Psychedelics and Metaphysical Illumination
In contrast to Native American cultures, European Americans saw little connection between drugs and spirituality before the 1950s. This is somewhat surprising given the fact that there was a small but persistent group of British writers who sustained European interest in the spiritual uses of drugs throughout the nineteenth century. As early as 1821 the obscure writer Thomas De Quincey caused a stir among British intellectuals and literati with his extravagant Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey described how his first experience with opium afforded him a panacea for all his worldly woes. The effect of opium, according to De Quincey, was to "greatly increase the effect of the mind" and to reveal "the abyss of divine enjoyment" at the depths of his own inner spirit. 1 First introduced to the drug through one of the era's many opiate-containing proprietary medicines, De Quincey was soon initiated into ecstasies that were alternately sinister and sublime. His narcotic ecstasies had, curiously enough, a distinctive Oriental coloration, including harrowing encounters with Chinese, Hindu, and Egyptian deities.
De Quincey's opiate-driven flights of the soul meshed almost perfectly with the Romantic Revival that flourished in Europe in the early nineteenth century. Romanticism, after all, championed emotional spontaneity, flights of the imagination, an enhanced awareness of nature, and an affinity for exotic religious myth or symbol. It is thus not surprising that, as Martin Booth observed, "opium, and the liberty of thought it produced, was instrumental in the development of the Romantic ideal."2Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, began taking the opium-containing medicine known as laudanum as early as eight years old. His The Rime of the Ancient Mariner