Poetry and Madness at Esalen 1968

“Losing Your Mind To Come To Your Senses” – today some vintage audio from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, from the ‘Sixties (1968) – Poetry and Madness – a symposium – The panel (introduced by research psychologist Julian Silverman) consists of two psychiatrists, John W Perry and Claudio Naranjo and two counter-culture heroes, Allen and Alan Watts.

Allen’s contribution begins approximately fifty-and-a-quarter minutes in. [2022 update – the You Tube link provided originally is no longer available. However the symposium can still be listened to in its entirety here and here]

Julian Silverman: It has been said that at least certain kinds of schizophrenics and poets are in touch with the same things – except the psychotic makes a bigger pest of himself. What do you have to say about that?

AG: I would like to present some symbols for (the) goddess or the bodhisattva of compassion. It’s the sutra Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo

[Allen proceeds to recite]

Kanzeon na mu butsu
yo butsu u en
yo butsu u en bup po
kanzeon bo nen
ki nen nen fu ri shin.

[Bernie Glassmans translation: “Kanzeon! At one with the buddha/Related to all buddhas in cause and effect./And to buddha, dharma and sangha./ Joyful, pure, eternal being!/Morning mind is kanzeon/Evening mind is kanzeon/This very moment arises from Mind/This very moment is not separate from Mind”]

Following this chant (at approximately fifty-three minutes in), Allen continues with a long ecstatic poem (an early version of the concluding section of “Television Was A Baby Crawling Toward That Death Chamber”, beginning with the lines “What are you doing eccentric solitary in this Longshoreman’s Hall? a mad vagrant Creep/ Truthcloud sans identity cloud – It’s Paterson all right…” … “O Widen the Area of Consciousness! O/ set my Throne in Space”…(and concluding) ” – Telephones connect the voids island blissy darkness scattered in many mankind”.

Julian Silberman (approximately sixty-five-and-a-half minutes in) – We would like at this time to invite the audience to ask questions or make some short pointed comments that would invoke some stimulus in us. Anybody with a question, comment, something that you’d like to hear the panel talk about?

The first question relates to the mystic Gurdjieff (Questioner: Does one exist or does one.. AG: One waves one’s hand!) – Claudio Naranjo addresses the question first, followed by Alan Watts (Gurdjieff, he declares, was “a magnificent old rascal”)

(At approximately seventy-seven minutes in), Allen is asked about Subud
AG: I have very little first-hand information. I’m a member of Subud I’ve been opened and I’ve been at latihans but after having spent three weeks or so outside the door in order to get my Subud card and attending first latihans I didn’t return (back) due to the pressure of other business and, so I don’t know what went on after that..

John Perry next addresses the issue of chronic schizophrenia.

(At approximately eighty-eight minutes in), Allen is asked about Scientology – AG: I have no direct experience of it except through (William) Burroughs who has experience.. William Burroughs in London, who was involved in it for the last six or seven years, first theoretically, and now, apparently, involved directly with the.. whatever organization there is in London. He’s written a very intelligent pamphlet on it which I think the Scientology groups are circulating. The basic theory is that if you will get up and repeat, sit down and repeat, over and over again, the images to which you are attached, through repeating them several dozen times, and having them played back and fed back to you, a feedback is set up which, after a while, eliminates the obsessive affect connected with the imagery, so that, after a while, you begin to look at it objectively, or without compulsive affect, or without hysterical affect. Burroughs, at the moment, swears by it as a method of clarifying sensory consciousness, and so I think (that) the way he’s using it, or the way he’s interpreting it, or, perhaps, the way it’s actually (currently) being practiced in England, it may be a very useful mechanism.

Alan Watts: It was announced in the San Francisco Chronicle today that two American students of Scientology were not allowed to enter Great Britain by the immigration authorities.
AG: Well, probably, they didn’t have enough… They probably didn’t display enough affect in relation to the off(icers).. (to) the uniforms they wore, the images of the uniforms, or the flags they were confronted with.

Question (from the audience) – Has anybody actually ever proven that reality exists? – Watts responds and delights the crowd with a nonsense rhyme –

Coming, at approximately ninety minutes in, Allen makes a clear, bold, statement.

AG: Yeah, there’s a funny kind of confusion here. It’s as if most of the panelists were talking to an audience of solid citizenry, believing psychiatrists, instead of, what I presume it is, a number of people who consider themselves schizophrenic, psychotic – but viably so! – So how many here actually consider yourselves viably psychotic? Will you raise your hands? – or have had psychotic experiences, or in present state?!  And how many consider themselves, like, completely normally sane and, like, not to be categorized? Is there anybody that..  yeah, what I mean is that the tone or affect of most of the addresses here have been as if it were not recognized that we are all in (a?) conspiracy together to manifest the experiences that we have had as being more real than that which is taken to be sanity by the official sane makers – and I think that one problem with Doctor Perry’s address was that he was still referring to the deplorable conditions that we are all suffering as if  we were… sympathetically, but still hiding hislight in a bushel.

(At approximately ninety-two-and-a-quarter minutes in) (from the audience) – I’d like to ask Mr Ginsberg about the…possibly the  difference between re-educating old ideas and assassinating them.. (the microphone then starts humming – Allen: Say “aum” (and) it’ll stop..it cuts feedback sometimes) – Questioner: I’d also like to ask about methadrine  [metamphetamine]…

AG: The question [clarifying for the audience] was the difference between assassinating ideas and..? re-educating.. also the dangers of methadrine – “Speed Kills” – That was (just) one weekend of methadrine. I’m almost sorry to have the word (methadrine) in the poem (“Television was a Baby…”)  lest it lead tender and immature bodies to go to terrible consequences, because I think that methadrine is a serious plague on consciousness at the moment, or on bodies at the moment, so it’s a big bring-down, as it’s used continually. Yes, obviously, it’s a big drag. As for re-education versus assassination, in terms of the old idea of  Yahweh, what I’m finding, as with this particular incident (taking methadrine for a weekend), that the methadrine (combined with some heroin, combined with some psilocybin actually  – not just methadrine), plus some benzadrine pill(s) (and) several days writing continuously, what I find myself doing is, going into situations, (either catalyzed by drugs, or without drugs), in which there is a more radiant consciousness, a flip-out, or a psychotic experience, or, as Greta Bibring, who’s an old Freudian would.. described it as a disintegration of  the ego and descent into the id, but I always find that I wind up re-integrating. or returning to normal, as this specimen poem did, slightly altered, so that I find that the best upaya (sic), or most skillful means for dealing with the unconscious is to go take a bath in it, distrust all conclusions, come back with whatever is useable, and not insist on anything. So that would eliminate Sirhan Sirhan‘s assassination style.

Questioner : I missed that. I don’t understand. First, I don’t understand if you said “re-integrating” or “reiterating”..
AG: Re-“integrating”.
Questioner: Was it “i-d” or “i-t ?
Questioner: Re..? i-t?
AG: She said.. oh, she, being, a sweet old lady, who was analyzed by Freud…
Questioner: I thought it was a pun on “id”, but it wasn’t right?
AG: No. I wasn’t thinking of..
Questioner; Well, right at that point I’m thinking..I didn’t understand from there on.
AG: Understand what?
Questioner: Except for the baths. I understood something about a bath, but..
AG: I haven’t bathed in days. I’m at a loss…
Questioner: I didn’t undertand that, either.
AG: I haven’t taken acid for a year. I’m at a loss.
Questioner: Well?

At approximately ninety-seven minutes in, Allen continues.

AG: You had a question yes?

Questioner: Yes, some of you have touched on poetry and music as expressions of altered states of consciousness. and, like, the reverse, maybe you know?. I can use dance, chant, playing music as ways to alter my consciousness but I don’t know except by listening to Allen recite ways of using poetry to change the way that I’m experiencing the world.Maybe you have ways of using poetry or language that put you through changes, and whether you want to answer that by describing what you do or doing it, I don’t care, but what sort of things do you know about (and) what have you done?

AG: I’ll give a short (answer).. The classical thing is that John Stuart Mill said, that in the.. after a period of great depression, after he’d read (William) Wordsworth ..but during a reading of Wordsworth, he suddenly had a very fantastic experience by the ocean and began a new life, incipit vita nova for him, as a result of language. I had a similar experience with (William) Blake, (George Barker also reported a similar experience with various poems of Blake). A lot of people report that from my poetry, oddly, from Arkansas ..er..no, it’s an old experience that, apparently, certain linkings of  sounds, plus, concomitantly, possibly, the breathing necessary for pronunciation of those sounds, plus the concomitant associational electrical discharges in the brain, can, apparently, catalyze  an altered metabolism and an alteration of consciousness, through little poem(s),..little lyrics, short (as Blake’s “(The) Sick Rose” or(Ah!) Sunflower”), or longer, through long shamanistic chant-type poems, such as Dylan Thomas, or Hart Crane’s “Atlantis”, or say, specifically, (Percy Bysshe) Shelley, if one were to pronounce the “Ode To the West Wind”, paying careful attention to where the commas fell, where the breath-stops fell,  and pronounced the lines as they came out, not stopping until there was a comma, or a definite breath-stop, you’’ll find that your breathing is altered, and your consciousness is altered, so there’s a secret machine, a physiological machine, involved in poetry that comes in ( like, unless you’re aware of it, it’s secret).

John Perry is asked about the distinctions between LSD and schizophrenia, Claudio Naranjo addresses this also.

There follows another slightly bizarre interchange
Questioner: I’d like to ask a question about the American flag there [points to the American flag] and people coming here and speaking under the American flag..that’s murdering people generally right and left, and people coming here to contribute one, two, and three, these three-dollar war bonds that (the) United States army puts out, only to support this effort, and I wonder why individuals of this sort would consider people who might have made communication with people from other planets (not myself, but the possibility that they might), to consider these individuals psychotic, when the very individuals themselves are contributing, either through these war bonds with George Washington‘s picture on them, or something similar, to what might be a, possibly a, psychotic episode
AG: May I address myself to that.  I think that..the question again is.. the word is upaya, skillful means. This convocation, as far as I understand, was conjured up in order to validate the rightness of insanity and that insanity was actually sanity, and so..to show that it was really more true than the thinner consciousness of everyday life, so it was considered skillful means to wrap ourselves in the flag in order to propose insanity to the nation. That was all. So that people wouldn’t get scared. So they’d think it was patriotic so therefore it’d be okay. It’s done under the auspicies of a tax-exempt foundation so no money of the evening is going to pay the government for the war. So I don’t think there’s any actual problem
Questioner persists:
But what’s the difference of the basic essence of.. I mean, what’s the difference between a twenty-dollar bill and a (tacitly supportive of the war) war bond?
AG: Oh, you’re calling money itself into question, not merely the flag
Questioner: Well, I was thinking of it, I don’t know if I was all by myself..
AG: Well, that I don’t know. I’m not getting any money for this. So you’ll have to ask the Esalen Big Sur people
Questioner: Oh, I’m asking a question, not for my money back.

The debate continues – Audience Member: Well, Marshall McLuhan said that the.. something like “the natural condition of man is schizophrenic” – well, what if it is?
John Perry:  “I have to take my light out from under that bushel you were talking about Allen. No, I object to that. I don’t remember him [McLuhan] saying that, frankly, it’s not the natural condition..” – Alan Watts: “The word “schizophrenia”, as a matter of fact is one of the most ill-defined terms in psychiatry..” –  Watts quotes Shakespeare (from “The Tempest“) – “so it was all nonsense, but how beautiful!”

Audience Member asks about “induced psychotic experience” – John Perry: “We’re talking about a disorder of mind which is not something we want to induce..” – Allen chimes in: ”
And the tendency of the conversation was toward the fact that it was not necessarily a dis-order but another order..” – Watts: “The most common psychotic experience is falling in love”..”All inspired vision of poetry, of drama, of dancing and of music is a certain kind of madness, but there is madness and madness, just as there is a difference between nonsense and bunk”..
A question is addressed to Claudio Naranjo about “the shaman” (“the archetype of the modern day psychotic?”)
A question is address to Alan Watts – “How do you do it?” – Watts: “That’s the wrong question”
Claudio Naranjo is asked (re the relationship between the artist and the schizophrenic)  “Why is the artist coping and the schizophrenic not? What makes the difference?” – Naranjo quotes R.D.Laing’s double-edged formulation –  “there is nothing to be afraid of” (illusory fear)

“So how can the artist help the psychotic deal with this reality?” – Allen comes in here (at approximately one-hundred-and-thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in)

AG: The obvious way would be for artists to conspire to redefine reality, to manifest an expanded sense of reality, in such a way that it is socially communicable, in such a way that it can be articulated also in social forms, so that everybody can agree on it, so that, actually, people who are having expansions of consciousness, which are defined socially as psychotic, or sick, or wrong, or mis-interpretations, can find a place in a slightly looser sense of reality – or through.. like, the general hipness to the fact that reality is a matter of interpretation and a matter of admission of  consciousness, or interpretation of phenomena, rather than the way things “actually” are. Once a psychotic understands that his insight is real, then it’s just a matter of manifesting it, and focus, rather than pushing and insisting by violence on his insight..but of using proper upaya [sic] for articulating his awareness, like.. he thinks he’s God, say? – well, of course he’s God!..(but) to go around and.. or, I thought I was God, so I ran around Columbia University telling Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling that I was God, in such a way that they got frightened, ’cause I was telling them that in such a way that it made it sound like they weren’t!  I didn’t define it in such a way, or articulate it in such a way as that included them in, in a way that didn’t threaten their sense of their own being. (Well, like, (to) push the boundaries of definition back for the society at large, or for those who can be tuned in, and create a larger and larger populace of communion, or communication, within a larger consciousness . So in other words, the helpfulness of their artistic manifestation is that people who think that they are lonely nuts can realize that they’re not alone, and that, actually, as (Antonin) Artaud said, the official society is a giant conspiracy to suppress the awareness that we’re all aware of, and which is called “the unconscious”, to the extent that people are put into a hypnotic sleep-state, so that they won’t be aware of what we are actually aware of.

The artist, John Perry suggests,  seeks out..  –  AG: “That might not be such a good idea, that might be a big compromise. You know, it might be that, from another point of view, it might be  someone who doesn’t try to mediate between the different forms of language consciousness of the artist is mediating between different forms – image- or language- consciousness – and playing.. like walking a fence and playing both sides (as I am, obviously, when I read that poem). It might be that someone who is not attempting to compromise the insight is socially more valid in the long run, (at least in this stage of our society)

John Perry: But, I think the primary problem with the definition of psychosis is that.. (Henry Stack) Sullivan talks about the attempt  to cope at what is essentially a failure at being human, a failure at being anything  that one could respect being, and this is the thing that many clinicians have noted about the man in the throes of madness, in which he’s engulfed, thrown into this space, and has not the wherewithal to deal with whatever he’s swamped in, whereas the artist really is capable of..

AG: Yeah and what I’m saying is (that) what we’re dealing with is the fact that we’re not really human, I mean that’s just an arbitrary definition, you know, like a proposition.. I don’t think anybody here [Allen looks out at the audience] accepts that really seriously – Are you human?

John Perry:  Well one thing that I have to hold on to is my self-esteem. It seems to be that in psychosis, I have none, and whatever that..
AG: We’re all too fucked up to have any of that left, I think.
John Perry [to Allen]: But.. you’ve got enough for about three people, you know.
AG: Not by..not by that kind of….trick, no.
John Perry: Besides all, besides everything we’ve said tonight..
AG: You know, I’m finally objecting to the use of the…
John Perry: Sure..
AG: ..categories that the panel’s proposed.. to the pejorative use of the language, to begin with, in terms of the language – “schizophrenia”,”psychosis”. It seems to me obvious to everybody, almost everybody here, that the psychotic.. what is called the psychotic experience, is a large-scale experience of cosmic consciousness, that its interpretation socially, sometimes gets fucked up, (either from one side or the other, either the receiver or the sender), that it’s a language difficulty, that it’s impatience that gets involved, but, basically, it must be understood that what has been called all along “madness” or “psychotic experience” is an experience of the great planetary consciousness, which is like common, so common among us today, that it is ridiculous to talk .. in the old psychiatric terms, this is what Laing has been saying all along, this is what all of us, sort of basically agree on, but I don’t see why we’re still hanging on to that ..dualistic..
John Perry; I think when Sullivan is speaking of human-ness, maybe, in this context, we can speak of passionate-ness better… the artist lives a passionate life…
AG: I don’t think that there’s much difference. There’s the question of like..there’s like hundreds of cats on Haight Ashbury, incapable of  articulating socially what I’m articulating, who have a very clear, definite, passionate, very deep experience of anything I’ve experienced, or anything we’ve experienced. The society has not yet changed enough to accommodate their lifestyle and their consciousness. I think that the society will have to, in as much a.. the closed, limited, consciousness  in which the society is run is, obviously, self-destructive, I mean, is destroying the whole organism. The enormous eruption of what are called psychotic or schizophrenic experiences is caused by that cracking down, break(ing) down of the structure under its own weight. I think a passionate life (that was just defined) is lived by an enormous number of people. There need not necessarily be an articulation of it in artistic form, at this point, historically. I feel sort of like a hang-over..like Alan Watts! mediating to the squares, mediating to the so-called “sane” people.
John Perry: Well, the ability to communicate that is a gift, it’s a special talent for some people, but I think the “cats” you’re speaking of are living at least in that impassioned kind of world, maybe (and that isn’t the same as the schizophrenic state then – or the pre- schizophrenic state..
AG: Well, I don’t know, (the) schizophrenics I’ve known… [laughter] – “that’s the next symposium”] have been more impassioned than you or I, I think, in a deep, in deeper states of passion than we’re displaying now!
John Perry: But as a result of getting in touch with it through their…
AG: …even gibbering down the street, bopping away, screaming at the police, even, even the most ratty-looking flower-children on Haight Ashbury are in, like, a funny kind of excited contact with their immediate environment that we’re not, that we haven’t displayed toward the audience even.
John Perry: But I think, for me now, the problem is, how do I integrate what the value of psychotic experience is in such a way that I can make significant changes in the establishment’s way of regarding madness, altered states of consciousness. And I think to polarize it in such a way that there’s no distinctions to be made prohibits me from doing anything as a scientist working in the field. And I can accept all the things you say, but then I don’t know what to work with.
AG: Well, belief in the ultimate value of the.. belief in one’s own senses, in one’s own super-saturated senses, or one’s own unconscious senses. Real self-confidence winds up giving a demenour which is reassuring in the exercise of madness rather than dismaying. In other words, just go through your madness more cheerfully –  and one of the problems of the psychiatric terminology is that it’s not a cheerful enough approach to madness, I think.

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