The Man who Turned on the World by Michael Hollingshead

Originally published in 1973 ‘The Man who Turned on the World’ by Michael Hollingshead recounts the author’s involvement in the psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Having been told by Aldous Huxley to talk with Timothy Leary, and having subsequently given Leary his first LSD trip, Hollingshead’s notoriety was assured. The book is a fascinating landscape of the journey he and LSD took during the decade.

Michael Hollingshead writes at the end of The Man who Turned on the World: “I have tried to write this book as an inwardly conceived and inwardly coherent work of fiction that isn’t exactly fiction, and only those who read it as a novel will discover its real meaning” (Hollingshead 253). In respect of the author’s wishes this is what I’ve attempted to do in this review i.e. treat it as a novel, and not a strict historical account. Having said this, however, one element will be questioned non-fictionally; his varying assessments of LSD and the contextual situations in which he places them within the timeline of the book.

The opening section deals with his own first experience with LSD, having been recommended the hallucinogen by Aldous Huxley, after enquiring about mescaline: “What I had experienced was the equivalent of death’s abolition of the body. I had literally ‘stepped forth’ out of the shell of my body, into some other strange land of unlikeliness…” He’d ordered one gram, five thousand 200 gamma doses, which he turned into a thick paste and kept in a mayonnaise jar. Then, also on the recommendation of Huxley, he contacted Dr. Timothy Leary, a professor at Harvard University who was researching psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.

The Harvard Psilocybin Project (HPP), Leary’s research group, was fledgling in 1961 and had been set up after Leary’s experience with the sacred mushrooms of Mexico in 1959. Hollingshead and Leary struck up a friendship, Hollingshead moved in with Leary and his two children and also, because of his experience with hallucinogenic drugs, took at active role in the HPP, giving lectures and running sessions. The influence of the psychiatric setting on the author’s descriptive understandings of LSD’s potential is highly evident:

The psychedelic experience and the insights it provides entail the obligation to communicate and to listen. Revelation and response are not a man’s private affair; for the revelation comes to one man for all men, and in his response he is representative of mankind (Hollingshead 39).

As we’ve seen, in the first instance, described his own first LSD experience  in rather fantastical language, then having joined Leary Harvard, the dynamics of the experience change. Above he describes the experiences as revelatory and that in order for this value to be realised they must be communicated. This underlines the doctor-patient relationship and the necessity of the ‘talking method’ in psychiatry. Interesting though, as well as the religious connotations of revelation, this attitude also opens up LSD to a wider social application, so far as the essential, revelatory value becomes a lesson for all humanity; not necessarily limited to psychiatric pathologies.

Rather at odds with this necessity of communication, Hollingshead later describes the inability of language to communicate the psychedelic experience as a major limitation. Huxley had already said as much in The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956) and there is a sense that Hollingshead is continuing the tradition of this thinking, even though the experience entails “the obligation to communicate”. However language, certainly in the case of this book, provides an ample window through which to measure the reflexive understanding of experiences by researchers, regardless of whether it communicates anything of an intrinsic or essential value of experience, or not. Either way, this perhaps explains why music and art became the major outlets for psychedelic expression, with literature rarely stepping up to the mark.

The narrative of Hollingshead’s book very much reflects the manner in which the psychedelic movement interacted with society; even so far as to explore theoretical approaches. For example, in chapter four The Exile’s Re-return, Hollingshead describes setting up the Agora Foundation in New York, with John Beresford, M.D. and Jean Houston, Ph.D. as a Foundation for Mind Research, including LSD. He diligently extrapolates the approaches of his colleagues, and his own, perhaps uncritically but certainly with some distance to their opinions (and others); however, he finishes the chapter by writing: “All I had really achieved at Agora was the realisation that the sombre doctors, scientists, technicians point only to the rigour of their own particular method. Ah! But to go without aid in search of truth; perhaps this is the beginning of wisdom…” (Hollingshead 98).

As various theoretical approaches proliferated, demonstrating a multi-faceted value, so far as psychiatrics were concerned anyway, it seemed to fly in the face of a single, essential value. This territorial segmentation is carried over into the corresponding threads of the book. While Hollingshead was setting up Agora, Leary et al set up the IF-IF (International Federation for Internal Freedom). There was a necessary coming apart, in order for the psychedelic movement to slowly spread out of the psychiatric theatre into the social, political and, more explicitly than previously, the religious. Similarly, at the end of his time at Agora, Hollingshead was walking through his own “dark existential forest” and this marks a return to the search for that essential value in LSD.

The book is packed full of long quotations that range from Hermann Hesse (who’s influence over Leary group is constantly reiterated), through to Playboy interviews and psychedelic newsletters. Yet far from only using quotes to lay historical setting into his narrative, Hollingshead was not adverse to employing quotations from spiritual texts, and classic literature as a literary device. For example, when he describes the head of a CBC crew accidently taking a large quantity of LSD, which had been stored in a port bottle, he quotes a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “No hat upon his head; his stockings foul’d/Ungarter’d and down-gyved to his ankles.” Both the comedy and the horror of the situation are illuminated beautifully in the text by this device.

Millbrook was a sixty-four room mansion located two hours away from New York, which Leary and the IF-IF rented from the young millionaire Billy Hitchcock in 1964. In many respects, the atmosphere that they tried to create took its inspiration from the book Island (1962), Huxley’s final novel before he died. In it, the islanders of Pala have created a utopia that synthesizes elements of Western science and Eastern spirituality. And at Millbrook, at least, esoteric book reading and acid trips were plentiful.

In Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Acid Test (1968), the author names the chapter in which Kesey visits Millbrook ‘The Crypt Trip’, in order to paint the contrast between their respective groups through interior/exterior exploration. Yet, for Hollingshead it was a time of great experimentation, artistic endeavour, which energetically charged those involved. The section on their Psychedelic Theatre was very interesting, and explains how they, like the Merry Pranksters, attempted to use multi-media technology to infuse psychedelia in their surroundings. Yet, the spiritual, essential value, or at least communicating it to the wider world was the central driving desire within the Millbrook experiments.

From what I had heard in letters and conversations, the psychedelic movement in England was small and badly informed. It appeared that those who took LSD did so as a consciously defiant anti-authoritarian gesture. The spiritual content of the psychedelic experience was being overlooked (Hollingshead 144)

Off to London Hollingshead went in 1965, armed with many copies of The Psychedelic Experience (1964) and the Psychedelic Review and the few thousand doses left in his mayonnaise jar. In London, he opened the World Psychedelic Centre. There are some wonderfully detailed descriptions of LSD sessions and the layout of the centre, but it is the very political question of Britain that overshadows the narrative during this chapter. Hollingshead had developed a methedrine addiction, coupled with many other stresses and bad habits, and that had given his life a zombie-like quality. As an increase in bad news stories, and his own growing paranoia and lack of application, take thread in the story, the section culminates in his arrest by the police and a jail sentence for drug possession.

The passages about his jail term are, for the most part, quite calm and measured. Surrounded by fellow acidheads who had been busted, eventually shipped off to an open prison and even finding some sympathy from the trainee prison guards he served food to, Hollingshead appears to be painting the incarceration of the thoughtful. In other words, if you fill a prison with members of the psychedelic movement, those individuals who strive for their inner freedom, then being in jail takes on a whole different quality; for in this respect they remain free eventhough their body is chained. Acid, which Hollingshead had had smuggled in, transforms the dynamic of incarceration. As he wrote near the beginning of the book, “acid was a bundle of solutions looking for a problem” (Hollingshead 10) and his internment was just such a problem.

A psychedelic is a solvent which dissolves the vigorous stereotypes of egocentric behaviour – it transforms the familiar self without changing a thing; it expands the moment: Yet there isn’t anything we can count on or accumulate; its value is poetic –  it helps ferry us across the abyss and we may thus gain a new amplitude; it is not a ‘psychological’ experience but a poetic one (Hollingshead 198)

After jail, he leaves for a period of reflection in Norway, before travelling back to the U.S. and Tonga, where he discovers the break down of the psychedelic scene in Cambridge, its entwinement with the counterculture with Leary on the West coast, and the extent to which LSD has spread into other elements of society, like the Peace Corps. In the final chapter, The Capital of Kingdom Come, Hollingshead moves to Nepal. The creative, artistic, social value of LSD is a strongly constructed image, as the influx of Western travellers by 1969, swapping acid for hashish, mirrors his own mission to set up a poetry magazine that brings together the traditions of the West with Nepal. It is as if the actual diffusion of LSD round the world created a period of artistic integration and change.

In conclusion, The Man Who Turned on the World is a wonderful exploration of a period of time that saw an explosion of ideas, which encircled the strange attractor that is LSD. Though Hollingshead style of switching between story-telling and psychedelic theory can be erratic, and perhaps some of the quotations are too long and break up the flow, in another way this actually puts across an essential LSD value; its ability to transform not only the mind of the individual who takes it for a short time, but the society in which they find themselves. The substance of its essence is erratic and changeable, for it is culture, yet LSD itself remained the same. Hollingshead’s LSD is transformative. Although it uses language and methods in a manner befitting the context of its specific application, its essential value lies outside itself in its ability to transform the meaning of language and method and thus also the social in which those devices flourish. In other words, essence is not to be found in any one method, but in the fruits of LSD’s labours, whether artistic, behavioural, or otherwise; these are the transformations.

Personally speaking, Hollingshead’s book is one of the more fulfilling reads from this period of drug literature, so far as it takes account a wide variety of elements and communicates them very lucidly. Overall, a fascinating insight into the psychology of those people concerned with LSD in the 1960s and, in terms of its approach to the drug, rather forward thinking. Unfortunately The Man Who Turned on the World is out-of-print but it is possible to read it online.

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4 Responses

  1. Sky says:

    Thanks for posting about this very sought after book by one of the most misterious and elusive characters of the psychedelic culture….I’ll try again to find it somewhere, until recently it was very difficult to get it….

  2. Vic Timov says:

    First met Michael in 1973 when this book was about to be published, and i had just got back from spending 3 years in India. Not sure what happened to my copy……probably vanished into the ether. Michael gave the impression of being a bit of an acid queen, and whilst some of my friends thought he was a disruptive influence, i always found him helpful, sociable, and mostly harmless.

  1. February 21, 2012

    […] movement on both sides of the pond, which he detailed in his account of the period; entitled The Man Who Turned on the World (1973). The book, in which the author writes that it should be read as fiction, is filled with […]

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