Tom Robbins on the 1960s and Their Psychedelic Sacraments
(Editor's Note: On October 27, 1996, at last year's Northwest Bookfest, the
Applied Poetics Laboratory sponsored a panel discussion which asked the
question: "The Sixties - Force for Good or Force for Evil?" Tom Robbins
kicked off a rousing and thorough discussion with this apologia for the
decade and its experiment in psychotropic transubstantiation:)
It must be really irritating to have come of age in the 1980s or '90s to
find your decade - your very own historical moment - so relentlessly and
unfavorably compared to the decade that has stolen the show of the 20th
century and hogged the cultural limelight for nearly 30 years. Not only are
the '60s a hair in your generational soup, but if you're a thinking person,
you're aware of how dangerous it can be to become stuck in the past.
In most of our lives, there occurs a period of peak experience, a time when
we are at our best, when we meet some challenge, endure some ordeal,
receive some recognition, have some fun or just feel consistently happy and
free - and there's a tendency to become frozen in that glad ice, turning
ourselves into living fossils for the remainder of our existence. For
females, the retrograde flypaper is often high school. For too many
American males, it has been the armed forces: the one time in their lives
when they were relieved of parents, wives, children, dull routines and
responsibilities, when their every need was supported and they enjoyed
camaraderie, travel and adventure. An awful lot of America's leaders never
outgrew World War II or Korea, and as these old Legionnaires, waving red,
white and blue cattle prods and farting the low notes of the Star Spangled
Banner, have over and over insisted on military solutions to civil
problems, society has paid a dumb and ugly price.
Gray-haired flower children, while considerably more benign, are equally
foolish, yet it would be a mistake - a severe mistake - to belittle the
'60s as just an ordinary decade with a good press agent. The '90s do, in
fact, compare unfavorably with the '60s, and I'm prepared, if asked, to
tell you specifically why. For the moment, however, allow me to offer this
Illumination, like it or not, is an elitist condition; in every era and in
almost every area, there have resided tiny minorities of enlightened
individuals living their lives upon a threshold, at the gateway of the next
evolutionary phase, a phase whose actualization is probably still hundreds
of years down the line. In certain key periods of history, one or the other
of these elitist minorities has become sufficiently large and resonant to
affect the culture as a whole, thereby laying a significant patch of brick
in the evolutionary road. Think of the age of Akhenaton in Egypt, the reign
of Zoraster in Persia, the golden ages of Greece and Islam, the several
great periods of Chinese culture, and the European Renaissance. Something
similar was brewing in America in the years 1964 to 1971.
Maybe it is sentimental, if not actually stupid, to romanticize the '60s as
an embryonic golden age. Certainly, this fetal age of enlightenment
aborted. Nevertheless, the '60s were special; not only did they DIFFER from
the '50s, '70s, '90s, etc., they were SUPERIOR to them. Like the Arthurian
years at Camelot, the '60s constituted a breakthrough, a fleeting moment of
glory, a time when a significant little chunk of humanity briefly realized
its moral potential and flirted with its neurological destiny; a
collective spiritual awakening that flared brilliantly until the barbaric
and mediocre impulses of the species drew tight once more the curtains of
One more thing: I think it need be established, firmly, flatly, and
finally, that what we call the '60s would never have happened had it not
been for the psychedelic sacraments.
Certainly, there would have been protests and demonstrations, but they
would have been only a fraction of the magnitude of those that actually
occurred; they would have been far less frequent, widespread, intense, or
The political and societal juggernaut of the '60s moved to music - and that
music owed both its aesthetic and moral impetus to psychedelics.
In 1996, the word "spiritual" is, unfortunately, highly suspect. Yet, the
changes in consciousness and in conscience that characterized and energized
the '60s were of a sort that could only be described as spiritual - a
direct outgrowth of drug-inspired mysticism.
It was a dizzy period of transcendence and awareness (transcendence of
obsolete value systems, awareness of the enormity and richness of inner
reality). The zeitgeist of the era was only secondarily political.
Political action (be it pacifist, feminist, environmental, or racial) was
largely a matter of fallout from the spiritual explosion.
And to talk about the '60s without talking about psilocybin and LSD, as the
media have been doing for more than a decade, is to be guilty of the most
dishonest sort of revision, while a panel on the '60s that ignores or
de-emphasizes the contribution of psychedelics would be akin to a panel on
cheeseburgers that ignores or de-emphasizes the contribution of cows.