Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT by Graham St John
Graham St John’s Mystery School in Hyperspace: A Cultural History of DMT was first published in 2015 by Evolver Editions. The book joins other cultural histories centred on particular psychoactive substances, such as Shroom (2006) by Andy Letcher, Storming Heaven (1987) by Jay Stevens, and Albion Dreaming (2008) by Andy Roberts. What these histories have in common is that they’re concerned with the literal and poetically inventive ways that human beings build relationships with, and interact through, psychedelic substances. And the stories of the DMT universe are particularly rich in this regard.
While cartographers of hyperspace may dispute its parameters, and some lament the absence of a “church of DMT”, the ontoseismic event explored in this book is a liminal rupture that, under appropriate conditions, renders the Other familiar to self, a private quest from which life-changing insights, personal transformation, and fellowship flower. (St John 2015: 388)
The lab is, in some way, the instinctual setting to begin modern drug histories. LSD’s origin story contains enough legend and mythos as to have established a trope. DMT’s lab story, its psychoactive relationship with scientists, began in the 1950s behind the iron curtain, when Stephen Szára first self-experimented and began clinical trials. He wrote of his own experience: “The mask-like mysteriousness of the objects in the room gave me the feeling that I had arrived in another world, entirely different and queer and full of secrecy and mystery” (Qtd in St John 2015: 15). He reported finding its psychoactive properties in Milan in May 1957, at the International Symposium on Psychotropic Drugs.
Of course DMT is not simply a lab creation. Nature has not needed such human controlled environments to produce it and the chemical is found in abundance in organic life across the planet. And just as Szára experimented and discovered the chemical’s psychoactivity, so to have different peoples experimented with nature’s botanical bounty, and have reported their no doubt astonishing results to their friends. This is not only true of older culture’s using DMT-rich plants in snuffs or in brews along with Banisteriopsis caapi, but also of the plucky modern psychonauts who put this ubiquity and psychoactivity together.
Indeed, one excellent reason St John gives for DMT being “such a recondite subject matter is that multiple disciplines stake a claim on definition, giving over to disparate theories about function, origin, effects, and value” (12). This potentially makes writing the history quite complicated, but St John’s DMT is a supreme navigator across the threshold. N,N-diemethyltryptamine, in whatever hooded cloak or spacesuit it inhabits, lends its human partner the opportunity for ecstasy. What is ubiquitous about its culture, therefore, is that it transgresses the personal and the everyday social.
The American psychonauts of the mid-20th century were acutely aware of the transgressive quality of DMT, so far as the everyday world and self were concerned. Two obvious examples are Timothy Leary and William S. Burroughs. Burroughs went in search of ayahuasca, as recounted in the epistolary he wrote with Allen Ginsberg, The Yage Letters (1963), because he believed it was a cure for his junk addiction. In other words, it could potentially be used to transgress the framework of the addictive personality. St John also discusses Burroughs experiences with DMT in London when he likened “the experience to a mental holocaust” (St John 2015: 30).
For Timothy Leary and his colleagues, DMT was employed to investigate new forms of communication that attempted to establish new languages for describing our experiences. The “experimental keyboard” featured two keyboards with ten keys on each, one board for each hand: “Each button corresponded to an experimental category (like “cognitive” and “hallucination”) ostensibly learned by the experient during flight training. The device’s twenty keys, illuminated by a lamp for operation in darkened spaces, were connected to a twenty-pen polygraph that registered an ink mark on a flowing roll of paper each time a key was struck” (St John 2015: 52). Questions were put to Leary while he was on DMT, and he would respond through the keyboards, but soon found however that it immediately took him out of “hyperdrive”.
As Leary’s early-1960s experiments with DMT on the experiential typewriter illustrated, controlled experiments have a way of veering off course, with the “results” emerging in expressive forms unparalleled in the lives of experimentalists, It seemed apparent that one isn’t necessarily using language, in the way a writer like Huxley was disciplined to perform, but that one is being acted upon, dictated to, written by, the Other. (St John 2016: 229)
The nature and use of language pops up repeatedly in DMT’s history, and it is a richly constructed multiplicity. The resplendent sci-fi language of St John’s book and the many cultural forms DMT has inhabited are often particularly spacey, but there is simultaneously a more earthy, raw, folk element. In discussing the DMT containing tree Acacia, for instance, St John cites the opening lines of “The Pipe Song” (1996), written by Neil Pike for The Pagan Love Cult: “This is the wattle / symbol of our scene / you can smoke it in a bottle / or eat with harmaline” (159). This sort of language is gnomic and tribal; folk wisdom shaped by hyperspace.
DMT’s role in psychedelic music is quite astounding, and St John, who has also authored Global Tribe: Technology, Spirituality, and Psytrance (2012), is one of the leading authorities on the subject. He masterfully traces an infamous pipe-ritual in the backyard of Butterfly Records, Brixton, in 1992. One of the most fascinating and engaging threads of the DMT story, its context involved a visit to London by McKenna, Goa beach aficionados and some of the primary figures in what would become the psytrance scene – a scene in many ways defined by the DMT and psychedelic experience. For the British drug historians this is an important juncture in the 1990s scene.
Of course, Australia is of vital importance in the DMT story, not least because of the wide variety of DMT containing acacia trees. In terms of modern DMT forms, , changa was named and created there by Julian Palmer in mid-2003. This herbal DMT mix is slightly lighter, slightly longer lasting, and in many ways its own unique gateway into the DMT multiverse. Its name was purportedly channelled in an ayahuasca session by Palmer, and has since become an important tool in the psychonaut’s toolkit. Indeed, within a few years, Changa’s unique smell could be found wafting throughout festivals across the globe.
Mystery School in Hyperspace is a densely packed and far-ranging history that wonderfully reflects the ubiquity and experience of DMT. In some respects, when reading it, I would become lost in the threads, however this was not to the book’s detriment as, just like the substance, one would always ultimately return to baseline. There is a deep mine of information that traverses many cultures, ideas, and personalities, and I imagine that I will be returning time and again to this terrific read.