Cataloging one's psychonautical experiences is a long-standing tradition in Western writing--from Thomas de Quincey's struggles with laudanum addiction detailed in his 1822 biography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Fitz Hugh Ludlow's philosophical flights of fancy conveyed in his 1857 book The Hasheesh Eater, to Henri Michaux's poetic 1956 grumblings about the Miserable Miracle of mescaline, which Aldous Huxley more favorably characterized as a "gratuitous grace" a couple of years earlier in The Doors of Perception. There's a laundry list of published authors tackling the topic in more recent years, and the advent of the web has inspired thousands to post trip reports online. Indeed, the easy access to computers, word processing software, and on-demand publishers means that anyone can sell their writing these days. (The previous book reviewed and this one were both produced by web-based publishers, with the e-book options, allowing instant access to virtual copies at a reduced price.) With his new book Peopled Darkness: Perceptual Transformation through Salvia divinorum, James D. Arthur has made a thoughtful contribution to this legacy of literature.
I should point out from the get-go that this author is not the same James Arthur known to some in the entheomycological community for his poorly referenced speculations regarding Amanita muscaria and Christianity. That James Arthur hung himself in 2005 while in jail facing his latest round of pedophilia charges. It would be unfortunate if anyone got the two authors mixed up.
There are already a number of books that deal with Salvia divinorum in a general way, and there is a vast amount of historical, botanical, chemical, and cultural data available online at Daniel Siebert's Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center (sagewisdom.org). Hence, Arthur wisely chose to focus Peopled Darkness entirely on his own first-person experiences with the plant, and the philosophical questions that those experiences raised. While many people try any given drug once or twice, and can write up spectacular trip reports or even hit the lecture circuit as "experts," relating riveting tales of their limited encounters, it is much more difficult to take the time to develop a long-term relationship with a single plant ally, like Arthur has done with Salvia divinorum. His first few experiences smoking the plant were chaotic and disorienting:
The visions...were meaningless, repulsive images.... Cartoon characters, crooning trios from the '40s, roller-skating carhops--all made their appearance in a maddening swirl of nonsense. ...I was being sucked into this cacophonous vortex, while trying desperately to hold onto my sanity.
In the face of such effects, it is admirable that Arthur stuck with his trials. But he comes to notice a few consistencies. Each trip seems somehow connected to the previous one. He begins to feel that the space that he is visiting has a level of psychological and physical "reality." And he has a vague but increasing sense that this realm is populated with other consciousnesses.
Eventually Arthur visits other people during his journeys into the Salvia space. The environments to which he is transported seem both foreign and familiar. He starts to remember his own existence in this other realm, while at the same time he forgets his existence in consensual reality. At points he even strongly feels that the Salvia world "is the real world, not the contrived world of personality, ideas, and thoughts, that insulates us from the infinite--that coddles us into clinging desperately to the known." He senses that he is being taught something about how to act while in that realm. Sometimes the people he meets seem a bit put off by the fact that he has arrived and they have to deal with him. Occasionally they are disturbed that he is there at all, and a few times they make remarks that lead him to believe that the space he is visiting is populated by dead people. One young woman in the Salvia realm, who at first was laughing and joking around, recoils on getting a closer look at him, exclaiming, "You're not dead!"
Using examples taken from his tripping journal, Arthur makes some intriguing comparisons between Salvia space and dreaming consciousness. He presents ideas about the different sort of language that seems to be employed in Salvia space. And he characterizes particular sorts of somatic reactions that he has to the drug.
Arthur's experience with Salvia divinorum is vast. He has a keen ability to describe the states of consciousness to which the plant allows access, and his musings about the ontological challenges posed by such mind states are well considered while remaining humble. Arthur is not telling anyone how it is, but rather he is questioning aloud how it might be, and proposing some challenging answers. More than any other entheogenic plant, Salvia divinorum seems to provide the greatest evidence that there is more to the universe than meets the skeptical eye of our serotonin-soaked view of "reality."
Despite its slim size, Arthur has written a comprehensive treatment of the phenomenological effects of Salvia divinorum. It is an insightful book, which I highly recommend.Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review
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