ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
S. I. Hayakawa, editor
December 1965, "Special Issue on the Psychedelic Experience"
S. I. HAYAKAWA
THE PSYCHEDELIC CHAPEL
IN THE COURSE of twenty-two volumes of ETC., the present is the fifth special issue. Like our previous special issues, it is an attempt to examine a topic of current scientific or theoretical interest from the point of view of general semantics.
For some time, judging from unsolicited manuscripts coming toETC., it has been clear that there is widespread interest, both scientific and popular, in drug-induced psychedelic experiences. ETC. was fortunate in having on its Editorial Committee Dr. Robert E. Mogar, associate professor of psychology, San Francisco State College, and director of the Institute for Psychedelic Research, to serve as editor of this special issue. He read the manuscripts on hand, invited other contributions, and arranged the material. Without Dr. Mogar, there would have been no psychedelic issue, not only because of his skill in selecting and editing the varied contributions, but more importantly because his enthusiastic espousal of the project convinced me that such an issue would be of real service to our readers.
For all my gratitude to Dr. Mogar and the personal regard in which I hold the contributors to this issue, I am forced by my own convictions to introduce a discordant note. I am far from convinced of the therapeutic or "spiritual" value of the psychedelic experience. Indeed, I cannot get rid of the feeling that this issue is likely to do the world as much harm as good. In the present climate of opinion, with hallucinogens like LSD available on almost every college campus in the U.S., the glowing accounts of "consciousness-expanding" experiences resulting from their use under controlled conditions and responsible supervision are all too likely to be seized upon as justification for their uncontrolled use without medical or scientific supervision of any kind. A recent issue of the Gater, student newspaper at San Francisco State College, carries the following advertisement (December 3, 1965):
Presents: "Trip Thru The Astral Plane"
Featuring Recording Artist Ivan Ulz
Service Begins 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4, l 10 Page St.
(WHERE The Jet Set MEETS The Sin Crowd)
I shudder as I see in my mind's eye, sitting in the "chapel," the Jet Set and the Sin Crowd, "turned on" and "tripping through the Astral Plane," with the music of Recording Artist Ivan Ulz (whatever he sings or plays) crashing and reverberating through their skulls, each member with a dog-eared copy of this issue of ETC. in his pocket.
The most interesting semantic point made by contributors to this issue is that under the influence of psychedelic drugs, one is "freed" from the categories and symbolizations through which our experience is ordinarily presented to us, bundled, prepackaged, and labeled in terms of the linguistic conventions (and therefore perceptual habits) of the culture. To "transcend" these cultural imperatives is asserted to be an "expanding" of consciousness, so that one sees afresh—presumably as if one were a little child again.
But is such "transcending" necessarily beneficial? It is obviously an advantage if you have long been cursed with inappropriate "maps" of the "territory" of reality. From seeing afresh, you might start making better maps. It is an advantage, too, if you have long treated the map as if it were the territory—that is, if you are so engrossed in the world of symbolism as to have forgotten what the symbols stand for.
But what if, like a good poet or scientist, you have long been accustomed to seeing the world with "consciousness of abstracting"? What if you have used symbols properly, so that you have remained constantly aware of the realities behind the symbols—of the complex, uncategorizable, squirming "beknottedness of space-time" behind the categories? The process of abstracting, of creating classifications and making the symbols that stand for them, are the normal and necessary survival mechanisms of the human class of life. What is so wonderful about suspending this great, uniquely human process, except where the process has gone awry? As Weston La Barre said in this connection, "It is not immediately evident that an abnormal toxic functioning of an adaptive organ, the brain, is necessarily a supernormal functioning…"*
I do not doubt that dangerous substances such as LSD temporarily shake us up and cause us to "transcend" habitual ways of experiencing. But transcending of itself is not enough. What happens afterward? In what ways are perceptions of the self or the environment altered or restructured for the better? What conditions produce what changes? The contributors to this issue, I am sorry to say, touch on these questions but lightly.
The fact that symbolic processes often go awry is, of course, well known to general semanticists, who have their own prescriptions as to what to do about it. These involve, as Korzybski said, learning to experience at nonverbal levels, refraining from "bursting into speech," and maintaining "silence, within and without."** These also involve learning to establish a constant interplay between experiential and higher levels of abstraction, checking each level against those below, and all of them against the realities of the world. Disciplines such as these are not easy to master. They involve for many of us the upsetting of cherished ideas and the relinquishing of many long-ingrained automatism of thought and speech. They also involve time-time to re-experience the world, time to examine carefully both language and the world it purportedly describes, in order painfully and painstakingly to develop a better language. General semantics, like many other disciplines offering deliverance from the world of illusion and self-delusion, offers no easy path to enlightenment.
However, we live in an advertising culture. ROLAIDS offers us instant relief from indigestion. CLAIROL offers instant youth and beauty. The new MUSTANG makes instant Casanovas out of Casper Milquetoasts. Is it any wonder that there lurks in many of us a hope that a product can be found that offers instant relief from all spiritual ills—instant insight, instant satori?
The full appreciation of art or literature or music requires years of study, years of experience and exposure to master works. But under LSD, tremendous "esthetic" and "creative" experiences are said to be accessible, instantly and without effort. "You got a television set?" asked one hipster of another. "No, man," was the reply. "I just turn on and watch the wallpaper." (If the reader thinks this is a caricature of what is claimed for the psychedelic experience, let him read on!) Is there any meaningful sense in which such hallucinatory experiences can be termed "esthetic" or "creative"?
But perhaps my basic reason for distrusting the dependence on "mind-expanding" drugs is that most people haven't learned to use the senses they possess. Speaking only for myself, I not only hear music; I listen to it when it is around, so that I find Muzak and other background music, intended to be heard but not listened to, utterly intolerable. When I am, in Carl Rogers' terms, open to my experience, I find the colors of the day, whether gray and foggy and muted or bright and sunlit, such vivid experiences that I sometimes pound my steering wheel with excitement. A neon-lit supermarket is often too much for me—so terribly rich in angles and colors and dizzying perspectives that I must deliberately narrow my perceptions to the things on my grocery list lest I take forever to do the shopping. Paintings and sculptures and ceramics get me so intensely excited that I often come out of a museum higher than a kite. In short, I use my senses—at least some of them, some of the time. And I say, why disorient your beautiful senses with drugs and poisons before you have half discovered what they can do for you?
I find myself in sharp disagreement, therefore, with my friends who have contributed to this issue. They are still my dear friends despite disagreements. I hope I remain theirs.
* Weston La Barre, in a review of Utopiates: The Use and Users of LSD-25, American Anthropologist, 67 (1965), 596. Italics supplied.
** See A. Korzybski, Science and Sanity (1933; 4th ed., 1958), especially Chapter XXIX, "On Non-Aristotelian Training."