‘I was lit­er­ally hold­ing the face of Bin Laden’

How do you de­scribe drug ex­pe­ri­ences us­ing mere words? With great dif­fi­culty, dis­cov­ers Steven Poole

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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

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