CM . . .
. Volume XI Number 10 . . . . January 21, 2005
Hofmann's Potion traces D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) from its initial discovery in 1943 by Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann, through its heyday in the 1960s counterculture, to its present status as a banned or controlled substance in many Western countries. The film offers a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of the chemists, biochemists, psychiatrists, and psychologists in the 1940s and '50s who privileged the model of mental illness based on brain chemistry over and above the psychoanalytic model in vogue at that time. Stationed in Canada, the United States, England, and Czechoslovakia, these pioneers made unprecedented advancements in treating various mental illnesses with LSD. Yet despite the rigorous standards the researchers adhered to, their groundbreaking work was choked out by the negative publicity that cropped up around amateurish thrill-seekers on LSD in the 1960s.
Director Connie Littlefield's documentary unfolds through a series of interviews with nine researchers, juxtaposed with archival interviews from the 1950s and '60s. Since the narrator intervenes only minimally and there is no visible or audible interviewer, interviewees appear to address viewers directly. Littlefield presents the interviewees as competent, intelligent, articulate academics with a thorough knowledge of LSD and a great compassion for human beings. The researchers are just as passionate about their work in the contemporary footage as they are in the archival clips.
The film very subtly encourages a mythic and mystic view of its subject(s). Consider, for instance, the prominence of the numbers seven and three, which connote perfection and completeness respectively. Titles separate the film into seven sections, while researchers are auspiciously grouped in threes: Osmond, Hoffer, and Blewett at Weyburn; Timothy Leary, Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert), and Ralph Metzner at Harvard. Additionally, the total number of interviewees is a factor of three. Most remarkable, however, is that the film carefully avoids referring to LSD as a drug or "acid," but rather shrouds it in mystery by calling it a "substance."
Moreover, the film is replete with aural and visual connotations that reinforce myth and mystery. First of all, the documentary employs music to convey its decorous approach to LSD: the classical strains of Bach on cello and violin grace the interviewees with an aura of refinement and composure. Then, too, researchers contemplate their experiences and opinions in well-modulated tones that exude professionalism, sealing their credibility. In comparison, the images of nature set off Hofmann's opening statement in which he points out that psychedelic compounds occur naturally in the plant world. Mountains, grass, trees, sunsets, and Saskatchewan wheat fields waving in the wind pass before a viewer's eyes. Although the kaleidoscopic colors commonly associated with LSD trips abound, they are contained in fragile butterflies and flowers. All in all, the film's images present a serene and benevolent natural world, one which facilitates an audience's acceptance of the naturalness of LSD.
Essentially, LSD alters one's state of consciousness. LSD consumers generally report a heightened cognizance of textures, colors, and spatiality. A number of individuals testify to having undergone an intense self-scrutiny. Hofmann, for example, recalls that his initial, accidental ingestion of a very small amount of LSD led to his "seeing the world in a different way." Apparently, LSD can even produce schizophrenic-like symptoms.
Yet precisely because so little was known about LSD at first, researchers with the Weyburn Psychiatric Hospital in 1959 opted to test the substance on themselves before prescribing it for patients. The trio of Humphry Osmond, Abram Hoffer, and Duncan Blewett, consequently, were better able to identify with patients. They were, therefore, highly successful in treating patients with alcoholism, drug addictions, and schizophrenia. Under their supervision, and with the Province's endorsement, the Saskatchewan facility progressed "miles ahead" of other research centres of the time.
Not only were Osmond, Hoffer, and Blewett instrumental in establishing ground rules for LSD use, but other proponents of the substance soon joined them in emphasizing close attention to set and setting. The film identifies "set" as that which one brings to one's experience; it encompasses life experiences, memories, aspirations, and unconscious material. "Setting," on the other hand, is the place where one has the experience, and includes both one's physical surroundings and one's companions. Researchers found that introducing props, such as classical music and strobe lighting, for example, promoted the effectiveness of the psychedelic experience.
In the 1960s, due in part to charismatic advocates such as Captain Al Hubbard, Aldous Huxley, and Leary, LSD gained notoriety outside of medical and academic communities. While some people hailed LSD as a "spiritual antidote to the atom bomb," others blamed the substance for increased activism. Ultimately, when the U.S. government banned LSD, a number of other Western countries followed suit. What the authorities failed to consider, however, was that the proportion of the population who turned to LSD for recreational use by and large disregarded the crucial roles of set and setting.
At present, the film asserts, the greatest irony is that LSD is readily available on the black market while legitimate researchers are forbidden to experiment with it. Given LSD's proven therapeutic benefits, the interviewees want the bans lifted; concurrently, they favor the ritualization of LSD, drawing analogies between it and peyote. The interviewees contrast the government's dispensation to Natives Americans, who freely incorporate peyote into their ceremonies with its intolerance of LSD-touting middle-class white folk. Here the film slyly suggests that the more "primitive" of the two cultures assumes the more civilized approach to psychedelic substances. Furthermore, as Metzner contends, North Americans already surround themselves with conscious-altering substances: the ritual morning cup of coffee is perhaps the most conspicuous example. In fact, Metzner explains, consciousness naturally varies through the cycle of waking, sleeping, and dreaming.
Hofmann's Potion, then, provides a venue in which these pioneering individuals can, probably for the first time, present their version of the story. The film clearly shows that LSD research was not a continuous psychedelic party, as some might have imagined but involved serious study. In one respect, the film is a lament for the greater good that might have been had these men been allowed to continue their work. At the same time, it invites viewers to consider the possibilities that may yet exist. Therefore, the film hopes to reach an audience discriminating enough, open-minded enough, to put aside its preconceived notions and reevaluate the role of LSD. Littlefield concludes the film with Hofmann's unwavering conviction that "LSD will find the place it needs in human culture."
Julie Chychota has an M.A. in English from the University of Manitoba. She currently works for the U of M and Red River College in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.