Do we need another book about the high priests of the Age of Aquarius, their worship of LSD, and its effects on their acolytes? Didn’t Tom Wolfe write the last word on those follies in 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his account of the whacked-out and heedless LSD-fueled insanity that characterized his travels across the country with Ken Kesey, Neal Cassidy, and the Merry Pranksters in a glo-painted school bus during the summer of 1964?
Don Lattin, a religion editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, finds some good in that phase of our history and has written The Harvard Psychedelic Club to call it to our attention. In the book’s afterword, Lattin writes about having taken LSD on several occasions in college years ago. It evoked some mystifying “spiritual” experiences in him that he would like to understand today. He thought writing this book might help him work it out. How nice for him.
Lattin begins in 1960 at Harvard College, when a foursome of world-class self-promoters, inspired in part by Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, came to believe they could bring people into “higher consciousness” and open the world to peace and fellowship by getting everyone to take LSD and other hallucination-producing compounds. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert were members of the psychology faculty. Huston Smith was a comparative-religion scholar who taught just down the road in Cambridge at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Andrew Weil was an undergraduate taken up by the glamour of these teachers just as he was beginning the career that would turn him into the champion of “alternative medicine” that he is today.
The book reveals how each of them went about encouraging people to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” how they worked together at first and then fell to quarrelling like W.?B. Yeats’s “weasels in a hole,” and ultimately how they did more harm than anyone might at first have predicted—to themselves, to their families, and to one another. This is not really the tale Lattin wants to tell, but it comes through anyway.
He describes them as “brilliant” and “ambitious” even while showing how each manipulated the emerging permissive counterculture of the 1960s. But the path they followed actually reveals them to have been intellectually second class, with shady ambitions. Timothy Leary remains the most notorious of the four because of all his court trials and hair-breadth escapes from custody and prison. But Smith, Alpert (who turned himself into a celebrity guru named Ram Dass), and Weil prove to be remarkably unreflective about the drug use they were promoting and the injuries it could cause.
Leary has the biggest casualty list tied to his résumé. One of his wives and his only daughter committed suicide when his selfish preoccupations led to their abuse and neglect. But the others have their own closeted skeletons, mostly in the form of seductions, misdirections of the young, and the waste of resources provided by trust-fund kids cocking a snook at the families that provided their comforts.
There is some diversion to be had from Lattin’s detailed gossip about these egotistic men on a pseudo-mission. But from the vantage point of half a century on, surely one has every right to expect something more than a tolerant retake on this social misdirection from a book about the people who made this potent and dangerous hallucinogenic a popular commodity. A proper account would have addressed what is now known about the effects of this drug on the brain and mind, and why, therefore, the wild mental states people experienced on LSD did so little to usher in a New Age in which new Doors of Perception were cast open. Even a modest amount of psychopharmacological information would explain why these drugs turned out not to be a high road to either peace or God.
I suspect that these matters get not a mention in Lattin’s strange hagiography because to do so would reveal without question how the whole business was a 20th-century confidence game that swindled a generation. The unmentioned fact in The Harvard Psychedelic Club is that LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and the like produce not a “higher consciousness” but rather a particular kind of “lower consciousness” known well to psychiatrists and neurologists—namely, “toxic delirium.”
Doctors encounter this strange and colorful state of mind in patients suffering from advanced hepatic, renal, or pulmonary disease, in which toxic products accumulate in the body and do to the brain and mind just what LSD does. All the phenomena detailed in this book and celebrated by Leary and company as “the experience”—the vividness of color perception, the merging of physical sensations, the hallucinations, the disorientation and loss of a sense of time, the delusional joys and terrors that come and go evoking unpredictable feelings and behaviors—are sadly familiar symptoms doctors are called to treat in hospitals every day.
There is nothing “higher” about this state. It represents the blurring of consciousness that fills with dream-like remnants of misunderstood stimuli, partially grasped experiences, and thoughts all jumbled together.
Every neurologist and psychiatrist has a story about some patient suffering in these ways and reporting his or her experiences in a memorable manner. I recently heard of a gifted elderly woman I much admired who while in the hospital during her terminal delirium from lung disease was asked by her doctor if she knew where she was. “Why,” she replied, smiling, “I’m shopping in Bergdorf-Goodman’s.” How wonderful, I thought, to be ushered out in such a happy state of mind. But this was not her in a “higher consciousness.”
And what about those mysterious “cosmic” feelings Huxley and Leary emphasized as critical aspects of this state of consciousness? People certainly have experienced such feelings, especially during their “good trips”’ on LSD, when they found themselves suffused with “spirituality,” like the book’s author himself, still in the thrall of the “glimpses of wonder and awe” he received. Glimpses, though, is the significant word. University of Chicago psychiatrist Daniel X. Freedman has identified this aspect of delirium and hallucinogenic states as the “portentousness” feature of the intoxication. He described “the sense that something—even a trivial platitude—is fraught with a cosmic significance too profound to be adequately communicated.” The subjects usually paint the “portent” in vague, evocative ways that suggest just how ephemeral it is. Thus Lattin attempts to describe the experiences of love and belonging he felt while taking LSD on Big Sur with his girlfriend: “All we saw was white light, but we somehow continued communicating with each other. Not with words, but through some other means of communion. Time stopped, or at least slowed down to a glacial pace. Such a feeling of, of, um. . .suchness.” (The ellipsis and italics are, alas, in the original.)
The silliness of this kind of prose masks the danger in the experience. The exhilaration spoils many of its habitués for the ordinary demands of life by providing a cheap path to the mental rewards of effort. Huxley himself noted in Doors of Perception how the drug taker “sees no reason for doing anything in particular and finds most of the causes for which, at ordinary times, he was prepared to act and suffer, profoundly uninteresting.” In the more extreme cases, LSD takers become inaccessible to the needs of their dependent children, supportive spouses, and long-suffering parents because they have found a way to experience all the feelings of love and achievement without any of the hassle.
In addition, by confusing the ecstasies of delirium with religious experience, the members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club encouraged a modern idolatry that, just like the old idolatries, hardened the heart as it softened the mind. Big surprise: nothing good comes from intoxicating your brain and disrupting your reason while looking for the divine.
Lattin tries to make something of those who promoted the behaviors, and even to praise the bits and pieces of our present culture that can be tied to them—such as the shallow, widespread mantra of these days, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” He is particularly impressed by Andrew Weil’s “alternative medicine” of yoga and acupuncture, which Weil sells from his ranch in Arizona, along with his “Weil by Nature’s Path Organic Chocolada Almond Hot Oatmeal” and “Dr. Weil for Origins Plantidote Mega-Mushroom Face Cleanser.” (I’m not making this up.)
Weil’s celebrity is among the few enduring phenomena from the misbegotten idea, so foolishly endorsed by Don Lattin, that something of value came out of the Harvard Psychedelic Club. The only thing of value to come out of Lattin’s book is the way it reveals, even though it doesn’t mean to do so, just why the Age of Aquarius ended in shambles and why the states of mind produced by LSD never led to great achievements, but rather their opposite.