tue 18/06/2019

Mike Jay: Mescaline - A Global History of the First Psychedelic review - multiple perspectives | reviews, news & interviews

Mike Jay: Mescaline - A Global History of the First Psychedelic review - multiple perspectives

Mike Jay: Mescaline - A Global History of the First Psychedelic review - multiple perspectives

Thoroughly researched book is strong on drug's social significance

Mescaline book jacket© Yale Press

Humans have been consuming mescaline for millennia. The hallucinogenic alkaloid occurs naturally in a variety of cacti native to South America and the southern United States, the most well known of which are the diminutive peyote and the distinctively tubular San Pedro. Dried peyote “buttons” found alongside rock art in the Shumla Caves in Texas have been carbon dated to 4000BCE, rolled cactus skins (believed to be San Pedro) have been found at the sprawling ancient littoral civilisation of Las Aldas in Peru, and a frieze from the mysterious temple complex of Chavín de Huántar depicts a part-beast, part-human in the grip of a hallucination.

Mention of its consumption might conjure Hunter S. Thompson plunged “into a subhuman funk” or Aldous Huxley recounting “the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of Beatific Vision”. But the history of mescaline is tied up with the colonial histories of the Americas: before making its way up to North America via Native American tribes, mescaline was associated with art and religion in South America — particularly communal spiritual experiences.

The Nahua, or Aztecs, used it in worship to obtain glimpses of paradise; they also used it in trade, presenting Spanish conquistadors with a variety of psychoactive plants, including the peyote cactus, morning glory seeds containing LSD-related compounds, and dream-inducing varieties of mint and sage. The question of whether peyote consumption during ceremonies constituted actual worship vexed the 16th Century Spanish clergy tasked with bringing Christianity to Mexico. From one perspective, the peyote was akin to the Eucharist — revered and referred to as teonanacatl or “flesh of the gods”. From another, it was a devil’s parody of the sacrament.

Centuries later, peyote was consumed during Native American in “ghost dances” which came to be considered disturbing and subversive displays of Native American power by Northern Americans. A ghost dance preceded the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 in which over 250 men, women and children were killed, tying peyote consumption up with resistance to the government’s policies of reservations and forced assimilation. In a Christian context, the peyote sacrament is a non-obligatory aspect of Native American Church ceremonies. It draws a connecting line between traditional practices and Protestant values, yet long-running disputes centring on its legal standing meant that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 was the first specific legal protection given to the church’s use of the cactus.

Jay distinguishes between how native and settler cultures have understood mescaline (variously as cactus or as the synthesised powder, mescaline). While for Native American practitioners its resonance is spiritual and its practice communal, for Europeans who tried it (particularly those at the turn of the twentieth century when images were beginning to be produced mechanistically), the drug was often administered individually and its effects predominantly conceived optically.

Western writers, philosophers and artists who tried mescaline include Katherine Mansfield, W.B.Yeats and Antonin Artaud. Some experienced emotional turbulence: Sartre “felt submerged against his will in […] a world of grotesque extreme close-ups in which everything disgusted him,” and subsequently suffered persistent visions of crabs; Walter Benjamin complained that he hadn’t been administered enough of the drug and peevishly claimed to have discovered the secret of Strewwelpeter — “A child must get presents, or else he will die or break into pieces or fly away.” By contrast Maurice Merleau-Ponty concluded that “all hallucination bears on one’s body,” and that subjective cerebral experiences are thereby embodied and social.

Mescaline is a thoroughly researched book that is perhaps more interesting for its descriptions of the drug’s reception in societies across the centuries than the alkaloid itself. Through it, Jay traces artistic and philosophical movements, and legal and civic shifts; we see the development of America’s pharmaceutical industry and the USA’s history of state violence against Native Americans. While packed with interest, Jay’s narrative tends to skip around, losing some of the implications of his sharper insights. Whether this constitutes a surface detail or a fundamental flaw, it is nevertheless distracting.

the history of mescaline is tied up with the colonial histories of the Americas

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