BY HENRIK DAHL
In late 2012, music writer and avid record collector Patrick Lundborg returned with a follow-up to his acclaimed book Acid Archives. This time, though, the focus was not exclusively on psychedelic music, but rather psychedelic culture in a general, all encompassing sense. In Psychedelia: An Ancient Culture, A Modern Way of Life, the Swedish DIY scholar takes on the exhausting task of summarizing and discussing the past, present and future of all things psychedelic.
At more than 500 pages, Psychedelia is a bit of a tome, and together with the fact that it’s set in a small font size, makes it a somewhat heavy reading experience. However, this problem is counterbalanced by the book’s consistently interesting content, which is based on no less than 20 years of research; Lundborg (born 1967) is clearly well-informed and well-versed in all aspects of the subject.
In Psychedelia, the story of psychedelic culture is meticulously told, as Lundborg moves slowly and with great detail through the ages. The book is divided into two parts, where the first one – An Ancient Culture – mainly deals with events that took place before 1963. Lundborg takes us back to the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece, which he describes as “ground zero” for Western psychedelic culture. He then proceeds through history, discussing a wide range of people and events. Some of these are not usually associated with psychedelia per se, such as William Shakespeare and the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, although, needless to say, expected characters like Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs are also discussed.
In the fifties, psychedelic drugs were brought into the field of psychology, and several conferences on LSD were organised in the USA. Clearly, high hopes were held for the drug. In a letter to a friend, American psychologist Betty Eisner described one of her experiences on LSD as “the equivalent of four years of analysis in six hours” (Lundborg 157). But Lundborg is critical of the way psychedelics merged with psychology:
Despite a relationship that has lasted for over half a century, Psychedelia and the field of psychology have done little good for one another (Lundborg 150).
When it comes to philosophy, Lundborg speaks warmly of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, as well as the British philosopher Alan Watts and his emphasis on the importance of play. It is also evident that Lundborg is influenced by the work of Terence McKenna, who is favourably quoted or referred to many times throughout the book. For instance, McKenna’s influence is apparent when Lundborg brings up the notion of using a trip guide. Just as McKenna once dismissed the idea when it was brought up during a lecture in the eighties, Lundborg is firmly set against using a guide:
The reason is obvious; unless the purpose is purely psychotherapeutic, the guide will simply interfere and project limitations upon the experience (Lundborg 166).
Part two – A Modern Way of Life – covers the sixties counterculture and what took place in the following decades up to our present time. All the familiar names get a mention. If you’re reading this review, you’re most likely well acquainted with most of them, and there is no need to get into them here. Some of the lesser known figures are also discussed, and make for some very interesting stories, such as the one about the Lyman Family, described by the author as “the most notable dark acid cult of the pre-Manson era” (Lundborg 279). The Boston based group was founded by a clean cut, conservative looking folk musician named Mel Lyman. Lyman was a megalomaniac who, among other things, claimed to be Jesus Christ. He was also heavily into LSD, and according to San Francisco Oracle co-editor Michael Bowen, Lyman was using the drug in an attempt to reprogram people.
Also discussed in part two is the pioneering psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators, and especially the writing of lyricist Tommy Hall. The analysis covers no less than eight pages, and unless one is a huge fan of the band, this section might be a little hard to digest. In that regard, the analysis would probably have worked better as bonus material on Lundborg’s web page Lysergia.com, which incidentally is a great resource on its own.
The sixties and the following decades saw a plethora of cultural developments, many of which were a result of the use of psychedelics or psychedelic culture in general. In Psychedelia, the author presents some of the most significant, such as the books by Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, the science fiction movies 2001 and Altered States, the visionary art of Mati Klarwein and Alex Grey, and of course the rise of electronic dance music. Given the huge number of authors, artists, scientists and other luminaries that are mentioned, Psychedelia makes for excellent reference literature. Sadly, the book doesn’t have an index, or, for that matter, a bibliography. As for the lack of an index, a near complete version is available at Lundborg’s web page. Hopefully, possible future editions of the book will contain both an index and a bibliography.
No contemporary book on psychedelic culture would be complete without looking into the surge of interest in ayahuasca in recent years, and in Psychedelia there is a whole chapter devoted to the plant drug. As Lundborg points out, the assimilation of ayahuasca into western pyschedelic culture has been rapid. The author is critical of the way the shamanic brew has become popular in the Western world, where therapy sessions are sold for $500 to rich Manhattanites. Not to mention, using Lundborg’s own words, “the embarrassing spectacle of ayahuasca tourism in Peru” (Lundborg 454).
Some of the content in Psychedelia may seem like old news, especially for someone born in, say, the seventies, and who has already acquired his or her fair share of psychedelic music, art and literature. Still, the wide scope of characters and phenomena presented in the book create a deeper understanding of how complex and multifaceted psychedelic culture really is. All in all, Psychedelia is an impressive and highly enjoyable contribution to the expanding field of psychedelic literature.
By Henrik Dahl
This article was originally published on PsypressUK.com in February 2013.
Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.
Note: Patrick Lundborg died unexpectedly in 2014 at age 47.
Featured image: Sinfonia Shamanica (detail) by Peruvian visionary artist Anderson Debernardi.