“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Monday, July 17, 2006

no goodies from this war

In the Man without Qualities, Ulrich – the man himself – staying at his father’s house after his father’s death, sits down and solves a mathematical problem that he has been working on for years. He has taken up other work, and takes up the problem as a way of passing the time. He thinks about what this means. If he publishes this, perhaps his career as a mathematician will take off, perhaps he will find a place in academia. And suddenly he thinks: I’m too old for that. For the first time, he has decided that some bold move in his life is barred by age. He is thirty five, I believe.

Myself, I think that about acid. While I enjoyed it in my twenties on rare occasions, and took it once past that equinoctal age, thirty, I’m too old for that now. Pot, alcohol, cocaine I can still take. But acid is now off the menu. So, probably, is heroin – a drug I’ve never tried, and always wanted to try.

The big biography of Timothy Leary by Robert Greenfield was released this spring. I was happy to see Louis Menand review it for the New Yorker. I’ve seen a few hippyish sites on the web comment on the bio, mainly to condemn Leary. In the end, he had so relentless sold out every member of every niche that had once formed his audience that he is regarded, pretty much, with universal disgust. Myself, I can’t get over him being a snitch. On the other hand, the legendary early years fascinate me, partly for what they say about the intersection of the Cold War culture and academia, partly because who does not dream of nibbling on mushrooms in Cuernavaca in 1962? What total fun. Exploitative, check. Probably the kind of thing that not everybody should do, check. But I envy certain moods of intoxication, certain highs: Malcolm Lowry in the same town in the thirties, for instance.

Part of the war culture was the flowering of psychology. With the country being blanketed with fallout from insane bomb tests, and scientists covering up what was wrong with that, or – alternatively – proclaiming, as Edward Teller amazingly did, that the mutations that might result from radiation would be steps on man’s evolution ever onward, it is no wonder so many people felt crazy, and ended up going to psychologists in the 50s:

“There was no more opportune moment to become a psychologist. Psychology in the nineteen-fifties played the role for many people that genetics does today. "It's all in your head" has the same appeal as "It's all in the genes": an explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in antisocial behavior when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can't be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere. So the postwar years were a slack time for political activism and a boom time for psychiatry. The National Institute of Mental Health, founded in 1946, became the fastest-growing of the seven divisions of the National Institutes of Health, awarding psychologists grants to study problems like alcoholism, juvenile delinquency, and television violence. Ego psychology, a therapy aimed at helping people adapt and adjust, was the dominant school in American psychoanalysis. By 1955, half of the hospital beds in the United States were occupied by patients diagnosed as mentally ill.”

To write about Leary, for someone like Menand, is an easy opportunity to grind out great paragraphs – and luckily, he gives into the temptation:

“Leary spent the first part of his career doing normative psychology, the work of assessment, measurement, and control; he spent the second as one of the leading proselytizers of alternative psychology, the pop psychology of consciousness expansion and nonconformity. But one enterprise was the flip side of the other, and Greenfield's conclusion, somewhat sorrowfully reached, is that Leary was never serious about either. The only things Leary was serious about were pleasure and renown. He underwent no fundamental transformation when he left the academic world for the counterculture. He liked women, he liked being the center of attention, and he liked to get high. He simply changed the means of intoxication. Like many people in those days, he started out on Burgundy but soon hit the harder stuff .“

The old war culture. Peter Beinart is doing his best to make the new war culture into the equivalent of the Cold War. This is laughable on many dimensions, not least of which is the lack of drugs:

“LSD was also administered to alcoholics, drug addicts, and patients with emotional blockages. The most famous of these patients was Cary Grant, who took LSD under the supervision of a psychiatrist. "All my life, I've been searching for peace of mind," Grant said. "Nothing really seemed to give me what I wanted until this treatment." Allen Ginsberg was introduced to LSD at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, in 1959, where his responses were measured by a team of doctors as part of a federally funded research program. Ginsberg eventually became one of the chief publicists for LSD, along with Ken Kesey, who first used it at the Veterans Hospital in Menlo Park, in 1960, where, in another federally funded program, he was paid seventy-five dollars a day to ingest hallucinogens.”

That is more money than I make, for sure. All the good jobs are gone and taken!

Menand doesn't deeply understand drugs -- that is evident in his dismissive last paragraphs, which display a vulgar economic determinism that tells us little about why cocaine should have succeeded acid. But the essay does place Leary -- who is the kind of character Menand understands - very well.


roger said...

PS -- I should have said a little more about Menand's last paragraphs. I generally like Menand, and loved his book on the pragmatists, but I have to say: he is much dumber about lsd than about William James.

Here's the last graf:

"It didn’t last long. Congress made the sale of LSD a felony and possession a misdemeanor in 1968, and handed regulation over to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In 1970, psychedelic drugs were classified as drugs of abuse, with no medical value. Scientific reports circulated that LSD caused genetic damage; recreational drug use began to acquire a negative aura. And after 1968 the economy began to tighten. It was the Nixon recession; people were anxious about moving on with their careers. Getting wasted was for losers. And where were all those great insights, anyway? Huxley probably believed that LSD provided a window onto the hidden essence of things as a matter of conviction, and Leary probably believed it as a matter of convenience. But the LSD experience is completely suggestible. People on the drug see and feel what they expect to see and feel, or what they have been told they will see and feel. If they expect that the secret of the universe will be revealed to them, then that’s what they will find. An illusion, no doubt, but it’s as close as we’re likely to get."

The sugestibility idea is a complete canard - you could say the same about art, looking at sunsets, love and marriage. It amounts to saying, if you find x, then you expected x. In the nature of things, that is a vacuous truth. It is a fuller truth if applied to, say, fortune telling-- otherwise it is crap. As for the vulgar economic determinism that ties LSD completely to the guns and butter economy of the Vietnam era -- that would be much stronger if, in fact, all drugs were affected. They weren't. Pot flourished post 68 - and cocaine made its awful ascent. A much simpler explanation is that LSD was only briefly a widely popular drug. When it became illegal and its makers were jailed and its celebrity users moved on to other things, acid moved down to the level that it remains at today - one of the many substances available in the street pharmacopeia. The last paragraph doesn't just give us a bad description of LSD's effects and levels of use -- Menand seems uncharacteristically anxious to dispatch talk about it.

Perhaps he needs to tune it, turn on and drop out for a day.

Setholonius said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Setholonius said...

LSD is also a generational drug. It's fun to fiddle with your neurology when you're in your teens or 20s. As you grow up it becomes less enticing. The babyboomers outgrew LSD, and their kids aren't interested in doing old people's drugs. And then there's also the appeal of novelty drugs -- witness Ecstacy's late-90s boomtimes, followed by its current decline. Yes, seasons change, feelings change, diapers change, but through it all, there's good old booze 'n weed. Dear sweet booze 'n weed.

roger said...

Seth, not only do I endorse your words as a blood brother, but I would like to start a campaign for booze and weed grants to artists. We all know that art in the U.S. would simply collapse without those two items, but at the moment tequilla is getting outrageously expensive, ditto your imported beers, and the quarter bag is now the fifty dollar bag. Hollywood has done its part to support these things, but where the NEA? Still off chasing the yams up Karen Findley's grandma's rectum, that's where.

# said...

Great ideas, good thoughtsQ

winn said...

But roger, drugs turn you into the sort of person who will grope a head of government with cameras rolling!

That is an excellent reason to avoid them. You don't want to end up at a G8 conference fondling Angela Merkel, do you?

I didn't think so.

roger said...

Winn, I was unaware of the back rub thing until I read your comment. But let's not blame fun drugs for the peculiar chemistry of Bush's brain! I think just one drug did it -- it is called money. Too much money. He could be a decent guy if he was stripped of all his power and money, given some straw sandals and a loin cloth, and set down in the Sonora desert. I'm sure of it.