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Review: Hofmann’s Elixir: LSD and the New Eleusis

December 2, 2010 4 comments

Hofmann's Elixir coverAlbert Hofmann, discoverer of LSD, died in 2008 aged 102. This book, which he saw in proof form shortly before his death, has consequently become a posthumous tribute to the man, celebrating his life, work and influence. It takes the form of several essays by Hofmann himself, followed by a Festschrift of others by luminaries such as Ralph Metzner and Stanislav Grof, the whole ensemble edited by Amanda Feilding of the Beckley Foundation. 

What comes across as intriguing is that though Hofmann chose a career path of empirical science in becoming a chemist, he nonetheless had a strong mystical orientation, which first manifested in childhood: “While I strolled through the birdsong-filled forest, freshly verdant and illuminated by the morning sun, everything suddenly appeared in an uncommonly clear light. Had I previously not looked carefully, and did I suddenly now see the spring forest as it really was? It radiated the splendour of a peculiar, heartfelt beauty, as if it wished to encompass me in all its glory. An indescribable feeling of happiness, of belonging and of blissful security perfused me.” 

It was this kind of perspective and serendipitous outlook that led Hofmann towards the discovery of LSD, and he gives a distinctly Jungian analysis of the string of chance events and coincidences that paved the way. Even though he was searching for a circulatory stimulant, not a psychedelic, and even though he’d synthesised the compound five years before and found it to be ineffective for that purpose, he was nevertheless drawn by its chemical structure to synthesise it again: “…a repetition, so to speak, founded on a hunch, chance had the opportunity to come into play. At the conclusion of the synthesis, I was overtaken by a very weird state of consciousness, which today one might call ‘psychedelic’.” Another chemist might have taken it no further, but Hofmann was sufficiently intrigued to conduct a self-experiment three days later, and the rest is history.

 As the psychedelic movement developed, Hofmann’s mystical perspective drew him inevitably towards its other major figures. He worked with R. Gordon Wasson on the isolation and synthesis of the active ingredients of Mexican magic mushrooms―psilocybin and psilocin―and also with Wasson and Carl Ruck on an investigation into the possible psychedelic underpinnings of the ancient Greek Eleusian Rites. In his essay on Eleusis, Hofmann explores how the Mysteries can serve as a model for our times: “The necessary changes in the direction of an all-encompassing consciousness, which are prerequisite for overcoming materialism and for a renewed relationship with Nature, cannot be delegated to government―the change must and can only take place within each individual person… Eleusis-like centres could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which share the same goal, the goal of creating, by transformation of the consciousness of individual people, a better world…”  Read more…

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