“The renaissance is there, the trend is undeniable. This is demonstrated by a fact: last year the General States of Psychedelic provided for forty interventions in a day and a half, this year we had 80 in 4 days and we had to say many no … ». Director of the Center for Contemporary Culture in the former Metzger brewery in Turin, Alessandro Novazio is the creator and coordinator of PsyCoRe, a network of scholars to whom we owe, among other things, the second edition of the General States of Psychedelic in Italy, concluded on 13 December 2020.
“Let’s take a sort of picture of the state of the art in research on ‘other’ states of consciousness,” Novazio explains to Espresso, who lists round tables on prohibition and liberalization, neuroscience and neo-shamanism, psychotropic substances and mysticism. And books. «On the first day there was MindBooks, a small book fair about mind and psychedelia. It was supposed to be part of the Turin Book Fair, but the pandemic forced us to change the agenda ».
The calendar of publishing houses has also changed. The texts on drugs are no longer relegated to the periphery of publishing, notes Agnese Codignola in the preface to a text from which “anyone who wants to better understand what the psychedelic Renaissance is and where it comes from”, “The magic flight. General history of drugs ”, by Ugo Leonzio. Published for the first time in 1969, it ended up circulating almost clandestinely among collectors and psychonauts, the explorers of the mind, until a few weeks ago. When Il Saggiatore republished it, confirming that we are emerging from «a long cultural lethargy that lasted half a century», writes Codignola, scientific popularizer and author, in 2018, of “LSD” for Utet. Together with “How to change your mind” (Adelphi 2019) by Michael Pollan, one of the recent books that have already earned the status of classic among lovers of the subject. More and more.
The awakening of a genre
If we were to identify a conventional date of the beginning of the psychedelic renaissance, it would be January 13, 2006, recalls Federico di Vita, editor of the collective book “The psychedelic bet” (Quodlibet). That day in Basel the first world LSD symposium was inaugurated, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD. Since then, studies on the therapeutic potential of LSD and psilocybin have multiplied, “the alkaloid that represents the most powerful psychoactive compound present in mushrooms, and not only in Psilocybe species”, explains mycologist Lawrence Millman in “Funghipedia” (Il Saggiatore), the agile encyclopedia on Myths, legends and secrets of mushrooms that every enthusiast should take with them during the outings. Also to be able to answer a frequently asked question. No longer, as it once was, “is it edible?”, But “does it have medicinal properties?”
Drugs for medical use
In the preface to “The magic flight” Agnese Codignola sums up: “Today the therapeutic properties of LSD and psilocybin have been demonstrated by various groups of experimental and clinical researchers in countries such as the United States, Holland, Switzerland, the Great Britain and Australia and in pathologies such as post traumatic stress, tobacco and alcohol addictions, cluster headaches, intractable depression of the terminally ill and various other types of depression… ». Experiments made possible, after decades of “grave bans”, “fatwe and obscurantism”, by the progressive softening of the prohibitions on the use of psychoactive substances.
“Modern science is only catching up,” says Merlin Sheldrake, a young microbiology and ecology scholar and author of a surprising book, The Hidden Order. The secret life of mushrooms ”(Marsilio). The new research, writes Sheldrake, demonstrates what is “already known to traditional cultures” and confirms the opinions of scientists of the 1950s and 1960s. The years in which, Ugo Leonzio remembers in “Il Volo Magico”, the term «psychedelic» appears for the first time. It was coined by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who in a 1957 article proposes the neologism “psychedelics”, manifesters of the mind, because it is a clear, harmonious and uncontaminated word by other semantic associations “.
The political dispute
That word “harmonious and uncontaminated” soon becomes the terrain of contention for a fiery political-cultural battle. The “eminently political potential of psychedelics was not only clear, but also at the center of the debate” already in the 1950s, as the writer Vanni Santoni summarizes in one of the essays of “The Psychedelic Bet”.
With missionary zeal and visionary transport, the apostles of the psychedelic revolution in the 1960s believed that drug initiation of the masses could accelerate society’s change. In the early 1970s, Terence McKenna, a former hashish trafficker in Bombay and butterfly collector in Indonesia, tried “magic mushrooms” in the Colombian Amazon. He is convinced that they are “the original tree of knowledge”. He writes a book that becomes a cult, “The food of the gods” (republished in 2019 by Plan B).
In the mid-1980s, when the psychedelic wave was crushed by prohibition and neoliberalism began to capitalize on it, McKenna founded “Botanical Dimensions”. In this living library of psychoactive tropical plants on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano on the Hawaiian Islands, he eats five grams of hallucinogenic mushrooms on an empty stomach every day. Accompanied by his father Rupert, traveler and anti-dogmatic scholar, one day Merlin Sheldrake, future researcher of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and author of “The secret life of mushrooms”, also arrives at Botanical Dimensions. He is 7 years old. He begins to take an interest in mycology, the “neglected megoscience”.
The secret life of mushrooms
His book is not driven by the missionary enthusiasm of the counterculture gurus, but starts from a similar matrix: mushrooms are a “key to understanding our way of thinking, feeling and behaving”. Their main characteristic, “that metabolic ingenuity” which allows them to explore, proliferate and establish relationships of all kinds, can help us break the institutional and individual Weberian “steel cage”. «’We’ are ecosystems that cross borders and transcend categories. Our ego emerges from a complex tangle of relationships that is only now beginning to emerge ».
The teaching of mushrooms derives from “their ability to soften the rigid mechanisms of our mind”, “attracting it to unexpected places”. Magic mushrooms do this with psilocybin, which in certain areas reduces brain activity. “When he is silenced, the brain is freed. Brain connectivity explodes and a tumult of new neuronal pathways opens up ».
The mechanism, Codignola explains, is similar for other psychedelics. They block “specific filters that are normally always active, which prevent the brain from being bombarded by an excess of stimuli, but which also induce nerve transmission to create repetitive circuits”. The brain receives new and different signals, traces unprecedented paths, frees itself from the mind, writes Leonzio in “The Magic Flight”, “from the centers that control, supervise, choose”. For Timothy Leary, the inhibition of the “reducing valve”, as Aldous Huxley called it, makes us awaken “from the long ontological sleep.” In the future, however, it could plunge us back into an even deeper lethargy.
Social anesthesia and dystopias
“The idea that psychedelics have inherently liberating effects is a myth. They are technologies, they can have both liberating and repressive effects », Alessandro Novazio, the organizer of the General States of Psychedelia, argues with conviction. There are two major risks, warns the critic Carlo Mazza Galanti in the essay of “The psychedelic bet” in which he reconstructs some literary interpretations of psychedelia. The first is “the monopoly of the therapeutic paradigm”. The sacramental biochemical ritual becomes a health protocol, the substances become tools for the orthopedics of the individual psyche. And of society: it is the second risk, prefigured by science fiction.
The alteration of conscience, long sanctioned because it is seen by power as a social threat, is favored and used as a means to defuse any threat. Drugs as biochemical keys to enslave, tame, isolate individuals or optimize their performance. Politically anesthetized, docile, acquiescent, conciliated societies; sedative-manipulative power, in the most rigid biopsychic and social determinism. Narcocapitalism.
Towards an acid Communism
There is an alternative. It is “acid communism”. “Between provocation and promise”, so argued the English cultural critic Mark Fisher shortly before committing suicide, in 2017. Net of mysticism and pseudo-spiritualism, Fisher writes in one of the essays of “Our desire is nameless, Written politicians , K-Punk / 1 “(minimum fax 2020),” psychedelic culture possessed a demystifying and materialistic dimension “: any system is arbitrary, contingent, malleable. And it is precisely by drawing on the “possibilities still waiting to be realized” of the counterculture, on the emancipatory tendencies of the 1970s, that one could overcome “capitalist realism”, “fatalistic acquiescence to the idea that there is no possible alternative to capitalism”.
At stake, in this battle between the forces of opening and closing, Edoardo Camurri specifies in another of the essays of “The psychedelic bet”, there is first of all the imagination. We need “Gnostic soldiers armed with an unpredictable, unrecognizable and perpetually burning imaginary”. Able to dissolve the spell of closure and absolute transparency, to fight against the algorithmic machine.
Where to start was suggested by Ugo Leonzio at the end of the Sixties, well before “The surveillance society” described by the scholar Shoushana Zuboff was established. In an age in which “nothing is allowed to remain in the restful brightness of the invisible”, because “everything must be illuminated, named and arranged in a space as artificial as it is precise and predictable”, a world that could be free must be imagined invoking the right to opacity. The only one who opens his eyes “to sacred illusions”.