-wrenching mystical experience. Remember your enlightenments in the Franco prison? Very similar to what we are producing. We have had cases of housewives understanding, experiencing satori describing it –who have never heard of Zen.
There are inevitable political-sociological complications. The expected groups are competing to see who should control the new drugs. Medicine and psychiatry are in the forefront. Psychiatric investigators (hung up as they are on their own abstractions) interpret the experience as PSYCHOTIC- and think they are producing model-psychosis. Then too, the cops and robbers game has started. Organized bohemia (and don’t tell me it ain’t organized, with rituals as rigid as those of the Masoic order) is moving in. There is the danger that mescalin and psilocybin will go the way of marijuana ( a perfectly mild, harmless, slightly mind-opening substance, as you know). And of course the narcotics bureau hopes that it will go the same way–so they can play out their side of the control game.
We are working to keep these drugs free and uncontrolled. Two tactics. We are offering the experience to distinguished creative people. Artists, poets, writers, scholars. We’ve learned a tremendous amount by listening to them tell us what they have learned from the experience.
We are also trying to build these experiences in a holy and serious way into university curricula. I’ve got approval to run a seminar here–graduate students will take the mushrooms regularly and spend a semester working through, organizing and systematizing the results. It’s hard for me to see how anyone can consider himself a theologian, psychologist, behavioral scientist if he had not had this experience.
So how does it sound? If you are interested I’ll send some mushrooms over to you. Or if you’ve already been involved I’d like to hear about your reaction. I’ll be in London around June 8th and would like to tell you more about the cosmic crusade.
The memory of our weekend last winter remains as an intellectual and emotional highspot.
Best Regards to you,
As it turned out Koestler had, indeed, ”already been involved”. In early 1960, on his way back from a conference in San Francisco, Koestler stopped at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where experimental research was going on with hallucinogens. He tried psilocybin and had a “bad trip”. Later, in 1961, Koestler would give the drugs another try under the direct supervision of Leary at Harvard but he would later write that he “wasn’t enthusiastic about that experience” either.
Leary’s whole approach strikes me as offensively elitist. If I was given the task of recruiting subjects for these experiments in 1961 I would have gone to people like Stan Lee, Chuck Jones, and Ernie Kovacs. Then again, one has to wonder if those particular consciousnesses really needed any additional expansion.