Saturday, December 11, 2010

Botany of Desire

In “The Botany Desire”, Michael Pollan comes up with a surprising section about what he calls the Natural History of Religion. Michael Pollan is a farmer, who writes about food and the modern farming industry. In this book he covers the apple, and the history of Johnny Appleseed, the tulip and the financial bubble it created a few hundred years ago, the potato and its famous famine, and marijuana. The book is about how humans and plants have co-evolved and sometimes uses imagery from mythology to discuss changes in culture. One common thread is the pull between Apollo as the god of rules and order and Dionysus as the god of nature and wildness.

At the end of the marijuana section, he begins to speculate on the connections between hallucinogenic drugs and religion and notes that there is no definitive work on the natural history of religion. There are some examples of drugs being involved at the start of some early religions. The cult of Soma claims in its scripture, the Rig Veda, that such intoxicants are a path to divine knowledge. I hoped this section of the book would pass quickly. I have heard of books about psilocybin mushrooms leading to religion and know they are widely accepted. But fortunately Pollan did not stop at that simple premise. He follows this idea through the history of philosophers and connects it to modern chemistry.

Pollan suggests that drugs take the mind to the point where matter meets spirit, where our knowledge of the physical world meets the unknown edges of our awareness and intuition, or in modern terms, where chemistry meets consciousness. He notes that the era of Romanticism in Europe coincides closely with Napoleon bringing hashish back from Egypt. English and French poets are known to have used opiates. Certainly Stephen Taylor Coleridge’s concept of the suspension of disbelief could be a drug induced insight.

Modernism, Cubism, Jazz, Surrealism have all been nurtured by Coleridge’s ideas of a transforming imagination, the disillusion, diffusion and dissipation of the consciousness. All of these also owe their roots to classical philosophy, going back as far the Greeks. We have less information about their lives but we do know of rituals involving ergot, a strong hallucinogen. The Greeks respected these transforming chemicals and used them in highly ritualized ways. Much of this was also quite secretive.

So, can we learn anything from all of this? In attempting to do so, Pollan also traces the chemistry and neuroscience of marijuana. The chemical responsible for the alterations of experience, the “high”, have been found, tetra hydro cannibal. Also the receptors in our nervous system for that chemical have been found. And our bodies produce a chemical for those receptors, anandamide. So there appears to be a system, a function of chemistry. All of this says very little about why we have this system or about the individual reaction that each person has for the drug. Pollan notes that the wide variety of experiences reported from smoking pot indicates that dismissing it as pure chemistry is failing to recognize the individual’s contributions to the experience.

Is there any value for a built-in system that causes us to forget? Howlett and McCallum, two of the scientists who have done this research speculate that the ability to forget, such as forgetting pain, could be very important in motivating us to get up each morning and face the potential of being hurt again and again. Perhaps what we usually consider a breakdown of the operation of remembering is actually a perfectly functioning operation itself. We receive so much sensory data each moment, we have to filter it. But when Pollan tries to press the neuroscientists for more about just what the marijuana experience is, they say they will have to leave to the poets.

Fortunately, there is ample data from the poets. Even one who was is also a scientist. Carl Sagan wrote an essay on the effects of marijuana and published it under the name Mr. X. After his death, his authorship was revealed. Sagan spoke of the common phenomenon of having what seem to be profound insights while high, that seem trivial the next day. He was convinced that these should not be dismissed. That it is not a question of self-deception, but a failure to communicate from our high selves to the straight. The inability to articulate the insight is not evidence that the insight is false. It can’t be put into words because they are perceptions that precede words.

Nietzsche describes transcendence, when all of your being is focused on a single thing and all else drops away, in his essay, “The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life”. He says,
“Consider the cattle, they do not know what is meant by yesterday or today, they leap about, eat, rest, digest, leap about again, and so from morn ‘til night and from day to day, fettered to the moment and its pleasure or displeasure and thus neither melancholy nor bored. A human being may well ask an animal, ‘Why do you not speak to me of your happiness, but only stand and gaze at me?’ The animal would like to answer and say, ‘The reason is I always forget what I was going to say.’ But then he forgot this answer too, and stayed silent. “

Aldous Huxley says in “The Doors of Perception” that we have a reducing valve of consciousness. This valve helps us deal with the mass of data coming in, but it also prevents from perceiving that data. Opening this valve opens us up to a sense of wonder. As Pollan says, “Memory is the enemy of wonder.” The less filtering, the more heightened our senses, time seems to slow, we live in the present moment.

There are many paths to this sensation. They have been written about in religious texts as well as by philosophers and experimenters with drugs. Huxley suggested that the reason we don’t see as many mystics today is that nutrition has improved. A healthier body means a healthier brain, healthy being defined as the ability to keep that reducing valve strong.

But to bring all this philosophizing back down to earth, the idea that spirituality and getting high from a freely growing plant are related is an affront to Western Christianity and capitalism. Both require that we set our sights on the future; both ask us to reject pleasures of the moment for a fulfillment yet to come. And, as the early Greeks knew, living in the moment is not something to be done every moment. Remembering what caused us pain in the past and being able to apply those lessons to the future are just as important and each should have its place for humanity to flourish.

Pollan traces how our current culture developed its aversion to marijuana through the stories of Hassan ibn-al-Sabbah from the 11th century and the condemnation of cannabis as a sacrament for witches by Pope Innocent the 8th in 1485. I will leave the retelling of those stories for another time, or you can read his interpretations. He also discusses how the alchemist Paracelsus successfully transferred the Dionysian pagan potions of sorcery to what we now consider the rational Apollonian healing medicines.

Pollan relates this to the story of Adam and Eve, rather ingeniously. He dismisses any discussion about what type of fruit the tree of knowledge was or exactly what the knowledge was. The important thing is that the tree was there at all. Those story tellers could not dismiss the idea that plants held powers of healing and of insights, because everyone knew that they did. So the new god, Jehovah, who supposedly creates everything and has all of the knowledge, puts the tree in the garden with a warning not to yield to its temptations. Of course they do yield to it, and the rest is history.

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