The Splintered Man by M. E. Chaber

Splintered ManOriginally published in 1955 ‘The Splintered Man’ by M. E. Chaber is one of the very earliest works of fiction (and non-fiction) to deal with LSD. The book is remarkable for pointing out how LSD could easily be used by government agencies, such as the CIA, for experimentation, within the psychotomimetic framework.

When LSD was first marketed by Sandoz, it was done so as either a useful adjunct to psychotherapy, and as a psychotomimetic (a drug that mimics psychosis in the user.) The psychotomimetic understanding of LSD quickly began to influence researchers and literature. Firstly, with Aldous Huxley, whose own experiences with mescaline were undertaken under the auspices of a psychotomimetic researcher, but also, soon after, in fiction.  M. E. Chaber[1], a pseudonym for the author Kendell Foster Crossen (1910-1981), published The Splintered Man in 1955 and the fictional crime story included a central role for LSD in the plotline. The book was part of a series centred on the protagonist Milo March.

March, an insurance investigator and reserve army officer, is seconded to West Berlin at the height of the Cold War by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A prominent German agent, Hermann Gruss, has apparently defected to the East, and March’s job is his retrieval. The book culminates in a high security hospital in East Berlin where experiments are going on with two drugs: Lysergic acid diethylamide and Chlorpromazine. According to the author: “Everything said about lysergic acid diethylamide is as accurate as I could make it. I have taken certain liberties with chlorpromazine in extrapolating the uses to which it may still be put” (Chaber 1955, author’s note). It is worth mentioning how LSD’s value is cast in this book in order to ascertain the lengths to which the connection of madness is pursued in literature as the primary understanding of its effects at the time, and the extent of influence from actual medical research.

Chaber gives us a clue to his own research on the effects of LSD, for his book, in the body of the text. Having described the drug’s discovery by Hofmann, he mentions the research of a psychiatrist called Dr. Max Rinkel and concludes: “The result was that they soon discovered the drug would produce all the major symptoms of schizophrenia in a completely healthy man” (Chaber 1955, 130). Rinkel was in fact a real person. He was the first person to bring LSD to America when he ordered a batch from Sandoz in 1949, and his partner Dr. Robert Hyde became one the earliest individuals in America to take it.

In the East German hospital, the patients believed they were schizophrenic and are given two sets of medicine, one to take when they felt an “attack” of schizophrenia coming on, and the other to take between attacks. It is here that Milo March finds Hermann Gruss. The agent is caught in a government-run psychiatric experiment with the aforementioned drugs, wherein they are voluntarily, though unwittingly, taking themselves in and out of psychosis. In the narrative, Crossen writes an early fictional experience with LSD:

Somewhere there had to be a scream. Oderbruch pressed a button and somebody screamed with my voice. I knew him for what he was. I hated him for what I was. I knew there was something he was, but I couldn’t say it. A lazy obscenity scrawled on a moving wall. Four letters it had but they wouldn’t come together. This was the essence of man. A gibbering, slobbering thing and a four-lettered word on the undulating wall (Chaber 1955, 179).

The mental schism of psychosis is portrayed in the “splintering” of his self, where he steps outside a singularity of his consciousness. This moment of ekstasis, under the psychotomimetic reading, is understood within a psychiatric framework which has the expectation of a unitary consciousness as normality. Indeed, thanks to later research, this moment of splinter becomes described as a psychedelic experience and becomes a central component in LSD therapy. What is important here, however, is that the medical research on LSD was certainly having a direct impact on literature through its form and content.  

There is a second interesting observation to make about this book that is pertinent in order to demonstrate the State’s understanding of hallucinogens during the 1950s. In The Splintered Man the experiment fits nicely into the anti-communist tone of the book, essentially showing the reader what might be happening on the far side of the iron curtain, while also acclimatising them to national stereotyping. However, toward the end it is revealed that the CIA also had the drug and a Western agent, who aides in the rescue, also describes it has having the ability to produce insanity in the user (Chaber 1955, 226). The implication is twofold; while Chaber may have been reassuring the reader that America was not lagging in its research, he was also alluding to the possibility that the same experiments could be afoot in America. Whether or not the author knew it, the CIA had been testing the drug for some time. According to Shlain and Lee, writing in the book Acid Dreams:

CIA operatives realized that intense mental confusion could be produced by deliberately attacking a person along psychological lines. Acid not only made people extremely anxious, it also broke down the character defences for handling anxiety (Lee 1992, 19)

The CIA had two projects undergo that were interested in hallucinogens: MK-ULTRA and ARTICHOKE. The former involved investigating a variety of drugs including LSD and they struck a bargain to be supplied with one hundred grams a week by Sandoz, and also to be informed as to who else was purchasing it (Lee 1992). Similarly, in the UK, according to Andy Roberts’ book Albion Dreaming, the Ministry of Defence and MI6 were researching the potential of the drug as a truth serum, chemical weapon and interrogation tool. It is not within the scope of this review to say any more on this, suffice to say that the ability to cause a mental disturbance, a form of madness, was, for a time, taken seriously by the State – who believed, as such, it could be a part of their war machine. The eventual failure of the psychotomimetic reading is an important contributing factor to LSD’s eventual scheduling, which is to say the government research, along with the medical establishment, apparently failed to find a value in the drug in regard to the psychotomimetic reading.

While the State’s understanding of LSD became entwined with a film of madness, literature and the arts used the psychotomimetic territory as a departure point for speculation, rather than as an end in itself. This, in part, is because their interest in the 1950s was largely concerned with a drug that had a longer history of human use than LSD: mescaline. Not only did mescaline’s early readings have an impact on how the psychotomimetic was approached, but it also had a direct bearing on the framework for understanding hallucinogens in the following decade as well. The Splintered Man remains an important book for its development of scientific discourse into fiction, and for its astute supposition that LSD was in the hands of the CIA. Moreover, if you can look beyond the stereotyping of 1950s nationalism, it’s a pretty well told adventure story.

[1] M. E. Chaber is derived from the Hebrew word mechaber, which means ‘author’.

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