‘I was literally holding the face of Bin Laden’
How do you describe drug experiences using mere words? With great difficulty, discovers Steven Poole
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND
these substances really be spiritual panaceas after all?
To answer that question, Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of foodist tomes such as
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has talked to the neuroscientists and psychologists who are reviving psychedelic research, and has undertaken a psychonaut’s odyssey to see what taking this stuff really feels like. On his first mushroom trip, he stares at a hydrangea: “I felt as though I were communing directly with a plant for the first time.” The plant’s opinion is not here recorded. Later he visits “underground guides” in California and elsewhere: they supervise his experiences, which include taking LSD and smoking the venom of a toad. This often takes place in a yurt.
“Tell a dream, lose a reader,” warned Henry James, and it’s hard to imagine he would not have insisted on the same rule for descriptions of drug trips. There is something sweetly self-conscious about the fact that Pollan himself realises his “travelogue” of psychedelic visions reads like lurid nonsense, and laments the fact that mere words cannot capture his experience. Nonetheless, he gives us a lot of mere words. “‘I’ now turned into a sheaf of little papers,” he reports, “and they were being scattered to the wind… I was paint!” Et cetera. Even worse are the reported experiences of others. One “life coach and energy healer” tells the author that, while tripping, she was “literally holding the face of Osama bin Laden” and pouring love into him. “I had the same experience with Hitler,” she adds, “and then someone from North Korea.” It probably doesn’t matter who.
For Pollan, the good news is that such descriptions make a powerful kind of sense to him, now that his doors of perception have been opened. “A phrase like ‘boundless being,’” he writes, “which once I might have skated past as overly abstract and hyperbolic, now communicated something specific and even familiar.” That’s nice. But it might imply that you will only really understand Pollan’s book if you take the same drugs as he did – in which case you don’t really need it. (Full disclosure: I haven’t.)
Arguably the most evocative description of the mystical drug experience in the book is provided not by the author himself, but by a philosopher who participated in a psilocybin study. On the way home, he told his wife: “I felt as though I had been repeatedly sucked into the asshole of God.”
Probably it would be unfair to harp too much on Pollan’s failure to describe the ineffable, which by definition eludes description, though without such musings, and his rambling interviews with other enthusiasts, the book might have been little longer than an interesting magazine article, of the kind Pollan himself wrote a few years back in The New Yorker. The book does at least contain a kernel of intriguing history that Pollan (or, at least, the research assistants he thanks) has uncovered about the early research into psychedelics, which began in Canada in the Fifties thanks to two pioneering psychiatrists, Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer. Osmond, who was British, coined the term “psychedelic” – which means “mind-manifesting” – in a letter to the novelist Aldous Huxley, who had suggested the rather more obscure term “phanerothyme”. By 1959, no less a figure than Cary Grant had enjoyed more than 60 sessions of LSD therapy, and declared himself “born again”.
In the Sixties, the famous psychologist Timothy Leary, who advocated therapeutic LSD use, jumped on the bandwagon in a deliberate decision to become a “guru”: he founded something splendidly called the “International Federation for Internal Freedom”, and the Beatles’ Come Together started out as a campaign song when he ran for governor of California. But it is Leary’s rhetorical excess that is often blamed for the eventual moral panic and “crackup”, by the end of the decade, which shut down official research.
Pollan, while soberly noting the “irrational exuberance” that seems to affect users of these drugs when discussing their potential, has caught the same proselytising virus. Only briefly does he report the sceptical scientific view about psychedelic experiences, which is that they are just a temporary substance-induced psychosis.
He gives a lot more space to optimistic theories that the drugs, if widely consumed, would elevate humanity to a higher plane, where presumably we would all be singing “Kumbaya” and gazing in wonder at leaves. I confess I did enjoy learning about the “Stoned Ape theory”, which is that, as early hominids, our ancestors ate magic mushrooms and thus got a leg up from the universe to evolve into the properly intelligent and self-conscious creatures we are now, certain politicians notwithstanding.
The modern prospects for treating severe depression and addiction with psychedelics, however, do look extremely promising, at least according to
Pollan undergoes a psychonaut’s odyssey to see what taking this stuff is really like
OPEN THE DOORS OF PERCEPTIONGiuseppe Maria Scotese’s 1968 Acid – Delirio dei Sensi, right; and a hippy in San Francisco, below