Allen Ginsberg and Mary Jane by Lester Grinspoon

The basic premise behind Allen Ginsberg’s use of and attitude toward cannabis is not that it is a drug, offering an easy escape from the harsh realities of awareness, but rather that it is an agent, a natural agent (as an herb), that offers one the chance to experience a true expansion of consciousness, an increase in awareness, a general improvement and heightening of perception of all kinds. Ginsberg gladly acknowledges that the marijuana-high state is not normal,” but this carries no negative or evil connotations to one who believes, with Ginsberg, that “normal” ordinary consciousness and/or awareness is a state in which one is at least half blind, deaf, and alive.

One of the most interesting efforts by Ginsberg is the article that originally appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. (1) The special value of this paper is that the first half was written while the author was smoking marijuana, in the hope that he would be able to demonstrate the shift “from habitual shallow, purely verbal guidelines and repetitive secondhand ideological interpretations of experience to more direct, slower, absorbing, occasionally microscopically minute, engagement with sensing phenomena during the high moments or hours after one has smoked” (Ginsberg’s italics). He feels that there is “much to be revealed about marijuana especially in this time and nation for the general public, for the actual experience of the smoked herb has been completely clouded by a fog of dirty language by the diminishing crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on being centers of propaganda about the experience.”(2)

Concerning his own experiences with marijuana, he begins by asserting that “although most scientific authors who present their reputable evidence for the harmlessness of marijuana make no claim for its surprising usefulness, I do make that claim: Marijuana is a useful catalyst for specific optical and aural aesthetic perceptions. I apprehended the structure of certain pieces of jazz and classical music in a new manner under the influence of marijuana, and these apprehensions have remained valid in years of normal consciousness.”(3) This last point is especially interesting, for Ginsberg had recently given up the use of drugs in favor of “‘the primacy’ of his own body and emotions.”(4) However, one suspects this abandonment (which was, according to Playboy, the result of conversations with Martin Buber and “various holy men” in India) is not in any way a lifelong commitment, especially when one reads Ginsberg’s accounts of his marijuana and other drug-induced “visions.”

In the article written for the Atlantic Monthly, Ginsberg mentioned that marijuana enabled him to perceive Cezanne’s paintings for the first time: “I perceived (‘dug’) for the first time Cezanne’s ‘petite sensation’ of space achieved on a two-dimensional canvas.”(5) In an earlier Paris Review interview (1965) he elaborated on this experience:

    I smoked a lot of marijuana and went to the basement of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and looked at his water colors and that’s where I began really turning on to space in Cezanne and the way he built it up . . . . I suddenly got a strange shuddering impression looking at his canvases, partly the effect when someone pulls a Venetian blind, reverses the Venetian — there’s a sudden shift, a flashing that you see in Cezanne canvases. Partly it’s when the canvas opens up into three dimensions and looks like wooden objects, like solid-space objects, in three dimensions rather than flat. Partly it’s the enormous spaces that open up in Cezanne’s landscapes. And it’s partly that mysterious quality around his figures. . . . They look like great huge 3-D wooden dolls, sometimes. Very uncanny thing, like a very mysterious thing — in other words, there’s a strange sensation that one gets, looking at his canvases, which I began to associate with the extraordinary sensation — cosmic sensation, in fact — that I had experienced catalyzed by Blake’s “Sun-flower” and “Sick Rose” and a few other poems. . . . he produced a solid two-dimensional surface which when you looked into it, maybe from a slight distance with your eyes either unfocused or your eyelids lowered slightly, you could see a great three-dimensional opening, mysterious, stereoscopic, like going into a stereopticon. . . . Particularly there’s one of rocks, I guess “Rocks at Garonne,” and you look at them for a while, and after a while they seem like they’re rocks, just the rock parts, you don’t know where they are, whether they’re on the ground or in the air or on top of a cliff, but then they seem to be floating in space like clouds, and then they seem to be also a bit like they’re amorphous, like kneecaps or cockheads or faces without eyes. And it has a very mysterious impression. Well, that may have been the result of the pot. But it’s a definite thing that I got from that. (6)

It is clear from the rest of what Ginsberg says in the interview that his first appreciation of Cezanne after having smoked marijuana was the beginning of a fairly long learning process that continued after all effects of the marijuana had worn off: “I could imagine someone not prepared, in a peculiar chemical-psychological state, peculiar mental state, psychic state, someone not prepared who had no experience of eternal ecstasy, passing in front of a Cezanne canvas, distracted and without noticing it, his eyes traveling in, to, through the canvas into the space and suddenly stopping with his hair standing on end, dead in his tracks, seeing a whole universe.” (7) Ginsberg himself undertook a prolonged study of Cezanne, “studiously investigating Cezanne’s intentions and method, and looking at all the canvases of his that I could find. . . . and all the reproductions I could find, and I was writing at the time a paper on him. . . . And the whole thing opened up, two ways: first, I read a book on Cezanne’s composition by Earl Loran, who showed photographs, analyses and photographs of the original motifs, side by side with the actual canvases — and years later I actually went to Aix, with all the postcards, and stood in the spots, and tried to find the places where he painted Mont-Sainte-Victoire from, and got in his studio and saw some of the motifs he used.” (8)

In the same interview Ginsberg discusses at length his “Blake experience” of 1948, when he underwent an intense mystical episode (during which he believed that he actually heard Blake intoning his own poems) without the aid of any drugs, contrary to the report given in Playboy. The interviewer asks if his use of drugs was an attempt to extend this experience, and Ginsberg replies: “Well, since I took a vow that this was the area of, that this was my existence that I was placed into, drugs were obviously a technique for experimenting with consciousness, to get different areas and different levels and different similarities and different reverberations of the same vision. Marijuana has some of it in it, that awe, the cosmic awe that you get sometimes on pot. . . . It’s a normal state also, I mean it’s a holy state of some sort. . . . So — summing up then — drugs were useful for exploring perception, sense perception, and exploring different possibilities and modes of consciousness, and exploring the different versions of petites sensations, and useful then for composing, sometimes, while under the influence.” (9)

He also talks about his “giving up” drugs:

    Well, the Asian experience kind of got me out of the corner I painted myself in with drugs. That corner being an inhuman corner in the sense that I figured I was expanding my consciousness and I had to go through with it but at the same time I was confronting this serpent monster, so I was getting in a real terrible situation. It would finally get so if I’d take the drugs I’d start vomiting. But I felt that I was duly bound and obliged for the sake of consciousness expansion, and this insight, and breaking down my identity, and seeking more direct contact with primate sensation, nature, to continue. So when I went to India, all the way through India, I was babbling about that to all the holy men I could find. I wanted to find out if they had any suggestions. And they all did, and they were all good ones. First one I saw was Martin Buber, who was interested. . . . I was thinking like loss of identity and confrontation with nonhuman universe as the main problem, and in a sense whether or not man had to evolve and change, and perhaps become nonhuman too. Melt into the universe, let us say — to put it awkwardly and inaccurately. Buber said that he was interested in man-to-man relationships, human-to-human — that he thought it was a human universe that we were destined to inhabit. . . . And he said, “Mark my word, young man, in two years you will realize that I was right.” He was right — in two years I marked his words. Two years is sixty-three — I saw him in sixty-one. . . .
    Then there was Swami Shivananda, in Rishikish in India. He said, “Your own heart is your guru.” . . . [I] suddenly realized it was the heart that I was seeking. In other words it wasn’t consciousness, it wasn’t petites sensations, sensation defined as expansion of mental consciousness to include more data — . . . the area that I was seeking was heart rather than mind. In other words, in mind, through mind. . . . one can construct all sorts of universes. . . . and with lysergic acid you can enter into alternative universes and with the speed of light; . . . Anyway, a whole series of Indian holy men pointed back to the body — getting in the body rather than getting out of the human form. . . . So now the next step was that the gurus one after another said, Live in the body: this is the form that you’re born for. That’s too long a narration to go into. . . . But it all winds up in the train in Japan, then a year later, the poem “The Change,” where all of a sudden I renounce drugs, I don’t renounce drugs but I suddenly didn’t want to be dominated by that nonhuman any more, or even be dominated by the moral obligation to enlarge my consciousness any more. Or do anything, any more except be my heart. (10)

It is clear from the Atlantic article that Ginsberg’s “renouncement” was temporary. Perhaps the important point is that he thought that he had to abandon drugs, including even marijuana, when he felt they were taking him away from a direct involvement with life, and leading him into preoccupation with the inorganic. Yet even in the article (written in two parts, one a month after the first, 1965) he states that marijuana enabled him to see “anew many of nature’s panoramas & landscapes that I’d stared at blindly without even noticing before; thru the use of marijuana, awe & detail were made conscious. These perceptions are permanent –any deep aesthetic experience leaves a trace, & an idea of what to look for that can be checked back later. I developed a taste for Crivelli’s symmetry; and saw Rembrandt’s Polish Rider as a sublime Youth on a Deathly horse for the first time — saw myself in the rider’s face, one might say — while walking around the Frick Museum high on pot. These are not ‘hallucinations’; these are deepened perceptions that one might have catalyzed not by pot but by some other natural event (as natural as pot) that changes the mind, such as an intense Love, a death in the family, a sudden clear dusk after rain, or the sight of the neon-spectral reality of Times Square one sometimes has after leaving a strange movie. So it’s all natural.” (11)

Although “Ginsberg, likes to call his own well-known experiments with marijuana and the hallucinogens ‘pious investigations’ [and] . . . often compares himself, in this respect, to the French symbolist poets, and, like them, he has kept a faithful record of his investigations in poems and journals written over the years and under a variety of influences,” (12) his writings on the subject of marijuana are understated, mainly lucid, entirely believable reports which show instead of merely telling about the cannabis experience. Of course it should be remembered that Ginsberg, while writing the first part of his article, was under the influence of a dose of marijuana much smaller than that customarily consumed as hashish by members of “Le Club des Haschischins,” or by Taylor or Ludlow. But his statement that he has spent about as much time “high as I have spent in movie theatres — sometimes three hours a week, sometimes twelve or twenty or more, with about the same degree of alteration of my normal awareness,” (13) read after the effusive hyperbole and self-dramatization of Gautier, Ludlow, and even Baudelaire, is a good indication of the wide difference between the effects of marijuana used in comparatively low doses and the effects of the much more potent preparations used in extremely high doses by Ginsberg’s literary predecessors. He states that one of the aims of his article, which he dedicates to those who have never smoked marijuana, is to give an example of “the phenomenon of transmuting to written language a model of the marijuana experience, which can be understood and related to in some mode by those who have not yet met the experience but who are willing to slow their thought and judgment and decipher the syntax clause by clause.” (14)

It is interesting that although the effects of the marijuana on Ginsberg’s style are sometimes obvious, his ability to think and express himself does not appear to be significantly impaired. In fact, he marshals an impressive and detailed and appropriate selection of footnote references to articles and studies on the effects of cannabis, some of them not very well known or generally ignored.

He attributes the anxiety and paranoidlike reactions that many users of marijuana have reported, as well as his own similar responses, to “the effects on consciousness . . . of the law and the threatening activities of the U.S. . . . Bureau of Narcotics [predecessor of the present Drug Enforcement Administration],” and not at all to cannabis. He states that he smokes marijuana less frequently when in America than “in countries where it is legal. I noticed a profound difference of effect. The anxiety was directly traceable to fear of being apprehended and treated as a deviant criminal & put thru the hassle of social disapproval, ignominious Kafkian tremblings in vast court buildings coming to be judged, the helplessness of being overwhelmed by force or threat of deadly force and put in brick & iron cell.” (15)

The second part of the essay begins with Ginsberg’s decision to let the first part stand as written, “for the reader who has not smoked marijuana, [let it remain] a manifestation of marijuana-high thought structure in a mode which intersects our mutual consciousness, namely language.” (16)

Ginsberg admits that there are some people who do not like the marijuana sensation, “and report back to the language world that it’s a drag and make propaganda against this particular area of nonverbal awareness. But the vast majority all over the world, who have smoked the several breaths necessary to feel the effect, adjust to the strangely familiar sensation of Time slow-down, and explore this new space thru natural curiosity, report that it’s a useful area of mind-consciousness to be familiar with, a creative show of the silly side of an awful big army of senseless but habitual thought-formations risen out of the elements of a language world: a metaphysical herb less habituating than tobacco, whose smoke is no more disruptive than Insight — in short, for those who have made the only objective test, a vast majority of satisfied smokers.” (17)


1. A. Ginsberg, “The Great Marijuana Hoax: First Manifesto to End the Bringdown,” Atlantic Monthly, Nov. 1966, pp. 104, 107-112 (long version, “The First Manifesto to End the Bringdown,” in Marihuana Papers, ed. Solomon, pp. 183-200).

2. Ginsberg, “First Manifesto,” p. 184-185.

3. Ibid., p. 196.

4. “Playboy Interview: Allen Ginsberg,” Playboy, April 1969, p. 82.

5. Ginsberg, “Great Marihuana Hoax,” p. 109.

6. “Allen Ginsberg,” interview by T. Clark in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Third Series, ed. G. Plimpton, introd. Alfred Kazin (New York, 1967), pp. 291-294.

7. Ibid., pp. 296-297.

8. Ibid., p. 292.

9. Ibid., pp. 311-313.

10. Ibid., pp. 314-316. The poem reads as follows:

    “Yes I am that worm soul under the heel of the daemon horses/I am that man trembling to die/in vomit & trance in bamboo/eternities belly ripped by/red hands of courteous/chinamen kids — come sweetly/now back to my Self as I was — Allen Ginsberg says this: I am/a mass of sores and worms/& baldness & belly & smell/I am false Name the prey/of Yaman-taka Devourer of/Strange dreams, the prey of/radiation Police Hells of Law/ . . . In my train seat I renounce/my power, so am/to be so — My own Identity now nameless/neither man nor dragon or/God/but the dreaming Me (“The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express,” Planet News, pp. 59-63).

11. Ginsberg, “Great Marihuana Hoax,” pp. 109-110.

12. J. Kramer, Allen Ginsberg in America (New York, 1968), p. 21.

13. Ginsberg, “Great Marihuana Hoax,” p. 107.

14. Ginsberg, “First Manifesto,” p. 189.

15. Ginsberg, “Great Marihuana Hoax,” p. 108-109.

16. Ginsberg, “First Manifesto,” p 195.

17. Ibid., p. 185.

2 Responses to “Allen Ginsberg and Mary Jane by Lester Grinspoon”

  1. Steve Haag says:

    Thanks, Lester. Such thoughtful consideration given to this most complex and interesting substance.

    Makes me wonder how the public conversation has become such a cartoon depiction of it.

  2. Nathan says:

    Interesting discussion. I always found Ginsberg to be a fascinating character and his views on marijuana were and are truly enlightened.

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