As long as you can cope with corpses playing jazz with human bonesby Will Self / April 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
I first experienced ego-death in my oak-panelled room at Exeter College, Oxford in 1979 after swallowing a red microdot of blotting paper soaked with some 150 micrograms of lysergic acid. Things had begun going awry while we were watching an episode of Doctor Who in the JCR—but an ascent of the University Church’s tower in Radcliffe Square didn’t help, and by the time I collapsed back on to my bed, life, the Universe, me, and everything was being sucked into a horrific involute, that took the visual form of the interior of a giant steeple, comprised entirely by gaping mouths screaming the word… “No!”
Worse still, I’d stupidly put a recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the turntable before I keeled over, and, as I thrashed about in the flotsam of my own mind, I was visited with a vision of lower Manhattan, populated by the risen dead. As I watched, from some non-locatable but panoptic perspective, a marching jazz band came parading down Broadway—the musicians were all corpses in various states of decay, and the instruments they tootled, trumped and banged were all made of human bones. Needless to say, I’ve never felt the same about Gershwin—or acid—since.
The fundamental insight that the major psychedelics gifted me was that human consciousness was definitely a contingent and very material by-product of a Universe devoid of any transcendent meaning.
The last time I took a major psychotropic it was some so-called “spice.” (This was before the government made all “legal highs,” illegal.) In my reverie I saw—or thought I saw—what Einstein termed “the block universe”: a three-dimensional rendition of the four dimensions of space/time. Wavering through the block—like sentient fireflies—were the tiny little trails of individual consciousnesses. I saw them flicker into and out of being, a function of other, equally material processes—and this vision felt as veridical and commonsensical as the view of the 1970s council block from the window of the room I’m writing this review in.
How to Change Your Mind
(Allen Lane, £20)
Curiously, I’ve never found these rather extreme experiences to be depressing or alienating. (At least, once I’ve come down, that is.) On the contrary, they only confirmed me, reassuringly, in my baseline philosophic perspective: one both stoic and sceptic. And of course, this insight is also…