The first time I got high was a rite of passage for me, a revelatory conduit to a world I’d only read about in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, Charles Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises and a Life magazine article.
The vehicle of choice, in this instance, was a nicely rolled joint of marijuana. This was some years ago. I was eighteen. I’d tried smoking marijuana a few times, but to no effect. I didn’t feel high. I wasn’t experiencing anything that seemed out of the ordinary, certainly nothing like what I’d read about. And then I did. I got high, unequivocally high, stoned out of my gourd with some friends in an apartment in the U district. The apartment had been rented specifically for the purpose of getting high. Nobody actually stayed there. I don’t even think it had a bed. The only furniture was a turntable, a pair of speakers, and a wheelchair. We sat on the floor. I vaguely remember a rug, but that may be fabrication, not actuality. Our voices echoed the way they do in a bare enclosed space with a hardwood floor.
There were three of us. A musician, a philosophy student, and me. It was my first summer out of high school. The musician (I can’t remember his name, but he was a skinny guy with remarkably blonde hair which was rather lank and thin and shoulder-length, quite daring for the era), got up after we passed the joint back and forth a few times, and began rolling around in the wheelchair. I noticed I was high when I was listening to Buffy Saint-Marie sing “Little Wheel Spin and Spin,” and the words ‘round’ ‘round’ assumed a resonance they’d never had before. The music opened. There were a thousand subtleties and tones that unfolded in fascinating, synesthetic visions of mingled sensation. It was as if my perceptions had enlarged by a factor of unknown quantity to a state of infinite correlation. Now I understood perfectly what Blake meant when he said “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.”
We got hungry. There was a Burger King right across the parking lot. We went to the Burger King, which had three outdoor windows for ordering food, and stood in line. When it came my turn, I stepped up to the young lady in her bright white Burger King garb to order a hamburger. I couldn’t get the word out. The word ‘hamburger’ suddenly seemed so hilarious. Who could ever say ‘hamburger’ without laughing? I couldn’t stop laughing. I mean that literally. The philosophy student had to step in and order the burger for me. I got out of line and went off to continue my laughing.
Not all my frolics in the psychedelic realm were that blithe. There was the time right around Christmas, 1966, that I dropped some acid that a friend gave me. Some minutes after hearing “Strawberry Fields Forever” for the first time on a radio perched atop a refrigerator in some guy’s apartment in downtown San José (a Victorian era house with absurdly high ceilings), the acid kicked in with unbelievable force and I vanished. I became a cloud of atoms à la the crew members of the Starship Enterprise whenever they beamed up or down to a foreign planet. This adventure cost me a night in the emergency ward of a hospital, where one of the other people that dropped the same acid was carried in by two cops. He couldn’t walk. At least I could still walk. Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” now had a new perspective. It took a little over a year to reassemble my molecules and come down to Planet Earth.
So ended my brief but colorful career ingesting hallucinogenic substances. The LSD incident is mostly just memory now, though I continue to have tinnitus which began as soon as the acid wore off during the night and I resumed a relatively sober but uneasy consciousness the next morning. Coincidentally, William Shatner also suffers from tinnitus, which he incurred after a sudden explosion on the Startrek studio set. It’s reassuring that I have something in common with Captain Kirk. The tinnitus is a dubious memento from my voyage into inner space.
If I were able to travel back in time and give myself advice à la Spock in the new Startrek movies, I’d say don’t do it. It’s not worth it. You will pay for this revelation in bouts of incapacitating anxiety and permanently ringing ears.
And really, when it comes down to it, no drug is necessary to alter perception. One of Kant’s discoveries is that all our experience of the world is a tissue of concepts which lead to irreducible contradictions and terrible wallpaper if we take them in an absolute sense rather than appreciate them for their suppleness and flexibility. This is key. Should we submit to life, or create it? To be or not to be is a continuous, ongoing dynamic. There are abundant alternatives and perspectives available to us at every moment. First we must notice, then we must choose. The waters of Lethe, or a glass of milk? A walk through a Zen monastery, or a trip to Disneyland? We ride on the wings of giant birds and do not know it. We believe we are rooted in blood and bone, and so we are. But there is also the white bark on a stand of Rocky Mountan birch and pronouns stuffed with murmuring pinks, lovely meringues and the prodigality of silver. The foment of a moment is washed with a thousand tides. I is a reverie of water. My tie is a wavelength, my shirt is an expedition of buttons and the paintings of artists such as Cézanne make it fully apparent that the world is a sphere of vibrating transitions, patches of luminous green, tassels of vermilion, succulent blues in a play of summer light, each adaptation or rebellion alive with articulation, as though every color and place were intertwined, interrelated, part of a vast, infinite symphony.
The accordion must be squeezed to make its music. Fortunately for me, I don’t have an accordion. Fortunately for you, I can’t play the accordion. But if I had an accordion, I would squeeze it. If anything, just to hear what sound came out of it. I have a taste for the vowels of Being. The consonants of existence. The letters that make a pick-ax. The scriptures that make religions. The twisting and pulsing that make a handspring different from a paradox.
A paradox is ugly with illogic but beautiful with conflict. I am the proud inhabitant of a bed. I roll to the side, half in fog, half in sunlight, and feel myself drift into Florence. There is no logic to this, none at all. Though neither is it a paradox. There is nothing paradoxical about sleep. Sleep makes perfect sense. Its opposition to the world of logic consists in its flair for oblivion. But even that smacks of logic. You can’t get away from it, can you? This continual relation to consciousness, with the original instability of it, its metastable state in the indeterminate waters of language. This is where possibilities are infinite and consciousness considers what it is, what it might be, what it could be, and what it does on its days off.
There are, according to Edmund Husserl, three different subjective faculties: cognition, feeling, and will. But what is this unconscious I’ve heard so much about, that source of myths and fairytales, that luminous underworld of fantasies and chimeras, that font of unexpected ideas and feelings? What are dreams? What are fantasies? What joins me to reality? What, exactly, is consciousness anyway? If my response to experience external or internal is in my head, which is the proper location for such a phenomenon to occur, and the world is a formation of the mind, then why can’t I take a refrigerator or a brainwave and turn it into a dragon, a diamond, or a mansion on the moon? Because, Husserl notes, reality is a predicate added to immediate experience, ingrained in experience, and subject to evidential verification. We can be sure that something is real only as long as a synthesis of evident verification takes place. The true reality of objects are to be obtained only from evidence, and that it is through evidence alone that really existing, true, and rightly accepted object has meaning to us.
This sounds dry. But it has value. The things that go on in my head can get pretty weird. It’s reassuring to know that there is an “out there,” a universe “out there” whose sensations, contours, and measurements are consistent. Consistent for me, consistent for everyone else. Consistent, but not absolute. That is to say, there is plenty of room for what Husserl termed “unmediated seeing,” his phrase for intuition, a form of knowing unencumbered by the fog of indoctrination. In general, ordinary experience is only partially caught in its variegation and complexity. There is also what Husserl termed the “epoché,” a suspension with regard to one’s participation in experience, a space for play and interpretation, creativity and invention.
A single rub is enough to awaken the lamp. I am speaking metaphorically, of course. The lamp is not a real lamp. The lamp is a crowd of temperatures, depending on the general climate of talk and insinuation, the snow laden in modulations of its own silent scripture in the wooded ravine.
Poetry is in crisis because it undermines assumptions. Assumptions based on language. The holes we dig for ourselves. Until, one day, we hit a geyser. And the whole world changes. We embrace an elegant resistance. We assume the grandeur of water falling from a cliff. We smell perfume in an old oak drawer of scarves and underwear. We become openly, defiantly circular. Eccentrically concentric. Which is to be centrifugal. Which is to be a force, and spin out of control, and spin and spin and spin.
See these? These cuticles have been assembled by syllable. They’re impeccable. But they’re not mine. They belong to the alphabet next door, which is Sumerian, and cuneiform, and tall and muddy.
Holes are exciting. Whenever I see a hole, I want to crawl into it. I think of Dante entering the underworld, shadows shrinking and retreating as Beatrice carries her light further into the abode of the dead. “O thou, who art on the farther side of the sacred river, what thinkest thou?” “As a cross-bow breaks its cord and its bow when it shoots with too great tension, and the shaft hits the mark with less force, so did I burst under the heavy load, pouring forth tears and sighs….”
The feather is longer during language than it is during the life of a bird. But it sometimes depends on the bird, the nature of the bird, and its ability to stay aloft.
Four way stops disturb me. Why do they exist? I prefer the tyranny of traffic lights. At least you know what to do. There is no indecisive moment, no opportunity for things to go wrong, hesitations to upset one’s balance, one’s equilibrium. If it’s red, you stop. You wait. You think about whatever it is you think about. I don’t know what other people think about. I might think I do, but I don’t. All I know is that if the light turns green, I can go. And if it’s yellow, well, here again we have more ambiguity. Do we speed through before the other cars get going? Or shall we come to a nice dignified stop and stay in a mood of calm composure? I guess it depends. Context is everything.