The Varieties Of Stoner Experience

Benjamin Breen prefers the 19th-century literature of laughing gas to the druggy musings of 1960s writers like Timothy Leary. He cites the “exuberant, experimental, playful, funny, honest, and intellectually curious” trip-lit of William James:

After huffing a large amount of nitrous oxide, James set out to tackle a prominent bugbear of 1880s intellectual life: Hegelian dialectics. He came up with a stream of consciousness that centered on a kind of ecstatic binary thinking:

Don’t you see the difference, don’t you see the identity?
Constantly opposites united!
The same me telling you to write and not to write!
Extreme—extreme, extreme! Within the extensity that “extreme” contains is contained the “extreme” of intensity
Something, and other than that thing!
….
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it’s pure onsense!
Thought much deeper than speech … !
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

James acknowledged to his readers that these ravings were the product of a mental state that, like alcohol intoxication, “seems silly to lookers-on.” But he came away from the experience with a remarkably positive take on nitrous oxide. James had argued that drunkenness produced a kind of “subjective rapture” occasioned by its ability to make “the centre and periphery of things seem to come together.” Nitrous oxide, he believed, produced a similar effect, “only a thousandfold enhanced.” On the gas, his mind was “seized … by logical forceps” and jolted into a new order of consciousness which, he thought, made the logic of Hegelian dialectics perfectly obvious to him.