Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Banker Who Spent Wisely

April 7th, 2009 · 4 Comments

aztecmushroomgodIn sorting through the detritus of Depression v2.0, it’s gobsmacking to realize how much money the financial Masters of the Universe wasted on baubles and trifles. As this recent New York confession makes clear, bankers earning millions were stunningly unimaginative when it came to disposing of their lucre. Cars! Single malts! Vacation homes! Yawn…

When the going was good, these bankers should’ve taken a cue from a creative, courageous predecessor: R. Gordon Wasson, a J.P. Morgan bigwig who used his zillions to pursue his love of ethnobotanical research. Whenever he could grab a few spare weeks, Wasson didn’t jet to the Hamptons to drink margaritas and play croquet. Instead, he and the missus would jaunt down to southern Mexico, where they’d sample a wide panoply of psychoactive mushrooms—solely in the name of research, of course.

Wasson’s travels led him to publish this landmark Life magazine story in 1957. A small sample from his first-hand account:

The visions came whether our eyes were opened or closed. They emerged from the center of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at the pace that our will chose. They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved into palaces with courts, arcades, gardens–resplendent palaces all laid over with semiprecious stones. Then I saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot. Later it was though the walls of our house had dissolved, and my spirit had flown forth, and I was suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens.

Microkhan firmly believes that the accumulation of copious Prada bags and fine Burgundies is relatively weak tea by comparison.

Much more on Wasson’s curious career is available through his archives at Harvard. And his fascinating Persephone’s Quest, a treatise on the connection between ethnogens and religious development, is now available for free via Google.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Wasson was an interesting guy. Unfortunately a bit too enamored of his idea that all the world’s religions stemmed from mushroom trips. In any research there’s a point where you have to step back and ask yourself “Am I just seeing what I want to see in the data?”

    The book “Shrooms” by Andy Letcher has a rather good section about him. Generally an interesting read that debunks a lot of the myths around psychoactive mushrooms.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Yeah, Wasson sort of lost me when he started talking about the Vikings and amanita muscaria. He was obviously profoundly changed by his experiences in Mexico, which were likely the closest he’d ever come to genuine religiosity. And that colored all of his subsequent research.

    That said, I do sort of buy his theory re: soma. When I took a class on the Hindu literature in college, the professor made a convincing case for the validity of Wasson’s claims. And truth be told, I can see the influence in visual depictions of some Hindu deities.

  • Gramsci

    I don’t buy religion GUT’s, but there’s interesting stuff to consider about psychedelics and religious reflection. Twentieth century American religion was profoundly affected by this connection, even going back to William James and his experiments with nitrous oxide (yes, the father of American psychology just said N2O).

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