This is the blog of Kilian Jörg, a philosopher and artist based in Vienna and Berlin. He is the founder of philosophy unbound, his main topics are ecological epistemology and the intersection of art and philosophy. Contact him via: kilian[at]jorg[dot]at
This is a little essay I wrote about Mescaline - or drugs in general - for the wonderful lecture of Dominik Wujastyk about Yoga Philosophy. It is way to short to put forth the original argumentation I had in mind and as a result it is more a giving you my opinion than arguing for it (a very very blurry line seperates those two). However - I like my opinion expressed in it, would like to hear other opinions and hope to find the time & motivation to rewrite the whole thing in more appropriate detail.
Aldous Huxley, R.C. Zaehner
and Gilles Deleuze tripping
the peyote cactus
is a psychedelic alkaloid that naturally occurs in the Peyote cactus
that is native in Texas and Mexico. The indigenous people of those
regions have used the hallucinogenic, visionary effects of the drug
for millennia in religious contexts.
scientific interest in the drug and its visionary potential started
in the late 19th century and had its climax in the 50ies and 60ies of
the last, until it subsequently got illegalized around the 1970ies in
almost all Western nations. Together with LSD, the effects of
Mescaline attracted many people in the 50ies and 60ies and frequently
was subject to artistic as well as scientific research by notables as
different as Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Carlos Castaneda, Allen
Ginsburg, Antonin Artaud, Henrix Michaux and Ernst Jünger.
this short essay I will compare the experiences of two early
experimenters with synthesized Mescaline - those of Aldous Huxley and
those of Robert Charles Zaehner. Both experiments have taken place in
"serious" universities and have been carried through and
observed by reputable scientists.
Huxley - to put it almost mildly - was extremely fascinated by the
drug's hallucinogenic effects and was inspired enough to write the
now-famous essay "Doors of Perception" (1952) as well as
the sequel "Heaven an Hell" (1954) in which he analyses his
trip, contextualizes it with
a lot of human and especially art history and deduces something one
could almost call an entire epistemological system as well as a
concept for mysticism.
the french philosopher Henri Bergson (1859 - 1941), Huxley concludes
from his experience with Mescaline, that the "function of the
brain and nervous system and sense organs is in the main eliminative
and not productive [...] is to protect us from being overwhelmed and
confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge."
Under normal, sober circumstances the brain acts as a filter,
extracting the important information from the vast mass of sensory
input and thereby forming us to one clearly defined self
and enabling us (=that self) to survive.
Although this process of
simplification and filtration is necessary for survival, humans have
always strived to temporarily transcend from "selfhood and the
environment" (30), to escape from "the homemade universe of
common sense" (27) and have done so by means of various
intoxicants, religious ceremonies and ascetic practices. Huxley also
puts forth the theory that great artists, especially painters, have
the ability to perceive the everyday world less filtered than normal
people and are able to express those experiences in their medium,
which he shows with the examination of artworks by Cézanne, Van
Gogh, Botticelli or the poet William Blake.
art is only a medium, that can convert this unfiltered experience
Huxley calls the "Mind at Large" or that of "Suchness"
(derived from Meister Eckhardt's Istigkeit)
into the everyday world, it is "only for beginners, or else for
those resolute dead-enders, who have made up their minds to be
content with the ersatz of Suchness, with symbols rather than with
what they signify." (12)
those, who want to experience the real thing,
this Suchness as such, Huxley recommends to take Mescaline.
that in earlier days, humans were capable of reaching this "blessed"
state much easier by means of candle light, coloured glass and the
like (compare 53-59). But in our modern days of permanent
over-stimulation and subsequent desensitization, something more is
required for most people and Huxley argues that Mescaline caters to
these requirement much better than for example opium, cocaine,
alcohol or nicotine. It "is not yet the ideal drug" (33)
but works out pretty well to satisfy "a principal appetite of
the soul" to reach the state of "the blessed Not-I"
(6) - to escape from the normal every day status of the world that is
structured by common sense and language.
this property of dissolving the mundane self, Mescaline has huge
similarities to Schizophrenia, which "has its heavens as well as
its hells and purgatories" (25) but those bad trips
are only very seldom encountered
by Mescaline takers. It "only brings hell and purgatory to those
who have had a recent case of jaundice, or who suffer from periodical
depressions or chronic anxiety." (26) For others, it can satisfy
this basic human need for dissolution of the self, can help to cast
light on the yet dark and unexplored regions of the mind and thereby
help us to better understand "such ancient, unsolved riddles as
the place of mind in nature and the relationship between brain and
Charles Zaehner, a British academic with specialisation on Eastern
Religions, couldn't draw so much inspiration and enthusiasm out of
his experience with Mescaline. For him the experience was rather
trivial. It was "interesting and it certainly seemed hilariously
funny. All along, however, I felt that the experience was in a sense
'anti-religious'. I mean, not conformable with religious experience
or in the same category. In Huxley's
of some sort, but transcendence into a world of farcical
In his experiment - which took
place three years after Huxley's - it took Zaehner relatively long
for the drug to kick in. He explains this by his "indeed, very
strong" conscious resistance to the drug. He admits "that
as the day approached on which [he] was to take the drug, [he] had
become increasingly uneasy. [He] dreamt about it three nights running
and, quite irrationally, feared either that it might be fatal, or
that it might make [him] permanently mad." After taking the
drug, he seemed to have fought the effects of it, finding "the
fact that one is losing control of oneself" (213) displeasing.
waiting for the drug to kick in, Zaehner proposed a promenade through
Oxford with his experimenters, which he continuously called "guests"
and seemed in fact to be very concerned to appear smart as well as
entertaining to them. Back in their room, the drug had finally kicked
in and he felt more and more separated from his body, that "seemed
momentarily to be leading an autonomous life of its own" (216)
The experimenters started showing him objects they have agreed upon
in advance, but non of the objects had any great effect on him other
than appearing unbearably dull and pointless. To this feeling of
complete ridicule towards artworks he would otherwise adore, Zaehner
burst out in a storm of laughter, which he could't control for hours.
He calls all the books, paintings and music he gets to see "silly",
"rather stupid" and has the same opinion of the entire
experiment, which all "take [...] so seriously" (219). He
expresses contentedness, that things don't change under the influence
of Mescaline in the way he might have expected to (225), sees all art
as pointless and laughs about it, while asking to be left alone and
not be shown any more items, saying: "Well, if you'd only let me
get some control of myself instead of drugging an honest chap."
(224) All of this leads to Zaehner's conclusion, that there is not
much to be obtained from Mescaline experiences and his dismissal of
Huxley's enthusiasm. He states, that he would not take it again, but
purely because of moral reasons, because he thinks that "artificial
interference with consciousness [...] is wrong." (226)
For me it seems, that Zaehner -
however consciously - has already in advance made up his mind against
the possibility of positive effects of Mescaline and has therefore
strongly and successfully decided to fight it. While Huxley readily
embraces the self-dispersing effects, Zaehner fights them all the way
through, trying to "control [him]self". From my own
experience as that of others, I know that trying to grasp on the
"normal self" while on drugs, is the worst idea you can
have and often results in a fearful trip. It is of course frightful
to see your mundane self along with all its little certainties being
blown away, but if you decide to take a drug, you have to go along
with it's flow to enjoy or even benefit from it. Zaehner didn't seem
ready for that - he clinched unto his normal self.
An other thing that is
interesting is, that, while Huxley seemed to have been left in
relative peace while being on Mescaline, Zaehner was unceasingly
bothered by his experimenters to look at certain objects to feel
something special. To this Zaehner protested and couldn't find
anything special in the experience. This, however, is not surprising,
for when on Mescaline, you should be free to do your own musings -
Huxley had the most intense impression of Suchness when looking at a
chair that just happened to be standing there. As I have quoted
above, he rejected art as only being a symbol of Suchness, while
Mescaline enables him to experience Suchness as such - on whatever
kind of object. So, from Huxleys standpoint, it should not be too
surprising that Zaehner has laughed about the ridiculousness of
artworks, for he saw their "true" nature - unfortunately,
Huxley might say, Zaehner wasn't left alone enough to do his own
drugged musings, randomly finding Suchness in arbitrary objects.
of this would require a much more detailed argumentation, but to me
it seems, that Zaehner wasn't ready to leave the world of
common-sense that is structured by language (he is in fact - and with
increasing difficulty - trying to put names on things he sees) and
has therefore not experienced this exciting world of Suchness Huxley
is praising. This is why he found the experience rather trite and
Deleuze & Guattari
I do not want to end this short essay with a one-sided appraisal of
Huxley and Mescaline, for I think Huxley is taking it a bit too far.
He sees some sort of ultimate truth in the visions of Mescaline, that
seems rather naive to me. It is a very important lesson to lose your
self and Mescaline can surely help you with that. Still - I do not
see why the world behind language, this Suchness should have more
meaning or truth than the world that is structured by it. For me, it
seems that truth and meaning are merely functions of language and to
apply it to something beyond or outside language, is simply a
ontological misunderstanding. Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari put it very well, when
he says that drugs have fundamentally changed our concept of
perception - also to those who have never taken any. For him, this
losing of the mundane self and its common sense is something to be
embraced, but he suggests to reach this state un-drugged and
permanently, for it is then a much more trustworthy and stable result
and doesn't carry all the dangers of drugs (addiction, etc.) with it.
"To reach the point, on which it doesn't matter any longer, if
you do take the drug or not, because the general conditions of
perception of time and space have already changed that much"3
is Deleuze & Guattari's demand.
So it is not the drug that
changes our world-view, but a world-view is in the making, that can
be found as well in the experience of drugs. But this world-view
should become a general condition of how we see the world, and not
just some rare escape triggered by intoxicants, for they carry too
much dangers with them, of which not the smallest two are 1) seeing
too much truth and meaning in the effects of drugs and 2) reinforcing
the old, conservative world-view by seeing the Not-self experiences
as merely a rare exception to the norm, rather than the new norm.
following page numbers refer to the this edition: Huxley, Aldous:
the Doors of Perception - includes Heaven & Hell. Thinking Ink:
London, New York, Sydney 2011.
following page numbers now refer to this edition: Zaehner, R.C.:
Mysticism - Sacred and Profane - An Inquiry into some Varieties of
Praeternatural Experience. At the Clarendon Press: Oxford 1957.
389 of Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Fèlix: Tausend Plateaus. Merve Verlag: Berlin 1992.
- my translation.