Sunday, March 25, 2007

Carl Sagan on Marijuana

The esteemed astronomer who book Broca's Brain I read earlier has an essay on marijuana. I'm reading it right now (stoned) and it's quite enjoyable.

I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I've had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds. A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word 'crazy' to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: 'did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy.' When high on cannabis I discovered that there's somebody inside in those people we call mad.

The hypocrisies and posturing of myself and fellow men is so acutely obvious on the blogosphere, when you're constantly confronted with hyper-literate, arrogant intellectuals who think they know exactly how the world works, and think that it's their duty to tell everyone else. I'm one of those people just like all of the others, but at the same time I have to admit that it's oh so ironic and amusing.

When I'm high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won't attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

That's hilarious - here I got high and opened my Bible to look up something from my childhood memories (the whole deal between the Jews and the Canaanites).

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day. Some of the hardest work I've ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it's a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I've made the effort - successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

All of this is so true that I have to quote all of it. I often force myself to blog when stoned, but it's always after I've had most of my thoughts, during the comedown. And often they are sometimes hard to formalize.

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can't go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.

But let me try to at least give the flavor of such an insight and its accompaniments. One night, high on cannabis, I was delving into my childhood, a little self-analysis, and making what seemed to me to be very good progress. I then paused and thought how extraordinary it was that Sigmund Freud, with no assistance from drugs, had been able to achieve his own remarkable self-analysis. But then it hit me like a thunderclap that this was wrong, that Freud had spent the decade before his self-analysis as an experimenter with and a proselytizer for cocaine; and it seemed to me very apparent that the genuine psychological insights that Freud brought to the world were at least in part derived from his drug experience. I have no idea whether this is in fact true, or whether the historians of Freud would agree with this interpretation, or even if such an idea has been published in the past, but it is an interesting hypothesis and one which passes first scrutiny in the world of the downs.

Cannabis enables nonmusicians to know a little about what it is like to be a musician, and nonartists to grasp the joys of art. But I am neither an artist nor a musician. What about my own scientific work? While I find a curious disinclination to think of my professional concerns when high - the attractive intellectual adventures always seem to be in every other area - I have made a conscious effort to think of a few particularly difficult current problems in my field when high. It works, at least to a degree. I find I can bring to bear, for example, a range of relevant experimental facts which appear to be mutually inconsistent. So far, so good. At least the recall works. Then in trying to conceive of a way of reconciling the disparate facts, I was able to come up with a very bizarre possibility, one that I'm sure I would never have thought of down. I've written a paper which mentions this idea in passing. I think it's very unlikely to be true, but it has consequences which are experimentally testable, which is the hallmark of an acceptable theory...

When cannabis is legalized, I hope to see this ratio as one of he parameters printed on the pack. I hope that time isn't too distant; the illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.

It was written in 1969. Has the world gotten madder? I think perhaps yes. It's hard to measure madness, however, because every age seems as mad as the next to me.

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