“Up until LSD, I never realized that there was anything beyond this normal working state of consciousness,” George Harrison famously said in 1987. “But all the pressure was such that, as Bob Dylan said, ‘There must be some way out of here.’ I think for me it was definitely LSD. The first time I took it, I just blew everything away. I had such an incredible feeling of well being, that there was a God and I could see Him in every blade of glass. It was like gaining hundreds of years experience within 12 hours. It changed me and there was no way back to what I was before. It wasn’t all good, though, because it left quite a lot of questions as well.”
Forty-five years after the fateful day when Bob Dylan took another position in the book of rock legend by introducing The Beatles to marijuana, these two acts still remind the contemporary world of the vast possibilities that mind-altering substances provide in creative pursuits—and their potentially world-changing implications.
Present-day artists continue to seek ways to emerge from a hackneyed state of consciousness—where the sky is blue and grass is green—into a kaleidoscopic world where they can discover new possibilities for their work. And despite stereotypes to the contrary, Harvard has a definite community of drug using, and promising, artists who embrace their ability to both connect with one another on various mental levels and break free of the constraints imposed by the insular “Harvard bubble.”
“I feel like it’s the kind of people who like to have conversations and are interesting,” says a senior Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator, referring to those Harvard artists who use drugs. “They like to get high and get out of this bubble that is Harvard, that is oppressive and socially limited and makes you jump through hoops all day and sometimes you need to get out of your own bullshit and just shoot the shit.”
Whether you call it “getting out of your own bullshit” to “just shoot the shit” or something else, many artists on campus use drugs—mostly alcohol and marijuana—as a means to find their way out of here, and to some extent, to find a way out of their own minds. Lighting a bong or hitting the bottle, these students use conscious-altering substances to lubricate the transition from thought to work, a process possible when sober but sometimes easier while not. Some use the activity as a communal starting point, gathering around campus to drink or smoke before setting off to work. At other times, they sit alone with a bottle of wine or a well-rolled joint, pondering words and paint.
Yet despite this dabbling, Harvard mothers needn’t start worrying that their Ivy dollars are contributing to the mass decay of society. Users on campus, despite being users, are ultimately still Harvard students, too concerned about their academic success and artistic integrity to fall into serious dependency. When all is said and done, they want to produce high-quality art that will resonate with an audience on an emotional, intellectual level, not a chemical one.
BREAKING THE SEAL
“[It’s] evident to everyone that [The Beatles] entered their most fertile creative period after they began smoking grass and taking LSD,” wrote Extension School instructor John McMillian in an email; he is currently working on a book about the legendary band. “Same for Bob Dylan. And I can think of several major writers, like Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley and Jack Kerouac, whose use of narcotics, hallucinogens and stimulants apparently enhanced their work. But certainly there was a destructive side to this as well. Diminishing returns set in pretty quickly, and several of the people I just mentioned ended up suffering mightily because of their use of drugs. This may well be a question worth researching, but I would never suggest that someone try to enhance their creativity by experimenting with drugs in an unsupervised setting.” Like the many greats who preceded them, student artists—both poets and painters—use drugs to ease the process of creation.
“I oftentimes smoke marijuana before going to the seven hour VES classes or before I work on a piece,” says one student, “but less for creative inspiration than for getting the mind and body into a sort of a mode for allowing the creativity to come. It helps you not get fixated on a certain idea or color and allows a little more flow in the creation of whatever you’re making.”
Most students agree that these drugs don’t provide creative thoughts; rather, they loosen the constraints of a rational human mind and build the confidence necessary to express unique or nonsensical ideas. “Drugs can sometimes facilitate a person’s ability to differently represent the creativity that is already inside him,” says Justin B. Wymer ’12, a poet, who admits to occasionally using alcohol outside of its societally-sanctioned role as a conversation starter and instead as a literary jumpstart.
“Sometimes I drink just a little bit because it is a way to break consciousness,” he says. “I don’t think drinking makes me more creative. But I think it makes me less afraid to say the creative thoughts that I already have.”
This artistic objective to break with a preconceived reality comes from a long line of poetic thought, reaching all the way back to Andre Breton and the origins of surrealism. By breaking with the predetermined images of the world in their accepted states and by embracing the unconscious, which does not play by the rules of reality, artists can shed insight on society in interesting and progressive ways.
“For me, colors and tastes really cross over with the other senses. And a lot of times whenever I’m sober [I think], ‘Wow, people are going to think that sounds crazy,’” Wymer says. “But when I say that someone talks to me in cinnamon when I’m not as inhibited as much with alcohol, I’m not afraid to write it.”
Lingering in the unconscious can thus produce unique and seemingly illogical thoughts, but it takes an artist’s trained, and sometimes tripped-out, mind to grasp the images produced there and recreate them on the conscious level.