A conversation with the
discoverer of LSD,
by Rob Couteau
Rain Taxi Review of Books, June 2008 (Carmel Valley, CA)
Just two weeks after our conversation on 13 April 2008, Dr. Hofmann suffered a fatal heart attack. I feel honored to have conversed with him. He was an Old World gentleman: kind, discreet, aware.
His discovery of LSD affected us all in one way or another, through its profound influence upon art, culture, and history. Yet, rather than sensationalize it – as many others chose to – Hofmann always addressed the subject with reverence and responsibility. He spoke of LSD as if it were a living entity: a spirit that demanded propriety and respect. To the end, he considered it a “sacred medicine”: not something to be toyed with or abused. Thus, it was with a sense of relief that he described how lysergic acid was finally being administered in an institutional setting.
Although Hofmann’s time was limited (he was receiving guests), and his English was rusty, we managed to share this delightful, if brief, exchange:
Rob Couteau: Do you believe that, in the future, LSD will be used in psychotherapy again?
Dr. Albert Hofmann: It is now officially used – in the medical practice – by dying or very ill persons as a narcotic. By a dying person, by a very ill person, it is used officially now, as an anti-schmerz mittel [painkiller].
RC: It’s used in Switzerland?
AH: Yes. It’s legal. It has started a half-year ago. We got, from the health authority, this permission to use it officially. By a dying person or by a very ill person.
RC: That’s wonderful.
AH: It is wonderful.
RC: You must be very happy about that.
AH: Yes, that I can see that happen.
RC: Did they ask you for help to establish this treatment? Did they ask for your ideas? Did they consult with you?
AH: No. The properties and the possibilities of LSD are known. I have not [to] explain.
RC: I recently read your book, LSD: My Problem Child. I thought it was a beautifully written account.
AH: I am very happy that now LSD is officially a medicine, [a] medicinal product. It is no more needed to use it in the black market. This is very important for me, that I can see that happen. LSD, really, now it becomes what it is. And I wanted that. Especially for this application: for people with very heavy …
RC: [In French:] Douleur?
AH: Douleur, yes.
RC: In pain? People in pain?
AH: People in pain, in very heavy pain, especially. And now, dying people. This research is officially now working in Switzerland.
RC: Very good. Do you think that, with people who are dying, and people in pain, do you think it helps them to contact the spiritual aspect of life, before they die?
AH: We don’t know.
RC: Do you think that LSD is a spiritual medicine?
AH: Yes. Yes, of course!
RC: So, with some people, it could be an important experience before death, yes?
RC: How is your health, doctor? How are you feeling physically?
AH: Oh, I must say, I’m very, very happy. I am 102 years old.
RC: I know! [Laughs.]
AH: [Laughs.] Yes. And I have no pain. And so, I am thankful to my destiny.
RC: Do you have an illness now? Are you sick right now?
RC: It’s incredible that your friend, the German author, also lived to be 102.
RC: Your friend Ernst Junger.
AH: Yes, yes …
RC: You both lived to be so old! [Laughs.] It’s very interesting, yes?
AH: [Laughs.] Yeah.
RC: What are you reading these days?
AH: Nothing special.
RC: Are you writing anything?
RC: You’re just enjoying life.
AH: But I have visitors; I cannot speak very long.
RC: OK. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
AH: I don’t know you, but I am happy that it has a meaning for you to speak with me.
RC: It really does, doctor. You must be very happy that LSD is now officially used in Switzerland.
AH: Yes, that’s very important for me. That I can know that LSD has a place, begins to have a place, which it merits.
RC: Do you think that, for the artist, LSD can provide an important experience for creativity? For art?
AH: Maybe. Yes.
RC: It can?
AH: It has been! Many, many works have been done on the influence of LSD.
RC: Doctor, thank you so much for your time.
AH: Good-bye. Thank you.
Reflections on Albert Hofmann’s memoir,
LSD: My Problem Child
I’m drawn to books that truly attempt something new. In literature, it’s the stylists who captivate me: those who stretch the language in a manner that’s so innovative and complex that, no matter how often we return to such work, it always holds more, both in what it says (content) and in how it’s said (style). The novels of Hubert Selby are an example of this, as are the works of Thomas Bernhard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Henry Miller, Céline, and Walt Whitman.
Although Albert Hofmann wasn’t a literary stylist, the story of his life is far more amazing than that of most novels. Therefore, it’s the content of his memoir – the innovative adventure he embarks upon and its far-reaching social consequences – that renders it unique.
While his writing wasn’t avant-garde, it was wonderfully understated and articulate. He was also well read, both in the classics and in contemporary works. For instance, in Problem Child he briefly mentions an exchange of letters with Henry Miller. His friendship with the German author Ernst Junger is also of note. Junger was a World-War-I pilot, and he later befriended Hofmann, who introduced him to LSD. In the course of one trip, Junger hallucinated miniature airplanes flying at his head. As a result of this experience, he wrote The Glass Bees (1957): a forerunner of magic realism with elements of science fiction. The novel chronicles an inventor who creates miniature wonders, such as robotic insects. (Indeed, we are living in the era of the glass bees, as the CIA has recently used artificial insects – fake dragonflies – to monitor war protesters.)
Regarding Hofmann’s understated manner, here’s an example. Recounting his numerous attempts to synthesize the elusive properties of LSD, he remarks: “LSD spoke to me. He came to me and said, ‘You must find me.’ He told me, ‘Don’t give me to the pharmacologist; he won’t find anything.’” And: “Under LSD ... I entered into realities which were as real and even more real than the one of everyday.... [I] became aware of the wonder of creation, the magnificence of nature and of the plant and animal kingdom. I became very sensitive to what will happen to all this and all of us.” I admire the subtle way he turns that last phrase.
I also admired the human, grounded quality of this man. The tale I recall most vividly from Problem Child is the one in which a distraught hippie girl shows up unexpectedly at Hofmann’s door. As did many of those divine lost “children,” she viewed him as a sort of guru. But instead of wearing a toga, burning incense, and trying to screw her – as Tim Leary might have done – he helps to land her a job singing at a Zurich restaurant. In short, he attempts to link her back to the world.
One must remember that Hofmann was thirty-seven when he accidentally dosed himself with LSD. His ego was strong and healthy, and he had established himself firmly in the mundane, three-dimensional realm. He understood the importance of keeping at least one foot upon the earth. Contrast this awareness and sense of responsibility toward others to someone like Leary, who advocated giving LSD to children (and often did).1 Perhaps, Hofmann kept his phone number listed all his life because he keenly felt this responsibility, especially toward those who stumbled while on the magical LSD path.
When Leary visited Hofmann in Switzerland, Hofmann politely questioned his irresponsible approach to such matters. Leary’s bizarre response was that American teenagers were more mature than European teenagers. In his typically reserved fashion, Hofmann remarked that he never understood what Leary “really intended” and concluded that he was simply being “naïve.”2 He wondered why Leary and his followers were traveling all the way to India for mystical experience when they could simply admire the flowers in their own gardens.3
Problem Child also commences an important inquiry into the relationship between hallucinogens and the Eleusinian mystery cults of the past. For centuries, leading figures of society were initiated into these experiences, and there exists strong evidence that an LSD-like substance was involved in their rituals.
Research on the relationship between hallucinogenic experience and cultural evolution continues, although it remains inadequately explored in our educational institutions. Hofmann’s later writing delves into this area.
1. “The psyche of very young persons should … be considered as unstable, in the sense of not yet having matured. In any case, the shock of such a powerful stream of new and strange perceptions and feelings, such as is engendered by LSD, endangers the sensitive, still-developing psycho-organism. Even the medicinal use of LSD in youths under eighteen years of age, in the scope of psychoanalytic or psychotherapeutic treatment, is discouraged in professional circles, correctly so in my opinion. Juveniles for the most part still lack a secure, solid relationship to reality. Such a relationship is needed before the dramatic experience of new dimensions of reality can be meaningfully integrated into the world view. Instead of leading to a broadening and deepening of reality consciousness, such an experience in adolescents will lead to insecurity and a feeling of being lost.” Albert Hofmann; Jonathan Ott, trans., LSD: My Problem Child (New York: McGraw-Hill), p. 70.
2. “I never could make out what he [Leary] really intended. I had the feeling he was naive. He was so enthusiastic about LSD that he wanted to give it to everyone, even to very young people. I told him: ‘No, give it only to people who are prepared for it, who have strong, stable psychic structures. Don’t give it to young people.’ He said that American teenagers are so experienced that they are like grown-ups in Europe.” From “Interview: Albert Hofmann,” Omni magazine, July 1981, p. 70.
3. “I’ve never been able to understand these people. What I got out of LSD, I carry about inside me. I have to stay in my own daily life. To see the flowers in my own garden is to see all the mystical wonder of existence, of creation. You don’t have to go to India to see it.” Ibid., p. 72.
* This interview and essay appeared in a slightly altered, abridged form in Rain Taxi Review of Books, summer 2008, pp. 52-53.