Artaud and Michaux recounted their hallucinogenic forays in fractured Modernist style. The British novelist Aldous Huxley narrated the account of his 1953 mescaline trip with the dry wit and clarity of an English detective novelist or a boy's adventure writer. In the introduction to The Doors of Perception, the most influential work of Western psychedelic literature, Huxley announces his intent to join "the sleuths—biochemists, psychiatrists, psychologists"—on the trail of mescaline.
Huxley undertook his mescaline journey in 1953, the same year the Wassons first tried psilocybin. The author of numerous novels and literary essays, as well as the best-selling work of predictive science fiction, Brave New World, he had long been fascinated by mysticism. This fascination was in spite, or perhaps because, of the fact that his own tendency as a thinker and a writer was toward a prolific but slighdy inert rationality. "There was something amoeboid about Phillip Quayle's mind," Huxley wrote in the novel Point Counter Point, describing his alter ego. "It was like a sea of spiritual protoplasm, capable of flowing in all directions, of engulfing every object in its path, of trickling into every crevice, of filling every mold." Huxley's almost stifling lucidity compelled him to push toward domains of the irrational and unknow able. He once wrote to a friend, "My primary occupation is the achievement of some kind of over-all understanding of the world .. . that accounts for the facts."
Long before he knew of psychedelics, Huxley was fascinated by mind drugs as potential agents of personal liberation and social control—his thinking toggled back and forth between the two extremes. Recognizing the ambivalent potential of these substances, he invented Soma, a narco-hallucinogen, for Brave New World, his prescient vision of a high-tech authoritarian future. Soma was the entheogenic beverage described in the Rig Veda, inspirational source of the Hindu cosmology. In Huxley's book, Soma was far from a benign intoxicant. Combining euphoric, sedative, and hallucinogenic powers, Soma functioned as a precisely calibrated tool of "repressive tolerance," keeping the citizens of Huxley's designer dystopia doped and docile, hooked and happy.
Around the time he wrote Brave New World, Huxley also penned an essay in which he admitted yearning for a mind drug that could alleviate the boredom, the daily drudgery, of ordinary consciousness. "If I were a millionaire, I should endow a band of research workers to look for a new intoxicant," he wrote in 1931. His discovery of mescaline, and then LSD, were the answers to his prayers. He devoted the last decade of his life to exploring these chemicals and proselytizing on their behalf. Unlike his fictional Soma, and despite the CIA's best attempts, mescaline and LSD had the added benefits of being ineffective agents of social control. Yet he anticipated the development of culturally sanctioned mood-lifting drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin, which would be mass-prescribed: "They may help the psychiatrist in his battle against mental illness, or they may help the dictator in his battle against freedom," he wrote. "More probably (since science is divinely impartial) they will both enslave and make free, heal and at the same time destroy." Huxley died in 1963. On his deathbed, his wife injected him with a sizable dose of liquid LSD—a trip that perhaps evaded even his capacity for rational analysis.
In The Doors of Perception—the tide is taken from William Blake's lines, "If the doors of perception were open / Everything would appear, as it is in reality, Infinite"—Huxley's manner remains self-assured, his style clear. Even when he approaches the prospect of collapsing into incoherence, he does it in limpid prose. Looking at a chair and seeing an intensity of actuality comparable to the Christian Last Judgment, he noted: "It was inexpressibly wonderful, wonderful to the point, almost, of being terrifying." In a flash, he realized what it would be like to go insane, to plunge into the hells and also the paradises of schizophrenia. He analyzed the fear "of being overwhelmed, of disintegrating under a pressure of reality greater than a mind, accustomed to living most of the time in a cozy world of symbols, could possibly bear." Huxley is admitting his own limits. He was not constitutionally capable of straying far beyond his "cozy world of symbols." He could never approach the fever pitch of Artaud, who croaked his peyote revelations from the edge of chaos and dread.
The Doors of Perception was propaganda promoting mystical perception as lifestyle choice. Although Huxley's personal approach to psychedelics was more mandarin than midcult, The Doors of Perception paved the way for Timothy Leary and the debasement of the subject into pop-cultural fodder. Huxley suggests that mescaline or a psychedelic relative of it could be employed within Christianity to give direct access to transcendent reality: "To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and indirectly, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone and especially to the intellectual."
With an overlay of references to Blake, Aquinas, Goethe, The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and so on, The Doors of Perception alienates the mescaline trip from its indigenous and shamanic origins. For the Indians in the Native American Church, peyote is "grandfather." The bitter-tasting cactus is, itself, a spiritual emissary from the "Green Nation" of the plant world. The Indians use the cactus only within the context of a carefully structured ritual. Peyote reveals that the natural universe is entirely animated by spiritual forces, and the vegetable vehicle of this message is inseparable from its meaning.
Fifty years after the fact, Huxley's central argument remains entirely valid. He realized the modern world was increasingly trapped in its habits of mediation, its almost desperate effort to pursue any subject other than personal revelation:
A catalogue, a bibliography, a definitive edition of a third-rate versifier's ipsissima verba, a stupendous index to end all indexes—any genuinely Alexandrian project is sure of approval and financial support. But when it comes to finding out how you and I, our children and grandchildren, may become more perceptive, more intensely aware of inward and outward reality, more open to the Spirit, less apt, by psychological malpractices, to make ourselves physically ill, and more capable of controlling our own autonomic nervous systems—when it comes to any form of non-verbal education more fundamental (and more likely to be of some practical use) than Swedish drill, no really respectable person in any respectable university or church will do anything about it.
As a form of societal shock therapy in a world increasingly threatened by the technology it was unleashing, Huxley advocated large-scale use of mescaline or a similar agent as a tool of consciousness evolution, a chemical shortcut to "direct perception, the more unsystematic the better, of the inner and outer world into which we have been born."
While modern artists sought an exit from the modern wasteland, the new discipline of anthropology gave itself the task of studying the nonliterate tribal societies as the colonial powers hurried to contaminate and destroy them. The history of anthropology is made up of a series of misunderstandings and projections, deliberate obfuscations, outright blunders, sell-outs, and criminal acts. From Franz Boas to Margaret Mead, from Claude Lévi-Strauss to Napoleon Chagnon, anthropology has functioned as a distorting mirror into which the West has gazed, pretending to learn about "the other" while studying endless reflections of itself. Onto the native societies we projected our prurient obsession with sexual relations and the incest taboo; our fascination with violence and the "survival of the fittest." We studied magical practices in order to demystify them or reveal them as frauds. Through our anthropological emissaries we enacted our compulsion to consume the exotic and, in the act of consumption, annihilate it.
In his memoir Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss mused on the folly of the anthropological quest—the impossibility of contacting an uncor-rupted civilization. He imagines going backward in time. With each jump back, he realizes he would regain lost customs while he forefeits the ability to interpret them: "I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality." For the stern patriarch of structuralism, this vicious circle proved that anthropology can never reach its object.
In his darkest moments, Lévi-Strauss gives himself over to nihilism. "Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished," he mourns. The achievements of the Western world, its "order and harmony" were based on contamination and pollutants emitted on a global scale: "The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown in the face of mankind." Everywhere he looks he finds apocalyptic squalor, entropy—The Wasteland. He redefined anthropology as "en-tropology," the study of a world running down.
Lévi-Strauss equates the vogue for travel writing—for popular narratives of visits to exotic cultures—with the "quest for power" of adolescents undergoing initiation rituals in tribal societies. The "dazed, debilitated, and delirious" initiates go into the wilderness, believing "that a magic animal, touched by the intensity of their sufferings and their prayers, will be forced to appear to them." This "absurd and desperate attempt" to contact the spiritual world by breaking away from the social world, Lévi-Strauss believes, finds its structural parallel in the young travel writer of the West who briefly exposes himself to an extreme situation and returns "endowed with a power which finds expression in the writing of newspaper articles and bestsellers ... its magic character is evidenced by the process of self-delusion operating in the society and which explains the phenomenon in all cases."
Lévi-Strauss's work, his effort to "recapture the master meaning," is animated by a feverish urge to demystify. "Can it be that I, the elderly predecessor of those scourers of the jungle, am the only one to have brought back nothing but a handful of ashes? Is mine the only voice to bear witness to the impossibility of escapism?" His demythifying "science" takes part in the work of destruction, what he calls the irrevocable result of human history: "Mankind has opted for monoculture; it is in the process of creating a mass civilization, as beetroot is grown in the mass," he writes. "Henceforth, man's daily bill of fare will consist only of this one item."
His memoir is the triumphant lament of the maniacal rationalist who will not be taken in by any ruse, any mystical vibration or fleeting hope, who allows us no possibility of escape. But this nightmarish vision of triumphant mechanization is, it must be said, also a myth.
In a central chapter of Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss studies the intricate body painting of the Caduveo Indians of Brazil: "Their faces, and sometimes even their whole bodies, were covered with a network of asymmetrical arabesques, alternating with delicate geometrical patterns." Lévi-Strauss is fascinated by these patterns, which look to him like the backs of European playing cards. The Indians, however, refuse to elucidate the reason for their decorations. Ultimately, he decides that the body paintings have a purely "sociological function." The Caduveos lacked complex social institutions (no Académie Française, no Bibliothèque Nationale), and the "mysterious appeal and seemingly gratuitous complexity" of the patterns were therefore "the phantasm of a society ardently and insatiably seeking a means of expressing symbolically the institutions it might have, if its interests and superstitions did not stand in the way."
His patronizing attitude toward the Indian spiritual culture reflected five hundred years of colonial repression and European snobbery. Lévi-Strauss barely alludes to the use of psychoactive plants among the Indians, although this use is the likely origin for the ornaments that fascinate him. He does not suspect that the body patterns might be a form of communion with a sacred reality that the Indians knew through their own visions, a knowledge they chose to hide from foreign interlopers.
When psychedelic drugs suddenly erupted as a force in Western consciousness in the 1960s, anthropologists began to wonder about their use in aboriginal societies. A few field-workers tentatively started to look deeper into the meaning of the hallucinogenic revelations known to the Indians. Some of them even tried the plants and potions for themselves as part of their fieldwork, but this testing was always done as an aside, a footnote appended to the real work they were doing. When these anthropologists interpreted what they saw, they mapped the visionary dimension back onto the sociological models they had learned in universities. Invested in the ideology of social sci ence, they needed to prove that social codes always structured the visionary experience—they needed to prove it, and so they did.
In 1969, the anthropologist Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff wrote a paper on the Tukano Indians of Colombia and their use of Banisteriop-sis caapi (a.k.a. ayahuasca or yage): "For the anthropologist it is most intriguing that the Indians maintain that everything we would designate as art is inspired and based upon the hallucinatory experience." According to the Indians, their entire culture was based on ayahuasca: "They do not simply witness visual hallucinations but also hear music and see dances." Reichel-Dolmatoff tried the Tukano potion. He saw streams of constandy changing images: "like microphotographs of plants . .. like stained glass windows. . . . These things drawing near are like bodies .. . now they are like caterpillars with a lot of quills and fur . . . like certain ties in bad taste."
Reichel-Dolmatoff was able to deftly describe and analyze native customs and spiritual beliefs, but he was unable to find validity in his own visionary experience. Despite a trip that seems astonishingly transcultural, worthy of careful analysis, Reichel-Dolmatoff asserts, "in a state of hallucination the individual projects his cultural memory on the wavering screen of colors and shapes and thus 'sees' certain motifs and personages." Noting how the Tukano describe their visions to each other, the anthropologist is quick to add, "This open communication of experiences could lead to a consensus, to a fixation of certain images; in this manner, no matter what the vision, its interpretation could be adapted to a cultural pattern."
Around the same time, Marlene Dobkin de Rios studied rituals of ayahuasca healing among Mestizos in Iquitos, Peru, for her book Visionary Vine. During her own ayahuasca trip she saw "very fast moving imagery almost like Bosch's paintings ... a series of leaf-faced visions . . . followed by a full-length colored vision of a Peruvian woman, unknown to me, but sneering in my direction." Afterward, she wrote, "No jungle creatures filled my visions. . .. The visions I had contained symbols of my own culture." Were "leaf-faced visions" really a part of her culture? The anthropologist's insistence that ayahuasca visions can only be a projection of "cultural memory," a reshuffling of "symbols" from one's own background, neady conveys an impression of scientific objectivity while ignoring her actual experience.
In the late 1950s the anthropologist Michael Harner worked with the Jivaro Indians in the Amazon. At that point, "I did not fully appreciate the psychological impact of the Banisteriopsis drink upon the native view of reality." He did not appreciate it because he did not try it. A few years later, he drank a whopping dose of ayahuasca for himself, with a different tribe, the Conibo, in the Peruvian Amazon: "For several hours after drinking the brew, I found myself, although awake, in a world literally beyond my wildest dreams. I met bird-headed people, as well as dragon-like creatures who explained that they were the true gods of this world. I enlisted the services of other spirit helpers in attempting to fly through the far reaches of the Galaxy." The next day, he told a blind shaman about the dragons who said they had created the world. The shaman smiled knowingly. "Oh, they're always saying that. But they are only the Masters of Outer Darkness."
Harner had encountered an overwhelming alternate reality that could not be ignored, explained away, or sociologically pigeonholed. "Transported into a trance where the supernatural seemed natural, I realized that anthropologists, including myself, had profoundly underestimated the importance of the drug in affecting native ideology." Ever since that night, Harner has devoted himself to understanding shamanism. He started an Institute of Shamanic Studies in the United States, attempting to teach shamanic techniques of drumming and healing to Westerners.
Harner was a modern anthropologist who went into the field armed with all of Lévi-Strauss's tools of analytic distancing. While Lévi-Strauss preserved his flawless ironic detachment and outsider status, Harner, animated by the inquisitive spirit of a different generation, took the professional risk of testing the native's sacred reality for himself. There he found something much stranger and more astonishing than a "handful of ashes." He found a magical theater within his own mind where the supernatural was performing a spectacle that was as real as waking reality, more tangible than any dream. This spectacle had no connection to his expectations or his beliefs—it was not a product of his personal identity, his Freudian unconscious. It was not the faulty wiring of his synapses blowing a fuse. It was the revelation of a different order, a profound and arcane otherness. The revelation spun around the entire compass of Harner's thought. It transformed his life.
History is a process of awakening, of bringing into awareness the
"not-yet conscious knowledge" of what has been. The plants that produce visions can function—for those of us who have inherited the New World Order of barren materialism, cut off from our spiritual heritage by a spiteful culture that gives us nothing but ashes—as the talismans of recognition that awaken our minds to reality.
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