PART OF WHAT’S REFRESHING about Mike Jay’s new Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic (Yale University Press, 2019) is that he isn’t impressed by so-called truth-seekers and psychonauts. He resists seeing the religious ecstatic, ascetic, or tripper as enlightened. Sure, such people often sacrifice creature comforts to a degree that may inspire awe. Indeed, years ago in Moldova, I once rode out to Old Orhei, an hour outside Chișinău, where Orthodox monks lived in caves. Their ability to withstand isolation, hunger, cold, boredom, and, presumably, fear in the pursuit of awareness of truth was certainly awe-inspiring in my mind at the time. Much of the writing about consciousness-expanding or mind-altering substances is designed to inspire awe. Even the intrepid and deeply scientific Michael Pollan was not immune to awe when he pursued his own searches through psychedelic trips (reported in his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind). Mike Jay is immune.

That allows Mescaline to eschew all encomiums to seers and the substances that grant them their visions. No gnostic detective, Jay isn’t searching for ungraspable truth. He’s a biographer tout court. And so the book starts with the question of identity, which he demonstrates by way of a chemical diagram of the mescaline molecule. It’s a reminder that, behind all the strife over psychedelic drugs, they’re each just a configuration of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms — the same as we are.

As for life history, first there were the cacti. Jay tells us that mescaline occurs naturally in the columnar San Pedro cactus, genus Trichocereus, which grows at elevations above 2,000 meters in the high Andes, and in the stumpy peyote cactus, genus Lophophora, of northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Numerous plants in the regions of the Spanish Conquista produced intoxicants, the mescaline-containing ones perhaps not even the most commonly used. The Inquisition found a way to see such intoxication as un-Christian, and peyote users, whether they used in individual visions, in healing rites with shamans, or in communal ceremonies, were prosecuted. It has become customary to think of technologic rationality systematically chasing down and quashing all forms of loose and unproductive practice, but through most of history it was really just one kind of irrationality trying to wipe out another.

Then, in the second stage of the molecule’s life history, there was capital. Commissioning expeditions in the Americas in the 1880s, the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical firm of Detroit (known then as Parke, Davis & Co.) scored a marketing coup by obtaining coca leaves and, in 1886, selling the first pharmaceutically standardized stimulant: cocaine. Once earnest anthropologists had brought the peyote ceremony to the attention of Americans, Parke-Davis rushed to replicate its success with cocaine, sending peyote samples to well-respected botanists and chemists. But by 1893, Jay tells us, it had settled for marketing not a standardized drug but only an extract of peyote that the company vaguely claimed could be used as a “cardiac tonic.”

In Leipzig, Germany, the chemist Arthur Heffter isolated a series of alkaloids from peyote (some of it provided by Parke-Davis). In self-experiments in 1897, he found that one of them produced the psychic effects ascribed to eating buttons from the peyote cactus. He called his alkaloid mescaline (probably because there was still confusion at that time about peyote and mescal, an extract from a toxic bean, both being in common use among native tribes in the American Southwest).

By the turn of the 20th century, with the advent of a purified and standardized extract, mescaline’s biography merged with that of the pharmaceutical industry itself. Today, the pharmaceutical business looms in the popular mind as the apotheosis of noxious tech: genius chemists engineer fancy molecules, laboratories with micro- and nanotechnology synthesize forbidding chemicals, advertising sharpies use cutting-edge marketing tricks to sell products that we don’t really need. All of it is highly Brave New World–ish. But Pharma had a very ordinary origin: chemists took the plants that had long been known for offering relief from one or more of the many forms of human suffering, sought to identify components that seemed to be responsible for the relief, purified what they found, and made it available for sale in standard doses with relatively predictable effects. Thus came morphine (from opium) for pain relief and cough suppression, aspirin (from willow bark) for pain relief, cocaine (from coca leaf) for lethargy, codeine (also from opium) for cough suppression, and so on. Mescaline emerged from this milieu.

The mescaline produced through Heffter’s process was marketed by the German chemical giant Merck beginning in 1894. A de novo synthesis was published by the Austrian chemist Ernst Späth in 1919, and by 1926 Merck’s chemists had developed their own synthesis. Mescaline could now be produced without importing peyote. But as a pharmaceutical industry product, mescaline needed a medical use. Meanwhile, as a plant alkaloid, it continued to inspire hopes for understanding consciousness. In a way, the pharmaceuticalization of mescaline sealed it into permanent ambiguity.

By the 1920s, with wider availability of the drug, both of mescaline’s personae were under investigation. On the one side, no medical use for mescaline was suggesting itself. On the other, mescaline’s capacity for opening the world to the conscious mind was drawing ever more interest, including from a group at Heidelberg University.

The location was no accident. Heidelberg University was central to the development of phenomenology. The philosopher Karl Jaspers, who had graduated with a degree in medicine there and trained in psychiatry at the Heidelberg clinic, became interested in understanding how people with psychic disturbances experience their own consciousness. Jaspers migrated to philosophy, joining the philosophy faculty of Heidelberg University in 1913, first in the area of psychology and later focused on the philosophy of consciousness.

Jaspers’s phenomenological approach to mental illness attracted a circle of psychiatrists. Regular meetings ensued. Among the Heidelbergers’ interests was the mescaline Rausch, from a root word meaning “rush” (and usually translated as “intoxication”) but, more significantly, standing for “rapture” or being carried away — a kind of Dionysian awareness. Jay’s account here is fascinating. Mescaline would come to figure in the phenomenological pursuit of this awareness.

In his 1929 essay “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century’s most insightful thinkers on consciousness, rejected the notion that drugs allowed for a “true, creative overcoming of religious illumination.” Drugs, he asserted, could provide only an “introductory lesson” to “profane illumination” — the knowledge of a reality that is hidden from most of us. The lesson that can be learned through drug experiences is dangerous, he cautioned, not because drugs are physically hazardous but because the perception allowed by the experience may not be eradicable. Benjamin knew, as Jay points out, that culture trains us to live in a world, however false it is. To become aware of a different truth could make it impossible to go on living.

Without doubt Benjamin was well acquainted with psychoactive substances and their perceptual effects: soon after the work in Heidelberg had begun, he had gravitated to a small group of radical leftist neurologist-psychiatrists in Berlin who were also interested in drugs and consciousness. The group included his physician brother, Georg; his brother’s colleagues Fritz Fränkel and Ernst Joël; a cousin on his mother’s side, the physician Egon Wissing; Wissing’s wife, Gert; and the neo-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. Benjamin’s self-documented hashish experiences in late 1927 and early 1928 began through them, as did his experiment with mescaline in 1934. Joël and Fränkel had already set forth their view of drug-enhanced experience: instead of using drugs as curatives, which they called “pharmaco-psychology,” they suggested that an “altered psychic life,” by implication a superior one, could be more completely attained by using psychological methods from the “phenomenological, analytical and Gestalt theoretical schools.”

Taken together, the phenomenological-psychiatry work in Heidelberg and the revolutionary-psychiatry work in Berlin of the 1920s set mescaline firmly astride the duality: it didn’t have to be either a drug that treated a dysfunction or a consciousness-enhancing remnant of the industrialization-altered natural world; it could be an assistant in a revolutionary rejiggering of how we live in the world. Drug-taking could, as Jay puts it, be both “a form of private revolt and a potential tool of liberation.”

When, in 1933, the Nazis came to power, psychiatry’s moment of existential humanism was over. Many of those working with mescaline were Jewish. They fled, but even for those who stayed, human awareness under National Socialism could perforce no longer be about the individual but had to be about the Volk. There would be no messing with consciousness. People whose mental states conflicted with the purported welfare of the people or the good of the race would be treated through acceptable-to-Nazism therapeutic methods, or they would be among the tens of thousands of Lebensunwertes Lebens, life unworthy of life, and therefore assassinated.

In the last stage of Jay’s biography, psychoactive molecules moved to the United States. They became drugs in the American sense: they became instruments. Drugs are for achieving health (or “wellness”) by curing a designated disorder. For many of us, pharmaceutical products are essential. They may alleviate our suffering, but their indispensability is also tied to their giving order to chaos. About half of American adults use a prescription drug at any given time. These drugs’ existence validates, and thus gives life to, the disorders of the contemporary world — the depression, the anxiety, the chronic pain, the borderline personality, the attention deficit.

As a pharmaceutical product, mescaline was not able to make itself marketable in terms of alleviating any psychiatry-approved “disorder,” although it was briefly put to research use as a psychotomimetic — a way to simulate psychosis so as to study the utility of other drugs as treatments for it. But, Jay explains, mescaline’s role in inducing a quasi-psychosis “pushed its subjective effects to the margins.” Eventually, mescaline was relegated to the “recreational drug” bin, along with LSD, MDMA (“ecstasy”), psilocybin, and others. The long-standing moral panic over the threat posed by awakened consciousness nonetheless persists. And Americans continue to search for keys to consciousness — no longer through philosophy or politics, but through experience. And now, ironically, some of the psychedelics are showing medical utility, and so likely to be accepted into the pharmacopoeia.

Jay’s book stops short of taking issue with the medicalization of mescaline. What he does revere in this book is art. The book is richly informative about the many connections between mescaline and visual experience, both the making and the viewing of art. Art, and maybe only art, can defy the contemporary regimentation of time: the slicing of it into hours, minutes, and seconds, as if time were a ham; the equating of time with productivity; the turning of productivity into privilege. We’re used to thinking that science will light the darkness. Often it does. But Mescaline suggests a connection among consciousness, self, and seeing. Mescaline’s “bewildering spectrum of effects,” Jay concludes, “has made it fascinating, tantalising and frustrating” in Western culture. But for indigenous peoples, rather than “attempting to bend it to a preconceived purpose, its traditional users have always taken it on its own terms and shaped their world around it.”

I’ve never tried mescaline. But it’s illuminating to be reminded of what the peoples of the Americas knew, and what the phenomenological psychiatrists found out: the world still holds secrets; the unconscious is a treasure trove; the “altered psychic life” can mean much more than diagnosis and treatment of “disorders.” Science isn’t the only means of lighting the way. We moderns, so ambivalent about our own world, need the reminder.

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Philip Alcabes writes about drugs, disease, and healing. He is a member of the faculty of Hunter College of the City University of New York.