Mescaline by Michael Jay

Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic, Michael Jay. Yale University Press, 2019.

Michael Jay’s Mescaline: A Global History of the First Psychedelic is a thorough history of the mescaline molecule from pre-colonial use to the present day. It is certainly debatable whether mescaline is the “first psychedelic” ever used by humans, but it is the first psychedelic known to Western science–but Jay makes clear that there is much more to mescaline’s history than just the scientific perspective. The book focuses mostly on the history of mescaline from the late nineteenth century to today, but as the book shows, two mostly separate (but sometimes converging) histories emerge that have played out simultaneously over the last 150 years.

The first history is how the use of mescaline (in the form of peyote) spread through the Native American tribes of the Plains and the Southwest of the United States. Outside of Texas and Mexico, where peyote grows indigenously, peyote use had not been common among Native Americans before the late nineteenth century, and the growing use of peyote in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was even met with hostility by more traditional Native American elders. But over time, the peyote rituals came to be seen as a pan-Native American religion that could exist independently of the white man’s religion. In this way, peyote and the rituals surrounding it became a religion that promoted mental, physical and spiritual health and social cohesion among disparate tribes.

However, this new religion had plenty of obstacles to overcome. Most white politicians and leaders of the time thought that Native Americans should be assimilated into white culture; sadly, they had no respect for Native American culture and all they could have learned from it. One of the few exceptions was the ethnologist James Mooney, who worked for the Smithsonian Institution and testified before Congress to prevent a prohibition on peyote. The great Native American Chief Quanah Parker observed of Mooney that he was “the only white man who knows our religion.” Quanah Parker, for his part, was one of the main leaders who spread the peyote religion that was eventually incorporated as the Native American Church. In defense of his religion, Quanah said, “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus, but the Indian goes into his tipi and talks to Jesus.”

One other notable exception to the racist dismissal of Native American use of peyote was Frederick Madison Smith, third Prophet-President of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and grandson of the Church founder Joseph Smith. Smith had participated in peyote ceremonies with the Native American Church and believed the Church of Latter-Day Saints could learn much from the Native American’s use of peyote. Unfortunately, more traditional elements of the Church opposed this point of view, and nothing came of it.

The second history the book describes is the exploration of mescaline by white American and European scientists, philosophers and artists. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these mescaline adventurers looked down upon Native American rituals as primitive and superstitious. Scientists and doctors tried to find a medical use for mescaline, after having isolated the chemical from the peyote cactus. Many were under the impression that mescaline would create effects similar to schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, although clear differences existed between any known mental illness and the effects of mescaline. Ultimately, most scientists came to see the mescaline experience as a psychological curiosity without much medical value.

With philosophers and artists, it was more of a mixed bag. Aldous Huxley famously, and to his credit, celebrated mescaline as a doorway to Mind-at-Large; Sartre found it to unmask the nausea of everyday life. The multifaceted Belgian artist Henri Michaux fought the force of the mescaline every time he took it, which any seasoned psychonaut will tell you is a great recipe for disaster. Again, racism led to ignorance of the best and most beneficial use of the medicine; as Jay writes, “[Michaux] had no interest in the experience of peyote users in traditional cultures.” Michaux simply dismissed their activities with peyote as uninteresting. The notorious magickian Aleister Crowley had more success with a spiritual use of mescaline; he “approached it … as a latter-day alchemist” and was probably the “first [European] to adopt it as a ritual sacrament.”

This was a well-written, intriguing book that details the path mescaline has taken from ancient North and South American practices, through scientific bungling and ill-considered experiments by artists and bohemians, to today’s enthusiasts of San Pedro and MDMA (a phenethylamine chemically related to the mescaline molecule). My only criticism would be that the book spends less space discussing the growth of mescaline use among Native Americans in the United States and more space on white American and European exploration of the psychedelic; however, this may be because of a lack of written records documenting the spread of peyote among Native Americans.

The conclusion I drew after reading the book was that if only the white scientists, doctors, philosophers, artists and politicians could have overcome their racism against Native Americans, they would have seen that the benefits and healing powers of mescaline had already been discovered and well-explored by the Native Americans. One can only imagine that if they had done so, psychiatry and psychotherapy could be light years ahead of where they are now. We might just even have a society of healthy, happy people who live in cooperation rather than competition–what a thought!


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