In 1935 Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the developers and cornerstones of modern existential philosophy, took a large dose of mescaline. Although it is not the first thing that you tend to learn about the great man when you enter into the study of his work, Sartre was quite a prodigious drug-taker. He smoked two packets of cigarettes a day, drank hard liquor and took amphetamine continuously, and when things got a little too rough he’d smooth it all out with whatever barbiturates he could get his hands on. Though his usage was heavy and consistent, like a great many successful people it was well integrated into his way of being; he lived a long and influential life and was able to stay on the rails from any outside perspective for that whole time. But, in this interesting piece of little-known trivia, this psychedelic trip, taken so early on in the piece, almost pushed him over the edge.
Sartre was twenty-nine at the time, studying philosophy at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris. A young and fiery intellectual, he was as yet unpublished and hungry to speak his truth. His work had begun with research for a planned book about the human imagination, and inspired by what he had heard about the potentials of mescaline he tracked it down and took it, entering into its particular trance hoping that the experience would provide his work with original insights and a distinctive edge.
Some time into his trip he received a phone call from his partner, Simone de Beauvoir. He was terrified and exhilarated. It seems that the ringing of the phone had saved him from the violent attacks of an octopus. Ordinary objects had become ragged and terrifying vultures. Clothing had become denatured bones and the faces of people had become misshapen and monstrous. The octopus that had fled at the shrill sound of the phone had made its way to the corners of his eyes; for the rest of his trip he could see its soft blue-blooded body squirming in the recesses amongst spiny masses of lobsters and crabs.
De Beauvoir reported that even as he had been at this fever pitch by the next day he was talking about his experiences with a kind of detached coolness. But in one of those (rare) psychedelic horror stories it became clear over the coming weeks that all was not well. The trip had opened a door that neither of them knew how to close. Sartre began to experience what he called a ‘chronic hallucinatory psychosis.’
He became convinced that everywhere he went and whatever he did there were three or four crabs following. He could see them clearly. For all his waking hours they never left him. They scuttled along behind him as he went to buy his cigarettes and his liquor. They were in the room sitting on the windowsill while he made love. They slipped into his classes, sitting patiently while he learned and while he taught. He revealed in an interview later on that once he had tried to run from them only to find, to his lament, that they had chased him at a terrifying pace down the Champs-Élysées.
Unable to rid himself of them except for short periods while writing his philosophy, Sartre eventually sought out psychoanalytic treatment. His doctor turned out to be the prominent intellectual Jacques Lacan. Both coming from Freudian roots they agreed that this kind of hallucination must originate with some identifiable traumatic experience, something that had happened or was happening to him in his life combined with primitive emotional responses like fear or lust. They came to the conclusion that his crustacean companions represented his fear of loneliness, a product of the growing disassociation he felt from the world as he drifted into his existentialism, feelings that had become embodied as they were because of an image of sea creatures that he had been terrified of as a child.
Yet even with this diagnosis his hallucinations remained, and to stave them off he was forced to redouble his work. By now the roots of the philosophy that he would expound upon and refine for the rest of his life had begun to sprout, and it was in this time that he developed and published his first novel, Nausea.
There is a distinctive flavour of the psychotic throughout this book. It reads like an extended bad-trip. The protagonist progressively becomes distant from the world as he has known it: he finds himself unable to interact with people or objects in any meaningful way, everything that once was beautiful or interesting has become dark and dirty as he sees through its once seductive façade. In strange visions he sees the false histories and delusions of glory cast up by a sick society, losing his feeling of place and purpose as that context he had always lived and placed himself within loses its meaning and crumbles away.
His own self-deceit, his inauthenticity, his inertia, it all becomes glaringly clear as he looks in the mirror and discovers that where he once saw a person he now sees an unconvincing tapestry unthreading over the emptiness of infinite space and time. Colours warp. Successive veils of perception open. Behind it all he finds an iridescent wall of wordless timeless nothing. The crustaceans that had haunted him are here too – they are the people that surround him, hard shells covering soft and vulnerable innards.
To the receptive mind, perhaps looking out into infinite and seemingly empty space at night, perhaps deep in a psychedelic trip, perhaps simply staring into the mirror and pulling one eye open to see the flesh beneath its lid, the idea of infinite meaninglessness makes sense. At the moment of its realisation there is a giddy exhilarating rush that associates itself with true knowing. There is a cold emptiness in the stomach which is terrifying without inspiring fear. A feeling of having finally seen a truth we had maybe run and hidden from in this romance or that but which we had always known in secret.
When we read Nausea we laugh and we cry because it backs us up, tells us that the void we have seen in our visions is indeed quite empty, and that now, with that fine revelation, we must discover how from here we are to go. It is a great liberation through final disenchantment; yet this philosophy is not objective truth, even if in our own dark romance we believe it to be so.
Looking out into the void it is sometimes hard to see or to admit, but existence may not be meaningless. Beyond the illusions cast up by our still sick society, so righteously slaughtered by Sartre and his ilk, what we are faced with is not absolute emptiness but instead a deep and perhaps ineffable mystery. In a cycle of constant devouring we must admit that there may ultimately be a meaning behind what we perceive as being meaningless; there may ultimately be meaninglessness behind everything we imbue with meaning. There may always be something just beyond the seemingly impassable wall that we have come to face.
But Sartre, great as he was, suffered from that most common flaw of the philosophers: he assumed against all logic that his beliefs, the unverified products of his own predilections, were at one with the objective and universal truth. By concluding that the universe had at its basis an essential meaninglessness he had put a false floor in the rabbit hole of philosophical exploration and claimed that he had found its true bottom. It is from that first invalid assumption that he built an entire life’s work, and though he had many valuable things to say it must be true that by his self-enforced limitation of what could be, he had limited the potential conclusions that he could have come to unnecessarily.
Are all the images that drugs call forth from our minds illusory fabrications? Are all the products of psychosis meaningless or related only to what we have experienced in this life? What is so interesting about this story is that Sartre’s beliefs about human psychology may well have had a drastic impact on what he believed about the nature of the universe. His set opinions about how the human mind works were another false floor; like the ultimate meaning or meaninglessness of the cosmos the nature of the human mind is still to this day shrouded in mystery.
There are other schools of psychoanalysis, particularly the Jungian school, which view particular symbolic contents of the mind to be pre-existing in us from birth. These are called the ‘collective unconscious’ and could be compared to the instinctual forces which, in the same way that an animal of a particular species naturally knows how to act like one of its species even in isolation, communicate to us essential elements of our human-ness, offering symbolic points of inspiration for our otherwise free will. Older still than Jung’s ideas, and a great inspiration to them, there has been a school of thought which has been passed down through the ages which has attempted to catalogue the symbols of the collective unconscious and offer a general but somewhat flexible definition of what they could mean on the premise that our own minds attempt to prompt us at times through imagery towards the unfoldment of wisdom.
If we were to look at his psychology from this perhaps equally invalid perspective we find something strange. From the perspective of that school each of the symbolic objects present in Sartre’s trip are closely interconnected with the archetype of the goddess Nuit, who is the queen of the mysteries of infinite space and time. The vulture, the bones, the octopus, the lobster and the crab all tie very strongly to the traditionally accepted symbolism of her as represented by the tarot and other cognate sources.
She represents the great endless nothingness that is also something. She represents our insignificance but also our significance, the fact that we do not know the truth, that the truth may be ineffable, but that through our explorations perhaps we could discover it nonetheless. She is the rabbit hole in which we build our successive floors. She represents the potentiality of a living and benevolent universe imbued with deep meaning rather than a cold, dead and meaningless one. A potential which is very real regardless of the feelings of emptiness we sometimes get when faced with the absurdities of our being. To understand her as a symbol is to understand the philosophical truths that we tend to so neatly ignore as we adopt our conclusions.
Sartre had taken his mescaline in an attempt to discover more about the human imagination, but it seems that rather than discovering the truth about it, which, like all things, is essentially mysterious and subject to ever further research, he had decided perhaps even beforehand what it was and what it could do. In the end, even as his treatment had failed, he worked out how to rid himself of his crustacean friends, who had perhaps been prodding him down another, more enlightened path. One day he simply imagined them away, set a clear and unwavering trajectory for his ideas and for his life, and then they were gone; sometimes missed but never to return.