On St. John's Wort


by Justin E. H. Smith

If I recall correctly, Plotinus was said by his disciple Porphyry to have experienced a total of four mystical visions, in which he, it is reported, became one with the One. The great Platonist philosopher could not relate anything of his visions, however, since they had brought him beyond the boundaries of discursive language, into a realm where the ‘true’ and the ‘false’ of propositions no longer hold.

Well, I had a mystical vision last night, and I don’t know if it’s because I did not go quite as far as Plotinus, or rather because my power of language is that much greater, but whatever the case I find I am perfectly able to describe it. Here is what happened.

Ordinarily, I drink 0.187 litres of red wine each evening, not a lot, just enough to take the edge off and to sustain the illusion that my relocation to France has something to do with my commitment to the life of the bon-vivant. But yesterday I had flu symptoms, and I took a major dose –400 mg– of ibuprofen. This got me all freaked out about my liver and its long-term viability. I decided to forego the wine, but fearing what would happen in the absence of its soporific effect, to which I had perhaps grown too accustomed, I decided to take an herbal sleep-aid instead.

Now ordinarily I’m inclined to think that herbal remedies can’t really be efficacious: if they were, someone would have made it hard to get our hands on them by now. So I took more, far more, than the recommended dosage of St John’s wort, and I lay me down.

It worked. Well, it did something anyway. It did not put me to sleep in the ordinary sense, but it did  displace me into a parallel reality so intense that I would not have been disappointed by these results if I had been seeking an escape through opium. There were the usual flashing geometrical patterns, and the flaming animals’ heads. More happened than I could possibly recall. At some point, I was lying on my back, and I felt my face begin to tingle. The tingling spread throughout my head, and inward toward the center. I felt now as if I were rising up off the bed –I was asleep, yet conscious of my surroundings– and as I rose I felt myself approaching some sort of summit or climax that might be compared to a petite mort, except that it was centered in my head and vastly more powerful. As it rose, I became vastly more aware of my surroundings, and of what I took to be the reality that underlay or grounded the features of my surroundings. I also became aware of my ability to steer my awareness, to invoke the presence to my attention of whatever interested me.

I decided to be bold, and to invoke the very highest of things. I want to see the face of God, I thought, or said, or commanded. And right away a figure began to take shape in my mind’s eye. The God of the Old Testament, of whom even Moses was permitted to see only his fleeing posterior? A many-headed Brahma? No, it was some dowdy, rumpled Andy Rooney of class Aves, whom I soon enough recognized to be the protagonist of the old comic strip Shoe.

So there it is, I thought, and strangely I was not disappointed. That’ll do, too. Sure, Shoe. A bird-journalist from the Sunday funny-pages of my American childhood. Why not? And I floated back down toward the bed, and I was filled with such an infinite joy that it seems a betrayal to attempt to describe it here.

So, I consumed a special plant with special chemicals in it, and I experienced an unusual brain event. I do not spend my waking life looking at icons, and so, when in my wort-induced rêverie I go in search of ‘the face of God’, my brain apparently pulls up whatever old stock image it can find in its cluttered files. But the joy was no less real.

If I had been in a 12th-century monastery, the experience would have been complete, and meaningful. I live in an absurd and fragmented age, and even my mystical experience reflects that. But the medieval monk and I have the same brain. And if the joy may be trusted more than the slapdash icon as a reliable indicator of the nature of the experience, then we may also have the same God.

Piece crossposted with Justin E. H. Smith’s website