Mystic Chemist by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller

CoverOriginally published in 2013 ‘Mystic Chemist: The Life of Albert Hofmann and His Discovery of LSD’ is written and compiled by Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller. A large, thorough book, The Mystic Chemist includes an astounding collection of photography and images, concerned with both the life of the chemist, and that of his most famous discovery, LSD. Hagenbach is the founder of Sphinx publishing house and Gaia Media Foundation, and Werthmüller is a consciousness researcher and parapsychologist. This review is written from the Synergetic Press paperback edition (2013).

Albert Hofmann (1906-2008) is perhaps the Twentieth century’s most famous chemist. His work with the ergot alkaloids, his discovery of the psychedelic properties of d-Lysergic acid diethylamide, and isolation of Psilocybin and Psilocin, the active chemicals in ‘magic mushrooms,’ have led to his prominence in, not only, scientific circles, but also as a countercultural icon. He received many honours during his lifetime, although he never received the Nobel prize, which is believed to be the result of the furore around psychoactive drugs during the 1960s. If anything, this is perhaps the tension of the man’s life and it is certainly communicated as such in Mystic Chemist; the strange tight-rope between strict scientific methodology and the socio-cultural dissemination of the findings of such research. In the case of his, by now, legendary bicycle ride in 1943, having accidently ingested a small amount of LSD-25, and the presentiment that led to his “problem child”—a child that, while conceived of fortune and science, grew up in the tumultuous cultural undercurrents of change in the 1960s, the tension is stark.

In his foreword to the book, Transpersonal psychologist and friend of Albert Hofmann, Stanislav Grof, wrote of his: “[he] is a Promethean visionary whose discoveries helped to chart a new trajectory not only for psychiatry, psychology, and neuroscience, but also for the evolution of the human species” (Hagenbach xxiii). In many respects, this sets the tone of the whole biography, so far as it leans heavily towards a celebration of the chemist, and avoids any particular critical engagement. Yet, while much of the biographical history, and certainly a number of key moments, are already entwined with the collective psychedelic consciousness, there is much to engage the reader—especially in regard to his early life, family background, and anecdotal stories about his voluminous correspondences and meetings with notable thinkers, artists and scientists. Yet meetings with such diverse characters as John Lilly, Aldous Huxley, Ernst Jünger, and Rudolph Gelpke, belie his modest beginnings.

The distant battlefields [of WW1] had little effect on eight-year old Albert. Despite the horrors of war, those years spent with his parents and siblings on Martinsberg were happy ones for him. His primary school teacher was impressed by this attentive and diligent pupil. His love of nature was reinforced by the plants and animals surrounding him. Nothing pleased him more than to wander through the fields and forests, alone or with his pals, and look out over the valley below… (Hagenbach 6)

Hofmann’s early childhood experiences of nature have been described by the chemist in a number of his own works. They describe the sort of mystical experience of nature that Aldous Huxley was to espouse in his later works, and would come to colour Hofmann’s experiences and interests throughout his life. This tendency to understand nature in this manner, coupled with his vigorous approach to science, is so heavily embedded with LSD discourse it is as if the motivating facets of Hofmann’s own life experience have been imbued into the LSD experience itself. The semi-synthetic chemical, laboratory made, has provided unique and overwhelming experiences of nature to thousands of people who have ingested the medicine. In this sense, Hofmann is not only the creator/discoverer of LSD, but is also the conduit through which its character began to evolve when it began to roam into the minds of the population.

While the life of Albert Hofmann is dutifully celebrated, the grand interaction of his own life story with that of his creation, LSD, means that a large proportion of Mystic Chemist is given over the socio-cultural explosion of the medicine in Europe and, in particular, America during the 1950s and 1960s. Detailing the unsavoury use of the drug by the military and intelligence services, the proliferation of psychiatric methodologies of explaining and therapeutically utilizing LSD, and finally its adoption by the counterculture and development of the psychedelic movement provides a key narrative. This was the period Hofmann’s creation became his “problem child.” The early government experiments turned on numerous individuals, including the author Ken Kesey who subsequently drove around America turning others on; and the experiments in universities, coupled with the mystical discourse ushered in by Aldous Huxley’s two works The Doors of Perception (1954) and Heaven and Hell (1956), led to a social movement that aimed at over-turning unspiritual, capitalist discourses that proliferated among the population. Ostensibly a youth movement, psychedelics came to represent an attack on the status quo.

The youth movement of the 1960s, which largely originated with hippies in the USA and England, was a psychedelically inspired cultural revolution without bloodshed. It was fuelled by LSD, rightly called a “politically active pharmaceutical.” Nevertheless, the socially and culturally motivated upheavals of the earlier 1960s should not be considered identical to those that occurred in 1968, when students around the world vehemently campaigned for primarily political changes (Hagenbach 167)

In other words, what the authors appear to be saying, is that the socio-cultural implications of LSD reached much further than simply a device for amplifying political disdain for the establishment. It would appear, instead, that the LSD experience motivated changes more bound with the individual experience of the Western world—one in which the rights and equality of all peoples, the environment, and their social interactions, were overturned as a reaction, not simply to, for example, the Vietnam war, but the economic and social conditions of the 1950s. In this sense, LSD was a catalyst for change in a Western world perceived as being conformist, so far as the fear of the bomb and the buying in of mass culture, were the principles of social community. LSD related new ways, emotions and feelings as communal principles of society, ways like love, respect, and peace.

While Albert Hofmann, a conservative and traditionalist by nature, saw the rise of the hippies as a problem so far as they helped usher in the age of illegality and the end of medical research with hallucinogens, he forever remained stoically behind the potential medical and spiritual employment of LSD. While, later in life, his attitudes softened, it is perhaps the environmental consciousness that the medicine gave rise to, the ecologically-minded reactions, on which he most certainly held his greatest respect. As already mentioned, this was something already close to Hofmann’s heart, and as the political upheaval gave way in the early 1970s, the psychedelic movement increasingly focused on environmental issues; ultimately bringing he drug back into the philosophic territory its creator believed in. Indeed, when Hofmann finally retired from Sandoz in 1972, he dedicated the remainder of his life to exploring “philosophy, poetry and the fine arts,” and the natural philosophy of science and culture was his major preoccupation.

As a biographic work, Mystic Chemist illuminates much about the growth and wisdom of, not only, Albert Hofmann’s life, but also of his wife Anita and their family. It is in the passages, and quotes, from these people in which one is able to discern the man from the cultural myth, and where the touching, human stories really paint a picture that the reader can relate to. In this respect, the authors have done a very fine job. Moreover, the end is largely concerned with the connection of Hofmann and the psychedelic movement later in his life, with new friends and conferences, and this thematic coming together intelligently represents the cycle of his life—of the culture and science of the man being enrolled in a life fully lived.

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1 Response

  1. Thrity Vakil says:

    An illuminating review of a supremely illuminating book

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