A Curriculum of the Soul

I was lucky enough to find a copy of Albert Glover’s The Mushroom: a curriculum of the soul recently. Published in 1972, this small, scarce, orange-clad pamphlet is a poetic record of the author’s hunt and subsequent trip with the folklorist’s favourite fairy mushroom, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria).

When first I found you it was underneath a white
Pine tree. That wood I took for my staff,
That image entered my dreams.
Led by a boy I walked through the pine plantation
Calling your name, Mukhomer!

The poem describes Glover’s hunt for mukhomer (a folk name for the mushroom) and is filled with earthy imagery, which slips and slides between his exterior and interior in the great play of set and setting. He also includes a short prose piece describing his journey that whilst, on the one hand, contextualises some of the imagery in the poem, also describes the experience itself as being more difficult and challenging.

The prose begins by recounting his pre-internet era search for information and books, letters to the poet Charles Olson, tangles with Wasson’s works, and all the means with which to prepare his set, setting, and dose. He even began to wear ritual feathers in readiness for his journey and to underscore the importance of sacralising his communion with the mushroom.

Yet what is abundantly clear from his prose is that no matter the preparation, the set, setting and dose mantra can very quickly become a meaningless abstraction to the tripper deep in to their psychedelic steps. There are too many wonders at work, and a lifetime of reflection waiting with the come down at the other end. Having eaten mukhomer, he writes:

I had become oblivious to the surroundings which awaited my gaze. I was afraid to look! Mistakenly (though, of course) I centered on myself rather than the other. Waves of fear passed over me if I thought. And so I struggled for – how long? To simply sit patient. Facing the unknown in such a literal fashion provides stress in what we preconceive as otherwise ‘safe’ lives.

He proceeds to feel a moment of euphoria, “I was alive!” but then remembered the suggestion of a friend who’d told him Amanita muscaria causes blindness, the potential took hold in his present. Suddenly he wished to leave his wilderness, which he found “indifferent” to him, and wanted “the shelter of lover which would comfort me in the misery of blindness.” Stumbling his way home, he eventually fell into a deep sleep.

The interplay of set and setting can be an impossible management task, where one can pull the rug out from the other, or quickly clothe it in blindness and leave one stumbling. Identity, which is the state that set and setting attempt to nestle and gently control, is itself fluidly reconceptualising one’s set and setting whilst one trips. For Glover, the mechanics of management fell quickly away.

The feathers I wore were a borrowed invention I did not truly understand, like Buddhism, Taoism, Tantrism, anythingism, that entire range of borrowed alternatives which bring us to a lonely kitchen, a stranger to myself and my nation.

In some respects the poetry of a bad experience is infinitely easier to communicate than that of a good one. There’s often little tension or drama in the latter, indeed, there may be nothing but the fixed white light of ineffable eternity; a white-wash. Glover concludes by saying “It is more difficult to be a man than a bird, beast, or flower.” He eventually sees the challenge as too great, not to be returned to, yet his expression of the difficultly is arguably only the introduction to the problem of unfixed identity.

There is a cycle of three trip reports in this journal by Dave King, Ryan Nash, and Anonymous (not, I should say, the masked interweb bandits.) Each has a very different writing style and manner of approaching their experiences, yet all explore some of the difficulties in conceptualising their set and setting amidst the throes of their respective substances. With the best original intentions, those we surround ourselves with, and the different selves we each bring to the table combine and fall-away into unexpected places, identities and roles.

Elsewhere, Andrew Gallimore speculates on the mechanics of how concepts arise within and without a psychedelic state in his article Building Human Worlds: DMT and the Simulated Universe. Matt Cook’s short story The Cactus Dance is a strange tale of psychedelic indoctrination where a presumed shared world can quickly be revealed to be dissociated universe. Samantha Banbury and Joanne Lusher look at the potential therapeutic implications of smokable DMT in conjunction with CBT for poly-drug users. And finally, there’s an article by myself exploring how the relationship between literature and science helped give birth to the psychedelic discourse of the 1960s.

In each case, territories and fields are coming together and breaking apart in nuanced ways, just as the intentions behind set and setting can do. Embracing novelty is recognising, as Glover wrote, that “Dreams did take place which will take a lifetime to understand.”

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