A Drug-Taker’s Notes by Richard Heron Ward
Originally published in Britain, A Drug-Taker’s Notes (1957) is written by the actor and playwright Richard Heron Ward. It describes 6 LSD sessions the author undertook between 1954-55, under the supervision of a medical psychiatrist identified as Dr. X (Dr Effie Lilian Hutton). Hutton was studying the effects both on herself and mentally ill patients, which corresponds to what LSD manufacturers Sandoz deemed as valuable research methods for the hallucinogen. Ward’s role was as a ‘mentally balanced’ control subject, asked to join the research by his friend Hutton. As far as I’m aware, this is the only edition of the book ever published and is the first literary account of the LSD experience.
A Drug-Taker’s Notes was published about 7 years after the introduction of LSD into Britain (the first journal article was published in 1951 by Dr William Meyer-Gross) and is the first monograph to deal exclusively with the drug. Structurally, the book is divided along 8 chapters. The second to seventh of which detail his six LSD sessions. The content takes the form of notes taken during the experiences but framed through retrospective comment. The first and last chapters are a broad discussion about Ward’s own dualistic consciousness model.
The author describes consciousness using an analogy: “it is possible to think of the totality of consciousness in terms of the major scale in music” (Ward 21). So, for example, sleep consciousness represents one octave on a rising scale, and a dream-state exemplifies the move from one state to another. The idea that it is rising is important to note in order to identify Ward’s construction of a hierarchy of consciousness, the processes of “decreasing unconsciousness and increasing consciousness” (ibid.). Interestingly, though he utilises Sigmund Freud’s identification of the unconscious, he later scathingly refutes his Oedipal system by referring to it as the “long-standing fallacies of the Age of Freud” (Ward 71). Instead, as we shall see, Ward prefers to employ more Jungian tempered analysis.
According to the model that Ward proposes, consciousness is increasingly comprehensive up the scale, for it takes into account all the notes below. This, he reasons, is why one can examine the unconscious in a better light with LSD; for it lifts consciousness to a new key that enables access to the lower levels. Having read the likes of de Quincey and Baudelaire “I understood at least that each subject’s experiences are his own and no one else’s, and that it was unlikely (for example) that I should be bedevilled by de Quincey’s Malay” (Ward 36). His belief in the psychotherapeutic use of LSD mirrors the biographical literary motif ushered in by de Quincey over a hundred years previously. He links consciousness to personal identity, in that repressed unconscious material is accessed through LSD.
Ward describes the LSD experience as revealing an inherent split personality (after a schizophrenic model) into the ‘Observer’ and the ‘the rest’, “for, as I have hinted, it is not only a sense of duality which the drugs induces, but also a sense of multiplicity” (Ward 46). Identity, he argues, is a composite of differing personalities that may often conflict with one another. The ideal is a fully integrated personality. This underlines the psychotherapeutic model; LSD can be used for personality, or identity integration. It might also be noted that the narrative character of ‘The Observer’ was later utilised by Ann Shulgin, who also has a psychotherapeutic background, in PiHKAL – A Chemical Love Story, with a much developed literary technique. As opposed to ‘The Observer’ simply serving as an explanatory psychiatric category, Shulgin’s ‘Observer’ took an active role in the narrative.
But if I re-lived, rather than recalled, this moment of childhood, something of interest is perhaps said here about the nature of time, since the implication is that this moment, ‘past’ though it is, still exists and is realizable in the present (Ward 51)
Interestingly, there are moments, as above, when Ward speculates outside the psychotherapeutic model and usually names these his ‘intuitions’. Here he describes time, not as a linear function, but rather as a mode of comprehension in the consciousness, which can be broken down by the shift along the major scale caused by LSD. The implication of which is that the ‘past’ can be manifest in the present and that the self/identity is a modulation of experiences. “…it [became] clear to me that in reality time has no duration, and yet contains all duration” (Ward 60). Here we see Ward using the LSD experience to prop up his theory of consciousness, he begins to build a picture of consciousness as existing outside of time, in that time is merely an adjunct to certain consciousness levels.
In his analysis of the experience and notes, we can further see the psychotherapeutic reading Ward tends toward and how it bears a closer relationship to Carl Jung than to Freud: “One may see in the note two aspects of the mother, of Mother Nature as the Provider and as the Destroyer”. His memory of his own mother becomes an archetypal mother, rather than a Freudian symbol of sexuality; she represents contradictory emotional qualities ascribed to nature, rather than repressed sexuality. As with much drug writing, Ward employs the laws of contradiction, however rather than employing it to demonstrate resolution, he does so to underpin his dualistic system.
The image in the mirror began to grow older almost as soon as I had registered the first impression that it was growing younger; and thereafter the two effects were concurrent in a way which defies description, since in the circumstances of normal consciousness opposite and alternate things do not happen simultaneously (Ward 63)
Ward takes the view that LSD fails “to produce new material”. Instead, he argues, one perceives the old material in a new light. In other words, one can only have access to what one has experienced in the past, you feel you understand ‘it’ (in this case episodes from life) differently but there is no new or novel ‘object’. Interestingly, this again ties with his scale-consciousness model. For he is proposing that not only has LSD demonstrated access to the unconscious by ‘moving up a key’, but that this higher key is also a more developed matrix of understanding. In other words, the hierarchy is maintained by the levels and the quality of access.
There are many interesting tell-tale signs we can find in later psychedelic literature. Without explicitly naming ‘set and setting’, the importance is revealed in his fifth experience, wherein he is moved out of the hospital setting into Dr. X’s private residence. The resulting trip is described in much more wonder. Ward is also keen to talk about synaesthesia, however quite apart from it being a derangement of the senses, it is a reorganisation that, he argues, is in tune with the higher level of consciousness that LSD allows.
The trajectory of Ward’s consciousness model, defined as it is by a duality, is further illustrated by his speculation that consciousness is not simply a biochemical action, for it has the power of “passage into a new kind of conscious existence independent of the body” (Ward 98). There is a boundary area, which he says he couldn’t cross as a drug-taker as he would feel like a “trespasser”, for example in his first experience he regresses through his life almost to the point of disappearing and then finds his Observer pulling him back from the brink. This limit, which in many ways corresponds to the dissolution of ego that became so prevalent in Timothy Leary’s work, marks an increasingly revealed sacred space, which doesn’t become totally clear till the end of the text. Ultimately, Ward argues, because LSD demonstrates several levels of consciousness it might be assumed that there are levels that are beyond the body. Quite the leap of faith.
There are three interconnected aspects of A Drug-Taker’s Notes. Firstly, the psychotherapeutic model of LSD research, which is not only reflected in the form of the book but also in the way Ward addresses his induced-memories. Secondly, the model and LSD are used to illustrate the validity of his own consciousness model by identifying boundaries and utilizing elements of his experience (like the rearrangement of the senses) to underline the argument. Thirdly, however, the book appears to be a reply to Aldous Huxley’s two essays The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Ward argues against Huxley’s contention that drugs give us access to the beatific vision, which he illustrates by quoting from a ‘real’ account of the religious/mystical experience, and says they are qualitatively different. For Ward, consciousness and the soul are interchangeable and are separate from the body; thus drawing a line between Huxley’s mind-at-large model and his own. Ultimately, whilst perhaps not groundbreaking, this book is still a remarkable evidential record of LSD’s flight from the laboratory to society.