I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey yesterday for the first time in a number of years. I remember first seeing it in the 1970s (although it came out in 1968). I didn’t entirely follow it then. (Now I know why.) But there were certainly things I remembered. Also sprach Zarathustra by Richard Strauss, of course, and the Kyrie by György Ligeti, which – when we played the soundtrack record at night in our big house in the country – made the hair on the back of my neck stand up and had me closing the drapes and looking over my shoulder. Music like that can really awaken things from the basement of your mind that seem to lurk in wait for you.
But also, and perhaps even primarily so, I remembered the ending. I didn’t understand the ending – again, no big surprise, given that even now I can think about it and discuss it with others at length and inconclusively, each interpretation reflecting something about the interpreter – but I remembered the vivid colours swirling past. To quote the Mad magazine parody (“201 Min. of a Space Idiocy”): Bowman (Bowtie, as they call him) says, “WOW! What a fantastic psychedelic display!!” and the monolith responds, “What did you expect . . . ?! You just crashed through the brand new 105-story ‘Jupiter Museum of Op Art’!”
Yes, psychedelic. A word that has a strong taste of the late 1960s, with its acid trips and intense colour choices. I almost feel as though the word should be represented in wildly contrasting colours: psychedelic. Doesn’t that look right? After all, what is psychedelic about but colours, wild, swirling, vivid colours? In my youth I had the idea that if psychedelic meant “psycho colours”, then something that had all colours must be pandelic. That’s how indelible the association was for me.
But the delic, as delicious and indelible (and perhaps inedible) as it may be, is not related to colours. It calls not so much for pompous pageantry of paint as for a psychopomp (as befits the circumstance). It is not that psychedelic drugs are so named because of the psychedelic colours they are associated with; it is rather the converse. The word is from ψυχή psyché “breath, life, soul, spirit” and δηλοῦν déloun “make manifest, reveal”.
The idea with psychedelics is thus not that your psyche is a delenda (thing to be destroyed) but rather that it is to be displayed so you can deal with it. If you’re going to blow your mind, you’re going to blow it wide open.
This is not mere food for thought; it is a transmogrified smorgasbord, a psycho deli. It takes what lies down in the root cellar of your mind, like the descenders on p and y, and sprouts it into shoots reaching heavenward h d l, and finally detaching i – yes, and at the end you say “i c.” Your eyes go from merely open c to half-closed e e to fully open at last c. But beware of the snake lurking s.
You can even hear it hiss, that snake: /s/ as you slide into the word. But then you shoot to the back and knock hard /k/, bounce back and against the front /d/ and /l/, and finally again to the back /k/ again. It’s like Bowman blasting into the airlock to get back into the ship: he flies in to the back, bounces again to the door, and finally ends at the back. (But that scene is before he gets to Jupiter.)
And what words does psychedelic most often modify? What you would expect: drugs, music, colors, rock. It truly is part and parcel of an era. But we must acknowledge that the word was actually confected in 1956 – by the British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond in a letter to Aldous Huxley. Huxley did more to popularize it. But Timothy Leary et al. did somewhat more to spread the actual experience.
Which reminds me of one of my favourite albums of rock from that era, the more literally than just stylistically psychedelic In Search of the Lost Chord by the Moody Blues, which includes a song, “Legend of a Mind,” about Timothy Leary. I suggest giving it a listen with stereo headphones on to get the full psychedelic experience – you can get the rather trippy stereophonic version at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldSFuEOA9wc.
You may want to follow that with the possibly even trippier “The Best Way to Travel,” www.youtube.com/watch?v=UItRRh9Cfiw. “Speeding through the universe,” they proclaim, “thinking is the best way to travel.” Perhaps 2001’s Bowman should have travelled by thinking instead of by spaceship. Perhaps, in the end, he did…