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
ovelists 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-19thcentury 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
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was roundly blamed for a rise in recreational drug use
Boon, M. (2002). The road of excess: A history of writers on drugs. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. Cooke, M. (2012). The seven sisters of sleep. Charleston, SC: Nabu Press. (Original work published 1860) Dunlap, J. (1961). Exploring inner space: Personal experiences under LSD-25. New York: Scientific Book Club. Ellis, H. (January, 1898). Mescal: A new
artificial paradise. The Contemporary Review. Fernyhough, C. (2006). Metaphors of mind. The Psychologist, 19, 356–358. Graves, R. (August, 1957). Mushrooms: Food of the gods. Atlantic Monthly. Horowitz, M. & Palmer, C. (1999). Moksha: Aldous Huxley’s classic writings on psychedelics and the visionary experience. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.
opium, Confessions of an English OpiumEater, 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 mid1800s 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
Huxley, A. (1954). The doors of perception London: Chatto & Windus. Huxley, A. (1956). Heaven and hell. London: Chatto & Windus. Kluver, H. (1969). Mescal and mechanisms of hallucinations. Chicago: Chicago University Press. (Original work published 1928) Mitchell, S.W. (1896). The effects of Anhalonium lewinii (the mescal button). British Medical Journal, 2,
1625–1628. Nin. A. (1975). The diary of Anais Nin, Vol. 5: 1947– 1955. New York: Mariner Books. Shaffer, A. (2013). Literary rogues: A scandalous history of wayward authors. New York, London: Harper Perennial.
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