Counterculture before counterculture

Dr. G. McIver
6 min readFeb 23, 2024

Art, Science and Psychonauts — in 18the century Europe

High Weirdness

I just finished reading Erik Davis’s magnificent and startling High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the Seventies. In the book, Davis discusses the lives and work of three 1970s California writers, the “psychonauts” Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson and Terence McKenna. Of course, these three were not just writers; they were thinkers that both produced and reflected the “counterculture” — exploring drug-induced consciousness, and the occult, and Every one of the psychonauts realised-in their unique ways-that a nonhuman intelligence exists, beyond the human ability to fathom it.

Erik Davis High Weirdness book

The concept of nets or networks is central to Davis’s work. Davis shows that the idea of the net or network is central to the culture that the psychonauts and their companions inhabited.

‘The term network puts a technical spin on the benign conspiracy of friends and family . . . a “synchronicity mesh” that does not tell stories so much as build a matrix of implications distributed non-hierarchically throughout spacetime. Of course, such a lattice can appear oppressive as well as liberating and loving; one person’s blissful realisation that “everything is connected” is another person’s terrifying glimpse into the locked grooves of a cosmic prison.’

Erik Davis High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica and Visionary Experience in the 70s

I’m originally from the West Coast, so I recognised aspects of the West Coast mindset in Davis’s exploration of the subculture the psychonauts inhabited and the kind of influences that drifted around California at the time. Traces are still there, and tiny residues remain all up the Coast.

Now, I could have just thought that this was an interesting book about a specific time and place and left it at that. It is worth reading for its own sake. However, since I’ve put it down, the book has wormed its way into my thinking about my own research, which is about as far away from 70s California as it gets — or is it?

I’m also looking at the 70s, but in this case I’m looking at the 1770s. London (and to a lesser extent Europe). Philip James de Loutherbourg his circle of friends in the 1770's-80s, and the conjunction between his esoteric work as an alchemist and magician and his artwork as a painter, technical stage designer and inventor of visual special effects.

Davis got me thinking about that circle around Loutherbourg and the role of Emmanuel Swedenborg in influencing many people, but in a particular narrow slice of society, at the time. Swedenborg was never a wildly popular author, yet he managed to influence people who were themselves profoundly influential. I started to think about it. Could we call Swedenborg and his followers a counterculture? Is this an utterly anachronistic perspective? When we think of counterculture, we immediately think of the 60s and the 70s, but is it possible to take the concept of the counterculture and drag it back 200 years?

what is a counterculture?

Let’s see if this idea works. First of all, what is a counterculture? According to Chambers Dictionary, it’s ‘a culture or way of life that deliberately rejects the perceived social norm’. Does that fit? Well, to some extent — although the Swedenborgians and their followers and the occultists in Loutherbourg’s circle certainly paid at least lip service to perceived social norms. When you look a bit deeper they were doing things and believing things that veered quite dramatically from the prevailing orthodoxy. Swedenborg’s notion of conjugal love was, though conservative by our own standards, was kind of radical in an 18 th-century society when marriage was a transaction and female sexual pleasure not much discussed. The sex magick circles Loutherbourg and his friend Richard Cosway organised with their wives and friends sound positively Californian.

Science Direct explains counterculture as “a sociopolitical term indicating a point of dissent between dominant or mainstream ideologies and alternative value systems, creating a collective voice that can be considered a significant minority.” This is somewhat convincing, although it’s difficult to argue that the people involved constituted a ‘collective voice’ — given the state of media at the time. If we go back to Erik Davis’s idea of networks, strong networks were undoubtedly in place to connect them. Freemasonry was one of those networks, but the evidence shows that there was a lot of correspondence and travel. Cagliostro himself travelled from Sicily through Europe to Russia and most likely spent time in Egypt and the Levant. By doing this, he was both taking advantage of, and making, networks.

Science Direct says, “Countercultures share many similarities with subcultures, but rather than modifying dominant values and norms, they seek to reconstruct an alternative social order that rejects or subverts those values and norms.”

On the surface — yes, it’s too anachronistic to impose this meaning on the 1770s and 1780s however I think it can still employed at least partially as a working model to try to understand that network of persons, writings, images and behaviours that drew groups of people together to think entirely differently to the mainstream of Protestant England and the German territories and pre-revolutionary Catholic France — which were the regions primarily involved in the occult revival of the late 18th century.

Of course, Davis’s trio weren’t the only massively influential psychonauts in history. In Mike Jay’s book Psychonauts:Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind Jay explores how drug experiences spurred discoveries spanning the brain sciences. The fields of pharmacology, medicine, philosophy, art, and poetry were all influenced by individuals who self-experimented with drugs, from Sigmund Freud’s cocaine experiments to William James’s nitrous gas revelation. And among the artistic circles and intelligentsia, many people conducted their own experiments at literary salons, occult rituals, scientific demonstrations, and on exotic journeys. A long-lost intellectual tradition of drug use nourished the development of modernism, the unconscious, and psychology. These early psychonauts show how profoundly mind-altering substances impacted Western philosophy, culture, and science.

But not in the 18 thcentury. Right?

Wait — perhaps there were psychonauts in the 18th century!

In “Drugs in the Magick and Initiations of Count Cagliostro” Chris Bennett points out that ‘there are indications of psychoactive elixirs in Cagliostro’s branch of Egyptian Masonry, and these may have included various preparations for different purposes and … 19th century accounts refer also to the use of hashish by Cagliostro for both initiation and summoning spirits.’ He goes on to say that ‘there are surviving references to an “elixir of Saturn” administered by Cagliostro, but unfortunately, the recipe is lost’ but likely included nightshade, hemlock and hemp. Bennett concludes that ‘Cagliostro certainly had a reputation for philtres, elixirs and the various infusions of alchemy’, and the sources discussing his version of the Egyptian initiation rites are filled with references to these philtres and elixirs. Cagliostro was Sicilian, a region we associate with Italy but in fact was as much North African as it was Italian, perhaps more. He claimed to have studied magick in Egypt, which was full of wild hemp and acacia and we know that Egyptians used these herbs in psychoactive infusions.

Cagliostro’s friend Loutherbourg was also an alchemist and although he is not explicitly associated with a trade in philtres, this does not preclude his use of mind-altering substances.

In 1804 the teenager Thomas de Quincey began to take opium, which was legal and easily available (to smoke or more commonly as laudanum. His addiction led eventually to his autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) which influenced the development of psychology and abnormal psychology. Confessions also strongly resonated with attitudes towards dreams and imaginative literature, influencing Baudelaire, Poe and others. Networks again!

So, I’m not going to draw any concrete conclusions here, but I will say that I’m now starting to –- at least in my own mind — think about it. In the late 18th century, Europe — centred on London, almost the California of the era, being unusually permissive — had a kind of counterculture. Emmanuel Swedenborg was the breakthrough thinker who, with his scientific background and position firmly within the modern world, also opened up entirely new ways of thinking about the spiritual. Going far beyond and above the teachings of the established churches (yet without repudiating Christ or the Deity), Swedenborg opened the realm of the esoteric up to an audience of intelligentsia who really wanted and needed this new approach, this new culture, and all that it implied.

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High Weirdness Strange Attractor 2020

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Mike Jay Psychonauts:Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind Yale University Press 2023,dramatic%20economic%20and%20social%20developments.

Originally published at on February 23, 2024.