Birth of a Psychedelic Culture
Originally published in 2010 ‘Birth of a Psychedelic Culture – Conversations about Leary, the Harvard experiment, Millbrook and the Sixties’ is a fascinating insight into the early years of the Western social phenomena, known as psychedelia. Its multifaceted approach produces a wonderfully rounded examination of life within the burgeoning psychedelic bubble and the evolving atmosphere therein.
The book is largely constructed through a transcribed conversation between Ram Dass (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert) and Dr. Ralph Metzner – both core members, alongside Timothy Leary, in the Harvard Psilocybin project – and is mediated by Gary Bravo. They recollect, discursively, the history and the discourse that shaped not only their lives, but, in part, the lives of millions of other people as well. Each section of the book is annotated by key events.
From the beginnings of the psilocybin project and their early encounters with the substance: Ram Dass – “It was the first time that I experienced an inner thing that was stronger than my social conditioning.” To the early years at Millbrook: Ralph Metzner – “There was so much closeness between us, it was amazing, and complete trust. We always trusted we could work things out by using psychedelics for problem solving.” There is a wonderful interplay of perspective.
However, this is not to give the impression of a sugar-coated love-in the whole time. The difficulties, the distress – personal and otherwise – are all included. Ralph Metzner’s reaction on returning to Millbrook from India is a particularly good example: “When I arrived back in Millbrook after my Journey to the East, I found a scene of depressing chaos. I was freaked because the scene had completely changed…” The transcription between these two giants of the psy-movement, gives the book a validity rarely matched in any historical discourse.
In many respects The Birth of a Psychedelic Culture can be seen as a collection of primary resources and evidence. It contains numerous personal accounts, peppered between the main discussion, from the likes of George Letwin, Peggy Hitchcock and Gunther Weil. All of whom were directly involved with the goings-on. There are also many photos – a lot from the pre-Hollingshead LSD era – posters, artwork, personal letters and psychedelic advertisements. A plethora of mixed-media for the fullest conception of the era.
The forward by John Perry Barlow – Grateful Dead lyricist, essayist and frequent visitor to Millbrook in the Sixties – is both a broad examination of the many social forces involved in the period and a heartfelt recollection of his own experiences. This, in itself, reflects the general tone of the book and whilst hindsight can make one cringe, it can also bring back to light the great positives of the past.
As Barlow wrote: “Whatever else one might think of authority, it was not funny. But after one had rewired one’s self with LSD, authority – with its preening pomp, its affection for ridiculous rituals of office, its fulsome grandiloquence and eventually, and sublimely, its tarantella around Mutually Assured Destruction – became hilarious to us..”
For anyone interested in the history of the psychedelic movement, the psychology, the characters and the culture of the Harvard branch, this book is invaluable. Forty to fifty years have passed since the events described took place and yet there is an unsettling freshness about the problems that the individuals and the culture faced, which resonate right down to the modern day. Yet, all the while reading, one also senses the warmth that those involved still have in their memories and which flower gracefully throughout the text. Highly recommended.
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