I do not eat. I devour, relish, savour. A piece of bread “arrives,” miraculously it seems, just as I begin to desire it, from the loving, ministering hands of my wife. Peanut butter on some kind of whole grain bread. And it is every grain I can taste, as the peanut butter — which IS, in fact, flowing (“fact,” too, by now has little relevance as a descriptive word) — flows over the corners of the bread and onto my fingers with a kind of lusciousness, a kind of extravagant sensuality, that makes me realize that — were we, in “fact,” this attentive to the movements, tastes, textures, nuances of the world in our “normal” lives — “We (who) alone/fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind” (Rilke) – we would surely do nothing else but eat, look, feel, be. In the words of Aldous Huxley, writing about his experience with mescaline in ‘The Doors of Perception’: “the will suffers a profound change for the worse…if one always saw like this, one would never want to do anything else.”
“You can see why it’s entirely subversive to the whole culture,” says James.
Yes, I can see.
By now, everything is in a state of coitus, of throbbing, pulsating coupling — “so passionately alive,” as Aldous Huxley put it, “that (it) seems to be standing on the very brink of utterance.” To put it graphically: I am surrounded by a humping, ecstatic world. It is not, of course, a “mystical” observation to realize that our normal human range of vision, smell, taste, hearing takes place in a range more limited than that of many animals, insects, birds — more limited, in fact, than that of many so-called “primitive” peoples. Boomer, for example, clearly lives life more fully through the nose than the rest of us, and you don’t need to be an ornithologist to know that the peregrine falcon… Oh, well.
It’s that old, familiar feeling: I can see through things that are normally opaque to me… But, then again, what more is opacity than “the quality of not letting light through.” But now — for whatever reason, by whatever means — the light does get through, and I can see, not only grass coupling with grass, but the very corpuscles of blood coursing through my veins, the living cells inside the trunk of the tree, the tiny veins and arteries and ever-moving, lubricating, life-giving systems in my own and my wife’s bodies, faces. In the words of the Anglo-Irish poet Louis MacNeice, from a poem entitled ‘Snow’:
The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible.
World is suddener than we fancy it.
World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.
Yes… “the drunkenness of things being various.” A hallucination? (A word whose Latinate root, hallucinari, merely means “to wander in mind.”) A vision? A somehow heightened level of perception? Does it really matter?
At James’s ever-so-gentle urging, and only slightly against my intuitive wish, which is to remain always outdoors (though, by now, I am far more willing to submit to whatever comes my way than to will much of anything), we go inside.
It’s here that I realize I’ve been — during my previous “trips” — a kind of psychedelic Philistine. Perhaps it was my slightly romanticized, somewhat pantheistic, sense of all this… some idea of the “purity” of nature as against the man-made. But music had, heretofore, never been part of my psychedelic experience. Instead, I had often looked down on those who, I thought, profaned the experience by sitting transfixed in front of speakers or hooked to earphones.
But now it is I who, at James’s urging, am hooked to an earphone, and I realize (indeed, I recall this having actually been akin to a “realization”) that I have, in fact, never actually heard music before… never actually listened.
Each note literally reverberates through my body, finds some physical analogue in my corporal being. Listening to Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute, I have the sense of somehow actually occupying the physical space between the flute and Rampal’s lips, of music as not merely aural but primordially physical. From Brahms to Roberta Flack, from Pachelbel to Kitaro, parts of my body (especially my arms) seem actually capable of being elevated by the music which no longer merely enters my head, but inhabits my body.
Nor is this sensation merely sensual… it is also aesthetic. Small variations in pitch and duration, subtle shifts of tonality and measure, movements from strophe to antistrophe, from andante to allegro, are suddenly both felt and audible to me in ways I had never before experienced while listening to music. The music is no longer something “out there” which I am able to — such a cold word — “appreciate.” It is now something “in here” which I am able to experience, embody… inhabit.
One might think that all these sensations would lead someone experiencing them to feelings of great power, to a degree of hubris. But it is exactly the opposite. What I feel above all is a sense of profound humility and awe before the wonder and beauty of the world, the utter rightness of its cycles of death and creation, of which I feel intimately a part. It is a sense of being held by this world, of great confidence in the beneficence — as well as the deep, mysterious, enduring power — of my surroundings. Like Yeats, writing in ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’,
I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into my breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blessed by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.
There seems to be no “beginning” or “end” to any of this. The day, I “know” somewhere, is moving on, must be winding towards evening. But each new “event” — each movement from outside to inside, from food to music, contemplation to touch, pond to lawn — seems marked by a sense of renewed beginning… the day does not, as we’re prone to saying, “wind down,” but winds along. It is a continuity of discrete beginnings and resurrections, each marked by a renewed sense of reverence and appreciation.
Above all, perhaps, there is the enormous beauty, the enormous wisdom, of my son… and of my wife. Throughout these hours — in which Noah surfaces and re-surfaces like some small but powerful Divinity that trips and frolics into my life like a relentless blessing — I have watched the happiness and wonder, the utter delight at the world, that crosses and re-crosses his face. And once again that word: adorable.
The light, I know somewhere, must be changing, must be flattening towards evening as I begin to feel the effects of the acid diminish somewhat. But my focus is still entirely on what light there is — on light itself, rather than any absence or diminution of it. I remember again the words — which came to me in my “ordinary” state – with which I began the day: “And the light shall bless the shadow/ And the day shall sing.”
Yet my joy at this moment is also punctuated by a kind of sadness. For, blessed as I feel by my own child’s health and contentment, my thoughts — in one of the day’s most poignantly mixed moments — suddenly go to the thousands, the millions, of children not as fortunate as he… the Ethiopian children, the Kurdish children, the children of Bangladesh and the slums of Quito and Lima and Detroit and New York, who may never have a chance to stick their face, so innocent and full of health and contentment, into an apple blossom in their fathers’ arms.
It is, something tells me, getting on towards evening. Even the copulating grasses and trees, the copulating Gods, are getting a bit tired and seem to want to rest. I walk, my son in my arms, back up the hill to the house. My wife is preparing dinner. James is sitting on the sofa, reading. Roberta Flack is singing, divinely, an old Bob Dylan song — “You Make Love Just Like a Woman…” We are all feeling hungry and grateful. We sit down at the table, and we eat.
Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
~ Yeats, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’
What to make of all this? What to do when one has arrived, as it were, ‘back home?’ When the “players and painted stages” have receded once more? “What,” as Huxley asks, “about other people? What about human relations?… How (is) this cleansed perception to be reconciled with a proper concern with human relations, with the necessary chores and duties, to say nothing of charity and practical compassion?” Has this been merely another exploration, I ask myself, a brief foray, into a world that stands, like Tantalus’ grapes, just out of reach? Is it enough, perhaps, simply to bear witness and to praise?
In my early and mid-twenties, LSD and other psychedelics changed me, in ways both subtle and palpable. Whatever measure of detachment and equanimity — whatever sense that the world of our daily stresses and significances is but a small shadow of a world of both greater power and greater significance — I have had since then, I owe, at least in part, to those not so much visionary as envisioned states, states I have also felt access to during periods of true poetic “in-spiration”, when I felt as though I was taking dictation directly from somewhere “beyond” the ordinary.
Yet, in more mature adulthood, there are actions which such experiences as the one I have attempted to describe here could — perhaps ought — to lead to: One might easily be inspired to become a more active environmentalist; to do volunteer work for AIDS victims; to live more closely with nature, to adopt homeless children, to name but a few. One might simply find oneself more capable of love and forgiveness, of generosity of spirit. What I am certain of, then as now, is that, for me, this experience of envisioning more than our normal spectrum of consciousness usually allows provides both a greater sense of equanimity AND of tragedy about this world and what we as a species have done to it: the starving, abandoned children; the decimated forests; the extinguished species; the lives dissipated in pursuit of, as Yeats put it, “the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.” In other words, it has provided me with a greater commitment to this world… and a greater detachment from it as well. And — strange though it may seem to say so (particularly when we most of what we hear about drugs these days is accompanied by diatribes concerning the break-up of families), I am convinced that it has also helped me to become an even better, more loving, father. For it has helped me to see my son as no longer entirely my son, but as life’s son, my life no longer as entirely my life, but as part of a greater wisdom and force which, far beyond my willing and control, will know what to make of it.
So would I want my own son, when he grows up, to try LSD? Respecting in him, as in myself, the need and divine right to find his own truth in this life, to ask his own questions and to seek his own, highly individual answers, I can’t answer. But what I most certainly do want for him are the same qualities of leadership and self-realization which the former Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel recently enumerated in a speech before the World Economic Forum: “Soul, individual spirituality, first-hand personal insight into things; the courage to be himself and go the way his conscience points, humility in the face of the mysterious order of Being, confidence in its natural direction and, above all, trust in his own subjectivity as his principal link with the subjectivity of the world….”
Through my rare and carefully chosen experiences with LSD and other hallucinogens, I have sought to foster and develop what I see as my own responsible relation to the sacred, and, in so doing, to question the propagandistic and fear-inspired dogmas of those who would seek to restrict and dictate my experience of the world. I would certainly never suggest that it is the (or has been my only) way… it is merely one person’s account of one possibility. The risks of recounting my experience here are obvious: possible recriminations by my employer, inquiries by the FBI, complaints from parents of my students who might interpret my words, wrongly, as an encouragement to experiment with drugs, rather than as an encouragement to think maturely and truthfully about them. Safety, I suppose, might have dictated that I publish it under a pseudonym.
Michael C. Blumenthal is a poet and educator who has also ventured into essays, memoirs, and fiction. Blumenthal trained as a lawyer, went into editing and then became a lecturer in poetry at Harvard University and ultimately director of the Creative Writing program there. Among his better-known verse collections are ‘Days We Would Rather Know’ and ‘Dusty Angel’. His eighth book of poems, ‘No Hurry: Poems 2000-2012’, was recently published by Etruscan Press.