The Paris Review

Sartre’s Bad Trip

Beyond their visual qualities, mescaline’s hallucinations posed profound philosophical questions. During the mid-1930s three prominent writers and thinkers left records of their experiments with it. In 1934 and 1935 respectively, Walter Benjamin and Jean-Paul Sartre participated in the now-familiar modus operandi of private session between psychiatrist and artist, with the scientific gaze and the philosopher’s insights informing—or, more often, pitted against—one another. And in 1936, Antonin Artaud, having already cut himself loose from the strictures of Breton’s Surrealist movement and the precepts of scientific materialism, abandoned the Old World for the New and the narcotics of western pharmacy for the ancient sacrament of the cactus, and launched himself into a self-experiment without limits.

Sartre was injected with mescaline by his old school friend, the psychiatrist Daniel Lagache, at Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris in January 1935 in the course of his researches into phenomenology, Edmund Husserl’s radically reconceived form of philosophy, which Sartre had encountered in 1933 and relocated to Berlin over that summer to study more deeply. Mescaline was a tool of obvious relevance to Husserl’s injunction that “a new way of looking at things is necessary.” Phenomenology aimed to describe reality purely as it was perceived, stripped of all theories, categories, and definitions: turning attention exclusively, in Husserl’s famous dictum, “to the things themselves.” Much of the mescaline literature to date, from.

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