Underground Lit

The Ephemera of the San Francisco Counter-Culture

a review by Griffin Nicholson

Michael Hollingshead, The Man Who Turned On the World.
London: Blond and Briggs, 1973.

[cover of paperback edition] Perhaps of all the mass-market paperbacks devoted to the hippies, the Sixties and LSD, Michael Hollingshead's The Man Who Turned On the World occupies a unique niche. American publishing in the genre tended to be defined by exploitation and dismissiveness, though the lurid packaging occasionally clothed a serious author. This book, by a British writer and published by a U.K. firm, is noteworthy for its sincerity and seriousness - unusual by the time of its publication, 1973. It purports to be a fictionalized autobiography, a claim that is not as far-fetched as it first appears. In fact, the term is a good description of the highly specific nature of the narrator's actions and the relative absence of an identifiable protagonist behind it all - as if he were writing about someone else. And the book has so much glorious specificity: doing drugs with Huxley and Leary and stays in jail and Nepal and methamphetamine addiction and poetry readings and friendships with kings and convicts.

Coverage begins in New York, about 1960. Little background is provided - and the narrator is generally absent, except with regard to inner consciousness. Few if any emotions appear, just thoughts and experiences. Events such as marriage and losing a job are flatly described, vaguely reminiscent of Burroughs's narrator in Junkie. Also reminiscent of Junkie, it occasionally adopts a semi-confessional style, especially when dealing with the narrator's addiction to methamphetamine. But in general, Hollingshead attempts to make his journey through the Sixties as archetypal as possible.

He succeeds in no small measure because of his timing: the book covers the demise of the Beat era and the emergence and meteoric rise of the hippies, and he does an especially good job showing how open the early psychedelic culture was - he could write to Huxley, correspond with Leary, even stay at Harvard during Leary's tenure there. He also describes how the climate changed, chronicling Leary's moves from Harvard to Millbrook to jail, and claims responsibility for providing Tim with his first LSD. As a result of this vantage point, he can describe acid's transition from a salon experience to a street culture, and he offers an interesting insight on the nature of the new illicit LSD, which, as he put it, "lacked, in my opinion, that invisible non-pharmacological factor - the magical, spiritual component that was really what acid was about."

Halfway through the book, it becomes clear that things are going awry. After his arrest for methadrine, the story slows down; his reflections on prison here form an extension of his meditations on LSD: "Prison is a feeling, a subjective as well as a purely physical thing. ... It lowers by its sense of decay, its corridors of refuse, its wasteland approach to fallen humanity." From prison he travels to Norway (how does he afford this?), and from there to Nepal, following the hippie trail. Norway provides him with one of his few didactic political interludes, a chance to describe a great drunken poetry reading and the chill provided by a poet who spoke for a greater sense of First World responsibility for the U.S.-led war in Indochina.

Nepal is the setting for a grand synthesis of his adventures and an explication of what he learned during his acid transformation. Amidst stoned hippie expatriates he edits a poetry newspaper and finally just contemplates the meaning of it all: "And there one sits, day in and day out, in urn-like silence, staring wearily into the nothing - you can almost see the nothing." This, perhaps, is what informs the real strength of the book: the statement of the psychedelic seeker, a European version of the little-known psychedelic classic Tripper, told from an older perspective: "I had taken to acid and later to myths and ancient stories to seek a formula that would turn the surrounding world to dust and reveal the sought for paradise." And he offers a terse, classic summation of the challenge that psychedelics carry: "It's not a question of the validity of facts or even of a personal manifestation of the spirit, but of becoming aware in oneself of how to fashion a new and better reality."

Some readers may find his style or elements of it irritating: in general, it is extremely discursive, marked by tight writing that has to make use of too much repetition to hang together. And he can be unconvincing when he saunters through Transcendentalism, Romanticism and a slew of authors from Shakespeare to Whitman to Blake to make his points, not to mention a pantheon of Norwegian poets. But, as a first-person account of a turbulent period, it is well worth the effort necessary to locate a copy. And as an entry in a field of human inquiry so culturally and politically battered that it has largely dropped from sight as worthy of serious study, it makes a convincing case for the transformative abilities of, and the universality of the lessons contained in, what has been called by some scientists the most powerful chemical yet discovered by humanity.

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Copyright © 1996
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