Eye on fiction: Heavenly and hellish - writers on hallucinogens

Dirk Hanson takes a trip from Lewis Carroll to the modern day, via Huxley, Burroughs and others

Novelists and poets are forever exploring alternatives to normal perceptions and everyday consciousness. From the heavenly mescaline voyages of British intellectuals like Aldous Huxley to the nightmarish psychedelic visions of William S. Burroughs, writers influenced by hallucinogens have wrestled with both angels and demons. Alcoholism has traditionally been the writers’ black lung disease, but the advent of interest in hallucinogenic drugs among mid-19th-century writers highlighted a growing visionary impulse in fiction, calling into question previous forms of literary expression.

For the early Romantic poets like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, the lifestyle of the intoxicated bard required laudanum and alcohol as pilot lights of the imagination. In 1822 Thomas De Quincey, the Timothy Leary of his day, published his own ode to opium, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and was roundly blamed for a rise in recreational drug use in England. One critic objected less to laudanum use than to what he called the author’s ‘habit of diseased introspection’ (Shaffer, 2013).

Hallucinogenic plants first came under the modern spotlight in the mid-1800s as botanists and ethnologists expanded their knowledge. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865), was written by an author who was familiar with English botanist Mordecai Cooke’s early text (1860/2012) on psychoactive mushrooms and their effects. Psychiatrist and romance writer S. Weir Mitchell, who penned an account of peyote in 1896, gave some peyote buttons to the godfather of psychology, William James. British psychologist Havelock Ellis wrote articles about his own experiences with peyote, noting in particular ‘the more delicate phenomena of light and shade and color’ (Ellis, 1898). Ellis, in turn, passed some buttons to William Butler Yeats, but Yeats later reported that he preferred hashish.

The visionary landscape
In 1932 Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, with its all-purpose control drug, Soma, and by book’s end, it is abundantly clear that Huxley’s Shakespearean title is an ironic counterpoint to his satirical dystopia.

But by the 1950s, with his essays Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), something had changed. That something was mescaline, the synthesised version of peyote, followed shortly by LSD, which both became available to adventurous writers, intellectuals and therapists. Huxley described Heaven and Hell as ‘a long essay… about visionary experience and its relation to art and the traditional conceptions of the Other World. It springs of course from the mescalin experience, which has thrown, I find, a great deal of light on all kinds of things’ (Horowitz & Palmer, 1999).

The essential nature of the mescaline experience, for Huxley, was an experience ‘just of light, of everything flooded with light… a kind of luminous living geometry’ (Horowitz & Palmer, 1999). As Charles Fernyhough noted in his June 2006 essay for The Psychologist, there is ‘the idea of mind as an optic, through which experience is projected, more or less accurately, into the internal theatre’. But the optical theatre, for writers who had experienced hallucinogens, bore little resemblance to the everyday sensorium.

With mescaline and LSD, light, colour, and the significance of ordinary physical objects were all dramatically altered and intensified. In his seminal work, Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations German psychologist Heinrich Kluver (1928/1969) showed that the visions produced by peyote, though unique to the individual, were also part of a characteristic family of visual patterns that remained relatively constant. Huxley characterised these visual effects and common geometric themes as glimpses into the ‘other world’. Milton’s Paradise Lost was Huxley’s touchstone: ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself/Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.’ (For Allen Ginsberg, on LSD, the Heaven and Hell came from William Blake).
The poet and novelist Robert Graves saw in hallucinogens not just otherworldly colours and patterns, both fiendish and divine, but also the key to world mythologies. On mushrooms, Graves reported experiencing the world of Gilgamesh and ancient Babylon (Graves, 1957). And in Huxley’s final novel, Island (1962), the drug of choice is moksha, Sanskrit for liberation, and bearing a strong resemblance to LSD. While Soma had represented the repressive chains of the body, the ceding over of personal agency – ’downward transcendence’, in the author’s memorable phrase – moksha represents the visionary experience of education and enlightenment. The Islanders take moksha, a psychedelic mushroom, and ‘for a little while, thanks to the moksha-medicine, you will know what it’s like to be what in fact you are, what in fact you always have been’.

Huxley’s mescaline books were also a profound influence on a coterie of California-based writers and psychiatrists, including famed nutritionist Adelle Davis, who chronicled her LSD voyages in her 1961 book, Exploring Inner Space, under the pen name Jane Dunlap. Novelist and diarist Anais Nin captured the essence of her own experiments with LSD in this memorable description: The music vibrated through my body as if I were one of the instruments and I felt myself becoming a full percussion orchestra, becoming green, blue, orange. The waves of  the sounds ran through my hair like a caress. The music ran down my back and came out of my fingertips.
I was a cascade of red-blue rainfall, a rainbow. I was small, light, mobile.
(Nin, 1975)

Huxley once complained that ‘the only people who don’t get anything from LSD or mescalin are psycho-analysts’. He wrote to a relative: ‘Some of the compassion and some of the gratitude remain, even after the experience is over. One can never be quite the same again…’ (Horowitz & Palmer, 1999).

The imaginal realm
Nonetheless, even Huxley admitted that ‘there is a minority that finds in the drug only hell or purgatory’ (Huxley, 1954). Jean-Paul Sartre tried mescaline, and according to his companion Simone de Beauvoir, had a very bad trip: ‘The objects he looked at changed their appearance in the most horrifying manner: umbrellas had become vultures, shoes turned into skeletons, and faces acquired monstrous characteristics…’ (Boon, 2002). (American Indians said that peyote took them to heaven, but white missionaries said with equal assurance that it offered them only a glimpse of hell.)

William Burroughs and the Beat writers of the 1950s and 60s reconfigured the psychedelic landscape by moving hallucinogens out of the drawing room and into the streets, pursuing their organic roots in the third world. Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg took peyote in Mexico and yage in South America. Junky describes Burroughs’s peyote experiences, and portions of Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl were written under the influence of peyote. Ginsberg also wrote a poem while on LSD given to him by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, but noted that the act of writing a poem distracted him from the essential hallucinogenic experience (Boon, 2002).

Burroughs wrote portions of Naked Lunch (1959) under the influence of yage, or ayahuasca, the DMT-containing hallucinogenic brew concocted in South America: ‘New races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains…. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market’. But in the end, Burroughs came to dislike hallucinogens and distrust beatific visions, warning in his 1964 novel Nova Express: ‘Their Garden of Delights is a terminal sewer…’ and ‘…learn to make it without any chemical corn’.

As Huxley had done, Ginsberg advised Harvard’s Timothy Leary to give LSD to artists and poets, who would then articulate the experience for others. Leary made good on the idea, managing to give LSD to Jack Kerouac (who came up with the classic psychedelic observation, ‘walking on water wasn’t built in a day’), the poets Robert Lowell and Charles Olson, as well as writers Paul Bowles and Arthur Koestler. With the shift from mescaline to widely available LSD, the spotlight also shifted from a focus on vision to a focus on metaphysics and pure mentality. Along with this came a shift from the literary (contemplative) mode to the non-literary (experiential) mode. The experience of hallucinogens was now depicted through other forms of expression, primarily music, and writers faced a dilemma. LSD became a mass cultural experience in the 1960s; it was no longer necessary to read imaginative literary descriptions to know what LSD was like. The alterations of light, the synaesthesia, the geometric forms pregnant with meaning, could all be approximated with strobes, black lights, body paint, and electronic forms of music. The psychedelic rock-and-roll posters of 1960s San Francisco and R. Crumb’s comic books demonstrated where some of the depictions of psychedelia had surfaced, and how these depictions were often shading toward a darker experience.

We began this survey with the garden of visual delights described by Havelock Ellis, Aldous Huxley, and others: A heavenly mental experience, something ineffable and extremely valuable. With the work of William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, fictional depictions of the hallucinogenic landscape morphed into terrifying forms, horrific visions, experiences of death, bouts of madness. The warped tour of America offered up by Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), the Dantesque grotesques he encounters at Circus Circus while on acid, represent the hell that results when the American Dream becomes permanently inverted in the funhouse mirror.

Here novelist Ken Kesey enters the picture, as the last of the classic psychedelic writers; a balancing act between the illusion-shattering insights of acid, and the bleak paranoia it could produce. For One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), Kesey has admitted that the first several pages of the book – Chief Bromden’s opening monologue – were written under the influence of peyote. LSD and mescaline ‘gave me a different perspective on the people in the mental hospital’, he told Paris Review. Like other writers, including Huxley, he claimed it was ‘impossible for me to write on LSD – there are more important things to think about’. For his novel Sometimes a Great Notion (1964), excerpted below, ‘there were also some sections written when I was taking mushrooms. Again, the effect is more on mood and voice than on vision.’ …the actual river falls five hundred feet… and look: opens out upon the fields. Metallic at first, seen from the highway down through the trees, like an aluminum rainbow, like a slice of alloy moon. Closer, becoming organic, a vast smile of water with broken and rotting pilings jagged along both gums, foam clinging to the lips… A river smooth and seeming calm, hiding the cruel file-edge of its current beneath a smooth and calm-seeming surface.

Another memorable modern effort  that flew under the radar was Rudolph Wurlitzer’s experimental novel Nog (1968), described by Atlantic Monthly as effectively replicating ‘the slight and continuous dissociation of reality... normally achieved by using soft drugs to tinker with the nervous system’.

Intoxicated bards
We have not even had time to deal with science fiction’s psychedelic corner, where Frank Herbert’s drug-laden Dune (1965) looms large, and the prolific Philip K. Dick prowls through multiple realities.

\What did literary novelists want to bring back from these non-normal reality states? In addition to conveying the experience of visions unseen in the ‘natural’ world, they were also attempting to articulate an essentially non-verbal expression of spirit, or transcendence. Boon refers to this impulse as ‘a restatement of shamanic doctrine: the shaman is taught a secret language by the spirits… Language, in this sense, gives imaginal realms their shape: it is a poetic shaping of the world that occurs at every moment’ (Boon, 2002).

Still, there is no doubting that the literary depiction of hallucinogenic experience has been largely replaced by ethnographic and scientific models based on neurochemistry and cognitive psychology. In the end, there is no unanimity in the fictional depictions: Heaven battles inexorably with Hell. Huxley’s uplifting visionary experiences, which Ken Kesey later tried to resurrect, were overtaken by Naked Lunch and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And today, after an explosion of new tryptamines and phenethylamines produced like so many Athenas bursting from the head of Alexander Shulgin, there are the newer, untested worlds of spice and bath salt drugs, cannabis and amphetamine creations. We have more new things under the sun than ever before. Fiction has only begun to explore these novel avenues. David David Katzman, in A Greater Monster (2011), moves the enterprise forward:no inside only surface no surface  only nothing no nothing only a black snowflake stripped apart gossamer plumes blowing in an undersea breeze breathing water dissolving oxygen as the cool liquid strokes capillaries porous membrane osmotic foreplay a molecule tumbling through pellucid space a phantom frequency
a beat clicks past the boundless and...

Dirk Hanson is a freelance science writer [email protected]


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