Montag, 16. Juni 2014

white men tripping

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
Mescaline 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.
Western 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.
In 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.
Aldous 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.
Following 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." (81) 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.
But 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)
To those, who want to experience the real thing, this Suchness as such, Huxley recommends to take Mescaline.
Aldous Huxley
It seems 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.
In 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 consciousness." (2)
Robert 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
R.C. Zaehner
terminology 'self-transcendence' of some sort, but transcendence into a world of farcical meaninglessness." (2262)
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.
While 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.
All 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 trivial.
Deleuze & Guattari
However, 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.


1 the following page numbers refer to the this edition: Huxley, Aldous: the Doors of Perception - includes Heaven & Hell. Thinking Ink: London, New York, Sydney 2011.
2 the 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.
3 p. 389 of Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Fèlix: Tausend Plateaus. Merve Verlag: Berlin 1992. - my translation.

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