Jay’s book is as much a literature review as a history, and reading it I was reminded how much I love trip reports, especially when they are written by the big thinkers of their day and not by orthographically challenged teenagers on internet forums (though I like those too). Benjamin did not have a great time on mescaline. It made him irritable. He kept expressing anxiety about the damage Nietzsche’s antisemitic sister would inflict on the philosopher’s legacy and returning to the children’s book Struwwelpeter, announcing, according to his psychiatrist, that he had discovered its ‘secret’. This turned out to be that ‘a child must get presents, or else he will die or break into pieces or fly away.’ Afterwards, Benjamin was ambivalent about the experience. As Jay observes, ‘in Berlin in 1934 there were good grounds for being suspicious of the surrender to the irrational.’
Mike Jay is an eminent writer on mind-stilling and mind-expanding substances, having written numerous books, including what is by far the best study of laughing gas (The Atmosphere of Heaven), and just about the only book on the ancient ritual drink soma (The Blue Tide). Mescaline reads like the culmination of a lifetime’s wanderings in the very farthest outposts of scientific and medical history...Despite its breadth – because of its breadth – Jay’s is a highly nuanced account. His aim is to study the uses and effects of mescaline in its many and diverse historical and cultural contexts. Western modernity, he notes, has often focused on the nature of mescaline visions, ascribing them meanings variously “neurological, literary, occult, psychodynamic, aesthetic, spiritual”, while indigenous cultures have tended to regard the visions as of merely peripheral interest, compared to the life-enhancing importance of rituals and ceremonies.
The breadth of information and cultural nous are characteristic of Jay’s excellent book, which itself combines joy and gravitas and adds up to a comprehensive history of a still-enigmatic substance... Jay’s great achievement here is his integration of the two halves of the mescaline story, the Western and the indigenous, rooting it in its proper context and rescuing it from the kitsch that has gathered around psychedelics since the 1960s. The result is a fascinating look into the varieties and potential of human consciousness. For years I’ve had a mescaline cactus in my kitchen, and I’ve long been tempted to take a curious knife to him. Only his endearingly slow growth has saved him. After reading this book, I shall be looking at him with a new respect and leaving him undisturbed.