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Peyote 51. conserve
EXPERIENCES, EXPERIMENTS and DESCRIPTION
Peyotl = Peyote = Lophophora williamsii.
It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that Western scientists became aware of the existence of peyotl and began to wonder what properties this insignificant cactus possessed to cause the Indians to encompass it with so splendid a halo of veneration. Earliest of these investigators to describe his own experiences was the American physician, Weir Mitchell, who swallowed "on the morning of a busy day," one and a half grams of an extract of mescal buttons, followed by further doses in the afternoon. By 5:40 P.M. Mitchell found himself "deliciously at languid ease," and observed floating before his eyes luminous star points and fragments of stained glass. Going into a dark room, he settled down to enjoy the performance, evoked by the mysterious action of the drug, on the cells of his visual cortex.
The display that followed for an enchanted two
hours, was such, as I find it hopeless to describe in language which shall
convey to others the beauty and splendour of what I saw. Stars, delicate
floating films of colour, then an abrupt rush of countless points of white
light swept across the field of view, as if the unseen millions of the
Milky Way were to flow in a sparkling river before my eyes; Zigzag lines
of very bright colours; the wonderful loveliness of swelling clouds of
more vivid colours, gone before I could name them.
News of the remarkable properties of peyotl spread to Europe, where Havelock Ellis, famed for his pioneer studies in the field of human sexual behaviour, decided to experiment with this singular drug. Having obtained in London a small sample of mescal buttons, he settled down in his quiet rooms in the Temple and prepared a decoction from three of the buttons, which he drank at intervals between 2:30 and 4:30pm.
The first symptom observed during the afternoon was a certain consciousness of energy and intellectual power. This passed off, and about an hour after the final dose I felt faint and unsteady; the pulse was low, and I found it more pleasant to lie down. I was still able to read, and I noticed that a pale violet shadow floated over the page around the point at which my eyes were fixed. I had already noticed that objects not in the direct line of vision, such as my hands holding the book, showed a tendency to look obtrusive, heightened in colour, almost monstrous, while, on closing my eyes, afterimages were vivid and prolonged. The appearance of visions with closed eyes was very gradual. At first there was merely a vague play of light and shade, which suggested pictures, but never made them. Then the pictures became more definite, but too confused and crowded to be described, beyond saying that they were of the same character as the images of the kaleidoscope, symmetrical groupings of spiked objects. Then, in the course of the evening, they became distinct, but still indescribable, mostly a vast field of golden jewels studded with red and green stones, ever changing. This moment was, perhaps the most delightful of the experience, for at the same time the air around me seemed to be flushed with vague perfume, producing with the visions a delicious effect and all discomfort had vanished, except a slight faintness and tremor of the hands which, later on, made it almost impossible to guide a pen as I made notes of the experiment. It was however, with an effort, always possible to write with a pencil. The visions never resembled familiar objects; they were extremely definite, but yet always novel; they were constantly approaching, and yet constantly eluding to the semblance of known things. I would see thick, glorious fields of jewels, solitary or clustered, sometimes brilliant and sparkling, sometimes with a dull rich glow. Then they would spring up into flower-like shapes beneath my gaze, and then seem to turn into gorgeous butterfly forms or endless folds of glistening, iridescent, fibrous wings of wonderful insects; while sometimes I seemed to be gazing into a vast hollow revolving vessel, on whose polished concave mother-of-pearl surface the hues were swiftly changing. I was surprised, not only by the enormous profusion of the imagery presented to my gaze, but still more by its variety. Perpetually some totally new kind of effect would appear in the field of vision; sometimes there was swift movement, sometimes dull sombre richness of colour, sometimes glitter and sparkle, once a startling rain of gold, which seemed to approach me. Most usually there was a combination of rich, sombre colour with jewel-like points of brilliant hue. Every colour and tone conceivable to me appeared at some time or another. Sometimes all the different varieties of one colour, as of red, with scarlets, crimsons, pinks, would spring up together or in quick succession. But in spite of this immense profusion, there was always a certain parsimony and aesthetic value in the colours presented. They were usually associated with form, and never appeared in large masses, or if so, the tone was very delicate. I was further impressed, not only by the brilliance, delicacy, and variety of the colours, but even more by their lovely and various textures; fibrous, woven, polished, glowing, dull-veined, semitransparent. The glowing effects, as of jewels and the fibrous, as of insect's wings, being perhaps the most prevalent. Although the effects were novel, it frequently happened, as I have already mentioned, that they vaguely recalled known objects. Thus, once the objects presented to me seemed to be made of exquisite porcelain, again they were like elaborate sweetmeats, again of a somewhat Maori style of architecture; and the background of the pictures frequently recalled, both in form and tone, the delicate architectural effects as of lace carved in wood, which we associate with the mouchrabieh work (the light-filtering woods screens on the windows) of Cairo. But always the visions grew and changed without any reference to the characteristics of those real objects of which they vaguely reminded me, and when I tried to influence their course it was with very little success. On the whole, I should say that the images were most usually what might be called living arabesques. There was often a certain incomplete tendency to symmetry, as though the underlying mechanism was associated with a large number of polished facets. The same image was in this way frequently repeated over a large part of the field; but this refers more to form than to colour, in respect to which there would still be all sorts of delightful varieties, so that if, with a certain uniformity, jewel-like flowers were springing up and expanding all over the field of vision, they would still show every variety of delicate tone and tint.
Weir Mitchell found that he could only see the
visions with closed eyes and in a perfectly dark room. I could see them
in the dark and with almost equal facility, though they were not of equal
brilliancy, when my eyes were wide open. I saw them best, however, when
my eyes were closed, in a room lighted only by flickering firelight. This
evidently accords with the experience of the Indians, who keep a fire
burning brightly throughout their mescal rites.
So impressed was Havelock Ellis by his experiences that he persuaded an artist friend to try the drug. After consuming four of the buttons this artist became violently ill. Paroxysmal attacks of pain in the region of the heart were combined with a sense of imminent death while so great were the dread of light and the dilation of the pupils that the eyelids had to be kept more or less closed. The coloured visions did indeed begin at this time but so preoccupied was the artist with his other less pleasant sensations that he had little opportunity to enjoy the strange hues he now perceived.
I saw an intensely vivid blue light begin to
play around every object. A square cigarette box, violet in colour, shone
like an amethyst. I turned my eyes away and beheld this time, on the back
of a polished chair, a bar of colour glowing like a ruby. Although I was
expecting some such manifestation as one of the first symptoms of the
intoxication, I was nevertheless somewhat alarmed when this phenomenon
took place. Such a silent and sudden illumination of all things around,
where a moment before I had seen nothing uncommon, seemed like a kind
of madness beginning from outside me, and its strangeness affected me
more than its beauty. A desire to escape from it led me to the door, and
the act of moving had, I noticed, the effect of dispelling the colours.
But a sudden difficulty in breathing and a sensation of numbness at the
heart brought me back to the armchair from which I had risen. From this
moment I had a series of paroxysms, which I can only describe by saying
that I felt as though I were dying. It was impossible to move, and it
seemed almost impossible to breathe. My speedy dissolution, I half imagined,
was about to take place, and the power of making any resistance to the
violent sensations that were arising within was going, I felt, with every
This artist particularly noted the curious dualism; the split of personality, so often observed by those who enter the strange world to which peyotl is the key. On returning to the normal state he experienced that sense of unreality that sometimes assails the spectator of a particularly fascinating play who emerges suddenly into the grey light of the everyday world.
As one pours out with the crowd into the street,
the ordinary world, by force of contrast with the sensational scenes just
witnessed, breaks in upon one with almost a sense of unreality. The house,
the aspect of the street, even the light of day appears a little foreign
for a few moments. During these moments everything strikes the mind as
odd and unfamiliar, or at least with a greater degree of objectivity.
Such was my feeling with regard to my old and habitual self . . .. 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
As the year continued Havelock Ellis was tempted to use more of his friends as human guinea pigs to unravel the mysteries of the world of peyotl. One, a poet, with an interest in mystical matters and knowledge of various vision-producing drugs, found the effect of peyotl mainly unpleasant and decided he much preferred hashish. Another poet was particularly impressed by the "sound-colours" which flowed about him as he played the piano. Havelock Ellis himself found that music had a potent effect on his visions. This was particularly true of Schumann's music, especially of his Waldscenen and Kinderscenen.
"The Prophet Bird" called up vividly a sense of atmosphere and of brilliant feathery birdlike forms passing to and fro, "A Flower Piece" provoked constant and persistent images of vegetation, while "Scheherazade" produced an effect of floating white raiment, covered by glittering spangles and jewels. In every case my description was, of course, given before I knew the name of the piece. I do not pretend that this single series of experiments proves much, but it would certainly be worthwhile to follow up this indication and to ascertain if any light is hereby thrown on the power of a composer to suggest definite imagery, or the power of a listener to perceive it.
After Havelock Ellis, the next student of peyotl was the French pharmacologist Alexandre Rouhier, who described the reactions of one of his subjects to a dose of 2 grams of peyotl extract. The subject, who took the drug at 8 pm. experienced visions which began an hour and forty minutes later and which "continued to unfold without interruption for the next twenty-three hours, nor did the pleasure with which L. contemplated the unfolding of these colourful scenes decrease during this time." The visions were complex and varied. Only a few examples will be given here.
In an ornate ring of diamonds, the large central
stone emits great quantities of green, violet, or rose-colored fire that
inundates the whole scene with a strange glow, complex in colour, the
product of the fusion of the multiple fires. One of the diamonds opens
revealing within it a little angel that leaps from the ring, picks it
up and carries it with an effort. A woman appears, "beautiful as
a goddess." Her features are noble, her nose aquiline, and her colour
yellowish bronze; her curly auburn hair floats unrestrained. She plays
with the little angel. A group of women appears, of which some are clad
in pink and some in blue robes. In the midst of them is a dancer who makes
rhythmic movements. Soon all of them are dancing, sometimes in couples,
varicoloured groups. The little angel
dances on her hands, her legs in the air. She goes and fetches a placard
on which is written, "I am love." She flies up onto a cloud.
For mescaline, which is only one among dozens of alkaloids in the whole plant, Edward Anderson summarized as follow: "Slight increase in blood pressure and pulse rate".
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