Albert Hofmann vs The West

New Scientist sent me down the LSD rabbit-hole recently in pursuit of its discoverer, Albert Hofmann. The subs did a cracking job as usual; but here’s the  unwound version for those who have the time.

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Image swiped from Leonard Freed/Magnum

A cloud of scorn fogs our understanding of LSD. It is justified. Those who fear The Man may remember the murderous human experiments conducted for the CIA’s MK-Ultra programme. Those who deplore social breakdown will recall Timothy Leary’s plan for young Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out” – fuelled by his insouciant purchase order, in 1963, for one million doses of LSD and 2.5 million doses of psilocybine.

What of the substance itself, and the Swiss chemist who invented it, Albert Hofmann? In March this year, Hofmann’s own memoir, LSD: my problem child, was published by the Beckley Foundation Press in association with the OUP, in a new translation by Jonathan Ott. At once stiff as a board and lush as a jungle, Ott’s translation neatly captures the romance of Hofmann’s discovery. LSD provides the capstone for  a grand European project to explore the psyche, begun by Goethe, developed by Purkinje and Mach,  von Helmholtz and Exner, and obliterated by the rise of National Socialism in Germany. LSD is also the foundation of modern popular culture, inspiring everything from the personal computer to Gaia theory. For this reason, all writings about LSD are unavoidably – often comically – anachronistic. Whole pages of Hofmann’s own, deeply felt and beautifully written memoir could be dropped wholesale into a Thomas Pynchon novel with no-one any the wiser.

In an attempt to bring the LSD story up to date in time for the seventieth anniversary of its discovery,  two of Hoffman’s close acquaintances, Dieter Hagenbach and Lucius Werthmüller, have assembled a copiously illustrated volume of stories, biographies, memoirs and reflections. Mystic Chemist is the sort of mess you get when your aspiration gets ahead of your writing time. Its by-the-numbers approach contains spadefuls of trivia of the  “Mexico is the fifth largest country on the American continent” variety. It is horrible. It is also touching, sad and angry. And – so long as it’s not the first book a reader picks up about LSD – it is pretty much indispensable.

LSD is a psychiatric and medical tool. Not a medicine, since it tends to reinforce a person’s prevailing mood. Not a recreational substance: it triggers a psychosis, still poorly understood, that exposes to consciousness, and temporarily deconstructs, the processes by which a self maintains itself. Psychedelics were used as a spiritual aid for millennia, before falling as collateral damage in the West’s “war on drugs”. But regret at such a profound cultural loss cannot but be tempered by the thought that Greece, powered by the Eleusinian mysteries, still succumbed to decline, and Mexico, in its psilocybine haze, is a violent and impoverished political backwater. LSD does not harm people; nor does it make humanity evolve. The fault is not in LSD but in ourselves, says Hofmann: in “hypermaterialism, alienation from Nature through industrialisation and increasing urbanisation, lack of satisfaction with professional employment in an increasingly mechanised, lifeless, workaday world, ennui and purposelessness in a wealthy, oversaturated society, and the utter lack of a religious, nurturing, and meaningful philosophical foundation for life.”

Healthify yourself!

Come along on Wednesday 16 May at 7pm to the last of my talks at Pushkin House; I’m exploring Russia’s unsung sciences of the mind.

 

 

The way we teach and care for our children owes much to a handful of largely forgotten Russian pioneers. Years after their deaths, the psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the pioneering neuroscientist Alexander Luria have an unseen influence over our everyday thinking. In our factories and offices, too, Soviet psychology plays a role, fitting us to our tasks, ensuring our safety and our health. Our assumptions about health care and the role of the state all owe a huge debt to the Soviet example.

Tickets: £7, conc. £5 (Friends of Pushkin House, students and OAPs)

More details here

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.

William Hudson’s elephant

Elephants

In 1962, the anthropologist William Hudson offered a group of adults and children living in the Zambian bush two drawings of an elephant. In one, the elephant was seen from above; in the other, the same elephant was squashed, as if by a steam-roller, so that its legs and trunk were splayed out to the sides of the body. The children preferred the ‘squashed’ drawing, because it contained more of the elephant.

When Westerners are shown the same drawings, they prefer the unsquashed one. Although there is less elephant in it, they consider the picture more realistic, since it captures what it would be like to see an elephant from a particular angle.

The choice, in both instances, is a sophisticated one. It is an aesthetic choice. The pictorial art of the veldt typically conveys ideas of value and meaning. The art of the post-Renaissance West typically simulates the rules of optics. People prefer some representations over others. Representations are plastic. They are modified over time. They change.

Read more in Deregowski, J.B. (1972) ‘Pictorial perception and culture.’ Scientific American 227, pp82-88.