Peter Weissman: A Stoned Disciple of Weed
William S. Burroughs once said that hallucinogens are “absolutely contraindicated for creative work” and while this may be true, they also make for absolutely great creative anamnesis. I say this having just finished reading Peter Weissman’s memoir, I Think Therefore Who Am I? which documents a year of his life spent as one of many “stoned disciples of weed” in New York city. Weissman’s literary endeavours began that same year, in 1968, with a “yellow writing pad…a pack of cigarettes…and a tin canister” of marijuana, but veered off course with increased use of drugs which propelled his descent into sedition. It took him almost 30 years to capture the hazy zeitgeist of the era on paper but he has done so beautifully and with a quasi-stoned power of description which is vibrant and opaque, acoustic and allusive all at once.
I Think Therefore Who Am I? opens with two young men, Peter and his best friend Mark Greendbaum, shuffling along “gray streets” overflowing with “brick facades and cars lining the curbs, garbage cans and fire escapes” with no particular destination in mind. Their friendship, solidified by years of familiarity and the seeming innocence of the two characters, their mutual shyness and the novelty of big-city life, binds them together in their ideological convictions as well as their shortcomings. Weissman notes: “Mark and I saw ourselves as rebels. We opposed the war and demonstrated against it. We were prepared to convince the draft board we were insane, homosexual, whatever it took, and to go to Canada, if it came to that. We excoriated the government and authority in general. Yet as male adults taken with the notion of women and what it meant to be men, we lacked the rebellious bravado…” This unifying sense of camaraderie quickly bifurcates as Peter becomes swept up in a whirlwind tour shrouded in “blue haze of cigarette smoke… salt-paper and pot”. Weissman, somewhat unwittingly, finds himself “taking epic treks across Manhattan”, toking on numerous joints, taking acid, frequenting iniquitous basement dens and partaking in the sexual politics among the Bohemian utopia of late 60s New York. He chronicles his “drugged memories” and escapades through rooms reminiscent of “crazed bomb shelters,” urban enclaves “throbbed with libidinous energy,” and phantasmagorical scenes of “people tripping out, getting sectioned” with beatnik aplomb and a droll, unassuming manner.
The memoir, therefore, has the enthralling feel of a picaresque and is studded with varied and peculiar characters, domiciled “like lost souls in Dante” around the hub of activity, including some of his closest associates of the time such as Arnie Glick whom Weissman remembers as “the sort of guy who’s conversation didn’t require reflection”, Rose the “domestic peasant in the kitchen”, Don Juan Goldberg “who attempted to live up to his name,” Richie Klein a “speed freak among acid heads”, LA Ray with his “glib self confidence” and Emily with Tom who made one feel like “a boy in a grown-up world”. Along with his best friend Mark who always “lived life in his head” and Patrick with his “cleft chin and rugged square face”, this multifarious group would have “smoke[d] or swallow[d] anything to get high.” Weissman has a deft hand in relaying the “life-size diorama” of the swarming and “disreputable characters lounging in doorways and lingering on corners,” and inducts the reader into the private passel of domestic politics and the counterculture lifestyle underpinned by the belief that nothing really matters except one’s own hedonistic quest for freedom. Often the drug-fuelled gatherings evolve into philosophical contemplations as the interlocutors find themselves “talking politics and bemoaning the world’s condition.” Occasionally the fragmented, time-warped, discussions venture into man’s mortality emphasised by the realisation that “You shop you, you eat, you read, you die”. Weissman unloads his brimming psyche item by item, like any budding writer who had left home to undertake an idyllic, Bohemian quest to pursue a literary adventure. This ethos stands Weissman quite comfortably although in his most familiar environs he remains one of the “neighbourhood idlers who’d been at it too long.”
Reading I Think Therefore Who Am I? made me wish I could dispense with my shoes, weave flowers into my hair, don a paisley print smock and drop acid. But above and beyond the drugs and the New York “jumble of skyscrapers” and the panorama of “an ochre smudge of pollution” and human debris the memoir is much more substantive and reveals a brilliant but achingly self-conscious young man and his compelling urge to discover himself and his place under the sun. Yet perhaps the two elements are so indivisibly enmeshed that one cannot be read without the other, as Weissman himself notes: “…there were drugs. Always, there were drugs. No history of that time can be understood without them, an influence and obsession.” In fact, it is difficult to imagine this particular memoir without the drugs or their part in its making, for they have shaped both Weissman’s life and prose style into a syntax brimming with vagaries, memories and apprehensions recollected through a markedly subversive tendency of mind made so by the author’s undertakings. I Think Therefore Who Am I? combines polemic, exploit and diablerie making it a unique, intense and candid chef d’oeuvre circumscribing Weissman’s experiences and the epoch of intensely perfervid political activity and free love. And like all good explorations of the self I Think Therefore Who Am I? doesn’t hold back, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the funny and the heartbreaking head first as we witness Weissman getting repeatedly stoned (and repeatedly robbed), submerging into philosophy and then astrology, feeling increasingly “like cipher”, losing all his earthly possessions, his friends and his virginity, going to Frisco and returning back to New York only to be “humbled by a dog” and humiliated by his girlfriend and her lover. Whatever else the memoir lacks it has life throbbing through it from cover to cover.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates once mumbled and perhaps the old stoic was right. I Think Therefore Who Am I? is a hallucinatory reportage, a sublime recreation of a psychedelic year portrayed with a vivacity which conveys the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life as the elusive, surreal images sometimes harden into uncharacteristic philosophical verities and beyond. Weissman’s idealistic notions of the hippy lifestyle and the social ethos of the late 60s are debunked by his own hand through trial and error of the awkward youthful misfit he once was while looking for himself and a place to belong. It makes for an interesting read as he has a great ability to mix raw sentiment in a provocative and utterly candid manner which both ingratiates him with the reader but also makes him, at times, seem somewhat disagreeable. I Think Therefore Who Am I? takes many swerves, abruptly imploring you to skid along through a landscape of sex, drugs and politics, sometimes laughing, other times lachrymose, while Weissman grapples with his own identity and the life ahead of him. Speaking of the year chronicled in his memoir, Peter Weissman described it as a “psychic battering” but also as an experience he’s neither keen to forget nor apologise for, concluding confidently that his life, whatever it was back in those days, was worth examining.