Hallucinogens A Reader by Charles S. Grob (Ed)

Originally published in 2002 ‘Hallucinogens: A reader’ is a collection of psychedelic texts edited by Charles Grob, M.D. and includes contributions from such notables as Ralph Metzner and Terence McKenna. It covers a wide range of topics like society, shamanism and research and manages to avoid the pitfalls of being too topically restrictive, or too linguistically complex.   

In his introduction Charles S. Grob takes a look at two threads that helped create the history of what we call the psychedelic movement. These two elements are characterized by their earliest exponents: Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. They amount to a different perspective on how those with the knowledge of psychedelics should proceed in attempting to ingratiate the experience into society as a legitimated, functioning and positive phenomena.

These extraordinary plants and synthetic substances, which so delighted his [Leary’s] senses and fascinated his intellect, would be repelled by a mainstream culture that saw in them the manifestation of a perfidious threat to social stability” and “Leary himself became the embodiment of these fears.” Socially separated by law, with a prison sentence, Leary was the reflection of the mirror in the window, which also saw psychedelics outlawed in the mid-Sixties. The new era of psychedelic research, which began in the 1990s and still continues today is the underlying premise of this reader – to re-examine psychedelics and society.

One of Terence McKenna’s more famous monologues ‘Psychedelic Society’ has been transcribed. The integral element of this lecture is that the psychedelic experience is primarily a confrontation with the unknown; that it is an experiential grounding for the unknown. “When I think of psychedelic society that notion implies creating a society which lives in the light of the Mystery of Being.” It would “abandon belief systems for direct experience.

Ethically and politically, McKenna espouses an intellectual anarchy that would be pragmatically applied to individual occasions; without recourse to a given strata. As such, his argument follows, psychedelics or “deconditioning agents” can be useful and reliable tools for the psychedelic society. This approach does beg the criticism, however, are they not also reconditioning agents at the same time? The implication of this would be a breakdown into a perpetual state of societal flux; society as it is currently conceived would cease to exist. If, indeed, it ever has.

In amongst the widely known figureheads of the psychedelic movement included in this reader, like Albert Hoffman, Ralph Metzner and McKenna, there are several lesser known figures whose contributions are of real note.

Thomas Riedlinger does a wonderful exposition of two psychedelic novels, which are rarely classed as such: Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ (1938,) with its mescaline hell, reflecting the authors own experiences and ‘Exploring Inner Space’ (1961) by “Jane Dunlap”, a pseudonym for the famous nutritionist Adelle Davis. Davis underwent a quest for spiritual enlightenment using LSD. Riedlinger’s exposition of the novels are both informative and insightful.

Roger Walsh does a very interesting examination of what he describes as the similarities and differences between “researchers” and “contemplatives”. That is those people who believe in a material basis for reality (researchers) and those who claim that consciousness is its basis (contemplatives,) which is, philosophically speaking, an idealist position. A debate that goes back to at least Plato and Aristotle in Western philosophy. Walsh then descends into an illuminating discourse analysis between chemical mysticism and natural mysticism.

‘The Psychedelic Vision’ text is a transcription of a conversation between Andrew Weil, Charles Grob, Laura Huxley and Dennis McKenna, in which the narrative reads like a psy-biography, of sorts, of Weil. He narrates, through questioning, how the “psychedelic vision” has had an effect on the decisions and ways of his life: “By doing something in here, everything out there changes and I think that has enormous relevance for medicine.” The very stuff of a psychedelic transformation of society.

Scientific method, case studies and religious implications in science are explored by writers like Rick Strassman, Gary Fisher and Jeremy Narby. As a reader ‘Hallucinogens’ truly fulfils its potential. Not only by reiterating knowledge in new contexts but by showing the variety and depth to the boundaries that the psychedelic movement has pushed out into in the last fifty years. A collection of texts, such as this, that carefully outlines the flight of psychedelic research is a valuable tool.

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