02 May 2008

LSD Then And Now

327 Dave gives us this slightly sentimental take on the death (at age 102!) of LSD pioneer/discoverer Albert Hoffman. The hippies used to make a big deal about LSD entering the world at the same time the atom was first split, the implication being that the two events were similarly momentous, but on opposite sides of the moral and ethical spectrum.

Being as impressionable a hippie as any, I parroted this line myself for years, only to learn more recently that the atom was not first split in 1943 as per hippie dogma, nor even in 1942, as was more commonly supposed, but in 1938, putting it on a parallel timeline with Hitler's Austrian Anschluss and the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia, whereas LSD's appearance on the world stage shares equal billing with the Warsaw ghetto rising and the Russian victory at Stalingrad.

Enough with the glib and tenuous analogies, then; apparently LSD must rise or fall on its own merits, which seem to be more apparent to Dave than yours truly. It's not for lack of trying: between 1967 and 1980 I took LSD approximately a thousand times, though I'm beginning to suspect that figure of being inflated by the hippie hyperbole in which I regularly trafficked during those years. A quick calculation reveals that I would have had to drop acid almost 77 times annually to reach that total, and while I certainly managed that feat some years, particularly in the late 60s/early 70s, it's highly doubtful that I kept up the pace in the later 70s, once I'd discovered punk rock and harder drugs.

Nonetheless, my experience with LSD is substantial, not only in terms of how many times I took it, but also with regard to the size of some doses I consumed. Once the initial shock of the new drug wore off - around 1969, as I recall - I took to gobbling 10 or 20 tablets in one sitting, and my most intense trips, including my last, terrifying one on the night Darby Crash and John Lennon died, involved more like 30-5- hits.

And my conclusion, now that I've had a quarter century or so to reflect: it ain't all that. Granted, its effects are dramatic, not only on the mind of the person ingesting it, but also, as we saw in the 60s and 70s, on the larger society. Music, art, public morals, all underwent some dramatic transformations as an outgrowth of rampant acid consumption, but did LSD deliver in the area which its champions held up as its strongest suit, that of consciousness expansion and heightened spiritual awareness?

I think not. At its best, the acid trip provided a tawdry simulation or simulacrum of a true spiritual experience; at its not so best, it fueled the homicidal and megalomaniacal fantasies of the Manson family and the Weather Underground. Of course, you might justly ask, who am I to judge what is or isn't a "real" spiritual experience? Well, nobody, I guess, but considering where chemically induced "spirituality" left me, I'm inclined to stick with the natural variety.

My criticism of LSD-based spirituality is the same that I have of marijuana: both drugs can produce a sort of God-consciousness, but unfortunately the "God" in question tends to bear an uncanny resemblance to the person imagining him/her/it. Annoying but not necessarily harmful if the tripper/smoker in question is a typically befuddled hippie; potentially quite dangerous if he or she is ambitious, aggressive, or in possession of heavy weaponry.

By all accounts Albert Hoffman himself was a very nice man who had nothing but the best hopes and intentions for what he called his "problem child," but he may have been like many parents who mean well but still manage to inflict some seriously awful children on the world. Perhaps that sounds like too harsh a judgment; surely Dr. Hoffman never dreamed his accidental invention would lead to jam bands, tie-dyes, and convocations of smelly self-obsessed anarchists. And for that reason, I pass no judgment on Hoffman himself and find it pleasing and comforting to think that he enjoyed such a long and fruitful life.

But LSD itself? It's yet another modern genie that can't be put back in the bottle, but knowing what we do today, mightn't it be a good idea if it could? Even if the hippie parallel between LSD and nuclear energy proved to be spurious, would the world be better or worse off today if scientists had never discovered how to make atomic bombs? If LSD, as some of my hippie compatriots used to gleefully proclaim, is "the atomic bomb of the mind," wouldn't much the same be true?


dashap said...

From Wikipedia: "Hofmann joined the pharmaceutical-chemical department of Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis), located in Basel. He began studying the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot as part of a program to purify and synthesize active constituents for use as pharmaceuticals. While researching lysergic acid derivatives, Hofmann first synthesized LSD-25 in 1938. It was set aside for five years, until April 16, 1943, when Hofmann decided to take another look at it. "

Larry Livermore said...


Are you sure you didn't read this in the Hippiepedia?

Anonymous said...

this post brings to mind a conversation we had over hippy burritos and Extra Old Stock... it's funny that the only thing I remember about the moment, other than it happening, is a reference to Elvis Costello's "I'm Not Angry". the context eludes me...

John said...
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