Phantastica by Louis Lewin

Originally published in Germany in 1924 ‘Phantastica’ by Louis Lewin was first published in English in 1931. This review is written from the Park Street Press edition, 1998. The text is an early attempt at a categorisation of psychoactive drugs and while,  in many respects, it is dated,  especially pharmacologically, it still remains an important document; both as a resource for historical information and as a fascinating curiosity, which had a huge affect on drug writing in the twentieth century.

The author Louis Lewin (1850-1929) was born in Tuchel, in Western Prussia. He spent the majority of his life living in Berlin, where he graduated from the University of Berlin in 1875 as a medical doctor, specialising in pharmacology and was an expert in the field of toxicology. Known for his extraordinary style of lecturing, which held “audiences spellbound”, he also had a wide-ranging knowledge of history, geography and anthropology, and was able to “quote flawlessly in foreign languages without any hesitation”. With 248 major publications between 1874-1929, Lewin was a leading academic of his time but it was his interest in the side-effects of certain drugs that he is primarily remembered for now and with which this book is concerned.

In Phantastica Lewin reviews known psychoactive plants and their histories and proposes a five-way categorisation. These are: (1) Euphorica, which includes opium, codeine and cocaine; (2) Phantastica, including peyote, cannabis, Amanita muscaria (fly agaric mushroom) and Banisteria (later Banisteriopsis) caapi (a constituent part of the Amazonian ayahuasca brew); (3) Inebriantia, including alcohol, chloroform and Nitrous oxide; (4) Hypnotica, including chloral, kava-kava and kanna; and (5) Excitantia, including coffee, tea, tobacco and betel. These classifications have of course changed and been renamed over the years since Lewin published the text. For example, the ‘phantastica’, from which the book takes its name, is now the hallucinogen class but while Lewin included datura and henbane in this category, they are now termed dissociatives, a group in their own right. Nitrous oxide, which Lewin placed in ‘inebrianti’, is now also classed with the dissociatives. However, his recognition of their effect on consciousness is the key categorical imperative of them all:

“If human consciousness is the most wonderful thing on earth, the attempt to fathom the depths of the psychophysiological action of narcotic and stimulating drugs makes this wonder seem greater still, for with their help man is enabled to transfer emotions of everyday life, as well as his will and intellect, to unknown regions; he is enabled to attain degrees of emotional intensity and duration which are otherwise unknown to the brain” (Lewin xiv)

Arguably Lewin’s greatest impact on the psychedelic culture, which was still thirty years away from blooming, was his work with the peyote cactus. In 1886 he travelled across the United States and came into possession of some mescal buttons, taken from the peyote cactus, and used ritually by the native Mexican and North Americans. He produced an analysis of the hallucinogenic cactus and, in his honour, the Botanical Museum of Berlin named the species Anhalonium Lewinii,  and which is now commonly called peyote. Arthur Heffter (1860-1925) isolated numerous alkaloids from peyote including mescaline, the psychoactive ingredient in the cactus. Later, in the 1920s, Lewin’s friend Kurt Behringer conducted human research with the drug. Although this research waned, it provided the groundwork for John Smythies, Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer’s mescaline research in the early 1950s, which led to the development of the psychedelic model of hallucinogens. Not only this, but Lewin also helped inspire the English author Aldous Huxley’s interest in drugs when Huxley read Phantastica in 1931; the same year Huxley wrote Brave New World (1932).

Another plant that Lewin had a particularly close interest in was kava (Piper methysticum) on which he write the monograph Über Piper methysticum, which was a comprehensive review of its use, chemistry, pharmacology and clinical effects. It is worth noting here that there was a trend for this sort of title at the time, following on from Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) Über Coca published two years prior in 1884. Of the Pacific islander preparation of kava, Lewin writes in Phantastica: “The missionaries did all they could to suppress the use of kava, probably not to the benefit of the natives. The violent campaign against kava by the Presbyterian missionaries cannot be justified in the least. It bears witness to the gross ignorance of missionaries, who have made many a mistake elsewhere. Reason, hide thy face!” (Lewin 182). This sort of back story is repeatedly to be found in Lewin’s book and it goes to demonstrate two points: Firstly, the extent to which colonial and evangelical zeal effectively tried to carry out cultural assassination; and, secondly, how by the 1920s this zeal was beginning to be seen in the extremely negative light it deserved to be. Lewin’s tone perfectly encapsulates the atrocity of these acts; “Reason, hide they face!”.

In conclusion, it would be fair to say that if one is looking for an up-to-date clinical, pharmacological text dealing with the categorisation of psychoactive drugs, then Phantastica is certainly not going to fit the bill, unless you’re interested in the historical growth of such drug strata. Compared to modern categories, Lewin’s have a faint air of romanticism that just isn’t acceptable in today’s rigid climate (more’s the pity) and, of course, our knowledge of chemical structures and actions have moved considerably on. However, for the psychoactive enthusiast and scholar it remains a vital text in the creation of modern drug culture and, as such, is a must read; if only for Lewin’s well-tempered narrative voice and reasoned approach.

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5 Responses

  1. mentalpyro says:

    “If human consciousness is the most wonderful thing on earth, the attempt to fathom the depths of the psychophysiological action of narcotic and stimulating drugs makes this wonder seem greater still.”

    He sure said it. Seems like an interesting book. Does he include his “trip reports” (for lack of a better term) on these drugs?

    • Rob Dickins says:

      Good quote, eh? There’s been a lot of trying to make that happen since it was written. No he doesn’t discuss any personal experiences at all, it’s very academic in that the information is largely reference-based.

  2. edischwager says:

    Reblogged this on edischwager and commented:
    An early medicine standard book. Known until today.

  1. April 27, 2013

    […] The name “Fantasia” in itself alluded to a fantastic other-worldly land, perhaps the kind which can be discovered through the ingestion of substances from a chemical family which was known at the time as the “Phantastica”. […]

  2. January 17, 2019

    […] eat a root which they call peyote, and which they venerate as though it were a deity.” [Psychedelic Press UK article]  (see April 3, […]

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