Review: Harvard's famous head trippers analyzed in Lattin's 'Psychedelic Club'
Reams have been written about LSD guru Timothy Leary and his sidekick Richard Alpert (later Ram Dass) and the role they played in shaping the phenomenon that was the Sixties. But by expanding the circle to include two additional members of what he calls "The Harvard Psychedelic Club," Bay Area journalist and author Don Lattin deepens the context of what actually took place during those wild times and argues successfully for its lasting significance.
Huston Smith, now a genteel nonagenarian living in Berkeley, was an early experimenter with psychotropic substances and a respected scholar whose influence on Americans' understanding of world religions can be compared to that of Julia Child on French cooking. Andrew Weil was a generation behind the other three, an undergraduate whose disappointment in being excluded from the early LSD experiments inspired him to set the wheels in motion that eventually got Leary and Alpert kicked out of Harvard. Weil followed Leary's admonition to "Turn on and Tune in," but not to drop out. Instead, he graduated from Harvard Medical School and went on to become a founder of the alternative medicine and holistic health movements.
Lattin assigns archetypal roles to the four major players: Leary is Trickster, Alpert Seeker, Smith Teacher and Weil Healer. The labels work fairly well as an organizing strategy. And they do account for some main characteristics of the protagonists — Leary's unpredictability and his penchant for throwing a monkey wrench into every well-crafted plan, Ram Dass's obsessive need to attach himself to one guru after another, his more serious (relative to Leary) approach to the drugs, even his ravenous sexual appetite.
But much of their nuance is covered over by these labels, which mythologize the characters while simultaneously reducing them to stereotypes.
Some of the book's most compelling moments lie well outside these structural limitations. The irony of young Weil bringing the wrath of the Establishment down on Leary and Alpert, only to experience similar persecution himself by a skeptical and protective medical establishment, is a rich tale in Lattin's telling. And two of the most interesting characters in the book aren't people at all, but places. The stuffiness of East Coast academia and that special expression of it that thrives at Harvard are beautifully contrasted with the freewheeling — and sometimes intimidating — wilderness of the West.
Above all, Lattin succeeds where less accomplished chroniclers of this period have failed, in drawing the reader into the very minds of the people he is writing about. He is remarkably adept at rendering a semblance of the psychedelic experience itself into words. Combining the accounts of those who had taken the drugs with research notes and his own experience, Lattin manages to recreate a sense of the wonder and strangeness of a trip while retaining a notion of its structure, and in some cases, even its larger significance to a person's life. Here's an example from the first psychedelic journey of psychologist Ralph Metzner:
"It was an experience of something he had never even imagined. Everywhere he looked he saw glowing jeweled objects. Ordinary people were instantly transformed into angels. At one point, he walked out into the snow to get some fresh air. There was some garbage by the back door, and he heard a voice tell him, 'Don't look at the garbage.' He experienced that random thought in a whole new way, seeing for the first time how his thoughts were preprogrammed. He didn't choose to have that thought. So where did these thoughts come from? Maybe he could direct his thoughts in other ways. Isn't that what psychotherapy was all about? We can stop thinking old habitual thoughts. The moment was a turning point, the beginning of a shift in the way Ralph Metzner looked at psychology, mysticism, and the mind."
In the Sixties, everything seemed to be connected to everything else, and Lattin captures that spirit with a cast whose minor players are just as colorful and well-known as the main characters. Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts, the Beatles, Scoop Nisker, the Grateful Dead, all take the stage, if only briefly.
Oddly, it's one main character who seems out of place. Lattin never frames a credible reason to include Huston Smith in the Club at all, much less as one of its leaders. His presence seems to be based mainly on Lattin's high personal regard for him — a regard that Lattin convinces us is well-deserved.
In his treatment of Smith, Lattin seems to be heeding the advice of Yaqui brujo Don Juan Matus who, in Carlos Castaneda's account, advised truth seekers to always "follow the path of the heart." Excellent advice for someone tracing as arduous and risky a journey as that led by the members of the Harvard Psychedelic Club.
By Peter Magnani
Posted: 12/29/2009 05:58:38 PM PST