Dolphins, ketamine and leaky realities: Mark Pilkington considers Altered States, 40 years after its release
For much of the late 20th century, new-age gurus and prophets told us that we all create our own reality. It’s unlikely that they had Fox News and Russia Today in mind but it’s clear that what mystics call ‘reality creation’ and spies term ‘perception management’ has become one of the defining issues of our age. That this era of leaky realities should coincide with a new wave of interest in psychedelic experience seems only natural, as cultural and social boundaries melt as fast as the ice caps. What is truth? What is reality? These days, to quote Robert Anton Wilson’s unofficial catchphrase (and the title of his 1993 screenplay): reality is what you can get away with.
Altered States was the screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s only novel. Published in 1978, a near-midpoint between the two Summers of Love, it reflects the scientific openness and spiritual experimentation that was prevalent at the time. A tightly written and technically radical cosmological overhaul of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), it follows the young psychologist Edward Jessup as he searches for the origins of human consciousness and the mind of god.
Immersing himself in isolation tanks, Jessup starts to have powerful hallucinations packed with religious cosmology. ‘If I can’t find god’, he declares, pushing deeper into the void, ‘I at least want to find myself.’ Acquiring a powerful Mexican hallucinogenic brew, Jessup travels back through genetic history and enters the mind of the first protohominid: ‘I’m returning to my original me […] I’m hunting! I’m killing! I’m eating! […] Unbridled natural creature hunger! […] The incarnated id!’
But this is no hallucination: Jessup’s body is also changing. He begins to understand that ‘our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking state and that our reality can be externalized’. During a final descent, Jessup penetrates the subatomic realm, his physical self dematerializing as he becomes one with the universe, releasing enough energy to almost suck his laboratory into a hubristic, human-sized Big Bang. Jessup ultimately comes to see ‘consciousness as a cosmic, perhaps the cosmic force [...] it could be reached, tapped into, manipulated’.
Writing Altered States was an intense experience for Chayefsky. He suffered a heart attack in the process and, afterwards, a lawsuit, at the hand of his key scientific advisor, Jeff Lieberman. A film adaptation went into immediate production, with the initial director, Arthur Penn, being replaced by Ken Russell, who fought with Chayefsky. While the script sticks closely to the novel, only parting company (to its detriment) in the final act, Russell’s hallmarks abound: sweaty sex, roaring men and a bombardment of apocalyptic, religious and cosmic imagery. The film’s convincingly hallucinogenic visuals and Oscar-winning sound design should have made it the psychedelic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but, despite some decent reviews, it didn’t gel with audiences – not even the freaks and heads.
Behind Altered States, filtered through Chayefsky’s terse East-Coast realism and Russell’s baroque Catholicism, is the remarkable man on whose experiences its story is largely based: Dr John C. Lilly. A neurologist and psychoanalyst, Lilly spent much of the 1950s experimenting on human and animal brains at the US’s National Institutes of Health. It was here that he developed the first isolation tanks, demonstrating that the brain continues to generate sensory data even when starved of sensory input. These salt-water tanks – still widely used in alternative healing circles – suspend the body in total silence and darkness, rendering the subject powerless to discern where they end and the outside world begins.
In 1960, Lilly founded the Communication Research Institute (CRI) on the Caribbean island of St Thomas in order to study the language of dolphins. He wanted to understand the minds of creatures that spend their entire lives in suspension. CRI raised eyebrows, but it also attracted notable visitors – from physicist Richard Feynman to comedian Robin Williams – and sent tendrils of influence in multiple directions. A meeting between Lilly and leading astrophysicists, including Frank Drake and Carl Sagan, led to the founding of The Order of the Dolphin, a precursor to the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Robert Merle’s 1967 novel The Day of The Dolphin was based on Lilly’s work, while Wilson and Robert Shea’s satirical conspiracy trilogy, ‘Illuminatus!’ (1975), included a secret society of hyper-intelligent extra-terrestrial dolphins. Two decades later, the SEGA videogame Ecco the Dolphin (1992), in which a cosmic cetacean explores strange alien realms, channelled Lilly’s ideas into young minds the world over. Then there’s the intimate relationship between CRI staffer Margaret Howe Lovatt and a young dolphin called Peter, which inspired a Hustler magazine article in the late 1970s and, perhaps, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017).
In 1963, Lilly was persuaded to try LSD by the wife of Ivan Tors, the producer of Flipper (1963). It was something that he had resisted up to that point but, soon, he was taking high doses inside his isolation tank. The experience was life-changing. Lilly transited interstellar realms, conversed with supernatural beings and gave birth to himself many times over. A new path was forged, and he dedicated himself to exploring the parallel inner dimensions, which he called Alternaties.
Shifting allegiances from LSD to the recently synthesized anaesthetic Vitamin K (or ketamine) – the psychedelic properties of which reached a wider audience following its deployment during the later years of the Vietnam War – Lilly developed a system for spending weeks under its influence, constructing a rich mythology around his experiments. ‘On Vitamin K, I have experienced states in which I can contact the creators of the universe as well as the local creative controllers – the Earth Coincidence Control Office (ECCO). They’re the guys who run the Earth and who programme us […] I can look across the border into other realities.’ But, however far he travelled into inner space, he always remained pragmatic on his return: ‘If you get into these spaces, you must forget about them when you come back. You must forget you’re omnipotent and omniscient and take the game seriously so you’ll [...] participate in the whole human scenario.’
Lilly documented his experiences in The Center of the Cyclone (1972), The Dyadic Cyclone (1976) and The Scientist (1978) – texts which make it abundantly clear that Altered States is, effectively, a documentary. It can be difficult to separate Jessup’s soliloquies from Lilly’s writings: ‘You’ve got to stop thinking about time and space as if they were inviolable. They are not inviolable! They do not exist in themselves. They are postulates of the conscious mind!’ In 1983, speaking to Omni magazine about Russell’s adaptation, Lilly said: ‘They did a good job [...] The scene in which the scientist becomes cosmic energy and his wife brings him back to human form [...] Toni [Lilly] did that for me. As for the scientist’s regression into an ape-like being, the late Dr Craig Enright […] while taking a [ketamine] trip with me […] suddenly became a chimp jumping up and down and hollering for 25 minutes.’
Like the LSD and ketamine that fuelled his otherworldly journeys, Lilly’s story straddles the scientific world of his youth and the Alternaties of his isolation tank. He navigated complex environments and documented his experiences for others, becoming a living laboratory for the effects of powerful hallucinogens on a brilliant mind. By the 1980s, the scientific establishment came to see Lilly as a lost cause, but his extreme dedication to psychonautical studies – not to mention his conversion from straight scientist to interdimensional voyager – has left him as something of a hero within the psychedelic community.
Lilly’s story illustrates what the mystics have always told us: everything is connected, from Ecco the Dolphin to Russell’s films and all that lies between. What would he make of the cracks fast appearing in the global consensus reality? Who knows? We would all do well, however, to listen to his ‘11th Commandment’, put forward in The Deep Self (1977): ‘Thou shalt not bore god or he will destroy your universe.’
This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'In the Province of the Mind'.
Main image: John C. Lilly, illustration for Man and Dolphin, 1961. Courtesy: the Estate of John C. Lilly
First published in Issue 196