The Man with Microscophical Eyes: Lovecraft, Psychedelia, and (pardon the cliché)BEYOND.
What happens when the spirit molecule pulls and pushes us beyond the physical and emotional levels of awareness? We enter into invisible realms, ones we cannot normally sense and whose presence we can scarcely imagine. Even more surprising, these realms appear to be inhabited.
Rick Strassman, DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
In the previous instalment of this essay, I looked at Clarke Ashton Smith’s City of the Singing Flame as an example of proto-psychedelic weird fiction; I argued that the details of the story strongly suggested that the author had direct experience with a hallucinogenic drug, most likely peyote. In this instalment, I’m looking at H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction as a precursor to the psychedelic experience. This is in some respects a more challenging and interesting proposition, because while we can speculate that Smith may have tripped, Lovecraft almost certainly didn’t experiment with mind-altering drugs of any kind. We know this because it would first of all have been extremely out of character, and secondly it’s pretty hard to imagine Lovecraft, runner-up only after Kafka in the literary Olympics of morose alienation, having anything but an apocalyptically bad experience with mind-altering drugs. So if his work is strongly psychedelic in character, then it must be via his dreams and imagination alone that Lovecraft opened the Door in the Wall, and attained visions characteristic of chemically altered states of consciousness. When people are inebriated with alcohol, although certain predicable behavioural patterns do emerge, their thoughts nevertheless turn around subjects individual and idiosyncratic to themselves. What makes psychedelics more interesting is their tendency towards a greater universality in terms of the kinds of complex imagery, experiences, and ideas which they engender; they give us a sense of exploring the deep structures of the human mind, where the contingences of our personal histories and consequent personality traits tend to evaporate. Something of this sense must also be true in the case of the visionary artists, who, as we argued in the previous instalment, seem to describe rather than create the forms summoned by their peculiarly sensitive or receptive imaginations. This idea of the visionary is evoked by the occultist and Lovecraft-admirer Kenneth Grant in the following terms:
But there is another faculty of human consciousness, the intuitive or “inseeing” faculty; one might almost describe it as the fourth dimensional faculty. It is a faculty that appears sometimes in the artist, the poet, the occultist, and in a certain kind of scientist, and it functions also, though rarely, in almost everybody. It is epitomized on the Tree of Life by the third sephira, Binah, the Sphere of Understanding. Not the understanding of empirical things, but the insight into the hidden side of things made possible by a sudden total identity of the mind with its substratum, pure consciousness, wherein all ideas are stored and which under stands, or stands under, the mechanism of mentation.
Also in the previous chapter, we looked at an idea which would assume a particular resonance to theorists of psychedelic states of mind: the suggestion that human consciousness, instead of being a privileged observer of a single, objective reality, may in fact in its customary operations act rather as a kind of reducing valve. William James argued that our regular mode of consciousness was “but one special kind of consciousness” which was separated from other alien modes of awareness by the “filmiest of screens.” In The Doors of Perception, Huxley stressed the idea of the reducing valve as a kind of utilitarian adaption: our customary mode of consciousness has evolved simply to facilitate our capacity to survive and reproduce under the specific conditions of mammalian space-time here on planet earth. For Huxley, however, this survival mode was merely a trickle of awareness coming down from the true source of consciousness, which he labelled Mind at Large. Recently, I discovered an earlier (perhaps the earliest) expression of the basic reducing valve idea in an unexpected source: John Locke’s 1690 empiricist treatise An Essay Concerning Human Understanding:
The infinite wise Contriver of us, and all things about us, hath fitted our senses, faculties, and organs, to the conveniences of life, and the business we have to do here. We are able, by our senses, to know and distinguish things; and to examine them so far as to apply them to our uses, and several ways to accommodate the exigencies of this life. But it appears not that God intended us to have a perfect, clear, and adequate knowledge of them; and perhaps it is not in the comprehension of any finite being. Were our senses altered, and made much quicker and acuter, the appearance and outward scheme of things would have quite another face to us; and, I am apt to think, would be inconsistent with our being, or at least well-being, in this part of the universe which we inhabit.
So, while we can hazard an even greater certainty that Locke never Turned On, it is interesting to note how his idea agrees almost in every particular with Huxley’s. The world we perceive is not the world, per se, but simply enough of the world, and no more, to facilitate our survival and basic physical flourishing within it. Merely alter the senses or medium of awareness, Locke argues, and you alter the reality; the person with the altered senses comes to inhabit an altogether different world. Locke imagines a kind of mutant with “microscophical” eyes which are a “thousand or a hundred thousand times more acute” than the best current microscope. The person with such a vision has a massively increased knowledge of the internal constitution of corporeal objects, but he or she has become marooned in a world utterly separate from that of the rest of humanity: “nothing would appear the same to him and others; the visible ideas of everything would be different. So that I doubt whether he and the rest of men could discourse concerning the objects of sight, or have any communication about colours, their appearances being so wholly different”. Locke pre-empts what the mutants of the psychedelic era often called the problem of re-entry; having gazed into the mental and psychological microscope of LSD, it became difficult and sometimes impossible to re-orient one’s self to the world of competitive and commercial mammalian politics. The man with the microscophical eyes cannot conduct himself, Locke tells us, to the “market and exchange.”
The distinctly psychedelic idea that the world we take for granted is only one particular mode among a variety of alternative realties seems then somehow encoded in the DNA of the whole modern empiricist project. The empiricist philosophy has produced two primary ways of conceiving the efficacy of human knowledge. The more popular conception is positivistic; it asserts that by pursuing empirical modes of inquiry, we acquire an ever more detailed and accurate picture of the world as it really is, carefully divested of all our merely subjective projections upon it. The popularity of this view of empiricism derives from the undeniable successes of the empirical sciences in increasing our understanding of the universe. However, a contrary strain of empirical thought has always focused on the potential limitations of human perception over its strengths. If there are no transcendent means of acquiring knowledge, no conceivable outside revelation of any kind, then our perceptual apparatus becomes the sole measure of reality; and if our capacity to know is merely a contingent by-product of a physical process which never had acquiring abstract knowledge of the world as its goal or endpoint in the first place, then we begin to acquire the suspicion that the world we can know is wholly circumscribed by the contingent circumstances of our own biological evolution. Just as our knowledge of the world begins to swell in complexity and accuracy, so too emerges the dim suspicion that it is no longer the world, per se, but only a certain narrowly fixed subset of it, which our senses allow us access to. The universe itself might be utterly alien, unknowable, and unthinkable, to our specific frame of reference; it might be, as J.B.S. Haldane famously and brilliantly put it, not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.
One of H.P. Lovecraft’s great strengths as a writer is that he developed a poetic pulp shorthand for evoking this sense of the unthinkable, unknowable Otherness that haunts the modern conception of the universe. In Morning of the Magicians, Pauwels and Bergier called him “the greatest poet and champion of the theory of parallel universes”, and in a sense the “forces from Outside” which constantly threaten ingress into the Lovecraftian cosmos represent the queerness of the universe which is beyond our capacity to adequately conceptualize; they represent the multidimensional hidden order of the world which we can only perceive where its outer edges intersect with our limited three dimensional reality. “What do we know,” asks Lovecraft’s mad scientist Crawford Tillinghast in From Beyond,
“of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constituted to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very different the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. I have always believed that such strange, inaccessible worlds exist at our very elbows, and now I believe I have found a way to break down the barriers.
It is Lovecraft’s attempts to imaginatively break through the barriers of the five senses, aided by his intuitive use of materials culled from his hyper-vivid dream-life, which makes his work weirdly – at times even startlingly - prescient of the psychedelic experience. I’m going to look first at two stories – Celephais and From Beyond, cited above – both of which Lovecraft wrote in November of 1920.
Evidence From Beyond: DMT and the “great sense organ of sense organs.”
Celephais is a typical example of Lovecraft’s Dunsany-influenced Dream Cycle stories. In brief, these stories posit that dreams offer a gateway to an alternative dimension of fixed geography called the Dreamlands. There remains, of course, the fleeting world of everyday dreams, culled from the disparate elements of the dreamer’s daylight existence. However, anybody who is sufficiently versed in the lore and practise of lucid dreaming can find their way to the Steps of Deeper Slumber, which lead into the permanent, freestanding reality of the Dreamlands. This idea reminds us a little of the occult notion of the astral plane, or inter-subjective mental landscape which can be navigated by the trained mental traveller, or of Rick Strassman and Graham Hancock’s theories regarding the freestanding, mind-independent reality of ayahuasca visions, of which more shortly. In a sense, Lovecraft’s Dreamlands echo one of the central ideas of this essay – that the upper tiers of the mind are dominated by the personal history of the individual self, but the deeper you dig, the more uniform, permanent, and universal things become. You leave behind the fleeting dreams of mere individuals and begin to experience the archetypal dreams of whole species as you enter what Huxley called “the visionary antipodes of the human psyche.” (This is, of course, creative interpretation, and the dream stories of both Dunsany and Lovecraft are also meditations on the conflict between the imperfections of the real world and the sometimes ambiguous attractions of the idealistic imagination.)
In Celephais, the narrator (known in the dream world as Kuranes) wanders through the Dreamlands attempting to find again the city of Celephais, which has become for him a kind of idyllic vision of final happiness and repose. (This quest for a remembered and idealized landscape is the central narrative template of the Dream Cycle, and Lovecraft would extend the motif to novella length in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath). Following after Dunsany, the ambience of Lovecraft’s Dreamland is predominantly in the antique pastoral mode, but things get weird when Kuranes starts using drugs to enhance his dream questing:
In time he grew so impatient of the bleak intervals of day that he began buying drugs in order to increase his periods of sleep. Hasheesh helped a great deal, and once sent him to a part of space where form does not exist, but where glowing gases study the secrets of existence. And a violet-coloured gas told him that this part of space was outside what he called infinity. The gas had not heard of planets and organisms before, but identified Kuranes merely as one from infinity where matter, energy, and gravitation exist.
This strange interdimensional encounter might remind some readers – well, it reminded this reader at any rate – of the many accounts of encounters with otherworldly entities which have been recorded by smokers of DMT. DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is a powerful psychedelic compound of the tryptamine family which is found in various plants and in trace amounts in mammals. Indigenous shamanic cultures throughout history have extracted DMT from plants for the purpose of ritual trance and healing, most notably in the form of the ayahuasca brew by the natives of Amazonian Peru and elsewhere. Although most of the heavy cats tried it at some point or another, DMT was not a significant player in the Western psychedelic explosion of the 60s. It’s incursion into the popular consciousness really gathered steam in the 90s, due in large part to the influence of Terence McKenna and the small but burgeoning cyberdelic culture of the period. According to McKenna, smoking DMT ushered the user’s consciousness into hyperspatial dimensions where contact with bizarre entities – which he memorably labelled “the self-transforming machine elves of hyperspace” – was commonplace.
Between 1990 and ’95, Rick Strassman conducted DEA-approved clinical research into the effects of DMT in the University of New Mexico. Strassman injected some 60 volunteers with DMT during that period, and was also struck by the prevalence of contact experiences:
When reviewing my bedside notes, I continually feel surprize in seeing how many of our volunteers “made contact” with “them,” or other beings. At least half did so in one form or another. Research subjects used expressions like “entities,” “beings”, “aliens”, “guides”, and “helpers” to describe them. The “life-forms” looked like clowns, reptiles, mantises, bees, spiders, cacti, and stick figures. It is still startling to see my written records for comments like “There were these beings,” “I was being led,” “They were on to me fast.” (DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman.)
During the course of his study, Strassman developed several speculative and controversial theories regarding DMT which are relevant to our continuing exegesis of Lovecraft. First of all, Strassman suggested that some DMT visions may not be hallucinatory, but might rather represent an interaction of the user’s consciousness with fee-standing, mind-independent realities of some indeterminate nature. Influenced by a mixture of modern neurochemistry and Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, Strassman further speculated that endogenous DMT might potentially be produced by the pineal gland, and released into the bloodstream during deep sleep, or during traumatic near death experiences. In doing so, Strassman had revived Rene Descartes’ assertion that the pineal gland was the “Seat of the Soul”, or the channel through which the immaterial consciousness communicates its will and volition to the merely mechanical meat of the body.
The relevance of this to Lovecraft may seem strained. The use of drugs to enter other dimensions was a common enough motif in weird fiction (also occurring in Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos and several of Clark Ashton Smith’s stories), and it was more a derivative from Decadent fiction and earlier works like Thomas de Quincy’s Confession of an English Opium Eater than a reflection of any direct experience of narcotics. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in the same month that Lovecraft wrote Celephais, he also wrote another story with a much stronger resonance to Strassman’s theories about DMT. In From Beyond, the narrator is called to the home of his friend Crawford Tillinghast, an unbalanced scientist who has achieved a major breakthrough at the cost of his sanity. Tillinghast has developed an electronic device which emits a specific resonance wave which allows those in its vicinity to perceive a reality undiluted by the limitations of the five human senses. Resembling a cross between Timothy Leary and Doctor Frankenstein, Tillinghast promises his alarmed yet intrigued friend that the device will allow them to “see that at which dogs howl in the dark, and that at which cats prick their ears after midnight. We shall see these things, and other things that no breathing creature has yet seen. We shall overleap time, space, and dimensions, and without bodily motion peer into the bottom of creation.”
The device, we discover, achieves its effects by stimulating the pineal gland:
“Your existing sense organs – ears first, I think – will pick up many of the impressions, for they are closely connected with the dormant organs. Then there will be others. You have heard of the pineal gland? I laugh at the shallow endocrinologist, fellow-parvenu of the Freudian. That gland is the great sense organ of sense organs – I have found out. It is like sight in the end, and transmits visual pictures to the brain. If you are normal, that is the way you ought to get most of it…I mean get most of the evidence from beyond.”
Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi suggested that From Beyond’s use of the pineal gland was probably a sardonic reference to Descartes; wherever it ultimately derives from, the conjunction with Strassman’s theory is doubtless wholly coincidental. Nevertheless, for those of us who enjoy such coincidences, the similarities do not end there. The onset of a DMT trip is often accompanied by a deep, resonant buzzing sound, followed by a sense of being catapulted out of ordinary reality. Note, for example, the following from Strassman’s volunteers in DMT: The Spirit Molecule:
There is nothing to prepare you for this. There is a sound, a bzzzz. It started off and got louder and louder and faster and faster. I was coming on and coming on and then POW!
It was wild. There were no colours. There was the usual sound: pleasant, a roar, a sort of internal hum. Then there were these three beings, three physical forms.
These make for an interesting comparison with the From Beyond narrator’s description of the onset of his trip with Tillinghast’s resonator:
Then, from the furthermost regions of remoteness, the sound softly glided into existence. It was infinitely faint, subtly vibrant, and unmistakably musical, but held a quality of surpassing wildness which made its impact feel like a delicate torture of my whole body. I felt sensations like those one feels when accidentally scratching glass. Simultaneously there developed something like a cold draught, which apparently swept past me from the direction of the sound. As I waited breathlessly I perceived that both sound and wind were increasing; the effect being to give me an odd notion of myself as tied to a pair of rails in the path of gigantic approaching locomotive.
There’s no way around it, Lovecraft’s attempts to imagine what it would be like to gaze beyond the ordinary limits of the human sensorium sound at times almost indistinguishable from a post-war flower child’s account of a psychedelic experience. This feels like an impressive, if incongruous achievement for a wound-up and repressed atheist Puritan wizard writing in the 1920s:
I was now in a vortex of sound and motion, with confused pictures before my eyes. I saw the blurred outlines of the room, but from some point in space there seemed to be pouring a seething column of unrecognisable shapes or clouds, penetrating the solid roof at a point ahead and to the right of me. Then I glimpsed the temple-like effect again, but this time the pillars reached up into an aerial ocean of light, which sent down one blinding beam along the path of the cloudy column I had seen before. After that the scene was almost wholly kaleidoscopic, and in the jumble of sights, sounds, and unidentified sense-impressions I felt that I was about to dissolve or in some way lose the solid form.
Needless to say, Tillinghast’s resonator reveals a considerable ecology of weird entities swirling about beneath the threshold of human awareness. Lovecraft, ever the xenophobe, evinces considerable disgust in his description of these beings, although one suspects that they may have been here before us:
Indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise were mixed in disgusting disarray, and close by every known thing were whole worlds of alien, unknown, entities.
Foremost among the living objects were great inky, jellyish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony with the vibrations from the machine. They were present in loathsome profusion, and I noted to my horror that they overlapped; that they were semi-fluid and capable of passing through one another and through what we know as solids.
Books cited: The Complete Fiction by HP Lovecraft, Outside the Circles of Time by Kenneth Grant, An Essay concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, and DMT: The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman M.D.
The From Beyond/DMT/Pineal Gland connection has been previously noted by Matt Cardin at Teeming Brains here.
I got the Lovecraft covers from Too Much Horror Fiction here.