Hallucinogens: A Reader,
by Dr. Charles Grob

Book Reviewed by me:me sous rature

Several hundred sheets of psychedelic-laden paper lay before me. Bliss…or perhaps Hell–one never knows in advance when exploring uncharted territory. Always enticed by the opportunity to engage in new modes of consciousness, I chose to take the plunge, to trip for an indeterminable amount of time through the linguistically-mediated reality that laid before me, beckoning me with the possibility of a veritable multiplicity of novel and elucidatory experiences, manifested via the direct and consensual manipulation of my neurochemistry. Self-medication at its prime.

It is often suggested that one begin a trip with a question. Dr. Charles Grob, my unseen but ever-present guide for the experience, skillfully edited and shaped my journey by presenting me with the following to ponder: “Are we, as a culture, ready to seriously re-evaluate the intrinsic properties and potentials of this often misunderstood class of drugs?” After ingesting his introduction, Hallucinogens: A Reader began to kick in. I knew I was in for an interesting ride as that familiar tingling sensation of anticipatory excitement rose through my body, climbing towards my awaiting brain.

I realize that it may sound crazy to the uninitiated, but I spent the next few hours inside other people’s heads–it was as though their minds and mine meshed briefly, engaged in dialogue, a play of ideas and thought-forms, and then…a shift…“I” was someone else, no longer myself, nor the person I had just temporarily “been.”

As each new chapter of my journey unfolded, my mind was awakened to something new—sometimes this progression revealed edifications of a completely new dimension, and at other times new perspectives were illumined on subjects that I had pretentiously and egotistically believed I knew everything about–shaking me out of my self-induced ignorance. At one point, I was interrupted when William Blake–who I had previously believed dead–arrived unexpectedly at my house, vacuumed, washed dishes, took out the trash, polished my windows, and even offered to clean my doors. Nice guy, I thought, but perhaps a little anal...

As anyone familiar with psychedelics knows, certain portions of a trip tend to stick in one’s mind long after the immediate effects wane—these are usually the highs and the lows, and so I shall attempt to recall these for those of you interested in trying this substance for yourselves. I am glad to report that whilst there were fluctuations in the degree to which I found myself immersed in this anthology, the vast majority of the experience was beneficial and enjoyable. Grob has collected a wide range of thoughts, discussions, and arguments on the subject matter, and edited them into a cohesive whole, wherein each of the parts adds to the whole in a manner different from the others. Sometimes compendiums contain too much similar material, and fail to shine–not so in this case. Hallucinogens is one of the best readers available, and its fifteen chapters are both accessible and pertinent to both the novice and the seasoned psychedelicist. We are treated to an examination of Jean-Paul Sartre’s nauseating mescaline mishap and its role in shaping his philosophy in an essay by Thomas Ridelinger; a concise guide to the wise usage of psychedelics by Myron Stolaroff; and a group discussion with Andrew Weil, Dr. Grob, and Dennis McKenna, in which Dr. Weil emphasizes the sense of optimism that can be developed through psychedelics, noting that as these drugs have the potential to alter one’s approach to life, “external reality can be changed by changing internal reality.”

The Good Friday Experiment–a classic moment in psychedelic mythology–has become a staple part of any text that seeks to show the possibilities held by psychoactive chemicals for acting as a catalyst in the induction of mystical experiences. Some texts cover it elegantly (Thomas Roberts’ Psychoactive Sacramentals being the best), while others tend to jam it in awkwardly, acknowledging the GFE’s importance without doing it sufficient justice. Grob, obviously aware of this, piqued my interest with a superb entry by the renowned scholar Huston Smith, who was one of the Experiment’s subjects. Interviewed here by Dr. Roberts, Smith discusses a little-known episode that occurred during the Experiment. I shall not spoil this surprise by revealing this amusing and enlightening anecdote here: read the book.

From a scientifically-orchestrated Good Friday to a less-rigidly administered Good Everyday, Donald Topping shares his overcoming of a potentially terminal struggle with colon cancer. Disillusioned by the gloomy forecast provided by the medical establishment (essentially wordy euphemisms for “hopeless”), Topping chose to subvert the Western doctors and try something a little less orthodox. Attending a Santo Daime church ceremony, he participated in the ritual drinking of ayahuasca. Encountering death in his visions, he learned that it was not to be feared. After several subsequent ayahuasca sessions, his cancer had disappeared. Luck? Perhaps not–Topping is not the only person to have experienced this effect, and he discusses ayahuasca’s potential for psychological and physiological improvement.

Other high points include the late Terence McKenna’s call for a psychedelic society in which “intellectual anarchy” facilitates the deconditioning of belief systems, Dr. Rick Strassman’s trials and tribulations with his Buddhist community when researching DMT, and Roger Walsh’s examination of the similarities and differences between chemically and contemplatively induced ecstatic experience. The only two low points (and forgivable, given the overall excellence of this book) were “An Ethnobotanist’s Dream” a short piece by Glenn Shepard, which seemed irrelevant and unnecessary, and the piece by Ralph Metzner entitled “The Role of Psychoactive Plant Medicines,” which is a rather shoddy and unfortunate essay. The article had potential, and contains points of interest, but half of the article is devoted to a study of psychedelic use in the traditional systems of shamanism, alchemy, and yoga. In the section on alchemy, we are warned “I would emphasize first that we have only the minutest shreds of evidence” that psychedelics were used in the European alchemical practices—a fair observation, but Metzner then claims in the first line of his conclusion that “It appears incontrovertible that plant…hallucinogens played some role, of unknown extent, in…shamanism, alchemy, and yoga” (italics mine).

However, as previously mentioned, these flaws are not enough to detract from an otherwise superb reader. Dr. Grob has also been kind enough to include three of his own writings in the form of appendices that comprise about a third of the book. Each of these is brilliant, and it must be said that the price of the book would be fully worth it even if the appendices were all it contained. “The Psychology of Ayahuasca,” “Deconstructing Ecstasy: The Politics of MDMA Research,” and “Psychedelic Research with Hallucinogens: What Have We Learned?” all display Grob’s expertise, not only in the field of hallucinogen research, but also in constructing densely informative essays that contain a wealth of knowledge while somehow retaining a degree of clarity that would be hard to challenge. The second of the above appendix titles is quite simply the best article I have encountered on the subject of MDMA politics. I wish this book had been available a year earlier, for it would have certainly been included as a core text in the psychedelics course I ran at the University of British Columbia. There is much of use here for any serious student of psychedelia.

Forgive me for exposing you to my raptures—I got a little carried away at the peak back there. I’m coming back down now, and—thanks to Dr. Grob’s superb guidance through the minds of a fascinating and eclectic group of hallucinogen enthusiasts—I can definitely say that I think I have been changed, somehow for the better… As for his question “Are we, as a culture, ready to seriously re-evaluate the intrinsic properties and potentials of this often misunderstood class of drugs?” I can only say that if the answer is ‘no’ then this book could play a key role in turning it into a ‘yes.’

To order this book:

Hallucinogens: A Reader
Charles S. Grob, M.D., Editor
Penguin Putnam Inc., Publisher
ISBN: 1-58542-166-9; $16.95
Penguin Putnam Inc.
375 Hudson Street
New York, NY 10014