Editor’s Note: Readers coming to Points for the first time may be interested in some of our other posts treating psychedelic experience. They include (but are not limited to) Religious Studies Professor Gary Laderman’s meditations on the place of LSD in the late 20th-century US; a two-part series by Comparative Literature scholar Tace Hedrick, looking at the influence of Gordon Wasson on US psychedelic culture and of psychedelics on feminist theorist Gloria Anzaldua; and some by Brian Herrera of Performance Studies. Search under the Tag “psychedelics” for a complete inventory.
LSD is one of the most mythical drugs in history. As with regard to many other drugs, our culture is almost satiated with perceptions, sentiments and opinions about the substance. Most of them have a history that can be traced back to the Sixties, that strange and almost mythical period when the most fundamental certainties of western society seemed undermined – at least to those high on acid. But more than myths and vague associations are hardly discernible when looking at present-day perceptions and sentiments around LSD in popular culture. Sixties and hippies are one set of associations often encountered; adolescent users becoming psychotic and jumping out of windows and of balconies or eating the bark of trees another. Or, on a more positive side, people envision mystical enlightenment and heightened sensual perceptions. As a mythical drug LSD can be everything to everyone, a focal point of contestations about social, political and metaphysical realities.
The recent Swiss documentary The Substance: Albert Hofmann’s LSD, directed by Martin Witz and produced by Andreas Pfaaffi, tries to reconstruct the tumultuous history of LSD from its discovery by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in the Sandoz laboratory in Basel in 1943 until the end of the Sixties. In must be said at the outset that the movie basically follows the story as outlined for instance in Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987), though adding some material from psychedelic therapy sessions in recent years and interviews with participants. [Editor’s note: an article on some of these experimental protocols appears in last Sunday’s New York Times.] To those viewers who are familiar with the story the documentary offers nothing new. What is most interesting is the documentary footage