Documentary film-maker David Graham Scott, whose work includes the award-winning Detox or Die and Iboga Nights, which has had a huge impact on the harm-reduction and addiction communities, takes us on a tour of his work and the personal struggles that helped frame them. This article originally appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal Volume XVI.
It’s only recently that I’ve fully acknowledged the underlying issues that led me into the dark subculture of opiate use. A longstanding problem with depression and anxiety broke any confidence I had, and I felt myself becoming increasingly alienated from the world around me. After university I found myself completely at a loss as to what path to follow.
A meandering existence grounded in the dark days of Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain pushed me into a more radical frame of mind in which I sold myself into the punk ethic of ‘no future’, and revelled in the hopelessness. If you find yourself without a grounding in life, mixing with others in the same predicament, then it can be a real struggle to find meaning to your existence. Total boredom, that seems endless, really can be quite a frightening prospect. Looking for a way of filling the gap I started drug experimentation with psychedelics, hashish, tranquilizers and speed.
I never quite lost my creativity amongst all this and actually tried to develop projects around my psychoactive experiences. I had a good grounding in experimental cinema with my studies and from frequent visits to the NFT and ICA cinemas in London. Auto-Death 84 is basically a self-portrait. A portrait of my mind and day-to-day visions, be those real or imaginary. I think it quite accurately portrays what I was at the time. It begins and ends with my suicide by suffocation… essentially, the visions in between are my dying thoughts. These are my notes from Auto-Death 84:
A frantic trance-dance journey through my hometown of Wick (north Scottish highlands) and surroundings. Thoughts and visions as I live my last few moments on Earth.
An asthma attack had almost killed me a few years before... that is why I'm choking at beginning and end. I bandaged my face at many points as I'd completely lost confidence in myself. The plasticine face rupturing apart is really me. Drug experimentation really took off at this stage as serious social anxiety and depression kicked in. Various references to a burgeoning interest in heroin too e.g. the plasticine man near end who replaces his head with a bag of junk.
Entirely shot and edited on Super 8mm film. Coloured and scratched the original film stock and used copious filters and effects throughout. It's very clunky old stuff and the music is from the original magnetic soundtrack so a bit lacking in tonal variety. Music is Cabaret Voltaire and DAF.
Super-8 film experiment from 1984.
When I moved to Edinburgh from the North Highlands I fully immersed myself in the junkie subculture; more as a nihilistic statement than a particular need or desire for heroin. Strangely, I had to work hard to get myself addicted and was more intrigued by the poetic dynamics of this dark underground than the actual reality. One particular opiate was very popular in Edinburgh in the 1980s. Diconal tablets would be thrown in the back end of your works (syringe), shaken up with hot water to dissolve them and then injected. The rush was like nothing I’d ever felt. Those initial highs were as close to a religious experience as I can imagine. Diconal when injected was so giddy that I would, in fact, describe the initial rush as psychedelic in nature.
Another experimental film I made in that period was Opus Morphia. This was a summation of the psychedelic opiate I previously mentioned and the visions I experienced. There are scenes of real addicts doing their routine activities (including my wife at the time, Denise) mixed into a colourful spectrum of scratched lines and animation. I tried to make a narrative structure and then decided to reassemble some episodes in a somewhat random fashion à la Burroughs and Gysin’s cut-up technique. A flawed work of art perhaps, but now it’s a unique inside visit to the era of Trainspotting!
Notes from Opus Morphia:
An experimental project made on Super8 film in 1986 with my then wife Denise. It was intended as a dark story of love for junk superseding all other forms of that emotion. I constructed a narrative then deconstructed it in a cut-up Burroughs fashion. Made in Edinburgh and featuring real addicts doing real drugs. Various scenes have been used in several of my other documentaries. Soundtrack created especially for the film by Andi Vincent.
For a good number of years I actually stabilised on the methadone programme and lived a relatively normal and productive existence. The darkness within me never quite dissipated though and I returned to morbid subject matters with my first serious documentary, Hanging with Frank (1996). All my films are insights into my obsessions, desires, my likes and dislikes. Every major character I’ve filmed I have developed a close relationship with, and parts of them are also parts of me. This has continued right up to the present day with my latest documentary The End of the Game (working title), about an old colonial going on his last big game hunt. I may be an animal loving vegan but I cannot deny that something excites me in the midst of the hunt, even though I use a camera and not a gun.
The methadone programme is a reasonably good effort to try and bring some sense of stability into an often chaotic lifestyle. It brings the addict into the realm of harm-reduction and all its associated health professionals. The problem is that many methadone users find it very difficult to quit the substitute opioid. After many years parked up on methadone I sought for a way out of it, without the experience of hellish withdrawal that can go on for weeks.
In 2000 my brother sent me some literature he’d come across in New York where he lives. It was about a bizarre African plant root called Iboga tabernanthe that was used for shamanic purposes by initiates within the Bwiti religion. It was oddly found to reduce withdrawal symptoms in addicts and an underground network of providers had started up. There were two forms of the substance mainly used by these providers; a more raw form of the plant called iboga, and a refined psychoactive element of this called ibogaine.
I attended an ibogaine conference in London in 2001 and met a guy in London who was doing treatments. It was 2 years of decision-making before I finally committed to doing the treatment and I decided to make a film about it. I read that iboga (or ibogaine in its more refined form) can seriously diminish withdrawal after a 36 hour psychedelic trip. It works on the level of soul-searching journey (like weeks of psychotherapy in one night) and by physically interacting with the brain’s functioning to lessen withdrawal. It sounded like a Godsend and I just had to go for it. The downside was, there had been a few fatalities associated with ibogaine ingestion.
Being a documentary filmmaker with a few serious films under my belt I thought it was worth recording the experience. Perhaps a film could be built around the event; and that’s exactly what I did. The result was a great success and to this very day I get a great deal of feedback on the BBC broadcast and award-winning documentary, Detox or Die. It definitely made its mark on the world and will undoubtedly live on well beyond my finite existence. I have never before published my account of the ibogaine trip I had, but here are my notes:
My Ibogaine Experience (21-22 August 2003)
This is an account of my experiences of the drug ibogaine. At the time I was a long-term user of methadone linctus. I found it impossible to deal with the hellish withdrawal symptoms experienced in trying to come off it and I hoped that ibogaine might break my habit once and for all.
On the Thursday night I took a test dose of ibogaine hydrochloride. Edward (my guide) said it was roughly 200mg. After 35-40 mins I could feel the drug start to take effect. I looked at my hand and it seemed so primitive, perhaps Neanderthal. It felt like some form of anaesthesia and a distortion of sound and vision were noticed. What I do remember though was an intense connection to the old photographs and toys I’d brought (I’d thought a connection with my childhood would be healing). It was really a very emotional experience but I was apprehensive as regards taking the full dose the next day. I felt taking 7 or 8 times this dose could kill me but, according to my body weight, that’s what it was going to take to end my methadone addiction.
My withdrawal symptoms from methadone had however temporarily abated.
I prepared myself the next day for the experience. I was starting to get bad withdrawal from the methadone. I wore a white robe and painted myself ritualistically for the treatment. This was to be a statement of my methadone addiction; after all I’d been a ‘methadone ghost’ for so many years. As the face paint fell away over the next few hours the methadone addiction would also fade away. (This was also a tribute to the Bwiti cult of Gabon who use the drug in spiritual ceremonies.)
I took the ibogaine at 10:20am on the Friday. I took four capsules to begin with. The fifth I’d take later. After about 40 mins I felt a heavy emotional trauma come over me. I grew very apprehensive about the dose and feared that I may die. Edward reassured me. I lay down to let the ibogaine work. Light and sound were being affected. The yellow painted wall opposite me glowed with a burning intensity. I knew that this was going to be a strong experience. The noise of the underground trains became amplified into the sound of a thousand Nazi bombers. I felt the approach of something huge, something menacing perhaps. I called out Bwiti 3 times. The words appeared in my head in large green slimy letters. The first visions that I experienced when closing my eyes were yellow grids stretching into the empty darkness of space. These stellar grids then took me into another dark and ominous landscape with a particularly eerie resonance. A strange sound permeated the atmosphere… it was like a thousand million aircraft drifting overhead. The hum or resonance permeated the whole experience and I understood this to be an essential component of existence, a binding force that was always there, but that the ibogaine helped me recognise. I then felt I was on board a strange spacecraft viewing the landscape before me. Small portraits drifted by of myself as a child. They stopped when I contracted a hellish skin condition at age 17. This was where my development was seriously affected and I journeyed into heavy depression and low self-esteem.
Next a figure that had haunted me for years appeared. It was the Chinese torture victim from Georges Bataille’s Tears of Eros. This photograph of a young man being systematically sliced to pieces was the most disturbing image I’d ever seen. The text mentioned that a large dose of opium had been administered to the victim prior to the torture. A curiously beatified expression was on the guy’s face. In my trance state the figure flew towards me in an inset box. He was glowing silver, completely transcended from the torture he was undergoing. The beauty outweighed the horror. I realised then that I too had been a torture victim. I had been torturing myself with opiate addiction.
I then experienced a complete atomic breakdown. I was viewing myself at a molecular level. The molecules of my existence had information imprinted within. The information was all to do with evolution. I experienced life in the primordial swamp, viewing ancient life forms that I had once been. A cycle of death and rebirth appeared. A lizard popped out of a hole and jumped down another. Next an animal skull popped out of the first hole, went down the next, and the whole cycle continued with the lizard again.
These are the key moments of the experience. There’s a lot of it that I can’t recall. The intensity was often overwhelming and it was impossible to take on board all of the information. Ataxia hit me heavily and I found it impossible to walk without help. Jagged lines appeared around lights and the strange resonance permeated my head for a long time after the visions ended.
I was a little sick and went to bed. I didn’t feel great but it wasn’t withdrawal at least. I felt I was being cured of my addiction.
It took me about 3 days to start walking properly again. I did have residual withdrawal symptoms but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. I’d say it cleared 85% of the rattling. There was no way I’d feel this good if I’d tried to come straight off methadone. I didn’t have much strength over the following 2 weeks but it’s gradually coming back. It’s now the 15th day since I used to take methadone and I feel really good. Ibogaine has ended my addiction.
Addenda: I’ve now gone almost 8 months without methadone and my life has completely altered. A voice spoke to me at the end of the treatment. I took it to be the God of Ibogaine. He told me I would be healed within the next few weeks and my life would change around (I had been dreadfully unhappy prior to taking the treatment) . I was, and I am a much happier person now. The anguish of depression has been vanquished… I am whole again! - David Graham Scott (2004)
I have to admit that my closing statement about my depression being completely lifted turned out to be untrue in the long run. While I do firmly believe that psychedelics can be beneficial in the treatment of mental health and addiction issues I think they need to be used in conjunction with specialist psychotherapy if serious long-term change is expected.
With the success of Detox or Die and the great deal of positive testimonials I received from addicts who had been ‘saved’ by taking the same path, I decided it was time to make a follow-up film. This was the genesis of Iboga Nights. The film recaps the major events of Detox or Die so that it can be viewed as a standalone documentary without actually viewing the original film. I’d obviously recommend that one should look at the prequel film if possible. It’s freely available to watch on the internet (links at the end of this article).
I had received so many positive testimonials from long-suffering addicts who had managed to quit their drug habit by taking iboga/ibogaine that I was incredibly moved that a simple documentary could have such incredible power. Coming close to 10 years after my treatment in 2003, I decided to embark on a journey to follow some individuals who intended to try the same detox route. I knew this would take some time to complete and it ended up being a three year journey, with a bizarre mix of highs and lows I had never expected at the outset. I started out with the idea of making a piece of propaganda to prove the true efficacy of iboga through the stories of the addicts I’d follow. Well, things didn’t always go as initially planned and there are stories that are quite shocking. I realised that my primary function is as a documentary filmmaker, a teller of truths as I experience them, and not as an iboga propagandist.
One of the main subjects we encounter is an incredibly eccentric chap from Notting Hill in London, Mickey Waldorf. I took a great shine to Mickey and saw him as a kindred soul in many ways. He talked about how iboga had changed his life for the better and how it had helped him quit using hard drugs for seven years. He had relapsed though, and mentioned that he was considering doing another treatment sometime in the future.
I really didn’t think it was a good idea for Mickey to do iboga again as his health wasn’t great and he was almost 60 years old. Iboga can slow the heart down and if there are any underlying health problems it can prove to be fatal. Unfortunately, this is what happened to Mickey just a few months after the film was completed. He had a heart attack soon after ingesting his initial dose of iboga. I cannot help but feel some sense of responsibility for this happening but I had no idea he’d gone to Spain to do his treatment. I’d have tried my best to talk him out of it.
I have also experienced stories of miraculous pain-free recoveries from drug addiction with the same substance. If anything, I’ve come to realise that this treatment provision must be done with every safeguard possible being put in place. Iboga is not a ‘cure for addiction’ but can certainly help in many cases. By showing both the good and bad side of iboga treatment I’ve steered clear of blatant propaganda and made it clear that preliminary health checks must be undertaken and the client very carefully monitored throughout proceedings. This is not a detox option one should take when alone. The risks are far too high.
I feel my time spent exploring drug subculture may be at an end. There is a more cynical type of documentary style that prevails on many TV channels, and empathy forms no part of it. I have no desire to sell-out to such blatant propaganda that seeks to humiliate and name-call. I have also found that I really need to move on from such subject matter if I’m to engage with a wider audience. My current project has nothing to do with drug issues and as I mentioned above, is about my journey to Africa with an old colonial big game hunter. The bizarre thing being, I’m a vegan!
An extensive interview with David is available here:
23rd – 26th of June, Bucharest, Romania, Caro Hotel, 400 seats
7 presentations with special guests * 5 workshops * 3 interactive Q&A sessions * 7 visionary artists exhibiting * 1 movie screening with the director’s presence *4 days of networking
Keynote presenters; Graham Hancock, Jeremy Narby, Jan Kounen, and Dennis McKenna
Dedicated to the Visionary Wisdom and Art of Pablo Amaringo
The Conference title, Sumiruna, is inspired by the great visionary artist Pablo Amaringo. He described a Sumiruna as a human who through their years of spiritual evolution and learning has moved to the highest levels of knowledge and wisdom. He also expressed this as an allegory of the evolving consciousness of humanity.
At this time, there is a rapidly growing awareness of the role that expanded states of consciousness, and visionary art play in the transformation of human and planetary awareness. To support this movement, the Sumiruna Conference brings together some of the world's leading authors, visionaries, artists, researchers, and teachers to Romania, to discuss what can be gained; and to share the latest research and techniques for exploring consciousness.
This is the first conference of this nature to be held in East Europe. In fact it is the first time that the four keynote presenters have appeared together at any event in the world. We see this as a communal gathering for those who share an interest in the growing emergence of a new consciousness, and an awareness of the role that Entheogenic Plants, Sacred Sound, Ecstatic Dance, Traditional wisdom, and Visionary Art play in this personal and collective awakening.
At this exceptional knowledge and cognitive sharing platform, you will meet and participate in inspirational and motivating presentations and panel debates. Interact with visionary artists, movie directors, and ecstatic dance teachers; as well as leaders in ethnopharmacy research, acclaimed authors, and anthropologists.
The Sumiruna Conference will encompass workshops, presentations, talks and interactive Q&A sessions. By bringing together some of the luminaries of the evolving consciousness movement we have the opportunity to empower our personal journey of self-discovery and thus by extension the collective consciousness. At the Sumiruna Conference we offer a favourable environment for individual creativity, networking and contact with others of a like mind.
The keynote speakers of the conference are:
Writer & journalist, author of books that have sold more than five million copies worldwide and have been translated to 27 languages.
Ph.D., Ethnopharmacologist and Research Pharmacognosist, known for his research on Amazonian ethnopharmacology and plant hallucinogens.
Ph.D., Author, Anthropologist and Activist, investigator of the traditional knowledge systems of indigenous Amazonian peoples.
Director and Filmmaker, popular for his dedication to the Shipibo-Conibo culture and shamanism.
Alongside Richard Grossman, David Slocum Hewson, Helena Baranquilla, Nana Nauwald, C. Michael Smith, Alfredo Zagaceta, Moises Llerena and JheffAu.
Taboos can be both impediments to knowledge and storehouses of knowledge.
This two-part talk by Reverend Nemu, author of Science Revealed and the forthcoming Neuro-apocalypse, explores the taboos in place in the scientific community studying ayahuasca, and compares their usefulness to those in indigenous ayahuasca traditions.
Reverend Nemu’s fascination with all things apocalyptic began twenty years ago, whilst baiting Jehovah's Witnesses on his doorstep. He occasionally gives talks on ayahuasca and Santo Daime, on revelation in the history of science, and other wonderful things, which you can see here (http://www.nemusend.co.uk). He is the most compelling and optimistic apocalyptic in the jungle, and he is available for weddings and funerals.
This is the editorial for the Psychedelic Press journal XVI (May 2016) and is written by Andy Roberts, author of newly published Acid Drops: Adventures in Psychedelia, and Albion Dreaming: A Popular History of LSD in Britain: We live in interesting times. Psychedelic drugs of all kinds, controlled and uncontrolled by law, are enjoying a renaissance and there is arguably more interest in these drugs now than ever before. Barely a week passes without the media running a story about how psychedelic drug use could benefit individuals or society and in 2015 the European Convention on Human Rights suggested that drug taking is a fundamental human right. Breakthroughs in successful medical trials with LSD, psilocybin and MDMA continue apace and there is a growing belief that medical/psychotherapeutic use might be licensed within the next decade.
That would be fantastic, but is it enough? Well, no, it isn’t. It’s a start but surely what we want is for adults to have the right to legally use psychedelics for their personal use – the cognitive liberty argument. This is also what many of the current psychedelic researchers, such as Dr Ben Sessa, want, and herein lies the psychedelic paradox. Ben’s argument is that the hippie counter-culture has failed to challenge the laws against psychedelic drugs using the cognitive liberty argument. Consequently the only successful route to legislative change is to use the weight of evidence from medical trials to first bring about legal psychedelic therapies and then to work toward legalisation for personal use. There is logic in this argument but just how realistic is it?
My view is that this optimism must be balanced against the government’s history of legislative actions against psychedelic drugs. LSD has been a Class A drug for decades. MDMA (Ecstasy) was designated a Class A controlled drug in 1977. Cannabis was up-graded from Class C to B in 2009, and ‘magic mushrooms’ designated a Class A drug in 2005. That track record alone gives me no faith in any future relaxation of the laws.
Dig deeper and you’ll find the political thinking behind these restrictions amplified in the government’s 2010 Drug Strategy document. One key sentence stands out as indicative of the government’s position: ‘This Government does not believe that liberalisation and legalisation are the answer’.
Why are psychedelic drugs subject to such harsh controls and legislation? Ask non-users and you’ll get a range of answers, usually suggesting it is because of their danger. Yet there is a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence to demonstrate that careful use of psychedelic substances is not particularly dangerous (with the caveats that certain groups of people including children and those with mental health issues should not use them). The canard that all drugs are bad was firmly demolished in 2009 in a surreal public clash between scientific evidence and political hypocrisy.
David Nutt, Chair of the government’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs was asked to resign when he claimed in a lecture some drugs were less harmful than others. Nutt refused and was summarily dismissed. A media furore ensued, revealing the fundamental ignorance inherent in political thinking about the effects of drugs on individuals and society.
In 2007, Nutt, drawing on the knowledge of 14 experts specialising in all aspects of drug use, examined nine of the alleged ‘harms’ of 20 drugs. Nutt’s evidence-based conclusions were startling. Alcohol was ranked as the most harmful, above heroin, whereas LSD was ranked 17th, MDMA 18th and psychedelic mushrooms 20th. Tobacco came in at 6th place.
All drugs are harmful to some degree but Nutt’s table of relative harms brought into question why those causing the most harms are legal to use, while those with no potential harm other than to the user are strictly controlled. It is difficult to believe Nutt was sacked for anything other than because his findings clashed with the prejudices of the government: prejudices that clearly demonstrate that the government was not interested in basing law and policies about drugs on scientific evidence.
Prior to his sacking, a telephone conversation between Nutt and former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, epitomised the simplistic reasoning used by politicians to justify their refusal to base drug laws on evidence.
JS:You can’t compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal one.
JS: Because one’s illegal.
DN:Why is it illegal?
JS: Because it is harmful.
DN:Don’t we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?
JS:You can’t compare harms of an illegal activity with a legal one.
Lewis Carroll would have been proud! Nutt was not suggesting any drug is safe or that one should be chosen over another. He was doing what good science should do by bringing clarity to a subject mired in confusion and prejudice, offering evidence on which policy and law could be based.
The ironic, hypocritical, punchline to the bad joke of Nutt’s sacking came in 2011 when Liberal Democrat politician Tom Brake asked David Cameron if he believed in evidence-based policies in relation to drugs. Cameron responded, ‘That is a lovely idea.’
So if evidence shows the potential harm of using psychedelic drugs is low and can be managed, the question as to why they are so vigorously controlled remains. I think there is a case to be made suggesting the government is trying to outlaw the psychedelic experience per se by criminalising and controlling the substances used to access it. A conspiracy based on an unspoken witchhunt against being high. If that is the case then any argument for the legal personal use of psychedelics must be based as much on the principle of cognitive liberty as on the medical/psychotherapeutic model.
Of course a conspiracy of this kind is unprovable. No one is going to discover a file in the National Archives at Kew labelled ‘The Conspiracy Against Psychedelic Drugs,’ conspiracies just don’t work like that. Nor is it a conspiracy by any specific government department or individual. More an unspoken conspiracy by the Establishment, defined in 1955 by journalist Henry Fairlie:
"By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised. The exercise of power in Britain (more specifically, in England) cannot be understood unless it is recognized that it is exercised socially."
Or to put it another way, a conspiracy conducted by those in positions of power who see psychedelics, and the cognitive liberty they offer, as antithetical to the British way of life. There is evidence in abundance to support such a conspiracy. For instance, consider the speed with which LSD was legislated against in 1966. Until March 1966 press, public and politician alike were only vaguely aware of LSD. Following lurid media exposes of how, in a few hours, LSD could transform a person’s focus from living as a mindless consumer drone to a thoughtful questioning individual, the hammer came down.
The last thing the Establishment wanted was its citizens becoming more interested in different ways of living through sexuality, relationships, spirituality, music and having fun instead of being a work slave. These older generational fears were echoed publically on 30 June 1966 when Lord St Just announced in the House of Lords that, “No drug has been produced which has caused greater trouble in this world than LSD”. Of course that statement was not backed up by any evidence to support it, simply because there was no evidence. LSD was heavily vilified in the media and its successful use by psychotherapists was scorned by the British Medical Journal. A series of debates in Parliament took place in which LSD was discussed in the same tone as drugs of addiction, and in October 1966, amid laughter and bad jokes, one of the most potent substances discovered became a controlled drug. Then came the crack down.
The vibrant counter-culture spawned and driven by LSD in the sixties and seventies was mercilessly routed. The Free Festivals were infiltrated by police, as were the network of squats, communes and shared houses that were springing up across Britain. So desperate were the Establishment to destroy this chemically initiated way of living that Britain’s first national drug squad was formed with huge physical and fiscal resources in order to smash the Operation Julie LSD manufacturing and distribution network, which produced some of the finest quality LSD ever. The two chemists were given prison sentences disproportionate to the crime, and well above those handed out to murderers and paedophiles. Similar force was brought to bear in the eighties and nineties on the burgeoning rave scene which, in its early days at least, had parallels with the hippies’ discovery of the transformational nature of LSD. I’m only scratching the surface, of course, evidence of the persecution of psychedelic culture in Britain goes much deeper and spans several decades.
Perhaps I’m being paranoid. Perhaps the prejudices held by the Establishment are slowly fading and a change really is coming. I hope so, but we still need to push on all fronts, and not just rely on those working on scientific and medical trials with psychedelic drugs. If we really are at a tipping point then we all have our part to play. When, in twenty years’ time, you are asked “What did you do for the psychedelic renaissance?” what will your answer be?
Whatever your skills or knowledge everyone can play a part in manifesting the change we all want. Lobby your local politician and ask their opinions on these transformational substances. Educate them if they are ignorant of the facts. Join your local psychedelic society. Better still, start one! Mainstream your interest and enthusiasm for psychedelic drugs whenever it is appropriate. The psychedelic experience itself is not illegal, nor is talking about it or lobbying for change in legislation. If you have had positive life changing experiences from using psychedelic substances give witness to them. In short, celebrate the psychedelic experience and psychedelic culture. Be the change you want to see.
For more information about Psychedelic Press XVI and to buy your copy please check out its page here.
Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson and Whitehead, and within the field of Philosophy of Mind. Noumenautics, his recently published first book, traverses the mindscape of metaphysics, nihilism and psychedelic phenomenology. It navigates through subjects such as the sentience of cells, the constrictions of consciousness, the metaphysics of might, the magic of mushrooms, the narcotics of Nietzsche, and the neologism of neo-nihilism – the last of which may itself cause flashbacks. Peter's been kind enough to answer some of our questions on Noumenautics and the relationship between psychedelic substances and philosophy.
Psychedelic Press:Your chapter in Noumenautics entitled ‘Antichrist Psychonaut’ argues that drug-induced altered states of experience were a formative part of Nietzsche’s philosophical output. Would you briefly describe how this idea of altered experience ties in with his philosophical outlook? And, moreover, do you think without those experiences his philosophy would have been substantially different?
Peter Sjöstedt-H: Nietzsche began and ended his philosophical career extolling the Ancient Greek god of intoxication, Dionysus. In the intervening period Nietzsche had begun self-prescribing and heavily using mind-altering drugs such as opium and chloral hydrate. I put forward the argument in my book that the profound ‘inspiration’ Nietzsche speaks of having (in Ecce Homo) is akin to Socrates’ daemon, today perhaps more commonly described as auditory hallucination. Nietzsche’s daemon was Dionysus, finally identified as the Antichrist – a being with whom Nietzsche himself identified before his fall into cognitive destruction. Without theses drug-induced inspirations, I doubt Nietzsche’s later powerful philosophy would have emerged.
PP:You write in the preface, "I am more than aware that my philosophical interests in metaphysics, nihilism and psychedelic phenomenology are each somewhat rare in the field." As a psychedelic bibliophile, I can certainly add that I know of nothing else with this particular arrangement. My question is two-fold: Do you see Noumenautics as an introductory toe-dipping from which some swimming might later occur? Or, in other words, are you just beginning to skim the surface of a new topic? And, do you think 'psychedelic philosophy' has any meaning outside questions of mind and phenomenology?
PS-H: I do believe that we are in the natal stages of a philosophy of psychedelics, and I do see my book as an attempt to open the eyes of philosophers and other thinkers to such an event. It was a historic misfortune that the first wave of psychedelia in the mid-twentieth century coincided with a barren phase in philosophy where consciousness was commonly reduced to a mere semantic or behavioural analysis. We have mostly escaped from such reductivism today, with exciting new theories of the mind. Thus a re-investigation of psychedelic experience is much needed, and perhaps even essential to the philosophy of mind. Following his recent study revealing brain scans of people on LSD, Professor David Nutt was asked what the prime message of the study was – his answer: “if you want to understand consciousness, you've got to study psychedelics”. A simple statement carrying a potentially revolutionary message to philosophers of mind who have hitherto paid scant notice to these substances.
With regard to your last point, I’d say that a psychedelic philosophy need not only relate to philosophies of mind or phenomenology, but would also encompass disciplines such as metaphysics and (meta-)ethics – consider psychedelic therapy, cognitive enhancement (transhumanism), the erosion of concurrent social values (à la Octavio Paz), etc.
PP:Why did you initially become drawn to eighteenth/nineteenth century German philosophers like Kant, Schopenhauer, and the Nietzsche? And what do you think their relevance is for today's culture? Both psychedelic enthusiasts and wider society…
PS-H: Although I was born in Sweden, I was mostly educated in England wherein one is unwittingly inculcated into a dull cosmology – to the extent that one does not even realize that there are alternative explanations to reality. As George Orwell said, 'as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought, they feel no need for any philosophy or "world-view".' Being introduced to those German philosophers smashed me awake to the awareness of alternate conceptions of reality, ontologies, far more intricate in substantiation than that which I had till then unconsciously assumed. It was this thunder jolt of ontology that attracted me to them at first, and their genius retained the interest. I think Friedrich Nietzsche’s work is particularly relevant to our culture, in its positive destructive tendency – but he only died a century ago, a mere minute in philosophy years, so his influence has yet to take hold. In relation to psychedelic enthusiasts, his utopian Dionysian vision can appeal, connected to his annulment of traditional values – succinctly: his radical atheist spirituality. Kant’s and Schopenhauer’s rejection of the reality of space and time obviously appeal to psychonauts who frequently report perceived distortions in these dimensions, though such talk has become a platitude.
PP:From a literary standpoint, your ‘Myco-Metaphysics’ chapter is my personal favourite, as it brings in philosophical strands into the very business of tripping with mushrooms. Why do you think the psychedelic experience often boils down to a question of 'what is my mind?' And, as was often the case in 1960s discourse, the recognition of power structures? (Something I think might actually be becoming lost now in amongst the anxiety of doctors.)
PS-H: A philosophy professor recently asked me what insights one can gain via psychedelic intake. I replied that, at the very least, it makes one realise the immense power of the mind. To see and interact with sublime alienesque detailed flowing structures and entities under the substance is a phenomenon far transcending that of a common dream or instance of imagination. To the initiate, such experiences naturally evoke the question, “What (the hell) is my mind?”! Of course, it may be more than that, but this question sets one on a path.
Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, a Nietzsche sympathizer, wrote that “[psychedelic] drugs are nihilistic: they undermine all values and radically overturn all our ideas about good and evil, what is just and what is unjust”. One means by which psychedelics broaden one’s beliefs is by making conscious what was before unquestioned. Power structures often operate by employing ostensibly unquestionable moral codes which act in the interests of the dominating structure rather than the whole populace – an obvious example is sin and the power of the Catholic Church. To see sin as itself a sin may require the aid of mind-altering tools for someone within the structure. ‘Sin’ is an easy example, if we replace that word with, say, ‘violence’ we begin to transcend our current cultural climate.
PP:In a recent review of Noumenautics the occultist Julian Vayne commented that he would like to hear more about the relationship between nihilism as a philosophical school and psychedelics. What do you think this might be?
PS-H: As just noted, the notion of psychedelics allowing a direct revaluation of all values entails that these substances can be a practical tool for the nihilist. Most discourse in psychedelia has veered towards the contrary line of using psychedelics to bolster the current moral outlook of the age, especially with regard to the insight into the alleged unity of everything, akin to Schopenhauerian idealism. Nietzsche’s nihilistic response to such idealist ethical claims is devastating, yet it leads to an ultra-optimistic outlook. Nihilism and psychedelics are partners of purity: they can efface entrenched beliefs thereby allowing for a clear cognitive freedom. The elaboration of such a partnership is a task yet to be completed.
PP:Thanks very much Peter.
You can buy a copy of Peter’s Noumenauticshere, and please do check out his website and Facebook page too.
From Psychedelic Press Volume XV: One step forwards, and it appears we’ve taken two steps back. Perhaps then a side-shuffle to avoid the oncoming carnival of an ever-transforming everyday world, only to find that it doesn’t actually look a great deal different from our new vantage point. Indeed, the chains of identity appear to have been tightened. Have we not just spent decades loosening them? Morphing the metal links into fairy chains? For the psychedelic enthusiast living in society’s liminal spaces, this is no benevolent acid trip. It is the law. Or, more specifically, an additional drug law.
Every generation must be punished for being young. It appears like it’s our rite of passage into adulthood. A state co-ordinated beating to wake us up to the brutal reality we must live within for the remainder of our lives. Sixties and LSD. Eighties and ecstasy. Millenials and, well, anything they/we can get our hands on that is novel and un-investigated, unregulated, and—fingers crossed—unruly. Denied a private communitas with friends and family, a public rapping suffices to expunge the spirit of adventure and exploration.
Of course, if we all lived by the law—which in print I heartily recommend we all do—then perhaps it is a public rite. Remember to take your liminal victimisation, alienation, and anger into adulthood – it will serve you well and feed the feedback loop of human economy quite perfectly. Let’s be honest though. Not only will existing generations flout the existing drug laws and dealers the new Psychoactive Substances Bill, probably just out of habit having not realised the law has changed, the next one will do so with the full knowledge that their transgression is their private rite.
If the law wishes to be seen as the ‘other’, as an entity opposed to the people and not decided by the people, then this would seem the perfect act. Having said that, maybe one can’t live by the law until one has broken it? Otherwise, we would just be robotically following the bureaucratic web that’s built up over generations at the behest of brief public scares and the agendas of this, that, and the other. By giving us barriers, are they helping us wake up? I doubt it. Theresa May has no idea what she is doing (she couldn’t even be bothered to join in the Commons debate.) There is no post-liminal state of adulthood here, no right or left wing ideology, just knee-jerk, unthoughtful reaction.
Economy, stupid. No, black market, stupid. Unregulated free-for-all-dealers, stupid. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a far-right, libertarian anarchist, a mental health professional, a Keynesian economist, or an elf from dimension Let’s-Pretend-Nothing-Is-Happening, the Psychoactive Substances Bill just doesn’t make any sense. Sure, it’s not going to send any users to jail, perhaps only a few dealers, but many more will be made (tax-free!) rich as a result, and the health of people it’s been designed to protect will be potentially open to more harm than good.
I know, dear Psychedelic Press readers, I am moaning to the converted (and to those of you not in the UK, further apologies), but 2016 can’t be another year of one medical step forward for two legal steps back. I hope it will be a year of two medical steps forwards and a complete stomp and trample of the drug laws, and with any luck we’ll be ecstatically dancing the fox-trot for generations to come. With the massive proliferation of psychedelic groups, dinners, dances, and parties, it’s about getting involved…loudly.
I was lucky enough to find a copy of Albert Glover’s The Mushroom: a curriculum of the soul recently. Published in 1972, this small, scarce, orange-clad pamphlet is a poetic record of the author’s hunt and subsequent trip with the folklorist’s favourite fairy mushroom, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria).
When first I found you it was underneath a white
Pine tree. That wood I took for my staff,
That image entered my dreams.
Led by a boy I walked through the pine plantation
Calling your name, Mukhomer!
The poem describes Glover’s hunt for mukhomer (a folk name for the mushroom) and is filled with earthy imagery, which slips and slides between his exterior and interior in the great play of set and setting. He also includes a short prose piece describing his journey that whilst, on the one hand, contextualises some of the imagery in the poem, also describes the experience itself as being more difficult and challenging.
The prose begins by recounting his pre-internet era search for information and books, letters to the poet Charles Olson, tangles with Wasson’s works, and all the means with which to prepare his set, setting, and dose. He even began to wear ritual feathers in readiness for his journey and to underscore the importance of sacralising his communion with the mushroom.
Yet what is abundantly clear from his prose is that no matter the preparation, the set, setting and dose mantra can very quickly become a meaningless abstraction to the tripper deep in to their psychedelic steps. There are too many wonders at work, and a lifetime of reflection waiting with the come down at the other end. Having eaten mukhomer, he writes:
I had become oblivious to the surroundings which awaited my gaze. I was afraid to look! Mistakenly (though, of course) I centered on myself rather than the other. Waves of fear passed over me if I thought. And so I struggled for – how long? To simply sit patient. Facing the unknown in such a literal fashion provides stress in what we preconceive as otherwise ‘safe’ lives.
He proceeds to feel a moment of euphoria, “I was alive!” but then remembered the suggestion of a friend who’d told him Amanita muscaria causes blindness, the potential took hold in his present. Suddenly he wished to leave his wilderness, which he found “indifferent” to him, and wanted “the shelter of lover which would comfort me in the misery of blindness.” Stumbling his way home, he eventually fell into a deep sleep.
The interplay of set and setting can be an impossible management task, where one can pull the rug out from the other, or quickly clothe it in blindness and leave one stumbling. Identity, which is the state that set and setting attempt to nestle and gently control, is itself fluidly reconceptualising one’s set and setting whilst one trips. For Glover, the mechanics of management fell quickly away.
The feathers I wore were a borrowed invention I did not truly understand, like Buddhism, Taoism, Tantrism, anythingism, that entire range of borrowed alternatives which bring us to a lonely kitchen, a stranger to myself and my nation.
In some respects the poetry of a bad experience is infinitely easier to communicate than that of a good one. There’s often little tension or drama in the latter, indeed, there may be nothing but the fixed white light of ineffable eternity; a white-wash. Glover concludes by saying “It is more difficult to be a man than a bird, beast, or flower.” He eventually sees the challenge as too great, not to be returned to, yet his expression of the difficultly is arguably only the introduction to the problem of unfixed identity.
There is a cycle of three trip reports in this journal by Dave King, Ryan Nash, and Anonymous (not, I should say, the masked interweb bandits.) Each has a very different writing style and manner of approaching their experiences, yet all explore some of the difficulties in conceptualising their set and setting amidst the throes of their respective substances. With the best original intentions, those we surround ourselves with, and the different selves we each bring to the table combine and fall-away into unexpected places, identities and roles.
Elsewhere, Andrew Gallimore speculates on the mechanics of how concepts arise within and without a psychedelic state in his article Building Human Worlds: DMT and the Simulated Universe. Matt Cook’s short story The Cactus Dance is a strange tale of psychedelic indoctrination where a presumed shared world can quickly be revealed to be dissociated universe. Samantha Banbury and Joanne Lusher look at the potential therapeutic implications of smokable DMT in conjunction with CBT for poly-drug users. And finally, there’s an article by myself exploring how the relationship between literature and science helped give birth to the psychedelic discourse of the 1960s.
In each case, territories and fields are coming together and breaking apart in nuanced ways, just as the intentions behind set and setting can do. Embracing novelty is recognising, as Glover wrote, that “Dreams did take place which will take a lifetime to understand.”
This article first appeared in the bi-monthly Psychedelic Press UK print journal, August 2015 (Volume IV). You can pick up a copy of the journal here, or subscribe and have original, innovative and select psychedelic literature delivered straight to your door every couple of months.
Some thirty years ago, in May 1983, Terence McKenna’s contact lenses failed him during a critical moment of his speech at the psychedelic conference in Santa Barbara. Unable to read from the page, McKenna had to resort to improvising. Listening to the recording after the event, he couldn’t help but notice the crowd’s reaction to a certain bit in his improvised talk, when he’d spoken the words ‘psychedelic society’. He had never used the phrase consciously before, but hearing the ripples that went through his listeners when he brought up the concept made McKenna wonder about its possible meanings.
A year later, in a classic June 1984 talk which was given at the Esalen Institute, and later adapted into a chapter in the 1997 psychedelic anthology Entheogens and the Future of Religion, McKenna proposed some of the possible characteristics and implications of such a psychedelic society.[i] A psychedelic society, he suggested, need not be one in which all members ingest psychedelics themselves. Rather, it is a society which orients itself and lives in the light of the irreducible Mystery of Being; a society in which problems and solutions are displaced from their traditional central role, and which puts ‘irreducible Mysteries’ in their stead. Such a society, McKenna suggested, would be less keen to find clear and definitive answers, and more open to exploring reality without imposing simplified structures upon it. It would be more immune to the disastrous urge for simple clear-cut answers and identities, which characterizes human societies, and be more open to co-existing with the doubts and contradictions inherent to the cosmos.
McKenna’s vision of a psychedelic society was closely related to another of his most popular ideas: the idea that culture and ideology are not your friends. According to McKenna, ideology and culture are tools which give other people the power over one’s experience and identity, since they lead individuals to shape their identity according to pre-conceived forms. If you identify yourself with brands or with the popular ideas about what is beautiful, true, right or important, you are giving away the power over your experience to other people. You let others tell you what to think, instead of thinking for yourself.
Not to mistake culture and ideology as your friends meant seeking to understand reality in one’s own terms instead of buying into pre-packaged ideological and cultural deals such as communism, capitalism, democracy or totalitarianism. Psychedelics were the tools that would enable that to happen, for as McKenna repeatedly argued, psychedelics are boundary dissolvers, belief breakers, and deconditioning agents which raise doubts in you whether you are a Hasidic Rabbi or a Marxist anthropologist.[ii] ‘The plants … don’t address cultural values, they blast through them, they address the animal body, the mammalian brain.’[iii]The psychedelic human being was thus to be a person that creates his own culture and ideology. The psychedelic artist was to be the artist whose work is uniquely original, transcending the limits of pre-conceived styles and forms. The psychedelic thinker; the one thinker to think outside the established norms of thinking.
And there was another, even more fundamental, flaw to culture and ideology. Belief in itself, argued McKenna, was limiting to the individual, because every time you believe in something you are automatically precluded from believing its opposite. By believing something, you are virtually shutting yourself from all contradictory information, thus once again performing the sin of imposing a rigid simplified structure upon an infinitely complex reality.[iv] A psychedelic society, McKenna suggested, ‘would abandon belief systems for direct experience.’[v]
Reading the Psychedelic Society many years ago, in a time when I immersed myself in the universe of McKenna’s writings and talks, I was captivated by the idea. Yet, in the years since, my thoughts of the subject have become less certain and unequivocal. Like many of McKenna’s ideas, the concept of the psychedelic society as a society without belief and ideology was a brilliantly articulated and inspiring notion, yet it seemed to have a suspect air of unexamined utopianism. Was it possible to live without culture and ideology? Was a society without certain types of shared beliefs and constructs even conceivable? In this essay, I wish to convey some of my thoughts and reflections on the subject following a recent encounter with a Spanish psytrance tribe.
A genealogy of the psychedelic counter-cultural idea:
McKenna’s notions that culture and ideology are not your friends, and that belief is intrinsically limiting, were closely related to two other key ideas in the history of psychedelic thought: Aldous Huxley’s Mind at Large Theory and Timothy Leary’s idea of Reality Tunnels. Huxley’s Mind at Large Theory, elaborated in the Doors of Perception, suggested that Man’s view of reality is limited by a ‘reducing valve’ which filters out his perception of reality so that it includes only the thinnest trickle of perceptions necessary for his survival. The function of consciousness, Huxley argued, following such thinkers such as French philosopher Henry Bergson and the English epistemologist and philosopher C.D. Broad, was not to channel the myriad impressions perceived by the senses into our awareness, but rather to filter out the staggering noise of details which fills our raw perception. Consciousness was the mechanism which allowed us to edit out of our awareness the sound of birds chirping in the background while we are working to complete an important task; or making us neglect to notice the special way in which light reflects upon the skin of an apricot we are about to consume.
Were we to become engrossed in the many details perceived by the senses, we might become unable to function efficiently, Huxley argued, so consciousness edits out from our experience what it considers inconsequential information. In this way, an infinite world is reduced into our finite and more manageable, but also infinitely poorer and incomplete perception of reality: what we call a worldview.
Same as with McKenna’s culture and ideology, Huxley’s reducing valve was a mechanism which cuts down on the complexity of reality by fitting it into pre-conceived forms which make us more immediately efficient in terms of evolutionary survival, but immensely less open, creative, and aware. And culture was also a type of reducing valve, ‘What we see through the meshes of this [cultural] net is never, of course, the unknowable ‘thing in itself’ […] What we ordinarily take in and respond to is a curious mixture of immediate experience with culturally conditioned symbol.’[vi]
The extraordinary value of psychedelics, Huxley argued, lay in their ability to allow us to loosen this reducing valve of perception and let ourselves behold reality in a fuller, richer way, bringing us closer to the Mind at Large, the ultimate reality of things, and enabling us to revolutionize psychology, spirituality, education and society. Psychedelics were tools for ‘cutting holes in cultural fences […] the most urgent of necessities.’[vii]
About a decade after Huxley suggested his Mind at Large concept, Timothy Leary proposed his own take on the idea: the concept of the Reality Tunnel. Same as Huxley’s reducing valve of perception before and McKenna’s Cultureand Ideology concepts after, Leary’s reality tunnels, later further elaborated by Robert Anton Wilson in books such as Prometheus Rising,[viii] were a pre-composed pattern which limits and distorts the perception of reality by reducing complexity and options. A person’s reality tunnel would determine their perception of the world, editing out those bits of perception that do not fit their beliefs, while singling-out and enlarging those details which fit well together with the persons’ particular reality tunnel. A capitalist, for example, would avidly gather any fact and piece of information which might support their claim that capitalism is the best economic system, easily forgetting and discarding any piece of information which might contradict that view.
Similarly, a sworn communist would avidly collect any article of information which might support their claim that communism is the best economic system, quickly forgetting and discarding any piece of information which might contradict that view. Reality tunnels were ubiquitous and included ‘Eskimo totemists, Moslem fundamentalists, Roman Catholics, Marxist Leninists, Nazis, Methodist Republicans, Oxford agnostics, Snake worshipers, Ku Kluxers, Mafiosos, Unitarians, IRA-ists, PLO-ists, orthodox Jews, hardshell Baptists etc. etc.’[ix] All of us harbor established ideas about minorities, religions, nationalities, the sexes, the right ways to think, act, feel, govern, eat, drink and what not. Reality tunnels act to help us fortify these ideas against any challenging information.[x]
Like Huxley’s reducing valve, Leary and RAW’s reality tunnels are a physical metaphor (a valve in the case of Huxley; a tunnel in Leary’s case) for mental ‘structures’ which reduce an irreducible reality into the impoverished worldviews Man holds. The two concepts were both highly compatible with McKenna’s Culture and Ideology not being your friends. A subtle difference existed, however, in the main focus of each of these theories, and in the ways in which they were habitually framed. Whereas Huxley’s reducing valve metaphor was mostly concerned with how consciousness edits the impressions of senses into our perception, Leary and RAW’s reality tunnel concept was primarily concerned with how consciousness endlessly works to create ideological constructions and obstruct other possibilities from view. McKenna’s Culture and Ideology argument, in turn, was primarily concerned with the ways in which external constructs imported by consciousness serve to limit not only our worldview but also our identity and our possibility to exist as unique, authentic beings.
Thus, as I have previously shown,[xi] Huxley’s reducing valve, Leary and RAW’s Reality Tunnels, and McKenna’s Culture and Ideology are basically different aspects of one and the same idea – that the structures of the mind serve to limit our perception and experience reality in a disempowering way, and that psychedelics are the antidote which allows us to dissolve these limiting structures and beliefs. If one might speak of psychedelic philosophy as a coherent body of thought, then this would certainly be one of its most basic tenets and features: the ideal of the psychedelic minded individual as a person who perceives and experiences reality in the fullest, richest, most flexible and least-prejudiced way possible, who methodically trains himself to loosen his reducing valve, who is profoundly aware of the limiting power of reality tunnels and ideologies and learns to avoid them or deal with them in conscious, intelligent ways. This idea, which has different variations in the thought of Huxley, Leary, RAW and McKenna can also be found in the work of later psychedelic and countercultural thinkers such as Douglas Rushkoff[xii] and Erik Davis.[xiii]
A society without a culture?
In suggesting the concept of Psychedelic Society McKenna took a psychedelic and countercultural ideal, that of a unique life not given to pre-conceived cultural and ideological structures, and moved it from the personal to the societal level. In the same way that human beings should strive to live as free as possible from pre-given notions and ideas, so should society confront the world in the most creative and open-minded way possible without adhering to cultural structures.
As McKenna was fond of saying, quoting the British entomologist J.B.S Haldane: ‘The universe may not only be stranger than we suppose. It might be stranger than we can suppose.’[xiv] Our society’s tools for understanding the universe are limited by nature. Every culture in history believed that it got 95% percent of the world figured out, and that the other 5% will soon be in grip, argued McKenna. Modern culture, like so many before it, enjoys gazing back on the ideas of its predecessors with an air of ridicule, congratulating itself on finally getting it right. However, this claim was nonetheless ludicrous and parochial in our time than it was in the time of the pharaohs, and where was it even written ‘that semi-carnivorous monkeys can or should be capable of understanding reality?’[xv]
A psychedelic society, by contrast, would be a society that doesn’t purport to have reality neatly organized by some popular ideology. Rather it would be willing to explore questions and possibilities. Such a society will, moreover, not just abstain from confining itself to one version of reality. Rather it would put the great mystery of being, the paradoxical, unfathomable nature of reality, at its very centre.
Still, there seemed to be inherent dangers to the injection of the idea that culture and ideology are not your friends into the social level. Culture, after all, stands at the basis of human society. It is the thing that emerges in any place where joint human life exists and it is difficult to imagine life without it. If one were to relinquish any form of culture, after all, one would have no art, no music and not even language, for what is language if not shared cultural constructions which inhabit the mind of the individual and shape it into a template which is unique to the culture. Ridding ourselves of ideology was an equally tricky thing to do. How would society function for example if we just stop believing in democracy and human rights? And after all, as one commentator noted, did not the culture and ideology are not your friend meme itself have a underlying thread of individualism, ‘a very western (especially North American) culturally based belief.’[xvi]
It is not possible to throw away all of culture. As McKenna himself pointed out, there are some parts of it we wouldn’t want to discard, like the Sistine chapel, the Rembrandts, the Piero della Francescas and even the scientific method.[xvii]You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water, and getting rid of a whole of culture is a highly risky business. McKenna’s point is that you need to spend as much time creating your own culture/ideology with you and your friends as possible, rather than just consuming something created by somebody else. This, however, did not, could not, mean disavowing any type of shared cultural creativity. McKenna himself, after all, was a huge cultural buff, and an avid aficionado of various cultural artifacts such as the writings of James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan, and C.G. Jung, or the esoteric knowledge contained in the I Ching. Despite his tirades against culture, McKenna was an insatiable consumer of myriad forms of culture, which trickled into his thought and informed his ideas and thinking.
You still want to be able to keep at least some of what was good about culture, while editing out those parts of it that were useless and counterproductive. But how is one to accomplish such a task – a question all the more pressing in the absence of any ideology to guide oneself – is something that McKenna, to the best of my knowledge, never really answered.
There existed an inherent tension between the wish to purge humanity of the demons of culture and ideology, and the humble realization that by casting away these two we risk losing the very things that make us human: our ability to inhabit a shared mind-space, indeed the very conditions which allow us to co-exist as a society. McKenna argued that culture and ideology are not you friends, but he never went as far as saying that society is not your friend, even though it was not clear how a society without any ideology or culture would look.
Even though the terms and exact ways in which a psychedelic society would function remained vague, there seemed to be two fundamental ideas that would characterize such a psychedelic society. 1) It would live in the light of the great mystery of being. 2) It would seek to eradicate ideology and diminish the prominence of culture in a way that would allow for greater degrees of openness and creativity, as well as a more unique experience of being.
If there ever existed a society of the sort, then it might very well have been Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Kesey, after all, was also the prototypical psychedelic leader, a self proclaimed non-navigator whose main function was to inspire and allow those around him to explore and lead themselves.
The direct, immediate and overpowering experience was at the centre of Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who were more interested in endlessly breaking boundaries than in reaching any final destination. As Kesey later said in an interview quoted in part six of Oroc’s Psychedelic Revolutionseries to which I will come in the next part,[xviii]
The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be thinking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer, but they think they have. So they stop thinking. But the job is o seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants and mystery bloom.[xix]
However, was it not telling that the Merry Prankster’s free-wheeling and anarchic ride across the United States also left a trail of acid and DMT casualties along the way, as the intrepid group continued it trip furthur and beyond? And even the Pranksters arguably only existed as a truly psychedelic society for that short and adventurous period of time. Perhaps in order to exist as a psychedelic society without any cultural and ideological baggage you need to be in a state of constant revolution? Such a state is one that very few societies, if any, could maintain for a sustained period of time.
Confronting psychedelic culture in the Vega:
In the spring of 2015, after a year in Spain, I arrived to my first Spanish psytrance party. The location of the party was south of Granada, in the hilly area known as the Vega. There had been some 100-200 psychedelic ravers in the event, a small and select gathering of the relatively small Spanish trance tribe, with plenty of old timers as well as dedicated young ravers.
I had arrived to the party after a long period of psychedelic abstinence. The night before, I had read James Oroc’s sixth and final installation in the series on what he calls the second psychedelic revolution (defined as the psychedelic movement that reemerged ever since the 1990s).[xx] The ultimate chapter of this engaging series had been the most compelling and inspiring answer to the question of why psychedelics matter that I have encountered since McKenna’s Psychedelic Society. Oroc suggested that in an ego-obsessed society wildly and blindingly driving itself to its own mutually assured destruction, the rediscovery of the transpersonal experience and the interconnectedness of all things, and the breaking down of the disastrous somnambulism of technological civilization, is humanity’s only chance for survival. The psychedelic perspective was the one required for humanity’s adaptation and survival, the antidote for humanity’s current position of aimlessness, blindness and general numbness.
The second psychedelic revolution, Oroc claims, was actually part of a fifth cycle in a history of psychedelic cultures. This fifth psychedelic culture, the modern psychedelic culture whose roots can be found already in the discovery of mescaline at the end of the 19th century, followed four major sustained psychedelic cultures in history, which included Ancient Greece with its Eleusinian mysteries; Vedic India and its soma; Mexico’s Toltec, Mayan and Aztec cultures; and the ancient Chavin civilization of Peru.
Oroc’s bleak portrayal of the state of human civilization contrasted strongly with his view of this fifth psychedelic culture, which he described as exceptionally intelligent, tolerant and open-minded. A society with incredible creative resources, which is in the process of breaking out of the festival model in order to build permanent communities of responsible psychedelic users. ‘Responsible psychedelic use can build community,’ Oroc insisted[xxi] – yet another reason why psychedelics are so crucial too our culture.
And still, at the same time, Oroc seemed aware of the many pitfalls psychedelic culture is in risk of falling into, acknowledging a ‘growing move towards hedonism, escapism and a flirtation with the fantastic’, and confessing that even he was despairing at times ‘that the message is being lost in all the beautiful pictures and the pretty lights.’[xxii]
Arriving to the Vega psytrance party that weekend confronted me with the living reality of a psychedelic society in action – what it was what it wasn’t. Of course, one could not surmise that this specific event I half-randomly arrived to was representative in any way of the whole of psychedelic culture, yet somehow, by the virtue of its generic character, it actually did seem to represent much about the current state of psychedelics in culture and society.
Observing the event as an outsider to the scene, I could sense the community and its spirit – a manifestation of a society centred on the psychedelic experience. Psychedelic society, after all, was not only a theoretical concept discussed in Californian psychedelic conferences. It was also an actual way of life that emerges in various environments and conditions.
Encouragingly, psychedelic culture has been growing steadily in the past decades, supporting a growing stream of psychedelic books, music, movies and festivals, and arguably driving and inspiring more informed psychonauts than ever before to embark on their own personal voyages. Concomitantly, some of the less savory parts of the enmeshing of psychedelics within a globalized consumerist culture have also been becoming more and more evident in psychedelic culture. Many of them were to behold on the fiesta. This culture was fraught with escapist hedonism and excessive drug use, which seemed to trivialize and drain the psychedelic experience of its many qualities and possibilities. Many of these party people seemed to be running away from themselves as frantically as any of their counterparts in the mainstream culture – psychedelics, like any tool, I was reminded, could also be used to avoid yourself, instead of to reconnect. Furthermore, it had deeply chauvinist tendencies, meaning that it was centred around itself and believed itself superior to other sections of society; and finally, and perhaps most significantly for this discussion, it was closed off within a cultural discourse which was as formulistic and dogmatic as any other.
Observing the culture that emerged in these few days on the hilly terrain of the Vega, a culture arguably characteristic of much of the global psytrance scene, allowed one to notice the norms and rules established within the community. This culture had formed ossified structures like all others before it: certain ways of dressing, behaving, talking and thinking. In a way this societal laboratory almost seemed like the burial place for McKenna’s idea of a psychedelic society as a society without limiting cultural structures and beliefs. These Spanish psychonauts embraced what seemed like a ready-made psytrance identity without giving it a second thought, undermining McKenna’s idea of carving our own individual existence instead of letting culture dictate our values and ideas to us.
Watching the mundane and trivialized manifestations of a psychedelic society in which the psychedelic experience is trivialized and arranged into ready-made cultural forms suddenly caused me to question the actual transformational potential and import of these agents for our society. In the mid twentieth century, psychedelic psychiatrists such as Humphry Osmond and Donald Jackson were spreading the idea that psychedelics were a tool which might allow humanity to confront and resolve its deepest maladies and challenges, from the existential malaise troubling the western world to the threat of a nuclear war.[xxiii] Since then, psychedelics have been amply used, abused and increasingly assimilated into a consumerist culture. Observing the ways in which psychedelics were used and abused on the Vega, I could not help but ask myself whether psychedelics have not lost some of their revolutionary and transformative power in the decades that have past. Have they not turned into just another manageable but meaningless form of amusement, too weak and negligible to pose any threat to the established forms of power and control?
Judging by the way it has fallen into foreseeable forms and structures, this might have been the case. In many ways this psychedelic culture was non the more liberated than any other branch or sub-culture in modern civilization. It too was organized around basic themes, styles and ideas, which eventually limited the spectrum of possibilities, of what it could mean to be psychedelic and to have a psychedelic experience. This almost foreseeable situation seemed pretty much determined by human nature, by the human need to belong and by the human tendency to unconsciously seek acceptance and imitate those around us. It is instructing to remember that none of the four psychedelic cultures that Oroc surveys in his piece could refrain completely from erecting their own reality tunnels. As far as we can tell, each of them had its mythologies and cultural structures. Our own psychedelic culture is no different, and perhaps one should not expect otherwise. Human rights and environmentalism are also forms of ideology. It might be useful to know that they too are incomplete, but do we really want to discard them completely?
At the same time, psychedelic culture did allow more freedom to explore than any other culture I know, and was potentially more tolerant and welcoming to those who decided to explore and depart from the established norms. Although most people chose to carve their psytrance identity within established forms and norms, there was also a possibility to create your own unique identity. Moreover, the psychedelic experience, by merit of its highly personal and subjective character, which differs from person to person and from one occasion to another, still fostered a highly personalized experience that allowed each individual to have a unique experience of the festival. In other words, this society was not perfect, and it was still liable to assume borrowed cultural forms and norms, and yet it also allowed its members a higher degree of freedom and incentive to explore their truly personal and unique perspectives of the cosmos.
And there was another, more fundamental way in which this group of people demonstrated the superior transformative power that psychedelics could hold for society and the individual. This aspect was related to the first part of McKenna’s definition of the psychedelic society. McKenna envisioned psychedelic society as a society existing in the light of the great mystery of being, of a connection to something that is grand and unfathomable. And that, ultimately, was the thing that drew all these people together – the fact that they had all shared the overpowering experience of connection to something greater and beyond; that any two people who were truly part of this culture had shared the same experience of confronting something mythical, great and beyond expression. It was the relationship to this something, found in the experience of psychedelic trance, which bound all these people together. And here was McKenna’s psychedelic society, by definition. It was not perfect. It had many failings and shortcomings but it centred itself around the greater mystery, it was tolerant, and it was organized around a uniting experience and ideal of love. And that, finally, answered my questions regarding the possible import of psychedelics after decades of abuse and trivialization of the psychedelic experience.
Despite these long decades of widespread trivialization, the power of this medicine to raise people’s degree of openness and tolerance towards the other, to refocus their life away from materialistic desires and to raise communal and environmental awareness, was still the best bet humanity had to build a better, more sustainable world. This random and temporary psychedelic society erected in the Vega for the weekend was not perfect, and the psychedelic society to come won’t be perfect either. It will undoubtedly still harbor many of the diseases and sicknesses of our present close to terminally-ill society. Ridding ourselves of those is a hard and challenging work, as any serious psychonaut knows. All the more so when viewing the problems of humanity on the collective level. And yet, this experience was our best bet for a saner, healthier future for humanity.
My experience in the Vega led me to ponder about that seemingly failed aspect of McKenna’s vision of a psychedelic society: the fact that psychedelic society tends to assume pre-defined and particular forms of culture, which in their turn come to limit it and prevent it from being something else, more formless and free. In this way psychedelic philosophy has become limiting for psychedelic thinking, psychedelic visual forms have become limiting for psychedelic aesthetic, and psychedelic sounds have become limiting for psychedelic music. Was this to be avoided? Can the forming of a cultural formula be avoided?
Artists, thinkers, and people in general, mirror each other and their surrounding like Indra’s net of pearls. It is difficult to imagine living in isolation from culture. Being human, finally, also means existing as part of a society, and this means sharing ideas and notions with society, and allowing it to define us, at least to some extent. Culture is not our friend, but it is not our enemy either. It is something to be reckoned with and considered attentively; something to dance and pirouette with, while we live our life, sorting out what makes us unique, and what binds us to unnecessary structures. Psychedelic culture is bound to take forms. It will always take forms, and yet we should be aware not to fall back on them. We cannot exist with no ideology, and much less with no culture. The allure of culture, ideology and belief will never go away, as our human minds tend to slip back to them whenever possible. But we can be more conscious and aware about how we interact with them, and that is perhaps what McKenna really meant when he said that culture is not your friend. Separating the wheat from the chaff, learning how and to what extent to let culture in while not harming our autonomy and blunting our uniqueness, that is the true challenge of the psychedelic society.
[i] Terence Mckenna, ‘Psychedelic Society,’ in Entheogens and the Future of Religion, ed. Robert Forte, 2nd Edition, New Edition edition (Rochester, Vt: Park Street Press, 2012), 75–85. The original talk by McKenna can be viewed here: ‘Terence Mckenna – Psychedelic Society (1984) – YouTube,’ accessed June 26, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9RxtZlkQGs.
[x] Leary’s most popular slogans ‘Turn on, Tune in, Drop out’ and ‘Question authority and think for yourself’ were both aspects of this idea. Calling upon the individual to drop out of society’s pre-conceived perceptions and reality tunnels, and to think for oneself instead of accepting imposed structures of thought.
[xi] Ido Hartogsohn, ‘Culture Is Not Your Friend: On the Countercultural Philosophy of Psychedelic Thinkers,’ Psychedelic Cultures, accessed June 26, 2015, http://psychedeliccultures.com/2011/07/18/culture-is-not-your-friend-on-the-countercultural-philosophy-of-psychedelic-thinkers/.
[xii] Douglas Rushkoff, ‘Rennaisance Now! The Gamer’s Perspective,’ in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein, Reprint edition (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2011), 415–22.; Douglas Rushkoff, Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, 1 edition (Crown, 2003).; Douglas Rushkoff, Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, MP3 edition (BetterListen, 2013).
[xiii] Lorenzo Hagerty, Podcast 003 – ‘Beyond Belief: The Cults of Burning Man,’accessed June 26, 2015, http://www.matrixmasters.net/salon/2005/06/podcast-003-%e2%80%93-beyond-belief-the-cults-of-burning-man/.
[xvii] ‘Terence McKenna – ‘Culture and Ideology Are Not Your Friends.’’
[xviii] James Oroc, ‘The Second Psychedelic Revolution, Part Six: A New Earth?,’ Reality Sandwich, accessed June 26, 2015, http://realitysandwich.com/241823/the-second-psychedelic-revolution-part-six-a-new-earth/.
[xix] Robert Faggen, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ The Paris Review, 1994.
[xx] Oroc, ‘The Second Psychedelic Revolution, Part Six.’
[xxiii] See Humphry Osmond, ‘A Review of the Clinical Effects of Psychotomimetic Agents,’ Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 66, no. 3 (March 14, 1957): 418–34.; James Terrill, Charles Savage, and D. Donald Jackson, ‘LSD, Transcendence, and the New Beginning,’ Journal of Mental Disease 135 (November 1962): 425–39.
We are delighted to announce the publication of new book Noumenautics: Metaphysics, Meta-ethics, Psychedelics by Peter Sjöstedt-H – Available now for £9.99 from the Psychedelic Press shop and Amazon.co.uk
Author: Peter Sjöstedt-H
Philosopher Peter Sjöstedt-H’s Noumenautics traverses the mindscape of metaphysics, nihilism and psychedelic phenomenology. It navigates through subjects such as the sentience of cells, the constrictions of consciousness, the metaphysics of might, the magic of mushrooms, the narcotics of Nietzsche, and the neologism of neo-nihilism – the last of which may itself cause flashbacks.
Tracing the fall of western morality through Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the book descends deeper still into a metaphysics further upheld by Henri Bergson and Alfred North Whitehead. This collection of essays and notes provides a most idea-provoking, educational, and original piece of literature for the thoughtful lay-reader and specialist alike.
Contents: I. Philosophy and Psychedelic Phenomenology II. Myco-Metaphysics: a Philosopher on Magic Mushrooms III. Psychedelics and Empiricism IV. Bergson and Psychedelic Consciousness V. Vertexes of Sentience: Whitehead and Psychedelic Phenomenology VI. Antichrist Psychonaut: Nietzsche and Psychedelics VII. Neo-Nihilism: the Philosophy of Power VIII. The Teutonic Shift from Christian Morality: Kant – Schopenhauer – Nietzsche IX. Schopenhauer and the Mind X. The Will to Power
Peter Sjöstedt-H is an Anglo-Scandinavian philosopher who specialises in the thought of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Bergson and Whitehead, and within the field of Philosophy of Mind. Peter has a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Continental Philosophy from the University of Warwick, where he was awarded a first-class distinction for his dissertation on Kant and Schelling in relation to ‘intellectual intuition’. Peter subsequently became a Philosophy Lecturer in South Kensington, London for six years before recently returning to the tranquillity of westernmost Cornwall. He is now an independent philosopher – giving talks, publishing essays, and preparing to embark upon his PhD.
Author Ben Sessa is a psychiatrist, and his novel starts with a psychiatrist character, Dr Robert Austell, having a violent fantasy where he cuts a patient’s throat with a scalpel and nonchalantly watches her bleed to death. The reader can be forgiven for momentarily wandering just how autobiographical the work is, and indeed whether such things are the norm within the psychiatric profession! But of course this slasher opening is a piece of black comedy in order to set up the jaded, disillusioned Austell as someone who – like the majority of the working population – is bored with his job and wishes he could be doing something more enlightening.
Austell’s situation is contrasted with that of another British psychiatrist, Dr Joseph Langley, who is living the New Age life in California, taking in the ocean vibes whilst high on LSD, his ego and self frittering away ‘into nothing but a river of effervescent specks of infinite light.’ Steeped in the alternative society since embryohood, Langley has brought those values to bear on his psychiatric work, and is now a renowned leader in the field of psychedelic therapy – using LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA to effect healing on the emotionally damaged.
The two psychiatrists come together when Austell happens to attend a psychedelic conference in California, not really aware of what he’s getting into. Here, the novel’s comic undertone gets a boost as a number of New Age weirdos are seen through Austell’s eyes. They include one speaker, Mountain Spirit, who sports a grey ponytail and talks of:
‘…The double helix gliss-openings percolating into our grid cubes transmit to us from mutated cadence entities. Using a synesthetic code derived from two-dimensional forms we exist simultaneously in identical universes. We jump in real time using fractal wave structures between this, our everyday world and the Other – where nothingness is connected with ourselves, the spirits and our environment.’
Austell thinks he’s a suitable case for sectioning, but as the conference progressives he becomes less judgemental of the quirks of psychedelic medicine, and by the time Joseph Langley speaks, Austell is more receptive. The two psychiatrists meet in the bar afterwards and begin a beautiful friendship, each seeing the other as their own flipside or complementary element in a yin/yang dynamic – Austell the down-to-earth jobbing physician with regular patient contact, and Langley the head-in-the-clouds world-changer who needs to get more pragmatic to achieve results.
They form a partnership, which leads them to establish a psychedelic medicine centre, down on a muddy farm in Somerset. Here, a selection of Austell’s patients – hopeless cases as far as conventional psychiatry is concerned – have their lives turned around and are completely rebased as a result of targeted treatment with LSD, psilocybin, ketamine and MDMA. Eventually a thriving commune develops on the farm, and word of the miracles being worked spreads far and wide.
Psychedelic medicine is Ben Sessa’s own pet project within his psychiatric work, and in To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic, he is actualising a dream of it becoming generally accepted and even taking over the world. In reality it could never be as simple as portrayed, and no one knows this better than Dr Sessa himself, who has written and talked extensively about the obstacles, misunderstandings and general resistance there is toward such a venture.
But within sections of the psychiatric world itself, there is interest and sympathy for the clinical use of psychedelics, and this is something he wants to nurture. A novel, then, concerning the subject – with a far greater latitude of creative freedom than a non-fiction work provides – would seem like an ideal venture and a way to win over more support and attention regarding the cause.
But still, it has to be entertaining and page-turning to succeed, and indeed it does. Dr Sessa displays a great talent for creative writing and never ‘lectures’ his readers in a dull or pedantic way. Instead he uses irony and satire in liberal doses to take amusing sideswipes at conventional psychiatry – in particular its reliance on fat-profit pharmaceuticals to achieve any end. Whether it be benzodiazepines, SSRIs, tricyclics, anti-convulsants or antipsychotics, their efficacy is limited and patients really need something more to fill the black holes inside themselves.
Ben Sessa is also good at bringing characters alive, from spaced-out hippies to plodding psychiatric journeymen to burnt out headcases. His novel moves along rip-roaringly and leaves a constant smile on the face. Perhaps the story does involve a lot of wishful thinking, but that’s what psychedelic transformation is all about – dreaming wonderful dreams, attempting to make the impossible come true, and whatever the outcome it matters no great deal, for as the Buddhists say: the passing is nirvana.