The Cactus of Love by Karl Eskelund
The 1950s was an important decade in the formulation of the Western world’s relationship with psychoactive substances. Scientific research with LSD, mescaline, and other hallucinogens gathered great pace; a spurt of new literature, most famously Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, explored the effects of these substances; R Gordon Wasson’s and his wife uncovered an ancient mushroom cult still operating in Mexico; and fervent anti-cannabis propaganda spread over the United States. All of which left a legacy that we still live with today.
Moreover, after WW2, the globe was once again opening up for travellers, and travel writing in journalism and books became an increasingly fashionable genre once again. It is against the backdrop of these cultural events that Karl Eskelund wrote the book The Cactus of Love: Travels in Mexico (1957). In many respects it is a typical but admirable piece of travel writing that seamlessly mixes history, travel, and journalism, as the author and his wife spent six months in Mexico.
The gross national stereotyping in the book is typical of its time, yet Eskelund is also particularly good at demonstrating that, for all his sweeping comments, the remarkable individuals he comes across are as diverse and interesting as the landscape he encounters. A well-travelled Danish man, his experience of other countries gives his voice a marked authority that still comes across as friendly, and at times humourous.
What is of particular interest for this review is his two trip reports with cannabis and peyote, which demonstrate the opposing territorial attitudes of propaganda and experience in the 1950s. Eskelund wished to seek cannabis out because he had been told that the plant was part of the cultural make-up of Mexico, and after some initial shady encounters he procures some from a prostitute. He became empowered by its effects, and felt the sudden urge to write about it, but was unable:
My thoughts were more brilliant than ever—but the moment I tried to perpetuate them they weren’t there any more. My brain was working too fast. When I had thought of something half-way through, I could no longer remember the beginning. When I reached the end, the middle had also disappeared (Eskelund 1957, 22)
Madness and addiction were the early claims of anti-cannabis propaganda, and it is evident in this text. Whilst high, Eskelund believed, ‘It was madness not to smoke marijuana regularly’ (Eskelund 1957, 21) and he eventually left his room to desperately seek out more, ‘I think this is the most dangerous moment when one smokes marijuana. Some people easily turn to violence even when normal. I can imagine them committing a murder to obtain more marijuana’ (Eskelund 1957, 23). He saw marijuana as exciting and dangerous, yet as a side-note he also got the munchies and some erotic fantasies. There clearly seems to be a cultural mix-up between what he experienced and what he was expecting to experience.
The author went in search of the Huichol – the world’s oldest psychedelic tribe – because he had been told that they would have peyote. He eventually became friends with a group who came down to trade in a local town he was passing through. One of the tensions that Eskelund really pulls out from his travels is that which existed between Mexicans, mestizos, and the indigenous folk: different trading standards, life-styles, and expectations. The Huichol, who lived in the mountains, only travelled down to trade, and kept themselves isolated and were often treated with suspicion. Eskelund eventually manages to try peyote, and having just read Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, settles down to a feeling of global love for all: the cactus of love. A remarkable experience in light of his earlier cannabis smoke. He wrote:
Let us say that the Big Four are holding a meeting. If they smoke marijuana before they start, I am sure they will quarrel. They will all underestimate the others because they overestimate their own strength. But if they eat the little cactus of love—mescaline would probably be even better because it is not so hard to get down—they will surely make peace. That they will probably break it again when the effect wears off is another matter. (Eskelund 1957, 77)
Clearly there are two important cultural influences at work on Eskelund: his understanding of peyote and mescaline as described by Huxley (deeply ontological and spiritual), and the reverence of the Huichol in their attitude toward the cactus. Unlike the slightly oppressive and shady episode with cannabis, the peyote experience really backed up his reading, in which he developed the correct set and setting in order to produce the overwhelming love he felt. And here, in 1957, he was reasoning that it could have a great effect on world politics (so long as the effects didn’t wear off!)
On his travels, Eskelund also visits Oaxaca, the place in which R Gordon Wasson discovered the mushroom cult. Interestingly, Eskelund describes it as a place that is being increasingly Westernised, as it became a popular holiday destination, as friends tell friends. In some respects, popular psychedelics histories have tended to blame this process on Wasson and all the hippies who went down that way as a result. What we can learn from The Cactus of Love, however, is that this process was happening regardless of the existence of mushrooms (something Eskelund never mentions.) ‘Westernisation’ is a very broad and many-levelled process, of which drug tourism is only a very small part.
The Cactus of Love is a neat little travel book from the 1950s, with some interesting though slightly dated historical information, but which says something of an adventurous spirit in the often drably described 1950s—the spirit of drug experimentation and cultural exploration. Here these two elements go hand-in-hand and they provide the modern psychedelic reader with a perspective outside the normal circles, which has great benefit in understanding the emergence of psychedelia in the Western social.