Alexander Shulgin, a biochemist who once worked with Dow Chemical Co. and who died last weekend at the age of 88, was best known for his research on psychoactive drugs, which he would synthesize and test on himself in his backyard laboratory in California. He is regarded as the most important proponent of MDMA (ecstasy) as a recreational drug: It was partly his research and promotion of the drug in the 1970s that led to its widespread use in dance clubs in the late 1980s.
So in many ways, Shulgin the scientist had an enormous effect on culture. His imaginings were part of the ethos and philosophy of rave. He wrote and thought as much like an artist as a chemist. His bestselling book on psychedelic compounds, PiHKAL (which stands for Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved), co-written with his wife Ann and self-published in 1990, begins as a sort of fictionalized memoir about his life – an early example of the kind of non-fiction novel so trendy right now. Then, it becomes a list of chemicals with detailed notes on the perceptual and emotional effects of each one. It’s a weird, artistic hybrid of a book. (A follow-up volume, TiHKAL, about tryptamines, was published six years later.)
Shulgin created about 200 distinct psychedelic drugs, and had thousands of trips himself. He documented them all meticulously, using a simple numeric scale for the intensity of the effects (“plus four” is a peak or transcendent experience). That scale and the rich yet dispassionate vocabulary he used are still standard on hundreds of websites where ravers and other users compare last night’s experiences – notably on Erowid, an august repository of dance drug lore and ratings.
Shulgin basically did for ecstasy what Timothy Leary had done for LSD. Shulgin didn’t invent ecstasy – it was first used in 1912 as a psychiatric drug, patented by Merck – but he certainly revived it by writing with his trademark neutrality about the curious expanding of his sense of compassion and empathy when under its influence. In 1976, he convinced a psychotherapist friend of its therapeutic powers, and that man spread the word among other psychological practitioners who started using it – long before techno music – as an aid to therapy. It wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1986.
A lot of Shulgin’s insights into the effects of chemicals on the brain are reminiscent of the views of artists who have tried to break free of conventional concepts of consciousness. Shulgin’s most famous epiphany came after he was given a glass of orange juice before surgery when he was in the army. He thought it contained a sedative and he went to sleep. It turned out it was just orange juice. This alerted him to the power of the placebo, and he later wrote: “I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.”
This recalls the dictum: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This quotation is usually attributed either to W. B. Yeats or to Paul Éluard, both poets; there is no evidence that either of them said it. (I think no one in particular said it: It is just a thought that occurs to a lot of us, and we want it confirmed by people with proven imaginations. So we attribute it to poets.) The idea is that divine revelation and transcendence are all actually products of human consciousness. The notion that it’s just chemicals that “catalyze its availability” is also embraced by contemporary psychiatry.
The novelist and editor Aldous Huxley was a lot like Shulgin, but he came at his pharmaceutical experiments from the other direction: He came to science in pursuit of art. Huxley took peyote, mescaline and LSD from the 1930s; he wrote about mescaline as a path to wider understanding (particularly of artistic experiences) in The Doors of Perception.
There are a dozen other notable practitioners of “psychedelic literature” one could mention, including many artists who were plenty weird enough without any drugs at all (most surrealists didn’t even drink to excess).
What’s cool about Shulgin was that he wasn’t an artist at all. He had a PhD in biochemistry from Berkeley; his most important patent was for a biodegradable pesticide.
And yet he told an interviewer from The New York Times in 2005 that the discovery of a new chemical compound was akin to “the pleasure of composing a new painting or piece of music.” I’m going to count him as one of us, and say his loss was a great one for art.