Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason, #2–Magic Mushrooms and Drug Use in Modern Society.
By Otto Paans
TABLE OF CONTENTS
2. Magic Mushrooms and Drug Use in Modern Society
3. A Preliminary Phenomenology of Psychedelic Experience
This essay will be published in five installments; this installment contains section 2.
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Toward a Critique of Psychedelic Reason
For every human illness, somewhere in the World exists the plant which is the cure. I believe that there is healing potential locked inside plants which is integral with their evolution, just as part of human evolution is to learn to tap this wonderful gift of Nature.[i]
To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. [Every individual is its victim] in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. (Huxley 2004: p. 11)
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 52e, §109)
The philosopher’s treatment of a question is like the treatment of an illness. (Wittgenstein, 1953/2009: p. 98e, §255)
2. Magic Mushrooms and Drug Use in Modern Society
The first thing to be noticed is that when it comes to drugs, the severe problems always start with the concentration of the psychoactive compound.[i] The refinement of distilling techniques led to the gradual invention of hard liquor, a class of drinks that is overrepresented in the group of alcohol addicts. But if you let wheat or vines ferment on their own, the alcohol production process terminates naturally at 11–14%. At that point, the alcohol level in the fluid kills the yeasts responsible for the fermentation, terminating the process. This is not to say that wine or beer can’t cause problems. Instead, it means that to sustain a very serious alcoholic habit on beer alone takes a lot of effort: for one thing, you have to accustom your stomach to hold enormous amounts of fluid, especially so when it takes more and more alcohol to reach the desired state of intoxication.
Strong liquors provided a shortcut for this problem: four times the amount of alcohol in a quarter of the volume. And with such concentrations, problems develop very rapidly. We can make the same case with regard to modern hard drugs. To produce opium, a rather long and painstaking manual process is required, so the end product becomes expensive, and only contains a certain concentration of active compounds. Enter modern heroine (combined with the portable hypodermic syringe) and we end up in a very different situation, in which addicts possess a highly concentrated drug combined with a relatively easy means to administer it.
Both types of drugs are used recreationally in the modern context. Especially alcohol is very widespread and acquired social acceptance, even to the point that the better liquors are associated with a well-developed culinary taste.
Likewise, a variety of “party drugs,” all the way from coke to MDMA and XTC can be found in the more adventurous walks of night life. In all these cases, drugs are used because they make one feel good, relaxed, carefree, or because the party has to go on, and to dance for eight hours in a row is rather taxing without any narcotic support.
In a society where a variety of drugs is available — if not always without some effort — it is no wonder that the recreational aspect of drug use takes center stage. To be sure, this started already in the 19th century, where the upper class and bohemian artists alike experimented with a wide variety of drugs, ranging from absinthe to opium. Correspondingly, the images of the “opium fiend” or deranged, absinthe-infused artist emerged around this time in history.
But then again, this is nothing new. Even from the Viking era we possess testimonies about drunk and lazy warriors who hang around all day, annoying everybody around them. Every recreational drug has the shadow side that it motivates certain individuals that act against their self-interest.
This is where magic mushrooms differ. They emerged not from a recreational context (although some of the effects they cause might be pleasant in themselves), but from a shamanistic context. In that sense, they share a common root with many traditional medicinal compounds and herbal concoctions. The difference is that the type of healing that mushrooms were expected to cause is largely mental instead of physical. Given limited and seasonal availability, mushrooms were used at certain collective occasions, as far as we can ascertain.
This use of psychedelic substances is a world away from modern, recreational, and above all omnipresent drugs, even while magic mushrooms are now sold as recreational commodities. For one thing, it points to a certain potential that resides in them, and that we do not find in alcohol or modern hard drugs. Interestingly, only marijuana and mescaline seem to approach the kind of psychological effects that mushrooms exert. And it is easily visible. Alcohol removes boundaries and causes in some cases rather serious aggressive behavior. Likewise, combine modern party drugs with overstimulation, stroboscope light, and loud noise and the results can get out of hand rather rapidly. Contrariwise, both magic mushrooms and marijuana induce a kind of contemplative state.
If you would like to experience the difference, visit a bar where the guests have already had their fair share of alcoholic drinks, and compare the atmosphere with that of a coffee shop where visitors have had a joint or two. The difference between the egocentric, machismo-driven alcoholic rush, and the broadly (if somewhat giggly) contemplative mood induced by marihuana (or mushrooms) couldn’t be bigger.
When we speak of psychedelic experiences, or a psychedelic state of mind, we often unconsciously think of people who are “out of their minds,” out of control, who have taken leave of their senses or who wantonly and compulsively have to escape reality. Alternatively, we think of people who experience a psychotic break or seizure.
Neither of these conceptions does any justice to what I regard as the true meaning and existential significance of the psychedelic experience induced by magic mushrooms. Of course, there are some people who do lose their mind when taking magic mushrooms. There are quite good reasons for this, and those who sell magic mushrooms in Amsterdam know that hapless tourists who take them without considering what they are doing will encounter trouble later on. Often, these tourists have never experienced a psychedelic hallucination; or they are tired, excited, jetlagged, and/or have used other kinds of drugs. If they also have any serious anxieties or unresolved psychological issues, and they use psychedelics in an overstimulated, unknown environment, then they unwittingly combine all the contributing factors to a very, very bad trip in all senses of the word.
So, barring cases in which the cause of “losing one’s mind” is all too clear, we can see that losing one’s mind is absolutely not the point of the psychedelic experience. Instead, it is using one’s mind that magic mushrooms encourage. The accompanying “losing touch with reality” is not just a fading away of all the everyday chores and worries. This is indeed what happens when one uses drugs like alcohol. Reality in its drabness and misery is “blocked out” for a moment, as the alcoholic rush creates a momentary diversion. But once the rush is over, reality itself returns even more forcefully, thereby inducing again the painful desire to escape it, and keeping the alcohol habit going.
Instead, the psychedelic experience deepens and extends reality; it does not remove or blur it but instead supercharges it. I will have more to say about this aspect later, but it will suffice to note here that “losing one’s mind” has little to do with psychedelics.
As for the second misconception, the error is even more serious. People who experience a psychotic break or seizure seemingly lose a sense of control, or at least control of the kind they feel is relevant. Indeed, a psychotic break or seizure may involve altered visions of reality, hallucinations, loss of orientation, and sense of time and place. But the essence, I think, lies in its involuntary, panic-stricken, deforming and ultimately traumatizing character. Here, it will suffice once again to note that confounding psychedelic experiences with psychotic episodes is a first-class category mistake.
All this does not preclude the possibility that for an on-looker, the behavior of someone experiencing a trip may seem odd. Bouts of laughter, intensely staring at an object, staring into space, etc. might not make sense to the observer. But then, the behavior of drunk people often seems strange to the sober onlooker. We can even pursue this parallel further and think of cultural habits that present themselves as utterly strange to us. In an early example of comparative anthropology, De Montaigne discussed with great pleasure the customs of faraway peoples and delighted in noticing how odd we ourselves actually are. Acerbically, and in a similar vein, Nietzsche noted that the movements of dancers looked erratic to the on-lookers because they could not hear the music.
“Hearing the music”, then, is the key to understanding the dancers’ response to it. But what kind of “mental music” is playing in the psychedelic state of mind?
[i] A concise and well-informed history of psychoactive compounds has been compiled in (McKenna, 2021).
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