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Chapel of Extreme Experience: A Short History of Flicker

by John Geiger

When 16-year old Brion Gysin hopped a train from Edmonton in 1932, it was with the intention of leaving bourgeois burgs forever, the better to become a traveller, poet, painter, and all-around student of ecstasy. In every one of these goals he succeeded: by 1958 the sky-eyed hipster had become a key member of a small group of avant-garde writers – among them William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg – living and working in the peerlessly arty Beat Hotel in Paris.

Their mission was to refute the sterile, flaccid world of American postwar values by pursuing amped-up, holy consciousness, to escape into better worlds by any means necessary. Drugs were good, but then, mindful of Burroughs’ dictum that anything that can be done chemically can be done in other ways, Gysin became interested in the possibilities of a machine that could stimulate higher consciousness through flickering light.

Working from a portable prototype for such a machine, and remembering an instant of disorientation years previously, when the setting sun behind a line of trees had produced “a transcendental storm of color visions,” Gysin constructed a perforated cyclinder, mounted it on a revolving base, and fixed a light source in the centre. He discovered that prolonged exposure to the spinning cylinder produced not only a brainstorm of overwhelming colours and patterns but a tremendous sense of the infinite. As John Geiger’s excellent book recounts, Gysin’s Dream Machine remains the best known – but not the only – chapter in the story of the stroboscope.

Science has long explored brain/eye/light interplay, but by mid-century scientists had run into various investigative backwaters. Then in the late 1950s the tantalizing if unquantifiable results of flicker research moved from laboratories into the hands of filmmakers, pop musicians, and, in Timothy Leary’s phrase, “the cosmonauts of inner space.” Whereupon the 1960s happened, and suddenly variations on the light show were everywhere.

Gysin failed to fully anticipate psychedelic culture, and he had mixed feelings about the advent of stroboscopic Friday night thrills down at the local hippie pit. For Gysin’s generation, transcendence was essentially a private, almost studious experience. The idea was that tripping would increase human potential, one head at a time. One of the most engrossing aspects of Chapel of Extreme Experience (the title refers to an art exhibit of Gysin’s) is the fact that Gysin always intended the Dream Machine for normal, workaday people.

Geiger’s readable, authoritative, beautifully designed pocket history does us all a great favour by reminding readers of what is wondrous in life. There’s also the what if factor. What if this peoples’ psyche machine had in fact taken off? What if everyone could access worlds otherwise denied us? Chapel of Extreme Experience is full of such down-the-rabbit-hole stuff, most notably the fact that Edmonton gets a walk-on part in one of the most unEdmonton-like cultural chapters of modern times.