Entheogens and the Public Mystery: The Rhetoric of R.

Gordon Wasson
Antonio Ceraso
Configurations, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 215-243 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Entheogens and the Public Mystery: The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson
Antonio Ceraso DePaul University

This article explores the work of R. Gordon Wasson, who discovered the use of psilocybin mushrooms among indigenous people in Mexico. I argue that Wasson’s writings on these and other psychedelic substances involve two primary moves. First, Wasson seeks to open up processes of scientific research beyond institutional and disciplinary boundaries, thereby constructing deinstitutionalized knowledge networks. At the same time, he recognizes that such openness leaves knowledge-making communities vulnerable to exploitation. Wasson’s second move, then, is to draw on the tradition of the ancient mystery cults—particularly the Greek mysteries at Eleusis— in order to install protective silences within the open networks. This twofold structure of openness and mystery provides an alternative for thinking about and entering into information flows that can complicate and enrich current debates on intellectual property. On August 30, 1960, R. Gordon Wasson stood before the gathered members of the Mycological Society of America and raised the lowly mushroom to the level of a deity. Certain species of mushroom, Wasson argued, as a result of their hallucinogenic effects on consciousness, lay at the heart of an otherwise diverse variety of religious experiences. When his keynote address was published in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets six months later, his discussion of “certain parallels between our Mexican rite and the Mystery performed at Eleusis” and his claim—grounded in a self-experiment—
Configurations, 2008, 16:215–243 © 2009 by The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for Literature and Science.




that “out of a mere drug comes the ineffable, comes ecstasy,” followed a leaflet on the production of glass flowers, and preceded a study on the “teosinte introgression in the evolution of modern maize.”1 Mycology, like astronomy, ornithology, and other sciences that require widely distributed practices in order to collect data and specimens, certainly values its amateur practitioners; yet Wasson remained very much an amateur, and an amateur selected to present the keynote address to the professional organization’s annual conference. With no formal training in biology, chemistry, botany, or even mycology itself and no university appointment or industrial affiliation, Wasson’s position in the implicit hierarchy of professional knowledge was clearly defined. His mycological evangelism before the gathered scientists was, in short, a risky venture. In his rousing close, then, one might have expected polite half-smiles when Wasson invoked “the belief of some primitive peoples that mushrooms, the sacred mushrooms, are divinely engendered by Jupiter Fulminians, the God of the Lightning-bolt, in the Soft Mother Earth.” Wasson’s speech seemed to be less concerned with the science of mycology than with the character of the sacred. Given his position, it is difficult to imagine a more curious setting in which to forward such claims. If any amateur could draw connections between the scientific object of mycology and the character of the sacred, however, it was surely Gordon Wasson. An investment banker by trade, Wasson— together with his wife Valentina Pavlovina Wasson, a pediatrician— had pioneered the field of ethnomycology, compiling data as amateurs between the fields of mycology and anthropology for thirty years. Just three years before his keynote speech, the couple had published Mushrooms Russia and History, an illustrated two-volume study of cultural attitudes toward mushrooms, the culmination of their decades-long joint research. Much of the second volume was dedicated to the Wassons’ search for and eventual participation in hallucinogenic mushroom rites in Mexico; it came complete with renderings of rare Meso-American mushroom species. Moreover, the
1. Botanical Museum Leaflets 19:6–18 (February–April 1961). Harvard’s Botanical Museum Leaflet was a key publication venue for the study of ethneogens at the time. Just two issues before the publication of Wasson’s keynote, Richard Evans Schultes and Ralph F. Raffauf published an article titled “Prestonia: Amazon Narcotic or Not?” The authors seek to clarify early twentieth-century claims by Richard Spruce that Prestonia was an active ingredient in ayahuasca. While the subject of Schultes and Raffauf’s article is, then, hallucinogenic, the method differs completely; they include no report from selfexperiments, and the web of citation and evidence follows recognizable protocols of scientific discourse.

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Wassons orchestrated what could be called a successful publicity campaign to coincide with the publication of Mushrooms Russia and History, despite the fact that only several hundred copies would be printed. In May 1957—with the assistance of his friend and powerful Time Incorporated CEO Henry Luce—Wasson published an article in Life magazine describing his experiences at a Mexican mushroom ceremony, an article over which Luce granted him full editorial control.2 Later that year, Wasson confidant and fellow mushroom experimenter Robert Graves penned an article praising the Wassons’ ethnomycological findings for Atlantic Monthly. In early 1958, the Wassons published another description of their hallucinogenic experiences, this time in the staid Garden Journal; in the title, they coined the term entheogen for those substances that would soon come to be known as “psychedelics.” And the publicity had effects. The various articles helped set off a massive influx of “mushroom” tourists to the remote Huautla region of Mexico, where entheogenic mushrooms had been used under a veil of secrecy since the Spanish invasion. The articles also sparked both the scientific and popular interest that opened Western markets to the mushrooms. In fact, the Life article’s title—the only element over which Wasson had no editorial control—gave psilocybin mushrooms the popular name they still take today: the editors titled it “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” With a little help from his friends, in other words, Wasson, as he took the podium for his keynote at the Mycological Society, had done more in the previous few years to widely publicize a startling development in mycology than any of the professionals in the room. I point to this moment in the history of psychedelic science because it condenses a number of practices associated with the discourse on entheogens. First, Wasson’s amateur status at the Mycological Society presages what has become an amateur, or deinstitutionalized, science once most hallucinogenic substances were prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act. Under the prohibition against the use of hallucinogenic substances, trip reports stream into
2. This is not the last time Luce would try to use his vast publication empire to publicize psychedelic substances. Both he and his wife, Claire Booth Luce, would later experiment extensively with LSD. According to W.A. Swanberg, Luce’s personal experiences with LSD had such an effect on him “that he turned up in New York to present the managing editors of Time, Life, and Fortune with copies of a book on psychedelic drugs, along with an enthusiastic talk about the subject’s story possibilitiesz—a suggestion quickly adopted by Time and Life, the latter being the first ‘family’ magazine to cover it”; see Swanberg, Luce and His Empire (New York: Scribner’s, 1972), p. 463.



websites like www.erowid.org, providing practical advice on dosage as well as a virtual menu of setting variations to tweak the psychedelic experience. Moreover, under the prohibition against the synthesis of hallucinogens, psychedelic cultures have developed underground-production networks, the hidden botany and chemistry that feed the illicit market. In short, psychedelic cultures have developed distribution devices for all manner of textbooks, instruction sets, user manuals, and the other products of technical communication that build scientific knowledge, but they have done so in noninstitutionalized or quasi-institutionalized networks. Wasson’s pre-prohibition work suggests, however, that research on entheogens must be an “amateur” endeavor, and must therefore develop noninstitutionalized institutions. As the literature has long recognized and ceaselessly reports, the entheogenic experience is singular; it is conditioned by the conjunction of set and setting, or singular consciousness enfolded and enfolding a singular scene. As a result, the knowledge of entheogens, like knowledge in those sciences that depend on amateur practitioners, relies on distributed data collection. Research organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) must conduct tests on human subjects, because consciousness of the experience is a necessary element of the research. MAPS also listens to amateur experimentalists and uses their findings to, among other projects, justify FDA appeals for formal research. A push to study the effect of MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin on patients with cluster headaches, for instance, was supported, in part, by “anecdotal information on dozens of individuals reporting very positive results from their personal experimentation with LSD and psilocybin.”3 Given the conditions under which consciousness interacts with entheogenic substances, one would expect a thriving knowledge network of amateur experimenters even without the prohibition. Second, Wasson’s commitment to the sacred character of entheogenic knowledge, both in antiquity and among his indigenous informants, signals a challenge to the rational discourse of the sciences. Wasson’s project—to identify the source of religious or spiritual beliefs in their material practices, and specifically, in chemical ingestion—may appear to contribute to the proverbial disenchantment of the world, which is to say, to the various scientific or material explanations of spirituality. As a conceptual operation, it seems the ultimate in rationalist debunking: Wasson strips a mystic tradition
3. MAPS Bulletin 14:1 (2004).

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of its spiritual elements by attributing spiritual effects to material causes. God is in the mushroom, or rather, in the way the interaction of its chemical components produce experience and determine consciousness. Such projects are, of course, as old as theorein itself (and perhaps as tiresome; even the Socrates of Plato’s Phaedrus would rather not get involved in the problem of the gods, finding the revelation of the “real” causes of the gods in nature a time-consuming and fruitless philosophical project).4 Yet Wasson’s relation to the divine also functions as a re-enchantment; he invests the sciences with a mysterious or spiritual dimension. The mushroom is a material cause, but its effects are nevertheless divine, or invested with mysticism. Wasson’s mysticism performs a complementary rhetorical function of reinvesting scientific practice with a kind of religious attitude; it is an appeal, paradoxically enough, to a scientific sacred. Through this appeal, I will argue, Wasson’s rhetoric cultivates the affective relation to the subject of study that seeks to recast scientific investigation as the affective work of the mystery cult. Wasson’s dual rhetorical strategies respond to what Richard Doyle has identified as a source of problems for psychedelic science: “the combination of ineffability common to many mystic traditions and the necessity of communication proper to scientific practice.”5 Wasson, I will suggest, addresses this structural problem in psychedelic science by reconfiguring the logics of the common and the proper: by modeling an open-knowledge network at the base of entheogenic production, he seeks to practice a common science; by invoking the laws of secrecy that animate the mystery cult and shamanic traditions, he seeks to retain the propriety of the sacred. Through this reconfiguration of the common and the proper, Wasson’s writing moves beyond the domain of the psychedelic sciences, providing a model for a general problematic in network-information ecologies. Put another way, Wasson might be seen as encountering a networkinformation ecology in its early stages, avant l’internet perhaps, and attempting to work out conceptual and social difficulties that we now commonly associate with the emergence of a digital commons on the one hand, and claims to proprietary knowledge on the other. If Wasson’s entheogenic rhetoric provides a revelation, it is a vision of the impoverished form taken by current debates on the commons and intellectual property.

4. Plato, Phaedrus, 229d–230a. 5. Richard Doyle, “LSDNA: Rhetoric, Consciousness Expansion, and the Emergence of Biotechnology,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 35:2 (2002): 153–174.



Notes from Underground: Wasson’s Mycelial Network
“Sometimes it seems to me that our whole work has been composed by others, with us merely serving as rapporteur.” —R. Gordon Wasson6

Gordon Wasson, after some turns and twists, finally had a species of mushroom named for him. In a sense, this naming is fitting, because Wasson’s whole body of work can be said to follow the logic of the mushroom.7 If Wasson’s writing forms the visible protuberance— the stem and head of a mushroom—it also points to the underground network, or mycelia, that feeds and supports it. To follow this metaphor to its end, Wasson’s writing could be seen as the replicating arm of an expanding network of knowledge; it explodes its spores in such fertile venues as Life, setting off a massive cultural interest in psilocybin mushrooms. To the extent that such interest actually serves to reproduce mushrooms themselves, moreover, the metaphor verges tenuously toward its limit. Wasson’s writings, in other words, actually worked to disseminate species of mushrooms; in this sense, he played more than a metaphorical role as a force for reproduction. Wasson’s approach to his subject matter engages with what sociologist Michel Maffesoli calls the “underground puissance.”8 Maffesoli examines the source of what he calls “sociality,” opposing it to the social. The social is a rational category of groups— human groups as they operate politically and collaborate on projects. For Maffesoli, such groupings cannot be explained without assuming a vitalism that fills the connectivity of communities in their everyday activities—an underground puissance, as opposed to the power of the social.9 Also called by Maffesoli simply “the will to live,” this feature of collective bodies points not to contractual agreements or purposes, however implicit, but rather to affective ties and styles of
6. R. Gordon Wasson, “Speech to the Mycological Society of America,” August 30, 1960. 7. Jonathan Ott describes the controversy over the naming; see Ott, Pharmocotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and Histories (Kennewick, WA: Natural Products Company, 1993). 8. Michel Maffesoli, The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society (London: Sage, 1996), pp. 30–55. 9. Ibid., p. 32: “It is this opposition between extrinsic power and intrinsic puissance which must rigorously guide our thinking and which is the translation into sociological terms of the previously mentioned aesthetic dichotomy (optical versus tactical).” While Maffesoli’s use of categories is often overly dualistic, one suspects that these dualisms serve more as heuristic devices for accessing affective ties than as distinct categories.

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engagement that bubble up through the surface of the social, sometimes expressing themselves in festivals and riots, sometimes manifesting themselves more subtly in religious rituals, but are always present, even in the minor rites of communities such as a nod to another on a street corner or sharing the energy of a common secret. Wasson’s writing attends to this underground puissance: it is not, to return to the metaphor, a mushroom that forgets its mycelia; rather, his writing is peopled with his sources and informants—virtual crowds of citations, references, and names that escape the footnotes to invest the text. As citation studies in science have amply demonstrated, scientific writing in general grounds itself in citation networks.10 Such networks indicate both influence and affiliation with schools of thought, and mapping such networks has long been an interest of information science. Moreover, the inclusion of a network of knowledge production puts Wasson squarely in the tradition of writing on entheogens in Western science. The impulse is already clear in Havelock Ellis’s late-nineteenth-century writing on mescaline, in which he not only outlines a history of mescaline’s “discovery” by Western science—naming James Mooney, Weir Mitchell, and others—but even provides the name of a local dealer of mescal buttons for those interested in future experiments.11 Wasson’s citation practice, then, is not distinguished by citation itself, but the relation it constructs with the subject matter of entheogenic science. This section will explore his rhetorical practice of referencing a knowledge network, of embedding a map of the network within his writing itself. In doing so, Wasson models a shamanic science; his position with respect to his sources and materials parallels the shamanic performance of the Mazatec curanderas. Just as the mushroom speaks through the curandera with a “strange ventriloquistic effect,” Wasson envisions the study of entheogenic mushrooms taking him up in its current.12 His network rhetoric
10. I cannot do justice to this rich field of inquiry in the space available. For an introduction to the tradition of remarkable work in bibliometrics, citation studies, and information science, see Henry G. Small, “Cited Documents as Concept Symbols,” Social Studies of Science 8:3 (1978): 327–340; Loet Leydesdorff and Olga Amsterdamska, “Dimensions of Citation Analysis,” Science, Technology & Human Values 15:3 (1990): 305– 335; E. Garfield, “Random Thoughts on Citationology: Its Theory and Practice,” Scientometrics 43:1 (1998): 69–76; and Henry G. Small, “On the Shoulders of Robert Merton: Towards a Normative Theory of Citation,” Scientometrics 60:1 (2004): 71–79. 11. See Havelock Ellis, “Mescal: A New Artificial Paradise,” Contemporary Review (January 1898); and Ellis, “Mescal Intoxication,” Lancet (June 12, 1897). 12. R. Gordon Wasson, “The Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico: An Inquiry into the Origins of Religious Ideas among Primitive Peoples,” Botanical Museum Leaflet 19:7 (1961):



thereby suggests an ethical practice—the practice of the node, or rapporteur—and this practice becomes just as important as any concrete content he gleans from sources and informants. The first site I will examine in Wasson’s network already speaks to the alien force of the encounter. I have been speaking of Wasson’s writing, but much of his early work was co-authored with Valentina Pavlovina Wasson. The story of how their collaborative effort began serves as a set piece that appears in most of their work, usually as an introduction to the project of ethnomycology. As Wasson tells it, he and his new wife were on their honeymoon in New York’s Catskills (and Wasson is careful here even to name his friend who lent them his house for the week) and decided to take a walk down a forest path. The two stroll along, “happy as larks, both abounding in the joy of life,” when “suddenly”—and the sudden break in the usual relation is important—Pavlovina “threw down [Wasson’s] hand and darted up into the forest”:13
She had seen mushrooms, a host of mushrooms, mushrooms of many kinds that peopled the forest floor. She cried out in delight at their beauty. She addressed each kind with an affectionate Russian name. . . . She knelt down before those toadstools in poses of adoration like the Virgin hearkening to the Angel of the Annunciation. . . . I called to her: “Come back, come back to me! They are poisonous, putrid. They are toadstools. Come back to me!” She only laughed the more: her merry laughter will ring in my ears forever.14

Something has happened—an event. Wasson is forced to respond to the age-old question: What is to be done when your wife is seduced by a patch of mushrooms? The story is telling precisely as a seduction. It operates through Pavlovina’s affective response to the “host of mushrooms”; she breaks the affective bond of the marriage
137–161. The phenomenon of the curandera being taken up as a channel for the “speech” of hallucinogenic mushrooms is described in rich detail by Henry Munn. The Mazatec curanderas he encounters punctuate each of their chanted utterances with the word tzo (says): “The Mazatec say that the mushrooms speak. If you ask a shaman where his imagery comes from, he is likely to reply: I didn’t say it, the mushrooms did.” We also learn something about Munn’s practice of listening here, as he immediately blocks the notion that the mushrooms speak: “No mushroom speaks, that is a primitive anthropomorphization of the natural, only man speaks, but he who eats the mushrooms, if he is a man of language, becomes endowed with an inspired capacity to speak.” See Munn, “The Mushrooms of Language,” in Hallucinogens and Shamanism, ed. Michael J. Harner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 86–122. 13. R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Carl A. P. Ruck, The Road to Eleusis: Unveiling the Secret of the Mysteries (New York: Harvest/ HBJ, 1978), p. 13. 14. Ibid.

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to enter into another relationship. She is, in short, taken up by the mushrooms, and the religious character of the description is no mistake for Wasson. Despite the trope of seduction, however, Pavlovina’s enthusiasm is not wholly passive. She retains the capacity to name each variety, and she soon picks the mushrooms for drying and cooking. The story, then, places the notion of agency in question: one cannot decide whether the mushrooms are acting on Pavlovina, or she on the mushrooms; rather, there seems to be a symbiotic or transversal relation at work—even a communion, in the broadest sense. Was it the mushrooms themselves or Pavlovina that actuated the rupture in the leisurely stroll of the marriage? Or was it, as the Wassons often claim, the culturally embedded feeling toward mushrooms in Pavlovina and Wasson that occasioned their opposed response to the teeming forest floor? To the extent that Wasson must also respond to this episode, the ethnomycological project—concerned with tracking the cultural attitudes toward mushrooms—gets underway. As origin narratives go, the Catskill mushroom affair certainly proves both entertaining and memorable. It functions to orient readers to the more difficult work of tracking cultural feelings toward mushrooms by locating these feelings in concrete persons. That is clear enough. But cultural feelings already indicate diverse responses to the encounter; cultural attitudes alone cannot explain the relation, because the mushrooms themselves play a strangely active role in the narrative. They exert a force that cultural attitudes respond to, register, form a relationship with. The narrative certainly functions as a syndecdoche for the cultural project of ethnomycology, illustrating the attitudes of mycophobia and mycophilia. But it also draws attention to a point of contact, or con-fusion, between nature and culture and therefore puts the notion of cultural feelings in question. It is the confused form of relation that opens up the question of a network for Wasson; his own understanding of mushrooms must take into account these affective forces of the encounter. If “Come back to me!”—the initial closed response of the mycophobe—constitutes a blockage of those affective forces, a desperate attempt to restore the marital order of filiation, the voyage of ethnomycology constitutes an open response, a capacity to enter into the transversal lines of communication and be transformed by them. This openness, already signaled by the Catskills story, becomes part of what could be called an ethical method of ethnomycology. The first tenet of this method is that “common people” have much to contribute to the development of a science. It is almost impossible to read the Wassons’ work without this principle asserting itself:



knowledge of cultural feelings toward and practical use of mushrooms can be gleaned from the everyday experience of nonspecialists more readily than from the various professional guilds and learned societies of mycology. Ethnomycology must develop sensitivities for the underground puissance in order to do its work. From Mushrooms Russia and History we have the following, which is fairly typical of the Wassons’ approach:
There is an old belief in Russia that when mushrooms abound, war is in the offing. The thoughtless intellectuals of the world despise such homely sayings, which on the surface are nonsense. But ofttimes those sayings are the cryptic expression of experience graven in the recess of a people’s past.15

Wasson is sure to mention that “in all our inquiries and travels we looked, not to the erudite, but to humble and illiterate peasants as our most cherished informants,”16 that “ofttimes the contributions of even the lowliest informants are of highest value, filling a lacuna in our argument,”17 that “wherever we traveled we tried to enter into contact with the untutored peasants and arrive at their knowledge of fungi,”18 that it is “refreshing to turn from the unhappy nomenclature of the mycologists to the genuine words devised ages ago by humble people.”19 One of the most frequent citations in Wasson’s corpus on entheogenic mushrooms comes from the “muleteer” who led the Wasson party on its first trip through the mountains of Mexico into the Mazatec region: “The little mushroom comes of itself, no one knows whence, like the wind that comes we know not whence nor why.”20 Wasson offers several explanations for this allegiance. First, and most obviously, the Wassons were themselves amateurs with respect to the professional science of mycology. In one sense, the valorization of local and informal knowledges serves as a rhetorical negotiation with that science and a claim for legitimacy. However, the claim is not passive, insofar as the Wassons argue for the value of a method that crosses disciplinary boundaries. The epistemological fences erected by the disciplines—and this has certainly become a common
15. Valentina Pavlovina Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957), p. 37. 16. Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, Road to Eleusis (above, n. 13), p. 14. 17. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 140. 18. Ibid. 19. Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), p. 369. 20. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 146.

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trope of interdisciplinary research of all stripes—block connectivity. But such connectivity is precisely what enables the emergence of ethnomycological—and then entheogenic—knowledge. The clearest exposition of this point appears in an article authored by both Wassons in Garden Journal (notably, a magazine for both professional specialists and hobbyists in the field of botany). “Why was it,” the Wassons ask, “that we, a pediatrician and a banker in New York, made an ethno-mycological discovery of some importance in Meso-America?”21 The answer is clear: neither the anthropologists nor the mycologists could tweak their own epistemological frameworks. To return to the confusion of nature and culture implicit in the Catskills narrative, “one must be both an anthropologist and a mycologist to enter into the spirit of the thing.”22 A similar sentiment appears in Wasson’s later work on the identification of the ancient soma as a derivative of the mushroom Amanita muscaria. Under the heading “Where the Search for Soma Went Wrong,” Wasson argues that the various fields of experts in ancient literature and botany were not sufficient in themselves to effect the identification.23 Since the Wassons were amateurs, then, they were “unencumbered by academic inhibitions, and therefore [we] felt free to range far and wide, disregarding the frontiers that ordinarily segregate learned disciplines.”24 To the extent that the Wassons valued their own amateur status as a capacity for assaying disciplinary epistemologies, then, they could also look to the material that fell outside specialist knowledge as it was defined in the various sciences. If epistemological closure functioned to fence in the sciences, the Wassons suspected that its posts and padlocks were made up of language. What the Wassons sought to uncover were the feelings associated with mushrooms; they sought these feelings through the mediation of words. Their general method, in this sense, is etymological, if not romantic. To the extent that contemporary thought—particularly in the sciences—served to conceal, block, or eviscerate the original or authentic meaning and sentiment of particular expressions, the Wassons thus sought to retrieve these by carefully attending to folk usage. This second aspect of the Wassons’ insistence on folk knowledge, of course, has its partners in twentieth-century thought—not least being Heidegger’s hermeneutical project of retrieving the question of Being
21. Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), p. 4. 22. Ibid. 23. R. Gordon Wasson, “Soma of the Aryans: An Ancient Hallucinogen?” Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 3:2 (1970): 40. 24. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 140.



through the philological method. The Wassons operate according to similar assumptions, supposing that the “sayings” are the “cryptic expression of experience graven in the recess of a people’s past.” And as in Heidegger, the suggestion here is that the epistemological requirements of modern technoscience prevent access to a whole range of cultural feelings and practices precisely because they excise folk understandings of an original—or at least surviving—archaic language, in which are lodged ancient modes of thought and practices:
There is a reproach to mycologists in these unexplored hints and evidence of psychic effects caused by mushrooms, hints deeply rooted in Europe’s folkways, evidence clearly reported over centuries from Kamchatka, New Guinea, and Middle America. It seems strange that archaic peoples should still possess secrets of this kind that our laboratories have not exhaustively analyzed.25

In this sense, the capacity to flow between disciplines derives from a diversity of literacies. When describing the knowledgeable muleteer, for example, Wasson is careful to note that “he could neither read nor write, nor even tell time by the clock’s face.”26 The use of illiteracies here is telling. The muleteer, the Wassons’ other informants, even Pavlovina herself in her moment of forest rapture, deploy a different style of literacy than that produced by the professional sciences. These divergent styles of literacy complicate the etymological project; if the literacy of the muleteer—or the Russian peasants who sense the onset of war in the wealth of mushrooms— is not the literacy of standard representation, of reading or writing or the measurement of time, then the capacity to listen to them requires that the ethnomycological researcher develop new literacies. Do the Russian peasants draw a connection of material or efficient causality between mushrooms and war? Wasson’s recognition of the surface “nonsense” of such a claim suggests not. What form of correlation do they attach to these phenomena? What types of relations are being adduced? In what logics and systems of knowledge would such relations work? Or is, indeed, the nonsensical formal character of these expressions their most important content? The practices of ethnomycology must develop ways of listening to such nonsense. Ethnomycology’s access to its object of study develops, then, according to two related themes: the need to move between the specialist knowledges within the sciences, and the need to step outside the specialist knowledges of science. Both practices, moreover, require a methodological transformation.
25. Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), p. 242. 26. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 146.

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It is also at the intersection of these themes that Wasson will locate psychedelic or entheogenic science. Before turning to that question, however, Wasson’s interdisciplinary matrix requires further exploration. In addition to elevating the practice of an amateur science, his citation practice suggests the importance of specialists in the knowledge network. Wasson carefully tempers the reproach of the institutional sciences with admiration and engagement. To continue the previous quotation:
It seems strange that archaic peoples should still possess secrets of this kind that our laboratories have not exhaustively analyzed. Indeed, Swiss and English workers have lately arrived, at last, at this exciting terrain for scientific inquiry. From the fungus known as ergot Swiss pharmacologists have recently isolated an alkaloid that causes massive psychic reactions in human beings, including hallucinations that duplicate with astonishing fidelity the testimony of the old Spanish writers.27

The devotion to folk knowledge, then, by no means indicates a rejection of science or academic specialty itself. If the first tenet of the Wassons’ method privileges folk knowledge, the second retains useful practices within the institutional sciences and specialties. Indeed, the Wassons carefully cultivate relationships with all manner of specialists, and diligently include their contributions in their writing. The story of their “discovery” of the entheogenic mushrooms of Mexico clearly illustrates this point. After reviewing at length the history of ethnomycological knowledge of entheogenic mushrooms in Mexico—from the sixteenth-century Spanish friars who first documented the practice with contempt, to the twentieth-century scholars who began to identify the species and practices before World War II—the Wassons provide the following description, which I will quote at length because it demonstrates the diligent naming practice that serves to map the knowledge network:
At this point, in September, 1952, in almost the same mail, we received two communications, one from Robert Graves in Majorca and the other from Hans Mardesteig in Verona, alerting us to the peculiar place of mushrooms in the Meso-American cultures. We had known nothing before then of the indigenous cultures of the region. Quickly we got in touch with Gordon Eckholm of the American Museum of Natural History and Richard Evan Schultes of the Botanical Museum at Harvard. Schultes told us to communicate with Blas Pablo Reko, who passed us on to Eunice V. Pike of the Summer School of Linguistics, and then died. Miss Pike, a student of Mazatec language, had lived in
27. Ibid.



the Mazatec country off and on for many years, and she proved of invaluable help in guiding our footsteps.28

We are seemingly quite a distance, at this point, from the “untutored peasants” who people the network. The practice of naming specialists and their contributions expands the knowledge network, and enriches, rather than conceals, the field out of which ethnomycological knowledge emerges. And the practice is spread across the Wassons’ writing. In Mushrooms Russia and History, for example, the Wassons give another nod to their friend Robert Graves, “novelist, scholar, and poet, who supplied to us, among other brilliant suggestions, the missing link that we had been seeking in order to round out our conjectures concerning the death of Emperor Claudius, and to render that conjecture not merely suggestive but persuasive.”29 In his speech before the Mycological Society of America, Wasson notes that “we drew heavily on our betters in the special fields that we were exploring,” then launches into an extended encomium to French mycologist Roger Heim, director of the Laboratorie de Cryptogamie, editor of the Revue de Mycologie, and an “indispensable and beloved partner in our Middle American forays.”30 He goes on to praise the work in chemistry of another current and future collaborator, Albert Hofmann—work that the Wassons’ studies in Mexico largely made possible—predicting that “thanks to the achievements of our biological chemists, we may be on the brink of re-discovering what was common knowledge to the ancient Greeks.”31 The devotion to folk knowledge must meet up with the productive capacities of technoscience; by letting these two domains resonate effectively, the Wassons distinguish their work from the simple neo-primitivism and reaction against technoscience so prevalent in the mid-twentieth century. The development of synthetic psilocybin and psilocin further illustrates the extended knowledge network inscribed in the Wassons’ texts. The Wassons learned of ritual mushroom practices among the Mazatec and Zapotec peoples through an itinerant series of correspondences. Their first actual trip to Oaxaca came shortly thereafter, in August 1953. The Wassons’ description replays the theoretical understanding of archaic knowledge, as it takes the reader through a sort of travel time-warp. Each leg of the journey closer to the “primitive”
28. Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), p. 3. 29. Ibid., p. 35. 30. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), pp. 140–142. 31. Ibid., p. 153.

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culture is increasingly divorced from the technological world of their home in New York City: from airplane, to train, to bus, to old automobile, and finally, by mule over the Sierra Mazateca.32 For two years they made several contacts among the indigenous people and many more journeys, until finally, in late June 1955, Gordon Wasson and his friend Allen Richardson participate in a mushroom ceremony. While on previous trips the local population had proved reticent, Wasson’s Life article describes the crucial breakthrough in detail:
His name was Filemon. He had a friendly manner and I took a chance. Leaning over his table, I asked him earnestly and in a low voice if I could speak to him in confidence. Instantly curious, he encouraged me. “Will you,” I went on, “help me learn the secrets of the divine mushroom?” and I used the Mixeteco name, ‘nti sheeto, correctly pronouncing it with the glottal stop and tonal differentiations of the syllables. When Filemon recovered from his surprise he said warmly that nothing could be easier.33

The passage is striking for several reasons. First, Wasson attends to a hospitality and friendship constitutive of entry into the secret community. A similar hospitality will extend to his interactions with pseudonymous Eva Mendez, the curandera Maria Sabina who later performs the ceremony. This practice of friendship within the knowledge network will become important for distinguishing it from other practices that seek to merely cycle indigenous knowledge into existing regimes of science. Second, Wasson carefully describes the correct utterance of the secret word—a code for entrance into the Mazatec “mystery cult.” Ironically enough, while Wasson exposes the secret in one of the widest circulating venues of the time, neither its publication nor his pronunciation guide give any sense of how to actually pronounce the word in order to produce the conspiratorial surprise, a topic I will return to in the next section. Here it is enough to say that the hospitality and secrecy Wasson describes seems to extend far beyond a feeling of trust between experts that Steven Shapin sees as founding validity claims in seventeenth-century epistemology and now inundating the activities of institutional science.34 They
32. This trope of a movement back in time accompanying a spatial movement into “primitive” areas is, of course, common in colonial travel literature. It also marks some of William S. Burroughs descriptions of his movements in Peru in his hallucinogenic exchange with Allen Ginsberg; see Burroughs, The Yage Letters (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1975). 33. R. Gordon Wasson, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” Life, May 13, 1957, 102. 34. Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Shapin’s insight on the function



are, rather, affects forged in the moment of encounter, resting not on the established familiarity of expertise, but on contingent communication—the paradoxical trust of surprise. The network grew past the local knowledges of the Mazatecs when Wasson included Roger Heim in a trip to Mexico, for the purpose, according to Hofmann, of “introducing the mushrooms to scientific research.”35 Heim identified several species of mushrooms and turned their chemical analysis over to pharmaceutical companies in the United States—among them Merck and Smith, Klein and French—and in France, but they could not isolate the active psychoactive chemicals. Heim then contacted the Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz, where Hofmann had discovered LSD. Through this circuitous route, Hofmann began work on identifying the active agents. He managed to isolate psilocybin and psilocin as the hallucinogenic components of the teonanacatl mushroom through selfexperimentation with the mushroom specimens provided by Heim, transforming the active ingredient into “a chemically pure state by means of the newest separation methods.”36 Hofmann’s implication is fairly clear on this point: the other pharmaceutical companies failed because they would not turn to self-experimentation in order to aid with the extraction procedure.37 The movement through the network then comes full circle. In October 1962, Hofmann and his wife traveled to Huautla to present Wasson’s original curandera, Maria Sabina, with synthetic psilocybin pills. Hofmann describes the experience as an experiment, but it took place in the traditional setting, and the curandera performed the standard Mazatec ceremony while she and the group experienced the effects of the psilocybin. When Sabina stated the next morning that “the pills had the same power as the mushrooms,” Hofmann took her declaration as a “confirmation from the most
of trust in modern scientific practice is fascinating. In moving past the networks of institutionalized science, Wasson shows that trust need not be invested in an elite group—either as a decorous society of aristocrats or a community of experts. As such, Wasson’s work could add the notion of hospitality and friendship to the sedimented conditions for trust in science. 35. Albert Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), chap. 6 (available online at http://www.psychedlic-library.org/child.htm). 36. Ibid. 37. Ibid. Hofmann, like Heim, also accompanied Wasson to Mexico. Wasson was well aware of Hofmann’s work even as it was ongoing. In his speech to the Mycological Society of America, Wasson mentions both Hofmann’s isolation of psilocybin and psilocine and Hofmann’s identification of the active agents of oliliuqui, though the latter discovery had occurred only weeks before his speech.

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competent authority, that the synthetic psilocybin is identical with the natural product.”38 Hallucinogenic researcher Jonathan Ott puts it succinctly: “Maria Sabina’s historic test of psilocybin was a classic science experiment, unparalleled in the long history of pharmacognosy.”39 The synthesis of psilocybin illustrates the productive power of the knowledge network as it draws in indigenous knowledge, scientific specialization, and self-experiment, with the amateur serving as mediator and rapporteur for a diverse array of disciplines and literacies. The “openness” that the Wassons write into their texts, then, models the open process through which psilocybin was both discovered by Western science and synthesized for use. Throughout the Wassons’ work, the knowledge they bring into the network through their citation practice is treated with a sort of affection—not unlike the affection Pavlovina showers on the patch of mushrooms in the Catskills. In other words, there is an affective charge to the citation practice that exceeds its informational value. Often, the excess of citation itself marks this affective excess; the naming practice that provides the entire story of the Wassons’ coming to hear of the Mexican mushroom rites, quoted above, serves as an example. At other times, this excess is marked by the presence of affectionate terms, the presence of a friendship, a compliment, or by the insistence that a contribution is crucial to the overall knowledge network. The description of Eunice Pike’s contribution on the Mazatec rites is exemplary: not only did the Wassons reprint her entire letter responding to their inquiry in Mushrooms Russia and History, they also described as “far superior to anything on teonanacatl given to us either by the Spanish writers or recent enquirers.”40 And Pike—a Christian missionary familiar with the Mazatec language and customs—is ostensibly a minor player in the entire heavily populated drama. It is no mistake, then, that Wasson would label himself and Pavlovina “rapporteurs,” whose “whole work has been composed by others.” This rhetorical effect is crucial to the project. What is imprinted in the Wassons’ citation practice, to put it another way, is a model both for group activity and creative engagement. While I have been calling this grouping a “knowledge network,” it might also be called a production network, since the constitution of the group as such exceeds the knowledge it produces, at least insofar as that knowledge can be actualized as knowledge
38. Ibid. 39. Ott, Pharmocotheon (above, n. 7), p. 275. 40. Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), p. 242.



within any given field. The concrete results of their affiliations are, of course, important in their own right; the synthesis of psilocybin and the global diffusion of entheogenic mushrooms are no small matters, either scientifically or culturally. Yet, pragmatically, these results are conditioned by the formation of the group body, and the openness of that group body to the risk of the encounter. As the “originary” scene of ethnomycology makes clear, that encounter can be met neither with a blockage nor a solitary call. The content provided by the network, in this sense, is dependent on the capacity to act as rapporteur for it at any given point, or node. More than citation, then, the practice suggests a transformative subjectivity: no longer the Wasson of “Come back to me!,” but the Wasson in Mexico, now “bemushroomed,” listening to the disembodied voice of the curandera, the voice that “hovers through the hut, coming now from beyond your feet, now at your very ear, now distant, now actually underneath you, with strange ventriloquistic effect.”41 Subjective transformation, moreover, applies to groups themselves: Wasson’s citation practice disrupts the lines of filiation between folk wisdom and institutional science and allows communication across these divergent lines; indeed, it must reconfigure these formations in order to produce a responsive psychedelic science. Such a reconfiguration, however, entails both political and ethical concerns about Wasson’s method. The invasion of indigenous bodies and knowledges by Western science is no new phenomenon. Genetic material and traditional knowledges are leveraged all the time for the extraction of and synthesis of products like psilocybin. The problems of such procedures intensify, of course, with the onset of current global intellectual-property regimes, under which the contributions of indigenous people to a scientific knowledge-base mean little if those communities cannot file a patent, or prove the illegality of a patent, or, indeed, oppose outright the very practice of patenting plants and other biological material. Indeed, Wasson’s arguments for interdisciplinarity and collaborative research may seem quaint today, when, as Alan Liu suggests, “the current hegemon is . . . corporate interdisciplinarity.”42 The injunction to “think outside the box,” posted so prominently in the open-floor-plan offices of contemporary capitalism, is nowhere more prevalent than in today’s management and business literature. The same could be said of nonspecialist knowledges, as organizations are enjoined to embrace the
41. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 155. 42. Alan Liu, Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 178.

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exciting new models of crowd-sourcing and to leverage the untainted vision of amateur “contributors.” Where the cross-functional team and the wisdom of crowds explodes the old silos of the modernist organization (both in the sciences and elsewhere), Wasson’s project seems far less the advance into thrilling new epistemological experiments, and far more an early break in the now rapidly collapsing disciplinary apparatus. From this perspective, the Wassons could be seen as early exploiters with a friendly and hospitable smile, and the pretensions to a knowledge network little more than apologia for the relentless expansion of capitalist science into every aspect of social life. While Wasson—if his practices of distribution (not to mention his work as an investment banker at J. P. Morgan!) are any indication—was not opposed to such notions of property, he would equally balk at reduction of the entheogenic encounter to a market mechanism. If the science of entheogens requires for Wasson an open mode of encounter, it also requires a good deal of cunning, duplicity, and secrecy. Wasson’s fascination with the relation between mystery cults and hallucinogenic substances serves to tie the open exchanges of the knowledge network to practices of secrecy. While such practices do not directly oppose exploitation, they may constitute a modulation in the regulation of the common and the proper. As Pamela Long’s excellent study of the role of secrecy in technical production makes clear, current intellectual-property regimes operate through a historically contingent set of techniques for secrecy and openness.43 Wasson’s mystical vision of secrecy for psychedelic science serves as provocation to the current organization of secrecy; it re-inscribes science within the tradition of the mystery cult.

The Secret and the Profane
“Just dwell for a moment on that description. How striking that the Mystery of antiquity and our mushroom rite in Mexico are accompanied by veils of reticence that, so far as we can tell, match each other point by point.” R. Gordon Wasson44 “It is impossible to stress enough the unifying function of silence, which has been seen by the great mystics as the ultimate form of communication. And while their etymological relationship may be subject to some controversy,
43. Pamela O. Long, Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). 44. Wasson, “Speech” (above, n. 6); Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, Road to Eleusis (above, n. 13).


one can point to a link between the mystery, the mystic, and the mute; this link is one of initiation that permits the sharing of secrets.” Michel Maffesoli 45

To address the regime of secrecy Wasson envisions for a psychedelic science, I turn to his obsession with the concept of the secret, especially as it manifests itself both through the entheogenic experience and, in what seems like the corollary to this experience, through his decades-long obsession with the Eleusinian mysteries. There is little doubt that Wasson was interested in the concept of secrecy before his entheogenic experiences in Mexico. The etymological method of ethnomycology—and its reliance on “obscene and scabrous vocabularies that often escape the lexicographer”—was premised on the extraction of the “secret meaning” of words; his initial correspondence with Robert Graves concerned the historical “secret” of the Emperor Claudius’s death.46 The entire ethnomycological enterprise, it might be said, ran like a deciphering engine long before the stranger version of secrecy in the psychedelic experience made itself plain. The secret character of the entheogenic rites was preceded by decades of research that assumed “veils of reticence.” As such, Wasson’s very desire to enter into the Mexican mushroom ceremony included the secret—and the secret to be cracked—as its motor. Yet the form of the secret that Wasson encountered in Mexico serves as a second event; it works more like the invention of a new notion of the secret, and a corresponding transformation of what constitutes profanation. For despite cracking the secrecy of the Mazatecs, Wasson discovered only another layer of secrecy—the incommunicable character of the entheogenic experience itself. Given Wasson’s well-publicized claims in the late-1950s that the Mazatec mushroom rites resembled the Eleusinian mysteries of Greek antiquity, his assertions to this effect during the Mycological Society keynote address may not be particularly surprising. What is surprising, however, is his compulsive repetition of the argument. In The Road to Eleusis, a book co-written with LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann and classicist Carl A. P. Ruck, Wasson reiterates the argument he presented to the American Mycological Society—even using many of the same paragraphs, word for word. The surprise comes from its publication date: The Road to Eleusis appeared eighteen years after his keynote address, in a culture completely transformed by its
45. Maffesoli, Time of the Tribes (above, n. 8), p. 91. 46. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 141; Wasson and Wasson, Mushrooms Russia and History (above, n. 15), pp. 360–362.

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encounter with hallucinogenic substances. The interim is crucial; between the keynote and the publication of The Road to Eleusis, psilocybin and psilocin fell under prohibition, first in the United States in 1968, then through their scheduling as controlled substances under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1970, and finally through the global extension of the prohibition, in 1971, under the UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. Despite these legal prohibitions, however, the dissemination and use of hallucinogenic mushrooms had exploded, and by the late 1970s, large quantities of psilocybin mushrooms were available on the U.S. and global black markets. Both the prohibition and widespread distribution of psilocybin mushrooms, moreover, serve as an index for the cultural shifts that position the practices of ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms. Whereas in 1960, psilocybin constituted a legitimate space of exploration in the sciences, by 1978, the substance had been firmly articulated to criminal and counter-cultural practices. A massive body of political and cultural production had circumscribed and marginalized its use, separating it from the fields of study in ethnology, chemical and biological sciences, and, more particularly, from any therapeutic role in psychology (in the very definition of a Schedule I substance), and linking it instead to a category of cultural danger—to the point of inducing moral and political panics. Wasson’s beloved mushrooms had, in other words, become street drugs—“magic mushrooms.” Whereas in 1960, hallucinogenic substances in general were little known, by 1978, they virtually stood in as cultural signs for the political turmoil and supposed cultural degeneration of the late 1960s. Given the vast disparity in contexts, Wasson’s insistent repetition takes on a somewhat startling—if not stubborn—appearance. His insistence here can be read first in the context of a knowledge network. While Wasson offers the beginnings of the detailed arguments that will later be taken up by Hofmann and Ruck—that is to say, the historical and chemical arguments—the most convinced, and perhaps convincing, language of his early argument is associated with the direct intuition induced by the entheogenic experience. In 1956, just a year after his initial mushroom experience, Wasson began arguing, primarily by analogy, that the mysteries at Eleusis were actually hallucinogenic rites. As a correlate to the analogical claim, he began describing the Mexican ceremony in terms of the mysteries. In 1960, for example, he noted that he was “profoundly grateful to my Indian friends for having initiated me into the tremendous Mystery of the mushroom.” The language of the ancient mysteries also covers the motive for the secret: the “Indians



have kept the divine mushroom close to their hearts, sheltered from desecration by white men, a precious secret; to them, performing before strangers seems a profanation.”47 Wasson thus describes the curious form of secrecy among the indigenous people of the Mazatec country, wherein everybody knows the secret though nobody divulges it. The comparison to Eleusinian mysteries of this condition is not lost on Wasson: “In surviving texts there are numerous references to the secret, but none is revealed. . . . Yet Mysteries such as this one at Eleusis played a major role in Greek civilization, and thousands must have possessed the key.”48 In addition to the obvious points of social and historical analogy that would be buttressed by his co-author Ruck’s specialty in classical botany, Wasson, as early as his 1960 speech, had the beginnings of the pharmacological argument that would be put forth by collaborator Hofmann. In the Mycological Society speech, he had already made the connection between the d-lysergic acid amide isolated in ololiuqui (morning glory) seeds used in Mexican rites and the same family of components that, it would be claimed in 1978, appears in the ergot that makes up the Eleusinian kykeon.49
47. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 140. 48. In a curious footnote to The Human Condition, written at approximately the same time, Hannah Arendt reflects on much the same problem, arguing that the Eleusinian mysteries stand in a strange relation to the public and private realms as they were conceived in Greek antiquity. The mysteries, Arendt speculates, “provided for a common and quasi-public experience,” with the paradoxical caveat that while they were “common to all,” they nevertheless “needed to remain hidden, kept secret from the public realm” (Arendt pp. 61ff., 63). Under discussion is the concept of the public and the private and the specific function of the household as a locus for birth and death—those things that are “hidden from human eyes and impenetrable to human knowledge” (pp. 62–63). This hidden-ness, for Arendt, is the necessary counterpart to the showing forth in the public realm. Yet it is precisely the quasi-public nature of the mysteries that erupts from the footnote to disrupt Arendt’s narrative; the mysteries take their place at the pivot point of private physis and public nomos. The torchlight of their hidden public rites flickers in the darkness between necessity and freedom, between the unspeakable and that which can only be spoken. But the quasi-public character of the mysteries in antiquity should also throw into some doubt the telling of a fall into some degraded public-ness, where the ordinary problems of biology invade political life. Another term for the quasi-public-ness of the mysteries, then, might be one that functions only oxymoronically within the Arendtian discourse: biopolitics. See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 61–63. 49. Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, Road to Eleusis (above, n. 13), p. 20; Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 155. Hofmann suggests that the fungal species Claviceps purpurea, or some other variation of fungus, grew on the wild grass, rye, or wheat in the Mediterranean region. Ergot is the sclerotium on the fungus. It has chemical properties through its “alkaloidal components” (Wasson, Hofmann, and

Ceraso / The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson


However, despite these two dimensions of proof (cultural and natural, as it were), the intuition that a hallucinogenic compound stands at the heart of the Eleusinian ceremonies emerges as a result of the entheogenic vision itself; the proofs seem to come afterward. Wasson puts forth his most convinced—and least substantiated— claim in his description of the vision state: “It is clear to me where Plato found his Ideas; it was clear to his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.”50 In the Life article as well, the claim is embedded in the description of the vision—and more, it is part of the experience of the vision:
I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view; I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect image of everyday life. The thought crossed my mind: could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient Mysteries?51

Put plainly, the intuition that the Mexican rites shared some features with the Greek mysteries celebrated at Eleusis was the subject
Ruck, Road to Eleusis [above, n. 13], p. 30), specifically ergonovine. Hofmann suggests that ergonovine served as the hallucinogenic ingredient of the kykeon. Ergonovine is soluble in water; the poisonous ergot alkaloids ergotamine and ergotoxine are not. For this reason, Hofmann speculates that the functionaries at Eleusis could have derived the hallucinogenic compound without exposing themselves to ergot poisoning. As a second solution, Hofmann suggests that ancient herbalists were able to extract the alkaloid from a different species of ergot (Claviceps papali) growing on “the grass Paspalum distichum which contains only alkaloids that are hallucinogenic and which could have even been used directly in powder form” (ibid., p. 33). Finally, Hofmann suggests that the alkaloid was extractable from ergot growing on a wild grass (Lolium temulentum), which is “notorious prey to the Claviceps fungus.” The third solution presents the same problem of the isolation of ergonovine from the more dangerous ergotamine and ergotoxine. Wasson’s ability to make the connection so early, however, is truly striking, since it appears that not even Hofmann himself had made the connection at the time. Karl Kerenyi’s Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter contains an appendix in which the author speculates on the ingredients of the kykeon, citing specifically a letter exchange with Albert Hofmann. Here, Hofmann suggests that alcohol was sufficient to induce the visions associated with the mysteries, adding that “poley oil (Oleum pulegii) might very well, added to the alcoholic content of the kykeon, have produced hallucinations in persons whose sensibility was heightened by fasting.” See Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, trans. Ralph Mannheim (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967), p. 180. 50. In Road to Eleusis (above, n. 13), the quotation reads: “It is clear to me where Plato found his Ideas; it was clear to those who were initiated among his contemporaries too. Plato had drunk of the potion in the Temple of Eleusis and had spent the night seeing the great Vision.” 51. Wasson, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” (above, n. 33).



of a trip report first and foremost; it is later supplemented by more acceptable forms of scientific and historical evidence. This progression of the insight diminishes neither the process of putting that knowledge together nor the careful argument that Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck offer; it does, however, change the character of the secret. It might be asked, at this point, what we learn when we learn that the rites at the center of Greek religious life involved the use of hallucinogenic compounds.52 Do we learn, after all, what it was the Greeks experienced when they experienced the deiknymena (things shown), the dromena (actions performed), and the legomena (things said)?53 Or are we not, despite the revelation, more intractably in the presence of an aporrhetoteros logos, a “story told under strict injunction of silence,” or the arrheta (the unspeakable)?54 Wasson follows closely here in the longer tradition of the hallucinogenic experience in Western thought: “Let me hasten to warn you,” he tells the gathered mycologists in 1960, “that I am painfully aware of the inadequacy of my words, any words, to conjure up for you an image of that state.”55 While he can “reveal” the secret of Eleusis, in other words, the revelation can only approximate the secret, if the secret is the entheogenic experience itself. While Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck certainly argue that the secret of Eleusis is the fact that hallucinogenic fungi were used to induce the experience of the mysteries, this fact has little bearing on the character of the actual experience. If the secret is rather the vision, the experience (as Wasson’s intuition suggests), then it is itself dependent on the variables of set and setting—the contingent state of the person ingesting (or encountering) the kykeon and the contingent forces at work in the surroundings. Wasson clearly recognizes these variables, even in his earlier work. His descriptions of the Mexican rites are keyed into such factors, focusing on the place of the rites, the particular lighting at different times during the ceremony, the singing or chanting of the curandera, the production of a percussive drumbeat. Furthermore, in his section of The Road to Eleusis dedicated to the classicist/historical argument, Ruck suggests that
52. Kerenyi claims that “all Greek existence was bound up with the celebration of the Mysteries at Eleusis” (Eleusis [above, n. 49], p. 10). 53. Ibid., p. 52. 54. Ibid., p. 138. See also Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987): “Is it not true that the mysteries were ‘unspeakable,’ arrheta, not just in the sense of artificial secrecy utilized to arouse curiosity, but in the sense that what was central and decisive was not accessible to verbalization?” (p. 69). 55. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 143.

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“we can rest assured that the hierophants, with generations of experience, knew all the secrets of set and setting,” and goes on to speculate about the arrangement of music, the release of various perfumes, the timing of lights, and steps within the ceremony.56 The secret, then, is a strange secret indeed, for it cannot be communicated as it is—it can only be communicated as a secret. At its best, this sort of profanation provides a group of valuable tactics for enduring the experience, but it does not transmit the experience itself. If anything, it heightens the difference between what can be experienced and what can be transmitted. Far from annexing the hallucinogenic substance for Western science, Wasson recognizes the difficulty science has with such a problem:
These difficulties communicating have played their part in certain amusing situations. Two psychiatrists who have taken the mushroom and known the experience in its full dimensions have been criticized in professional circles as being no longer “objective.” Thus it comes about that we are all divided into two classes: those who have taken the mushroom and are disqualified by our subjective experience, and those who have not taken the mushroom and are disqualified by their total ignorance of the subject!57

We might return here to the process by which Hofmann isolated psilocybin, and—for The Road to Eleusis—determined the hallucinogenic activity of ergonovine. In both cases, as with LSD, Hofmann tested the compound on himself; he combined the extraction capacities of traditional science with the capacity to enter into contact with the molecule. Hofmann’s practice skirts between the two classes described by Wasson (although, assuredly, not without practical consequences), or it takes up both forms in different ratios, according to different needs. In Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s terminology, Hofmann practices both an iterative and an itinerant science, where the first is characterized by reproducing (for example, the capacity to reproduce the extraction of alkaloids according to fixed procedures), while the second operates by following (in this case, following the action of ergonovine, or exploring psilocybin “by legwork”).58 The difference is important here, for it goes directly to the question of which secret Wasson seeks to uncover. If the secret is the identification of claviceps purpurea as the molecule “behind” the Eleusinian
56. Wasson, Hofmann, and Ruck, Road to Eleusis (above, n. 13), p. 47. 57. Ibid., p. 152. 58. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol. 2, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 372–373.



mysteries, then the first model would apply; in fact, Wasson’s arguments by analogy seek to extract a consistency across the variable practices of Mexican and Greek culture. One could then go further and trace the movement of the molecule in the body, or identify and thereby reproduce particular chemical relationships. If, on the other hand, the secret Wasson seeks to disseminate is what he will call the entheogenic experience itself, then the second group of practices applies, since this secret can only be approached itinerantly, and the knowledge produced by approaching it is, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, “still dependent upon sensitive or sensible evaluations that pose more problems than they solve.”59 The first defines the secret as an actual set of identifiable and reproducible material phenomena; the second defines the secret as a contingent virtualization of experience. Wasson’s repetition of his argument in vastly different contexts gives us the sense that he is working both angles. The question of the mushroom’s divinity, posed before the gathered mycologists, seems all the more radical given the itinerant framework, since it calls for a transformation—or capacity for transformation—within the science of mycology itself. At the same time, he is working to build up an interest in the identification and traditional study of psilocybin mushrooms. The repetition of the argument in 1978, of course, finds much more fraught circumstances, because a “profanation” of both secrets, and all the authority and force of Western reason (and law!), had risen up to meet the diffusion of hallucinogens. In the January–June 1979 issue of the Journal of Psychedelic Drugs, Ruck and Wasson collaborated again, this time with Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, and Jonathan Ott to suggest that the very journal in which they were published had been poorly named. The authors propose the term entheogen to describe “states of shamanic or ecstatic possession induced by the ingestion of mind-altering drugs.”60 The argument plays out the concerns Wasson voiced about nomenclature years earlier when he argued against the use of “intoxication,” noting that “we are all, willy-nilly, confined in the prison walls of our everyday language.”61 The term entheogen manages to avoid the “incomprehension and prejudice of the times,” to cast hallucinogenic substances in a more rhetorically favorable light, no doubt, but also to signal a dignified history of “prophetic seizures,
59. Ibid., p. 373. 60. Carl A. P. Ruck, Jeremy Bigwood, Danny Staples, Jonathan Ott, and R. Gordon Wasson, “Hallucinogens,” Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 11:1/2 (1979): 146. 61. Wasson, “Hallucinogenic Fungi of Mexico” (above, n. 12), p. 155.

Ceraso / The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson


erotic passion and artistic creation as well as those religious rites in which mystical states were experienced.”62 Arguing against the use of terms like hallucinogen and psychedelic, the authors seek to provide a program or a set of guidelines for the itinerant study of these substances and their effects. In this context, The Road to Eleusis can be read not as a history book, but as a recipe book. The question it asks is posed precisely to the society where hallucinogenic substances circulate wildly, yet fall under prohibition: How do you form a public mystery? The question might be rephrased: How do you practice a collective science that remains open to itinerant practices? The question turns back on itself, since its answer must be a form of following the material of collective bodies and of posing more problems than it solves. The collaboration attempts to form a vocabulary for thinking about such a public mystery, a thinking that includes seriousness—the serious, even sacred character of the group encounter with the alien force. Wasson, one suspects, is not fond of the recreational use of hallucinogenic mushrooms, except insofar as that use is taken seriously. Like the term entheogen itself, The Road to Eleusis stakes out a zone between mythos and logos, working to provide guidelines for operating in and enduring the flash—the flickering torchlight and ventriloquistic effects—that constitute that zone. The writing practice that builds the knowledge network here enters into resonance with the two forms of secrecy: the movement and connection of information and its excess on the one side, and the itinerant practice of the mystery, with its rich capacity for reproduction, its incommunicable blockages, and its information scarcity on the other. These relations may seem abstract enough in such terms. Wasson might be read here, however, as providing a sort of compromise to the problem of information flow. Questions concerning information flow—Who controls it? How does one access it?—have, of course, become all too familiar in recent years, playing themselves out in fields as diverse as software, pharmaceuticals, music and cinema filesharing, and, importantly, the patenting of various plant species used in indigenous practices. While the problem of information flows in connected networks may seem familiar, Wasson’s terms for the problem certainly do not, and that may be the point. Today, these problems engendered by information flows are generally debated within conceptual structures built by Enlightenment rationality, jurisprudence, and market capitalism. They are problems of
62. Ruck et al., “Hallucinogens” (above, n. 60), p. 146.



property, and problems of balancing property rights with the public rights of access. Indeed, a massive literature has sprung from the fertile soil in which digital information flows come into conflict with intellectual-property laws. As Andrew Ross has recently argued, however, such debates tend to be “legally-minded” and thus “revolve exclusively around the interests of claimants: creators, copyright holders, or the general public of users and consumers.”63 As such, they focus on corporations seeking monopolistic control of information products on the one hand, and a vague class of consumers seeking public access to information products on the other. Wasson’s depiction of information flows seems mystical in comparison, drawing as it does on archaic and non-Western traditions, but it may be this very dissimilarity that serves to point up the strange effects our own discourses of information flows have on our information ecologies. The problems of openness and secrecy, communication and mystery, function across knowledge-making communities. There can be little doubt that we are currently experiencing a crisis in the contingent
63. Andrew Ross, “Technology and Below-the-Line Labor in the Copyfight Over Intellectual Property,” American Quarterly 58:3 (2006): 743–766. Ross provides a useful corrective to both the euphoria and the hand-wringing over the emergence and subsequent “enclosure” of the digital information commons, arguing that the legalistic form of such struggles have elided the effects that a networked information economy has on labor. Many commentators have, of course, cast doubt on the very categories of “users and consumers” that Ross deploys here, arguing that the distinction between consumption and production is precisely what collapses in a networked information economy. But that collapse could be read to make Ross’s point: If what is at stake in intellectual-property battles is the global restructuring of production and consumption, why are the consequences for work qua labor so often banished in networked information economy discourse in favor of rather vague promises of consumer-driven locations for remixing, innovation, and participatory design? Furthermore, where labor does seem central (if decentralized) and organized (if through novel sociotechnical architectures), it is predictably limited to a privileged class of technical workers. Since free and open-source software communities have been the darling of numerous copyright activists and their primary model of communal and novel labor organization in networked information economies, they come in for a predictable drubbing in Ross’s account. Free and open-source software communities might call into question romantic or industrial assumptions of singular authorship and individual ownership (and the intellectual-property regime built on those assumptions), but for Ross, they operate as if narrowly held technical expertise will mitigate any degradation of work. The “labor consciousness” found in free and open-source software communities is thus like “the guild labor mentality of yore that sought security in the protection of craft knowledge.” No doubt a similar charge could be leveled at Wasson himself. While allowing that free and open-source software communities and Wasson rely on an empirically limited technical knowledge, I’m suggesting that they both provide an alternative model for social organization that can be generalized. In this sense, their specific labor consciousness is not really at issue.

Ceraso / The Rhetoric of R. Gordon Wasson


or historical configuration of these problems. Crises in the concepts of secrecy go hand in hand with the diffusion of information on global networks. Encryption technologies are deployed to hide “dangerous” information from dangerous people, and are just as quickly deplored for hiding dangerous people from informatization. The emergence of purportedly free culture (and its attendant copyright and patent disputes) registers another slip in the contingent configuration of the common and the proper, the digital commons and intellectual property, and, like psychedelic sciences, it sees these forces as intimately in league with the configuration of the amateur and the professional, institutional boundaries and lines of noninstitutional dispersion. That intellectual-property arguments have migrated from the software field and the sciences in general into disparate domains of pharmaceuticals, music file-sharing, the use of digital images, and even student plagiarism demonstrates that these reconfigurations are widespread and historically significant. To argue for either more information flow or more proprietary control, however, may be beside the point. The challenge before science and other forms of sociality is to hack—that is, both endure and work on—their reconfiguration already ongoing. It is certainly the case that intellectual-property activism of some kind is a necessary feature of such a hack, and advocates for broad public access to a scientific and digital commons have done excellent work in addressing the more dangerous expansions of enclosure. Wasson’s rhetoric, however, seems to seek another kind of hack altogether: it works to build a program for what he calls the entheogenic sciences, a program that both opens lines of communications and develops new literacies beyond those constructed by institutions, while closing or warding off the danger of both totalized knowledge and exploitation. It both seeks and defends itself from immanence. The paradoxical figure of the public mystery may be paradoxical only to the particular configuration of secrecy and communication that underlies modern science and its technological and economic partners. In gesturing toward another set of practices, Wasson forces us to confront this paradox and provides us with a set of rhetorical resources to begin hacking it.

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