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Roll Away the Stone: An Introduction to Aleister Crowley's Essays on the Psychology of Hashish
by Israel Regardie
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Rendi Case, 11/29/2007

The main body of this book is a series of articles called The Herb Dangerous which originally appeared in the highly acclaimed biannual review The Equinox in four installments from 1909 to1910. The Equinox was subtitled The Review of Scientific Illuminism and its motto – “the method of science, the aim of religion” – sums up its central concern. The famous occultist Aleister Crowley funded and edited The Equinox and wrote many of the works published therein. The Herb Dangerous series is comprised of four distinct works by four different authors. They are collected here under one cover, along with a 65-page introduction by Israel Regardie, who was one of Crowley’s best students and widely considered to be one of the twentieth century’s most important occult authors.

The introduction is an excellent read in its own right. It attempts to familiarize the reader with Crowley’s life work insofar as it pertains to his essay “The Psychology of Hashish” (the centerpiece of this book) so that the reader may appreciate both its content and its historical context. Regardie also gives an interesting occult perspective on the subject of psychedelics and mysticism that is not commonly encountered. Speaking of the 1960s, Regardie says that “recent years have evolved a roster of new and eloquent voices to corroborate and confirm many of Crowley’s once outrageous views relative to psychedelic agents: Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – to name but a few… are directing attention to the dramatic fact that there is now a chemical door which gives promise to open to higher and mystical states of consciousness. This is what Crowley, amongst other things, had been trying to state more than a half a century ago.”

With regard to the possible use of hashish and stronger psychedelics in a mystical practice, Regardie’s opinion is essentially the same as Crowley’s: that a sincere aspirant towards enlightenment, who is well grounded, well trained, psychologically balanced and stable, careful, methodical and resolute, may under certain circumstances gain benefit from the use of certain psychoactive substances. Both men found that hashish and similar substances may give the aspirant something of a preview to states of mind that can be achieved if he or she persists in a spiritual discipline. Neither wrote that psychoactive substances could or should be used as a substitute for disciplined mystical practice.

Crowley wrote mainly about hashish but Regardie discusses the use of substances that were discovered after Crowley had died, especially LSD. The principle, however, is the same. Understandably, Regardie takes pains to assert repeatedly that he recommends against the use of psychedelics by all but the most disciplined of students. “Furthermore,” he writes, “and this is far and away the most important consideration here, Crowley was an experimental mystic of the highest magnitude. He had practiced yoga and magical techniques assiduously for many years until he had achieved a thorough-going mastery over both Eastern and Western methods. All of these rare skills were brought to bear on his experimentation with a variety of drugs.”

Regardie quotes extensively from Crowley, Leary, Watts and others in order to make his point, and he makes it quite well. With a perspective not available to Crowley, who was writing over a half-century earlier, Regardie addresses the criticism that altering perception with drugs makes perception invalid. Regardie quotes from Alan Watts who, in the 1950s wrote, “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these… drugs. If they are an affront of the dignity of the mind, then the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and a telephone to the dignity of the ear…”.

Then again, this is but a reiteration of the brilliant analogy Crowley made in the first place. In his Psychology of Hashish he writes, “My dear professor, how can you expect me to believe this nonsense about bacteria? Come, saith he, to the microscope; and behold them… Is it fair observation to use lenses, which admittedly refract light and distort vision? How do I know those specks are not dust?…suppose he retorts, ‘You have deliberately trained yourself to hallucination!’ What answer have I? None that I know of save that microscopy has revolutionized surgery…Then my friend the physiologist remarks: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with drugs and a special mental training, your results will be invalid.’ And I reply: ‘But if you disturb the observing faculty with lenses and a special training, your results will be invalid.’…So there we are.”

The first part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Pharmaceutical Study of Cannabis Sativa (Being a Collection of Facts as Known at the Present Date)” by E. Whineray M.P.S. It is almost a century out of date but some readers may find it of historical interest. This text is followed with Crowley’s key text, “The Psychology of Hashish.” As stated, this largely concerns the relationship between mystical states achieved with psychoactive substances and mystical states achieved without them. Crowley’s essay is particularly relevant now that we are at a point in history where the scientific community has recently overcome the witch-hunt mentality and intimidation that began in the 1960s as a backlash against Leary and the acid counter-culture and that had effectively stopped all research into the area. In the 1960s certain experiments suggested that psychedelics could give one a genuine mystical experience. Huston Smith, considered to be one of – if not the – foremost authority on comparative religion has demonstrated that there is essentially no difference between mystical states achieved through entheogens (psychedelics) and mystical states achieved through meditation or other practices. Newer research into this area seems to be growing. In 2006, a study at Johns Hopkins indicated that psilocybin can not only give one a spiritual experience but that it can also have long-lasting positive effects upon one’s life. This new research merely validates – albeit with more scientific rigor – the Good Friday Experiment conducted way back in 1962. It has taken 44 years for science to pick up where this experiment left off. But almost a century ago, Crowley wrote that, “I can find no essential difference between the experiences induced, under favorable conditions, by these chemicals and the states of ‘cosmic consciousness’ recorded by R. M. Bucke, William James, Evelyn Underhill, Raynor Johnson and other investigators of mysticism…”

It is for this reason that I feel that a full study of the relationship between psychoactives and mystical discipline should start with – or at least include – Crowley’s “The Psychology of Hashish.” Crowley writes that, with the judicious application of hashish, “I could persuade other people that mysticism was not all folly without insisting on their devoting a lifetime to studying under me; and if only I could convince a few competent observers – in such a matter I distrust even myself – Science would be bound to follow and to investigate, clear up the matter once and for all, and, as I believed, and believe, armed with a new weapon ten thousand times more potent than the balance and the microscope.”

In his essay, Crowley not only claims that hashish may be helpful to some students at the beginning of their mystical training, but also during certain dry spells they may encounter later on. After considerable progress there often comes a period where things seem to slow to a halt. The feeling of enthusiasm dissipates. One feels that the entire thing is pointless and falls into a depressed state. At this point most people give up. Crowley knew that this is the crucial point of darkness before the dawn. In such a case, he found, some people can benefit from a judicious dose of hashish. Due to their hard-earned discipline and training, their experience with hashish would almost certainly be a profoundly mystical one. The aspirant is assured that there is indeed incredible potential in their quest. The hashish experience breathes new life into the fire, and the aspirant is impassioned to press on.

Overall Crowley makes an argument and a plea for science to look into the psychology of meditative states and the methodical cultivation of mystical states through a variety of approaches, including the use of hashish. It would take half a century before such research was conducted at Harvard. This research of course resulted in mass hysteria, and it would be another half century before scientists were able to revisit the study.

Now, then, for some criticism. Whereas Regardie’s section is quite clear, Crowley’s section may try the patience of today’s readers. Like much that was written at that time, Crowley’s essay seems to wander whilst encumbered by fanciful language. If Regardie is straight-forward than Crowley spirals about, though with intention. Both writers make the same points and arrive at the same destination. It is just that Crowley dances to and fro and twirls along the way. He also makes use of a lot of tongue-in-cheek wit that may be missed by some readers.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle in Crowley’s essay is the use of many terms of eastern mysticism. Words like samadhi, nibbana, and vedana are used with little or no explanation. Unfortunately, Regardie’s introduction is not sufficient to clarify Crowley’s essay in this regard. Therefore, I would highly recommend that one read the section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4 as it is the most concise, complete and straight forward treatise on meditation I have yet encountered and would certainly provide the necessary background knowledge for the terms used in “The Psychology of Hashish.”

The third part of The Herb Dangerous is Charles Baudelaire’s “Poem of Hashish,” translated from the French by Crowley. This is not a poem at all but rather a treatise on the effects of hashish. This work is historically important, as it is one of the earliest pieces of non-medical literature on cannabis intoxication by an important writer. However, in my opinion, it is not very well written. To his credit, Baudelaire stresses the importance of set and setting and makes some interesting observations about the interpersonal relations between people who are on hashish and the relations between those on hashish and those who are not. Here it seems Baudelaire is drawing upon his sober observations of his associates in the seminal Hashish Club of Paris in the mid-1800s.

Overall I found the essay to be excruciatingly boring and largely incomprehensible due to its pretentiously superfluous style. I also found it to be bigoted towards women and the working class; women, according to Baudelaire, are unable to truly analyze their minds and the working class are unable to think beyond their mud, cattle, shovels and whatnot. Most tiresome of all is the fact that Baudelaire is ultimately against pleasure. To sum up his position, hashish can allow one to experience heavenly states of mind with ease and without years of toil and struggle; therefore it must be bad. I concede that there is some merit to his assertion that hashish compromises one’s will. But there seems to be no rational basis to his aversion to pleasure. It is interesting that Crowley included this treatise in The Herb Dangerous because – unlike Baudelaire – Crowley had consciously overcome the irrational aversion to pleasure and would certainly disagree with Baudelaire’s verdict.

The fourth part of The Herb Dangerous is “A Few Extracts from H. G. [sic] Ludlow, The Hashish [sic] Eater which bear upon the peculiar characteristics of the drug’s action”. This work may be somewhat archaic in style to the modern reader. It is certainly flowery and romantic. The excerpts are descriptive of the effects of hashish as Ludlow experienced them. Speaking for myself, it seems that (F. H.) Ludlow greatly exaggerated his experiences so as to make The Hasheesh Eater more interesting to readers, though I could be wrong. Often it seems like he is describing the effects of heroic doses of strong hallucinogens rather than hashish. Whatever the case I found this section of the book a delight to read though my eyebrow was often raised in bemused suspicion.

Though I found Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater interesting, the really important texts here are Regardie’s introduction and Crowley’s essay. Although I would think that readers interested in historical works of literature concerning psychoactives would enjoy this book, its real value lies in its profound insight into the relationship between the states of mind that the mystically inclined may experience with psychedelics and the states of mind induced through spiritual, occult, meditative and mystical disciplines.

At the beginning of the 21st century the new field of neurotheology – the study of the relationship between the human brain and religious or mystical experiences – is just getting underway. With Crowley’s Psychology of Hashish we see him anticipating this field without technology but with personal experience, careful note-taking, and intelligent reflection.

I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in the relationship between psychoactives and the mystical or religious experience as long as they read, understand and appreciate the aforementioned section on meditation in Crowley’s Book 4. Even then, I recommend it only for Regardie’s and Crowley’s sections. Unfortunately, however, one would really be paying for Regardie’s introduction alone because the remainder of this book is easy enough to find on the net (here). I do not recommend it to readers who are interested in the writings of Baudelaire and Ludlow. One can find other and better books devoted to their writings and, as mentioned, these sections are readily available on the net. Furthermore, in this book one will find only excerpts of Ludlow’s The Hasheesh Eater, whereas the entirety can be found on the net.

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