As people around the world celebrate Pentecost, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a chapter in On High – this work in progress on the human quest for altitude (draft intro available here). This section reflects on the charismatic movement in the context of the other ecstatic moves that were going on in different parts of the culture of 1960s California – and introduces a key idea of the book that draws from the process in physics called sublimation – where a material moves directly from the solid state into the gaseous without going through the liquid state first.
The bigger chapter it comes from does a pretty close reading of passages in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he (in the mind of Gonzo) is reflecting back on the decade just past, and the grand hopes for LSD which now lie broken:
What is sane? Especially here in “our own country”-in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. […] This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously […] – all those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit.
What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create… a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody-or at least some force-is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel.
This is the same cruel and paradoxically benevolent bullshit has kept the Catholic Church going for so many centuries. It is also the military ethic… a blind faith in some higher and wiser “authority.” The Pope, The General, The Prime Minister… all the way up to “God.” One of the crucial moments of the Sixties came on that day when The Beatles cast their lot with the Maharishi.
Hope you enjoy the taster… drawing on LSD, Hells Angels, the Apollo missions and The Beatles it’s been enormous fun to write so far.
The ‘Pentecostal’ movement began in the US around 50 years earlier in the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival when, three days into a ten-day fast, a group of believers began ‘speaking in tongues’ and experiencing ecstatic worship and singing. Their meetings grew and grew, and the worshippers, who howled and sang and shook, became known as ‘Holy Rollers’ or ‘Holy Jumpers.’ However, it wasn’t until 1960 that this form of spirituality – which up to that point had been predominantly (though, especially initially, not exclusively) followed in working class Afro-Caribbean churches became mainstream as it ‘jumped’ over to the predominantly white, middle class Episcopal church – in exactly the same way that the predominantly black music of the blues had ‘jumped’ over (read ‘co-opted to make it acceptable in a climate of racial intolerance’) to the predominantly white rock and roll.
In Easter of that year, Dennis Bennett, pastor at the large St Marks Episcopalian Church in a suburb of Los Angeles, spoke to his congregation about the pentecostal experience that he had had. The impact of this intrusion of ecstatic experience into what was ironically called a ‘high’ church was enormous. Bennett was featured in Newsweek and Time magazine and was forced to resign. Like Timothy Leary, here was another man, a serious professional in his chosen field, who had to give up his position because of the extraordinary things he had experienced, things he refused to keep private and felt impelled to allow to spill over into his work.
What caused the uproar was Bennett’s claim to have been ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit.’ The term is interesting because of the the explicit references to the vertical that are made in both of the key moments that the concept is mentioned in the Bible. The first is during the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Matthew’s gospel tells it this way:
As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him.
From there, Jesus is led by that spirit into the desert where, during a 40 day fast, he is tempted by the devil before returning to society and beginning to preach.
The second mention is in the book of Acts, during ‘Pentecost’ – the name referring to 50 days after the Passover – during which Jesus had been crucified. Towards the beginning of the book the writer describes what is seen as the ‘inciting incident’, the ‘generative moment’ of the Christian church. This is a group of people clearly traumatised by the powerful events they had experienced. Their leader has been executed and they are in hiding, the mood of violent suppression amplified by both Roman and Jewish opposition to them on seditious-political and heretical-religious grounds respectively. They are frightened, alienated from their society, disenfranchised and impotent to effect any change. Hence, as the story in Acts opens, Jesus’ followers are meeting in secret,
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what appeared to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.
The ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ that Bennett and the early Pentecostals was referring to was almost always of this latter kind: the dramatic tongues and ecstatic speech – often following from a long period of fasting or singing – rather than the more gentle dove-like descent in the earlier story of Jesus.
Either way, what happened in California in the 1960s again was yet another form of vision experience, where a group of people had their perceptions radically changed, their flat 2 dimensional worlds interrupted by a force from the third, vertical axis.
What became known as the ‘Charismatic movement’ swept through all parts of the church. The ‘charisms’ – from which we get the word ‘charisma’ – were gifts or favours from God. Years after the events of Acts, St Paul (who wasn’t there at the time – more of which later) spent a good chapter or so writing to the church in Corinth about them, listing such diverse gifts as that of administration, interpretation, helping others – alongside more spectacular ones such as healing, miracles and ecstatic speech. Expressing some frustration at their tendency to focus attention on the gifts that had more obvious pizzazz, Paul slightly contradicts himself by telling them to ‘eagerly desire the greater gifts,’ before then spending 3 long paragraphs basically saying ‘if you have all this ecstatic speaking in tongues, but don’t act lovingly and care for each other, forget it. Love is what lasts. Love is where it’s at.’
They, just like the Californian Christians so many years later, don’t appear to listen much. To return to Aldous Huxley in paraphrase, ‘the Spirit opens up the way of Mary, but shuts the door on that of Martha. It gives access to contemplation – but to a contemplation that is incompatible with action and even with the will to action.’ The aim of these charismatic meetings was to ‘get high’, often including long periods of chanting, prayer and fasting, in cultural forms that have strong parallels with Kesey’s acid tests and transcendental meditation.
Hofmann (the chemist who first synthesised LSD) argued that LSD had emerged as a way of coping with the trauma of modern life – thus rendering people unable to rise to the challenge of actually changing it. It can be similarly argued that, in a parallel with the early church in Acts, Pentecostalism emerged in the 1920s among predominantly black, poor communities as a means of coping with the same oppression, violent suppression and political disenfranchisement, things which they had no means of effectively challenging. 30 years later the different forces of mechanisation and alienation, applied to a different strata of the population, formed the same shift among more mainstream Christians. The Charismatic movement was their counterculture, was their acid trip, was their roaring Harley Davidson.
In each of these situations though, the outcome of their ecstatic experiences was no material change whatsoever to the political or socio-economic structures that had brought the pressures to bear, pressures that had sent them rocketing up to great heights or screaming down highways at great speeds. Just as Huxley had written, and just as Thompson had experienced, their ascents to great heights did not endow them with great empathy.
In an analogy with physics, this sort of transformation is known as sublimation – when a material changes direcly from the solid state to the gaseous state without passing through the intermediate liquid phase. In physics, sublimation occurs more easily at very low pressures; in sociology, it is the precise opposite. With political change apparently beyond any hope or reach – the civil rights struggle still years from getting going – the Pentecostal churches moved directly from the solid phase of oppression and social alienation to the gaseous, ecstatic phase of spiritual liberation without passing through the intermediate phase of material change in circumstance.
This isn’t a value judgement on their lack of political courage – changes were entirely blocked to them at the time – but rather an observation that, under intense heat and pressure, they ascended directly into the sublime ecstatic, with talk of heaven and miraculous healing and divine provision, an out of body experience – while their bodies remained very much lacking socio-economic or political liberty. As Thompson notes, this was their ‘survival trip’ – and under these conditions and with the memory of slavery still fresh, survival was a radical political act in itself. When the civil rights movement did come, it is interesting to note that it came not out of this Pentecostal church, but from the far more down-to-earth Baptists, who put little by ‘holy jumping’ and babbling in tongues. When Martin Luther King ascended to the mountain-top and had his dream, it wasn’t of a future paradise above, but of genuine transformation below, of boys and girls of all races living in true liberty.
If Pentecostalism was sublimation within the oppressed black churches of the 1920s (and remains in a similarly subliminal state today, with its popularity in London skewed massively to more economically deprived areas) then LSD, biker gangs, Transcendental Meditation and the Charismatic movement were identical sublime moves within different socio-economic strata. Each hailed the high places they had reached as places of great liberty, of enhanced human consciousness and tight-bound community, but, as Hunter S Thompson showed in his bitter critique, because these were means of survival only, none of them did much for those left behind. In by-passing the liquid state, the physical forms of the structures that had caused their alienation went unchanged, leaving the masses below still suffering the same fate.
In this light, George Harrison’s comment that ‘young people are searching for a bit of peace inside themselves,’ feels darker. Experiencing a lack of peace around them in the world they live in, their solution is not political activism to attain that peace, but meditation to achieve a little peace within themselves alone. With all their flower-power and ‘give peace a chance’ singing, LSD and hippy meditations didn’t energise the peace movement, they sapped it. For Leary, LSD use and internal freedom was a civil rights issue, words that conveniently allowed him to ignore the actual civil rights that others were marching and dying for. By harping on at great length about the power they had accessed in the transcendent realm, they abdicated responsibility for using the very human power that they did have, but were too timid to use.
Thus, in these years in the 60s these ‘higher’ visionary states of religious ecstasy or LSD often tended not to enhance humanity, but diminish it, not to celebrate the physical body, but to wish it gone, done with, replaced by something higher and more perfected. The reason Hunter Thompson drills down to is that vision experience – whether by religious or pharmacological means, or, more accurately an historic socio-cultural compound of the two – tends, via this process of pressured sublimation, to lead towards a view of the world that suggests some grand higher power is in control. LSD and Billy Graham and Dennis Bennett and the Maharishi all did the same work: in turbulent, violent and fast-changing times where people were terribly anxious about the world and their place in it, they constructed a promise of some force ‘tending the light at the end of the tunnel.’ Unsurprisingly, like moths the masses were drawn blindly in their different ways towards it, caring less about those left behind as they did so, calling back only for them to turn on, tune in and unfurl their wings too.
Thompson’s beef in Fear and Loathing thus boiled down to this: Leary and Kesey had sold acid as one thing, when really it was another, just as the church and the Maharishi had pedalled religion as one thing, when really it was something else entirely. Feeling cheated and disillusioned by all these world-saving highs, he’d sent his protagonists on the most sublime bender of nihilist, godless self-destruction.
Just ‘Whatever Fucks You Up,’ whatever shorts all these circuits, rams a bar into the spokes of the circus and grounds the brain to the earth for the longest possible. That narcissistic move from student activism to student nihilism that depressed Thompson so much is what (lecturer) Mark Fisher, 50 years later, sees in the depressive hedonia of his students:
Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterised as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.
No belief in political change. No great economic hope. A life of inevitable debt and meaningless labour. So, a little pleasure inside themselves; that the extent of their vision.
© Kester Brewin 2014
Hope you have a great ‘pentecost,’ but I hope it’s not a sublime one, not an ecstatic one. I hope it brings about practical, political, wide-acting love.