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Alkaloids Meet Acrylic:


Entheogens in the Paintings of Fred Tomaselli


On June 25, 2007, the Supreme Court ruled against former Alaska high school student Joseph Frederick’s right to display his cannabis banner as part of a school event. The case, popularly known in the press by “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” made many media readers smirk with an acute awareness of Frederick’s teenage prankster ways, even though the case illustrated the very real need to protect students’ First Amendment rights. Sixteen months earlier, however, the Supreme Court faced a lesser known case involving freedom of religious practice in Gonzalez, Et Al vs. Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, Et Al. The Court unanimously determined that a New Mexico church of the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) may “receive communion by drinking hoasca ayahuasca, a tea brewed from plants unique to the Amazon Rainforest that contains DMT, a hallucinogen regulated under schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.” The Brazilian Amazon remains home to the UDV, but the religion, a hybrid of Christianity and local Indian practice, has established a growing following within the United States. This transnational religious and spiritual meeting of a Brazilian church and New Mexican residents challenges current American Drug Enforcement Administration scheduling, and the ways in which the United States government orders the natural world.

The Supreme Court case involving the UDV challenges the legality of entheogens—plants, fungi, or other chemcials productive of mind-altering, and typically visionary, states—in the United States, and marks the status of such botanicals as a function of national borders and their use. Contemporary artists have taken as much note of these and similar cases involving mind-altering compounds. Visual artists typically do not literally allude to this litigation, but, increasingly, their work engages entheogens, the effects they produce, and their public imaginary. Exhibitions such as Ecstasy: In and About Altered States held at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last year, along with a plethora of smaller shows, bring to light the reemergence of altered-states publicly within the fine arts.

(Fig. 1) This renewed attention to entheogens in pivotal court cases and public exhibitions, asks use to evaluate our views of psychetropic experience, from their recreational use to their value in artistic and sacred practice. Their potential for opening vistas to human beings that surpass traditional Cartesian orientation helps to contextualize the paintings of Brooklyn-based artist Fred Tomaselli, whose works engage the contested role of mind-altering chemical adjuncts in the United States. Tomaselli arranges chromatically-charged visionary paintings that vibrate with psychedelic noise. His images enact ritual hallucinations through their explosive patterning of flora and fauna—from songbirds cut from ornithological guidebooks to actual botanical specimens. The works are themselves meetings of alkaloids and acrylics, artifacts from the constructed world and mind-altering specimens from the natural and built environments. They recall the pressed and preserved specimens of early naturalists and botanists. And yet his color palette pops on a base of black, rather than the white surfaces to which plant specimens are typically affixed.

(Fig. 2) Paintings such as Untitled, from 1999, pulsate with kaleidoscopic patterns that recede into black vortices and emerge just as quickly into concentric rings of red and pink leaf shapes bordered with resonating hues of violet and spring green. As with many of Tomaselli’s works, this piece depicts and actually contains little white pills and Datura—a delirium-producing plant that can be smoked or brewed as a tea. (Fig. 3) He assembles his collection of botanicals, pharmaceuticals and magazine cut-outs while his image lies on the ground. Then he ensures the fixity of his pieces by sealing the compositions under thick coats of resin, in turn rendering the mind-altering adjuncts physically inaccessible. (Fig. 4 & 5) Later, the artist paints on top of the resin seal to render a final layered surface that recalls the effect of painting on glass.

Why is Tomaselli concerned with psychetropic plants and other brain change adjuncts? (Figs. 6 & 7) In February 2006 ARTnews reviewer Hilarie Sheets suggested that artist’s interested in psychedelics in their work, including Tomaselli, sought to expand viewers’ senses “esthetically,” rather than through the actual use of mind-altering compounds. This conclusion seems rooted in a culture of abstinence, and recalls the rhetoric of Reagan-era “Just-Say-No” drug campaigns. 1 Presenting psychetropics as mere fads, Sheets’ conjecture overlooks the long cultural history and use of these substances. The Mesoamericas and ancient Greeks used them, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, men such as Erasmus Darwin and Mark Twain took an interest in them. The twentieth century was marked by the earliest ethnomycological expeditions by R. Gordon Wasson, and the CIA’s Cold War plot to use them as instruments of mind-control; and of course they figured prominently in 1960s counterculture. Instead, I would argue that Tomaselli’s paintings remind us that entheogens are not mere vehicles to drug-induced visions; rather, psychetropics, as well as art, provide us with one locus for the sustainability of all organisms and our respective searches for meaning beyond our own corporeality. Using entheogens as media and as subjects, the artist challenges our seemingly arbitrary, often highly politicized boundaries of knowledge acquisition. Tomaselli calls us to evaluate the manner in which we have thwarted our abilities to explore, with the collaboration of certain plants and fungi, all the diverse intelligences of our human brains.

(Figs. 10 & 11) With their high octane pigments and reverberating patterns suggesting states of heightened awareness, Tomaselli’s paintings evoke, at first glance, 1960s drug culture in general. Multiple Landscape and Double Landscape, both from 1995, ebb and flow in a rainbow of colors, swirling off in one direction, only to crackle in another. Fissures of space and time emerge in the patterns repeatedly in the former painting, providing only glimpses of the green hills and forests in the distance that can be so plainly viewed through the centrally-placed window that opens onto an earthly Eden in the latter painting. The images might serve as covers for any number of Grateful Dead albums with, perhaps, the addition of a few dancing bears. (Fig. 12, 13 & 14) Today the 1960s recalls such psychetropics as acid and weed, being “stoned,” “tripping,” and “high.” And the decade still stirs popular ideas such as tie-dyed t-shirts, lava lamps, long hair, incense, Woodstock, Haight-Ashbury, magic mushrooms, peace signs, social protest, Civil Rights, Vietnam, and such figures as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, as well as Timothy Leary.

Leary is of course popularly known as a controversial peace and psychedelic promoter who often found himself a refugee in various countries in his attempts to escape drug prosecution. But we should also recall that Leary was a noted psychologist at Harvard before his public infamy; the University officially fired him in 1963 for not meeting his teaching obligations, unofficially for his research on the mind-altering compound psilocybin. Reminiscing much later upon the 1960s, Leary offered insights into the entheogenic experience during that tumultuous decade. He noted that psychologists had largely articulated three states of consciousness: (1) “normal, rational consciousness,” (2) “unconsciousness,” and (3) “altered states, pathological consciousness.” Conventionally, they designated the first state as “normal, natural, good,” and marked it as “drug-free.” Only a “state authorized agent” could legally and ethically alter the brain or body through drugs, as with anesthetics or tranquilizers, and then only to restore a subject to the first “normal, natural” state. (Fig. 7) Most scientists saw psychedelics as having no place in an industrial society in which rationality reigned. As Leary noted:

The modern factory society requires an astonishing degree of conformity, uniformity, dependability, replicability to build cars and airplanes and hair dryers and hospitals and schools and keep them running. Nothing could be more threatening to a highly organized assembly-line society than self-administered drugs which activate in the brain unique, nonconditioned, visionary, subjective patterns.2


Leary here notes the controversy surrounding alkaloids in “modern factory society,” and he also presents them as a locus in which the ordering systems of an industrialized state are registered. Artist Fred Tomaselli, too, has transformed America’s long-standing unrest with chemical adjuncts as a way to bring attention to the way in which the control of entheogens has been marked as a site of ordering plants, ourselves, and knowledge. Tomaselli’s paintings play on the bifurcation human beings construct between worlds of order and worlds of chaos, worlds of nature and worlds of culture. Oscillating his oeuvre between swirling organic explosions of colors and shapes and the linearity of industrial assembly lines, the artist begs us to gaze upon such spaces as mutually constitutive, rather than dialectical.


(Fig. 15) What complicates the reading of Tomaselli’s paintings is their synchronic collapse between the 1960s and today. They recollect a psychedelic culture that popularly arose in 1960s America, and yet the artist himself claims he was “too young to have engaged in the utopian dialectic of this decade.”3 The images were painted and collaged by an artist who instead came of age in southern California in the 1970s, one Tom Wolfe described as the “Me Decade,” and one that Tomaselli asserted was “without ideology.”4 And, of course, we cannot lose sight of the fact that these are very much images of a new millenium. Ripple Trees, from 1994, illustrates such a temporal collapse. The background of Ripple Trees references the soft evening glow of a setting sun, with deep celestial blue piled upon a fading purple that, in turn, rests upon a smoldering orange. The colors meet the landscape, silhouetted in a black that descends gradually from the branches of a deciduous tree at left to a full leafy tree at right. On top of this unpopulated, dreamlike space, little white pills form overlapping concentric circles, rippling out as if many pebbles had been thrown into a pond simultaneously and cast waters evenly outward. Their epicenters mark a colorful array of drugs in both tablet and capsule form. The saturation of the circles’ centers punctuates the painting, dissipating at their edges and leading the eye from one colorful orb to the next.

“Ripple” evokes, once again, the Grateful Dead, and their song by that title, released in 1970 on the American Beauty LP. The lyrics have a protagonist searching for a road “between the dawn and the dusk of night,” a path without a guide. Research librarian David Dodd attributes a distinctly eastern sacrament to the Dead’s lyrics in this song. Lyricist Robert Hunter arranged the chorus, Dodd notes, as a meditative haiku. “It is possible that Hunter's thoughts were born from the experience of altered states, and the frustration that goes with any attempt to describe experience in an altered state,” says Dodd.5 The ripple is, in the Dead’s song, as it in Tomaselli’s painting, a break in rational thinking, a ripple in Cartesian operations of body and mind. Painting, for Tomaselli, can only partially enunciate a ripple effect that is barely secured under a seal of resin. His images remain as transient as their titles: here a ripple, there a tree, fleetingly entering and exiting the human mind as if in a state of transcendental meditation.

Tomaselli’s Ripple appears at first to evoke the mythical era of free love. The painting’s historical moment, however, remains rooted in the 1990s, a decade associated with the technological and corporate advancements of the Internet and the dot-com industry of Silicon Valley. Curiously, the decade also saw the resurgence of dead-head-like jam bands, such as Phish, a quartet that witnessed a proliferation of psychetropics among its fan base, a kind of substitution of Phish head for Dead head. In like fashion, might Tomaselli’s art be merely a reminiscence of a younger, more subversive time of free drug consumption? Or did the 1990s mark an emergence of a new psychedelic culture that no longer thrived at Woodstock or Studio 54, but in mosh pits and raves? Did the communal nature of 1960s marijuana and L.S.D. give way to less social psychetropics that provided not enlightenment, but “escapism,” as the artist says, from “the miasma through which we find ourselves slogging today?”6 NEED SOMETHING LIKE AN ANSWER HERE

(Fig. 16) Untitled (Rug) from 1995, explores the relationship between humans and psychetropics in a less visionary manner than Ripple. This painting suggests instead the ironic continuities between the “unity” and “replicability” of Leary’s “modern factory society,” as well as the repetitions and patterns of organic matter. Evenly spaced columns of muted green Datura and hemp leaves, as well as neat lines of yellow, blue, green, orange and red pills and ephedrine span the painting, as if mimicking the regularity of such industrial and transportation age symbols as airport runways. Such regularity also recalls schemes of ordering the world of commodities into categories of color, shape and size, as evidenced by clothing, cars, and homes. The painting’s black background thrusts the straight patterns into the foreground. (Figs. 17 & 18) In contrast to a swirling surface of fractals, or the exploding pharmacopeia of pills, flowers, leaves, insects, birds, and body parts that we see in such paintings as Untitled (Expulsion) from 2000, Rug presents psychetropics as having an order not usually associated with them. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries naturalists configured categories for similarities and differences that would allow organic matter to be understood within neat tables of thought and taxonomical categories. The pattern of lines in Untitled (Rug) speaks to Tomaselli’s awareness of the overlap between patterns of nature and the patterns of culture, admittedly arbitrary divisions of space and time. In fact, the artist inserts amidst his green leaves a synthetic version of his entheogens, the mini thin, machine-cut stimulant ephedrine, the laboratory version of the ephedra plant.




(Fig. 19) Tomaselli’s painting 9000 Beats per Second, from 1996, omits botanicals and marks instead an endeavor into a chemically enhanced version of Op, a 1960s style of art characterized by moiré dress patterns and the paintings of Bridget Riley. He disrupts by a slight zigzagging the otherwise straight lines of the little white pills. The pills become less punctuations or light effects than meditations on the white dots themselves. One would assume by the artist’s continued use of ephedrine and the title’s suggestion of that substance’s speed induction that the circles were in fact ephedrine. One exhibition catalog, however, designates the tablets as aspirin. What seems to me more significant than the category of drug in this instance is what Tomaselli excludes. In his later paintings the artist delights in a profusion of color, a variety of species and an assortment of psychetropics, from botanical entheogens and hallucinogenic fungi to synthetic adjuncts. 9000 Beats per Second, instead, marks a space of exclusion, of only subtly disturbed order; a space marked less by visuality than by the sonic association of musical staccatos and beats of a heart sped up by the consumption of over the counter stimulants.

The orderliness Tomaselli asserts in his linear untitled pieces from 1995 and 1996 calls into question the categorization of mind- and body-altering substances: over the counter versus prescription-only, unscheduled versus scheduled. With Datura leaves adjacent to Tylenol capsules next to a pharmacist’s inventory, the pieces complicate the haphazard way in which governments mark the human consumption of such substances. Some drugs require a doctor’s prescription, while others may be purchased over the counter. The DEA schedules others, leaving them for production and sale on underground markets. And still others, like ephedrine, remain legal, but often only available at locales such as highway truck stops. The arbitrary ordering of entheogens parallels, in large part, an often illogical ordering of knowledge and the natural world.

(Fig. 20) As the art historian Jonathan Weinberg points out, “Obsession with ‘matter in the wrong place’ is one of the essential aspects of our society…it could be argued that culture is nothing more than an elaborate set of systems for putting experiences and people into their proper categories and functions.”7 Since its establishment under the Nixon administration in 1973, the DEA has repeatedly used the taxonomical categories of plants and fungi to regulate what we can and cannot legally put into our bodies; in essence, controlling which switches of our mind we are allowed to turn on and off. Rug operates as a ruse to Tomaselli’s effort to subvert our preconceptions and suppositions about “drugs” through an obsessive order of them via their binomial or their generic or brand name. Keeping in mind Tomaselli’s subversive edge, we can reread Untitled (Rug) as Untitle dRug, a phrase that simply calls the subject drugs to mind, but also the contested American debate over pharmaceutical companies’ control over the distribution of name-brand and generic drugs. Tomaselli’s painting temporarily exposes our notions of pharmacological order, wittily sweeping under the rug a culture of embedded drug use, both legal and illegal, that one rarely finds reconciled in our culture.

Tomaselli’s vacillation between order and chaos, between the ordering systems of the industrialist and the naturalist, collapses in such pieces as his Hummingbird from 2004. In this painting the artist features a bird in flight with wings spread in full display at the center of his characteristically black mass of space. The hummingbird licks nectar from a red floral bud that marks the tip of a swirling mass of polychromed botanical and mycological forms suspended from a cosmic ceiling. The flower’s nectar spills from the bloom in milky raindrops, evidencing its viscosity and abundance. The bird’s eye appears dilated red, perhaps from the indulgence of ingesting the potent sweet solution daily, as hummingbirds do, at up to 50% of his body weight. A human eye in the painting’s upper right corner, framed in a paisley form of green, blue and yellow balances the hypnotic red eye of the bird.

As well as assuming the role of the planet’s smallest avian, hummingbirds are known for their great speed, beating their wings at rates up to 200 times per second. In both 9000 Beats per Second and Hummingbird, the artist illuminates a world of syncopations, from the hummingbird’s nectar-fuelled flutter to the rhythmic pounding out of capsules by a factory machine to the quickening of a human heart upon the consumption of too many little white pills. Both paintings spur the retinal dartings of observers attempting to focus on Tomaselli’s vertiginous chemical Op, leaving them less attendant to a single point of view than to a psychedelic white noise. The hummingbird, too, appears as captive as those birds we see stilled within the pages of a John James Audubon portfolio, or like a fly caught in amber. The viewer of 9000 Beats per Second and the hummingbird herself seem equally on the verge of coming unhinged in the visual complexity of the moment, locked in another time and space between the rhythmic stamping out of tablets and the beating of wings. We and the avian find ourselves in a dizzying flight amidst the deliriously rich sensuality of sugared nectar, tripping eyeballs and entheogens, and the hypnotic effect of Tomaselli’s pharmacopoeia. Like the resin-coated entheogens, little white pills and hummingbirds, the artist’s works operate as display cases in which we can look at, but not touch, certain aspects of the natural world. The chromatically-charged visionary paintings grant us access to other-ed states, and yet mirror the ways in which American culture litigiously holds such paths of mind exploration at bay, controlling our abilities to connect to a larger community of consciousness uninhibited by borders and frames.





Seeking Shortcuts to Transcendence: Psychedelics, Humanistic Psychology, and American Culture

Jessica Grogan

Presented at the American Studies Association Annual Convention, October 12, 2007


In The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience, a thirty-six year old assistant professor of English is quoted describing his experience with psychedelics. “What I experienced was essentially, and with few exceptions, the usual content of experience but that, of everything there was MORE.” Writing under the influence of the drug, he noted that he was able to sense, think, and feel MORE. Of objects, he saw more color, detail and form. Of his own emotions, he felt more intensity, more depth, more comprehensiveness. He felt that his mind was able to contain more. “Awareness has MORE levels, is many-dimensioned.” He also felt a sense of MORE time, MORE unity with people and things, more self-knowledge, and more alternatives.1

The sense of amplification he describes explains the reputation for consciousness expansion and transcendence that psychedelics earned during the peak of their popularity in the 1960s, and accounts—in part—for the cultural threat that psychedelics posed by undermining a normative sense of reality. But his description also suggests the glimpse that psychedelic users might have had into what American psychologist Abraham Maslow described as the Being or B-Realm.

Abraham Maslow’s interest in the higher realms of mental and emotional functioning stemmed from his commitment to developing a systematic theory of human nature that accounted for individuals at their best. By studying exemplary psychological specimens, he hoped to uncover keys to the attainment of one’s greatest potential and to add complexity to previous explanations of human nature that had been oriented around human deficits. Maslow first proposed a theory of human motivation—which he termed self-actualization—in 1943, and founded the humanistic psychology movement—which was based upon it—in 1962. 2 Despite the antagonism between Maslow’s ideas and the more mainstream behaviorist emphases of the time, his theory of human motivation earned him significant recognition and esteem, evidenced by his strong book sales and his nomination to the presidency of the American Psychological Association in 1968.3 He continued to refine his conception of self-actualization until his death in 1970.4

The basic thrust of Maslow’s theory was that humans are innately motivated to reach their fullest potential (a novel idea in a field that was always better at defining sickness than health). For Maslow the realization of individual potential involved ascendance through a pyramid of needs. The first four levels of the pyramid are considered the “D-Realm,” with D standing for deficiency. The base is comprised of physiological needs, including those for water, air, food, sleep, etc.. Once those basic needs were met, an individual would strive to meet what Maslow called safety and security needs, including the need for structure and order. The third level of the pyramid was comprised of what he called love and belonging needs, and the fourth, esteem needs. If the attainment of any one of these deficiency needs was thwarted, an individual would fixate on that particular level, possibly never allowing her to reach the B-realm (the peak of the pyramid).5

In the B-realm, one no longer experiences deficiency needs and possesses only metaneeds. Metaneeds include the need for truth, goodness, beauty, unity, uniqueness, justice, playfulness and self-sufficiency.6

Reaching the B-realm was also described by Maslow as self-actualization. “Self-actualization,” he wrote, “means experiencing fully, vividly, selflessly, with full concentration and total absorption At this moment of experiencing, the person is wholly and fully human.”7 Self-actualization, he said, is not an end state, but rather a continual process of becoming, striving, and “resacralizing” the qualities of daily experience to which others grow numb.8

One could reside in the B-realm through what Maslow called the “plateau experience,” a state in which an individual, though far from having reached perfection, had resolved all deficiency needs and was oriented wholly towards Being values.9 But though self-actualizers were the only ones who could live in the B-realm, they were certainly not the only individuals to taste the fruits of it. The B-realm was open, if only temporarily, to anyone who could achieve what he called a “peak experience.” Psychedelic users were among these ranks.

A peak experience is, he wrote, short and fleeting. “Certainly I know this now about peak, the great joys.” Maslow wrote in his journal in 1964, “They would kill us if they lasted too long or came too often. (Supposing a great orgasm lasted for 15 minutes instead of 10 or 15 seconds! The organism couldn’t stand it. Surely the heart would collapse. To have a peak means not to fear flooding. One can ‘take it,’ One can give up control, self-consciousness.”10

One can hear the echo of psychedelic experience in Maslow’s description of peaks. During a peak experience, he wrote, individuals feel more integrated “unified, whole, all-of a piece.” They are “more able to fuse with the world.” For example, “the appreciater becomes the music (and it becomes him) or the painting, or the dance.” Peakers feel themselves to be at the height of their powers; they experience a sense of “effortlessness and ease of functioning”; they feel free of blocks and inhibitions, they feel more spontaneous and expressive, more “freely flowering outward”; and they feel “more of a pure psyche and less a thing-of-the world living under the laws of the world.” Peakers also feel more creative, connected to the present, unique, and grateful.11

The relationship of the peak experience to self-actualization is not entirely straightforward. Maslow wrote that a person “in any of the peak experiences takes on temporarily many of the characteristics which I found in self-actualizing individuals. That is, for the time they become self-actualizers.” Maslow tended to feel that peak experiences are open to anyone, and by any means. But self-actualization, which involves the experience of peaks “far more frequently, and intensely and perfectly” than average people, is much more prestigious—open to a mere 2-5 percent of the population.12 Self-actualizers are able, Maslow theorized, to set up peak-fostering conditions, by living fully and making growth-directed choices.13


These choices, however, were often at odds with broader cultural imperatives, placing self-actualizing individuals outside of the mainstream and signaling the priority of self over society.


Maslow identified as criteria of self-actualization a “resistance to acculturation” and a “certain inner detachment from the culture” coupled with an extreme sense of autonomy.14 The fluidity and flexibility required of the B-realm contradict the control and order imposed by the “civilized” society. In Maslow’s own studies of self-actualizers in the early 1950s, he had observed among them a general lack of conformity to cultural norms.15 He concluded that “lack of conformity may not signify emotional immaturity, but rather truly superior social functioning.”16

But Maslow draws a sharp distinction between nonconformist self-actualizers and other non-conformists (like psychedelic users or 1960s countercultures). He describes self-actualizers as able to function effectively within the wider culture, in spite of their criticisms of it. He found that they have generally, “settled down to…an accepting, calm, good-humored, everyday effort to improve the culture, usually from within, rather than to reject it and fight it from without.”17 This productive non-conformity was characteristic of the individuals Maslow identified as self-actualizing, including historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Walt Whitman.18

In contrast to these exemplary individuals, psychedelic users were doubly threatening to institutional structures. For one, if they were taking the drug recreationally or experimentally (after 1966), they were disregarding the law. Thus, they were acting outside of cultural constraints to affect an experience that further distanced them from the culture. Psychedelic users tended to flaunt their non-conformity, as in the case of Timothy Leary, whose disdain for academic institutions and governmental structures subverted any therapeutic potential that psychedelics may have held.19


Leary and his followers made it clear that they had no intention of working for reform within the system. Many adopted the mantra “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Psychedelics, which provided a personal sense of transcendence and an immediate sense of community, gave individuals an easy way to opt out of the cultural dialogue.


The chaos attached to certain psychedelic experiences and larger psychedelic cultures wore away at Maslow’s positive regard. Always skeptical of uncontrolled experimentation, Maslow increasingly felt that psychedelic users were destructive and self-undermining.20

The similarity between B-realm glimpses experienced by drug users and those perceived by ordinary individuals appeared, to Maslow, increasingly superficial. He formulated his critique of psychedelic peaks in much the same way that Dietrich Bonhoefer—the German Lutheran theologian—conceived his concept of “cheap grace”; it was unearned and undeserved. “Cheap grace,” wrote Bonhoeffer in 1937, “means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.”21 Psychedelic experiences could, of course, be literally purchased. And, unlike the peaks achieved from arduous activities like childbirth that Maslow describes, drug-induced peaks were not the product of striving, process, or work of any kind.

In an unpublished paper entitled “Drugs—Critique,” Maslow described the ideal peak experience as akin to “costly grace,” one that, because it was “earned,” would promote self-confidence, pride in one’s powers, and a sense of achievement. He drew a parallel to they way that earning money would be “health-fostering,” whereas receiving unearned money would be “sickness-fostering.”22 “Even if the drugs were not harmful psychologically,” Maslow wrote, “I think they can be harmful spiritually, characterologically, etc. I think it’s clearly better to work for your blessings, instead of to buy them. I think an unearned Paradise becomes worthless.”23 Maslow’s strongest objections to LSD culture stemmed from “essentially moral reasons—something like should we build an escalator to the top of Mt. Everest or should we put more automobile roads through the wilderness or should we make life easier in general…”24

Maslow’s ambivalence about the use of psychedelics was epitomized in his relationship with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert—early psilocybin experimenters who later became proselytizers,


ultimately destructive to themselves and others. In the early 1960s, the three would often meet for lunch. In July of 1965, in fact, Maslow flew to Washington, DC to testify on behalf of Richard Alpert when his experimental methods were called into question by the Ethics Board of the American Psychological Association. Maslow defended Alpert’s right to engage in unorthodox scientific methods, and argued that he saw potential value in psychedelic experimentation.25 Still, he felt increasingly uneasy with what he deemed the “Leary technique.”


The “Leary technique,” Maslow wrote in his journal in 1964, “is a denial of the very principle itself of stages of knowledge for which appropriate stages of personality development are necessary.”26


While Maslow never clearly defines the Leary technique, he suggests that Leary’s methods symbolized to him the attempt to attain enlightenment, conscious-expansion, or self-actualization through psychedelics.


While Maslow did recognize the potential of psychedelics to yield great insights which remain as truths (a ‘truth’ is partly judged by its remaining stable, permanent & nonvanishing), he doubted the transformative power of the average experience of psychedelic use. He had witnessed the demise of reputable academics like Leary and Alpert whose psychedelic use became a self-destructive force, preventing them from making productive intellectual contributions and reasonable suggestions for reform. As Alan Watts—philosopher, writer, and psychedelics user—wrote of his retrospective attitude towards LSD experiences: “when one has received the message, one hangs up the phone."27

!The cultural disconnection characteristic of many LSD users


made communes and growth-centers oriented around psychedelic use even more distasteful to Maslow. He questioned living cooperatives that venerated drug-induced shortcuts and proclaimed themselves utopias. Maslow’s own ultimate goal for society was what he called a state of Eupsychia—defined as a culture comprised solely of self-actualized individuals.28 Maslow found psychedelic communities to be far from eupsychian, and actually antagonistic to broader Eupsychian aims. Maslow wrote in 1964,


I get irritated by the Tim Learys, who insist on behaving as if they were in Eupsychia already, & thus make a lot of trouble for everybody & sometimes simply delay Eupsychia. I think it’s possible to be unconventional inside & conventional outside, like the SA people. 29


From the perspective of American leaders in the 1960s, both self-actualizers and psychedelic users were less-than-ideal citizens, but for different reasons—the nuances of which were probably uninteresting to conservatives hoping to silence dissent that seemed threatening. Both lobbied persuasive criticisms of dominant cultural practices and imperatives. But neither actually posed a significant threat to American cultural institutions. Self-actualizers were few-and-far-between and, in spite of their cultural criticisms, were ultimately respectful of the necessity of maintaining a cultural dialogue and of working for change within the system. And psychedelic users, in spite of their sometimes grand plans to derail the hegemonic culture that they felt oppressed them, proved ultimately too internally focused and culturally disconnected to organize for effective cultural change.



historical correction; repeats propaganda about leary, leary actually wrote tirelesly


[ of of the stages of consciousness, moving beyond Maslow to the 8 stage theory. Such blaming the victim!


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