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Full Review
Pharmacophilia, or The Natural Paradises
by Jonathan Ott
Natural Products Co. 
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 6/28/2006

Jonathan Ott’s latest book kicks off with a poem. In reviewing this, it would be unfair to both the reader and to Mr. Ott, if I didn’t make it clear that—in general—I am not a fan of poetry. With that noted, I can say that I almost wasn’t able to read “Phytomphalos” in its entirety. Ott’s poem is heavily inspired by various influences, which he references in the first endnote, “So as not to lame the music with citations and quotation marks.” While Ott has chosen his influences well, frequently paying tribute to Thoreau and Blake, I believe that Ott’s overwhelming penchant for alliteration pays unmentioned tribute to another “great” of poetry—Theodor S. Geisel. Unfortunately, the massive alliteration that inundates Ott’s opening poem also leaks into the text of Pharmacophilia. And, while occasionally amusing, it is more often than not an irritating side effect—causing the reader to seek out some less “artificial paradise.” Quite aware that poetry is off-putting to some, Ott admits that there is only “a small minority of human animals in principle transportable to the artificial paradises of poetry,” but then remarks that “alliterative word-music poetry […] is capable of stirring the souls of even those who do not apprehend or comprehend its words,” citing the “artificially-constructed linguistic system” of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. However, Ott’s “linguistic system” is too similar to English. By using words that are semi-recognizable, Ott “lames the music” of his poem by causing the reader to repeatedly consult the dictionary throughout the reading! I am hopeful that the Lorax of Ludibund Lozenges will, in the future, stick to well-written prose (which is certainly his forte), and part from the “paradise” of poetry—which, like so much artificial sweetener, leaves a bad aftertaste.

Poetry aside, Pharmacophilia is excellent. Ott argues that the “paradises” drugs can trigger in humans are completely natural. Ott challenges 1800s French poet Charles Baudelaire’s terminology of these states of consciousness—Les Paradis Artificiels (artificial paradises)—and through a number of examples shows that Baudelaire was even likely aware that these are paradises of natural construct.

Presenting commentary on the history of the “celestial pharmaceutics”—entheogens such as Amanita muscaria, Lophophora williamsii, and psilocybian mushrooms—Ott convincingly argues that these genuine sacraments were likely the root of religious thought. Idiosyncratic responses to various drugs are reported; genetic and neurochemical variations are cited as possible reasons for these experiential differences. The “self-medication” theory is presented and lent credence by pharmacological studies. Beneficial directions for psychopharmacological engineering to take are espoused. As to be expected, all topics are blended together skillfully with Ott’s impeccable logic, humor and scathing political commentary, as the following quote testifies to:

Spinelessly submitting to the tyranny of unelected ‘Drug Tsars,’ citizens of the United States consent to degrading assaults on human dignity—urinalysis on the job, ‘body-cavity searches’ in customs—debased and demeaned, not by drugs, but by our obsequiousness. True to form, it’s now become fashionable for cancerous smokers to pursue lawsuits against the tobacco companies, as ‘though they had been forced to ingest tobacco products like so many helpless laboratory animals—the macho ‘Marlboro Man’ pathetically transmogrified into whimpering weakling, powerless to resist the siren songs of smokes!

To a small extent, Pharmacophilia can be seen as a much-expanded redux of “The Etiology of Religion: A History of Hallucinogen Use,” and “The Biochemistry of Emotion;” two chapters from Ott’s 1976 book Hallucinogenic Plants of North America. A number of themes that run through these chapters also appear in Pharmacophilia—replete with the same quotes as examples! It is interesting to compare these two works, noting the point Ott was at a couple of decades ago, and the direction that his writing has taken. His current book presents a well-researched multidisciplinary approach to the study of drug use, throughout the text and the endnotes.

Pharmacophilia is heavily annotated (over half of the text appears in the “Notes”), presenting scientific evidence to back the theories that Ott proposes. Unfortunately, Ott oddly omitted a bibliography in Pharmacophilia, instead including all of the works cited in these endnotes. This makes it much more difficult to look up references—one must painstakingly scan the Notes to find what one is looking for, rather than easily check an alphabetized bibliography.

Even with the poetry (yech) and sans bibliography (sigh), I can heartily recommend Pharmacophilia—my copy of which is already heavily dog-eared.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review, 1998

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