This article was adapted from my talk at Breaking Convention 2015, held in London at Greenwich University. It has now been published by the excellent Oak Tree Review, which investigates the many branches of psychedelic culture throughout history, specialising in its manifestations in art and literature.
In their activities and writings in the late 1940s and ’50s the Beat writers – principally Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – prefigured and influenced the Psychedelic Movement, which came into flowering a generation later. When those epoch-making cultural changes got underway in the ’60s, the Beats were naturally looked upon as mentor figures and elder statesmen, and Timothy Leary, who was of the same age group as them, was happy to recruit and induct them into the cause – through his Harvard program. This produced some unexpected and volatile results – Tim Leary got more than he bargained for – and the end product as regards the three major Beat writers was one spectacular success, one mixed case, and one spectacular failure.
It all started in New York in 1943, within the Columbia university scene where the Beats first hooked up. At the time Jack Kerouac was in his early twenties, and already saw himself as a writer. Bill Burroughs was older, in his late twenties, and was known as a raconteur and intellectual, and became a mentor figure to the group. Allen Ginsberg was the kid, still a teenager, and just enrolled at Columbia. There were other key people in the group, such as Lucien Carr, another student, and everybody became fictionalised in Kerouac’s novels – most notably On the Road.
At around this same time Burroughs first tried morphine and became an addict, so the events of his first novel Junkie run roughly concurrently to On the Road. In both books, which are strongly autobiographical, there are many references to recreational drug use, and they open a marvellous window onto pre-psychedelic bohemian life – exactly the kind of scene which would develop eventually into the hippie scene.
Read more on: The Oak Tree Review
The second volume in the Nemu’s End series finds the self-styled Reverend Danny Nemu looking inwards to explore the personal apocalypse, where the veils of regular cognition are rent asunder and an unbounded world of revelation manifests beyond. He focuses on how the constrictions and convolutions of language work to dilute the divine, drawing its sting and rendering it into the conventions of whatever zeitgeist that currently obtains. This issue is intensified by translation – for example, any number of multiple meanings can arise in the text of the Bible when it is filtered through Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English. Overcoming the tyranny of the Word, be it written, spoken or thought, is what Neuro-Apocalypse is about, and Danny Nemu explores the many avenues through which this may take place.
Drawing on a rich history of personal experience, Danny tells of arguing with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Kyoto, of taking his perceptive system ‘off road’ with large doses of speed, and imbibing ayahuasca, firstly in Japan and later in the Brazilian Amazon. From an elevated perspective, he sees the ‘problem’ of language and the pictures it creates, even as he’s using it: ‘The nervous system finds what it expects to find […] We call false interpretations of the visual scene “hallucinations”, even though everything we see is an interpretation. The world perceived is the visual equivalent of a theory as yet unfalsified.’ He says that our cognitive structures are both climbing frames and cages, but their bars can be bent or reconfigured.
When it comes to geniuses such as Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny points out that their oddities and obsessive natures contributed in no small part to their intellectual achievements and breakthroughs; and similarly with autism, the difficulty with abstract thinking can be counterbalanced by the savant’s extraordinary powers of memory and recall. Continuing this thread, he notes that some of the symptoms of an epileptic fit resemble those of a religious vision, including terror and elation, premonition and encounters with demonic, angelic or ancestral entities. And the syndrome of ‘hearing voices’ isn’t necessarily all bad, when looked at from beyond the perspectives of western psychiatry. The point here is that there are many ways for the veil to be lifted.
Entering the realm of the role of psychoactive substances in the history of religion, Danny crosses the more familiar ground of Soma and the Eleusinian Mysteries, and then moves onto drugs in the Bible, re-evaluating the propensities of frankincense and myrrh. The former is a tranquilliser, an antidepressant and anxiety-reliever, whilst the latter shares those properties and is also an aphrodisiac. They were used with wine and other ‘head spices’ to create both healing and psychedelic effects, and when looked upon in that light, many passages in the Bible take on multiple new shades of meaning. For example, in the burning bush story, the bush burned with fire but was not consumed, which perhaps is ‘a good metaphor for the colourful geometric patterns that blaze around the objects of one’s attention in psychedelic states.’
As with Newton, Tesla and Wittgenstein, Danny’s new work has an impressive, obsessive monumentalism – the notes alone take up fifty pages. And the Reverend himself comes over as an Old Testament prophet reborn as a psychedelic dub poet or DJ, sampling and splicing the ancient and modern in his own signature style. Blending Bible studies with history, linguistics, philosophy, psychology, pharmacology and anthropology, Neuro-Apocalypse is a heady eclectic reading experience, a synapse-stretching brain workout that puts a new spin on apocalypses within and without. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cutting edge of psychedelic philosophy.
Buy a copy here: Psychedelic Press Shop
The latest Psypress Journal, 2016 Volume XVIII, features ‘War Stories and Cosmic Flights’, my in-depth interview with LSD historian Andy Roberts. We compare notes on the mind-bending properties of Operation Julie acid and generally muse about tripping in the 1970s, with Andy giving examples of the various weird acid synchronicities he’s experienced.
Andy goes on to talk about his new book Acid Drops, a collection of essays and interviews about all things psychedelic. As well as exploring the wacky, scary and wonderful in first-hand trip accounts, he also debunks long-standing urban myths about acid, such as Francis Crick being aided by LSD in discovering the DNA double helix; and also the classic ‘Reservoir Drugs’ scare story, about LSD in the water supply potentially freaking out entire towns and cities.
His collection includes interviews with Liz Elliot, Casey Hardison and Ramsay Campbell, and he also features a piece of his own fiction, all of which he discusses, along with his upcoming biography of Michael Hollingshead. Finally Andy gives his thoughts about the ‘war on drugs’, which makes him ‘incandescent with rage’, and also the current psychedelic renaissance, including the effect of the internet and social media on acid culture.
Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII also features Dr Andy Letcher’s ‘Mad Thoughs on Mushrooms’, a Foucauldian discourse on the effects of mushrooms within various classifications – some philosophical brain food of the highest order here! Christopher G. Ewing gives a marvellous account of the healing properties of psychedelics in dealing with conditions such as PTSD and addiction, and Vladimir Stephan delves into the area of sensory deprivation and altered states, examining the various techniques. For an enlightening read, get your copy now: Psypress 2016 Volume XVIII
My Breaking Convention talk from July 2015 is now up on Vimeo.
In their writings and lifestyle experiments, the Beat writers Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg were very much the precursors of the psychedelic movement – in particular with regard to their employment of drugs for recreational and psychonautic purposes. They were pioneering users of ayahuasca, mescaline, psilocybin and LSD; and when Timothy Leary began his Harvard work he naturally tried to induct the three as elder statesmen figures. The results were somewhat volatile and unexpected, with one resounding success, another a mix of good and bad, and another a resounding failure. Nevertheless the Beats remain highly influential figures and today’s psychedelic culture would not be the same without them.
The new Psypress UK 2015 Vol V Journal contains Part 2 of my exploration of psychedelic movies, taking the story into the late 1990s and up to the present. Films containing notable trip sequences include Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Enter the Void, and A Field in England, and clips can be viewed below. Other trippy movies featured include the sci-fi-oriented A Scanner Darkly and Inception, and here trailers are posted, as they convey the overall weird ambience better than any particular isolated scene.
The article also features a look at the history of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in cinema, in particular the Tim Burton adaptation, with its highly psychedelic production design, further enhanced by 3-D. A clip of Burton’s Mad Hatter’s tea party is included, together with another Alice short animation, Malice in Wonderland, which is particularly trippy in its constantly metamorphosing effects. The clips follow the same order as the accounts in the text.
Psypress 2015 Vol V also features inspiring pieces from Graham St John, James Oroc, Julian Vayne, Jani Pestana and David Luke. To purchase a copy please visit the Psypress Shop.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). This clip shows the latter part of the hotel lobby ‘Sunshine’ acid trip, where the carpet liquefies as reality distorts and the barroom clientele transmogrify into giant leering lizards. Heavy or what!
A Scanner Darkly (2006). This trailer gives a good impression of the unique overall schizoid hallucinatory feel of the movie. The animation overlay, achieved through interpolated rotoscoping, hovers ambiguously between real and cartoon; and then there’s that being from the next world, with a head covered in eyes…
My latest piece for the Psypress UK Journal – the first installment of a two-parter – explores the roots of psychedelic movies, their rise in the 1960s and the spread of their various influences thereafter, including psychedelia in comedy, sci-fi and horror, cartoons and reality benders. In particular ‘trip sequences’ in films such as The Trip, Easy Rider and Altered States are analysed at length, alongside other psychedelically-tinged scenes in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Yellow Submarine.
Whilst verbal descriptions convey much, I felt it would be useful to back up the article with some clips of the actual scenes under discussion, so here is a selection of suitable elements to peruse in conjunction with the piece. They follow the same order as in the text. Psypress UK 2015 Vol IV also contains illuminating essays from Peter Sjostedt-H, Nathan Horowitz and Ido Hartogsohn. To purchase a copy please visit the Psypress Shop.
The Trip (1967). This trailer gives a good flavour of the kitschy pop art treatment of the subject back in its heyday, with much reliance on flicker and strobing effects. It will blow your mind!
Easy Rider (1969). The Mardi Gras cemetery acid trip borrows from the grammar of The Trip, but moves it into darker, edgier spaces with fast cutting and vertiginous camera moves conjuring an atmosphere of chaos.
This article was originally published in the Psychedelic Press UK print journal 2013 Vol.2 and is now up on the Psypress site.
Mostly everyone has heard of William Burroughs’ drug-inspired masterpiece Naked Lunch, but far fewer have actually read it from cover to cover and fewer still have properly understood what Burroughs is doing in its pages.
Often dismissed as incomprehensible, pornographic and, due to its lack of formal narrative structure, unfilmable, Naked Lunch was nevertheless tackled on celluloid by David Cronenberg in 1991, resulting in a movie that is only minimally representative of the book and tends to deepen its mystery rather than clarify it. Reinventing from scratch and substituting his own authorship, Cronenberg ‘sampled’ Burroughs’ life and work in order to produce a body-horror pastiche that owes as much to the Ted Morgan biography and the novels Exterminator and Junkie as Naked Lunch itself. But for many people that film stands for what Naked Lunch is about.
Another common misconception is that Naked Lunch is about ‘the horrors of addiction,’ a description more suited to Burroughs’ autobiographical first novel Junkie. By the time of Naked Lunch, he’d moved on considerably from depicting anything so mundane or literal as that. What Naked Lunch represents is the fruit of a pharmo-picaresque creative journey that was partly inspired by opiate addiction but that rapidly expanded to encompass the visions of majoun, peyote and most particularly ayahuasca or yagé, whose psychonautic propensity underscores much of the grotesque, lurid phantasmagoria for which the novel is famous… Read more on Psypress UK
My in-depth review of Barry Miles’ biography of William Burroughs is included in the new issue of the Psypress magazine. More information at the Psypress Shop.