–“In the room, the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” – T.S. Eliot, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
Jack had blue eyes and straight, light brown hair. The hair was swept back from the front straight and thick in a widow’s peak-like Robert Taylor in the 1940s or the star of Hawaii Five-O. His slightly stooped shoulders from long hours of the study expressed not merely a nerdy weakness, but a dogged determination. He had thick, powerful arms and a bulky, hairy chest suggesting almost primeval strength. His penetrating gaze was at once concerned, forgiving, and yearning for something that no other pair of eyes could hope to satisfy. His posture suggested commitment and steadfastness, yet a certain recklessness that would intimidate those averse to risks.
The search for real Reality began for Jack in the academic sub-culture. The only alternative he could see to that world of footnotes and deeply analytic arguments were the alternate lifestyles of those looking for visionary experiences in the drug culture or in Far Eastern mysticism. Sometimes the world of art seemed to beckon to him as if saying, “Come to the world where beauty is Queen. Let the artistic vision which uniquely integrates individual, subjective perception with depictions of reality via the visual imagination be your path to Truth.”
Jack sensed the limitations of philosophy in the academic world, yet academic philosophy seemed to go to the furthest regions of Western intellectuality. What could be more advanced in the understanding of meaning – both epistemic and metaphysical – than Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Locke, Nietzsche, or Sartre? His own intellectuality seemed to offer him a glimpse of a higher reality like that of Plato or, later, Plotinus; but at other times, the intellectual realm seemed to allow him to glimpse distant points outside his own mind as though looking through a glass ceiling. At the same time, denied full-bodied, personal access to those points by the glass itself, he seemed imprisoned by his own mind.
Was the “glass” above merely his ego as Timothy Leary had suggested, an ego that needed to be dissolved by LSD in order to become truly free both as an intellect and as a person? Or was the “glass” above merely the sense of an overly structured and rigid world brought on by having had too dogmatic and scientific an education? Was his rationality, so-called, the “glass” which both enabled and hampered his vision. Did he need a Van Gogh epiphany where vivid, sharply outlined, and colorful impressions of the world replaced his own analytic, knife-like observations?
One day late in the afternoon during the pleasant moist month of April, when Jack was still a graduate student, his friend Bill Whitaker motioned to him from his adjoining yard. He lifted his right hand towards the sky. Looking up, Jack saw a lovely rainbow arching across the clear blue panorama. It radiated celestial joy. Archetypal echoes resonated in his soul as they both sensed the covenantal peace at the end of the flood when Noah disembarked. No longer would Almighty God destroy the world by water. He promised. The rainbow was His sign, His pledge outwardly noted.
Yet, a flood of emotions destroyed Jack’s concentration and sense of mental balance when Marlo, the following week, told him she had become a prostitute. They had met for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie after two years of not having seen each other. “Are you shocked?” she asked. “Shocked” was too close to “offended,” and Jack did not want to be rejecting. “Yes,” she continued, “the men who are my customers treat me much better than the regular men I slept with before I was a prostitute.” Jack pretended detached interest, but he was flooded by anxious and confused emotions. He remembered looking at the rainbow with Bill. The errant question, “Where is my rainbow now?” ran through his mind. Jack needed a sign that the flood of confusion was over, but it had just begun. He wanted to flee the diner and put distance between himself and Marlo.
It occurred to Jack that Marlo had a son and a daughter. Where were they while she consummated her “business?” But he was too flooded (with emotion? a cosmic vibration?) to ask. He needed a stable something to focus upon to steady his nerves. He tried to think about the floral design of the cup holding his coffee, and about the swirls of the jelly roll that was on the four-inch plate next to the coffee. Was this Marlo? Gifted beautiful Marlo? Just visiting her apartment had been an uplifting experience. Plants were everywhere. Vegetation…green vegetation…. made him feel safe… in touch with nature even in the midst of Cambridge.
Tapestries hung from the walls of Marlo’s apartment. It was a special type of hippie pad…more psychoanalytic than psychedelic. It touched the unconscious centers of repressed needs unmet, and of hidden desires to break free. Without any drugs, it was an intoxicating environment. Beautiful Marlo, with her sensual body and captivating smile, combined with the green mini-forest she had developed and watered that made her apartment seem like an erotic Garden of Eden to Jack. Now, she had turned that paradise into a place of business, a place where lust was monetized, and spontaneity and love were rejected.
It was a time when LSD was coming into vogue. Alpert and Leary had made their pitch to both the street people and the avant-garde. They had been fired from Harvard in an updated version of the Socratic scenario where that old Greek sage was charged with corrupting the youth of Athens. Tim Leary and Rich Alpert were similarly charged, but not made to drink hemlock. They were severed from their positions. This was a form of neutralization. What can you do, where can you go, where your reputation as a learned, somebody type of person is more validated than at Harvard University? The message of the University was clear: you made it to the pinnacle; now you are relegated to just being…pinheads.
Jeannette, a Ph.D. candidate in government, had invited Jack to join her and about 20 others at Rich Alpert’s apartment. The invitation was not to participate in a poetry reading or in a book discussion group. No. Rich was sharing a secret he had learned about a breakthrough in consciousness. By dropping acid one could divest oneself of one’s ego and one’s superego. The ego was the personality or essence of who we were in terms of its configuration. The superego was the tapestry of all those rules of the society we had internalized since childhood, from brushing our teeth every day to turning our student papers in on time. There must be a world beyond ourselves and beyond the social constraints which we had internalized in part and accepted, in part, “outside” ourselves.
What were the purpose of the ego and the superego? According to Rich (and to Jeannette who taught in the office next to Jack’s), the purpose of these mental structures was to filter out the real reality, to cut us off from the essence of the Essence. The ego and the superego barred us from the deepest levels of experiencing the universe and with it consciousness at its highest level. LSD was the key that opened the door to this new and refreshing perception, the perception of a freed consciousness.
Yet, Kenny O’Brien, an ex-Catholic who hung around the same Brattle St. coffee shops as Jack, had hoped to “see” this new Reality even as he gradually lost his eyesight to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. With a special intervention by a fellow Irish-Catholic, Sen. John F. Kennedy, Kenny had been able to travel to the USSR for a special treatment that had been developed there, but nowhere else. Yet, sadly, it did not produce the hoped-for results. His sight continued deteriorating. It seemed that his sex life faced a parallel decline. He tried LSD…again and again. After 75 trips where he encountered what he believed was the real reality, he went berserk and had to be strait-jacketed by city workers.
They took him to detox at Massachusetts General Hospital where he spent 45 days. After throwing up dozens of times, and not putting any more of the drug into his system, he was released. “I guess the LSD didn’t agree with you Ken,” Jack commented on one occasion. Ken just chuckled and chuckled at a depth and for a length of time out of proportion to Jack’s comment. It seemed to Jack that the pain he had evoked with his casual comment was overpowering for Kenny. The “chuckles” were an attempt to overcome the pain occasioned by remembering his collapse.
Rich Alpert also collapsed. When he “returned” to the mundane world of everyday sensations after his trips on LSD, he would become depressed. His ego was no longer full of the stunning pride and confidence that is the hallmark of the Harvard professors and graduate students. Rather, he felt himself to be a shadow of his old self, dreaming dark thoughts, no longer thinking of books to write or classes to be taught, but instead morbidly reflecting on the sense of failed relationships he felt within his family and in his life. He had been fired from Harvard!! It was a bitter cup to swallow.
In fact, he fled to India in search of something, a more real Reality than the supposed real reality of the LSD trips. In that alternative universe (a culture so different from Cambridge and his privileged, affluent life growing up) he hoped to find something that would restore him to a deeper level of insight than his mere ego and superego or the “high” provided by LSD. He sought in Indian mysticism a truer non-ego-bound reality than that provided by LSD in Cambridge, Mass.
Marlo also left the life of being a divorcee and mother seeking a new dimension of experience and a way off the welfare rolls that paid better than minimum wage. She had graduated from Brandeis University, but for a hippie princess, returning to the normal, routine world of work seemed a real come down. For her, her reefers were part of her lifestyle. She could no longer work a 9-5, dress up for the office, meet deadlines, talk with deference to the boss, or eat food not certified to be organic.
“Organic” was a keyword in her vocabulary. Organic was physical, healthy, down-to-earth, believable, accessible, and good for one’s glands alternative lifestyle. Just as sex would restore the emotions and the mind, organic would restore the body. Just as Rich Alpert, like Jack, wanted the real reality of consciousness, Marlo wanted the real Life, not the pseudo-life of bourgeois, routine, self-satisfied, humdrum America. Our lifestyles needed to depart from the bourgeois routines. She kept insisting that Moses had ratified her dreams: Didn’t the Ten Commandments say “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Values?” Yes, she would and did honor her mother and her father. The best way to do that she often said “was to reach a satisfying balance of the organic and the orgasmic.”
Jack never met Rich Alpert while he was at Harvard. “I wanted to meet him for years, but guess it wasn’t meant to be,” he told his best friend Fred. Fred Borderman was a religious Jew who was getting his Ph.D. in American History. He wanted to satisfy himself that America’s conservatives were really fascist pigs wearing an American disguise. But the more he studied, the less true his hypothesis seemed to him. In subdued tones, he told Jack one day that he was becoming convinced that Woodrow Wilson, one of the progressive fathers of modern liberalism, was himself a statist and fascist. He had enlarged government, and it, under the guise of regulation, had forged a connection between corporations and government that was syndicalist at its core.
The government under Wilson had basically taken over the railroads of the U.S.A., enlarging on the incessant cries for “regulation” that had started in the 1880s and led to the creation of the I.C.C. His regulation of the railroads was, like fascist syndicalism, socialism where there was merely a veneer of private ownership. So intense was the regulation that it veered off into the domain of control. Socialism would require federal ownership of the railroads, yet syndicalism maintained control without having to manage the day-to-day operations.
Fred had curly brown hair and was only 5’4” tall. He spoke fast and with animation like an announcer calling a horse race. There was a breathless exciting quality about Fred which, throughout his life, would prove to be appealing to students. When he spoke, it was as though the panorama of history were all too wonderful and could not be contained by a mere lecture or discussion session.
While Fred and Jack were enjoying their friendship, Richard Alpert came back from India a changed man. At 13 he may have declared at his bar mitzvah, “Today I am a man,” but when he returned from India, he declared “Today I am a guru.” He rejected his American and Jewish identification and assumed the name, Baba Ram Das. He came out with his first bestseller Be Here Now. In India, melancholy to the Nth degree, and withdrawing from his many trips on LSD, he met his guru, a man who told him what he had been thinking while he was sitting under a tree prior to meeting the guru. He joined the ashram of true believers and studied with the yogi for a long time. There he meditated and came in touch with his true Inner Self, his real reality.
“Is Ram Das’ ‘true self’ the same as what Emerson and Annie Besant called the Oversoul?” Jack asked Fred. “Or is it Nirvana?” He threw out that question as an afterthought. “Oversoul, schmoversoul,” Fred replied. “It’s all bogus, hogwash. There is only the soul, no oversoul, and no ‘true self’ – our moral behavior is determinative as we stand before God. If we follow the Commandments, then HaShem, Blessed Be His Name, will bless us. This idea of the ‘inner’ as being true is way too subjective. There isn’t enough room for personal responsibility in a world where there are real evils to be fought and where the right must daily confront the wrong in ourselves and in our environment.”
“But,” Jack replied, “we all have feelings, attitudes, desires, fears, jealousies, doubts, thoughts, confusions, and these do not always manifest as behavior, but often seem to have a life of their own. They become the stuff of psychology or of literature. Poems, stories, novels, plays, are about these hidden realms of the human personality. So, is it not possible that the ‘oversoul’ that Ram Das is writing about is really the source or essence behind all those other intangibles that the rest of us acknowledge as real even if they are not ‘behavioral’?”
“No,” Fred replied, “behavior is the measure of all these ‘inner states’. We only know about what the inner life of a person is by how he lives, not by how he meditates or how he describes his feelings. And the measure of the worth of a life lived is Torah…. Yes, that’s right. Don’t just brush me off. Hear me out. Are we living a life according to the rules HaShem has laid down for man for all eternity or is each going off the path, as in the book of Joshua, following his or her own way?
“The path of righteousness, the path of the tzaddikim, the righteous ones, is the path of life that God has laid out for all of us. So, if you meditate all day and write books, but you don’t honor your mother and your father, if you claim to have found the realReality that is inward or inward-and-above like Plotinus, but you covet another’s possession or you worship the oversoul rather than the Creator of the Universe – thus breaking the First Commandment – then you automatically have disqualified yourself from participating truly in the Truth.”
Fred’s view was a far cry from that of Jack’s atheist friend, Caleb Katz. Caleb, who was studying for a Ph.D. in European History at Boston University, found philosophy too abstract and amorphous. Although Jewish by birth, he found Judaism to be based on a network of rules that demeaned the very faith in God that they supposedly supported. “Why would God care if one drives or not on Saturday?” he would ask. “Why would God like someone more if he or she does not eat bacon?” was one of his favorite questions asked with a mocking smirk when the subject of kosher food came up. “Does God only eat at kosher restaurants?” he would ask laughing in derision when Jack discussed Jewish laws (but he would not mention his friend Fred as he did not want to be part of having him derided). “OK, I get it God hates McDonald’s. So he will be sure to drop a big bolt of lightning on that whole franchise at the right time!” Jack had to laugh at the thought of Burger King or McDonald’s being blasted by Almighty God.
“Then, don’t forget,” Caleb would add derisively,“ ’Let my people go’ could be updated to mean that God will lead all the Jewish customers to safety outside of fast-food restaurants if they had made the mistake of being ‘captured’ by their taste buds and gone inside.” He was referring to a favorite Jewish song that began with the words, “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go; oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go; go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land; tell ole’ Pharoh, ‘Let my people go’!….”
Even knowing Caleb’s disdain for Judaism, Jack would press him harder as he earnestly sought to know just why the religion of his forefathers was so wrong. “Yes, you make some good points Caleb, but what about the morality of Judaism? Do you think the Ten Commandments really were authored by man? Are they really the foundation of morality as so many people – even non-Jews – seem to think? Or are they culture-bound as many unbelievers believe, more suited to the mindset of 3500 years ago and culture of nomadic herders than to modern civilizations?”
Caleb was waiting for these questions. With knowing resolve, he said, “Of course they are out of date. First of all, if they were written on tablets of stone by God, why would God allow those tablets to be destroyed by the Babylonians when they destroyed the First Temple built by Solomon at the beginning of the 6th century BC? Secondly, the Ten Commandments say ‘You shall have no other Gods but me.’ Well, we have religious pluralism today. Since that was written we have Christianity and Islam.
“Additionally, we see that many people do not even believe in God, but most of them have lives that are the same as the Jews. All religions say that murder is wrong although there are some differences, the differences are no big deal. The basic principle is accepted by Christians and Islamics even though some are terrorists. Anyhow, Christians have done a lot of murder over the centuries as well, even if they don’t do so now. What about all those wars between Protestants and Catholics that lasted so long? What about forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism? What about the slaughter of Jews as well as Muslims by the Crusaders? The Jews even allied with the Persians against the Crusaders…did you know that?
“All religions tell people to honor and respect their parents. You see ole buddy the Ten Commandments were unique at the time they were produced, but they aren’t unique anymore. The moral code you refer to overlaps with moral codes that have been refined during the last 3500 years.”
“But,” Jack asked, “Doesn’t that actually prove the power of the Ten Commandments that they have been picked up and have found their way into so many religions? Christianity and Islam have felt the need to carry forward, even with some modifications, the principles of morality that were advanced in the Ten Commandments. The power of those moral pronouncements has caused them to remain alive, albeit in different forms for 3500 years. Wouldn’t that suggest a supernatural influence in the formation of those principles?”
Caleb remained unphased by Jack’s question. “I don’t think so,” he commented. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but in no way suggests a divine origin for the Commandments. Moses had some interesting ideas, especially interesting in those days because of lack of widespread education and because of simpler societal mores, so they caught on with others down the path of history who really did not have many sources of ideas. Jesus was only a carpenter, and most of his followers had a limited education. And Mohammed…Mohammed was illiterate, so he simply drew on what he had heard in his wanderings and was able to put the ideas together in a stirring context, one that the other simpletons of his time could also understand. Those guys didn’t have to find a literary agent or get on a bestseller list or impress a committee of professors for their Ph.D.’s in order to make a compelling case that they should be believed. All they had to say was, ‘God told me this is the truth!’ Then everyone would say ‘my o my these ideas are the best sellers of all time.’ It’s amazing how quickly people will agree with certain thoughts when there are no other competing thoughts as in our present competitive idea marketplace, or when the competing worldview(s) are also non-factual, based on the opinion of the writer.”
“Isn’t there any real reality then Caleb,” Jack would ask?
“RealReality…hmmm….I would say ‘real reality my tuchas.’ real reality is what you determine it to be. That’s what makes life so interesting, an adventure. We are always creating ourselves and our real reality. If there were a real reality life would be boring. There would be nothing to talk about. We would all experience the same thing. The certainty that is unified would detract from the variety of life. Why would there even need to be love? Love is a way of embracing that which is different from ourselves. But if there were a real reality and all could know it, we would only be welcoming and embracing ourselves. In fact, now that we’re talking about it, it seems to me that even the desire for a real reality is itself a form of narcissism. Necessity. Certainty. Absolute value. Source of creation or knowledge. These all represent empty threads in a diversified world.”
Jack wondered how he could go any deeper into the knowledge of alternative universes. Fred, Marlo, Caleb, Rich Alpert, and Tim Leary all seemed to be voices engaged in an endless colloquium about the meaning of life. It was like the endless small talk of cocktail parties carried to a new level of pretentiousness. For Jack, it was what William James called “the bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion” of perception. real reality was nowhere to be found, but nonetheless cried out to Jack, daily and incessantly, “FIND ME.”
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