Peyote’s Brilliant Visions

The last time I used magic mushrooms was almost forty years ago.  In the spring of 1980 I was deeply depressed having disastrously screwed up a wonderful love affair; the mushrooms grabbed my depression and acted like an iron anchor tied to a drowning man. I remember spending an entire long weekend hiding under the covers of my bed, unable to move and scared to emerge. When I got straight, I didn’t want to repeat that depth of despair and so I never used them again.

However, I had had good times with them before then and, reading this week a marvelous piece in The Public Domain Review called Brilliant Visions: Peyote Among the Aesthetes, I was reminded of those better days.

The extract looks at the discovery of peyote by Havelock Ellis and his band of friends, including W.B. Yeats and Arthur Symoms, at the very end of the nineteenth century. In those days, peyote buttons could be obtained from a particular pharmacist in London and Ellis purchased a few and decided to make some notes on their effect:

“Having acquired his sample, Ellis proceeded to make a liquid decoction of three buttons which he drank slowly in Symons’ apartment over two hours. He began to feel faint, his pulse weakened, and he lay down to read … [H]e first noticed the visual effects as they impinged on the note-taking process: ‘a pale violet shadow floated over the page around the point at which my eyes were fixed’. As evening closed in he was gradually enveloped by … ‘a vast field of golden jewels, studded with red and green stones, ever changing.’ From this point on ‘the visions continued with undiminished brilliance for many hours’.

In an article published in the following year called Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise, he expanded on these effects.  “Every part of the colour spectrum competed in his visions, he wrote, and yet

“there was always a certain parsimony and aesthetic value” in their combinations. He was “further impressed, not only by the brilliance, delicacy, and variety of the colours, but even more by their lovely and various textures — fibrous, woven, polished, glowing, dull, veined, semi-transparent”. He compared the patterns that formed and dissolved to the “Maori style of architecture” and “the delicate architectural effects as of lace carved in wood, which we associated with the moucrabieh work of Cairo”. They were “living arabesques”, constantly in flux yet with “a certain incomplete tendency to symmetry …

When Ellis became exhausted by the visions in darkness, he turned on the gas light. The shadows that leapt to life reminded him of the “visual hyperaesthesia” of Claude Monet’s paintings.”

Grainstack in the Sunlight, Claude Monet

“The critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who would himself take mescaline in a clinical trial in 1934, wrote that the nineteenth century “subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training.” Visual illusions — from kaleidoscopes to magic lanterns to photography — made the transit from dazzling novelties to staples of mass culture. Magicians, mediums, and psychic investigators all probed the limits of the real, blurring the line between optical trickery, the subconscious mind, and the spirit world. At the moment when Ellis made his experiment, the world was being exposed for the first time to X-ray images and the cinematograph. “Visual hyperaesthesia” was a symptom not only of peyote but of the culture in which he was consuming it, and to which Monet and the impressionists were responding …

The brilliance of electricity was a recurring metaphor for peyote’s scintillating visions: the very first subject in the initial scientific trials in the United States in 1895 had compared them to the dazzling electric illuminations he had witnessed at the Chicago World’s Fair two years previously. But it was a literal stimulus too. It seemed that nothing delighted the eye of the modern mescal eater so much as the new electrical sublime. They arrived together as avatars of a future world of visual spectacle, equal parts scientific discovery and aesthetic delight.”

This is a fascinating article, full of insights and well worth the read.

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