Remarks on Timothy Leary’s “Politics of Ecstasy” by Allen Ginsberg

“The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated.”

by ALLEN GINSBERG

Originally published December 12, 1968

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy
RCB VV COLLAGE

‘Christmas in Earth’

By the late ’40s of this memory Century the people I knew best and loved the most had already broken through the crust of old Reason & were dowsing for some Supreme Reality, Christmas on Earth Rimbaud said, Second Religiousness according to Spengler’s outline of civilization declining through proliferation of non-human therefore boring technology; Blake had called “O Earth O Earth return!” centuries before, echoing the ancient gnostic prophecy that Whitman spelled out for America specifically demanding that the Steam-engine “be confronted and met by at least equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine aesthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness —” Ezra Pound’s mind jumped to diagnose the dimming of the world’s third Eye: “With Usura the line grows thick.”

One scholar who transmitted Blake’s kabbalah, S. Foster Damon, can remember his sudden vision of tiny flowers carpeting Harvard Yard violet before World War One, an image that lingers over 60 years in mind since his fellow student Virgil Thomson gave him the cactus Peyote to eat. Damon concludes that rare beings like Blake are born with physiologic gift of such vision, continuous or intermittent. William James, whose pragmatic magic probably called the Peyote God to Harvard in the first place, had included shamanistic chemical visions among the many authentic “Varieties of Religious Experience.” His student Gertrude Stein experimented in alteration of consciousness through mindfulness of language, an extremely effective Yoga since mechanical reproduction of language by XX Century had made language the dominant vehicle of civilized consciousness; her companion Alice B. Toklas contributed a cookbook recipe for Hashish Brownies to enlighten those persons over-talkative in drawing rooms unaware that “the medium is the message.”

This synchronism is exquisite: William S. Burroughs also once of Harvard shared Miss Stein’s mindfulness of the hypnotic drug-like power of language, and collaborated on cut-up rearrangement of stereotyped language forms with friend Brion Gysin, who had originally given Miss Toklas the recipe for her famous Brownies. Burroughs among others had begun experiments with drug-shamanism after World War Two — for the author of “Naked Lunch” it was a pragmatic extension of his Cambridge interest in linguistic Anthropology. That same gnostic impulse broke through to clear consciousness simultaneously in many American cities: Gary Snyder realized the entire universe was alive one daybreak 1948 in Poland when a flight birds rose out of the tree stillness in a gully by the city river, a natural vision — The masters of the Berkeley Renaissance read Gertrude Stein aloud and practiced Poetic kabbalah (charming synchronism that psychologist Timothy Leary met poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan in that same 1948 student scene) — Neal Cassady drove Jack Kerouac to Mexico in a prophetic automobile to see the physical body of America, the same Denver Cassady that one decade later drove Ken Kesey’s Kosmos-patterned schoolbus on a Kafka-circus tour over the roads of the awakening nation — And the wakening began, some say, with the first saxophone cry of the new mode of black music which shook the walls of white city mind when Charles Parker lifted his birdflightnoted horn & announced a new rhythm of thinking, and extended breathing of the body in music and speech, a new consciousness. For as Plato had said, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated. It was always the secret tale of the tribe in America, this great scandal of the closing of the doors of perception of the Naked Human Form Divine. It began with the white murder of Indian inhabitants of the ground, the theft and later usurious exploitation of their land, it continued with an assault on all races and species of Mother Nature herself and concludes today with total disruption of the ecology of the entire planet. No wonder black slaves kept for non-human use into this century in tear-gassed ghettos of megalopolis were the first Aliens to sound the horn of Change, first Strangers to Call the Great Call through Basilides’ many Heavens. Amazing synchronism again, that Mr. Frank Takes Gun, Native American Church amerindian Peyote Chief, invited the brilliantly talkative silver-haired psychiatrist who directed a Saskatchewan mental hospital in the early ’40s to participate in a Peyote ritual, and that the same Dr. Humphrey Osmond having recognized a wonder of consciousness thus experienced passed on the catalyst in Mescaline synthetic form to Aldous Huxley; and that Huxley’s 1945 essay on the chemical opening of the Doors of Perception found its way to the tables of Bickford’s Cafeteria Times Square New York & the couches of Reed College and Berkeley, where artist persons, having heard the Great Call of the Negroes, already initiated themselves en masse to subtle gradations of their own consciousness experienced while smoking the same Afric hemp smoked by Charles Parker Thelonius Monk & Dizzy Gillespie.

Dr. Timothy Leary takes up his part of the tale of the tribe in a Mexican hut and brings his discovery to Harvard harmoniously — and there begins the political battle, black and white magic become public visible for a generation. Dr. Leary is a hero of American consciousness. He began as a sophisticated academician, he encountered discoveries in his field which confounded him and his own technology, he pursued his studies where attention commanded, he arrived beyond the boundaries of public knowledge. One might hesitate to say, like Socrates, like Galileo? — poor Dr. Leary, poor Earth! Yet here we are in Science Fiction History, in the age of Hydrogen Bomb Apocalypse, the very Kali Yuga wherein man’s stupidity so overwhelms the planet that ecological catastrophe begins to rehearse old tribe-tales of Karmaic retribution, Fire & Flood & Armageddon impending.

It would be natural (in fact deja vu) that the very technology stereotyping our consciousness & desensitizing our perceptions should throw up its own antidote, an antidote synthetic such as LSD synchronous with mythic tribal Soma & Peyote. Given such historic Comedy, who could emerge from Harvard technology but one and only Dr. Leary, a respectable human being, a worldly man faced with the task of a Messiah. Inevitable! Not merely because the whole field of mental psychology as a “science” had arrived at biochemistry anyway. It was inevitable because the whole professional civilized world, like Dr. Leary, was already faced with Messianic task of accelerated evolution (i.e. psychosocial Revolution) including an alteration of human consciousness leading to the immediate mutation of social & economic forms. This staggering realization, psychedelic, i.e., consciousness expanding & mind-manifesting in itself, without the use of chemical catalysts, is now forced on all of us by images of our own unconscious rising from the streets of Chicago, where teargas was dumped on Christ’s very Cross in Lincoln Park AD 1968. The drains are backing up in the cities, smog noise and physiologic poison in food turn us to insect acts, overpopulation crazes the planet, our lakes corrupt, old riverways become dank fens, tanks enter Prague and Chicago streets simultaneous, Police State arrives in every major city, starvation wastes African provinces, Chinese genocide in Vietnam, Alarm! Alarm! howls deep as any Biblic prophecy.

Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break “the mind forg’d manacles.” Given one by-product of the technology that might, as it were by feed-back, correct the berserk machine and liberate the invertor’s mind from captivity by hypnotic robots, Dr. Leary had in LSD an invaluable civilized elixir. For, as Dr. Jiri Roubichek observed early in Prague (“Artificial Psychosis,” 1958), “LSD inhibits conditioned reflexes.” And this single phrase, for rational men, might be the key to the whole gnostic mystery of LSD and Dr. Leary’s role as unique, alas solitary, courageous, humane & frank Democratic Boddhisatva-teacher of the uses of LSD in America. For he took on himself the noble task of announcing the evidence of his senses despite the scary contumely of fellow academicians, the dispraising timorous irony of scientific “professionals,” the stupidity meanness self-serving cowardice and hollow vanity of bureaucratic personnel from Harvard Yard to Mexico City to Washington, from the ignorant Sheriff’s office in Dutchess County NY to the inner greedy sanctums of the US Treasury Department in D. C., our whole “establishment” of civilization that defends us from knowledge of our own unconscious by means of policeman’s clubs, and would resist the liberation of our minds and bodies by any brutish means available including teargas, napalm & the Hydrogen Bomb.

Dr. Leary conducted himself fairly & equitably, given the extremity of his knowledge; it took an innocent courage to explore his own unconditioned consciousness, to take LSD and other chemicals often enough to be well balanced in praxis as well as explanation, and to attempt to wed the enormity of his experience to Reason. An heroic attempt to communicate clearly and openly through civilized technologic media to his fellow citizens, despite centuries of identity brainwash accelerated now to mass paranoia and Cold War Apocalypse, required Dr. Leary the proverbial wisdom of serpent & harmlessness of dove.

Timothy Leary tells the tale of his tribe in book aptly titled “The Politics of Ecstasy,” & events enlarged since he wrote his book and chose its title charge the author’s handiwork with prophetic enormity. The battle of generations that erupted this year simultaneously in Prague, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, New York (and Moscow underground) — everywhere the State’s electronic consciousness is interlinked — transcends antique battles of Cold War and Race. We witness planetary confrontation wherein controlling Elders trapped in a suicidal mechanical consciousness deploy their destructive technology against their own children in the streets of their own cities. ‘Tis Blake’s Urizen tormenting tender Los in Eternity! New generations have risen spontaneously with new consciousness and a mutant politics of flower power that is rooted in the ground of human consciousness itself: an acceptance of human identity as one with living nature on a living planet where all creatures are living God. The public philosophies and technologies of all civilized Governments at present are are at war with this God, and the planet itself is within decades of destruction. No wonder there is sudden appearance of Adamic hair. Eve walks naked in the streets; ancient body rhythm beat out thru the airwaves in eclectic mantric Rock from Bratislava to San Francisco, & youths ingest shamanic elixirs to recover consciousness of planetary Archetypes. Hare Krishna!

One politic synchronism that concerns this text should be gossiped forth contextual. Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeatedly abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac. I quote from the Spring 1968 State Document in any case for the delectation of gnostic Cognoscenti, that is to say myriads of the present young:

“To Hon. Edw. W. Wadsworth
Clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit
Room 408 — 400 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA. 70130
“Re: No 23570
Timothy Leary vs United States of America

“… We are applying for an order from the District Court requiring the Defendant to surrender to the United States Marshal…

“The appellant continues his publicized activities involving the advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs by students and others of immature judgment and tender years and is regarded as a menace to the community so long as he is at large …

Very truly yours,
Morton L. Sussman,
United States Attorney.

By: James R. Gough,
Asst. U.S. ATTY.
Chief, Appeals Research Division”

Thus requesting revocation of Dr. Leary’s bail’d liberty while his political-religious defense for possession of an herb approached Supreme Court, Agents of Government checked further conversation with the young. The Millbrook Ashram having been simultaneously dispersed by Agents of Government his immediate financial responsibilities lightened, Timothy Leary retired back home to Berkeley with his mate and completed his description of “the Politics of Ecstasy.” ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 21, 2020

“A Poison Tree” (William Blake)

Here is my second recording in the Romantic Poets series. It is “A Poison Tree” by William Blake. I intend to do a few more from the “Songs of Innocence and Experience”. They are obviously intended as songs and are just the right length. Blake is a particular inspiration to me. In 2019 I went to an exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London of Blake’s art and poetry. It displayed the work in it’s original context, in book form. Some of the books are tiny, which is something I wasn’t expecting. Seeing the words and pictures together, in print form, really enhanced their meaning for me. It was probably the first time in my life that I really understood these poems. It has encouraged me to undertake far more original work of my own, a real inspiration!

I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 

And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 

And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 

And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

Here is a remix of the song. I have taken out the drums and harpsichord and added accordion. Which do you prefer? Let me know!

“La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (John Keats)

I have started a new project setting works of the Romantic Poets to music. Here is my first attempt “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats. I visited his grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. It was a strange and spiritual experience! I recorded this at home using Cubase 9.5 and various instruments and plug-ins!

“Aint Misbehavin” by Parisian Swing Band

Here is a recording I have just made in my home studio of Fats Waller’s classic jazz hit “Aint Misbehavin'”. I actually played all of the instruments on this which turned out to be a bit of a trial and more difficult than I thought. A good learning experience though. I play with a band called Parisian Swing and look forward to recording with them in the near future. You can’t beat the feeling of playing with others but it can sometimes be hard getting people together!

Why Am I Living (I Ask Myself) by Kenny Wilson

Here is a song I have just recorded in my home studio. An old song of mine given a new treatment. All existential angst and swirling accordion, mandolin and guitars. I wrote it when I was 23 and it was a breakthrough for me. Previously my songs had been quite restrained and rather bland. With this I made my voice higher and tried to be more expressive. I developed a kind of method of unconscious writing. I was pleased with the result. It is still capable of shocking some people with it’s raw pessimism. It was inspired by the song “Father of Day, Father of Night” from the New Morning album by Bob Dylan although the meaning of my song is almost the opposite.

Dylan’s lyrics are:

“Father of night, Father of day
Father, who taketh the darkness away
Father, who teacheth the birds to fly
Builder of rainbows up in the sky”.

I kind of reversed it. My favourite verse in my song is:

“Father of Nightmares, Father of Dreams,
Show me an answer, say what it means.
I have been searching, I could not find,
I have been living deep in my mind”

This verse still speaks to me from my subconscious mind.

Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Man with a Movie Camera[1] (Russian: Человек с кино-аппаратом, romanizedChelovek s kino-apparatom) is an experimental 1929 Soviet silent documentary film, directed by Dziga Vertov and edited by his wife Elizaveta Svilova.

Vertov’s feature film, produced by the film studio VUFKU, presents urban life in the Soviet cities of KievKharkovMoscow and Odessa.[2] It has no actors.[3] From dawn to dusk Soviet citizens are shown at work and at play, and interacting with the machinery of modern life. To the extent that it can be said to have “characters”, they are the cameramen of the title, the film editor, and the modern Soviet Union they discover and present in the film.

Man with a Movie Camera is famous for the range of cinematic techniques Vertov invented, employed or developed, such as multiple exposurefast motionslow motionfreeze framesmatch cutsjump cutssplit screensDutch angles, extreme close-upstracking shots, reversed footage, stop motion animations and self-reflexive visuals (at one point it features a split-screen tracking shot; the sides have opposite Dutch angles).

Man with a Movie Camera was largely dismissed upon its initial release; the work’s quick-cut editingself-reflexivity, and emphasis on form over content were all subjects of criticism. In the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound poll, however, film critics voted it the eighth greatest film ever made,[4] and the work was later named the best documentary of all time in the same magazine.[5]

Dimitri Kirsanoff: Ménilmontant (1926)

Dimitri Kirsanoff, born in Estonia but operating mostly in Paris, was heavily influenced by the theories of Soviet Montage. In his most famous short film, Ménilmontant (1926) – still frightfully obscure in most circles – he adheres to this style strictly, almost obsessively. His preference towards a brisk editing pace carries a unique vitality that is also seen in the work of Soviet masters Eisenstein and Vertov, who pioneered and perfected the technique of montage in the mid-to-late 1920s. But, nevertheless, I don’t think it works quite as well here. The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) – perhaps the two most recognised works of Soviet montage – utilise their chosen editing style to full effect precisely because they place greater emphasis on the collective over the individual, in accordance with traditional Communist ideology. There is deliberately no emotional connection attempted nor made between the viewer and any individual movie character, for that would be contrary to the filmmaker’s intentions (interestingly, however, the montage fell out of preference from the 1930s in favour of Soviet realism).

Ménilmontant falters because it strives to create an emotional connection with the characters (particularly the younger sister, played by Nadia Sibirskaïa), but Kirsanoff’s chosen editing style continually keeps the audience at an arm’s length. The closest he comes to true pathos is with the park-bench sequence, when an old man offers some bread and meat to the famished woman, delicately avoiding eye contact to preserve her dignity. Even in this scene, the montage style intrudes. A director like Chaplin (and I’m a romantic at heart, so he’s naturally one of favourite filmmakers) would have placed the camera at a distance, framing the profiles of both the woman and the old man within the same shot, thus capturing the subtle emotions and inflections of both parties simultaneously. Kirsanoff somewhat confuses the scene, cutting sequentially between the woman, the man and the food in a manner that reduces a simple, poignant act of kindness into a technical exercise in film editing. It works adequately, of course, a precise demonstration of the Kuleshov Effect, but there’s relatively little heart in it.
But we’ll cease with my complaints hereafter. I know my own film tastes well enough to recognise that what I disliked about the film – its emotional distance, for example – represents precisely what others love about it. There’s no doubting that the photography (when it’s kept on screen long enough) is breathtakingly spectacular, making accomplished use of lighting, shadows and in-camera optical effects such as dissolves, irises and superimpositions. There are touches of the surreal. Kirsanoff cuts non-discriminately forwards in time, backwards and into his characters’ dreams, fragmenting time and reality into a series of shattered images, their individual meanings obscure until considered sequentially as in the pieces of a puzzle. Most impressive, I thought, was how several shots captured the linear perspective of roads and alleys, watching his characters gradually depart into the distance as though merely following the predetermined pathways of their future. The film ends exactly as it begins – with a bloody and unexplained murder – suggesting the inevitable cycle of human suffering, its causes unknown and forever incomprehensible.