Transcript of a talk delivered at The A & The E 2/12/13:
1937: “There are 100,000 marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos and entertainers. Their Satanic music – Jazz and Swing – results from marijuana usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers and any others.” The speaker is Harry Anslinger, commissioner in America’s Bureau of Prohibition – let’s let that linger for just a second, the Bureau of Prohibition – then from 1930 he was promoted to chief of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Everything you need to know about The War On Drugs is there in his words: the racism, that root hatred of the Other; the fear and disgust of sensuality and enjoyment in those sneers about “entertainers” and in the weird misogynistic need for government-officials to concern themselves with whom women – white women – are sleeping. But behind all that there’s the key word “Satanic,” their “Satanic” Jazz and Swing and marijuana usage, The War On Drugs goes way back and it’s a Holy War, a Christian crusade against Sacraments which aren’t Christian and are therefore of the Devil, Sacraments which are very different from the Christian Eucharist where the Body is a dry little white wafer and the Blood is a grape that has rotted; marijuana, on the other hand, manifested with music, Jazz which shares a West African etymology with jism, Swing which Swing which Swing this isn’t just music but music that makes you move, sounds to take you out of your stillness, ex stasis, and so we see in response a continuation of thousands of years of Authoritarian war against the senses and the brain, we have Harry Anslinger alongside fellow 1930s cryptofascist William Hearst – the Rupert Murdoch of his day – kicking up a bit of a campaign. Reefer Madness: soon men with letters after their names, Ph.D., MD, are soberly warning the world that “marijuana makes the smoker vicious, with a desire to fight and kill,” marijuana “not infrequently leads to violence and crime, sexual aberrations, or even suicide.” And on and on and on. This is one interesting thing about the anti-drugs crusaders, the way they’re so quick and eager to lie and distort. Who remembers Leah Betts? …Leah Betts had heard it’s important to drink water while on Ecstasy and she didn’t quite understand, she freaked out a bit and drank twelve pints of water in just over an hour, her body couldn’t handle it. She was a victim not of drugs but of inadequate drug-education, and the response to her death was a campaign of misinformation.
Consider tobacco: it’s fallen out of favour with governments recently, there’s been the smoking-ban and the ever more graphic warning-signs which make sure you’re getting the information, so to the extent that there’s a war on tobacco it is indeed that, it’s a war on tobacco, not a war on the people who use tobacco. Compare with psilocybin, “magic-mushrooms”: you can spend up to seven years in a cage plus have to pay an “unlimited fine” for eating a mushroom. If it’s such a fucked-up awful mushroom why not just tell everyone how fucked-up awful a mushroom it is? The thing is, the facts about psilocybin are that it isn’t toxic, you can’t overdose on it, furthermore it isn’t physically addictive nor is it habit-forming, you never really hear of people swallowing magic-mushrooms daily the way they might for instance drink their stimulant caffeine drinks; in fact a recent study seems to show that people who use mushrooms are less likely than average to be addicted to any substance, legal or illegal. There haven’t been many clinical studies but those the Holy Inquisition has allowed have demonstrated a link between psilocybin usage and “new psychological understandings and personal insights,” this all comes from the Wikipedia article and studies linked to there, so if you want to see how they quantify “new psychological understandings and personal insights,” check that out; also psilocybin was used in the early 60s in prisons to aid the rehabilitation of prisoners and it’s recently been used to treat problems ranging from OCD to cluster-headaches; there’s no indication whatsoever of any long-term side-effects and we’ve had plenty of time to find that out, the use of magic-mushrooms has been traced back to prehistoric times in Europe and North Africa while in Central and South America we know it’s been used for centuries at least, in fact magic-mushrooms and the religious ceremonies around them were banned by the conquistadores. The War On Drugs goes way back. Some scholars have argued that the Hindu Soma may have been a mushroom; similarly there’s evidence that the Eleusinian Mysteries may have involved a psychedelic brew. Who remembers the Eleusinian Mysteries? This was a secret ceremony practised from early Ancient Greece right through to the fall of Rome, when it was suppressed, where politicians and poets and generals and builders, men and women and even slaves might go and spend a night or two being initiated into Mysteries! But the psychedelic experience basically disappears from the West with the colonising desert out of Palestine, the cult of the Jealous God and the Son who has to die for Him. I always liked the idea that those witches who were burned and hanged and drowned might have been real witches, part of a Pagan underground and maybe they preserved some herbal magic and spent their Sabbaths smearing delirium-drugs all over each other’s broomsticks, but I read up on this recently and couldn’t find any evidence at all for actual witches, seemed that most of those who were killed were killed because they were in the out-group which in their time and place happened to be women, particularly poor women, generally ageing lower-class spinsters and widows who were only ever going to be an economic drain on the community so some religious fanatic or political demagogue comes along and… That’s entertainment.
Who’s heard of the early 20th Century writer H. L. Mencken? He was a journalist-essayist who went to war with redneck fucks wherever he found them, but, he could be a bit of a redneck fuck himself, he’s one of those writers who’ll every now and then come out with something really racist or fascist and if you want to read him you just have to accept he shared the prejudices of his time, and one of them was this, he said something like, Even if the grand theory of racism turned out not to be true, even if the inferior non-white races turned out to be not so inferior after all, still it would make no sense to treat them as equals because you see whites have got fifty uninterrupted generations of Culture behind them, whites have got Shakespeare and Beethoven and “Love and marriage, love and marriage, go together like horse and carriage.” How could the Negroes and Hispanics and Fffilipinos hope to aspire to such cultural heights? One obvious point Mencken missed was that in those same “fifty uninterrupted generations” the non-white races would have been learning a thing or two themselves, and that’s what we see in the 20th Century, new art, especially new music: musical-instruments had been banned under Slavery, most forms of dancing were forbidden to slaves too but not all, in fact modern tap-dancing owes its existence to the fact that inventive fuckers not allowed their drums found a way to turn themselves into a drum, but those same inventive fuckers were eventually free to make the beats and rhythms they wanted to make and their Jazz and Swing and Blues and Gospel swallowed the shit out of the bland culture of the time. New music, accompanied from the start by old drugs: so in America you’ve got Harry Anslinger spouting that other racist quote I opened with about this Satanic music being fuelled by “marijuana usage” but there’s a similar alarm being raised in Britain, decent people, in particular decent white women, were being corrupted by the heathens’ hashish and were dancing new dances in smoky underground mixed-race dens, while out in the colonies, in India and Egypt, traders and diplomats and the sons and daughters of traders and diplomats were sampling the goods, getting the giggles under the strange eyes of strange gods: something older and weirder and more pelvic than Christ shakes free gets loose goes on a rampage, soon nothing’s the same, Rock & Roll and the Beats: a whole lotta shaking going on and this is just the start, this is just hash and grass, the munchies, paranoia, right-brain games, the Pleasure Principle… Laws that were introduced to allow non-whites to be thrown into jails where the conditions of Slavery could be recreated were increasingly being used on young whites too, Beatnik angel Neal Cassady got two years for handing a joint to an undercover narc, the cops were chucking their children into prison but as Elvis struts and thrusts strange-eyed strange gods are making their next move.
Those magic-mushrooms: in Mexico in the Cold War 1950s a holywoman named Maria Sabina made the contact with an American banker named Robert Wasson and his Russian paediatrician wife Valentina, Maria Sabina gave the gift of tryptamine molecules to the seeker representatives of two nations that had just recently figured out how to destroy all life on Earth. Meanwhile similar processes were going on in South America, where a biologist named Richard Schultes encountered the ritual use of ayahuasca, aka yagé although another name given to this plant-brew by Western explorers was telepathine because of the psychic strangenesses that occur during its use; and in North America a psychiatrist named Humphrey Osmond, who will later coin the magic word “psychedelic” in correspondence with Aldous Huxley, encountered peyote through the local indigenous Canadian tribes, Osmond used the cactus-drug in a number of research projects, giving it to alcoholics and philosophers and fellow psychiatrists.
This was the New World but one other channel opened up back in Europe, similar but slightly different, here the process involved rediscovering not the suppressed Other but instead the suppressed Self, a part of white Western culture that white Western culture had thoroughly disowned: bloody Alchemy. In a laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, a scientist named Albert in amongst his vials and liquids and flames gazed down at the chemical he’d just created and felt a flash of what he would later describe as “a strange presentiment.” He figured he’d test it, beginning at a ridiculously low dosage just to be on the safe side but LSD is active at a ridiculously low dosage, so Albert Hofmann on his bike cycling home feels the slight anticipatory quease in his head and his guts and wonders is he okay, did he take too much, is he going to be sick? Every colour is brighter, every line of everything more sharply delineated and shuddering then he’s seeing the faces of elves in the trees and words bubbling up from the road, he glances upwards at the clouds and Albert in that instant understands fractals and Chaos Theory but forgets to write it down and soon forgets, soon realises, he’s been cycling for years and he hasn’t got anywhere, the horizon stays still, he can’t stop laughing then he’s crying, he hasn’t got anywhere, he’s home, when did he get home?! he’s on the couch something is happening he knows this is wrong, something’s gone wrong, the only possibility is he’s poisoned himself and it’s getting worse, waves of dissolution, everything is coming to nothing, on the couch: the sun sets and that’s the last light there’ll be, he’s poisoned himself and he’s dying, it’s not fair, he thrashes about pathetically, angrily, then, then, accepts, he accepts it: if this is his death let this be his death, goodbye, he’ll miss you, goodbye: under a night sky a scientist dies.
The next morning, Albert Hofmann feels pleasantly refreshed, and bewildered.
That primal Death-Rebirth trip echoes through a lot of early Psychedelia: one of the experiments carried out when LSD was legal involved giving it to the terminally ill, Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax recount the results in their book “The Human Encounter With Death” from which I’ll excerpt just one quote: “On several occasions patients who had psychedelic sessions later experienced brief episodes of deep agony and coma, or even clinical death, and were resuscitated. They not only described definite parallels between the experience of actual dying and their LSD sessions, but reported that the lesson in letting go and leaving their bodies, which they had learned under the influence of LSD, proved invaluable in this situation and made the experience much more tolerable”; and I’ve mentioned Aldous Huxley, he asked for – and got – LSD on his deathbed. One of the striking things about this period is how respectable the use of psychedelics is, every bright mind is interested, from scientist Carl Sagan to Pentagon war-planner Herman Kahn, from baseball legend Dock Ellis to founder of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson, media magnates from the Underground Paul Krassner to the Establishment Henry Luce of “Time Magazine,” actors ranging from Jack Nicholson to Groucho Marx to Cary Grant, bankers and paediatricians, biologists, novelists, CIA operatives, psychiatrists, members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, pranksters, poets, and psychologists, such as Timothy Leary, it was Tim Leary who gave magic-mushrooms to prisoners in jails, he’d first sampled Maria Sabina’s brew in Mexico in 1960 and had, on that trip, encountered the entirety of DNA’s evolution not as a fact but as a liveable experience, he’d seen what Psychology is made of, had seen that this was Religion, right here; he began expounding a scientific mysticism, empirical Transcendence, a body gnosis, he rewrote “The Tibetan Book Of The Dead” as a guide for trippers, immersed himself and his growing audience in the bardos and the wrathful demons of ego and the Clear White Light Of The Void and then, tiring of Buddhist mountaintop Nihilism, did something similar for the “Tao Teh Ching,” playful buds or bursts of flowing-flowering Wisdom then he turned to Christianity, this was while still a professor at Harvard, Leary and his associates organised a group-trip in a church one Good Friday, the Marsh Chapel Experiment, everyone got God; later on they all became fascinated for a while with the strange loops and cosmic vistas of Hinduism. Eventually Leary and his League for Spiritual Discovery announced their findings, their strategy: “Start Your Own Religion,” a mass-produced pamphlet called that, “Start Your Own Religion,” Leary declared that Christ and Krishna live and die and dance not in Holy Books and Holy Buildings but in your skin-cells, your blood and tongue and genitals; the only guru is your brain; the only temple is your home: take what you want from the past but the route to Divinity is the one you make yourself: the High Priest preached a theological anarchism and people were listening, kids were proclaiming their own spiritual authority, rejecting violence and hierarchy and intolerance, everyone was their own Visionary, their own Cosmic Seeker, there was an explosion of acid zines and sounds and fashions, there was a new Apocalypse every evening and there were festivals: these days we take it for granted that any kid or yuppie who wants to let off steam can have a weekend here and there getting fucked up in a field but don’t underestimate how alien and pagan Woodstock and co. seemed at first, this wasn’t respectable psychologists and philosopher-novelists with names like Aldous and Humphrey, this was millions of working-class men and women and they really were starting their own bright faiths, they were, as John Lennon put it in his last interview, “visiting the cosmos.”
Fortunately the world had a Hero to protect us from Heresy: Richard Nixon. In the midst of the Vietnam War Leary was tagged “the most dangerous man in America” and busted; peace and love were harassed and criminalised and shot at; the phrase “The War On Drugs” was introduced and from the start it was more than a metaphor, an out-group had been identified and the State wanted ever more powerful means of victimising it: Dan Baum in his book “Smoke & Mirrors” starts in 1968, the year of Nixon’s arrival to the US Presidency, and goes through to the Clinton 90s when the book was written listing for each year what civil-liberties were suspended in the need to persecute stoners and trippers; what military forces were redeployed to wage war on those of their own citizens who use drugs or are suspected of possibly perhaps using drugs; what Orwellian laws were introduced, e.g. forfeiture: in America the police are allowed to seize the property and possessions of anyone suspected of being involved in drugs, and even if those people are found Not Guilty or if the case never goes to trial the police can just keep everything! Sarah Stillman, in her 2013 “New Yorker” article “Taken,” documents the current police state of the USA, with cases of traffic-cops pulling over people – mostly, of course, non-white people – and just taking their cars, their cash, their jewellery; the homes of suspected drug-dabblers and the homes of the parents and even the grandparents of suspected druggies have been seized and sold and, again, as one defence-lawyer noted, “with real-estate forfeitures it’s overwhelmingly African-Americans and Hispanics.” Literally all a cop has to do is say “I smelt marijuana smoke” and they can have whatever they want. The justification given for this practice is explicitly economical: these are tough times, the financial-crisis, Austerity, how else can a poor struggling police-department hope to get by? although in her article Stillman gives examples of funds raised by forfeiture being donated to an anti-immigration radio-show and to churches and to Christian Evangelist programs such as “the Missionettes” which aims to “teach girls to obey everything Jesus commanded.”
Given enough time The Powers That Be would ban music too, ban drums and dancing just like under Slavery, they’d order every saxophone everywhere to be melted down and no more to be made, and anyone caught in possession of an electric-guitar will lose years of their life; all the other nations of the world, even those where music had been considered holy, will be induced by bribes or threats or lies to enact similar laws; and some point down the line a video would surface of one James Massiah, at the August A & E meeting, discussing these matters: now, James is cool, he knows that these laws we’ve got against music are bullshit, he’s got loads of mates who secretly use cellos and xylophones and bongos until the police raid them, and if that’s what they feel they need to do to experience music then James is fine with that, but, the thing is, James’s problem with that is, is it music? I mean, if you tap your fingers and tap your toes you know that’s you doing it so you know that’s really real, but once there’s a musical-instrument involved how can you prove it’s still music, maybe the instrument is just making sounds that sound like music, how do you know for sure if anything is actually happening? Or: right, what James really said, in this universe, was: “If I have a spiritual experience I want it to be when I’m completely stone-cold sober and I can definitely say this really happened. I don’t want to be super-high so I can blame it on the LSD afterwards.”
So, to respond to that, and to say why I think James’s notion of “spiritual experience” is slightly off, I want to talk about my own times with psychedelics. Skip the hash and the weed and go to my first LSD trip when I was sixteen: it was a disappointment. I enjoyed the way the carpet flowed and the walls breathed and colours kept turning in on themselves and movement was jagged, I liked the warm smeariness to my thoughts but then someone put on the film “The Yellow Submarine” and I realised that that was what I’d wanted, I’d thought I could take a drug and go to other bubblier worlds and see spirits and receive Revelations, but it wasn’t like that. I enjoyed the trip for what it was: and the next six years I swallowed drugs – specifically psychedelic drugs, I’m not talking about stimulants or narcotics, uppers or downers, only psychedelics – whenever I could get my hands on them, appreciating them at this level, as sensual and psychological toys and educators; then when I was twenty-two I started growing Mexican mushrooms in my room and I found out that actually I was right the first time, Wonderland is real and you can go there and it’s different every time. The first time for me – the first of very many times! – was Autumn 2002, I am sprawled out on the carpet with no sense of my body and very little sense of my mind, no awareness of where or when, I am almost wholly occupied by a snake-god that is simultaneously snake-gods, simultaneously snake-green and all colours at once as it simultaneously writhes and stays still against a Nirvana-white background, the snake-god is structure is DNA is meaning is galaxy is sex is words is initiation is aware of me but indifferent, the jewel-bright snake-god is vast beyond size, is beyond anything I could be. This… is actually a relatively common experience, the snake-god shows up a lot in the literature, and this leads me to the point I want to make about spiritual experiences. Because, yeah, like James said, maybe that wasn’t real, maybe it was just some vivid druggy bullshit, although, the thing is, how would you know it was really real even if there weren’t drugs involved, how could you know it wasn’t a hallucination, they happen! or a psychotic break or maybe you were a bit tired and strange things do sometimes happen in your head when you’re tired. I personally have encountered ghosts while tripping and demons while not on any drugs at all but how do I know I’ve encountered them either way? The answer, for me, is that the “spiritual experience” isn’t this, isn’t the gods and spirits and the visions and blisses, that’s all just a catalyst for the real experience which is you carrying those trans-dimensional states of Mind back into space and time, manifesting them in your life: after seeing a snake-god I tried to capture that sense of a higher world, a higher structure, a higher Being, in the stories I was writing and those stories cooked themselves into my first novel and that novel’s a real thing so that’s Reality, that’s the only experience there is and it’s as spiritual as you make it.
Let me give another example of what I mean: a year and a half after I saw the snake-god, now it’s early 2004, I’m twenty-three and there’s a red lightbulb on in my room and I’m casting a magic-spell, I’m reading aloud an invocation of the god Mercury, this is the second time I’ve read these words: the first time, back in 2002, I invoked Mercury in a little improvised ritual then got a new job a couple of weeks later, it turned out to be one of those jobs where you meet loads of people who are really important to your life, one of them introduced me to the magic-mushrooms I would soon start growing, hence new stories for me to write, new energies, but a year passes and I need a change of scene and I remember casting that spell and getting that job and I wonder, could there have been anything to it? So: my second invocation of Mercury, there in my bedroom in that red light in the yab-yum position, who’s gonna tell me what the yab-yum position is? …So we’re there doing that while I read out the words to Mercury as incense burns as the mushrooms open the back of my mind into a whiteness filled with pinksmeared comicbook speech-bubbles and I’m reading and I get to the end and we sit there yab-yumming until there’s a CLICK; three weeks later I’m at my mum’s and I get a message, the Job Centre have apparently left on the answer-machine back home a phone-number that I’m supposed to ring, I hear that same CLICK and I figure either this phone-call I’m to make is unequivocally the answer to my little magic-spell or I’ll dismiss this whole thing as childish bullshit… A set of mistakes and coincidences has lead to a woman from Chelmsford Job Centre calling me and we end up chatting for an hour about everything and towards the end she mentions that some of her mates are teaching in Taiwan and there’s that CLICK again: right after our conversation I googled “Teach English in Taiwan” and the next thing I knew I was an English teacher, I’d never done anything like that before, suddenly I was living and working in a place I couldn’t previously have located on a map.
One interpretation of this sort of thing is it’s using occult techniques to contact invisible forces to bend the world around you; another interpretation is you’re using psychological tricks to force yourself to pay more attention to and engage more deeply with your environment; both of these viewpoints are equally well described as “magic.” In terms of both drugs and magic, what’s “real” is what happens: any ghost is a real ghost if you hear its story and write it down; a demon exists if you quit smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol the instant you learn its name, which is exactly what happened to me. Angels can be metaphors for themselves without being any less angelic. Which is why you can be an atheist and a pagan at the same time.
Let me tell you the worst drug-trip I ever had: I smoked some extract of salvia divinorum and the world stopped spinning, I have broken the world, the enormity of this comes in waves of exponentially increasing Terror, I have broken the universe and the one and only one fact that remains and will remain forever getting more painful forever is the fact that I have failed, my mind splits into a thousand voices and every voice is screaming and it gets worse it gets worse and all that exists apart from unending despair is the Devil whose Hell I’m in and he tells me deep down I have always known this, things have been getting worse and won’t stop getting worse; I’ve always found value in bad-trips and this one was no exception, within a week the plots of two novels appeared in my head, I saw scenes playing out in my mind, I’d rewind them a few times then open my eyes and write everything down then close my eyes and see more, I’d see stuff I didn’t understand but write it down anyway, close my eyes again and the next scene I’m shown makes it all make sense, two novels, that was two glorious years of my life writing those, bad-trips are great.
Something else happened that same week, I’d planned it before the salvia experiment, two days afterwards I went up a mountain in Wales, Cader Idris: there’s a legend that anyone who spends a night alone atop its summit will, come the morning, be either dead or mad or a poet. That didn’t sound at all enticing, in fact being a poet sounded as bad an option as the other two, I hated poetry, I’d written a bit when I was a kid but since then I’d decided that poetry was a corpse among arts and anyone twatty enough to call himself a poet in the 21st Century could only amount to necrophilia, but for a whole other set of reasons I spent a night alone in the clouds atop Cader Idris and what do you know, soon afterwards I started spontaneously writing poetry, one poem after another, soon bloody poetry and the London poetry-scene came to dominate my life! I mention this wannabe-Druid initiation-rite because it didn’t involve any drugs at all, and this is another point: you don’t need drugs to make magic. That invocation of Mercury I mentioned: the first time, I was stoned; the second time, the yab-yum Taiwan spell, that was with mushrooms, but I’ve read out those words twice since with no drugs either time, on both occasions I ended up with a new and life-changing job shortly afterwards: most recently, in late 2009, I charged the words, as a straight guy, by going to a gay-bar and following the night wherever it took me; three weeks later, CLICK, this time the Mercury current lead me into volunteer-work with hurt and delinquent teenagers, I’m still doing it, years later that CLICK continues to influence the course of my life. You don’t need drugs to get a job or write a novel or see a god, but psychedelics are a tool and an excellent tool and the only reasons not to use them are reasons stuck in your head by the Bureau of Prohibition.
Back to the A & E video: a guy across the table from James agrees with him, saying: “Spirituality is a part of human existence and I think we can experience that without necessarily leaning on the crutch of chemicals.” The implication seems to be that human existence in general ought not need chemicals, right? You should be able to exist without having to have chemicals to do so, right? Breathe without leaning on the crutch of oxygen, for example; not to mention food, vitamins… Spirituality is a part of human existence and therefore chemical. But arguments that get thrown at psychedelics aren’t applied to other substances: if it’s wrong to alter your consciousness using plants or potions why is it fine to use artificial words to feel emotions you don’t really feel or think thoughts you’ve not thought before, why is it okay for films or songs to allow us to contemplate scenes that couldn’t have happened, why should sitting completely still and not thinking about anything be viewed as a perfectly valid path to spiritual illumination? The guy opposite James in the video concludes: “And I think actually these chemicals are just as available in the human mind.” That’s true in a very literal sense: the human body makes DMT, a tryptamine drug, probably in the pineal gland. That’s the perfect poetic image for me to end on: the human brain is illegal, we are all the manufacturers, transporters and consumers of a Class A controlled-substance, we are all capital-G Guilty.
“PIHKAL,” A & A Shulgin.
“The Illuminati Papers,” Robert Anton Wilson.
“Promethea,” Alan Moore.
“The Invisibles,” Grant Morrison.
“Smoke And Mirrors,” Stephen Grasso.
“Shadow Dancing In The USA,” Michael Ventura.