Effects of Nitrous Oxide
Some observations of the effects of nitrous oxide gas-intoxication
which I was prompted to make by reading the pamphlet called
"The anaesthetic revelation and the gist of philosophy"
(Blood, 1874), have made me understand better than ever before
both the strength and the weakness of Hegel's philosophy.
I strongly urge others to repeat the experiment, which with
pure gas is short and harmless enough. The effects will of
course vary with the individual, just as they vary in the
same individual from time to time; but it is probable that
in the former case, as in the latter, a generic resemblance
will obtain. With me, as with every other person of whom I
have heard, the keynote of the experience is the tremendously
exiting sense of an intense metaphysical illumination. Truth
lies open to the view in depth beneath depth of almost blinding
evidence. The mind sees all logical relations of being with
an apparant subtlety and instantaniety to which its normal
consciousness offers no parallel; only as sobriety returns,
the feeling of insight fades, and one is left staring vacantly
at a few disjointed words and phrases, as one stares at a
cadaverous-looking snowpeak from which sunset glow has just
fled, or at a black cinder left by an extinguished brand.
The immense emotional sense of reconciliation which characterizes
the "maudlin" stage of alcoholic drunkenness --
a stage which seems silly to lookers-on, but the subjective
rapture of which probably constitutes a chief part of the
temptation to the vice -- is well known. The centre and periphery
of things seem to come together. The ego and its objects,
the meum and tuum, are one. Now this, only a thousandfold
enhanced, was the effect upon me of the gas: and its first
result was to make peal through me with unutterable power
the conviction that Hegelism was true after all, and that
the deepest convictions of my intellect hitherto were wrong.
Whatever the idea of representation occurred to the mind was
seized by the same logical forceps, and served to illustrate
the same truth; and that truth was that every opposition,
among whatsoever things, vanishes in a higher unity in which
it is based; that all contradictions, so-called, are of a
common kind; that unbroken continuity is of the essence of
being; and that we are literally in the midst of an infinite,
to perceive the existence of which is the utmost we can attain.
Without the same as a basis, how could strife occur? Strife
presupposes something to be striven about; and in this common
topic, the same for both parties, the differences merge. From
the hardest contradiction to the tenderest diversity of verbiage
differences evaporate; yes and no agree at least in being
assertions; a denial of a statement is but another mode of
stating the same, contradictions can only occur of the same
thing -- all opinions are thus synonyms, are synonymous, are
the same. But the same phrase by different emphasis is two;
and here again diffence and no-difference merge in one.
It is impossible to convey an idea of the torrential character
of the identification of opposites as it streams through the
mind in this experience. I have sheet after sheet of phrases
dictated or written during the intoxication, which to the
sober reader seem meaningless drivel, but which at the moment
of transcribing were fused in the fire of infinite rationality.
God and devil, good and evil, life and death, I and thou,
sober and drunk, matter and form, black and white, quality
and quantity, shiver of ecstasy and shudder of horror, vomiting
and swallowing, inspiration and expiration, fate and reason,
great and small, extent and intent, joke and earnest, tragic
and comic, and fifty other contrasts figure in these pages
in the same monotonous way. The mind saw how each term belonged
to its contrast through a knife-edge moment of transition
which it effected, and which, perennial and eternal, was the
nunc stans of life. The thought of mutual implication of the
parts in the bare form of a judgement of opposition as "nothing
-- but," "no more -- than," "Only -- if,"
etc. produced a perfect delirium of theoretic rapture. And
at last, when defininte ideas to work on came slowly, the
mind went through the mere form of recognizing sameness in
identity by contrasting the same word with itself, differently
emphasized, or shorn of its initial letter. Let me transcribe
a few sentences:
What's mistake but a kind of take?
What's nausea but a kind of -usea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism -- how criticise
without something to criticise?
Agreement -- disagreement!!
Emotion -- motion!!!
By God, how that hurts! By God, how it doesn't hurt! Reconciliation
of two extremes.
By George, nothing but othing!
That sounds like nonsense, but it's pure onsense!
Thought much deeper than speech...!
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL! Oh my God,
oh God; oh God!
The most coherent and articulate sentence which came was this:
There are no differences but differences of degree between
different degrees of difference and no difference.
But now comes the reverse of the medal. What is the principle
of unity in all this monotonous rain of instances? Although
I did not see it at first, I soon found that it was in each
case nothing but the abstract genus of which the conflicting
terms were opposite species. In other words, although the
flood of ontologic emotion was Hegelian through and through,
the ground for it was nothing but the world-old principle
that things are the same only so far and no farther than they
are the same, or partake of a common nature -- the principle
that Hegel most tramples under foot. At the same time the
rapture of beholding a process that was infinite, changed
(as the nature of the infinitude was realized by the mind)
into the sense of a dreadful and ineluctable fate, with whose
magnitude every finite effort is incommensurable and in the
light of which whatever happens is indifferent. This instantaneous
revulsion of mood from rapture to horror is, perhaps, the
strongest emotion I have ever experienced. I got it repeatedly
when the inhalation was continued long enough to produce incipient
nausea; amd I cannot but regard it as the normal and inevitable
outcome of the intoxication, if sufficiently prolonged. A
pessimistic fatalism, depth within depth of impotence and
indifference, reason and silliness united, not in a higher
synthesia, but in the fact that whichever you choose it is
all one -- this is the upshot of a revelation that began so
Even when the process stops short of this ultimatum, the reader
will have noticed from the phrases quoted how often it ends
by losing the clue. Something "fades," "escapes;"
and the feeling of insight is changed into an intense one
of bewilderment, puzzle, confusion, astonishment: I know no
more singular sensation than this intense bewilderment, with
nothing particular left to be bewildered at save the bewilderment
itself. It seems, indeed, a causa sui, or "spirit become
its own object."
My conclusion is that the togetherness of things in a common
world, the law of sharing, of which I have said so much, may,
when perceived, engender a very powerful emotion; that Hegel
was so unusually succeptible to this emotion; throughout his
life that its gratification became his supreme end, and made
him tolerably unscrupulous as to the means he employed; that
indifferentism is the true outcome of every view of the world
which makes infinity and continuity to be its essence, and
that pessimistic or optimistic attitudes pertain to the more
accidental subjectivity of the moment; finally, that the identification
of contradictories, so far from being the self-developing
process which Hegel supposes, is really a self-consuming process,
passed from the less to the more abstract, and terminating
either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood
of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.
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