Marijuana Policy Project
Curved Papers

Carl Sagan: From Cannabis to 'Cosmos'

Sagan: "Cannabis also enhances the enjoyment of sex - on the one hand it gives an exquisite sensitivity, but on the other hand it postpones orgasm: in part by distracting me with the profusion of images passing before my eyes."

The cannabis experience has greatly improved my appreciation for art, a subject which I had never much appreciated before. The understanding of the intent of the artist which I can achieve when high sometimes carries over to when I'm down. This is one of many human frontiers which cannabis has helped me traverse. There also have been some art-related insights - I don't know whether they are true or false, but they were fun to formulate. For example, I have spent some time high looking at the work of the Belgian surrealist Yves Tanguey. Some years later, I emerged from a long swim in the Caribbean and sank exhausted onto a beach formed from the erosion of a nearby coral reef. In idly examining the arcuate pastel-colored coral fragments which made up the beach, I saw before me a vast Tanguey painting. Perhaps Tanguey visited such a beach in his childhood.

A very similar improvement in my appreciation of music has occurred with cannabis. For the first time I have been able to hear the separate parts of a three-part harmony and the richness of the counterpoint. I have since discovered that professional musicians can quite easily keep many separate parts going simultaneously in their heads, but this was the first time for me. Again, the learning experience when high has at least to some extent carried over when I'm down. The enjoyment of food is amplified; tastes and aromas emerge that for some reason we ordinarily seem to be too busy to notice. I am able to give my full attention to the sensation. A potato will have a texture, a body, and taste like that of other potatoes, but much more so. Cannabis also enhances the enjoyment of sex - on the one hand it gives an exquisite sensitivity, but on the other hand it postpones orgasm: in part by distracting me with the profusion of images passing before my eyes. The actual duration of orgasm seems to lengthen greatly, but this may be the usual experience of time expansion which comes with cannabis smoking.

I do not consider myself a religious person in the usual sense, but there is a religious aspect to some highs. The heightened sensitivity in all areas gives me a feeling of communion with my surroundings, both animate and inanimate. Sometimes a kind of existential perception of the absurd comes over me and I see with awful certainty the hypocrisies and posturing of myself and my fellow men. And at other times, there is a different sense of the absurd, a playful and whimsical awareness. Both of these senses of the absurd can be communicated, and some of the most rewarding highs I've had have been in sharing talk and perceptions and humor. Cannabis brings us an awareness that we spend a lifetime being trained to overlook and forget and put out of our minds. A sense of what the world is really like can be maddening; cannabis has brought me some feelings for what it is like to be crazy, and how we use that word "crazy" to avoid thinking about things that are too painful for us. In the Soviet Union political dissidents are routinely placed in insane asylums. The same kind of thing, a little more subtle perhaps, occurs here: "Did you hear what Lenny Bruce said yesterday? He must be crazy." When high on cannabis I discovered that there's somebody inside in those people we call mad.

When I'm high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won't attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we're down the next day. Some of the hardest work I've ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that 10 even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it's a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I've made the effort - successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written 11 short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can't go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures and in my books.

But let me try to at least give the flavor of such an insight and its accompaniments. One night, high on cannabis, I was delving into my childhood, a little self-analysis, and making what seemed to me to be very good progress. I then paused and thought how extraordinary it was that Sigmund Freud, with no assistance from drugs, had been able to achieve his own remarkable self-analysis. But then it hit me like a thunderclap that this was wrong, that Freud had spent the decade before his self-analysis as an experimenter with and a proselytizer for cocaine; and it seemed to me very apparent that the genuine psychological insights that Freud brought to the world were at least in part derived from his drug experience. I have no idea whether this is in fact true, or whether the historians of Freud would agree with this interpretation, or even if such an idea has been published in the past, but it is an interesting hypothesis and one which passes first scrutiny in the world of the downs.

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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of CelebStoner.com, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.