John C. Lilly, an American physician, neuroscientist, psychoanalyst, philosopher and inventor, injected seven dolphins with LSD in an attempt to teach them English. Four committed suicide by refusing to eat or breathe.
Review of “Tripping on Utopia” by Benjamin Breen, The Wall Street Journal
I’ve come to the shore of the most convenient ocean in Massachusetts–the Atlantic, if you’re keeping score at home–to act as LSD trip “guide” for Clown, the only male dolphin to play the part of Flipper in the TV series. He’s more accomplished than the four female actresses who shared the role, Susie, Patty, Squirt and Scotty; he was the only one of the five who could perform the difficult “tail walk,” foreshadowing the vast differences between male and female athletes that humans are only now beginning to acknowledge.
Like most dolphins, Clown is highly intelligent. If he’d been in my senior “college prep” English class I can see him doing slightly better than the guy named Dave, who scoffed at all poetry, but not as well as Sharon, who went on to become valedictorian, beating a guy named Bill in a photo-finish. Bill never forgave Sharon and turned bitter, going on to med school and becoming a doctor. I happened to stumble onto a patient review of him many years later that said “This doctor needs to work on his bedside manner as he is very bitter and sarcastic and removed my liver instead of my appendix.”
Clown got in touch with me because he wanted to learn English, but didn’t want to take LSD as a study aide, the way wacko physician/neuroscientist John C. Lilly wanted him to. I came up with a solution that I thought quite elegant: stop viewing English as the outcome of LSD, and pursue them independently. I didn’t take LSD until I was a senior in high school, and yet I’d been a native speaker of English for the preceding sixteen years. Lilly was a highly-intelligent crackpot–the worst kind.
I’ve been drilling Clown with flash cards and introduced him to the book that got me started: “Here We Go!”–considered a classic of the elementary reader genre. I can remember my consternation when first confronted by the word “Here.” It didn’t make any sense; what was the second “e” for? It was my introduction to the vagaries of the English language, which I have–I think–mastered despite the whole “I before E except after C or when sounded as A as in neighbor and weigh” conundrum. They didn’t teach us the last line in first grade: “But seizure and seize do what they please.” Not sure why they withheld that vital information, but shortly after I started school the Soviet Union beat the U.S. to space with Sputnik 1, setting off dire fears that America was falling behind. If that secret formula had fallen into enemy hands, the Russians would have dominated spelling bees for years to come.
Clown and I are to meet off Hyannis Port, where my in-laws have a place. I am surprised to see him swim up in a gaudy tie-dyed T-shirt, and as much as I want our trip to get off on the right foot, I need to set some ground rules in place.
“Hey Clown–what’s with the tacky outfit?”
“Ork,” he begins–the dolphin equivalent of “Oh, this?”
“I thought . . .”
“Never mind what you thought. Becoming ‘experienced’ doesn’t mean you abandon all standards of taste in clothing.”
He is abashed, and he should be. Kinda like the kid who tried to crash my high school garage band’s practice wearing a scally cap and carrying a tambourine, like Eddie Brigati of The Young Rascals.
“Sorry,” he mumbles through a mouthful of salt water.
“It’s not the outward and visible signs that are important,” I say, paraphrasing the Baltimore Catechism’s definition of a sacrament. “It’s the inward and spiritual grace.”
The first thing we need to do is select the appropriate music. A lot of trip guides say Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the ultimate psychedelic background music, but I say that’s like starting your swimming lessons with the English Channel. You’ve got to work up to it with something softer–Buffalo Springfield maybe for the shot, Steve Miller Band for the chaser. Whatever you do, no Canned Heat or Blue Cheer on an empty stomach.
“You sure you’re ready for this?” I ask as I take a tab wrapped in foil out of my wallet.
“I . . . I guess.”
“That’s not good enough. You’ve got to be absolutely sure–I don’t want you freaking out on me. The doctors at Cape Cod Hospital aren’t the world-class physicians we have in Boston.”
He blows an anxious little puff of wind out his hole. “Do you think it will hurt my chances of getting into a good school?”
“It could, if you go completely around the bend. On the other hand, it might open up the doors of perception . . .”
“I tried to read that, but couldn’t get through it.”
“Same thing happened to me with ‘Here We Go!’ but I didn’t give up.”
“Was ‘Here We Go!’ good?”
“I thought the plot was thin and the characters one-dimensional, but it’s a good place to start if English is your second language.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a try. But you were saying . . .”
“Oh, right. Psychedelic drugs can give you a sense of your potential . . . and at the same time scare the crap out of you that you’re wasting it.”
“Geez–that’s not the way they portrayed it on Dragnet.”
“They had to. They had Colgate-Palmolive as a sponsor, so they could only glorify legal drugs.”
Clown turns away and gazes out at the ocean. “I . . . I don’t think I want to take the chance.”
“Probably a good idea. You’ve got a wonderful life ahead of you–swimming, eating other smaller fish . . .”
“I’m not a fish!”
“See . . . you’re too smart to take drugs!”