Review: Hofmann’s Elixir: LSD and the New Eleusis
Albert 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…”
In other essays Hofmann describes his warm friendships with figures such as Ernst Jünger and Aldous Huxley. Interestingly Hofmann highlights a disagreement between Jünger and Huxley over whether LSD and other so-called phantastica should be freely available to the masses—Huxley was in favour but Jünger had his doubts. The subsequent history of LSD, its underground mass availability leading to hysteria and prohibition, would seem to bear out Jünger’s fears. But both men were united in a vision of a more enlightened world emanating from the use of phantastica, and Hofmann goes onto explore Huxley’s great literary work on the subject, his final novel Island, which serves to unify many of the themes discussed earlier and neatly rounds off Hofmann’s own contribution.
The essays by others in Part II speak warmly of the effects of Hofmann’s generous nature and unassuming personality. Huston Smith describes a brief but very inspiring personal encounter. Myron J. Stolaroff is one of several contributors for whom LSD provided a life-changing experience, radically altering philosophical perspectives and setting a new course for the future. Stolaroff is also not alone in pointing out that LSD’s discovery in 1943 came at a turning point in world history, and that is possibly more than mere coincidence.
In sympathy with this theme, Ralph Metzner gives a very learned account of the history of alchemy, pointing out that the notion of transmutation originally lay as much in the psychic and spiritual realms as in the material, and therefore Hofmann’s discovery fits right into the tradition. Jonathan Ott tells the colourful story of his early life on the edge, leading up to how the revelations of LSD set him on a more productive course. He also had a series of inspiring encounters with Hofmann, during which he became Hofmann’s English translator, and indeed he translated this very book. “As he told me quite rightly, he deemed it much better to have a writer/chemist as translator, and one familiar with LSD, and sympathetic towards that controversial topic, as opposed to some great expert in German letters completely ignorant of the subject of entheognosy!”
Stanislav Grof gives a brief overview of historical and pre-historical psychedelic use, contextualising the recent era of synthetics, which LSD’s discovery defined. He looks at the myriad applications of the substance, particularly within the psychotherapeutic area, and highlights what a tragedy it was for legitimate scientific research when LSD and psychedelics generally were outlawed, a situation now gradually changing.
Rounding off this excellent and varied collection, editor Amanda Feilding pays a tribute to the much-loved Albert Hofmann, emphasising his personal qualities as much as his scientific achievements and outlining his place in history. Amongst other things, she looks at his remarkable longevity, attributable in part to a taste for exercise and hiking, but perhaps also down to the fact that despite advancing years he never lost that initial youthful wonder for the mysteries of the Cosmos, which comes over in all his writings and dealings with others. It should surely be an object lesson to us all.
For more information and to purchase a copy Hofmann’s Elixir, please visit The Beckley Foundation site.