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Hell Really Exists

Hell Really Exists

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In the last centuries of capitalism, industrial progress and rationalism were mirrored by a cultural history of frantic visions, symbolic excursions, and narcotic escapes. Artists and intellectuals searched for antidotes to the suffocating materialism of the West. The exploration of chemically induced altered states was one extreme limit, one essential element, of the Modernist quest. The poet Arthur Rimbaud called for "a systematic derangement of the senses," and in the 1920s the Surrealists, following his lead, found inspiration in psychic disorder and extravagant shock effects. Writing on the Surrealists, the critic Walter Benjamin noted:

"In the world's structure, dream loosens individuality like a bad tooth. This loosening of the self by intoxication is, at the same time, precisely the fruitful, living experience that allowed these people to step outside the domain of intoxication." Altered states allowed thinkers to escape, temporarily, from the overwhelming, and intoxicating, dreamworld of capitalism.

Modernist artists pursued the deviant and disgraced, sought out what had been refused, tossed aside, made alien by the West. The resurgence of interest in the sacred tribal medicines, which began with a few dedicated and often desperate seekers, opened a new phase of the Modernist exploration of cultural otherness: an attempt to make direct contact with the visionary knowledge of "primitive" societies.

The writers of the twentieth century who first took the psychedelic voyage out—Antonin Artaud, Henri Michaux, Aldous Huxley, and William Burroughs among them—found that the tribal sacraments, off-limits and litde known in the West for many centuries, had a split identity. On the one hand, the substances opened vast domains of perceptual awareness, sparked new ideas, and unleashed visions that seemed to unfold from the Jungian collective unconscious, or from the mind of a supernatural trickster. But the experience was also one of abjection and anxiety and helplessness.

Artaud traveled to Mexico in 1936 to take part in the peyote rituals of the Tarahumara Indians, a remote mountain tribe living on barren peaks a few days' journey from Mexico City. The tormented poet went to the mountains of the Tarahumara out of desperation. He yearned to recover "that sense of the sacred which European consciousness has lost... the root of all our misfortunes."

Artaud suffered internal exile from his own mind, his own thoughts, "a fundamental flaw in my psyche." In his writings, he returned, over and over, to this inner separation, felt as terror, as rupture, as yearning for connection to some reality.

"I am not here," he wrote to a friend. "I am not here, and I never will be."

Poet, actor, founder of the Theater of Cruelty, inspiration for generations of embarrassing pseudotransgressive spectacles performed in liberal arts colleges and fringe theaters around the world, he has a deserved reputation as a radical and histrionic figure who once declared, 'All literature is pigshit." Some of Artaud's writing is mad ravings and some is extremely tough going, but he was also capable of great lucidity. Seeking clues to his condition, he probed among mystical traditions, alchemical processes, the fragmentary shards gleaned from his own inner world: "There is a secret determinism based on the higher laws of the world; but in an age of a mechanized science lost among the microscopes, to speak of the higher laws of the world is to arouse the derision of a world in which life has become a museum." His life was a quest for those higher laws.

For a time, Artaud belonged to the doctrinaire Surrealist party:

"Surrealism has never meant anything to me but a new kind of magic. The beyond, the invisible, replaces reality. The world no longer holds." Surrealism was, for Artaud, a system of techniques for exploring irrational, mystical, and dissociative states—those domains of consciousness that a materialist culture discards as useless. Surrealism showed how, "Out of the right use of dreams could be born a new way of guiding one's thought, a new way of relating to appearances."

He split the Surrealists when they turned to communism. For Artaud, the fact that the Surrealists joined the communists only proved that their revolutionary impulse had not penetrated deeply enough. "The revolutionary forces of any movement are those capable of shifting the present foundation of things, of changing the angle of reality." Communism was doomed to failure because it didn't recognize, didn't transform, "the internal world of thought."

To reach the Tarahumara, Artaud passed through a primordial landscape inscribed with symbols, numbers, and images—blasted trees like crucified men, demonic faces peeking from rocks. Later he saw the shamans of the Tarahumara weave these symbols into a living cosmology that expressed the essence of their mystical science. "This dark reassimilation is contained within Ciguri (peyote), as a Myth of reawakening, then of destruction, and finally of resolution in the sieve of supreme surrender, as their priests are incessantly shouting and affirming in their Dance of All of the Night." Like the Bwiti, the Tarahumara had a symbiosis with their magical root. When the shamans danced, Artaud realized, "they do what the plant tells them to do; they repeat it like a kind of lesson which their muscles obey."

European Modernists like Pablo Picasso and André Derain were fascinated by "Primitivism." Cubists, Fauves, and Futurists took their formal innovations from African masks and Eskimo totems. Despite this interest in the exotic and tribal, only Artaud, of all the European Modernist artists, had enough desperation or courage—often they are the same thing—to venture into the tribal reality and eat the visionary sacrament for himself. Only for Artaud was achieving this knowledge a matter of life or death—or even beyond. He was not looking for any other reward: "I had not conquered by force of spirit this invincible organic hostility ... in order to bring back from it a collection of moth-eaten imagery, from which this Age, thus far faithful to a whole system, would at the very most get a few new ideas for posters and models for its fashion designers." Thirty years ahead of his time, Ar-taud presciently conjured the late 1960s, when psychedelia turned mass market, producing much "motheaten imagery" for the machinery of advertising, TY and design.

The Peyote Dance, Artaud's text on his voyage, worked and reworked over many years, while its author suffered in mental hospitals, is a fractured narrative made up of stops and starts, convulsive revelations and tormented cries. A unique mytho-poetic masterpiece, his text is shot through with Christian images of crucifixion and redemption, the pressure of his madness, his yearning to reenchant the world. "For there is in consciousness a Magic with which one can go beyond things. And Peyote tells us where this Magic is, and after what strange concretions, whose breath is atavistically compressed and obstructed, the Fantastic can emerge and can once again scatter in our consciousness its phosphorescence and its haze."

The Tarahumara, far from being savage or backwards in their beliefs, were actively seeking answers to the deepest questions of philosophy. "Incredible as it may seem, the Tarahumara Indians live as if they were already dead. They do not see reality and they draw magical powers from the contempt they have for civilization." The Indians pursued metaphysical knowledge in a direct, visceral way, through dance, ritual, and, above all, through Peyote. "The whole life of the Tarahumara revolves around the erotic Peyote root."

The Tarahumara shamans fooled with Artaud at first, as shamans like to do. "They thrust on me these old men that would suddenly get the bends and jiggle their amulets in a queer way," the poet complained. "I saw they were palming off jugglers—not sorcerers—on me." At first the Indians did not want him to participate in the tiguri rituals: "Peyote, I knew, was not made for whites. It was necessary at all costs to prevent me from obtaining a cure by this rite which was created to act on the very nature of the spirits. And a White, for these Red men, is one whom the spirits have abandoned."

But Artaud was tenacious. He waited them out. He also learned that the Mexican government was trying to stop the peyote rituals; he confronted the local schoolmaster about it. Later he learned the Tarahumara knew their tradition was coming to an end. The spirit was abandoning them—and all men. "Time has grown too old for man," a priest told him.

He made friends with a tribesman who explained, at least in Ar-taud's recollection: "Peyote revives throughout the nervous system the memory of certain supreme truths by means of which human consciousness does not lose but on the contrary regains its perception of the Infinite."

Eventually the real shamans arrived. He was allowed to join their all-night peyote ceremony. He was the first white man, the first Western intellectual, to do so.

He ate a fistful of the powdered root, received those "dangerous disassociations it seems Peyote provokes, and which I had for twenty years sought by other means." He watched primordial symbols rise from his inner organs: "The things that emerged from my spleen or my liver were shaped like the letters of a very ancient and mysterious alphabet chewed by an enormous mouth, but terrifying, obscure, proud, illegible, jealous of its invisibility." He witnessed the fiery letters J and E burning at the bottom of a void—an immense void that was somehow contained within his own body.

"Peyote leads the self back to its true sources," he wrote. "Once one has experienced a visionary state of this kind, one can no longer confuse the lie with the truth. One has seen where one comes from and who one is, and one no longer doubts what one is. There is no emotion or external influence that can divert one from this reality."

As powerful as they were, these revelations could not cure his inner divisions. They could not heal him. Artaud spent the last twelve years of his life in mental institutions, treated by electroshock, writing paranoid letters and increasingly incoherent rants, and revising the text of his revelations among the Tarahumara. Like some of the psychedelic martyrs of the 1960s, Artaud's quest for shamanic knowledge ended in self-destruction. But what other fate was possible or even conceivable for the modern Western artist, compelled beyond any worldly ambition to cross the spiritual wasteland, to resacralize himself and his culture?


The Wassons introduced the magic mushrooms to the modern world in the 1950s, but the West had known about peyote for centuries. Artaud made his pilgrimage to the mountains of the Tarahumara four hundred years after Spanish explorers and overseers first encountered native use of the cactus. The Spanish Franciscan friar Sahagun wrote about the cactus producing "visions either frightful or laughable" as early as 1560. "It is a sort of delicacy of the Chichi-mecas," Sahagun observed, "it sustains them and gives them courage to fight and not feel fear, nor hunger, nor thirst, and they say it protects them from any danger." Early chroniclers such as Francisco Hernandez also noted the medicinal benefits ascribed to it: "Ground up and applied to painful joints, it is said to give relief."

Early European travelers and monks did not taste peyote for themselves, or if they did they didn't write about it, and the ceremonial use of the cactus was soon dismissed as a savage custom and demonized. In 1620, the "Inquisition against heresy, depravity and apostasy" in Mexico City prohibited Indians from imbibing this delicacy, "reproved as opposed to the purity and sincerity of the Holy Catholic Faith." The visions produced by the plant were attributed to "the suggestion and assistance of the devil, author of this abuse. . . ." Despite the dangers

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