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.