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Literary Reviews, Literary Reviews: 1945-1970

Peyote Dreams by Charles Duits

Peyote DreamsOriginally published in France in 1967 under the title ‘L’Pays de l’éclairement’, this edition of Charles Duits classic, entitled ‘Peyote Dreams’, has been translated and reissued by Park Street Press (2013). Duits (1925-1991) was a French writer and surrealist largely known for his fantasy saga novels ‘Ptah Hotep’ and ‘Nefer’. A friend of André Breton and Anaïs Nin, he was also a student of Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way and Zen Buddhism.

Peyote Dreams is a classic psychospiritual narrative that, in many respects, fits perfectly into the pharmacographical mode of the 1960s, with its emphasis on healing and the revelation of a deeper ontological and spiritual reality. Although first published in the late 1960s, Duits mainly casts himself within the context of two writers concerned with peyote/mescaline from the previous decade (when he also began his own experiments): Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and Henri Michaux (1899-1984). Interestingly, however, while the previous two are deemed by Duits to be worthy counter-points to his own discourse, his text is in fact very in-tune with the work of other writers from the 1960s in the English-speaking world. This is largely because the question of whether or not the peyote cactus, or its hallucinogenic alkaloid mescaline, had the power for ontological revelation was still an open one (within the minds of white, western writers) in the 1950s. While in the 1960s it was less a question of ‘could they?’ in popular works, this became a given, but rather a question of the nature of the ontological revelation.

In 1956, Duits was visited by an old friend who brought with him some powdered peyote and who urged Duits to partake, and to read Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954). However, Duits refused to begin with because he believed, “Whether peyote was harmless or not, whether or not it was addictive, its use implied a denial of reality” (Duits 15). He believed that by taking peyote there would be a distortion of reality, he writes that he would have preferred to live than to dream, and a rift grew between him and his friend. However, simultaneously, Duits was in a state of crisis, wherein “I no longer knew how to live, believe, and love.” This existential crisis, if you will, was all-consuming, and eventually he saw taking peyote as a version of suicide—a suicide he undertook in August 1956. In terms of healing, which increasingly became one of the primary objectives of the medicinal discourse on hallucinogens within the psychiatrically-mediated research, Duits was a perfect case, one who detested himself. Once he began taking peyote though, the healing and revelationary processes of the psychospiritual narrative come into flow:

“I had spent thirty years sleeping. Now I was shaking off the glamour of night; I got up. Phantoms, morbid imaginings, “the transparencies and thickenings of the dream,” as Victor Hugo said, all that was wild and nebulous had dissipated. I was finally free, truly free; I was the master of my body and my mind; I no longer feared death” (Duits 16)

This moment of awakening associated with taking hallucinogens was very acute with Duits and he proceeded to have over 200 sessions with the plant, exploring meanings both philosophical and religious, and coming to understandings concerning the nature of his self. One of the major concerns of his tract is to overcome what he believed to be the missive of Western dualism. He argues that, on peyote, the intellect, which lies at the heart of Western dualism, is put on the back seat. The nature of opposition is gleaned through a new perspective of unity wherein there is not the destruction of one part of the opposition (i.e. evil), but a unity between all. This also rests on his attitude to mind that is geared toward the individualized intellect in the West, thus creating the illusion of separation and opposition—the effect of peyote, he claims, is to reveal this by undergoing a transformation in consciousness. Illumination, he concludes, is the meaning of one’s life.

“In ordinary life, the strange is always localized. You can point at it with your finger and say it is here or there. On the other hand, for the person who has taken a consciousness-expander, the strange is everywhere. Sensations, emotions, and thoughts all have a slightly indescribable difference. You see more, you understand more, but most importantly, you see and understand differently. Rather than the object, it is the way you look at things that undergoes transformation” (Duits 10)

Duits’ text involves the counterpoints of numerous other pharmacographers, from the aforementioned mescaline writers to the opium writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Thomas de Quincy. While, on the one hand, he sees their works as generally inadequate for various reasons, on the other, he is self-consciously creating a dialectical process. This is interesting because it begins to paint a picture of the beginnings of a self-conscious tradition of pharmacographers. Although, Baudelaire translated de Quincy, he was still in a tradition that examined the object or efficacy of a drug, but was not so concerned with any traditional form of drug writing per se. The self-conscious drug writer perhaps began with the American Beat tradition in the 1940s and 1950s, but with the popular 1960s explosion everyone suddenly became aware of this cross-disciplined (also polydrug approach in many respects) writing genre. Duits firmly places himself in this tradition, whilst simultaneously trying to elevate himself above it—trying to put forth a discourse that is more ontologically valid than previous ones. This, as already mentioned, was an important feature of drug writing during the mid-Twentieth century—ontological revelation—and it spills out into the very discourse of the writing tradition itself.

There is much to be enjoyed from Charles Duits excellent use of language in Peyote Dreams: Journeys in the Land of
Illumination
. His use of philosophical ideas intermingled with the peyote landscape demonstrates a deep learning on his behalf, and a lucid writing skill at communicating them. For the New Age reader the book could well provide a host of engaging spiritual ideas, and Duits distrust of the mainstream Western traditions certainly key in with modern spiritual notions about a Western society devoid of its soul. For the cultural historian, it is key pharmacographical exemplifier from the period, and it is great to have a new English language edition available.

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About Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a writer, author, and editor director of the Psychedelic Press UK

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