scenes from the writing life: robert graves, poetry and mushroom cults

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. . . The other great psychedelic pioneer of the 1950s was a J. P. Morgan vice president and amateur mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson and his wife had already written a voluminous work on the history of mushroom lore, Russia, Mushrooms, and History (1957) when, apparently through a conversation with the English poet Robert Graves, he found out about the continuing existence of a cult in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, that used teonanacatl, the vision-inducing mushrooms that Spanish writers had talked of after the conquest of Mexico. This mushroom cult had been discovered by an Austrianborn physician, Blas Pablo Reko, and picked up on by the Harvard botanist Richard Evans Schultes, who had traveled to Oaxaca in 1938 with Reko to witness the ceremonial use of the mushrooms. Schultes’ interest in the cult was botanical (he claimed that he experienced none of the visionary dimensions of the plants he “discovered”), but Wasson saw the cultural and religious significance of the story and traveled to Oaxaca, where, on August, 15, 1953, he took the mushrooms (which were of three species, the best known being Stropharia cubensis) with the Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina.Wasson published a widely read account of his trip in LIFE magazine in 1957, but was apparently appalled when others who read his account began traveling to Oaxaca. Wasson argued that psychedelic mushrooms provided the key to many of the world’s religious mysteries, including the soma of the Vedas, the Eleusinian rites of Ancient Greece, certain visions related in the Zend Avesta, the holy scripture of Zoroastrianism, and the tree of good and evil in the Bible, but made no comment on contemporary use of the drugs. Forgetting his own LIFE article, he later criticized the vulgarization of contemporary discourse about the drugs, calling the term “psychedelics” “a barbarous formation,”101 and with a group of colleagues proposed a new term, “entheogen,” to describe the drugs—a term that conveniently obscures the nontheogenic nature of most twentieth-century use of the drugs.

 Robert Graves also believed that the psychedelics provided a source for much of the world of classical and preclassical mythology. In a review of Wasson’s work published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1956, he already speculated that the cult of Dionysus held mushroom orgies.102 On January 31, 1960, when he was sixty-four, Graves took mushrooms with Wasson in New York, and wrote an essay about it called “The Poet’s Paradise” (1961), which he read to Oxford students in the early 1960s. Graves described his experience in highly mythical terms, feeling that the mushrooms were taking him back to the world of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian paradise. He experienced worlds of jewels, demons, and erotic fantasy, while Wasson played a tape recording of Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina chanting. Graves was impressed, although he noted caustically, that “what was for thousands of years a sacred and secret element, entrusted only to persons chosen for their good conduct and integrity, will soon be snatched at by jaded sensation-seekers.”103 Such people would be disappointed, however, because instead of drunken oblivion they would experience heightened insight into themselves—which they might find less than recreational. Yet Graves believed that the experience of the mushroom was passive when compared to that of poetic trance: “It seems established that Tlalocan [Aztec word for paradise], for all its sensory marvels, contains no palace of words presided over by the Living Muse, and no small white-washed cell . . . to which a poet may retire and actively write poems in her honour, rather than bask sensuously under her spell.”104 A little later, Graves had an experience of synthetic psilocybin with Wasson, which disappointed everyone involved. Graves wrote that it had been “all wrong, a common vulgar drug, no magic, and followed by a nasty hang-over.”105 In the late 1960s he dismissed marijuana in print as being a low-class type of drug.

 —from Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Harvard (pp 253-255).

Notes 

101. Wasson, R. Gordon, Stella Kramrisch, Jonathan Ott, and Carl Ruck. 1986. Persephone’s Quest: Entheogens and the Origins of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 30.

102. “Centaur’s Food,” reprinted in Graves, Robert. 1960. Food for Centaurs: Stories, Talks, Critical Studies, Poems. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. A review of Wasson’s “Soma, Mushrooms, and Religion” was published in Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1973)—in which Graves notes that Wasson does not credit him for developing the idea of Greek soma. The book also contains another essay on the mushroom experience, “The Universal Paradise.”

103. Robert Graves, 1969. On Poetry: Collected Talks and Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 380.

104. Graves, 1969, 382.

105. Graves, Richard. 1995. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 306.

 

 

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