Psychedelics. Or hallucinogens? (2020)

A “downward transcendence”

by Federico Soldani

Psychedelics are usually referred to as hallucinogens in medicine, including in the new ICD-11 of the World Health Organization, the International Classification of Diseases, 11th revision, that will come into effect in 2022.

Hallucinogens include molecules such as mescaline from cactuses such as peyote, LSD, psilocybin from so-called “magic mushrooms”, and DMT, among others. Historically hallucinogenic substances have also been referred to as phantastica (by Louis Lewin), psychotomimetics or, more recently, entheogens

Cannabis and related products tend to be included, as well as substances such as the dissociative drug ketamine (and its S enantiomer, esketamine, approved in March 2019 by the U.S. FDA for depression) or the empathogen / enactogen MDMA / ecstasy.

Other terms used for hallucinogens in the past are schizophrenogenic (causing schizophrenia-like symptoms), mysticomimetic, psychodysleptic.

Several of these substances are also referred to as “club drugs.”

According to Harvard scientist Richard Evans Schultes, considered a father of modern ethnobotany and one of those who coined around 1979 the term entheogen (from Greek entheos, full of the god, inspired, possessed), the name hallucinogen was to be preferred to the scientifically unsound psychedelic (Hallucinogenic Plants, 1976):

“Narcotics that induce hallucinations – wrote Schultes – are variously called hallucinogens (hallucination generators), psychotomimetics (psychosis mimickers) , psychotaraxics (mind disturbers), and psychedelics (mind manifesters).  No one term fully satisfies scientists, but hallucinogens comes closest.  Psychedelic is most widely used in the United States, but it combines two Greek roots incorrectly, is biologically unsound, and has acquired popular meanings beyond the drugs or their effects.”

Schultes and Albert Hofmann, fathers of modern ethnobotany and LSD, respectively, entitled their co-authored classic texts Plants of the Gods: Origins of Hallucinogenic Use (1979), later revised in Plants Of The Gods: Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers (1992), and The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens (1980).

The term psychedelic, now being promoted even in medical-scientific journals (an example here), was not developed in the scientific literature but, surprisingly enough, as a game of rhymes.

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In a 1981 piece in the New York Times by William Safire, among other sources, it is described how the term psychedelic came into existence (emphasis added):

In his book, “Predicting the Past,” Dr. Humphrey Osmond, a British-born scientist now working at Bryce Hospital, Tuscaloosa, Ala., recounts his creation of the word in the spring of 1956. In a paper for the New York Academy of Medicine on mescaline and LSD, he first thought of “psychotonimetic,” “psychotogen” and “deleriant,” but they suggested mimicry of psychoses, and that was not precisely what he had in mind.

He sent a draft of the paper to his friend Aldous Huxley, the author and psychic experimenter, and asked for a suitable word. “By return post came a beautiful word,” recalls Dr. Osmond, “… ‘phanerothyme.’ Its roots are phaneroin, a Greek word meaning ‘to reveal,’ and thumos, ‘the soul.’ “Huxley included a little rhyme: “To make this mundane world sublime / Take half a gram of phanerothyme.

The suggested word did not transport Dr. Osmond. “I had at hand a little Latin dictionary for medical use that had some Greek words in it. It seemed to me that ‘psyche’ should be part of the word. The ‘thumos’ may not be revealed, but the psyche is certainly altered. I wanted a neutral word that would suggest transcendence in some splendid way. I found ‘delis’ – ‘to reveal.’ I put the pair together and came up with ‘psychedelic.’

He then wrote back to Huxley with his concoction and included an answering rhyme: “To fall in Hell or soar angelic / You’ll need a pinch of psychedelic.

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So the term psychedelic started out as a divertissement, an exchange of rhymes between psychiatrist Dr. Osmond and writer Aldous Leonard Huxley. Of note, Aldous’ nephew Francis, an anthropologist, worked with Osmond experimenting LSD medical uses, and was the director of studies for a decade for the famous psychiatrist R. D. Laing in London; a book about Francis Huxley is upcoming.

The term psychedelic served the purpose, according to its author Humphrey Osmond, of not reminding that such substances induced psychoses or other disordered mental states (e.g., psychoto-mimetic – simulating psychoses; hallucinogen – for hallucinations; deliriant – for delirium).

Psychedelic was intended to be a “neutral” term, that would “suggests transcendence in some splendid way” at the same time.

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It is interesting in this respect to read what the other author involved in the rhyme exchange, Aldous Huxley, explained in “Downward Transcendence” (1952), later included in a posthumous collection of writings on psychedelic substances (1977) entitled like one of the essays: Moksha (Sanskrit for “illumination” / “enlightenment” / “liberation”).

From the introduction: “In an epilogue to The Devils of Loudun, his historical account of mass hysteria and exorcism in a 17th-century French convent, Huxley drew on the ideas of Philippe de Felice in Foules en Delire, Ecstases Collectives, that there were three kinds of self-transcendence: downward, upward, and horizontal.  Drug-taking, elemental sexuality, and herd poisoning were avenues toward the first category.”

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Huxley was adamant, in the years before the word psychedelic came into existence, about the fact that primarily such substances induce a “downward transcendence” (emphasis added):

“In every case, of course – wrote Huxley in this essay – what seems a god is actually a devil, what seems a liberation is in fact an enslavement

The self-transcendence is invariably downward into the less than human, the lower than personal…. 

To what extent, and in what circumstances, it is possible for a man to make use of the descending road as a way to spiritual self-transcendence?  

At first sight it would seem obvious that the way down is not and can never be the way up. But in the realm of existence matters are not quite so simple as they are in our beautifully tidy world of words.  In actual life a downward movement may sometimes be made the beginning of an ascent.  

When the shell of the ego has been cracked and there begins to be a consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality, it sometimes happens that we catch a glimpse, fleeting but apocalyptic, of that other Otherness, which is the Ground of all being.

So long as we are confined within our insulated selfhood, we remain unaware of the various not-selves with which we are associated— the organic not-self, the subconscious not-self, the collective not-self of the psychic medium in which all our thinking and feeling have their existence, and the immanent and transcendent not-self of the Spirit. Any escape, even by a descending road, out of insulated selfhood makes possible at least a momentary awareness of the not-self on every level, including the highest. 

William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, gives instances of “anaesthetic revelations” (note: Benjamin Blood coined the term “anaesthetic revelation” in 1874) following the inhalation of laughing gas. 

Similar theophanies are sometimes experienced by alcoholics, and there are probably moments in the course of intoxication by almost any drug, when awareness of a not-self superior to the disintegrating ego becomes briefly possible. 

But these occasional flashes of revelation are bought at an enormous price.

For the drug-taker, the moment of spiritual awareness (if it comes at all) gives place very soon to subhuman stupor, frenzy or hallucination, followed by dismal hang-overs and, in the long run, by a permanent and fatal impairment of bodily health and mental power.

Very occasionally a single “anaesthetic revelation” may act, like any other theophany, to incite its recipient to an effort of self-transformation and upward self-transcendence. 

But the fact that such a thing sometimes happens can never justify the employment of chemical methods of self-transcendence. 

This is a descending road and most of those who take it will come to a state of degradation, where periods of subhuman ecstasy alternate with periods of conscious selfhood so wretched that any escape, even if it be into the slow suicide of drug addiction, will seem preferable to being a person.

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