MAKING GHOSTS WALK IN PUBLIC: the role of Brion Gysin’s Dream Machine in the consciousness exploration of the ’60s, by John Geiger (Arthur, 2003)

Making Ghosts Walk In Public

Explained: the role of the legendary stroboscopic Dream Machine in the consciousness exploration of the ‘60s. 

by John Geiger

Excerpted from: Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Stroboscopic Light, Flicker and the Dream Machine. Copyright © 2003 John Geiger. Published by Soft Skull Press. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.  This excerpt published in Arthur No. 7 (Nov., 2003)


On December 21, 1958 Brion Gysin, a painter and writer, and at the time a resident of Beat Hotel in Paris, momentarily and unexpectedly entered the place where, in Aldous Huxley’s words, “the visual merges with the visionary.” 

Gysin was traveling by bus from Paris to an artists’ colony on the Mediterranean. As the bus passed through a long avenue of trees Gysin, closing his eyes against the setting sun, encountered “a transcendental storm of color visions.” He recorded the experience in his journal: “An overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colors exploded behind my eyelids: a multi-dimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space. I was swept out of time.” The phenomenon ended abruptly as the bus left the trees. “Was that a vision? What happened to me?” asked Gysin. The flicker experience recalled the first films he had seen as a child in Alberta in the 1920s, films using the often explosive silver halide base which gave a “magic light to the film, a flickering shimmer cut stroboscopically by the frames of each image.” Gysin immediately wrote William S. Burroughs, a close artistic collaborator, with an account of his fall out of rational space. Burroughs replied portentiously: “We must storm the citadels of enlightenment. The means are at hand.” The means, Gysin determined, would be to develop a machine to harness the visionary potential of flicker, a device that would make illusory experience available at the flick of a switch: a Dream Machine.

Once he understood the scientific explanation for his random encounter with flicker (an explanation provided in physiologist W. Grey Walter’s 1953 book The Living Brain), Gysin determined to find a way to mechanically reproduce the effect in a manner that could be mass produced. He saw in flicker the potential for human advancement. Gysin discussed it with Ian Sommerville, a mathematics student at Cambridge University and young boyhood friend of Burroughs’. Somerville had a genius for electrical improvisation, and indeed had a unique relationship with the electrical current: his thin blonde hair often stood up as if a charge ran through it, he was not fond of water and found rain oddly menacing. Gysin wanted to find a way, he said, to “make the ghosts walk in public.” 

On February 15, 1960 Sommerville wrote from Cambridge to inform Gysin that he had made a “simple flicker machine.” By placing a cylinder with slots in it on a gramophone turntable at 78pm, then dangling a 100-watt light bulb inside so the light would flicker through the slits at a precise rate per second, Sommerville was able to replicate Gysin’s experience. Sommerville cautioned, however, that the experiences were not universal: “The intensity of the effect varies with the individual; melancholics tend to be irritated, some see nothing.”

In April 1961, Brion Gysin demonstrated the Dream Machine to Allen Ginsberg at the Beat Hotel. It was the first time the two had met, although they knew of each other through William S. Burroughs. Gysin had also benefited from Ginsberg’s connection to Dr. Timothy Leary, a psychologist at Harvard University and director of the university’s Center for Research in Personality. Months earlier, Ginsberg had tried psilocybin under Leary’s supervision, and was anxious to introduce other writers and artists to Leary’s methods of mind expansion. Psilocybin had been synthesized several years earlier from magic mushroom extracts by Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD. Ginsberg urged Leary to contact Burroughs, saying he knew more about drugs than anyone alive. In a letter written at the Beat Hotel in Paris, Burroughs responded with a declaration that his writing “benefits from hallucinogens MEASUREABLY. Wider use of these drugs would lead to better work conditions on all levels.” Burroughs added: “I have made cut-up highs without chemical assistants. Brion Gysin who first applied the cut-up method to writing is here at the above address and would also be most interested to take the mushrooms.”

Gysin had prior experience with psychedelics. He had taken magic mushrooms as a child in western Canada, and mescaline for the first time in Tangier in 1954, with the result that he felt he had “experienced the power of magic.” He shared some of the psilocybin sent to Burroughs, first taking two pills every hour for four hours. Gysin described feeling “elated, laughed a lot and had one color experience with a picture of my own which flushed and flooded with running tides of color. I have had much more extreme and rather perspicacious experiences with mescaline (detection of re-touches, frauds, etc.).” Two days later, he took another eight pills, but this time all at once, and wrote Leary with a description of his experiments: “Got high quickly and the confused high dropped so suddenly that I thought the experience was over but was later delighted with the sneaky little out of the corner of the eye effects of covert awareness which went on for some hours.” A short time later a second package arrived from Leary, this one containing twenty-four tiny pink pills. Several days later Gysin took five pills and did three drawings in a notebook. He showed them to a French psychiatrist friend who, without being told, identified them as being “different.”

In his letter, Gysin also took the opportunity to discuss stroboscopic light: “You may well know more about flicker machines than I do. If so, I would very much like to hear from you on the subject.” In case Leary was unfamiliar with flicker, he described the design of a Dream Machine, adding: “I think that you will find the superb ‘interior display’ of color interest. I have had several strange and one quite alarming experience with a long period of flicker. Color perception particularly of red traffic lights and neon at night remains heightened for 24 hours.” Gysin ended with a request for some more of the pills: “I would very much like to try this and some aural-flicker I have invented and recorded by the BBC with psilocybin and anything else you might have to suggest.” Leary replied that he was grateful for Gysin’s instructions on how to construct a flicker apparatus, and alluded briefly to his own encounter with flicker: “I wrote Burroughs about Harry Smith’s movie which turned me on without. I’ll set up a trial this weekend to see what happened.”

Leary promised to send more pills, but first sent a package of papers, requesting that Gysin sign a document agreeing to the terms of the experiment and to report back on his experiences. Ginsberg wrote Leary in April that “Gysin has filled out and will send you his (form). I don’t know him well, and no intimate contact with him emotionally, tho (sic) Burroughs thinks we should dig each other.” When more psilocybin did arrive, it was in a package addressed to Burroughs, who had by then relocated to Tangier. Gysin decided it was best not to leave such potent pills laying around: “Now that I knew more about the dose I decided to take all of them this time, all 24 of them. Better still, take just one tiny pill out of the bottle, stick it onto a card saying: ‘I’ve taken 23 of these. If anything happens to me cable (Harvard) for instructions.’” Twenty-three was four times the maximum recommended dose. Gysin laid out his drawing and painting equipment on a large table that took up half his room. For the next 36 hours he experienced “three great bursts of calligraphy between long migrations of time travel and quite a few eerie moments.” He later described the experience in his novel, The Process: “As I went, I noticed the familiar fixtures of the mushroom world were flying past me much faster than I’d ever remembered them from childhood. I reached out through space for the notebook on my night-table to mark something down and I never got there.”

Burroughs wrote to Ginsberg and asked: “Have you dug his flicker machine? Great with the mushrooms.” In fact, Ginsberg had already concluded that flicker alone was equal to pharmacologically-induced experience, the patterns corresponding to those produced by mescaline, psilocybin and acid. It was an entirely different, more gentle, even fragile experience. Ginsberg wrote Leary with his own account of the Dream Machine, explaining, “I looked into it–it sets up optical fields as religious and mandalic as the hallucinogenic drugs–literally… (look in with eyes closed) – it’s like being able to have jeweled biblical designs and landscapes without taking chemicals. Amazing. It works.” Ginsberg added that he intended to try and connect Gysin with a manufacturer: “homemade optic movies possible.” Leary, who was a tireless proselytizer for hallucinogenic drugs, appeared at first strangely apprehensive: “The stroboscope. It frightens me. Burroughs needs equipment to experiment.” Leary was unsettled by the possibility that stroboscopic light could produce similar results to those attained by ingestion of extraneous substances. But he soon came around. In an essay, “How to Change Behavior”, he wrote: “We have recently learned from W. Grey Walter (a researcher at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol, who had pioneered study into the effects of stroboscopic light) and William Burroughs about photostimulation as a means of consciousness alteration. Concentrated attention to a stroboscope or flicker apparatus can produce visionary experience.” 

In May 1961, Timothy Leary wrote Aldous Huxley, who had also been participating in the psilocybin experiments, to inform him that “we are trying out some of Grey Walter’s ideas.” Huxley had previously urged the academic to study Walter’s theories, and not only flicker, which Leary termed “the infused vision of the open cortex, flashing at speeds which far outstrip our verbal machinery.” Huxley had met Walter in London, and Walter told him about experiments in psychosurgery, where electrodes had been placed in the brain of seriously ill mental patients. By switching on a battery in their pockets, the patients could stimulate their brain “and pass in the twinkling of an eye, from deepest depression to a broad grin.” Remarked Huxley: “How unimaginative I was in Brave New World!” 

Leary was intrigued at the possibility that the neurologist could “wire up” brains, and alter consciousness by pressing buttons. He described the phenomenon in The Politics of Ecstasy: “Press a button – make him hungry. Press a button – make him horny. Press a button – make him angry. Press a button – make him happy.” Leary began to refer equally to the capacity of electrical and chemical stimuli to transform consciousness, but was astonished by what he judged as the potential of the electrical method to actually manipulate the brain’s hallucinatory content: “Dr. Grey Walter can locate hallucinations. Let’s say a peasant woman comes with a devil vision. Well, by precise manipulation of specific brain points… the doctor proceeds to remove the devil’s horns, one by one, and then without horns the devil is just a man in her room. Well, then by precise manipulation of specific brain cells the devil’s leer becomes a smile and then by further precise manipulations, the man gets to look familiar and, well… he eventually lays her right in the bed in which she is hallucinating and she has an orgasm, not one but several.”

Ginsberg pursued the expansion of consciousness through use of various hallucinogens, and like Leary began to proselytize, viewing them as a useful tool for changing society. In a 1966 public address at the Arlington Street Church in Boston, Ginsberg declared that “everybody who hears my voice, directly or indirectly, try the chemical LSD at least once.” Despite his view that hallucinogens like mescaline and yagÈ had allowed him to be transported to “unexplored psychic areas”, Burroughs did not join in the crusade. Leary’s pills had sent him on a bad trip. Asked by a friend how he was doing, Burroughs responded: “I would like to sound a word of warning. I’m not feeling too well. I was struck by juxtaposition of purple fire mushroomed from the Pain Banks. Urgent Warning. I think I’ll stay here in shriveling envelopes of larval flesh… One of the nastiest cases ever processed by this department.”

On 23 August 1961, Burroughs flew to the United States to participate, at Leary’s invitation, on a panel at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. The symposium was on “Drugs and the Empirical Expansion of Consciousness,” and while at Cambridge, Mass., Burroughs hoped to have the opportunity to undertake further experiments, using stroboscopes, EEGs, or other techniques to access different psychic areas. But soon after his arrival Burroughs concluded he was taking the proceedings a lot more seriously than was Leary, who declared in High Priest: “We are creating the Garden of Delights on the Harvard payroll. The Best Ever in Ivy League Drug Kicks. LOVE LOVE LOVE in slop buckets.”

Burroughs (to Gysin): “The scene here is really frantic. Leary has gone berserk. He is giving mushrooms to hat-check girls, cabdrivers, waiters, in fact anybody who will stand still for it.” Burroughs described his negative reaction to psilocybin, and railed against it: “Horrible stuff! I went through the ovens with it. I’ll never take it again!”

Leary’s response (to Ginsberg): “From the moment Bill hit the USA he started putting mushrooms down… He declined to join our game – which is developing into a religious, do-good cult, etc.” When Burroughs returned to Paris looking even more glum than usual, he told Gysin that his views were diametrically opposed to Leary’s and that he had told the Harvard professor as much. Gysin delighted at the thought: “Tim’s incandescent grin must have dropped off his face for a minute or two but he was always so swept away by himself that he may not have heard him. He was so busy spreading around the good word and popping tiny pills of psilocybin into not only willing mouths but unwanting ones and so high all the time that he just went on loving Burroughs. That’s what he was preaching anyway, love. He loved everyone. Not William.”

Leary’s love eventually encompassed Gysin, who he described in his memoir Jail Notes as “one of the great hedonic mystic teachers. He has played starring roles in the great spiritual movies of our times.” Leary even came to love the Dream Machine, describing it as “the most sophisticated neurophenomenological device ever designed.” The Dream Machine was sophisticated in its effects, but rudimentary in its design, and it was not always mechanically reliable. The poet Peter Orlovsky had written Leary from Paris that he wanted to view it after consuming some psilocybin pills: “Now that I am high, would like to see this flicker… but it’s being fixed.” Ginsberg wrote Orlovsky in August to encourage him to go ahead and make his own – he described it admiringly as “home-made strobe” – and he added that Gysin made it sound much more complicated than it really was: “You just get a cylinder of black paper & divide it in twenty squares and cut out 10 of them around the roll and that’s that.”

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