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Altered States at Houghton Library

Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library runs through December 16, 2017 in the Edison and Newman Room, free and open to the public.  

 
Close-up of a psychedelic book on display

The search for something beyond the limits of ordinary experience—for transcendence—has preoccupied humanity for millennia. Religion, the occult, music, drugs: various paths have been taken in the hope of achieving it. In Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library, one collector’s quest to document the history of this search through rare books, manuscripts, photographs, posters, comics, and ephemera is celebrated.

Investment advisor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, Jr. (1957-2009) assembled the world’s largest private collection documenting psychoactive drugs and their physical and social effects. He was a man of restless intelligence, with a pronounced and often off-beat sense of humor, engaged by both high and popular culture. His collection, the Ludlow-Santo Domingo (LSD) Library, documents in depth the interrelated themes of drugs and sex over the past 400 years.

The exhibition, including some 120 objects drawn from the 50,000+ LSD Library items at Harvard, focuses on six of the many topics represented in the collection: opium, psychedelics, cocaine, marijuana, sex, and social protest. The items chosen represent different aspects of each topic: cultivation or synthesis, medical uses and legal constraints, and artistic and literary works, manifested in the rare and precious, the common and the ephemeral.

Highlights include illustrations of poppies in a 16th-century doctor’s manual; an album of delicate 19th-century Chinese paintings showing stages of opium production; self-portraits drawn under the influence of LSD; and posters from the Black Panthers and the May 1968 student protests in Paris. A selection of classic literature, including work by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas De Quincy, Charles Baudelaire, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg; and association copies such as Adolf Hitler’s annotated Kokain by Pitigrilli and Timothy Leary’s notes on Aleister Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend, rub shoulders with pulp fiction, and underground comics illustrated by R. Crumb and Trina Robbins. Medical works on therapeutic drug use, and true-life tales of crime and addiction, provide a sobering reminder of the danger of excess. Sex, another path towards transcendence, is explored through poet Pierre Louÿs’s sex diary; erotica by Guy de Maupassant, Pauline Réage and others; and the first X-rated comic, Barbarella. Works on birth control, AIDS prevention, the Illustrated Presidential Report . . . on Obscenity and Pornography, and a female condom, show the individual and social consequences such exploration may provoke.

Curated by Leslie A. Morris, Curator of Modern Books & Manuscripts, Houghton Library, with assistance from Harvard Library colleagues.

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