Too Much to Dream by Peter Bebergal
Originally published in 2011 ‘Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood’ by Peter Bebergal is an autobiographical account of the author’s search for a higher spiritual meaning. Bebergal is the co-author of ‘The Faith Between Us’ and has written reviews and articles on culture, religion and science.
Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood tells the story of Bebergal’s life as a young adult, as he experimented in drugs with the aim of achieving a higher spiritual awareness, a belief he garnered from the popular literature of the 1950s and 1960s. After a series of failures in this direction that become increasingly punctuated by a deterioration of his mental health and a break down in his weltanshauung, the despair is overcome by a new approach in his life. However, having said this, one should not have the impression that this is the typical addiction story. Bebergal notes in the introduction:
“For me, and many of my peers who grew up in the seventies and eighties, the context [for hallucinogens] was not religious, but a manifestation of popular culture. At times it took on the façade of religion, using words like ‘karma” and “nirvana,” but it was secular to the core. The context of our drug experiences was infused with rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, literature, counterculture celebrities, and whatever romanticized notion we somehow managed to glean from television and movies” (Bebergal xx)
The implication, of course, is that an individual’s psychedelic experience was mediated through culture, and certainly while early 1960s theory concentrated on elucidating strict methods of experiential attainment through psychiatric practise and ancient spiritual frameworks, as popular culture became interested there was a break down in responsibility and a dilution of serious intent. Bebergal also notes that there are those people for whom these drugs do not have a disastrous effect. The normal addiction story paints the drug as the evil, Too Much to Dream, however, appears to put the drug at the mercy of culture i.e. culture is the source of misuse, which is to say the problem lays in there being no socially-sanctioned space for tripping. The cultural milieu, coupled with the youthful desire for a higher spiritual meaning in existence, leaves an undisciplined territory for exploring faculties of the universe and self. One that may lead to a breakdown in mental health. As Terence McKenna once famously said: “Culture is not your friend.”
There is an interesting consequence in writing that one’s context for tripping is a ‘manifestation of popular culture’ and that is that the individual is seemingly lost in cultural-contingency; a person becomes a product of, rather than a means to, culture. Bebergal writes: “The music hinted at another possible reality, one that for a time punk rock had made irrelevant, when dancing and sex were plenty to keep me distracted” (Bebergal 73). The individual’s potential becomes partially dictated by their consumption of popular culture, what they are and what they might become, are laid out by the grooves on some vinyl. Interestingly, this cultural embedding – a point at which approaches in academia find themselves often quivering behind – is taken to a logical conclusion in the book; the self-aware, culturally-contingent autobiography.
Bebergal goes into some depth on the cultural history of hallucinogens, their portrayal in books, influence on music and the various discourses that surround their use. The text is also peppered with musical references, the occult, mysticism, comic books and psychology. It is as if the author, as with the book itself, is the product of these cultural artefacts and a study of their role and reception within the social becomes a framework with which to understand the individual; contingent, as they appear to be, on their cultural backgrounds. On the one hand this depersonalises the text and, bearing in mind, that it is autobiographical it does detract somewhat from the human element of the story. On the other hand, however, the search for a spiritual, or even simply just deeper, meaning is something a good deal of individuals can relate to. In fact, it is this spiritual search, which retrieves the text from a simplly being a culture-mine-field and allows an empathetic embrace with the reader.
While Bebergal astutely recognises the cultural project historically, as a thread that gives rise to changing attitudes and that which also has the ability to cause disarray in individual approaches, there remains the closed perspective at its root; the cause of disarray and misinformation:
“The normalization of what were once considered alternative religious practices, as well as some historical distance from Timothy Leary and the Harvard scandal, has made it possible for scientists to once again broach the subject of psychedelics as a legitimate topic of research—though, despite this kind of tacit and tentative public tolerance, the DEA has not slowed down its arrests and prosecutions related to psychedelics” (Bebergal 171)
It seems that from all quarters there is a recognition that the trouble with psychedelics stems from the establishment attitude toward them. Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood manages to take the autobiography to its extreme with its depth of cultural information and, as such, is rather novel in its approach as a psychedelic text. It does not, however, strive to push any particular point-of-view and is, in fact, very critical of those who do – both government and popular culture. As such, the individual appears to be rescued from the socio-cultural waves, so far as their response, as in this book, depends on the unfolding of an individual’s, or the author’s, life. Overall, a well written book that challenges the presumptions usually associated with such a text.