When Foucault took acid in the desert

Foucault in California
Forfatter: Simeon Wade
Forlag: Heyday (USA)
LSD / How did Foucault's own experiences color his political thinking? And do psychedelics help with anxiety, depression and addiction?


In 1943, the Swiss scientist discovered Albert Hofmann the psychoactive molecule LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), also known as "acid". This led to a new era in brain research, but the psychedelic potential of the new (and legal) substance was not limited to scientific circles. Especially in the USA, LSD became important for the hippie culture and the peace movement that emerged in the 60's.

The decade after, however, the drug was banned, following reports of "abuse" and subsequent psychotic outcomes. But even though LSD disappeared from the limelight, the revolutionary properties of the small molecule were not forgotten.

"The Second Wave"

As Michael Pollan described last year in the book How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics, there has been a lot of work in the hidden since the 1980s, aimed at getting drugs such as LSD and psilocybin (the natural hallucinogen in fungi) decriminalized again. The first step is psychiatry. Several studies have shown that psychedelics helps with anxiety, depression and addiction. In the Netherlands, "magic truffles" are already for sale in the store, while so-called "psychedelic retreats" offer consumption in a controlled and legal way. Outside the Netherlands, it operates underground retreats, run by doctors who want to offer LSD and psilocybin to their patients – but are hindered by the law.

According to Pollan, we are now experiencing "the second wave" of psychedelics, a movement he associates with Roland Griffith's thesis Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experience having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance from 2006. As far as we know, this was the first clinical study of them psychological the effects of psychedelics. It created new interest around the opportunities for recreational use, reflected in today's many international organizations and seminars, such as The Psychedelic Society in London.

In Norway, the foundation works Emma Sofia in Oslo for legalization of LSD and psilocybin, as shown on the television program The Social Security Office in the episode Psychedelic developmental disability. At the same time, the younger generation has discovered classic books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe and The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley.

Death Valley

With Foucault in California has Simeon Wade now the French philosopher Michel Foucault has joined the club of psychedelics-inspired intellectuals – albeit post-mortem.

The gay Foucault had to be reformed. Doctors, teachers and psychologists should
examine and treat him.

In 1975, Foucault went to California to teach at Berkeley University. Wade, a professor of intellectual history and a dedicated supporter of Foucault, had his dream come true when the latter accepted an invitation to come and give a lecture at Claremont Graduate School, where Wade worked. But not only that, Foucault was also invited to a very special outing to Death Valley with Wade and his partner. Were he introduced to LSD, Wade speculated, Foucault's intellectual power would become even stronger if possible: "an intellectual power approaching the wonders of science fiction." How could the author of The history of madness say no to the chance to explore their mental landscape beyond the control of reason?

Initially, there were no publishers who would publish Wade's memoirs, and for years there was no evidence of the mythic acid trope. But in 2014, literature student Heather Dundas decided to track down Wade and solve the mystery. She eventually became convinced that the story was both true and publishable, and Wade, who died in 2017, authorized her to publish the book. Wade's portrayal of the days with Foucault is at times overly detailed and banal – perhaps driven by a fear of forgetting the experience, or a desire to share it. He diligently noted every single response they exchanged, about everything from sexual life to cocaine consumption. We may have been spared the most intimate parts, but Wade's need to document and perpetuate every moment of his time with his great hero is understandable. And it is precisely the personal that lifts the text. The book gives a unique glimpse of Foucault as a private person, from a time before he became the international polemic we know him as.

Gay orientation

Through the conversations in the book we also learn a little about how the Frenchman's own experiences colored his political thinking. Foucault willingly answers questions from Wade and his friends, and tells, among other things, when he, as a schoolboy, informed the headmaster of his gays Orientation. The reaction was that Foucault had to be reformed. Doctors, teachers and psychologists should examine and treat him.

Wade diligently noted every single response they exchanged, from sexual life to cocaine consumption.

This event made him realize how the system works: The basic impetus of society is normalization. Furthermore, he expressed that he experienced living under an "intellectual terror regime" in France – unlike in California, which he believed was much more radical. Foucault's attack on political correctness is refreshing, and a reminder that this book is a historical survival. In addition, it offers both theory and practice from a bygone era: on the one hand, a verbatim reproduced questioning by Foucault, in which he talks about his knowledge archaeological method and his analysis of discourse – on the other hand, pieces of insider information such as the fee for the famous debate between Foucault and Chomsky was paid out in hash (see the conversation on YouTube).


The LSD desert experiment made a big impression on Foucault: "The only thing I can compare this experience to in my life is sex with a stranger," he reproduces in the book. After returning to Paris, he announced in a postcard to Wade that he had rejected the draft The History of Sexuality; he had to rewrite it.

What would Foucault have to say about a renaissance for psychedelics in 2019? He was strongly critical of the exaltation of rational as the only customary behavior. We are overwhelmed by reason and afraid to show emotion – for fear of seeming irrational. With psychoactive substances, rationality retreats and leaves room for childlike wonder and emotional openness. As a cure for anxiety and depression, psilocybin and LSD have found their way back to the public. This is perhaps a development Foucault would have supported.

Also read: Foucault and the Iranian Revolution

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