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Victorian Hallucinogens [1]

  • Susan Zieger

…plus d’informations

  • Susan Zieger
    University of California, Riverside

Corps de l’article

[A]n observer … takes shape in other, grayer practices and discourses….

Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer

Though they have long languished in the shadow of their twentieth-century legacies, Victorian experiments with peyote and mescaline form one of the more obscure areas in which new visual experiences began to contour modern subjectivities. In the mid- and late- nineteenth century, when they learned that certain North and South American plants could induce hallucinations in those who consumed them, British, German, and U.S. anthropologists and medical researchers looked for conceptual and cultural frameworks to come to terms with the drugs’ effects, which would only later be known as hallucinogenic experience. [2] A major touchstone was Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821), the text that, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn,” (1816), created the modern persona of the hallucinating, drug-taking intellectual: “If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen,’ should become an Opium-eater, the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all)—he will dream about oxen: whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher” (De Quincey 5). Unlike English agricultural workers who used opium medicinally, De Quincey’s narcotized narrator instead dreamed of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s staircases and enhanced his understanding of Immanuel Kant. [3] The Confessions infamously uses opium to consolidate a series of class, racial, and other distinctions, setting the English opium-eater apart from “stupid” Turks and Malays “running amuck,” placing him at the pinnacle of intellectual and literary mastery. The name “De Quincey” became the byword for this status for the better part of the next two centuries. Other writings carried this figure forward, elaborating its racial hierarchy: in Plant Intoxicants (1855), Baron Ernst von Bibra wrote, “If excited by an overdose of hashish or opium, a savage Moslem becomes an assassin, a Malay is seized by an amok frenzy, whereas in the same situation, a scholarly, educated European medical doctor carries out observations on himself” (157). The cultural expectation that bourgeois westerners observe and analyze their own drug experiences continues to produce a copious literature whose authors figure as subversive philosophers, artists, and scientists of themselves. Brenda Mann Hammack has described this figure as “the chemically inspired intellectual” (83). Largely unrecognized within cultural studies and the history of medicine, however, is that nineteenth-century writings about hallucinogens formed this chemical intellectual and valorized his elite knowledge in contrast to another durable figure, the drug-crazed savage of the racist imagination.

With respect to hallucinogens, von Bibra’s 1855 formulation became a self-fulfilling prophecy for fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century European medical researchers. Silas Weir Mitchell, Havelock Ellis, and other medico-scientific professionals experimented with mescaline and peyote and described the results in the august pages of The British Medical Journal and The Lancet in the 1890s. [4] In discursive acts of cultural appropriation, they transferred the drugs from their ritual use among Tarahumari, Kiowa, and other Native Americans, recontextualizing them within their own spheres of imperial science and metropolitan culture. Implicitly replicating the imperial and racial hierarchies established by De Quincey, von Bibra, and earlier writers, texts such as Ellis’ “A New Artificial Paradise,” published in The Contemporary Review in 1896, brought them up to date for the brink of the twentieth century, and disseminated them to a wider reading audience.

The cultural appropriation and remaking of hallucinogenic experience as European intellectual self-experimentation engaged an insidious and durable cultural illogic that configured the Western mind/body split along racial lines, so that whiteness signified the mind, and non-whiteness, the body. [5] The white hallucinogenic subject’s mind became both a vast, unique, enchanted realm and the powerful means of exploring it. The radical perceptual experience of drug-induced hallucination may seem temporarily to abstract or distance its subject from his body and social identity, but its rendering as discourse confirms all the significatory techniques of social power it supposedly suspends. Nineteenth-century hallucinogenic discourse typically produces a fantasy of visual power and omniscience for its white, masculine, and middle-class subjects. [6] In the narrow but powerful venue of medical periodicals such as The Therapeutic Gazette, The British Medical Journal, and The Lancet, the essentially private aesthetic value of random hallucination could be realized, for an elite group.

Indeed, the solipsism of unique drug-induced hallucinations acquired social meaning when it was translated into its various late nineteenth-century contexts: imperial anthropology and medico-science, the discourse of “nerves” attending professional “brain work,” the consumption of visual media, and Aestheticism and Decadence. These contexts demonstrate the distinctive modernity of hallucinogenic discourse: it melded auto-ethnographic and scientific modes of detailed empirical observation, reportage, and publication, with Aesthetic practices of passive receptivity to visual delight; it joined the mandate of imperial science—to collect information about racial and cultural “others”—with its Aesthetic counterpart, the imperial impulse to collect ever more obscure artifacts and experiences from far-flung reaches of the globe; and it turned an active, externally-oriented imperialism inward, making it into a passive consumption of spectacle explicitly likened to the experience of media entertainment. Though modern, hallucinogenic experience did not generate the kind of deep subjectivity contemporaneously formulated through psychoanalysis; rather, it dwelled chiefly in the more superficial world of visual impressions. The result was a hallucinogenic subject, for whom peyote or mescaline offered not the spiritual and communal rituals of Native Americans, but rather imperial, modern, professional status built on the observation of dazzling inner visions.

My discussion of nineteenth-century hallucinogenic discourse thus intersects with recent critical work on the history and cultural politics of vision. [7] On the one hand, hallucinogenic experience should be considered another of Jonathan Crary’s techniques of a modern observer, who had garnered “carnal density” throughout the nineteenth century: the simple fact that one had to ingest peyote or mescaline, both of which were described as foul-tasting, and risk stomachache and headache, to experience a physical rush, embeds hallucinogenic experience firmly in the body (Crary 34). Indeed, if one assents to Crary’s thesis that nineteenth-century vision came to be understood as contingent upon each observer’s individual physiology, then hallucinogenic experience could be considered this broader shift’s most radical episode. With respect to hallucination, Kate Flint notes that “fin-de-siècle anxieties about the uncertain borderland between truth and falsity, the rational and the irrational, demonstrate a realization of the disturbance of relativity” (264). Yet hallucinogenic discourse also consistently fantasized about dematerializing its subjects’ bodies, dwelling forever in the domain of the mind’s eye, and there commanding total knowledge—a trope that also significantly refuses the bodily contingency of vision, and accordingly dispenses with concerns about relativism in favor of sensations of omniscience. Indeed, in 1836, around the same time that Crary argues for the relativization of vision due to a new emphasis on its physiological context, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Nature,” his famous fantasy of monocular omniscience, in which the body disappears into the organ of vision: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God” (184). Emerson’s universalization of white masculinity as the omniscient power of vision itself has been rigorously critiqued from the point of view of race, gender, and sexuality. [8] The same tension governs hallucinogenic discourse: although it was physiologically embedded, its status as cultural appropriation gave rise to fantasies of disembodied omniscience. Reading bodily aspects and their social significance back into an insistently decorporealized hallucinogenic discourse brings critical attention to a formative interdisciplinary moment, when anthropology and medicine focused their scientific gaze upon what had been religious and communal practices, and saw instead a highly individualized, scientific and Aesthetic experience.

I trace this appropriation in the following three sections. The first, “‘Unusual energy and intellectual power’: Hallucinogens, Nerves, and Omniscience,” shows how hallucinogens occasioned white fantasies of intellectual transcendence and physical disembodiment that upheld imperial notions of race. The second, “An ‘enchanted two hours’: Hallucinogens, Disembodiment, and Media Consumption,” demonstrates how this disembodiment was superficially likened to mass visual entertainment, while really preserving hallucinogenic experience as an elite experience. The final section, “Hallucinators, Aesthetes, Collectors, and Flâneurs,” brings the hallucinogenized body back into focus by connecting it to avant-garde aesthetic philosophy and practice, including Aesthetic receptivity to impressions, the imperial dimension of Aesthetic collecting, and the urban wanderings of the flâneur.

I. “Unusual energy and intellectual power”: Hallucinogens, Nerves, and Omniscience

European hallucinogenic experimentation relied on the imperial acquisition of peyote, coca leaf, and other largely New World plants ritually or customarily used by Native Americans. [9] The mid- and late-Victorian period was that of the great “plant hunters,” or botanical adventurers such as Richard Spruce (1817-1893) and Henry Hurd Rusby (1855-1940): in the 1850s and 60s, Spruce traveled the Amazon basin, collecting and cultivating quinine bark, among other plants with therapeutic potential, and dabbling with ayahuasca, the “telepathic vine” ritually ingested by various Amazonian peoples, and thought to bring individual minds into direct contact with each other. [10] In the mid-1880s, Rusby—to whom drug historian David Courtwright refers as “the Theodore Roosevelt of bio-imperialism”—undertook the first of seven expeditions to South America to retrieve coca leaves and other psychoactive plants (Courtwright 48). [11] Hallucinogens also came to Western attention through anthropological studies of the Kiowa, by James Mooney, and the Tarahumari by Carl Lumholtz. In 1885, Mooney was sent to study the Ghost Dance ritual by the Bureau of American Ethnology, a new wing of the Smithsonian Institute, and he quickly became the leading expert on Kiowa and Cherokee customs. [12] The Ghost Dance was a ritual attempt by Native Americans to end European aggression; some versions and segments of it involved peyote-induced trances. To the Ghost Dance’s participants, hallucinogenic experience was instrumental to resisting the racialized violence and dispossession they suffered. From across a cultural and epistemic gulf, the disciplinary and institutional forces of ethnology that Mooney’s research enacted assisted the wider project of imperial science, to document Native practices according to white categories and racist hierarchies. Hallucinogens can thus be located at the tortured heart of an imperial encounter.

From the perspective of racist European commentators, Native hallucinogenic experience could only ever feebly approach the sublime intellectual heights of European use. Louis Lewin’s comparison establishes this hierarchy: “The phenomena to which [peyote] gives rise bring the Indian out of his apathy and unconsciously lead him to superior spheres of perception, and he is subjected proportionately to the same impressions as the cultivated European who is even capable of undertaking an analysis of his concomitant state” (89). In Lewin’s formulation, hallucinogens almost equalize Native American and European intellects, except that Europeans enjoy the aptitude for self-reflexivity and analysis. In less measured terms, Native American hallucinogenic use simply affronted the West’s proprietary relationship to reason: John Briggs wrote in The Medical Register that mental journeys facilitated by “muscale buttons” produced “superstitious recitals” by “savage leaders” (276). In Briggs’ opinion, “Such hallucinations are to those superstitious Indians undoubted realities” (276). Unable to differentiate fleeting visual fictions from actualities, Briggs’ Native Americans inhabited a cognitively abject realm. His claim was far from unique. The British Medical Journal, disparaging Ellis’ favorable review of his mescaline experiment, sneered, “[W]e have yet to learn that the Kiowa Indians are the most intellectual of the sister Continent” (“Paradise or Inferno?” 390). Such opinions conformed neatly to the familiar racist logic whereby whiteness is equated with the perceiving mind, and non-whiteness, with the mire of insensate corporeality. [13]

The privileged relationship of whiteness to perception and cognition was insidiously promulgated through the discourse of neurasthenia, the umbrella term for a host of “nervous diseases” of modernity thought to afflict middle-class Europeans and Americans of the Northeastern industrial centers. In the 1880s and 1890s, numerous physicians—including the prominent Mitchell—wrote about the peculiar susceptibility of these emergent professional classes of “brain workers” to the depletion of nerve force and a host of similar ailments. [14] Nervous fragility was a side-effect of powerful, fast-paced processes of cognition that, attempting to keep up with the demands of modern life, placed too much strain on the body. Flint contextualizes the late century medical interest in hallucination by noting its relationship to “anxieties about increasing amounts of psychological disturbance and nervous disorders [that] were growing in circulation” (264). Hammack, contextualizing fiction of the period, notes that “‘brain drain,’ or the depletion of nervous energy through excessive cerebration, was often viewed as a potential determinant of chemical dependency” among overworked professionals such as doctors and writers (87). Neurasthenia, neuralgia, and other nerve disorders were conditions for which doctors routinely prescribed hypodermic morphine, creating the scandal of iatrogenic, or physician-caused addiction in the 1870s and 1880s. [15] How would hallucinogens, introduced to the reading public in the 1890s, fit into this readymade context?

Never widely produced or prescribed in the nineteenth century, hallucinogens did not generally raise substantive concerns about addiction; nevertheless, ideas about neurasthenia and hallucinogens intersected in a significant way. Briggs’ and Mitchell’s descriptions of frightening debilitation as the result of their experimentation with peyote fit neatly within the neurasthenic model of physical unfitness to withstand extended, dazzling visions. “It seemed to me my heart was simply running away with itself, and it was with considerable difficulty I could breathe air enough to keep me alive,” wrote Briggs (277; original emphasis). Mitchell complained of “megrims,” also known as migraines; “For two days I had a headache, and for one day a smart attack of gastric distress. This came after the first dose, and was most uncomfortable. The experience, however, was worth one such headache and indigestion, but not worth a second” (“Remarks” 1627). Similarly, one of Ellis’ subjects who had taken too large a dose had an unfavorable reaction: “paroxysmal attacks of pain at the heart and a sense of imminent death” (“Mescal” 134). [16] Such accounts describe sensations of pain, panic, and nervousness common to neuralgia and neurasthenia; they render a picture of the hallucinogenic subject as too highly strung to gain the benefit of the visions. D. W. Prentiss and Francis P. Morgan suggested that some of the effects of “muscular depression” their subjects felt were owing to mescaline’s “depression of the nervous system,” and they couched this speculation in the language of “nerve-centres,” “peripheral nerves,” “nerve endings,”and “nervous effects” common to neurasthenic discourse (584). Such accounts suggest that, although the white, masculine, bourgeois mind is eminently suited to hallucinogenic use, its self-observation, and analysis, the body may be unequal to these tasks.

Medical writers engaged in comparative racial speculation to explain this white discomfort with hallucinogens. Prentiss and Morgan, noting that their implicitly white test subjects took only three to seven peyote buttons, whereas the Kiowa normally took between ten and twelve during one ceremony, wrote, “This difference in susceptibility is undoubtedly due to the tolerance for the drug which has arisen in the Indian as the result of both his own habitual use, and of the hereditary influence received by him from his progenitors” (580). Tolerance by itself was not a sufficient explanation for the Kiowas’ greater capacity: an inherent racial difference construed them as more robust creatures for hallucinogenic experience than whites. The white constitution and nervous system might be too delicate to process the visual information peyote transmitted to the Kiowa, Tarahumari, and other Native American peoples.

Mooney’s accounts of Kiowa peyote ceremonies struck a similar note:

I have seen a tottering old man, who had been a priest of the ceremony for half a century, led into the tipi by the hand like a child, eat his four peyote [buttons], and then take the rattle and sing the song in a clear voice, and repeat it as often as his turn came until morning, when he came out with the rest, so little fatigued that he was able to sit down and answer intelligently all the questions I asked. Imagine a white man of eighty years of age sitting up in a constrained position, without sleep, all night long and nearly all morning, and then being in condition to be interviewed.


Characteristically more sympathetic to the Kiowa and keen to dignify their use of peyote as religious rather than superstitious, Mooney’s account is nevertheless amenable to the racist calculation I have been describing. His contention that an elderly white man would have been too weak to participate in the ceremony contributes to the discourse of cultivated, white physical delicacy characteristic of modern nervousness. Yet his account also contains an unconscious irony: it is unimaginable that an elderly white could sit up all night, and then be interviewed by an ethnologist, not merely because he is less hardy than his more robust Native American counterpart, but also because the very idea that he could serve as an anthropological object to be interviewed, requires a total reversal of the epistemic order and the imperial framework supporting it. Within this order, people of color served as the material of imperial scientific investigation; whites functioned as its optic. The comparative racial dimension of hallucinogenic discourse thus worked obliquely, to conjure whiteness as the preserve of intellect and knowledge production. Just as a nervous physique suited the idea of whiteness as a powerful but delicate lens, so it unsuited whites to play the role of inert physical material to be studied.

If, as in Lewin’s account, hallucinogens raised Native Americans from their mental sluggishness to the perceptual level of Europeans, might it not then also elevate Europeans’ perceptive and perhaps even cognitive abilities? This was the tantalizing possibility raised by several writers, who reported surges of mental energy and euphoria: Mitchell, for one, “had a decisive impression that I was more competent in mind than in my every-day moods. I seemed to be sure of victoriously dealing with problems” (“Remarks” 1626). Peyote gave Ellis “a certain consciousness of unusual energy and intellectual power” (”A Note” 1541). One of Ellis’ subjects reported, “[M]y mind remained not only perfectly clear, but enjoyed, I believe, an unusual lucidity” (Ellis, “Mescal” 136). Prentiss and Morgan’s first test subject reported exactly the same qualities, easily recording his visions and his own ability to manipulate them. Lumholtz also described the sensation of power, quite the opposite of enervation: “Not only does it do away with all exhaustion, but one feels actually pushed on, as I can testify from personal experience” (358). Indeed, Lumholtz’s experience even makes peyote—referred to as hikuli by the Tarahumari with whom he took it—sound like a stimulant rather than a hallucinogen: “I drank only a small cupful, but felt the effect in a few minutes. First it made me wide awake, and acted as an excitant to the nerves, similar to coffee, but much more powerful” (375). [17] Mooney notes that without taking peyote, he was barely able to withstand the rigors of the all-night ceremony; under its influence, however, he is equal to his documentary labor, “able to take note of all that occurred throughout the night, coming out in the morning as fresh as at the start to make pictures of the men” (177). Here, peyote actually assists the imperial labor of knowledge production as Mooney, boosted by the drug, efficiently photographs the Kiowa. These writers reported their experiences before the modern categorization of drugs as stimulants, narcotics, and hallucinogens had been established, and while nascent theories of addiction were still forming. If peyote could stimulate the nerves, offering alertness, intellectual confidence, energy, and mental acceleration, it would be the middle-class neurasthenic worker’s ideal drug, helping him through his brain work. With mental rather than purely sensory or physical benefits, hallucinogens began to seem like the professional intellectual’s perfect drug.

Occasionally the fantasy of intellectual power made the body seem irrelevant, so that it figuratively disappeared as the hallucinator luxuriated in his own mental mastery. When the body vanishes, the intellect triumphs: “[I] did not feel my physical self; an ever-increasing feeling of dissolution set in. I was seized with passionate curiosity, great things were about to be unveiled before me. I would perceive the essence of all things, the problems of creation would be unraveled. I was dematerialized” (Beringer, qtd. in Lewin 87). Here, the white masculine body disappears in the abstract invocation of mental conquest. Kurt Beringer’s prose here, like the other claims of enhanced mental prowess, performs a compensatory fantasy of white intellectual transcendence under the influence of peyote and mescaline. Such claims were part of the genealogy of Hammack’s chemical intellectual; for example, the protagonist of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s short story “Green Tea” worries that scholars such as himself might “grow too abstracted, and the mind, as it were, pass out of the body, unless it were reminded often of the connexion by actual sensation” (249). In Le Fanu’s gothic tale, green tea serves as the reminder that Jennings cannot actually transcend his physical coordinates, by making him compulsively hallucinate a monkey that will not retire into the unseen reservoir from which he calls it. What yokes these and other fantasies of disembodiment, however, is a common desire for intellectual power, linked to the consumption of an obscure substance or drug that eases the mental labor of study and contemplation.

At the fin-de-siècle, cultural attitudes to race propped up this fantasy. For example, Ellis explains mescaline’s intellectual nature through a comparison to Asian opium use: “The mescal drinker remains calm and collected amid the sensory turmoil around him; his judgment is as clear as in the normal state; he falls into no Oriental condition of vague and voluptuous reverie” (“Mescal” 141). By the fin-de-siècle, British and American readers were familiar with popular images of Chinese opium smokers lounging vacantly in “dens.” [18] Opium had been associated with hallucination since De Quincey’s Confessions, and it retained its Orientalized glamour, but at the fin-de-siècle, it increasingly signified a whiteness coarsened by the sensual indulgence implicit in proximity to Asian bodies and concomitant on incorporation of an Asian substance. Mescaline, by contrast, was for Ellis and others an intellectual drug, and one of power and competence rather than the corporeal mire of leisure. In this way, it reinforced the whiteness of pure mind.

Thus, where Native Americans founded religions around peyote, Europeans generated Enlightenment knowledge. Beringer’s subject felt himself on the verge of total knowledge—“I would experience everything, understand all, no limits would bind my perception” (qtd. in Lewin 88-89)—but, according to Lewin, the Kiowa misinterpret such an experience by mistakenly deifying the plant itself. Eschewing a model of mysticism or gnosis, European accounts celebrated the capacity of the individual intellect to remain in control. One of Ellis’ subjects rhapsodized about “the independence of the mind”: “[I]t alone appeared to have escaped the ravages of the drug; it alone remained sane during a period of general delirium, vindicating, so it seemed, the majesty of its own impersonal nature” (Ellis, “Mescal” 139). Setting out to investigate a biochemical reaction, Ellis and his fellow hallucinators discovered their own intellectual brilliance.

II. An “enchanted two hours”: Hallucinogens, Disembodiment, and Media Consumption

Victorians often referred to vision as the most intellectual of the senses. Accordingly, the intensely visual nature of hallucinogenic experience lent itself to fantasies of intellectual transcendence and concomitant disembodiment: the hallucinogenic subject became all eye, precisely the better to take in the spectacle of color, motion, light, and image orchestrated by peyote and mescaline. This formation fits into Crary’s overarching theory that the observing subject becomes part of the optical apparatuses of visual modernity: “The perceiver here becomes a neutral conduit, one kind of relay among others to allow optimum conditions of circulation and exchangeability, whether it be of commodities, energy, capital, images, or information” (33). Crary is describing the environment of fin-de-siècle London for its bourgeois masculine inhabitants, one of media spectacles and urban diversions in which hallucinogens, had they become widespread, might have functioned as one of many popular new curiosities by remaking the observer’s body as part of the machinery of cultural production. Yet hallucinogenic writings only ambivalently inhabited this context, and not merely because they remained confined to an elite. As this section demonstrates, hallucinogenic ideology consistently positioned its subjects’ bodies as the instruments of spectacle; yet, because these spectacles were utterly idiosyncratic and unrepeatable, they could not precisely mimic mediated imagery, and were thus difficult to count as commodities or information. Thus, in spite of the imperial and racist posturing surrounding drug-induced hallucination, the value of the “knowledge” it produced was difficult to rate, and verged more on the enjoyment of media consumption.

Indeed, hallucinogenic visions were frequently compared to the experience of viewing a kaleidoscope, or watching magic lantern shows, phantasmagoria, and other entertainment spectacles involving moving displays of projected light, including the emergent cinema. [19] Referencing these displays, in which chattering skulls might appear to float above the audience, or a silhouetted succession of rats might leap into a sleeping man’s open mouth, one of Ellis’ test subjects described his hallucinations as “a series of dissolving views … carried swiftly before me, all going from right to left, none corresponding with any reality. For instance, I saw the most delightful dragons, puffing out their breath straight in front of them like rigid lines of steam, and balancing white balls at the end of their breath!” (Ellis, “Mescal” 139). Such accounts suggest a passive media spectatorship: “It was the sensation—only much intensified—which every one has known on coming out into the light of day from an afternoon performance at a theatre, where one has sat in an artificial light of gas and lamps, the spectator of a fictitious world of action” (Ellis, “Mescal” 138). Here the overwhelming influence of mescal, and its dissolution at the end of the trip, resembles the self-immersion characteristic of an absorptive media experience. Mitchell wrote of an “enchanted two hours … of visions … projected on the screen of consciousness” (Mitchell, ”Remarks” 1626). He also declared that he could see the hallucinated colors best in a darkened room, not unlike the darkened settings of theatrical and cinematic consumption. The fact that these researchers frequently attempted to accompany their visions with piano music, recalls the musical accompaniment of early films. The physical rhythms of modern middle-class leisure—two hours of enchanted darkness, followed by blinking emergence into ordinary daylight—offered an imaginative framework for hallucinogenic experience. The hallucinator’s body figures in these accounts only in the materiality of his consuming eye, as it readjusts to daylight at the end of hallucinatory display. In this context, the body does not simply vanish, giving way to intellectual transcendence: instead, it is transformed into the machinery of vision, becoming coextensive with the drug, and by analogy, with optical entertainment devices.

In these accounts, the hallucinogenized body becomes part of the technological apparatus of media consumption. “[M]y body had been the theatre for three hours” reported one of Ellis’ subjects (“Mescal” 139). He describes “a vision of my face, paper-like and semi-transparent and somewhat reddish in colour. To my amazement I saw myself as though I were inside a Chinese lantern, looking out through my cheek into the room.” (Ellis, “Mescal” 137; original emphasis). As the subject’s face takes on the substance of print media—paper—and the quality of film—transparency—his cheek becomes a kind of viewing apparatus. Here the face becomes both the spectacle and the means of viewing it, rendering the subject’s head and eyes a kind of motion-picture projector and reels. As the mind—Mitchell’s “screen of consciousness”—fills with light, it annexes the body, which also becomes luminous and transparent. Marcus Boon has enthused that “in Ellis’ account, we are already in the post-print world that McLuhan called electronic space.” (232). This claim seems convincing, but it should also be acknowledged that the locus of this “electronic space” is very specific: a white, masculine, middle-class body enjoying its own visions as if they were common, publically available media spectacles. [20]

By making the subject the producer, medium, and consumer of his own meaning, the tropes of electronic space and physical transparency foster a solipsism that pronounces the failure of social meaning. The radically unique locus of visual experience attenuates the analogies with popular media such as cinema and the theater, since the images and sensations consumed are never communal. As such, the interpretation of the event remains self-reflexive: “It was as if I had unexpectedly attained an objective knowledge of my own personality. I saw, as it were, my normal state of being with the eyes of a person who sees the street on coming out of the theatre in broad day” (Ellis, “Mescal” 138). Prentiss and Morgan’s second subject similarly reported seeming “to have a double personality—to be outside of himself looking at himself” (581). Heinrich Klüver, working with Beringer’s reports from experimental subjects, noted their feelings of unification with the objects of their perception: “‘It seemed to me as if tones, optical phantasms, body sensations, and a certain… taste formed a unity’” (105). The normative social dimension of media experience is channeled instead into a closed circuit, so that the experience gives only the illusion of participating in mass entertainment. This simultaneous subjective overdetermination, combined with the feeling of disembodiment, makes hallucinogenic visions largely impervious to shared meaning.

This resistance to common meaning produces a familiar trope of writing about drug experiences in general, namely the inability to describe them in language. Wrote Mitchell, “It is not easy to define what I mean, and at the time I searched my vocabulary for phrase or word which should fitly state my feeling. It was in vain” (“Remarks” 1626). One of Prentiss and Morgan’s subjects said that “The colors were wonderful. They were the colors of the spectrum intensified as though bathed in the fiercest sunlight. No words can give an idea of their intensity or of their ceaseless, persistent motion” (581). One subject’s hallucination itself staged his failure to read: “The tubes of light bent themselves into the shape of letters, but they would spell nothing” (Prentiss and Morgan 581). The radical quality of the hallucinogenic experience lies in its fierce resistance to social meaning or representation, signified by the collapse of mental writing.

But we cannot attribute this incommunicability to an idealized, absolute singularity called “the” hallucinogenic experience: after all, the Kiowa and Tarahumari’s visions held deep collective significance. Rather, the unintelligibility of visions fits into the regime of visual modernity, in which all experience is contingent and incommunicable. Crary writes, “The observer is simultaneously the object of knowledge and the object of procedures of stimulation and normalization, which have the essential capacity to produce experience for the subject” (32; original emphasis). That is, the biochemical production of experience is one of many new techniques by which modern observers found themselves to be unique, isolated above the welter of human meaning. This common feature of hallucinogenic discourse is part of the larger paradox structuring writings about recreational drug experiences in general: such writings seek to represent an experience while simultaneously proclaiming their inability to do so. Indeed, this paradox itself circulates socially, idealizing white masculine drug use as exquisite and valuable precisely because it cannot be represented. The very unintelligibility of hallucinogenic experience—its resistance to shared meaning—actually lends it the sheen of pricelessness, but only because its value appears to resist calculation.

Thus, although the visions produced by peyote and mescaline could not be easily translated into the common currency of valuable knowledge, hallucinogenic ideology operated to bestow upon them the value of uniqueness, ineffability, and obscurity. Resisting representation, they became a kind of experience which the non-initiated would have to replicate in order to realize its value. Since this experience was not widely available in the 1890s, its very scarcity worked to shore up the social power of the elite who had enjoyed and begun to mythologize it. The frequent comparisons of hallucinogenic visions to mass entertainment thus operated insidiously: they did not require a crowd of different bodies sharing a common experience from different points of view; rather, they required a very specific type of bodies, each of which would have its own unrepeatable experience to which others could have only discursive access.

III. Hallucinators, Aesthetes, Collectors, and Flâneurs

As an elite activity of white, bourgeois masculinity, hallucinogenic experiences bore a striking resemblance to those of Aesthetes, Decadents, collectors, and flâneurs. [21] Eminent drug historian Virginia Berridge traces the origins of a post- World War I British drug scene in part to the atmosphere of transgressive aesthetics, politics, and sciences of 1890s cultural elites. In her account, hallucinogenic experimentation, like the dabbling with hashish, opium, and other narcotics, connected to other areas of fin-de-siècle culture: “The ‘new aesthetics’ of the 1890s rested on a denial of society, a retreat into the individual with an emphasis on separation and an inner consciousness and experience, rather than the vulgar materialism of the external world” (53). The figures of W. B. Yeats, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and Ellis connected hallucinogens to a larger effort to explore the unseen, the paranormal, the occult, and the sub-cultural. While these broad strokes help sketch the atmosphere of the 1890s in which hallucinogenic experimentation took place, the specific discourses of peyote and mescaline also differ significantly from, for example, Dowson’s nihilistic wallowing in absinthe or a young Aleister Crowley’s blended commitments to morphine, magic, and queer sex. Indeed, hallucinogens were suited to Aesthetic philosophy in far more specific ways having to do with the relationships to visuality, knowledge, and the body that I have been constellating: first, the passive receptivity to varieties of images characteristic of Aestheticism is similar to the reports of mescaline and peyote visions; secondly, the Orientalism of Aestheticism is reproduced in the visions; and thirdly, the hallucinating body is both centralized in the metropole as the body of the collector, and dispersed through it, as a flâneur.

As we saw in the last section, in spite of proclaiming their experiences’ absolute uniqueness and impermeability to description, hallucinogenic reporters handily referenced media spectacles to explain them. But they also drew analogies to transgressive Aesthetic and Decadent figures and images. For example, one of Ellis’ anonymous reporters of mescaline experience, most likely the Decadent poet Arthur Symons, described “odd and grotesque images…. [that] might have been the dreams of a Baudelaire or of an Aubrey Beardsley” (“Mescal” 138). Symons links the French patron saint of English Decadence and author of Les paradis artificiels (1860) to hallucinogenic writing; and Ellis endorsed this reference enough to repeat it in his essay’s title, “A New Artificial Paradise.” [22] But the connection between hallucinogenic writings and avant-garde art has more specificity and depth. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Oscar Wilde described a distinctively visual mode of Aesthetic desire that speaks directly to hallucinogenic experiences: “[A] wild longing … that our eyelids might open some morning upon a world that had been refashioned anew in the darkness for our pleasure, a world in which things would have fresh shapes and colours, and be changed, or have other secrets” (127). The ever-changing scenes of shapes, colors, and images characteristic of hallucinogenic reportage conjure this world as an interior one of intellectual pleasure. Furthermore, the subjects of both hallucinogenic and Aesthetic desire are passive: just as the hallucinator waits patiently for mescaline or peyote to bestow visions upon him, so too do Wilde’s Aesthetes receive a new world that has been remade by some unspecified agent, just for them. Both subjects perform the Aesthetic modus operandi of opening themselves to subtle influence, then receiving the delights of its impressions.

An episode of Symons’ illustrates this common receptivity. Saturated with mescaline, he ventures out onto the Embankment late at night, and, strolling through a crowd, passes by “two girls and a man… laughing loudly and lolling about as they walked. I realized, intellectually, their coarseness, but visually I saw them, as they came under a tree, fall into the lines of a delicate picture; it might have been an Albert Moore” (qtd. in Ellis, “Mescal” 139). Like the eye of the writing Aesthete, mescaline transforms the seediness of the trio of Symons’ fellow Londoners into the gorgeous repetitions of Albert Moore. Drug-induced hallucination thus mimics the characteristic artistic act of Aestheticism, in which a passive receptivity simply witnesses phenomena “fall into the lines of a delicate picture,” as if the raw material of vision were falling into form. The Aesthete typically inculcated an attitude of such patient observation when, as Walter Pater put it in the conclusion to The Renaissance, “art comes to you” (153). This formation updated both a generalized Romantic conceptualization of the artist as receptive medium, and a more specific technique, associated chiefly with Coleridge, of receiving poetic inspiration from opium. [23] What hallucinogenic ideology shared most precisely with Aestheticism, however, was the idealization of spectatorial masculinity as the consuming locus of visual delight.

The Aesthetic desire for variety and obscurity lent itself to the imperial discourse of collecting in ways that hallucinogenic writings also approximated. Both Aestheticism and Decadence prized novelty, a feature that set them on, rather than against, the rising tide of consumerism. Mescaline and peyote, however, engaged the imperial dimension of this acquisitiveness, seen perhaps most obviously in Dorian Gray’s global collection of everything from South American musical instruments to Indian fabrics.  [24] Like Dorian’s toad stones and Dacca gauzes, peyote and mescaline exemplified the power to purchase and collect specimens so exotic and rare they could only be procured through back channels. To the handful of men who could obtain them, they also held the allure of imperial adventure, as if they were fresh from the Amazonian adventures of men such as Rusby.

Moreover, hallucinogens seemed to offer yet another way to simulate such collections within the realm of the imagination: nearly all the reports emphasize the similarity between their visions and foreign aesthetics. One of Prentiss and Morgan’s subjects described “rich arabesques [and] Syrian carpet patterns” (581). Ellis noted visions similar to Maori architecture and the “mouchrabieh work of Cairo” (“Mescal” 133). One of Mitchell’s experimental subjects, Dr. Ensher described “Oriental” designs, “with stars and crescents….” as well as “fresco work, porcelain decorations, tapestry figures, intricate laces, parquetry, diagrams, various kinds of scroll work, etc.,” which figured as Arabic and Asian (qtd. in “Remarks” 1628). Ensher’s catalogue of hallucinated phenomena reads like that of the imperial museum, reproducing representative parts of the colony within the metropole. The exquisiteness and novelty of hallucinated visions also recalls Aestheticism’s privileging of fineness and delicacy; and the hallucinogenic consciousness of mental power corresponds to the Aesthete’s power to surround himself with imperial goods, be they furniture, art, clothing, or countless other items. The explicitly imperialist frame of reference for Aesthetic collections figuratively hides the colonized artist or producer within the anonymity of a generalized sense of the exotic; this operation equally hides the hallucinator’s discursive positioning as imperialist, armchair tourist, and collector. Sitting alone in his London flat, the Aesthetic collector, Decadent sensualist, and hallucinogenic dreamer all invoke the ability to range around the world without ever leaving the room.

Thus the hallucinating experimenter-cum-collector receives images and ideas from an etheric, post-print “electronic elsewhere,” but this fantasmatic place turns out to map imperial coordinates. In this overarching similarity between Aesthetic and hallucinogenic tropes, the collector amasses exotic objects in various sites in the metropole, but the hallucinator recreates them within his own consciousness. This smaller difference emphasizes the centrality of the hallucinogenic subject’s mind and body as the combined locus of colonial reproduction. The figure that explains this phenomenon most nearly is that of the flâneur, the masculine Aesthete who circulates around the metropole, drinking in its chaos of imported imagery, spectacle, and sheer unpredictability. Like the hallucinator, the flâneur is attuned to that which normally remains unseen, ready to capture randomly transmitted phenomena as they present themselves. If Baudelaire forms the antecedent of the hallucinogenized flâneur, Walter Benjamin serves as his legacy. [25] In the texts I have been discussing, Symons forms the perfect example, as he strolls along the Thames, receiving transformative visions from the guidance of mescaline. In this context, the white masculine body is perfectly amenable to hallucinogenic discourse, as it forms the receptive medium for the production of Aestheticized, imperial imagery. Because the flâneur can circulate throughout the city with ease, his unhampered mobility refigures the circulation of exotic items throughout the metropole. Hallucinogens thus become part of a media machinery for reproducing the empire within both the metropole and the body of the flâneur roving around it.

Hallucinogens did not become widely available until the mid-twentieth century, but several 1890s commentators raised the alarm about what might happen if their use ceased to be an elite hobby. Taking exception to Ellis’ recommendation that hallucinogens could be safely and productively used by educated people, the editors of The British Medical Journal chided, “We rather fear that Mr. Ellis, instead of being the discoverer of a new Paradise, has only shown the way to a new Inferno” (“Paradise or Inferno?” 390). Mitchell likewise predicted “a perilous reign of the mescal habit when this agent becomes available” (“Remarks” 1628). These were guesses, based not on any knowledge of habit-forming properties, but rather on the assumption that hallucinogens would repeat recent debacles with morphine, cocaine, and chloral hydrate. The idea that hallucinogenic experience was not compatible with the smooth operation of industrial modernity finds support in Courtwright’s account of the greater success of “soft” habit-forming drugs such as coffee, tea, sugar, and nicotine (59). According to Courtwright, the modern workday could accommodate the stimulation furnished by caffeine and the calories offered by sugar, but not the baroque hallucinations supplied by peyote and mescaline.

However, a common theme of the hallucinogenic discourse was how little the experience hampered its subjects’ ability to work. Of their second subject, perhaps the one most distressed by his experience, Prentiss and Morgan wrote, “During the day he was troubled with some disturbance of vision, occipital headache, sense of dual personality, and tendency to recurrence of the visions and ‘lapses of mind;’ but he managed to do a day’s work.” In spite of suffering what appeared to be almost psychosis, this subject repeated the experiment, working throughout the effects, and concluding that peyote was “a remarkable brain stimulant” (581-82). [26] If, like the mediations of the cinema and later, television, hallucinogens were amenable to the rhythms of bourgeois industrial life, they could be the ideal drug that Aldous Huxley would later imagine creating bliss without the subsequent katzenjammer: “if this heavenly, world-transfiguring drug were of such a kind that we could wake up next morning with a clear head and an undamaged constitution—then, it seems to me, all our problems… would be wholly solved and earth would become paradise” (9). Huxley’s desire touches the heart of hallucinogens’ impossible promise, that they could “transfigure” the world while leaving mind, body, and the status quo of workday life intact. If hallucinogens could accomplish all this, they could be admitted into the legitimate sphere of bourgeois recreation. [27] The name that both Huxley and Ellis gave to the realization of this hallucinogenic desire is “paradise.”

Although the reasons why hallucinogens failed to become more popular and integrated into the rhythms of bourgeois life is beyond the scope of this paper, I have laid some groundwork for speculation. The functional contexts I have been sketching—a boost to the nervous brain worker; the delight of the Aesthete, collector, and flâneur; the charming media entertainment—all make hallucinogens’ popularization seem imaginable. And yet other key contexts of the social power circulating through hallucinogenic discourse make their failure to take hold seem plainly obvious: their origins in “savage” customs, their new status as rarefied, experimental curiosity, and, above all, their seeming promise of intellectual transcendence meant that their dissemination through white, middle-class societies would threaten an imperial order keyed to racial, class, and gendered hierarchies. Instead, even after their brief heyday in the 1960s and ongoing street distribution, hallucinogens remain more powerful as a fantasy of hidden knowledge.

Parties annexes