The Mad Artist by Roger Keen
Published in 2010 ‘The Mad Artist – Psychonautic adventures in the 1970s’ is a novelistic memoir by Roger Keen. Set between 1975 and 1979, the book explores his experiences of psychedelic awakenings – trials and tribulations – against the backdrop of his time at art college. The book manages to combine the best elements of biography and literary flair and carves for itself an exhilarating picture of psychedelic Britain in the late 1970s.
The book is split into three sections. The first, titled ‘Pounds, Shillings and Pence’ an old name for LSD, chronicles Keen’s first acid experiment and his search for an art college to attend. Several characters are introduced, most importantly Henry, whose relationship with Keen forms the psychedelic gravitas to the novel. The interplay of ideas between the two is a fascinating post-modern insight, wherein their own literary adventures in psychedelic literature creates a rhizome that informs the ‘The Mad Artist’ as a psychedelic work itself.
“I discerned in Henry…a shift in attitude towards a more strident, serious stance on tripping. Seemingly for him it wasn’t just fun and adventure anymore, but some completely life-altering, all-encompassing quest. Again I had that feeling that he’d climbed further up the tree of discovery since we’d last had a good talk.”
The second section is titled the ‘Geometric Progression’, which is an inference to the psychedelic adventuring that began with his first LSD trip and which expands and deepens during further LSD, hash and weed experiences. Historically speaking, it covers the bulk of his four years at Bournemouth Art College, as Keen uncovers both elements of himself as a social and intellectual being. Constant references to artists, writers and musicians saturate the text in such a way that one clearly perceives his own cultural expansion.
The idea of ‘Geometric Progression’, fractal if you will, also lends itself beautifully to the wider, metaphoric galvanising of the text. For example, the state of Keen developing from excited new adventurer, through the lethargy of hedonism, into a more objective adult – concerning psychedelics – somewhat mirrors the history of the psychedelic movement. Carlos Castaneda, who is a constant reference during the book and who was, during the period, still writing yet also being debunked, is wonderfully evidential of the crisis the movement was in during the late 1970s.
“I saw myself more clearly and resolved that I must make my life tighter so as to better tread the warrior’s path. In particular I had to overcome my trepidation about taking acid and the underlying fear that it would all end badly and result in madness, breakdown or some such thing. These misgivings were natural, but they were obstacles on the path of knowledge, and the strong man should fight them.”
The final section, titled ‘The Novel’, struck me as being the closest to my own bemushroomed heart. It is the so-called end of the Geometric Progression; the end of acid trips. Both Roger and Henry have moved on in their lives, their college days come to an end, they have steady girlfriends and lives ahead of them. An end filled with hope and new beginnings. And, after much hunting Keen also finds the fabled Liberty Cap, during which there are some wonderful descriptions of a bemushroomed mind and their growth into new ideas; namely The Novel.
The Mad Artist is everything a memoir should be for the reader; a glimpse into the emotional, spiritual and social growth of an individual and yet not alienating through whimsy and self-indulgence. Keen uses the psychedelic experience as a beautiful craft through which the elements of his life have been magnified and threaded. It is a textual empathogen, wherein flashes of thought and circumstance entrench you in the text.
“Race was holding a bong made from a litre Courvoisier bottle. It had an old chillum bowl inlaid with gauze in the neck, with a length of plastic shower piping running down inside. There was an expertly bored hole on the bottle’s wide shoulder to act as a mouthpiece. Immediately Race went to the sink and put in two inches of water.”
Roger Keen, as an independent author, has proved in one fell swoop that self-publication is an area rich in literary insight and creative spark. Revisits to ‘The Mad Artist’ reveals layers of complexion where even the beginnings of the book are revealed through itself, in parts, toward the end of the narrative, culminating in a delicious self-reference: “My studio is the world at large and my subjects are all the people in it.” I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in psychedelics, good writing and the human condition.
To buy a copy of ‘The Mad Artist’ please visit the link here.