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Live Free or Get High Trying

A new essay collection on the consciousness expanding properties of drugs begs the question: can one simultaneously write about a drug while honestly making sense of it?

Live Free or Get High Trying

Michael Thomsen has written for Slate, Bookforum, n+1, The...

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| | Brion Gysin, Untitled (1), 1958-59
| | Brion Gysin, Star of the Dreamachine, 1961

Writing is the first form of exchange between humans that doesn’t require direct contact, an object created from the desire to surpass your own lifespan and limited relationships and experiences and reach into a time and place where you are otherwise a stranger and a fragment, reduced from a greater order of complexity into a smaller one. Taking drugs comes from a similar creative desire, to accelerate toward the limits of one’s body and perceptions as a way of, hopefully, better understanding that inevitably sober centerpoint we must always return to. Drugs and writing are perfectly complimentary things, and yet, like two positively charged particles, they can only orbit around each other at a distance.

Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness, an essay collection edited by Open City co-founder Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan, publisher of Pinchbeck’s current project Reality Sandwich, is a broad-sweeping jumble of ideas. Reading it feels like being on the precipice of a grand revelation that seems always a few more pages away—the kind of collection one could expect when forcing the rules of one medium to exist within the unidealized limits of another. Disorder is expected in drug writing, and adds it’s own touch of truth to the tentacular queries into reality, consciousness and quantum physics.

The collection joins writers from a wide range of backgrounds, including cultural anthropologist Graham St. John, writer and porn actor Connor Habib, and Diana Reed Slattery, a writer and xenolinguist (the hypothetical study of alien languages). In explaining the book’s prompt, Pinchbeck observes, “we find ourselves in a phase where the material base of global civilization is rapidly eroding…As the illusion of unlimited material progress gives way, we find what remains is the vast realms of subjective experience—the infinite layers and subtle gradations of self-knowledge and self-awareness.” Following in the footsteps of hallucinogenic adventurers Aldous Huxley, Al Hubbard, and Timothy Leary, Pinchbeck and his contributors see psychotropic chemicals as the catalyst for opening the door into these infinite layers of subjective experience.

Sentiments like these should be familiar to anyone who has ever thought about drugs as metaphysical things, but it’s a mistake to call them clichés. Clichés allow us to opt out of thinking about an uncomfortable subject any further; the sluice of inscrutable jargon that drug writing so often produces is the exact opposite, springing from an attempt to think about something so thoroughly and obsessively that language itself starts to feel inadequate.

In the opening essay Michael Taussig, author of The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, indirectly refutes the idea that math is the true language of the universe by equivocating all modes of representation, each coming harnessed with their own dogmatic assumptions, workable as models but incomplete when applied to the observable universe. He remembers a university lecture with students shown a slide of a hexagonal benzene ring, “The magical thing—the formula—is itself just that: it is magical, a symbol, if you like, standing in for something else that leads to another something else, ad nauseam. Hexagons all the way down.”

This thought, and its accompanying infinite regress, has been with human civilization for thousands of years, from Plato’s soul investigating reality “through the bars of its prison,” unable to separate the limits of subjective experience from the effort to discover and catalog objective truth. James Oroc’s essay “Into the Quantic Realm” underlines this conundrum with an attempt to offer more scientific substance in support of the philosophy. Oroc describes one of the essential intellectual conflicts of the last 100 years between the Newtownian view of physics—a powerful accelerant to industrial capitalism—and the more recent discoveries of quantum physics, which directly contradict Newton’s observations.

Newton considered the universe to be made of discrete matter interacting with itself while governed by a set of natural laws. Quantum physics introduces the idea of nonlocality, which suggests that particles retain a connection with one another no matter how far apart, and indeed, changes in one distant particle can result in direct changes in the other without any direct contact. This idea is compounded by a correlate: that all our observations of the universe are either caused by, or significantly influenced by, our role as observer. “At the subatomic level, where everything is a pulsating sea of electrical charge and possibility, the universe takes physical form (which we call reality) only because we are here to observe it,” Oroc writes. “The act of observation ‘forces’ the electron to appear in a certain position out of that sea of possibility, and so by observing, we cause ‘reality’ to happen.”

Many of the essays in Edge Realms try to explain the paradoxes of scientific modeling with the transcendence of getting really fucked up. It is not enough to have done a drug and had a fine experience, one must recast the nature of reality in its afterglow, to find in the sober world inadequacies revealed through the shamanistic updraft of a trip. Aldous Huxley remains the patron saint of this yearning conviction. The one-time satirist of using drugs to pacify the vigor and anger of a ruled class, Huxley became a bourgeoise guru when he discovered LSD. Catalyzing his years-long wonderment about human perception, LSD and mescaline prompted Huxley to spend the latter parts of his life praising drugs as a human utility for consciousness raising. And with the shift the bright cuts of language and thought in his early novels become overburdened with dim metaphors of acid highs being like a trip to the “antipodes” of one’s mind, in which one must catalog the wild fauna of giraffes, kangaroos, and duck-billed platypuses.

The unaddressed problem with drugs as co-pilots for metaphysical inquiry is that the high always ends, and after a certain point straining to pull meaning from a state that isn’t actually meant to be sustained becomes obsessive and distracting. While the general rhetoric contained in Edge Realms identifies with a philosophy of the subjective, so many of the essays hurl themselves again and again toward the impersonal, opaque words like “consciousness” and “outer truth,” concepts one would think real subjectivity obviates. The collection broaches a number of worthwhile ideas like Paul Hughes’ consideration of how emphasis on the power of the observer to create new states of reality in quantum physics reframes our understanding of “free will;” and Chris Carter’s closing text on the possibility of human consciousness existing outside the brain. Each of these essays pushes toward some self-actualizing synthesis, which always seems to rely on the exotica of DMT, LSD, ayahuasca, salvia divinorum, and the innumerable lab-invented variations in between.

Drugs are not synthesis but the eradication of synthesis—consumable sledgehammers that, for a few hours, indulge their user in an experience of having every normalized value of life and morality shattered into nonsense. One cannot simultaneously write about a drug and make sense of it. The more sense one seems to be making, the less honest the account of the drug, and vice versa. In that sense, Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness is a mosaic of incongruent parts, an excited rush between lower and higher orders of magnitude, the literary equivalent of trying to play soccer with an American football.

Edge Realms is a pamphlet for rebellion against the materialist view of the universe, which metastasized around the world over the last 400 years. It relies on a philosophy of drugs dissolving the limits of our perception—without which categorical catch-alls like “materialism” and “drugs” don’t exist. It is a fun and sometimes interesting trip to take, but there is an inherent awkwardness in the effort to force quantum physics and Newtonian physics to exist in the same philosophic realm. As models of reality, both are true, but neither depend on the other to make sense. We do not need drugs to remind us that both are incomplete models, as are we incomplete beings, doomed to be dissatisfied with experience for its own sake, always in search of an explanation, and always ready to call one into being out of the antipodal abyss.