KING ARTHUR’S COURT
Friend, do me a kindness. Do you belong to the asylum, or are you just here on a visit or something like that?
I took my first trip in 1960, on 500 milligrams of mescaline sulfate. A “flying start,” one might say. It was a private, ten-hour-long “total visionary.” The psychologist who happened to live in the other half of our rented, one-story duplex near the water in Patchogue, Long Island chickened out at the last minute. His wife, he claimed, had nixed his participation in the project, which the two of us had planned after reading Gordon Wasson’s and Aldous Huxley’s early accounts of their psychedelic experiences.
My wife, Sally, in contrast, seemed to have no apprehensions whatever about my risking my sanity, if any, and she was on call throughout my trip, which helped. Two weeks later we reversed roles and Sally, without any objections from me but also without much encouragement, casually took the other half of the gram of mescaline sulfate that I had bought by mail from Delta Chemical Company in New York. I was much impressed by this and, although I have learned since that women, in general, seem to be much less chicken about taking large doses of major psychedelics than men are, I’m still impressed. The whole thing? If I was so fortunate as to have 500 milligrams of crystal mescaline sulfate around today, I would nibble at it, and I advise any novice reading this to do the same. You might end up taking it all, but take your time about it. What’s the rush? (Synthetic mescaline is virtually unobtainable today and has been for a long time, although a lot of acid has been sold under the name.)
Her trip was more of the emotional-roller-coaster variety than mine had been, with many replays of childhood scenes, but she also saw the same kinds of intricate and colorful displays which occupied almost all of my mescalinized hours.
It probably would have been better to have done it together, with no “ground control” personnel on hand at all, as I now advise most novices to do, but the conventional wisdom of the day was all we had to go by.
After downing the tasteless, colorless, crystalline powder, I decided to take a walk around the block. The reports I had read held that it took about thirty minutes to rev up.
There were no blood-curdling or hair-raising events during this stroll. Every little breeze did not whisper “Louise,” or anything like that. But about halfway around, walking along the waterfront, I developed a strange conviction that every tree I passed was alive and moving in the wind.
Back at the ranch house and feeling much more alert than usual, I noticed that a red washcloth was gently winding around like a snake in our light-blue bathtub. After a hasty exit from the bright bathroom to the dim den, I was treated to another active apparition. The yellow flowers in a bowl on our TV set had decided to join the fun at the Democratic nominating convention, then in progress. They were definitely dancing around to the beat of the band and the closer I looked, the more enthusiastic the flowers became in their support of JFK’s candidacy.
At this point, on this kind of trip, it is impossible not to ask oneself, what next? What was to stop a monstrous gobbler from outer space from joining me on the couch at any moment?
Nothing. I moved to the bedroom, lay down on the bed, and closed my eyes. Instantly, I found myself watching a three-dimensional color movie on the inside of whatever it is one looks at when there isn’t anything there. For openers, aurora borealis-style streaks of colored lights flung themselves from horizon to horizon. Horizons? What horizons?
All night, I alternated between eyes-open apprehension and eyes-closed astonishment. With eyelids shut I saw a succession of elaborate scenes each of which lasted a few seconds before being replaced by the next in line. Extra- terrestrial civilizations. Jungles. Animated cartoons. Displays of lights in abstract patterns. Temples and palaces of a decidedly pre-Columbian American type, neither grim nor pretty, but beautifully delineated, textured, colored, and always in perfect perspective.
There was no obvious narrative connection between scenes. I’m indifferent to pre-Columbian art. There was no aesthetic coherence to the whole, although every part seemed flawless.
When I say, as many others have, that some of my visions compared favorably with the best in Western art, I’m being cautious not to overstate the case. I saw little that was Oriental, aside from some Japanese tree and mountain scenes. There were lots of caricatures, some goofy, some classic, some sentimental and old-fashioned, all kinds.
No matter how elaborate the content, there was never any hint of a technical breakdown. If something merely silly was being presented it was always done up with all the slick perfection of a Walt Disney feature, plus all kinds of extra touches Disney could never have afforded. Let’s say “despair” was being depicted in the form of the conventional cartoon castaway on a cartoon raft; a two-second throwaway flash. Well, just for kicks and contrast, why not add a transparent ocean, exquisitely tinted in thousands of colors, in which a billion seahorses merrily bob in communal harmony, singing and playing tiny musical instruments?
No problem, Sahib. Coming right up. That was the spirit of the thing. No job too large, no job too small. The difficult we do right away, and the impossible … we do right away also. (The inconceivable might take a little longer.)
“Despair” was depicted? Yes, so I concluded later. In the first versions of this book I made the error of saying “words” were depicted (imaged) but it’s confusing to say that. People tend to think that they think in words but they don’t. We think in images, and then communicate, to ourselves or others, our images in words. On a visionary, you eliminate the middle man, so to speak. You may or may not be aware of your images. Some people never are and do not seem to be much the worse for it.
Nabokov, a master word wizard if there ever was one, so envisioned the situation, and so do I. So have many other thoughtful people. (Nabokov also described himself as an “indivisible monist,” and even went a bit further, in a glint here and hint there, in his later years. See Strong Opinions.)
I turned on our bedside radio, hoping to replace the parade of fantastic pictures with something familiar. Enough is enough, I thought. The radio, in an act of brazen defiance, promptly produced a New York City discussion show, full of trivia and inanities. Instead of stopping or slowing things down, this garbage accelerated and variegated the procession even more.
It was as if every scene produced by the mindless babble on the radio had been the life’s work of generations of media technicians on planets given over to the production of such artistic wonders, all for the purpose of this one showing in Art Kleps’ one-man screening room.
Adequately describing this kind of thing to those who have no references for it in their own experience is uniquely difficult. It’s not only one hell of a literary problem, it’s a real doozy of a psychological problem.
How can anyone have an experience of this magnitude and intensity without turning into a paranoid, terrorized blob of quivering jelly? How can anyone stand it, much less enjoy it, if it’s as overwhelming and irresistible as we say it is? The reader who has had no major psychedelic experience, however sympathetic he was to start out with, will suspect the author of exaggeration and bravado. As always, I advocate skepticism, but some conditional and provisional suspension of disbelief is necessary if you want to find out what it feels like to be someone else or to get some grasp of an alien practice and philosophy.
I think much of the resistance is based on the natural assumption that the person who took the pill is the same person who has the following experience, which, after all, is an assumption we solipsistic nihilists can’t expect not to be made unless we suggest otherwise. The explanation is just as hard to swallow as the facts which make it necessary, but it’s true nonetheless: The constancy of the personality is illusory.
I quote David Hume:
[An individual mind is]“a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”
[The identity which we ascribe to an individual mind is only a] “fictitious one since every distinct impression which enters into the composition of the mind is a distinct existence and is different and distinguish-able and separable from every other perception, either contemporary or successive.”
To some extent, at least, almost all will grant, one becomes what one beholds. Freak-outs, in a way, are caused by a time lag. The truly terrified person is still imagining himself to be the kind of creature to whom such things simply cannot happen, trying to hang on to his former self. It’s an error that lies at the root of much simplistic occultist thinking: I “go,” if I get this spell right, find the newt’s eye that rolled under the sofa, or say my mantra properly, from one world or level to another world or level. No, that is not what happens. There are no “trips,” however convenient it may be to use the analogy. There are only transformations, transformations of everything. Does that help?
Visionary experience is always personal and yet almost always fantastic and impressive. One is flooded with it. On a big one there is no way to stop the action to think things over. This is a recipe for fast and sloppy supernaturalist and paranoid ideation, among those who are so inclined.
The pace, the scope, and the contents of the experience are not in contradiction to or in agreement with but are irrelevant to and incommensurable with normative psychology and any “depth” or “structuralist” psychological system I know about, Jung’s included.
An experience of this kind will lead some people to conclude that extraterrestrial and/or supernatural beings are expending enormous amounts of energy to “beam messages” to them or something of the sort.
Although there are countless variations on the theme, the ideation which follows will often go something like this:
A. They (the good Higher Powers) have chosen me to be their intermediary and a member of the Company of the Elect because of my unique attainments, or
B. They (the evil Higher Powers) want to drive me crazy because I am the only person on earth with the spiritual power to defy them, or
C. They (the fallacious Higher Powers) erred. This crazy shit was intended for someone else. To hell with it.
Aside from C, which is rare, none of these assumptions work out very well in practice, at least not if the paranoid in question continues to take the stuff. Psychedelic experience refuses to conform to any system involving an external dynamic and will inevitably betray anyone who tries to control either his own or his troop’s trips. Indoctrination can confuse or delay the correct interpretation of psychedelic experience, can make doing it much more stressful than it needs to be, can sometimes warp the content somewhat, but cannot determine the content.
I think this fact drives some people, commonly and accurately known as “control freaks,” half out of their minds with rage and frustration, but these are the kind of people who would be displeased to discover that their neighbors think a thing of beauty is a joy forever, so not much can be done for them.
Major psychedelic experiences have many highly predictable characteristics, no matter who, where, why, when, what or how the deed is done to, by, for or of. I think that all of these classic characteristics are illustrated somewhere in this narrative.
I didn’t take another trip until four years later. Fully aware of my lowly status as a wage slave, I was afraid of making such radical changes in my everyday consciousness that I would become unemployable. These apprehensions were largely groundless but the regular use of major psychedelics and a standard 9-to-5 existence in the United States of America, as presently constituted, don’t mix well, and it’s useless to pretend otherwise.
My general way of looking at things had already changed a lot.
I found nothing in my visionary experience to encourage me to believe in any occultist or supernaturalist system, which may have been the happy result of taking an “overdose.” Instead, dualism of every variety was blown right out the window, never to return.
I was now a monist, but what kind of monist? I did not consider myself “Enlightened,” and wasn’t sure the term meant anything. But I was sure about some things.
The visions were my images, my ideas, however incompatible that conclusion was with what I had formerly conceived my mind to be “made of.” I no longer find it necessary to believe it’s made of anything, but that came later.
At one point I seemed to hover over an alien planet, or over a transformed version of this one, upon which were spread various cities made up of grids of multi-colored lights, traversed by thousands of parrot-like creatures. One is tempted to think in terms of Ouspenskian or Tibetan-style grandiose cosmologies but, wait a minute, what’s next in line?
The professional liar on the radio is selling a deodorant. Sure enough, out of the Precambrian ooze emerge millions of putrid bubbles; and the noxious effluvia which result, represented by pastel swirls and coruscating vibrations, are as complex and beautiful as what has gone before, but hardly “metaphysical.” When people throw up, they often do see “piles of jewels.”
Try to imagine all the images in, say, Locksley Hall, colored, animated, and in three dimensions, not in sequence, but all at once, and arranged in such a way as to be, if not in actual harmony with one another, at least so well-organized as not to be in any mess or collision. If you can do it, and unless you happen to be on a powerful psychedelic and in a frivolous and tenacious frame of mind, you can’t do it, the result will be both hilarious and impressive, which is exactly the character of much of the visionary experience I’ve had myself and have been told about by other Psychedelians.
It is a combination of qualities not commonly found in the art works of churches and museums (but is not unknown in such precincts, either, if you look for it). The root causes of much psychopathology are as often compounded of absurd misunderstandings as they are of tragic events. The pre-Psychedelian grand theorists, however, and those who have signed up under this or that grand theorist banner, tend to dismiss as inconsequential any insights that people giggle about and treat flippantly. In their view of things, a bunch of people gathered around a nitrous oxide tank, laughing like fools, cannot possibly be having experiences that deserve to be called “profound” or “spiritual.” The idea that the comedic spirit and profundity are highly compatible and often go out together and have a wonderful evening offends them deeply. It is an insult to the firmly held beliefs their barbaric ancestors killed and were killed for.
Yes, there is little or no room for the absurd in any of the metaphysical or mythic systems of occultists and supernaturalists. Yet I have never heard one of them say a word during the peak hours of an acid trip about the philosophic hierarchies, organization charts and grim fairy tales that, during normal, repressed consciousness, they say describe everything universal and fundamental. When a person is truly and fully stoned all inculcated ideation about things in general evaporates. Those who are fixated (love and depend) on the crazy ideas they grew up with will usually repress most of what they have learned on their trip or trips in favor of the standard substitutes for the truth with which they are familiar and comfortable. They may renounce psychedelics completely and join the Moonies or, perhaps, declare that only organic psychedelics are any good, not because they are more mild (more manageable) than acid but because of a pantheistic virtue which resides in organicity, a rationalization which will provide them with a new collection of moralistic dogmas to fuss and fret over.
I don’t think that my character and morals were undermined in any way, nor did I abandon the scientific method and empirical reasoning about particular things because my views on things in general had changed. My ideas about the nature of consciousness and the organization of perception changed, not my ideas about the best way to fix a flat tire or educate people with low IQs. There was nothing about my psychedelic experience which made it easier for me to lie, cheat or delude myself. On the contrary, I would say. Dishonesty became more difficult.
During the next three years I thought more about literary, social and political stuff than I did about psychedelics and philosophy. (My literary tastes, perhaps, went up a notch.) As a psychologist, I was probably even more empirical than I had been before the trip. As the memory of the experience receded in time, it seemed more and more like an aberration, similar, in many ways, to my winter in the Alaskan woods after getting out of the army. So, I had done another unusual thing, but how important was it? Was I any happier? No, I couldn’t honestly say that I was.
When I discovered that a group of purportedly respectable and learned psychologists were taking dose after dose of LSD and psilocybin and apparently functioning with great practical efficiency at the same time, indeed, having a ball, setting forth on great adventures and taking over mansions in Dutchess County, I concluded that I was just being chicken.
These experts, I assumed, knew all kinds of things I didn’t know and had all kinds of contacts I didn’t have. Perhaps I could join them once I caught up to their level of specialized knowledge. If I could find a way to live without the income from it, to hell with clinical and school psychology, at least as it was routinely practiced. Plastering over the growing cracks in the public education system was not my idea of the best way to spend most of my waking hours anyway.