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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: April 11, 2009

“My old alma mater, the Village Voice,  has been resurrecting some of the 530 Village Square columns that I wrote for them between 1955 and 1965 running them (without payment, of course) on their weekly blog. I suppose I, too, might as well benefit from this bit of exploitation so here are three they ran recently.” JW

Adventure With a Pink Pill

by John Wilcock

A questionnaire arrived last month from Tim Leary, a professor at Harvard who has been doing research on the effects of Mexico’s “magic mushrooms” (teonanacati) on human consciousness. The mushrooms, foundation of some Indian religions, have been synthesized commercially into psilocybin, a small pink pill, and Tim Leary’s Harvard group has been testing them on people and noting the effects.

I tried psilocybin about a year ago and reported on the enjoyable and highly euphoric effects. What Dr. Leary wanted to know now was whether there had been any permanent effects or changes in my life as a result. I was able to tell him (as, apparently, 62 percent of his subjects have told him) that my life had changed for the better.

It’s always difficult to evaluate what effect a single action has had upon the course of one’s life, and to what extent the normal maturing process is responsible, but it’s true to say that in the past year, I have become happier, more tolerant, less compulsive, and much more of a PARTICIPANT in virtually every phase of activity. I enjoy everything more these days, often with the sort of hearty abandon that wouldn’t have been possible at one time in my life.

The simplest things — reading the newspapers, listening to jazz on the radio, stopping for a hamburger, taking a bubble bath, kissing a girl — fill me with tremendous anticipation and pleasure. I have become in love with the whole world, while at the same time retaining a healthy contempt for cruelty, greed, inhumanity, and the terrible things that people and countries do to each other.

It would be very unscientific, and potentially dangerous, to believe that these effects came solely from psilocybin, of course, but I do have a suspicion that that one afternoon’s experience, coming at a particular time of my life, helped along what would possibly have been a natural course of events. And I take my cue from a statement by Leary’s group (the Center for Research in Personality): “We have come to believe that psilocybin has the potential to facilitate for an individual the experience of major insights and problem solutions of an intellectual-emotional nature…It is also our conviction that these insights, enlightenment, or solutions provide a firm educational foundation for change in the social or intellectual behavior of the individual.”

In a meeting with representatives of the Food and Drug Administration, which has been kept informed of his research, Dr. Leary’s group reported: “We are convinced that these substances can contribute to human welfare in many ways — in psychiatry and other forms of social rehabilitation, in creative industry, in education, in defense enterprises, in artistic and cultural pursuits.”

And a compilation of reports from 98 of the 157 people who tried psilocybin reveals that 70 percent found the experience pleasant; 87 percent learned something new about themselves and the world; 62 percent report it changed their lives for the better; and 90 percent want to try it again. Leary’s initial experiments are now concluded, and he has none of the drug available.


     The most important single factor that determines whether a person undergoes a heavenly or hellish experience is his expectancy. If, for example, he takes one of these drugs in a hospital setting, where his contract is to behave as a subject in a scientific experiment and where his every move is carefully watched and noted by attending doctors and psychiatrists, he will almost certainly manifest psychiatric symptoms. On the other hand, if the drug is taken together with a group of close, loving friends in a warm, familiar environment and the expectancy is to have a joyful, intellectual experience, then the chances for this to happen are very good.

    However, if the scene is rebellious or secretive — fear of being caught by the police, guilt of pleasure, sense of doing something shady and illicit — the chances are that all these things will become magnified out of all proportion.

(Sept. 6, 1962, Voice, vol. VII, No. 46:)

A Nation of Letter-Writers

by John Wilcock

The much-maligned (unjustifiably) Eros quarterly sent out hundreds of thousands of mail-order solicitations to potential subscribers before appearing for the first time earlier this year. On the envelope of the mail-order piece were the words, “A message to you from the God of Love,” and this seems to have misled some religiously minded types into believing that it contained a religious tract.

    At any rate, the rage and hysteria that went up from some of these people when they opened the envelope and discovered that it announced the impending publication of a magazine actually about SEX has to be seen to be believed.

“All together,” says Eros in its second issue, “the critical letters presented a candid view of present-day puritanism in the United States that might otherwise not have been available.” The bulk of the letters have been sent on to the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University “for the benefit of future generations of scholars.”

Some, however, have been reprinted in Eros #2, and the viciousness, hypocrisy, savagery, and stupidity of them make one despair that America will ever grow up. Most of the letters are too vicious or vulgar to repeat here. One of the politer ones reads “Go s— in your hat; I’ve told the postal authorities about this.”

(Sept. 13, 1962,  Voice, vol. VII, no. 47)

The Changing World of Bill Manville

by John Wilcock

It’s been much too long since Bill Manville, creator of Saloon Society, last appeared in these pages, but he hasn’t been drinking his life away – at least no more than is necessary to stay attuned to his particular milieu. His first novel, Breaking Up (Simon & Schuster, $3.95), which is about a disastrous marriage, was published a few weeks ago, and he’s working on a second, theme not yet announced.

In the meantime, his book Saloon Society (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, $4.95), which was put together from the original Voice columns, has been adapted for a Broadway musical by Stewart Meyers and novelist Rona Jaffe. Book and lyrics are complete, music is still to come, and the production is tentatively set for next fall.

Meyers, a trade-magazine publisher and among the earliest of off-Broadway impresarios with a now long-defunct theatre, says that one of the earliest problems he faced was how to tell the audience who Saloon Society characters are. “Bill’s people are not angry young men,” he explains, “they look back in laughter, and yet they represent a little world of their own with a distinctive set of attitudes and dialogue. Both Rona and I are determined to recreate that world accurately — a world of reality utterly unlike the world that Damon Runyon created with his Disney-like hoods.”

Manville’s biggest asset, in my opinion, is his own ability to bridge the gap between life as we really know it and as it is presented to us via the arts, and that is why I have high hopes for the success of a movie, Headlong, for which Bill has written the script, and which will be produced by a friend of mine, Stan Russell.

     Says Stan, a former RKO editor who recently made a short for the State Department which is now touring Russia: “When most of us go to the cinema it is with the hope that we shall gain some insight into the way other people manage to cope with the same day-to-day problems and circumstances that we have to handle ourselves.

“Usually we come away with a feeling of disappointment, part of which is attributable to the bland emotions which are permitted by the Establishment. The unique quality of Manville’s Saloon Society pieces is that they are relatively free of guilt. His characters pursue pleasure openly, wantonly, defiantly, and experience all the pains and sorrows that all of us experience in that pursuit, without the false guilt and remorse experienced by that articulate, repressed minority who exert great pressure on all of our means of communication.”

What does Bill himself have to say about all this success — and potential success? Though I see him quite a lot at parties these days, I wrote to ask him that and various other questions — notably what he keeps in his refrigerator (to bear out a theory of mine that what’s in a man’s icebox reflects, to some degree, what’s in his mind). Bill’s reply:

      “Fascinating that you should ask me the contents of my ice-box. I have 93 different kinds of vitamin pills…not the synthetic vitamins but the real organic pills: rose hips, kelp, desiccated liver, bone meal, etc. In fact, taking all these different kinds of pills is one of the principal ways in which I pass the time; it means a great deal to me. I have to take them since I’ve stopped eating. The name of the next book I’ll write is going to be ‘Booze Calories Don’t Count.’

     “I’m determined to look haunted and neurotic if it is published and so just go without food. Lost eighteen pounds so far. I’m shooting for another ten — or perhaps beri-beri. People come from miles around to watch me not eat. I drink a lot, though, and go dancing often. I have some scallions left over from an old love affair (she liked to cook, so she’s out) and the manuscript of a new novel I’ve started, but I’m deadly afraid of losing this in a fire.”