The “New Science” of Ecstatics (1964)

From the Leary Papers (January 1964):

Millbrook,

N.Y.

Jan 30 64

My Good Friend Paul–

Your description of the luncheon was delightful.

The difference between psychosis and culture is only quantitative–the number of victims.

The winter dance continues here—snow-shoveling the ice, skiing, tracking deer prints through the woods. Watching the moon arise over the skating lake. The white landscape is picture-post-card.

We are busy finishing up the books. We are launching a messenger baloon [sic] filled with wise words (if there are such) to float down to the planet. The theory is that by giving people new words you will expand their consciousness and prepare them for further expansion.

For this reason we are booming the word ECSTASY. We are starting a new science: Ecstatics. The science of consciousness. There are only two sciences: physics (the outside) and ecstatics (the inside) althoo [sic] both are eventually reducable [sic] under the Einsteinian equation. An Ecstacist is one who develops the new methods for producing ecstasy and describing it. An Ecstatician is a practioner [sic] who makes a lot of money and forms professional societies for producing the ecstasies.

An ecstatogenic agent…you understand. The ecstatic unit is called the Huxley: which is defined by a French scientific association as the smallest discriminable ecstatic experience.

Miss you much. We’d love to have your friend come; but his friend Paul should come too to be with him and to be with us.

You have so many ecstasies still to come with Jessica. Beautiful. Great. Give a hug to Charlene. Love to you both.

[signed TL]


Commentary:

Leary’s 1964 letter – written from the Millbrook estate after his dismissal from Harvard – demonstrates his shift towards experimenting creatively with language. Leary’s interest in poetics developed out of his psychedelic research, where he confronted the creative challenges inherent to any project of mapping non-ordinary realms of subjective experience.

Leary mirrors Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s conviction that new uses of language expand consciousness by “mark[ing] the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuat[ing] their apprehension” (Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” 1821).

As an instantiation of this interest, Leary plays with the concept of “ecstasy” in a manner that pushes back against the encroachment of behaviorism in the sciences. Behaviorism – which gained increasing ascendency in scientific discourses during the twentieth century – insisted that science could only investigate observable behavior, denying the possibility of discussing subjective mental processes. At its most extreme, it even denied the existence of such mental processes altogether.

Behaviorism appealed to psychologists for its rigorous methodology, offering the approximation of a “hard” science at a time when psychology was vying for legitimacy. The magnitude of behaviorism’s ascendency is evident in psychology’s leading reference books, which avoided the terms “introspection” and “consciousness” until the late 1980s. This aversion to the science of subjective experience contributed to the disappearance of psychedelic research after the 1970s.

Leary pokes fun at this attempt to mechanize human psychology with his description of “the smallest discriminable ecstatic experience,” offering a tongue-in-cheek, pataphysical caricature of modern science’s attempts to reduce subjective experience to rigid formulae.

In contrast to the reductionist behaviorist, Leary’s “Ecstacist” is described in terms that mirror the role of the Romantic poet: “one who develops…methods for producing ecstasy and describing it.” As I explain in a forthcoming article – “Medical Ecstasies: Chemical Synthesis and Self-Experimentation in Romantic Poetry and Science” – Romantic poets adopted the formal method of self-experimentation to test the repeated effects of an independent variable (whether a psychoactive chemical or natural scenery) on the experimenter’s (and ultimately, the reader’s) body and mind. These poets would subsequently package these variables in poems explicitly designed to disseminate ecstatic experiences to others.

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