By Stuart Mitchner
I believe that if people would learn to use LSD’s vision-inducing capability more wisely, under suitable conditions, in medical practice and in conjunction with meditation, then in the future this problem child could become a wonder child.
—Dr. Albert Hofmann (1906-2008)
Lately it’s all about winning and losing, baseball and politics, the Phillies roaring into the World Series with seemingly unstoppable momentum and losing it in six games while across the state in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are losing 100 games for the second year in a row. Three days later as America goes to the polls, Pennsylvania Republicans are rolling down the yellow brick road to Oz, until a giant in a hoodie blocks the way. He’s from a town near Pittsburgh, half a year this side of a stroke, his communication skills may be flawed, his control can be concerning, but in pitching terms, he’s still got good stuff, plus he’s come back from the brink and when he says he stands for anyone that ever got knocked down and got back up, it means something. And when he says health care came through for him and should be there for everyone who needs it, he knows because he’s been there. Meanwhile, the Dr. Oz express is spinning its wheels as the yellow brick road turns to dust and the vision of the Emerald City Senate vanishes, leaving nothing behind but a Mar-a-Lago mirage fading in the Red State sky.
A fox crossed my path twice in broad daylight on Election Day. He looked to be a thoughtful, modest, easygoing, philosophical sort of animal the way he moved, like the word philosophical come to life, a five-syllable fox, a serious word-fox. Although I only saw him for a moment, both times, having slowed instinctively, no need for screeching brakes, no cause for alarm, the sight of a fox trotting across Harrison Street left me feeling stupidly, irresponsibly hopeful, something I remembered later that night when the Dems rallied nationwide. After doing some cursory online research about foxes and omens, I found a website — aboutspiritual.com — that says seeing a fox is not only a good sign, it may indicate “the appearance of a new perspective in your life.”
Finding Dr. Hofmann
My encounter with the fox coincided with my weekly quest for people and events linked to the date of the coming issue. After a spin of the massive Wikipedia wheel, I landed on November 16, 1938, the day LSD was first synthesized by Albert Hofmann at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel. This was a connection worth celebrating. You may wonder what Dr. Hofmann’s discovery has to do with surprise election victories or finding hope in feel-good foxes. Like it or not, for better or worse, that formula, that three-letter acronym translated “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by the Beatles, sings with the spirit of the psychedelic sixties, which is when I came of age, met my wife, saw the world, and the world revealed by Hofmann.
The prevailing wonder of the era above and beyond any chemical compound is something Hofmann himself envisioned as a boy. In his introduction to LSD: My Problem Child (McGraw-Hill 1980, translated by Jonathan Ott), he recalls a childhood moment walking on a forest path on Martinsberg above Baden, Switzerland, when “all at once everything appeared in an uncommonly clear light.” The experience convinced him of the existence “of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight.” As a boy, he used to hope that he might one day convey the experience to others in poetry or paintings. Not being a poet or a painter, he found the means in middle age, through a link established between his work as a chemist and the “euphoric experiences” of his boyhood.
In last week’s Waste Land “playlist” of literary events and celebrities circa November 7-14, I omitted some notable individuals who make a good fit with Hofmann and his “problem/wonder child,” including Vachel Lindsay, born November 10, 1879, who writes in Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914): “I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered Wonderland.” Then there’s November 13, 1862, the day that Lewis Carroll began writing Alice in Wonderland. Twelve years earlier on November 13, 1850, Robert Louis Stevenson, the creator of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was born. The brew that Dr. Jekyll cooks up with horrifying consequences is the fictional precursor of Hofmann’s “problem child,” which is why Stevenson’s novel is used to introduce the online HowStuffWorks list of 10 scientists, including Dr. Hofmann, “who were their own guinea pigs.”
It was not until April 19, 1943, however, that Hofmann himself actually experienced the heaven and hell of LSD-25. For five years the compound he discovered in 1938 lay dormant in the lab, and who knows, it might never have been given to the world — or uncaged — depending on whether you’re talking about the doctor’s “problem child” or his “wonder child.”
“Was I Dying?”
Dr. Hofmann’s first physical contact with LSD-25 in April 1943 happened by accident when a portion of the solution absorbed by his fingertips provided a sneak preview. Returning from the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon, he was affected by “a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness.” In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed, he perceived “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”
No wonder, then, that he decides to perform a “self-experiment” the following Tuesday at 4:20. Within an hour, he begins feeling “dizziness, anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.” It’s at this point that he finds writing the last words a “great effort” and drops the pen.
According to a supplementary report written two days later: “I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home.” On the way, his condition “began to assume threatening forms.” At home, he asks his assistant to summon the family doctor and request milk from the neighbors (“I chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for poisoning”). The lady next door bringing him milk is “no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.” He refers to “these demonic transformations of the outer world” as “the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort.” The lines that follow recall passages from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa.”
The substance he created has “vanquished” him. He’s afraid he’s going insane, taken to “another world, another place, another time.” His body seems to be “without sensation, lifeless, strange.” He wonders, “Was I dying? Was this the transition?” Another reflection takes shape, “an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this Lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.”
In fact, Dr. Hofmann didn’t “leave this world” until April 29, 2008, at the age of 102.
Into the Garden
Eventually the “problem child” made way for the “wonder child,” as “little by little,” he could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes” behind his closed eyes. “Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images” surged in on him, “alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.” Next morning when he walked out into the garden, the sun was shining after a spring rain, “everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light” and the world “was as if newly created.”
Winning and Losing
The problem/wonder conundrum brings me back to winning and losing, politics and baseball, omens and foxes, and the “fresh light” of the morning after the election. I’m thinking of the Phillies again, the wonder of hitting five home runs in one game to take the lead in the series, only to run into the insurmountable problem of a no hitter, the second in World Series history, suffered in front of an overflow home crowd anticipating a championship that never happened. Then four days later, to know the wonder of Senator-elect John Fetterman and Governor-elect Josh Shapiro, feeling hope again after dreading the worst. I should know better by now.
Baseball and politics also has me thinking of the mass shooting at the June 2017 practice session for the annual Congressional Baseball Game for Charity. I’d forgotten the details, except that then-House-Majority-Whip Steve Scalise was seriously wounded by a left-wing political activist. Mainly I’d forgotten that had the Capitol Police not been there to protect Scalise, it would have been “a massacre” or so said various witnesses, including Senator Rand Paul. The expressions of support for Scalise from both sides of the aisle fit with the wonder/problem conundrum. One worth mentioning was from Former Representative Gabby Giffords (D-Arizona), who survived being shot in the head in 2011. She sent a tweet that read “My heart is with my former colleagues, their families and staff, and the US Capitol Police — public servants and heroes today and every day.”