Dr Albert Hofmann, who died last week, was the inventor of LSD. But he was not merely a chemist. He was a revolutionary.
Hofmann changed the way a whole generation looked at the world. This is the sort of statement that is customarily made about thinkers and scientists of the stature of, say, Marx or Einstein. But it is more directly and vividly true of Hofmann than any of these otherwise much more formidable intellectual titans. Freud theorised about the existence of the unconscious, but LSD made it an experiential reality, as tangible as touching stone or seeing light.
Hofmann's discovery is still widely misunderstood. But those who have known its glory - and its agony - will also know that no one really comes back from the altered state of consciousness that LSD induces quite the same person that they were before. Like no other experience imaginable, it rips to pieces your understanding of what it is to be alive.
When you return from the unimaginable shore to which LSD takes you, putting those pieces back together can be a lifelong task. It can make you mad. But it can also make you understand that your life is not what you thought it was - that it is bigger, richer and, above all, stranger.
This epiphany-in-a-pill is an idea that makes us deeply uncomfortable for a raft of reasons - the lack of spiritual or moral effort involved in attaining the experience, the impossibility of explaining its effects to non-users, and the moral panic over its distribution and use in the 1960s and 1970s.
Nowadays, LSD has been quietly consigned to the medicine cabinet of history. It is no longer fashionable, nor widely available, nor especially potent. It has lost ground to gentler drugs such as MDMA or more violent narcotics such a crack, crystal meth and heroin. But it is in a different category from all these mind-altering substances, and ill deserves its lumping into the category of "recreational drugs: bad/harmful/dangerous".
This isn't to say it isn't bad, harmful or dangerous. LSD can certainly be all those things. But LSD - like its natural counterparts mescaline or peyote - is not quite in the same category as any other mind-altering narcotic. It is potentially, I think, the only truly creative drug - that is, a drug which enables the mind to shake off the shackles of habit and conditioning and arrive at the heart of - for want of a better word - the human soul.
And it is the only "recreational" drug that has a real element of intellectual and cultural respectability, with thinkers and writers such as Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg all affirming its uses, while the remarkable phenomenon we call "the Sixties" would not have happened at all without this psychoactive shamanic medicine.
Before I continue, I should make it clear that I am not a habitual or long-term user of the drug. I have taken it twice - both times when I was 15 years old. On one occasion, it gave me an experience of bliss, lasting some 12 hours, that lay far beyond words or images to express. On the other, I was cast into the darkest reaches of hopelessness and terror. I ended up running down my street naked, and being locked up in a police cell. It is not an exaggeration to say that these experiences, to this day, are always with me.
This will sound like hyperbole to anyone who hasn't experienced the drug, so I will make an effort to explain what it was like, knowing that such an effort must fail. I wrote about it in my memoir, The Scent of Dried Roses. Here are two brief extracts:
"The tower blocks shine like mirrors and the blue of the sky seems to have concentrated and leaked out into the air, so that everything is soaked in aquamarine. There is a deep relentless and secret whirr within me, a dynamo that has been switched on to full power for the first time. I am so full of delight I want to leave my skin and melt."
"The panic begins to turn to unalloyed terror as I feel my very sense of self beginning to collapse into the swelling chaos of everything else... I am negated. I have gone completely mad, although everything is unmistakable, intensely real."
The key fact of these accounts is that, whether in terror or bliss, "I am not seeing things that are not there. I am seeing things that are there.... The sensible world is merely a construction of my brain, and the brain is simply a filter that keeps unmanageable, too large information out." LSD does not merely distort reality - it removes a filter on reality. And that is why it is such a profound experience.
I cannot in all conscience evangelise, or recommend to my children that they take it. I have suffered mental health problems much of my life - I doubt this fact is entirely unconnected with those very intense teenage mental epiphanies. But I cannot help but be grateful to have seen what I have seen, which is plainly and simply a religious vision, an a priori proof that there is more to the world than a dead material universe.
My personal experience aside, it fuelled decades of cultural experiment and output, much of it bad, but some of it good. (After Sir Paul McCartney claimed that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" had nothing to do with LSD, I'm surprised the judge in his divorce case believed a word he uttered in court.) But the larger societal "effect" ' of LSD - be it in swirly-whirly graffiti, self-indulgent rock music, or tie-dye T-shirts - are a red herring, along with the appallingly dim-witted New Age movements it has left in its wake.
The art, culture and film that arose out of LSD did not have much worth - Zabriskie Point? Disraeli Gears? Journey to Ixtlan? and so on - but the fact that people took the intellectual experience of the drug seriously does speak volumes. There were even TV documentaries - one chaired by Malcolm Muggeridge - on which philosophers and academics were given the drug and filmed on camera. They spoke very highly of their experiences. LSD, they asserted, didn't simply damage people; it changed them in ways that went beyond "good" or "bad". This is its unique claim within the pharmacological lexicon.
Such a thing happening today is unimaginable. We live now in a world where all illegal drugs are lumped together as social evils. This represents a narrowing of our imaginations, a closing of our collective minds. Albert Hofmann's discovery remains, I believe, of the greatest significance; and there are few mature adults - particular ones whose minds are limited by the environment in which they habitually exist - who would not benefit greatly from its prescription.
Gordon Brown would be a prime contender, I think. His dour materialism would disappear overnight. Boris Johnson has clearly had some already slipped to him in a cup of tea some time or other. But apart from him, the entire Tory and Labour front benches could do with at least one medically administered shot of acid.
That something which bio-chemically can open and even heal the mind (in some ways Prozac does something analogous though very different) is so violently proscribed speaks volumes of our times, when imagination and the spiritual itself are virtually taboo. Albert Hofmann's great experiment was thus a failure. But one day, I still believe, both its therapeutic and philosophical uses will be rediscovered.
And one other thing. Old Albert lived to 102. What does that tell you about the therapeutic properties of lysergic acid diethylamide?
© 2008 The Independent