The Harvard Psychedelic Club By Don Lattin

Originally published in 2010 ‘The Harvard Psychedelic Club’ by Don Lattin is a work of narrative non-fiction. It biographically examines the lives of four men, involved in various ways with what was originally called the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Based on interviews with the surviving members and written accounts, Lattin’s book is a highly readable text of the impact these men had on both one another and wider society.

The four men in question are Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (now Ram Dass,) Andrew Weil and Huston Smith; who are respectively given the monikers the Trickster, the Seeker, the Healer and the Teacher. The structure of the book, a narrative non-fiction, follows the lives of these four people; from their younger days, to when their paths intersected with one another at Harvard University during the late 50s and early 60s, to the subsequent impact their lives and careers have had on society.

In understanding the picture that Lattin paints of these people it is important to bear in mind the monikers he has labelled them with; for not only do they give indication of the circumstances of their lives but they irrevocably determine their characterization in the text.

Leary – the Trickster – is the smart professor, whose provocative style helped lead to a popularization of psychedelics in Western society and who some blame for the subsequent prohibition of psychedelics. Yet simultaneously he developed some of the key methodology in psychedelic research. And Professor Richard Alpert – the Seeker – with his animated desires and personal problems, which unwittingly helped bring an end to the Harvard Psilocybin Project but that also set him off on a life-long spiritual journey, in which he even found a new name for himself – Ram Dass.

Lattin notes: “Social and political activism was never a priority with Leary or Alpert. They were not out marching to stop the war in Vietnam, nor even talking about it, In fact, they helped set the tone for the political disconnectedness of much of the human-potential and New Age movements.” Along with Ralph Metzner however, Leary and Alpert produced a whole series of texts about the psychedelic experience – both books and in the journal ‘The Psychedelic Review – and I believe it is wrong to think that their publication is not a form of social activism for the psychedelic movement; even if they appear to be A-political.

It was Andrew Weil – the Healer – who added the discourse to the mix. He felt he got a bad deal from the professor’s behaviour at Harvard, which included debarring him from research and he denounced them in the press, which eventually helped lead to their expulsion. It is Weil though whose own path led him to need reconciliation with them both and whose own later career came to put him in similar circumstances, before eventually finding popular appeal in the 1990s as a health guru.

Finally, Huston Smith – the Teacher – who never fully broke from his own academic faculty and remained, throughout the psychedelic journey, on the very far edge of the social movement. Though his appraisal of the religious significance of the psychedelic experience has now become standard discourse, his greatest lasting legacy is arguably the book ‘The Religions of Man’ now titled ‘The World’s Religions’, which has sold more than two million copies. His is the element of continuity that really runs the gamut of the text.

“All four of these characters played a role in the social and spiritual changes that made the sixties such a pivotal decade in recent American history. They stirred up the water and then rode a wave of social change. The difference is that Timothy Leary never found an anchor, the stability needed to bring those changes into his life in a positive, long-lasting way. Instead of finding an anchor, Leary tried to walk on water.”

This observation is loaded with the text’s foundational discourse, which defines the characters and the narrative in a socially utilitarian manner; namely it is a measurement of popular impact. Whereas Alpert, Weil and Smith all had a subsequent influence on culture – through spirituality, through health, through academia – Leary’s impact waned from his Sixties heyday. Lattin believes that, unlike the others, Leary never found his “anchor” and continued living in a manner that excluded him from such aspirations. Whether or not this can be read as a failure in the man though is, of course, debatable.

Aside; it is interesting to note how psychedelic literature had already begun reimpacting on the social with various consequences; for example when the Leary group first left Harvard and went to Hotel Catalina: “For Leary, it was a glimpse of utopia, a glimmer of something that would not last. At first, they felt like they were living out Huxley’s vision in Island. But before long, the scene began to feel more like Brave New World. That peaceful, easy feeling soon gave way to creeping paranoia.

The Harvard Psychedelic Club is a valuable glimpse into one of the key episodes of the era in which the rise of psychedelic culture in Western society really took off. It profiles, with some journalistic legitimacy, key figures and events and cleanly maintains a very accessible, creative non-fiction narrative throughout the text. For history and biography Lattin’s book is a very entertaining read.

Via the House

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