May 4th 1953 was also the birth of a friendship that would shape western culture’s understanding of psychedelics
I’m doing an online event with Reanne Crane / Semantrix to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Aldous’ first trip on Sunday May 14. Tickets available here. Paid subscribers to my Ecstatic Integration substack get a free ticket!
Today is the 70th anniversary of the first time Aldous Huxley took psychedelics. At 11am on the 4th of May, 1953, he was given 4/10 of a gram of mescaline by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who he had invited to his house in Los Angeles for that purpose. Aldous has since become celebrated as the great prophet of psychedelics, but today I want to celebrate his friendship with Humphry Osmond, who was with him on that first trip, and took the photos of Aldous tripping, shown above.
When they met, the 35-year-old Humphry was excited and awed to meet Aldous, who at 58 was one of the most famous novelists in the world. Humphry meanwhile was a British psychiatrist working in Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan, Canada, where he experimented on his patients with LSD and mescaline as possible cures for alcoholism. He was also interested in whether psychedelics might uncover the chemical cause of psychosis, via a substance such as adrenaline. Aldous read one of his papers on mescaline and invited him to visit next time he was in LA, and to ‘bring some of the stuff’ with him for Aldous to try. Humphrey eagerly agreed, although he was worried he might go down in history as the man who sent Aldous Huxley mad. Aldous’ wife Maria was sceptical of the encounter. What if they didn’t like the young psychiatrist? ‘We could always pretend to be out’, Aldous suggested.
Luckily, Aldous had a good trip, and felt he had finally found the mystical experience he had been seeking for two decades, ever since he converted to perennialist mysticism circa 1930. He, Maria and Humphry all got on very well, and May 4th 1953 was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Aldous’ death in 1963. He and Humphry wrote hundreds of pages of letters to each other — most of them Humphry writing to Aldous — in which they discussed psychedelics and their potential role in civilization. These letters (which have been published in the excellent book Psychedelic Prophets) and this dialogue helped to shape western culture’s understanding of psychedelics — indeed, Aldous and Humphrey coined the word ‘psychedelic’.
Up to that point, psychedelics had been described as ‘hallucinogens’ or as ‘psychotomimetics’ — because scientists (including Humphrey) were primarily interested in these drugs’ ability to mimic the effects of psychosis. Aldous, however, took a much more spiritual view of the chemicals, and suggested they needed re-branding. He always had a thing for advertising jingles, and suggested “phanerothyme,” from the Greek words for “to show” and “spirit,” with the jingle: “To make this mundane world sublime, Take half a gram of phanerothyme.” Instead, Osmond suggested “psychedelic,” from the Greek words psyche (for mind or soul) and deloun (for show), and quipped, “To fathom Hell or soar angelic, take a pinch of psychedelic’. The ‘phanerothymic renaissance’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Their decade-long conversation was arguably far more wide-ranging and culturally-sophisticated than today’s psychedelic renaissance. They weren’t obsessed with psychedelics, for one thing, but saw them as one of many routes to a realm of non-ordinary or mystical experience, which can also arise spontaneously, especially in childhood. Osmond wrote:
it seems likely that the mescal world etc. is a potential realm of experience always open to us. Clearly in childhood when we know we are much more plastic the potentiality of this experience is likely to be much higher. In our culture and in most cultures to a more or less great degree adaptation to the “real” world is essential for survival. Those who take that potential path and stray any distance along it have great difficulty in getting back again.
Aldous brought a deep historical understanding to the topic of visionary experience, and argued that western civilization had marginalized and pathologized mystical experiences from the reformation to the present day, leading to a taboo around such experiences. Humphry agreed, writing:
the great industrial societies of the West do not know how to cure the sickness of the soul. Largely because they have banished mystical experience which is the gateway into otherness — even the few shreds of such experience which most of us have are unrecognized and unavailed. Raw experience cannot be classified or interpreted and frequently ends in madness. Yet these experiences, even the ghosts of them, are as necessary to us spiritually as vitamins are physically.
The two hoped that psychedelics, in opening up the ‘doors of perception’, could transform our relationship to non-ordinary states of consciousness, including states now deemed ‘psychotic’. Osmond (who by this time was head of a large psychiatric hospital) wrote:
Of course I agree that many of our “sick” people would not be “sick” if we valued their experiences, they would be explorers of the other, but…the schizophrenic person had his experiences entirely devalued. I am not sure how much certain experiences can be sustained even in the most accepting society; visions of Hell and Heaven must never be easy to endure even with the prayerful support of one’s fellows. It will be much less easy with their scornful, uncomprehending and brutal antagonism. I think we must do two things simultaneously, i) try to find some way of alleviating their experience biochemically, and ii) gather enough scientific understanding of the door into the many walls that we can appreciate and cherish mentally ill folk.
It’s interesting to look back and see how different psychedelic research was in the 1950s to today. There were some therapeutic studies of psychedelics for alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia; there were many military and CIA-funded studies of psychedelics’ potential as a weapon or truth-drug (Osmond himself did some work for MI6 and the CIA). But the principal focus of non-military research was informal experiments in Californian living rooms by the intellectual and cultural elite — people like the novelist Anais Nin, writer Gerald Heard, and the US stateswoman Clare Booth Luce. Humphry and Aldous agreed that the main focus of psychedelic research should initially be its impact on the elite. Osmond wrote that ‘the most gifted should be studied first. To study psychedelics on immature, inadequate or sick people is to lose most if not all of their great and indeed extraordinary possibilities’. He added in a later letter
Naturally as a scientist I am greatly interested in the huge variety of phenomena and the splendid possibilities for therapeutic use, not simply to heal the sick but as a prophylaxis. But I am not blind to the fact that this pursuit, though admirable, if continued unthinkingly might obstruct even higher achievement…It seems clear however that a society which could induce the higher levels of spiritual insight in say 0.01% of its population, plus some understanding and recognition of the nature of mind in many of the rest, would be very different from our hagridden, gadget bedevilled panicking world.
Their plan was to do ‘a series of recorded mescalin interviews with 50–100 really intelligent people on various professions and occupations….Einstein, Jung, Graham Greene and AJ Ayer’. Osmond thought:
If we can build up a group of gifted people who have had transcendental experiences and then get them together, I think that there is a reasonable chance that they might find some way of passing on this experience and giving some chance to those who only have vague inklings of it or the splendor and terror that exist just around the corner. So far as I know nothing like this would ever have happened in the West before — the drawing together of gifted people who have had astonishing experiences
This was very much a Modernist elitist endeavour, comparable to Gurdjieff’s gathering of ‘remarkable people’ or Herman Hesse’s league of Castalia. Alas, it came to nothing — Aldous and Humphry never raised any funding for their research proposal.
Another early focus of their research, which is almost entirely absent from today’s research landscape, was psychedelics’ effect on paranormal powers like telepathy. Osmond and Aldous took part in attempts at ‘group mescalinization’, or developing a group-mind on psychedelics. This was probably the influence of their friend Gerald Heard, who had been trying to develop that sort of telepathic group-mind for 20 years through meditation. Osmond wrote:
It must be clear that if we can develop a form of group experience independent of words, and this seems possible to Al and me, then long range telepathy between members of such a group should be possible at a later state.
Both Aldous and Humphry were friends with a renowned psychic medium — Eileen Garrett. She communicated (or claimed to) with Maria Huxley after her death, and also took part in a psychedelics and paranormal research conference which Humphrey chaired in 1959 (photos below). Eileen was godmother to his youngest daughter Fee (his son, Julian, was named after Aldous’ brother, while his dog was called Mescalina).
Humphry and Aldous thought psychedelics would transform psychiatry as much as Freud’s discovery of the unconscious. But their true potential would be bigger than that — they would be at the centre of a new religion. Osmond wrote:
What would be the effect of a religion like the Native American Church, but lacking its sectarianism? A religion of mystical participation by everyone of its members, usually in small groups (as most religions started as small groups and most of the great changes in religion have come about this way it seems most promising)…I believe we shall soon have the tools for developing a truly remarkable and beautiful society, a great social work of art. At least it will be worth trying for the Glory of God.
He’d taken part in Native American Church peyote rituals, and thought this could be a blueprint for a new religion:
I don’t know of any current religion that has a chance against the Native American Church and variations on this theme once we get over our fear of psychedelics. Conducted in small groups in the right conditions it would have a profound influence on any society. While most religions are like ill manned sailing ships this is like a modern atomic powered craft. It has far greater potentials. Naturally the older religions won’t relish it, but provided we can keep them from destroying it in the next 10–15 years there should be little they can do about it. Here I suppose is the key to the open society and the dynamic religion. I wonder whether we shall have the sense and courage to use it?
They even thought psychedelics might enhance humanity’s evolutionary potential and enable us to evolve into a new species, from homo faber to homo sapiens. Osmond wrote:
Finally we come to what seems like truly Divine rightness. Homo Faber is to become Sapiens and enter an era of dynamic religion by means of one of his own tools…A very small number of people, comparatively speaking, could change the world from one in which Homo Faber reigns insecurely, to one in which the emerging Sapiens can grow.
The ethical challenges of psychedelic work
But they also discussed the practical and ethical challenges of psychedelic work, noticing several of the challenges we’re grappling with today. Osmond wrote:
There is no doubt that this work can change the whole future of man on our planet, but we cannot tell whether it will be for better or worse at the moment. I think that we can be fairly sure that unless those who [do it] have some inkling of the possibilities it will probably be for worse.
One practical challenge were the ‘looping effects’ of psychedelics, which seemed to reflect back to users whatever intentions or cultural framework they bought to the experience. Osmond wrote:
It seems clear that if you start with predominantly psychoanalytic interests, mescalin etc. will give you plenty to think about; if you are interested in color perception ditto; if you are preoccupied with hell and its suburbs or with paradisical houris ditto. Lastly if you wish to glimpse something of the real you may be able to do so. Mescalin etc. allows one through the gateway, but it does not determine where you wander once you are through, that is for you to decide and discover. The psychologists have got to recognise that many of their psychological tests though interesting here are largely irrelevant and may distort and cramp the experience. The observer and the observations are inextricably bound together.
Some researchers noted that mystical experiences seemed much more common in psychedelic therapy sessions on the West Coast than the East Coast, and spoke of the ‘Huxley effect’ in that part of the country, ie the impact of Aldous’ Doors of Perception.
Another challenge noted by the duo was psychedelic fundamentalism, or thinking that your route to ecstatic experience is the best or only valid route. Aldous noted this tendency in Gordon Wasson, the JP Morgan banker whose article in Life magazine on Mexican mushroom rituals gave the world the phrase ‘magic mushroom’. Aldous wrote:
While I was in New York, I lunched with Wasson at his Temple of Mammon. What an odd man! So solemn and humourless! But he has put an immense amount of work into his subject, and the material brought together in his vast tomes is very curious and suggestive. However, he does, as you say, like to think that his mushrooms are somehow unique and infinitely superior to everything else. I tried to disabuse him. But he likes to feel that he had got hold of the One and Only psychedelic — accept no substitutes, none genuine unless sold with the signature of the inventor.
One can likewise assume that your method of taking psychedelics is the Only Way. Aldous wrote:
The grave danger is that people of differing temperament will assume that their particular type of experience is the only meaningful one. I believe that we can explore through each other and so develop greater tolerance, understanding and love..
The two discussed developing trip protocols. Their friend Captain Al Hubbard, an extraordinary man whose interests ranged from Catholicisim to atomic energy to the CIA, was the first modern westerner to suggest trips could be steered by a skilled facilitator. But they thought his methods — waving a photo of the Virgin Mary in front of trippers — were a little too prescriptive. Aldous wrote to Humphrey:
The specifically ritual approach may be all right in some cases, but it certainly won’t do in all cases. Moreover both Laura and I felt, while we listened to Al’s account of what he does, that he gives, knowingly or unknowingly, altogether too much suggestion
Aldous’ own suggestions for trip protocols were pretty high brow — he recommended playing Bach and feeding the tripper quotes from the mystics:
I think the best way of doing the job would be to ask a series of questions. For example, “Do you now understand what Blake meant when he said, ‘Gratitude is heaven itself’?”, “Eckhart defined God in operational terms as, ‘The denial of all denials.’ What is your feeling about this?”, “What does the word “isness” mean to you as you look at the world around you?”, “Samsara and Nirvana are one — the Absolute is present in every relative and particular event. Eternity manifests itself in every moment of time. How do you feel about these paradoxes?”
They also discussed the challenge of finding the right balance between scientific investigation of the trip experience, and maintaining a religious reverence for it. Aldous wrote to Humphrey:
God’s service is perfect freedom and, conversely, perfect freedom is God’s service — and where there is a director with a scientific or even an ethical purpose, perfect freedom cannot exist… Every experiment, I feel very strongly, should terminate or (if this should be felt to be better) should be interrupted, by a period of simple waiting, with no direction either from the outside or from within. If we don’t do this, we shall be, I feel, committing a kind of sin against the Holy Ghost.
As the first wave of psychedelic enthusiasm began to build in the late 1950s, Aldous and Humphry both expressed concern at psychedelic hype. Osmond wrote: ‘I have been a little uneasy about the publicity we are getting (and we shall get much more).’ Aldous agreed: ‘My lunatic-fringe mail is already much more copious than I like.’ They also worried about the commercialization and vulgarization of what they saw as a sacred experience. Aldous wrote to Humphry:
We met two Beverly Hills psychiatrists the other day, who specialize in lsd therapy at $100 a shot — and, really, I have seldom met people of lower sensitivity, more vulgar mind! To think of people made vulnerable by lsd being exposed to such people is profoundly disturbing
‘The trouble [replies Humphrey] is that the demand is considerable and the less able or more unscrupulous can make much money. Medicine has a long and depressing history of substandard professional work about which we have been incredibly slow about doing very much.’
In 1960, the two handed the torch of psychedelic research to Timothy Leary at Harvard University. Initially, Aldous worried Leary might be too square. But it rapidly became clear he was too wild and indiscriminate in his experiments and his evangelical promotion of psychedelics. The two often exchanged anxieties about the direction he was taking the field.
Humphry wrote: ‘Timothy Leary and his friends seem impervious to the idea that psychedelic substances may be both valuable and dangerous if misused.’ On another occasion Aldous wrote: ‘Timothy Leary has written to me as if he knew all there is to be known about these substances. Dangerously different from the uncertain man we met two years ago’. ‘ What happened to him between November 1960 and July 1963?’ wondered Humphrey.
They both felt that Leary had fallen prey to a guru or Messiah complex. ‘We can and indeed must do without Messiahs, however well intentioned’, Humphry wrote. He thought that psychedelics presented great temptation to those Dr Faustuses drawn to them for their power. He wrote to Aldous:
The really difficult thing, as I see it, is to maintain a spirit of detached enquiry into these matters and to refuse to be overwhelmed by their astounding nature or tempted by their power aspects. And when one has learnt that lesson, which isn’t either easy or permanent, to realise that even the most astonishing voyages in the other world do not necessarily widen the spiritual vision, and may even make it narrower than when one started.
When Aldous Huxley died in November 1963, Humphrey continued his psychedelic experiments with the Huxley family. The appendix to Psychedelic Prophets contains an extraordinary account of a trip with Humphry, Francis Huxley (Julian’ son, Aldous’s nephew), Matthew Huxley (Aldous’ son) and Matthew’s wife Ellen. It was a messy trip. Ellen decided at one point they were the only people in the world. Francis decided he was the transhumanist creation of HG Wells, and that the world was about to end. In the days after the trip, Francis and Ellen appear to have had an affair and moved in together — one factor which led to the breakup of her marriage to Matthew.
Today, Humphrey and Aldous’ work lives on in conspiracy theories, like the idea the diabolical elite are harvesting children to get hold of ‘adrenochrome’, or using psychedelics to control our minds. But more positively, the friendship of Aldous and Humphrey are a wonderful example of the ‘medical humanities’ and the value of dialogue between the arts and sciences. That’s perhaps what’s lacking in today’s highly-medicalized psychedelic renaissance. There’s a distinct lack of great artists involved.