The Harvard Review
Volume 1, Number 4, summer 1963
By devoting this issue to a discussion of "Drugs and the Mind," the editors of the Harvard Review remind us that Cambridge is the Drug Capital of the East Coast--at least for your better class of compounds. The better class, of course, is composed of the hallucinogens or psychedelics, those recently popularized substances which are less harmful than such narcotics of ill repute as opium and heroin, more fashionable than such gauche inebriants as airplane glue and laughing gas, and, in their effect, the closest things yet to fulfilling Aldous Huxley's prophecy of a drug having "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol with none of the disadvantages."
Mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD, the synthetic hallucinogens now on the market, are nowhere more hungrily consumed than in Harvard Square; nowhere are the philosophical and legal issues surrounding their use more hotly debated. Three major approaches to the debate are all represented in the current Harvard Review. We have the true believers, the scientists and the armchair commentators--and they give us a timely, lively and thorough discussion.
Of the true believers the most evangelical are Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, two Harvard psychologists who have received national attention for their espousal of the psychedelics. Their article on the "Politics of Consciousness Expansion" is written in a stream-of-consciousness style that surely owes its incoherence to the influence of psilocybin. Their thesis, if one may use so conventional a word, is that hallucinogens have brought us to the brink of a psychic revolution, the leaders of which (Leary and Alpert) are comparable to Socrates, Bacon, Columbus, and Galileo. Their message, if they are indeed prophets, is that drugs are good to eat: "Remember" they conclude, "man's natural state is ecstatic wonder, ecstatic intuition, ecstatic accurate movement. Don't settle for less."
Other contributors to the issue give testimonials supporting the Leary-Alpert claims. Arthur Hoener, a local artist, supplies before and after paintings to show how psilocybin transformed him. Whereas he was a methodical and mediocre artist before the drug, he was changed into a spontaneously mediocre artist after. Richard Jones, a Harvard junior, exhausts his vocabulary trying to describe an ecstatic state in which he saw worlds of beauty in such things as the red border of a Time magazine cover. It all made a new man of him.
The true believers contend that anyone who hasn't tried the drugs cannot judge them; anyone who has, will, they claim, be converted to them. The attitude is expressed by R. Gordon Wasson, a man whose pioneering researches on psilocybin-containing mushrooms would lead one to hope for better: "We are all divided," he says, "into classes: those who have taken the mushroom and are disqualified by our subjective experience and those who have not taken the mushroom and are disqualified by their total ignorance of the subject."
There is another class which Wasson neglects: the scientists who are more committed to science than to the drug experience. Richard Evans Shultes '37, Lecturer on Economic Botany, for instance, has taken mushrooms, morning glory seeds, and many of the forty other hallucinogenic plants which grow in this hemisphere. Yet he retains his ability to discuss the drugs dispassionately in coherent sentences and in paragraphs unencumbered by rhapsodical exclamations. His article, an alphabetically arranged description of "Hallucinogenic Plants in the New World," is the first summary of its kind in a non-technical journal.
Norman Zinberg, an M.D., provides invaluable historical background for an evaluation of public debate on drugs. His brief history of "Narcotics in the U.S." trims the extravagant claims of both Leary and Alpert and their enemies. The result is a balanced and thoroughly reasonable article.
Finally, we have the armchair commentators, who cannot resist speculating on the hallucinogens. Why do intellectuals take the drugs? What are the implications for society? David F. Ricks and Chase Mellen reduce the whole issue to escapism. Ricks talks about despair, ennui and neurosis, Mellen about the contradictions between peyote eating and the Protestant ethic. But neither really faces the fact that ingesting psychedelics is different from taking heroin or watching television. S. Clarke Woodroe goes a bit deeper. Discussing the drug experiences of Baudelaire, de Quincey and other writers, he makes some interesting points about the relation between drugs, megalomaniac delusions, and intellectual creativity.
Woodroe's article and those by Zinberg and Shultes and Wasson are very much worth reading. The others may be regarded as curious and timely documents in a controversy which is certain to go beyond Harvard. When it does--and feature articles on the hallucinogens are already being written for several national publications--this issue of the Harvard Review will be an indispensible reference.