issue 140 October 1984
Visions from beyond
Traditional societies used drugs to put them in touch with the infinite.
Writers like Coleridge and Huxley were inspired by them.
And if the hippie Sixties had a religion it was probably LSD.
Huw Richards sifts through the claims that have been made for visionary drugs.
photo : Ray Hamilton /
THE shamans or holy men of Siberia once used the fly agaric, a mushroom, to generate the sixth sense that was their stock in trade. Travellers recorded numerous accurate predictions, while a particularly observant traveller noted that ‘those who use a small amount experience a feeling of extraordinary lightness, joy, courage and a state of energetic well-being’. Over-indulgers by contrast were in for convulsions and delusions, possibly the earliest recorded bad trips.
Overdosing clearly wasn’t the only risk of fly agaric. The urine of anyone who’d recently consumed it was guaranteed to attract every reindeer for miles. Given that answering a call of nature in the Siberian climate is pretty perilous anyway, prudent herders might have done better to use a bell.
The fly agaric is just one example of a drug which for centuries had a stable, legitimate role in the undeveloped society which first used it. Peyote is another. According to a seventeenth-century observer. Inca shamans using the cactus-derived drug might ‘foresee and predict anything: for instance whether enemies are going to attack the following day or who has stolen household goods’. The shamans also helped kill the last uncontested ruler of their empire by giving disastrous medical advice. But this was the exception. Generally they had a good record for accurate predictions.
It has been suggested that the visions of shamans under the influence of drugs are the product of an instinctive sixth sense which can produce deep insights. People in the industrialised world have, by developing rational thought and the language to go with it, repressed this instinct and the ability to see deeply. Primitive humans, it is argued, are not conditioned by expectations of what they ought or ought not to see and in their less controllable environments continue to need instinct as a defence mechanism.
A number of people have in the last 200 years attempted to recapture this instinctive visionary power by using drugs. Thomas de Quincey initially took laudanum, a common nineteenth-century painkiller derived from opium, to cure headaches. He found the side-effects remarkable: ‘Here was a panacea, here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages... portable ecstasies might be had corked in a pint bottle and peace of mind sent by mail’. However he was less keen on the horrible withdrawal symptoms.
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also delighted with the effects of laudanum: ‘The poet’s eye in his tipsy hour! Has a magnifying power / Or rather the soul emancipates the eye / Of the accidents of size’.
He found he could still direct his mind, but with his perceptions altered. While under the influence he composed ‘Kublai Khan’, only to be interrupted in writing it and to discover when his visitor had left that the tipsy hour had passed and he’d forgotten the rest of his masterpiece.
But the most lucid and wide-ranging of the literary explorers of visionary drugs was the British writer Aldous Huxley, who found mescaline or LSD a mystical experience. ‘A person who takes LSD or mescaline may suddenly understand, not only intellectually but organically, experientially — the meaning of such tremendous religious affirmations as "God is Love" and "Though he may slay me, yet will I love him".’
He claimed the unusual heightening of colour reported by all mescaline-takers gave him a perception of physical detail and colour of the power only usually possessed by artists of genius, and said mescaline delivered him from ‘The utilitarian considerations, the world of self-satisfaction, of cocksureness, of over-valued words and idolatrously worshipped notions’.
His explanation of the effects of the drug came from the theories of Cambridge Professor C D Broad. Broad’s research convinced Huxley that the mind has a cut-off mechanism which protects it from being overloaded with too much information. Without this defence the mind would become waterlogged with the superfluous. Huxley believed this mechanism reduced the mind to a fraction of its capacity. Geniuses were those who could by-pass the mechanism to use the whole mind —drugs could similarly help the less gifted evade the block.
Huxley died in 1963 and so saw only the beginning of the rise of the Sixties alternative culture, in which drugs were central. According to one commentator: ‘The underground, guided by the writings of Allen Ginsberg and Michael McClure (who eventually took to appearing at readings naked apart from a lions head) took drugs as a means of experiencing something in which one could place belief and faith.’
High priest of the faith was Dr Timothy Leary, a former Harvard Professor. He’d experienced a deep religious experience on taking magic mushrooms in Mexico in 1960 and started feverishly experimenting with the possibilities of LSD from his Harvard base, administering it to as wide a cross-section of Americans as possible.
Huxley had hoped to find a universal drug to develop human ability to the full. Leary felt he’d found it and wasn’t slow to tell the world: ‘If you can, for a moment, throw off the grip of your learned mind, your tribal concepts and experience the message contained in the ten-billion tube computer behind your forehead, you would know the aweful truth. Our recent studies support the hypothesis that psychedelic food and drugs, ingested by prepared subjects in a serious, sacred, supportive atmosphere, can put the subject in perceptive touch with other levels of energy exchange.’ Right on, man.
Leary’s ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’, became one of the catchphrases of the Sixties. His own career might be better summarised as ‘Turn on, get fired, get busted, get famous’, as he pursued one of the racier careers of recent times— sacked by Harvard, jailed for possession, then sprung to become a drug guru.
Today, in his sixties, he appears on the lecture circuit, still peddling his vision of an ideal world where everyone grows their own. A reviewer of his autobiography commented that his was ‘A good mind gone to pot’.
Plenty went with him — as the overloaded drug clinics of California would confirm. But even Leary was a distant second to Vietnam as an inducer to drug taking. The war, with its lethal combination of fear, boredom and availability of local supplies was a great fomentor of serious addiction.
Another drug guru is Carlos Castaneda, whose remarkable accounts of his experiences with Mexican indian shaman Don Juan revolved around the use of hallucinogenic drugs like peyote. Recent books like The Don Juan Papers have presented strong circumstantial evidence that Don Juan is just a fictional character. If so Castaneda is more of a charlatan than a shaman and has exploited the gullibility of a generation to the tune of millions of dollars. But some of his conclusions are still valid: ‘(Don Juan) succeeded in pointing out to me that my view of the world cannot be final because it is only an interpretation.’
The Sixties’ dream of LSD and other psychedelic drugs as the universal solution was clearly a naive illusion, but this is no reason to reject all the possibilities of visionary drugs. Anthropologist M. I. Field’s work in Ghana led her to the conclusion: ‘There seems no reason to doubt that the utterances of a possessed person, concentrating on a narrower field, may exceed in wisdom those they can achieve when exposed to all the distractions of a normal consciousness ... by their fruits shall ye know them — and the fruits of spirit possession in Ghana are wholesome and sustaining.’
The universalists may not yet, or ever, have their answer to the meaning of life. It may be that the developed world’s culture is inevitably inimical to the properties of visionary drugs. But it would take a narrow mind indeed to fully reject the possibility of their being beneficial.
Huw Richards is a London-based freelance journalist specialising in social and economic issues.