Psychedelic Thunderdome 2/5 [Trenchant Edges]
Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, a newsletter publishing 100% on time. Oh yes. I wouldn’t lie about that.
I’m your host, Stephen.
And today we’re going to be continuing our serialization of the intros from a competition I ran a few years ago. A popularity bracket about which deceased figures related to American psychedelia were the most psychedelic.
Terence Mckenna beat John Lily
Aldous Huxley beat Humphry Osmond
Ronald Fucking Stark beat Carlos Castaneda
R Gordon Wasson beat Captain Al Hubbard
THUNDERDOME PART 2 LET’S FUCKING GOOOOOOO!
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 5: LEONORA CARRINGTON VS WILLIAM S BURROUGHS
Surrealist painter and novelist vs Beat Alchemist Novelist
Creative living is essential to a life lived in psychedelia. Not only producing creative works be they art, novels, or scientific theories, but living life on your own terms and not taking shit. Neither of today's competitors is known for a particular association with psychedelics but they each certainly lived the creative life and paved the way for future innovators.
Leonora Carrington was a rebellious young lady born in England who got involved in surrealism in the mid 1930s, where she dated Surrealist Max Ernst. Ernst would flee the Nazi Gestapo to America without her and she spent a rough few years in institutions before fleeing herself to Mexico where she established herself as a painter in her own right. There's a gallery of images in the comments you should check out. She blended ideas from Jungian psychology, medieval alchemy, various occult traditions, and her own take on surrealism into a big ass pile of striking paintings.
While I haven't read any of her writing, some of the excerpts from her books are awesome, "I often feel I am being burned at the stake just because I have always refused to give up that wonderful strange power I have inside me that becomes manifested when I am in harmonious communication with some other inspired being."
She's matched by another luminary of a major counter culture artistic movement, William S Burroughs. Best known for his foul, lurid, and compelling prose about being a junkie, Burroughs was also an avowed believer of magic and considered his art an expression of his will on the world. He helped introduce the Beats to Ayahuasca through the Yage papers with Allen Ginsberg and his attitude and prose paved the way for much 60s anti-establishment ruckus. He was also one of the first post-WW2 openly gay public figures, though I'm especially unqualified to comment on that part of his legacy.
The Naked Lunch is one of the most consciousness altering books I've ever read, albeit not in a particularly good way. I spent almost two days crazy paranoid after reading it in an evening after failing to listen to the audiobook because, you guessed it, it made me too paranoid to work.
From Junkie, "When you stop growing you start dying."
In the end, both Carrington and Burroughs used their work to sublimate their own deep psychology, plumbing areas others may want to avoid. Both built up a sizable body of work in several mediums, fought and exploited taboos, and both were heavily influenced by various flavors of occult practice.
So, who's more psychedelic?
The surrealist novelist or the beat painter?
Hoo boy, so I learned a LOT about Burroughs I didn’t realize. Like him killing/murdering his wife.
TBH, I’m mostly sad I haven’t spent more time with Carrington’s art and writing since this. She seems rad as fuck and I did enough to write this but nothing else.
As is the case with popularity, Burroughs took the day.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 6: JOHN GRIGGS VS ALBERT HOFMANN
LSD MESSIAH VS LSD DISCOVERER
Today we have a special pair of contenders. One, relatively unknown but who's story and success deserve being told. The other a celebrated elder of our community. The man without who we may not have unlocked the power of Ergot's LSD-25 for who knows how long.
John "The Farmer" Griggs was an outlaw biker who in 1966 helped rob a Hollywood producer of some of his Sandoz LSD. On taking it, Griggs realized that the experience was amazing and needed to be shared with as many people as possible. So he started the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, one part new religious movement, one part international drug cartel, and one part place for his friends to party. The Brotherhood helped distribute much of the most famous underground acid of the late 60s, from Owsley Stanley's many mixes to Nick Sand and Tim Scully's Orange Sunshine. Beyond just LSD and ALD-52, the Brotherhood would diversify importing hash from Afghanistan in a drug route that continues to this day. Griggs wouldn't get to see the whole impact of his work, dying in 1969 of what investigators call "Mysterious Circumstances". Supposedly an OD on PCP.
Albert Hofmann wasn't a con artist, a hack, or cult leader. He was a chemist for Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Basel, Switzerland. With a focus on trying to isolate the active properties of potentially medicinal plants he spent decades extracting substances from biological material and seeing what they did. His greatest success, an accident, came when he exposed himself to the 25th extract of Ergot (Claviceps purpurea). A few days later he took what he was sure would be a very small dose of LSD-25 of 250ug. That was April 19th 1943 which we now celebrate as Bicycle day to commemorate the first intentional acid trip. Hofmann would go on to also be the first to synthesize psilocybin in 1958. After retiring in 1971 he would continue to write and discuss psychedelics until his death in 2008 at a whopping age of 102.
Without a doubt, if our history was missing either of these two men we'd be living in an unrecognizable world now. Griggs built the infrastructure that provided acid to the west coast in the late 1960s, providing the drugs used in most of the pivotal moments of the era. Without his work underground chemists might not have been able to set up the labs they needed to produce their art at scale. And while even without Hofmann, we'd still have quite a few psychedelics to work with, it can't be denied that the overwhelming influence of LSD on early psychdelic research in and out of the lab set the stage for where we are now.
So who's more psychedelic? The greaser who confronted his own divinity and dedicated the rest of his short life to giving as many people LSD as possible or the dedicated workaday chemist who found the thing in the damn first place and lived nearly forever? Oh, while regularly microdosing LSD.
Hard to say. You'll have to be the judge.
Woosh. I guess this was a bit too much to hope that the relatively unknown farmer John could take on Albert Hoffman, but that’s the fun of this kind of thing.
Hoffman took this by a wide margin and I mostly feel that I spent more time reading up on the brotherhood since I wrote the original post again.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 7: ROBERT ANTON WILSON vs ALLEN GINSBERG
BATTLE OF THE WORDSMITHS
THE (definitive article) BEAT POET vs PSYCHEDELIC STAND UP PHILOSOPHER
Oh man, this is a rough match up. While I did most of my development as a human before finding psychedelics, these two helped lead me to Psychedelia. I'll admit I've not made an extensive reading of Ginsberg's poetry. But I've read Howl about a thousand times. It seems to have gotten more true over time. And in 2012 I discovered RAW and that we'd come to similar conclusions on the nature of knowledge but he'd been much more thorough tracing those conclusions to their ends. So I read most of his work. Illumantatus! Prometheus Rising. Quantum Psychology.
Born in Newark NJ, the course of Allen Ginsberg's life was set when he met Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs at college. Together they did much to popularizing the growing Beat/Beatnik movement and ended up as its three most lasting stars. Aside from writing the Yage papers with Burroughs, his main contributions to psychedelia was in both popularizing the concept of being able to live an alternative lifestyle to the broadcast media-enforced conformity of the day and his participating in major experiments in such on both the east and west coast.
Robert Anton Wilson was born in Brooklyn, NY and rather wandered around doing odd jobs and reading whatever interested him in his 20s. When he was 29 in 1961, Wilson first tried mescaline which catalyzed his interest in altered states. By 1965 he'd gotten a job as an editor at Playboy magazine which he'd hold until 1971 when he tried his hand at living as a writer full time. Until his death in 2007 he'd write 35 books on a wide range of subjects. The idea that most defines his collected philosophy is general agnosticism. Not merely being unsure of the existence of god but of being unsure about things in general.
And on my own 20th birthday, just 5 days before his death, old Bob posted this line on his blog: "Various medical authorities swarm in and out of here predicting I have between two days and two months to live. I think they are guessing. I remain cheerful and unimpressed. I look forward without dogmatic optimism but without dread. I love you all and I deeply implore you to keep the lasagna flying. Please pardon my levity, I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd." -- Robert Anton Wilson, Jan 6 2007
So that's the game. Who's most psychedelic?
BEAT LEGEND OR GUERRILLA ONTOLOGIST
Explain yourself in the comments if you dare.
This match-up looks WAY easier after learning about Ginsberg’s support for NAMBLA. Ehhh.
Can’t excuse that.
But RAW took this pretty handily.
PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 8: NICK SAND vs SASHA SHULGIN
Illegal Acid Chemist vs Quasi-legal pharmacologist
Hoo boy, today's one of the matchups I'm most excited about. Nick Sand is rightly an underground chemistry legend. Along with Tim Scully, he perfected the ALD-52 used in the most famous of all acid preparations, Orange Sunshine. Then he was arrested, fled the country, and went to Canada to make more acid. Total gangster. After being released from prison he spent time writing and talking with aboveground psychedelic culture and said a lot of really smart things. Meanwhile, Alexander "Sasha" Shulgin is maybe the greatest psychoactive research chemist of all time. Beyond merely rescuing MDMA from virtual oblivion by resynthesizing it, Sasha went on to investigate and discover whole new vistas of psychoactive chemicals especially among Tryptamines and Phenethylamines and then publishing that knowledge to the general public. Shulgin stayed ahead of the drug laws by collaborating with the DEA enough to get and keep a Schedule 1 license and mostly creating unscheduled material he'd dispose of when the government caught up with him.
While both chemists were prolific in their production and variety, Nick Sand also was the one who discovered you could smoke DMT for example, they represent opposite poles around the question of legality. Sand viewed psychedelics as inherently transgressive and attempts to domesticate them as inherently flawed. Shulgin, at least in public, supported responsible legal frameworks for experimenting with and using drugs. Underground versus mainstream.
Shulgin's work with MDMA, especially with his wife Ann who is among the few Jungians I have any respect for, pioneered MDMA therapy by providing access to high-quality MDMA to interested therapists. Sand's work over the decades provided the illegal acid to an unspecified but large number of people. Thousands? Millions? Something like that.
In the end, both were firm in their belief that properly using psychoactive chemicals could radically improve individuals’ lives and through them society. And their groundbreaking work will *long* outlive either of them.
So who's the most psychedelic? Inventor of Orange Sunshine or the necromancer who brought MDMA back from the dead?
Share what you think in the comments.
Sasha Shulgin took this with 77% of the vote.
While reading through this largely positive introduction I kinda assumed that I hadn’t heard some of the accusations of Nick Sand using his creations to ply women into sex, but I had and left it for a note I’ll post here:
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention some somewhat darker aspects of both men that lay more in speculation.
Several people who who claimed to know Nick pointed out to me that he's done some sexually inappropriate things with women. I'm not sure of the details or the accuracy so I didn't want to put this in the description but it's somewhere between possible and likely that Nick Sand was a sexual predator.
While Sasha is clear of that sort of thing some of his ties with powerful people are disconcerting at best. While the wilder stories about the Bohemian Grove are probably garbage, Shulgin attended multiple times. The very connections which allowed him to operate could easily take on more sinister undertones if you were inclined towards that sort of thing.
I also find Shulgin's family and friends saying, "Oh, he was waking up the rich and powerful" to be a pretty empty defense.
Since then I’ve learned considerably more detail on the subject and now feel like I was definitely minimizing the accusations here. Which I’m now fairly certain are credible and damning.
It feels equally irresponsible not to notice how many of my comments have been, “Oh yeah, that guy turned out to be a rapist.” Which isn’t what I was expecting, but that’s what happens I guess.
I’d direct anyone who wants to learn more about this kind of thing to Psymposia's Power Tripping podcast. It’s still a persistent issue in the psychedelic community.
Anyway, we’ll have the rest coming out this week.
See y’all then.