‘Psychedelia’ Is All You Can Imagine, and Then Some

Patrick Lundborg explores “the world’s largest mystery cult” in Psychedelia.

Beginning 3,500 years ago, unfolding over 500 closely printed pages and half a million words, presenting two decades of research, Patrick Lundborg explores “the world’s largest mystery cult”. Rather than reducing psychedelia to psychology or religion, he envisions a philosophy. His foreword explains how Edmund Husserl’s theory of phenomenology melded his study of Aldous Huxley and hallucinations to trigger “several hundred pages of speculative thoughts.” Inspired and intrigued by the elusive lack of a label for his pursuit, he provides two sections, corresponding with the two cycles of psychedelic culture.

First, the Eleusinian Mysteries of the ancient Greeks begin an historical magical mystery tour. Lundborg presents recent analyses pinpointing the catalyst for the storied inner journeys undertaken by a coterie of initiates. The Greeks brewed an infested barley-mint concoction which sparked hallucinations resembling those of ergot, refined by Albert Hoffman in the 1940s as LSD-25. Between these two events, part one unfolds the range of “an ancient culture”.

In thoughtful vignettes integrating everyone from The Fisher King to Tiki-exotica musician Martin Denny, this delves into hundreds of figures who’ve established careers and courted notoriety by daring to leave their convention behind, by ingesting substances or immersing themselves in situations open to what Husserl’s follower Eugen Fink summed up as “a wonder in the face of the world”. This suggestive phrase invites us, I may add, to contemplate these terms: does the psychedelic adept make the “face” of the average human “wonder” as a few rebels depart the mundane “world” by experimental inner journeys? Or does such an adventurer witness the “world” in its true “face” through a burst of released, inherent “wonder”?

Bookended by old and new decoctions from barley’s alchemists, part one sets up twelve chapters which crisscross the globe and time. Hoffman, Huxley, the McKenna brothers, Alan Watts, the Grateful Dead, Owsley, Tim Leary: while many names will be familiar as our near-contemparies, appearing as if characters encountered in a vast picaresque novel, the pace remains steady and the learning simmers into a satisfying, if thick blend.

Best taken in small doses, given the small font and formidable size (one drawback: the paperback feels enormous, relegating its index to online access only), it’s a solid resource on what’s been too often left for silly flights of fancy or sophomoric pronouncements an ephemeral topic. Lundborg, as a diligent tour guide through psychedelia in theory and practice, keeps moving forward in time and space. But like his swirling subject, he cannot help pursuing byways, tracking trains of thought, and wandering off on rewarding detours.

Here’s a sample of the range in part one: from Neoplatonism to Shakespeare’s The Tempest; ayahuasca to DMT; Yeats to peyote; Blake to the first Western Buddhist Beats; Swedenborg to psilocybin; Forbidden Planet to Apocalypse Now. A handy index is missed, as the material can prove enormous to keep track of (beyond a thematic table of contents) as it accumulates, However, its gathering in a compendium enhanced by a blog and pdf index at the author’s Lysergia website attests to his ongoing commitment to understanding this notoriously caricatured and misinterpreted subject.

To exemplify the depth of Lundborg’s printed excursions, dip into a random page (288) to find a discussion of the 13th Floor Elevators’ undeservedly obscure cult 1967 album Easter Everywhere, graced with nods to lyrical allusions to Robert Heinlein’s arguably too-well-known cult novel Stranger in a Strange Land, and its predecessor for a previous century of exotic Western seekers, The Rubaiyat. Cymbeline and The Waste Land earn inclusion, to express the meaning of “dust” in on side two as a “life-embracing world-view around a word usually associated with death”.

The second section examines psychedelia as “a modern way of life”: it flows from preceding treatment of the explosion of interest in drugs and spirituality in the ’60s. Lundborg divides the ancient from the modern era in 1963: that concludes the “Scientific-Artistic Phase” and introduces the counterculture. Ken Kesey, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Richard Alpert, and Tim Leary’s roles, familiar to many, find juxtaposition with now less celebrated proponents such as Ralph Metzner and the Diggers, who urged radical transformation given the freedom conceived via hallucinogens.

Concerning liberation, the political and spiritual ramifications of such advocacy, the author notes, did not always mesh well with imported academic theories — or with other novel systems imported. Lundborg astutely warns of the fallacy of many “Western psychedelicists” to too “readily accept the religious-mythical label from a remote and highly complex culture as an explanation for a personal experience,” when it comes to spurious applications of such texts as that popularized as The Tibetan Book of the Dead. From 1964, one recalls “Leary-Alpert-Metzner’s generally useless guide-book” The Psychedelic Experience as illustrating this “presumed overlap”. Instead, Lundborg urges one to enjoy without trying to bias or label the encounter within an esoteric mind state.

Later coverage roams into the rave culture, garage bands, stoner rock, shamans and chillouts, Ecstasy and DMT, and comparisons between LSD and ayahuasca. Philip K. Dick’s attempt to describe his VALIS visions enters a chapter reflecting on–as one subtitle has it–“poetry, gibberish and eloquence” appropriately. Lundborg calmly tackles slippery subjects: how can a report on a non-verbal experience be rendered in print? Perhaps film, art and music (also treated here; a few brilliant color and sepia plates try to depict venerable and fresh adepts under the influence) may better capture the plunge or the flight.

Therefore, in challenging closing chapters, Lundborg posits a “Unified Psychedelic Theory” that charts the aftermath of “an effective dose of a major serotonergic psychedelic” on four levels of a “General Trip Model”. This necessitates brain chemistry, multiple realities, and perceptions that defy facile reduction. The heft of this volume delivers the results.

Lundborg presents a “supra-state” which “birthed our consciousness” but which we don’t rely upon for daily survival nowadays. Beyond this level, we can “poke holes through our common mindstate” so as “to peek into” a higher state. Enough of a dose, and “we may put our heads through the wall” and communicate with this state, which has accompanied us since we were born. On the final page of this massive, energetic, and reflective study, we find that this Stockholm scholar has barely nudged open what Blake, Huxley, and a certain rock band testified to as the “doors of perception”.

RATING 7 / 10