Do indigenous people have totally different trips to Westerners?
‘One bright May morning’ in 1953, Aldous Huxley swallowed 400mg of mescaline in a glass of water. It was given to him by the British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, who worried he might go down in history as the man who sent Aldous Huxley mad. But Huxley had a great time, and felt that the drug had given him the mystical experience he’d been seeking for the last 20 years. Huxley wrote about his experience in The Doors of Perception, with the excitement of an explorer discovering a new world. ‘How many philosophers, how many theologians, how many professional educators have had the curiosity to open this Door in the Wall? The answer, for all practical purposes, is None.’
This was not strictly true. As psychedelic historian Mike Jay explores in his fascinating new book, Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic, there had been many previous visitors to Huxley’s Narnia. Indians of North, Central and South America had been taking peyote and San Pedro for around 4000 years. In the Victorian and modernist era, scientists, philosophers, bohemians and even Mormons had tried peyote and mescaline. Not many, but some.
This is the first main point of Jay’s history. We’re in the middle of a psychedelic renaissance, and the history we tell ourselves is that psychedelics first appeared in the 1960s, then Timothy Leary messed it all up, but now they’re back to save the world. The actual history of psychedelics is much longer than that, and filled with unusual characters who usually don’t get a billing in popular accounts.
The second point Jay makes is to suggest a contrast between indigenous people’s encounters with the spirit of Peyote or San Pedro and westerners’ experiments with mescaline. This is a central contribution that histories of psychedelics (and histories of medicine and emotion) can make to our self-understanding. They can show how people’s experiences, their emotions, illnesses, trips and dreams, are deeply shaped by culture and history.
Jay argues that indigenous people’s psychedelic experiences are embedded in rituals passed through generations, in which the meaning of the experience is largely collective and relational, centred on the relationship with the spirit-teachers of Peyote, San Pedro, and other psychoactive plants. Westerners, meanwhile, have had a more scientific and instrumental engagement with a drug — mescaline — refined and extracted from the plants. We have tried to discover its…