The Psyche in Psychedelic

Entheogens, Society & Law: Towards a Politics of Consciousness, Autonomy & ResponsibilityEntheogens, Society & Law: Towards a Politics of Consciousness, Autonomy & Responsibility

by Daniel Waterman

Melrose Books, 2013

Earlier this year I joined some friends at a performance by the New York Philharmonic of Verdi’s Requiem Mass. Not one of us was Catholic or professed any creed threatening an afterlife of eternal suffering for the wicked. No perpetual willies over Judgment Day. Nevertheless, when the massed voices of chorus and orchestra unleashed their frenzy in the climactic “Dies irae” section, we four, like everyone in the packed house, were awestruck, transfixed, energized with a terror deeper than anything you could glean from Bible class. No knowledge of Latin was required to register the urgent pleading of “Libera me,” the joy of the “Sanctus,” or the profound serenity of the “Agnus Dei.” Music like this bypasses the thinking, querulous mind into a realm of pure experience. The depth of feeling curbs any need to interpret.

I thought of this often while plowing through Daniel Waterman’s Entheogens, Society & Law, an epic exploration of consciousness, the substances that alter it, the traditions that investigate it, and the scientistic and moralistic interpretations that misconstrue it. Like Verdi, Waterman wants to break through the conceptual frames that confine our experience of reality, in search of elemental truths housed in some private interior chamber. That his method relies on sentences and not sounds is both an aid and a limitation. He may lack the dramatic genius that fuels Verdi’s musical power, but his mind is as comprehensive as Bucky Fuller’s, as densely detailed as Derrida’s, and as erudite as Diderot’s. His book offers more footnotes than the Talmud, some of them spellbinding, others interminable. By the time he reaches his sublime “Afterword,” he has examined so minutely, digressed so encyclopedically, written so densely (and, I regret to report, proofread so atrociously) that the clarity and succinct force of his conclusions are as welcome as any miracle. But what a slog!

“Entheogens” (if you haven’t already consulted a dictionary) is the more recent term for what British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond christened “psychedelics” back in 1957, when he and a Canadian colleague initiated a series of long-term studies of hallucinogenic drugs, LSD and psilocybin among them. Similar research in the United States and Europe was, despite intriguing discoveries, almost completely halted by various legislative bodies starting in the late sixties. Waterman has entrusted his book with a task no less arduous than creating a historical (and even prehistoric) context for the human investigation of mind-altering substances, probing the deep psychological roots of taboos enforced by authoritarian institutions, and proposing that without a shared commitment to individual inner growth, our species is unlikely to endure.

Not everybody is persuaded that we will, or should. Waterman offers a fascinating analysis of apocalyptic cults past and present, portraying belief in a coming end of the world as the ego’s apprehension of personal death writ large.
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