Something Quite a Bit Stronger
THE DOOR LOOKED quite
ordinary. A glass pane screened with a curtain, a price-list with beers and
genevers. I grabbed the brass doorknob and stepped inside. To my dismay the
place was deserted. A lone black man sat at the far end of the bar, staring into
his beer. The barkeeper stood polishing a glass, his face a blank as if he had
done nothing else all night. I ordered a genever and checked myself in the
mirror, greeting that eager young face between the bottles with a wry smile.
Here I was, budding young poet from the provences, in
Inflamed articles in Christian family magazines had alerted me to its existence: an infernal hole, infested by the sin of marihuana smoking. The place was reported to be frequented by blacks and artists, in Protestant iconography both standing for lack of morals and lewd life styles. Grainy low-key photographs depicted the sinners as dancing and smiling and making out. It seemed a great way to go to hell.
But none of that now. Must be their quiet night. Darn, had I come hitch-hiking fifty miles for nothing? It couldn't be true. But what to do? Address that stranger at the other end of the bar: 'Psshh, would you happen to have some marihuana?'
No, that wouldn't play,
least of all in front of that bartender. Besides, the man was black. I hadn't
seen many blacks and spoken to fewer. Outside
My heart pounded as if I was doing a war dance. Yet absolutely nothing was happening. The imbalance made me feel unsteady. My soul was all over the place, trying to slip out the door. Should I just ask the barman? Saturday night radio plays had taught me that barmen were the designated contacts for contraband and illicit services. But could I take the man in trust? Caution was of the essence. Simon Vinkenoog, the poet, a frequent Cotton Club guest, had just been handed a jail sentence for two crumbs of grass found in his girlfriend's handbag. Only five weeks (the Dutch have never been great incarcerators), but still.
My agitation rose to a point where I charged the whole cafe with static electricity. Soon they'd notice. I asked for another genever. The barman slammed the glass down in front of me and proudly poured a head that stood a full millimetre over the rim. The liquid, science classes had taught me, curved up as a result of its surface tension.
I bent over to suck the head off; just then the door swung open behind me. I looked up in the mirror, glimpsed a young man in a grey herringbone coat. The newcomer sat down next to me, leaving a no man's land of one stool between us. He had crew cut hair, which marked him as a fashion contrarian, or a recently freed jailbird. His steel-rimmed glasses magnified so powerfully that it looked as if he had been implanted cow's eyes. Cows with pale blue eyes; very rare, found only in clumsy similes. He ordered an apple-juice and gave me a long stare.
The barman and the black started to throw some dice, that customary method to hide despair. Now the young man leaned over to me: 'Hey, you looking for something?'
His voice sounded cracked and hesitant, as if he hadn't spoken in months. I stole a sideways glance to make sure we weren't observed and whispered: 'I actually came looking to buy some marihuana.'
The young man appraised me. 'No use looking for it here. All they sell here is stramonium'.
'Asthma tea, Stramonii folia. Looks deceptively similar. You get it at Jacob Hooy's druggists across the square for twenty cents per gram. It doesn't make you high.'
'Well, have you got something better?'
The young man broke into a mocking snigger. His monstrous eyes seemed to protrude right through his glasses. 'Something better? Oh yeah, you can say that...'
I looked at him expectantly.
'I have some yage [yah-gay]. Quite a bit stronger than marihuana. Lasts for eight hours - at least.'
'Yage? What's that?'
My God, what a backwoods oaf I must seem. Couldn't speak four sentences without asking for clarification twice. The young man granted me another look into his enlarged retinas. He looked over his shoulder as if he expected a whole squad of undercover agents to be eavesdropping on us and said: 'Let's go somewhere else.'
Once on the street he introduced himself as Onno, a name like a pair of glasses that fitted him perfectly. We walked through the old Jodenbreestraat, passing Jewish cloth merchants fighting bankruptcy and vacant shops proven to be lethal to commerce of any kind. Onno walked along next to me in silence, his gaze directed at the concrete sidewalk tiles.
'Gee, those tiles are too much', he suddenly exclaimed. 'Pink, green, purple... What a palette!'
To me the tiles seemed solid grey. Besides, I thought we were far enough from the Cotton Club by now to get down to business.
'Where are we going?'
'To my house. You don't
think I'd carry that stuff around, do you?' He spoke with a working-class
'How far is it?'
Onno looked at me condescendingly: 'Man, that yage is so out of this world... If you knew you'd be willing to walk all night to get it.'
'Come on then, tell me what it is!'
'It's from South-America. You know, the stuff the Indians use in their religious trances. But this is the better kind - it doesn't make you throw up.'
It was good news that I wouldn't be made to throw up, but his phrasing worried me. In his circles apparently, knowledge about exotic customs was assumed. To obtain needed information without underscoring my ignorance I'd have to proceed gingerly.
'This yage of yours - which tribe does it come from?'
Onno's face creased into a mocking smirk, like the Cheshire Cat. 'What should I tell you that for? It's not cool, man, to talk about your sources.'
'Alright, but then what exactly does it do?'
'Well, it eh... It really blows your mind.' Onno pondered a moment. 'Far out visual stuff, everything dissolves. Too much, you know? Heavy hallucinations...
'I can give you four doses for twenty five.'
I regretted that I
wouldn't be able to try the sinful marihuana this evening, but figuring that
anything is better than nothing I decided to plug along. Onno spoke less and
less. Twenty minutes later we were in Amsterdam-East, a poor district
struggling to maintain respectability. Streets named after the formerly Dutch
We hobbled up a staircase with a decent runner. No cooking smells. A door on the third floor with a small engraved nameplate: Nol. An unusual surname that, when tagged onto my contact's first name, produced the moniker onnonol. A name like a molecule. The narrow corridor was dominated by one of those oak coat racks with a small oval mirror, optionally replaced by a picture of loved ones. Onno opened the door of the living room a crack, muttered a few words of appeasement and led me along to his room, which looked like the study of an apprentice alchemist. A table covered in Erlenmeyer flasks, Bunsen burners, alembics, a vacuum pump, and sundry chemical apparatuses. Shelved arrays of stoppered bottles.
Onno retrieved a small bottle, hidden behind a large brown one labelled Bicarbonate of Soda, and held it to the light to show me the dark brown solution. It didn't look appetising. He took a pipette and squirted a few centilitres into a tiny flask: 'This is what I can give you for twenty five.'
I gave him the money.
As I made ready to leave he took me by the arm. 'Hey man, you're cool right? Don't talk about this to anyone, okay?'
'Of course not. It's illegal isn't it?'
'No, there's no law against it, but the more people talk about it the sooner there will be, you dig?'
I confirmed that I dug it, whatever that meant, and made ready to leave, suspecting that anything legal was probably useless. The backwoods oaf was just getting ripped off.
'Take it on an empty stomach and don't drink any alcohol or smoke tobacco; that'd just bring you down. When it wears off, smoking some weed is fine.'
'I don't have any,' I said piqued. 'I was trying to buy some, remember?'
Onno smiled reassuringly: 'You won't miss it.'
'You sure this is stronger than marihuana?'
That sinister laugh again. 'Oh yeah, you can say that. You'll see, it's really, eh - too much. Don't take it all at once.'
Keeping these clear directions in mind, three days later my classmate Roland Regtersen and I each took one fourth of the yage - at least that is what we thought it was. The setting was Roland's mansard room in a stately building on the Singel.
After fifteen minutes of nervous expectation we still noticed nothing. After twenty minutes I felt it was time for a swig of rum to drown the disappointment, and another for the disgrace. But before I could reach the bottle, leave alone screw the top off, the wallpaper became a luminous, wriggling mass that dripped down the walls, the ceiling turned into billowing clouds, and the furniture, looking puffy as if it had been inflated, stood swaying on rubber legs.
It was funny to look at and made me feel powerful: the world was disintegrating, but I was not. My focus seemed to determine where the disintegration proceeded most rapidly. I only needed to stare at Roland's old roll-top desk for it to melt into a shapeless turd of browns and greens that smelled sweetly of pencils, carbon-paper and dried ink. My own body became equally amorphous, a huge amoeba that sprouted floppy tentacles left and right. I felt as light as a feather and enjoyed the currents of electricity that raced in and out of my brain, communicating with these tortuous extremities.
Seeing the threadbare Persian rug ripple as if carried by a strong wind, I went on my knees, crawled over and sat down on it. I felt it levitate and carry me away a few feet. It had turned into a magic carpet! I could have told it to carry me wherever I wanted, but didn't want to go anywhere just now, being too happy where I was. The walls, still dripping as if they had been sprayed with a milky liquid, on closer inspection proved to be the skin of a huge organism that enveloped us like a womb. I pointed this out to Roland, who answered with a big, speechless grin.
Another five minutes later we were prostrate on the floor, alternately weeping with laughter and crying like babies. Tears streamed down our faces in a never-ending flow. Soon the floor was inundated with our glistening liquids, it leaked under the door and trickled down the stairs. Any word we uttered attained almost tangible substance, swelling and swelling till it filled the room. And the music - the music! The soprano tones of John Coltrane playing 'The Inch Worm' squiggled through my veins like red, yellow and orange snakes, Elvis Jones's drumming conjured up silver and platinum planets in feverish succession, whole worlds were created and destroyed in seconds.
I had never experienced music so intensely. When I moved, the sounds moved with me, changing timbre and palette. My whole being had become a symphony, a cosmic rendition of my sentiments. The last note didn't just die away, but lingered, like the spirit of a friend who has left the room. The walls regained some of their solidity, the ceiling was a flat stucco surface again and if we moved a limb it did not translate into the shifting of subcutaneous streams of tepid lava.
Apparently the effect was wearing off. What a shame, but still - what satisfaction to have experienced these wonderful phenomena. Well worth the money. We stared at each other silently, there being no need to communicate what each of us had gone through: it was obvious that we had shared not just the music, but also the sweeping mood changes and the opening of inner worlds as vast as the outer world.
We had read Ruysbroeck
Hermetic authors of all ages had told us: the secret knowledge lies waiting within, ready to be tapped - and here it was. All it now took was to formulate it and write it down for all to understand... I grabbed pen and paper and, staring into space, furiously penned down my newly gotten grasp of the universe. I didn't even think about what words to write, they appeared by themselves. This was it: the fabled automatic writing of the surrealists! Unfortunately, it later turned out, I wrote all those enlightened words in the same thumbprint-size space, creating a tangled mass of looping scribbles, with all the density of a well-used Brillo pad.
After thus recording my
precious thoughts for posterity, I got off the floor and stretched out on
Roland's sagging sofa, my head close to his pre-war Telefunken radio, and
slowly turned the dial. 'Try to find some Wagner', Roland urged, but I had
never shared his enthusiasm for the celebration of depression and looked for
something lighter. Radio
Memories from early childhood came back to me in Technicolor, mixed with dreams and absurd apparitions. My dead grandma, mom's mother, lay on her bed as in prayer, strands of white flowers where her hair used to be. Butterflies flew up from her forehead. Somewhere else but at the same time my father's father was casting concrete poles for a farmer's fence, holding forth on the wonderful qualities of cement, one of the two stuffs that hold the world together, the other distilled spirits. On the farm in Wilp where I played as a child, roamed horses with human faces; distant relatives, former neighbours and school teachers. A few I disliked took on their human form, crowded around me and led me off the meadow into a dark woods, where lived monsters of all description. Gnomes with alligator tails and frog-spitting witches; horses with fish-heads, impaled women roasted on spits and emperors fornicating pigs... Our compatriot Hieronymus Bosch had been here, that was clear.
When the effects, once again, seemed on the wane, I lifted my head and stared entranced at the illuminated dial with its staggered array of AM radio stations. I started reading them out loud, declaiming them like poetry:
Lyon, Magyarovar, Bologna,
Each name conjured up new sentiments that filled the room with smells and colours and the spirits of thousands of people. Then the words lost their meaning and the letters began to dance and cluster together into a bamboo forest of pale yellow lines. Out of this forest emerged gelatinous bodies soon gaining outline: a group of gaily dressed dwarfs who paraded about singing a strangely meandering song full of meaning: 'Listen my son, you are entering a new world. Everything you experience, you will experience as a newborn child. Step into this world and enjoy...'
A few minutes later, when the surging yage experience entered another trough, the strange song turned out to be the whining of a distant station, drifting in and out of tune.
After a few hours we were no longer surprised by the constant waxing and waning of the effects: we'd come down from a crest and be more or less sober for a few minutes, then we'd feel it gain strength once more, like ocean surf, and joyfully let us be swooped up. By now we cheered each wave like children racing up a roller-coaster: 'Yahoo! Hold on to your soul! There we go again!'
Being of a scientific mind, we had prepared by studying the recent doctoral thesis on LSD-research by Dr. F. van Ree, which must, we felt, be somehow relevant, and ran some of the tests he used. We taped most of the session. Roland transcribed the tapes, adding actions or facial expressions as he remembered them. Ten thousands words. Crazy, yes definitely, but what a document humain. This is from the first phase:
"P.: Strange that this stuff makes you so, so eh - see the fun side of things. A: (laughing) Yes, and mind you, when those poor research subjects were as high as this, the psychiatrists would give them an Abramson. (Abramson's Vegetative Symptoms Inquiry.) 'Do your lips feel dull?' Ha! Do they feel dull? Oaho! Imagine trying to answer that! P: I don't even know where my lips are. I mean, I use them, but I have no idea how. It's all so strange... Very pure and - A: It all goes so fast. You know what you are doing at a given moment, but by the time you realise what it is, it's already over, passé. P: It just shoots on. Like a lens moving through time. And we are sitting in the lens, we are the lens.
A: (continuing research): 'Are your lips curled, as in a smile?' P: I smile all the time. Cheeks are tiring actually - should relax. A: Tears. I am wet with tears. Look! (wipes his face) Where is that on the list! (breaks into loud laughter). P: It doesn't have any colour. Or rather it has a lot of colours, like an opal, all separate. Green and violet... No, blue! I see lots of blue! Fluorescent, but it's all contours, fine lines inside other colours. It's quite garish actually, like a cheap fair. A: Ah, it's not good enough, huh? P: No it's good, it's just so - neon! Oh wow! It's all neon!"
Any regrets about not having found marihuana by now had dissipated. This was great! Far better than being drunk or stupefied by the chloroform, speed and barbiturates that we had experimented with in order to free our artistic spirits from the constraints of normal, psychiatrically approved awareness.
Roland's success at freeing his spirit from the constraints of normal, psychiatrically approved awareness rapidly became a problem. Reading back the transcript I realize better than I did at the time that psychiatrically speaking he was quite a handful. The fact that on this first trip I managed to restrain Roland within safe boundaries may well have set my protective attitude towards fellow-trippers and sparked my interest in trip-guiding. Fortunately most subjects didn't need any restraint whatever, so I could let go more myself.
Roland had been hyper and energetic from the beginning, displayed all the vegetative symptoms in the book, and vocalised forcefully. If I didn't know better I'd think he had gone psychotic. I worried about the neighbours and repeatedly suggested Roland to do something else than prowl around in the small space, and express himself other than through yelling and hollering:
"P: Why not, for a change, pick a test that doesn't make you laugh? A real boring test, that's what we're looking for. A: What about this, Lie Score from Heron's Two Part Personality Inventory. "Two Part Personality", that sounds promising! (roars with laughter) Okay, there he goes: 'I like to be alone with my thoughts.' Oh, if that were possible, yes, haha! Next: 'I draw premature conclusions.' Ooaah, I do indeed! P: (sternly) You sure you do? I think you draw no conclusions at all.' A: Are you on about the neighbours again? P: (grumbles) A: 'I have trouble loosening up, even at a party.' (roars with laughter, slaps his thighs)
P: Well, this is loosening you up, that's for sure. What it also does... A: Of course, this isn't a party. For a party you want to go to a pub. Where it would be very quiet. Except for those glasses there over the bar - those three rows of glasses, I would just sweep them off and - P: And then, when you finally came to you'd find yourself in a police cell. A: Yes, and that is also funny - that when you wake up you are cold and then you ask for a blanket and then they don't give it to you. Boy, oh boy. (salvo of laughter)
P: Someone downstairs slams a door. They never slam doors around here! A: (grinning) Yeah, the neighbours, great. Why don't you bring in the police too? I hear sirens... (Homeric laughter, followed by 20 sec of silence.) P: The fact that we have lost our inhibitions doesn't mean that our neighbours have. A: Inhibitions, ah nice, I love inhibitions, when you make them snap they go 'pop' like an elastic band.
P: You talk so much nonsense, that's a shame really. I mean, you could have used all those words to say things that later are important to have on tape. A: (laughing, starting to roll a cigarette) Why would that be important? Act out, you'll like it! (jumps about the room, sweeps row of books off desk) P: Listen man, this is getting annoying. A: O yeah, well this is very innocent still, I tell you. This is nothing, nothing! If I let myself go... (snorting noises) You've got to behave as if you were in padded cell. P: But that's not the case, Roland. A: Don't you realize then? This is a psychiatric ward! Look, there is serious testing going on!
P: It does start to look like a nuthouse here, yes, what with all those books on the floor... (brief silence) Alas, they do cruelly little for their patients here. You've even got to roll you own cigarettes. Look at how those strands of tobacco snake away between your fingers. It must be awfully tiring for those poor sods to be struggling with this all the time. Everything is so hard to do... A: They don't get old. P: They wear out fast. Just imagine, having this raging on all the time, seeing it all, hearing it all. A: (pulling the cord out of his house-coat) No, they take a rope, wind it around their necks (does what he says) and hand it to a friend to pull. Would you please... That's how they die young. P: (ignoring cord) I mean that it exhausts you physically. A: This is so taxing, doctor, I think I'll go on the roof.
P: It's now . That means we've been like this some four, no five hours. Maybe we should try to quieten down a bit. Let's not act out and talk all the time. Why don't you try to forget that I'm here - could you do that? No you couldn't. (both are silent a little while) You see, when you shut up and close your eyes it gets even better. A: (sighing) Yes, yes, winding down, we are winding down, winding, winding... P: I find it hard to explain to the young listeners at home, but it is coming in waves. At one moment we can have a perfectly sane discussion when you notice nothing peculiar in our voices (choking laughter), the next moment a new wave reaches us and... Gee, I really cannot explain how it feels. A: (cheering) Insanity, that's how it feels! Yoohoo, we've gone insane! P: Forget it, not me. A: You're much too serious...'
Roland was right. I was much too serious to completely lose myself that time. I envied him his freedom. He was letting it all hang out, whereas I, even as I was faraway, was constantly manning a little control room, making sure things didn't get out of hand. I realized then that insanity is the ultimate luxury: the total release from responsibility. Alas, the price of that luxury is being locked up and eating shitty food. Not to mention the promazines, the largactils, the shocks, the lobotomy. No, you've got to remain in control...
Staying in control is not the greatest thing to do on a trip, in fact it is the last thing you should be doing or trying to do if you want a full-blown experience, but it makes excellent training for a trip-guide. If I could keep a manic-depressive from jumping off the roof while handling my own first stellar experience, I must be able to handle less disturbed personalities with comfort. As for losing myself, it would take less distracting settings, more confidence inspiring partners to achieve that.
Later on we did enjoy a few quieter phases. But they were not on tape. Perhaps the very act of taping invited verbal expression, and when the tapes stopped, so did the urge to fill them. As Sidney Cohen said in The Beyond Within, "Just as Heisenberg's measurements changed the path of the subatomic particles he was measuring, so attempts to transmit what is happening in the LSD state changes the happening."
The 'uncertainty principle' that Heisenberg formulated is one of the most consequential concepts of this century - and it had great influence on the psychedelic movement, because it supported users' intuitive knowledge. It says that you can’t study processes without influencing what you are observing. Therefore we shall never know for certain how elementary particles behave, and can only predict their behaviour with varying degrees of probability. The more you know about where they are, for instance, the less you know about their speed and vice versa. Summarized: in the material world you can't know anything about anything for certain. This meant the end of the Newtonian world. No more objective, measurable reality. Everything is in flux, panta rei - as anyone taking a psychedelic invariably discovers.
Amazingly, news of this new way of looking at things, introduced in 1927, has yet to reach the broader public. (Perhaps because, as Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia states: 'Ordinary experience provides no clue of this principle.') This is very unfortunate, because every law of physics that is understood by the laity has massive influence on the functioning of society. Galilei's discovery that the Earth was not the centre of the universe convinced many that the King wasn't either and opened society to more democratic views. Nowadays, wider acceptance of Heisenberg's fluid concept of reality might make us less confrontational. Less 'Up to there is you, and here is where I begin'.
Universal uncertainty is the first cosmological principle one discovers when taking psychedelics. In the extra-ordinary experience, Compton's line may be reversed. There is no end of clues. Every trip begins with a process of dissolution. Visually, at first, then internally, as the ego starts to melt - just like the coffee table did ten minutes ago. From that moment on, the world, and its mirror image in the mind, stop being concrete and tangible, but are seen for what they are: thought processes. Knowing this, you can play with them and create realities at your whim.
Say there is a bonsai tree on that melted coffee table. You can op