PiHKAL By Alexander & Ann Shulgin
Originally published in 1991 ‘PiHKAL –A Chemical Love Story’ by Alexander and Ann Shulgin is one of the finest examples of psychedelic literature to have graced the printers. A combination of science, romance, insight, history and travel; of trip reports, biography, friendship and culture. The book is an exemplary blend of both authority and personality and pushes out the boundaries of psychedelic literature.
At 978 pages (2007 edition) PiHKAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved) contains a huge amount of information. It is split into two books. Book one is composed of three sections; the first is the narrative voice of Shura, the second is the voice of Alice and the third is a combination of the two. The second book is an index of 179 phenethylamines, which includes formula, synthesis, dosage, duration, qualitative comments and some extra commentary. One is immediately presented by the two key elements in the human-drug relationship – objective chemistry and subjective experience.
Book one is autobiographical but is told through two fictional characters: Dr. Alexander Borodin (Shura) and Alice Parr. “Most of the names in this story have been changed to protect personal privacy and to allow us freedom in the telling of our tale. Certain characters are composites.” I imagine there were some legal implications to worry about when the book was first published, so it would appear that a fictional veneer provides useful protection against the illegality associated with the topics of psychedelic literature.
The story of Shura begins from a young age, from an inquisitive young boy, searching out new hidden treasures in basements, through to his first experience of mescaline and his eventual path into psychopharmacology. An academic, and by all accounts musical, protégé, Shura traverses his way through some of the academic history of the psychedelic movement; at one point he even comes close to working for Aerospace but after being asked to sign the security bind he realised “I had no choice. I declined the opportunity.”
As the biographical story unfolds, so does the revelation aspect of both the discovery and effects of certain phenethylamine drugs. One that particularly sticks out from Shura’s narrative is Aleph-1: “This drug, too, shall pass. I want to scream about it to the world, but that would destroy it. This drug is power. I will talk about its effects, but I must not reveal its identity. I will have to explore through the open doorway alone.” And “I am perhaps the Rosetta Stone.” Inflections of the personality through chemistry produce a potent mix in the human-drug relationship and they are beautifully explored in PiHKAL. By the end of the first narrative, Shura’s first wife dies, he takes a trip to Tennessee and takes a trip of 2C-E:
“When I lay on my bed, I saw myself as an old, old man, many years in the future. I was appalled to see my forearm as a withered, dry-skinned, almost-bone which could only be that of someone dying. I looked down at the rest of me, and I was thin, emaciated, brittle, shallow. I knew I was alone at this time of my life, this time of my death, because a long time ago, back when my wife had died, I had chosen to be alone.”
The second narrative piece – Alice’s voice – makes up the bulk of the first book. The opening chapter of this section explores a strange phenomenon that Alice had experienced on and off for the first 25 years of her life and which she names the “spiral”. The strange, experiential series of visions, which lasted only a short time, serve to illustrate the very mystery that lies at, not only the heart of this book but psychedelic literature in general i.e. the mystery of experience. It introduces the character of Alice as an individual in touch, though not always in control of, her emotions and intuition.
The more clinical and reasoned approach of Shura is juxtaposed wonderfully against Alice’s journey. The Alice narrative is a more subjective affair than Shura’s. Her feelings are implicit through the use of italic paragraphs that represent her thoughts at the very times of conception, during the events that are described. It beautifully threads an extra dimension into the overall perspective that allows the reader to switch between inner and outer experiences; which in itself reflects the psychedelic experience.
The content is formed through her meeting, her falling in love and her friendship with Shura. Alice battles with herself in overcoming obstacles – like Shura’s relationship with another woman called Ursula – and you read her thoughts being externalised into action. The voice of her “Observer” always shines reasoned and patient light and as romance blossoms through her exploration of new drugs – not just phenethylamines but some tryptamines as well – and her new love, the voices begin to come into an alignment.
“We lay beside each other on the bed, Shura naked and I still in my dressing gown. When I closed my eyes, the inner world erupted into detailed imagery. Shura went up to the radio dial and found Chopin, and when he turned back to me, I sat up and took off my gown. I saw behind closed eyelids a lovely scene. We – Shura and I – were looking down from an open balcony into a central courtyard.”
Alice’s narrative ends with an exquisite chapter describing their surprise wedding on the 4th of July, 1981. It beautifully sets up the third section of book one, which is composed of passages of text from both Shura and Alice. They travel to Europe together, describe new drug experiences (Shura’s 2C-T-4 experience is notable for its personal profundity) and there’s even a spiritual crisis, which Alice grapples with (illustrating how one’s own continuum can be intersected by the drug experience.)
The final chapter of book one is formed from a lecture given by Shura to his university students. It is an impassioned and reasoned lecture on the state of democracy, U.S. politics and its drug discourse. In many respects it explains the wider social conditions under which all the events in PiHKAL take place. And although the establishment connection is referred to in the text – Shura held certain high level clearances for dealing with certain substances – only a small amount of prohibition discourse enters the narrative; that is until this final chapter when Shura explains the erosion of liberty through the pro-psychedelic perspective.
Book two primarily provides the chemist with two important points; for the laymen scientists among us (in which I count myself) there is one. It begins with an index of the phenethylamines, Alexander’s code for them and their compact chemical name. Then it proceeds to examine all 179 of them by explaining their synthesis (useful to the chemist) and then their dosage, duration and commentary (useful to both chemist and psychonaut alike.) As a reference book it is invaluable: “My [Alexander] philosophy can be distilled into four words: be informed, then choose.”
The second book completes another story from the first. There is mention of drug development in the first book but more often than not they are fleeting and merely go to introduce the drug into narrative form. What the second book does is complete the process, so to speak. These strange names and numbers could be straight from science-fiction and yet, they’re not. You can move from book two to book one, in that you can see how some of the scientific method in the second translates to narrative in the first; indeed it wouldn’t surprise me if it were the better order to read the book in, if one was chemistry minded.
Within the first book there are several chapters and passages centred around Shura’s research group that helped come to qualitative evaluations about the phenethylamines in question. The story of friendship is as central to PiHKAL as the story of love (some might argue there is no difference) and it is through the research group, and their behaviour with one another, that ultimately reveals the social aspect in the human-drug relationship. In fact, the whole book itself has the comfort of friendship wrapped about its words and it is this that makes it the remarkable literary feat that it is. If you haven’t already, find yourself a copy.