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  The Private Sea

    William Braden

        2.   Through psychedelic eyes

    On a good trip the LSD voyager may feel he has penetrated to the godhead itself. But is it really the godhead he sees? Or is it the Medusa?
    Before we describe what LSD does, let us first ask what it is. That is a much easier question to handle, admittedly, and it is mildly ironic that this is so. Where the mysteries of nature are concerned, the situation is usually reversed, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out in the case of electricity. Science can describe very accurately what electricity does but hasn't the foggiest notion what it really is. As for LSD, it is a synthetic drug: d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, compounded from a constituent of a rye fungus known as ergot. Its general history by now is a twice-told tale and then some, so we shall be brief about it. LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by Dr. Albert Hofmann, a biochemist at the Sandoz pharmaceutical firm in Basel, Switzerland; but the scientist did not know what he had created until 1943, when he accidentally inhaled or otherwise absorbed a small amount of LSD and thus discovered the drug's curious properties. It produced uncanny distortions of space and time and hallucinations that were weird beyond belief. It also produced a state of mind in which the objective world appeared to take on a new and different meaning. These effects, and the agents which produce them, are now referred to as psychedelic —a generic term which means "mind manifesting," which in turn means nothing. The word has come into common usage simply because of its neutral connotation; due to the controversy involved, it is the only word so far that all sides have been willing to accept. It is used as both noun and adjective.
    Unlike heroin, opium, and alcohol, LSD apparently is not addictive. This means simply that prolonged use of the drug, so far as we can tell at this time, does not create a physiological craving or dependency based on changes in a subject's body chemistry—changes that are produced by liquor and junk—and there are no physiological withdrawal symptoms when use of the drug is terminated. LSD on the other hand may be psychologically habituating; but this, after all, can also be said of chewing gum and television.
    There are literally scores of psychedelic substances, natural and synthetic, and LSD is only one of many agents capable of producing a full-fledged psychedelic experience. Identical effects can be obtained from Indian hemp and its derivatives, including hashish; from the peyote cactus and its extract, mescaline; from a Mexican mushroom and its laboratory counterpart, psilocybin, which Dr. Hofmann synthesized in 1958. Hemp and peyote have been used as psychedelics for centuries, and mescaline was on the market before the turn of the century. LSD's uniqueness lies in the fact that it is very easy to make— and mega-potent. According to the Food and Drug Administration, a single gram of LSD can provide up to ten thousand doses, each of them capable of producing an experience lasting up to twelve hours or longer.
    Scientists seized upon the drug as a tool for research and therapy, and literally thousands of technical papers have been devoted to it. Since LSD appeared to mimic some symptoms of psychosis, it offered possible insights into the sufferings of mental patients—although psychotherapists later came to doubt that it produces what was first referred to as a model psychosis. Preliminary research indicated it might be useful in the treatment of alcoholism and neurosis, and it also served to ease the anguish of terminal patients. In small doses, in controlled situations, it appeared to enhance creativity and productivity. But the public at large knew nothing of LSD until 1963, when two professors, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, lost their posts at Harvard University in the wake of charges that they had involved students in reckless experiments with the drug. Leary went on to become more or less the titular leader of the drug movement, in which capacity he soon ran afoul of the law, and the movement spread to campuses and cities across the country. By and large, it seemed at first to develop as a middle-class phenomenon, attracting to its ranks mainly students and intellectuals, liberal ministers, artists and professional people, as well as bearded pariahs. Official panic provoked a wave of legislation which ended or seriously hindered almost all legitimate research programs; the legislation did little or nothing to discourage the drug movement, which received its supplies from black market sources.
    Depending upon the point of view, Dr. Hofmann assumed the role of a Prometheus or Pandora. In correspondence I once asked him if he sometimes felt like the latter, to which he replied: "In my opinion, every discovery in the field of natural science is to be positively viewed, and thus also the discovery of LSD. If one wishes to deplore the discovery of LSD, then one must also view the discovery of morphine negatively, for morphine, one of the most valuable gifts of pharmacy, is just as dangerous and destructive as LSD when used improperly. There are no forces in the universe that are bad in themselves. It is always up to man whether he will make good or bad use of them." And if Dr. Hofmann's words have a familiar ring, perhaps they are reminiscent of the statements nuclear physicists were making in 1945.
    LSD is a colorless, odorless, tasteless drug. It is taken orally for the most part, and the precise nature of its action upon the brain and nervous system has not been determined. It is believed, however, that only a minute portion of the tiny dose ever reaches the brain, and even this disappears in less than an hour. Possibly, then, LSD sets off a reaction which continues long after the drug itself has been dissipated. As Dr. Sidney Cohen, a leading medical authority on LSD, expressed it, "The drug acts to trigger a chain of metabolic processes which then proceed to exert an effect for many hours afterward." In hipsters' terminology, the subject is "turned on." And the experience begins.
    The nature of the experience will depend on countless factors, which are commonly summed up as "set" and "setting": that is, the mood of the subject and the environment in which the drug is administered. The subject becomes highly suggestible, and the slightest false note can result in the nightmare of a bad trip. Most experiences will include a hallucinatory period, in which fantastic visions occur, and in some cases it is possible to see sounds and hear colors—the result of sensory short-circuiting, referred to in the literature as synesthesia. One subject reported that he could taste the categorical imperative (which he said was something like veal). These very weird effects have received considerable publicity; when they are pleasurable, they—and sometimes sexual stimulation—constitute what may be regarded as the "kicks" aspect of LSD. But the drug movement cultists are not concerned with kicks in this sense. Skilled travelers say they can avoid the hallucinatory period altogether and thus are able to achieve and prolong the "central experience." There does appear to be such an experience, and this is what the cultists refer to when they speak of a good trip. It does not always occur, and some people may never achieve it; it must be sought after, perhaps, and expectation may be a significant factor in its production. But it does exist, and it is the very basis of the cult.
    From various sources, then, let us see if we can construct a typology of this central or core experience. While the problems of description are notorious, in most cases the mind will appear to operate at a new level of consciousness in which:
    1. The sense of self or personal ego is utterly lost. Awareness of individual identity evaporates. "I" and "me" are no more. Subject-object relationships dissolve, and the world no longer ends at one's fingertips: the world is simply an extension of the body, or the mind. The world shimmers, as if it were charged with a high-voltage current, and the subject feels he could melt into walls, trees, other persons. It is not that the world lacks substance; it is real, but one is somehow conterminous with it. And it is fluid, shifting. One is keenly aware of the atomic substructure of reality; he can feel the spinning motion of the electrons in what he used to call his body, and he senses the incredible emptiness that lies within the atoms, where the electron planets circle their proton suns at distances which are comparably as vast as those in the solar system itself. Thus it seems only natural that one could pass through a wall, if only it were possible to get all the atoms lined up properly for just one moment. In the vastness of outer space, is it not a fact that billion-starred galaxies are able to drift through each other like clouds of smoke or astral ghosts, without the single collision of one star with another?
    As for identity, it is not really lost. On the contrary, it is found; it is expanded to include all that is seen and all that is not seen. What occurs is simply depersonalization. The subject looks back on his pre-drug existence as some sort of game or make-believe in which, for some reason, he had felt called upon to assume the reduced identity or smaller self called "I." Being had concentrated its attention at a single point in order to create, and play, the game of writer, banker, cat burglar. Or so it now seems. If there is any analogy to this in normal existence, is it not perhaps the moment when one awakens from sleep? In that case, what is the first thing one asks oneself? "Where am I?" Or isn't it rather, "Who am I?" And then, in an effort of will, attention is concentrated to re-create the role that was lost in sleep. Thus in the drug experience, as in sleep, the normal state of tension is relaxed. Home at last, after that dreadful party, Being slips out of her stays, so to speak, and breathes an ontological sigh of celestial relief. Consciousness is allowed to scatter, and the subject at last can be Himself again.
    The subject is somehow united with the Ground of his Being, with the life force that has created the visible world. He remembers. And what he remembers is the true identity that underlies all the individual egos of the world. He is one again with the universe, the eternal, the Absolute.
    He has found himself again. He is made whole again. That which he once knew, he has remembered.
    (But when did he know it? And when did he forget?)
    2. Time stops. Or, in any case, it ceases to be important. And perhaps it would be more accurate to say that memory and forethought stop. The subject is content to exist in the moment— in the here and now. And time has no meaning in the here and now. Bergson suggested that the sense of time consists simply of arrests of our attention. Seconds and minutes do not really exist; they are artificially created "immobilities" dreamed up by science, which is unable to comprehend flux, mobility, or the dynamic character of life itself. Installed within true movement, said Bergson, the mind would lose its normal sense of time, since the normal function of the intellect is to foresee, so as to act upon things. "We must strive to see in order to see," he said, "and no longer to see in order to act." This is precisely what happens in the psychedelic experience, where forethought is anesthetized. Without forethought there is no anticipation. Without anticipation there is no desire. And time stops.
    3. Words lose all meaning. In the here and now there are no abstractions. An object represents only that which it is. It is perceived as a Ding-an-Sich, a thing-in-itself, and it matters not whether Kant said that sort of perception is impossible. Kant never took LSD. If he had, he would have known that rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.
    The same feeling is captured in childhood perhaps. As Wordsworth wrote, recalling his boyish days when nature was all in all:

                . . . I cannot paint
    What then I was. The sounding cataract
    Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
    The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
    Their colours and their forms, were then to me
    An appetite; a feeling and a love,
    That had no need of a remoter charm,
    By thought supplied, nor any interest
    Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
    And all its aching joys are now no more,
    And all its dizzy raptures.

    The psychedelic experience is similar but multiplied at least a thousand times over. Coincidentally, Havelock Ellis wrote, after experimenting with mescaline in the 1890's: "If it should ever chance that the consumption of mescal becomes a habit, the favorite poet of the mescal drinker will certainly be Wordsworth."
    But thing-in-itself perception is beyond all language. It is, in fact, the antithesis of language, which is the real cause of our normal inability to see the thing-in-itself. This is so because we think in words, and words are abstractions or symbols of things; as a result, we tend to think and perceive in symbols. Thus the American flag fluttering on the Fourth of July is seen in terms of Concord and Lexington. The flag-in-itself is never seen; we must always associate it with something else. And so on. And the English language is especially crippling because of its painful stress on simile and metaphor. Thus a rose isn't a rose; it's what my love is like. Ruskin quite properly attacked the pathetic fallacy as evidence of a "morbid state of mind." But the psychedelic experience suggests that all figures of speech reflect the same unhealthy attitude—and that speech itself is a web of deceit. The Greek poets sensed this. For the Greeks, as Edith Hamilton pointed out, a thing of beauty was never a symbol of something else, but only itself. A star was just a star, a primrose a primrose. "That a skylark was like a glow-worm golden in a dell of dew, or like a poet hidden in the light of thought, would have been straight nonsense to them. A skylark was just a skylark. Birds were birds and nothing else, but how beautiful a thing was a bird, 'that flies over the foam of the wave with careless heart, sea-purple bird of spring."' And if symbols as such are deceptive, how much worse are the symbols of use. We look at a peach, and we see something to eat. We look at a field, and we wonder how many bushels of wheat it will yield. We meet somebody for the first time, and we ask ourselves what this new person can do for us. Can we play bridge with him? Sell him some insurance? Worst of all, we look at our loved ones even in terms of our own needs, emotional and otherwise. In the terminology of Martin Buber, we live in the world of I-It. We associate things, and we use things, and we never look at the thing-in-itself in the here and now. Moreover, we cannot look upon an object without thinking the word which symbolizes it. Tree. Lamp. Table. But the psychedelic world is the world of pure experience and pure relation; it is the world of I-Thou. In this world, for example, a tree is not a source of timber or shade. A tree is to look at. And it is not a tree. It is that, there. Now. And that is a that is a that is a that.
    4. There are no dualities. Sweet and sour, good and evil— these also are abstractions, inventions of the verbal mind, and they have no place in the ultimate reality of here and now. As a result, the world is just as it should be. It is perfect, beautiful. It is the same world that is seen without LSD, but it is seen in a different way. It is transfigured, and it requires no meaning beyond the astonishing fact of its own existence.
    What does "meaning" mean anyhow?
    Meaning is just one more abstraction, implying some future use or purpose; it has no place in the here and now of naked existence. And is this perhaps the significance of the Eden story? They ate of the tree in the midst of the garden, and their eyes were opened, and they became as gods, knowing good and evil. The first dualism, fundamental to all others. What does this story represent if not the introduction into the world of a new way of thinking and a new form of perception? What does it refer to if not the evolutionary product we describe so proudly as intellect, or the rational mind? What does it signify if not that moment when man looked about him and said for the first time: "This is wrong." Not, "This hurts me," or "The tiger is chewing my leg, and I wish he wouldn't." No. "This is wrong." What an idea! What a curious concept. No doubt it was the greatest, or worst, idea that man ever had. It marks that point in the process of becoming when life took charge of itself. Man had accepted the world; now he decided to judge it. Thus Adam became the first existentialist, taking upon himself the nauseating responsibility that turned Sartre's stomach. In doing so he laid the basis for those existential anxieties which are nothing more or less than ontological anxieties. He estranged himself from his environment; worse yet, he alienated himself from the very Ground of his Being. In Eden he had lived in perfect I-Thou relation, neither judging things nor subsuming them with words. East of Eden lay the world of I-It, where the ground was cursed for his sake, and the Lord told him what he could expect from it. Thorns and thistles he could expect from it. So Adam was cast out of the garden, his own mind the flaming sword that would prevent his return. He lived in the world of I-It, and he sought there for meaning. But he never found it, and none of those who came after him have found it.
    Men are frustrated in the search by their I-It minds of use, which have made meaning synonymous with purpose. Nothing is meaningful unless it leads to something else, or produces some future effect. Thus a man smokes to enjoy himself— and that is a meaningless action. But he puts on his shoes so he can go to the store—and that by definition is meaningful. But it is not meaningful enough, and man craves for an ultimate meaning. He wants his life to lead to something else, somewhere in the future. It doesn't, apparently, so he feels the anxiety of meaninglessness. Taking hope, however, he diagnoses his anxiety as a form of psychic pain. The sense of meaninglessness is meaningful in itself, he decides; it implies there is a meaning somewhere, and he is estranged from it. Which is so. But the ultimate meaning he seeks is in fact the absence of meaning—in the sense of purpose. Meaning is simple existence in the here and now. And of course man already lives in the here and now. The trouble is, he doesn't know how to live in it. And this is what LSD seems to tell him. It tells him that he is still in Eden, if only he knew it. It is only necessary to spit out the apple and look at the world through psychedelic eyes. The apple is his intellect, or way of looking at things, and under LSD his intellect no longer functions. Forethought is put to sleep, and he opens his eyes upon Paradise regained.
    A voice whispers in his ear. It tells him: "Essence precedes existence."
    5. The subject feels he knows, essentially, everything there is to know. He knows ultimate truth. And what's more, he knows that he knows it. Yet this sense of authority cannot be verbalized (any more than the experience as a whole can be verbalized) because the experience is a whole which cannot be divided, and it transcends all partial abstractions. What is known is pure Being, which cannot be compared with anything else. The subject is identical with that which he knows and therefore is speechless. In any case, language can never describe that which language itself is responsible for negating. Finally, there is the problem raised by H. G. Wells in his tale of "The Richest Man in Bogota." To a race of eyeless men, how do you explain sight? What words do you use?
    This describes the psychedelic experience, produced by a chemical. But it also describes something else.
    It describes religious mysticism.
    It describes the experience of saints and prophets since the first tick of history's clock. And it describes as well those flashes of insight that sometimes come to humbler folk in moments of prayer, or of grace.

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