Between & Beyond: Humanism

As I write this, news is breaking of Alexander Shulgin’s death. What’s most depressing is that you might not know who he is. His work has made a huge impact on the world, and if the world was a better place, it could have made more of an impact.

I am very sad at the news of his death, but at 88, he makes it into the “Great Run” category. His death is representative though of the passing of a sort of ethos. Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin was a pharmacologist working for The Dow Chemical Company back in the days of “better living through chemistry.” It’s there that he created a biodegradable pesticide and its success allowed him the freedom to do personal research. That personal research involved taking a great deal of drugs. It started with mescaline which, according to Sasha, opened him to the idea that the universe lives inside all of us and chemicals could help us access this cosmic knowledge. While it had been first formulated in 1912, Shulgin later found a new way to synthesize MDMA, commonly sold/taken as ecstasy or Molly these days, which he passed on to psychotherapists who found it to be a profound help with their patients. He eventually left Dow due to his growing controversial reputation, but continued his own research in a lab he built at home in California. There he continued to synthesize and meticulously document the effects of a staggering amount of chemicals in the phenethylamine and tryptamine families. These families are the lineage of well-known psychedelic drugs (like LSD, MDMA, mescaline), and Shulgin found that slight variations in the basic chemical structure produced a wide variety of effects upon human ingesters (mainly him and his wife).

Shulgin wasn’t really a voice. Certainly not the same way Terence McKenna was in his lucid and potent pontification. But without the Shulgins, there could be no McKennas or Learys or Wilsons. To me, his life and death represent the “failure” of American humanism, and by that I mean that he was at the forefront of where humanism and capitalism parted ways.

I came across a photograph recently. In it were gathered the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone (founder of Firestone tires). It struck me as definitive of the ethos of the 20th century. Here were self-made men, eager to carve fortune from the Earth, to tame Her and shrink the cosmos down into the bare-boned reason that built them their empires. This was the dream of modernity: where humans could thrive and beat back the darkness that lied outside civilization and reign over the wilderness and make this planet our own. This hubris maintained for much of the 20th century. The West was free and prosperous after World War II, and we could use our ingenuity and industrial capacity to manifest dreams of the future where technology and consumerism went hand in hand to create the better tomorrow. It’s hard to say whether or not the captains of industry ever actually believed in this, but veneer or not, it did not last.

Something unexpected happened. As Robert Pirsig says in Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away.” Albert Hofmann, the pharmacologist responsible for synthesizing LSD, also was fully aware of the power and profundity of his work. Early research and use of LSD found it to be a tremendously powerful and helpful psychological tool. This was the wave of a new future. Technology could open the doors to expand the cosmos, not shrink it, and we could gain a new understanding of our inner-realms. This was the better living through chemistry.

The problem turned out to be the fact that our inner-realms weren’t so interested with profit. That was the real danger of the ’60s. The counter culture didn’t frighten the power structure because of any ideas concerning politics. It was about a new way of life. It was about turning the tide of money and power and control. The drugs seemed to foster these ideas so they were banned, and all the hopes for a bright and shining new age were pushed down with them. We remain to this day disconnected with our own psyches while pharmaceutical companies push on us an endless array of unenlightening drugs; we remain obsessed with materialism (and I mean both consumer and scientific); and we continue to objectify the living world around us, and it suffers.

Postmodernism can by and large be defined as the sinking suspicion that the whole quest of modernity cannot work. We live in a bubble of language and image and product all suspended upon the surface of the Earth from which it all came. That fundamental connection that can still not be broken is what is calling back the need for true humanism. I guess I’m a Marxist in the sense that I believe that the flaws of capitalism are exactly what have corrupted our institutions and ideologies. My philosophical side poses a chicken or the egg question: maybe those flaws of inequality, commodity, and currency stem first and foremost from the way language promotes the use of symbol, but in the end, the imperative remains the same. Our umbilical connection to the Earth is calling us to revisit the idea of “a better tomorrow” through technology, maybe, but really by any means necessary, and with a new found humility that accounts not for human dominance but planetary survival.