Charles Simic

The New York Review of Books - - Contents -


says. He also sus­pects that the pro­duc­tion of psilo­cy­bin was an adap­ta­tion on the part of toad­stools to win the de­vo­tion of Homo sapi­ens and thereby en­large the species’s range.

In the course of writ­ing his novel Taipei, which in his new mem­oir Trip he calls “my first book to in­clude psychedelics,” Tao Lin searched for ar­ti­fi­cial par­adises with psy­choac­tive drugs such as LSD and psilo­cy­bin. At the be­gin­ning of Trip he de­scribes the ex­tent of the ex­is­ten­tial nau­sea and alien­ation he felt dur­ing these years:

Life still seemed bleak to me, as it had in evolv­ing ways since I was thir­teen or four­teen. I was chron­i­cally not fas­ci­nated by ex­is­tence, which, though of­ten amus­ing and poignant, did not feel won­der­ful or pro­found but te­dious and un­com­fort­able and trou­bling. Life did seem mys­te­ri­ous, but in­creas­ingly only in a blunt, cheap, slightly dead­pan, some­how un­in­trigu­ing man­ner.

In this, his first non­fic­tional work, he goes on to de­scribe how he fi­nally found a cure for ac­ci­die, the eighth deadly sin, “on Septem­ber 14, 2012,” by watch­ing thirty hours of the YouTube videos of Ter­ence McKenna. McKenna, the ad­vo­cate for psychedelics whom Ti­mothy Leary once called “one of the five or six most im­por­tant peo­ple on the planet,” be­comes Lin’s shaman from be­yond the grave. (He died in 2000 at fifty-three from a ma­lig­nant brain tu­mor.) McKenna’s so­lil­o­quys in­struct the young writer to ob­serve things in greater depth and de­tail, erad­i­cate his nar­cis­sism, and live in an at­mos­phere of con­tin­u­ous un­fold­ing of un­der­stand­ing. From McKenna Lin also learns that in­gest­ing the psychedelics that oc­cur nat­u­rally in plants can stim­u­late his imag­i­na­tion and deepen his re­la­tion­ship with na­ture. McKenna’s apho­risms re­cur through­out the book:

I don’t be­lieve any­thing.

I would en­ter­tain any idea, but be­lieve in noth­ing.

I don’t be­lieve in be­lief. Avoid gu­rus, fol­low plants.

Nei­ther Pol­lan nor Lin uses psychedelics sim­ply in the hope of in­duc­ing a plea­sur­able al­tered state of con­scious­ness. But whereas Pol­lan con­ducts his psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ences un­der the guise of jour­nal­is­tic in­quiry, Lin’s trips are mo­ti­vated by a be­lief that his brain is chron­i­cally de­pleted of the chem­i­cals that cause us to feel hap­pi­ness or won­der. He is vul­ner­a­ble and strug­gling to find mean­ing in his life. His de­pen­dence on the In­ter­net and on his cell phone com­pounds his con­fu­sion and malaise. He hopes that nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring psychedelics will have a heal­ing force, help him un­der­stand his own mor­tal­ity, and show him why he is driven to make art.

Lin al­ways pro­vides the num­ber of atoms con­tained in each mind-bend­ing mol­e­cule and en­joys draw­ing their chem­i­cal struc­tures. He writes that in an in­ter­view from 1988 McKenna had said that com­pared with LSD, DMT (“the God mol­e­cule”) was “so much more alien, rais­ing all kinds of is­sues about what is re­al­ity, what is lan­guage, what is the self, what is three-di­men­sional space and time.” Dur­ing one trip, Lin imag­ines that he has been fired out of a can­non into the Milky Way. But it takes him twenty-nine pages of in­scrutable text to de­scribe his wak­ing DMT dream:

At 3:30 A.M., sum­ma­riz­ing my last two hours, I typed “Re­cov­ered the video! By delet­ing a photo, then go­ing to Edit then Undo Delete twice. Then watched it, then re­turned to be­gin­ning and sum­ma­rized first 19:32 of video, work­ing hard.” I was asleep an hour later. “Can close my eyes and en­joy­ably deeply imag­ine and hear Chopin sonatas.”

With a mix of bravado and courage Lin then smokes the leaf of Salvia di­vi­no­rum, which con­tains the ex­tremely po­tent psy­che­delic salvi­norin A. Af­ter black­ing out for a mo­ment, he feels as if he’s trapped deep in­side him­self in what he calls “a Be­ing John Malkovich man­ner” and is be­ing ca­su­ally ob­served by for­eign en­ti­ties as dif­fer­ent from him as he is from a cloud. Lin’s ac­count some­times en­ters the third per­son, for in­stance in a pas­sage he writes af­ter his new psy­che­delic ex­pe­ri­ences while stoned on cannabis in San Fran­cisco:

Like with DMT in 2012, 2013, and 2014, Tao felt he should “re­cover more” be­fore try­ing re­la­tion­ships be­yond friend­ship. Hav­ing her­mit­like ten­den­cies, a job and main in­ter­est in life that was soli­tary, and gen­er­ally lik­ing be­ing alone, celibacy hadn’t been dif­fi­cult for him.

In the mid-1960s a moral panic broke out in the US over the recre­ational use of LSD. In 1966 Life pub­lished a damn­ing ar­ti­cle en­ti­tled “LSD: The Ex­plod­ing Threat of the Mind Drug That Got Out of Con­trol.” Ti­mothy Leary said in 1967 that “the kids who take LSD aren’t go­ing to fight your wars” or “join your cor­po­ra­tions,” which led Richard Nixon to cas­ti­gate him a few years later as the most dan­ger­ous man in Amer­ica. Those who ral­lied to the drug’s de­fense were not pa­tients with se­vere men­tal ill­ness or psy­chi­a­trists but Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties like Cary Grant and lib­er­als like Sen­a­tor Robert Kennedy, whose wife Ethel was said to have been treated with LSD for neu­ro­sis.

LSD was banned, first in the US and then in many other coun­tries, and in 1970 was clas­si­fied by the Drug En­force­ment Agency as a Sched­ule I drug—one with no medic­i­nal prop­er­ties and a high po­ten­tial for abuse. But even be­fore clin­i­cal use of psychedelics had been de­railed by the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture, many psy­chi­a­trists had given up us­ing them be­cause of their in­con­sis­tent ef­fects. Re­ports of peo­ple jump­ing off rooftops or run­ning into the sea and drown­ing, al­though rare, were a fur­ther de­ter­rent. By 1975 re­search on LSD and other mind-al­ter­ing drugs had slowed to a trickle.

Some who have fought for the le­gal­iza­tion of psychedelics for many years, like Rick Doblin of the Mul­tidis­ci­plinary As­so­ci­a­tion for Psy­che­delic Stud­ies (MAPS), imag­ine that mak­ing them pre­scrip­tion drugs will pave the way for their in­cor­po­ra­tion into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety and cul­ture. Doblin ex­plains to Pol­lan that MAPS is un­der­tak­ing a $25 mil­lion trial to make MDMA (which goes by the street names ec­stasy and molly) a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion–ap­proved pre­scrip­tion medicine to com­ple­ment psy­chother­apy in the treat­ment of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

But al­low­ing physi­cians to con­trol the pre­scrip­tion of mind-al­ter­ing sub­stances is not with­out its own risks. In the 1950s mil­lions of peo­ple legally took am­phet­a­mines as a sup­pos­edly risk-free short­cut to so­bri­ety and slim­ness. One ad­ver­tise­ment in a med­i­cal jour­nal showed a car­toon of a plump woman eat­ing a pie with the slo­gan “with Methedrine she can hap­pily refuse.” The re­cent widespread pre­scrip­tion of syn­thetic opi­oids, which many doc­tors naively be­lieved had a neg­li­gi­ble risk of de­pen­dence, has caused an ad­dic­tion cri­sis that now af­fects large parts of the US.

Rather than main­tain­ing un­en­force­able bans, gov­ern­ments might li­cense clubs where mem­bers could in­gest le­gal com­pounds, specif­i­cally man­u­fac­tured with hu­man con­sump­tion in mind, for the pur­poses of spir­i­tual en­hance­ment and cre­ative in­spi­ra­tion. In 1844 Théophile Gau­tier founded one such group, the outré Club des Hashischins, to ex­plore the ex­pe­ri­ences hashish could in­duce. Mem­bers in­cluded Alexan­dre Du­mas, Charles Baude­laire, Vic­tor Hugo, and Gérard de Ner­val. Jac­ques Joseph Moreau, an alienist, sup­plied the mem­bers with Egyp­tian hashish, even though In­dian hemp could be bought eas­ily at a phar­macy.

Many edi­tors of learned med­i­cal jour­nals now au­to­mat­i­cally turn down pub­li­ca­tions de­scrib­ing the sort of sci­en­tific in­ves­ti­ga­tion that Al­bert Hof­mann car­ried out on him­self. In­sti­tu­tional re­view boards are of­ten scathing in their crit­i­cism of self-ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, de­spite its hal­lowed tra­di­tion in medicine, be­cause they con­sider it sub­jec­tive and bi­ased. But the hu­man de­sire to al­ter con­scious­ness and en­rich self-aware­ness shows no sign of re­ced­ing, and some­one must al­ways go first. As long as care and dili­gence ac­com­pany the sort of per­sonal re­search con­ducted by Pol­lan and Lin, it has the po­ten­tial to be as re­veal­ing and in­for­ma­tive as any work on psy­che­delic drugs con­ducted within the rigid con­fines of uni­ver­si­ties.

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