‘On Dissociation: An Anesthetic Aesthetic’ by Ethan Gathy

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Much has been made of the relation of certain writers and their affinities for drink or for various intoxications. Most often, besides liquor, one is likely to hear of a writer or philosopher partaking in opioids or in psychedelics. A vital strain, I aver however, that is missing in this discourse is that of the class of drugs known as “dissociatives”.

Dissociatives or “dissos” are a class of hallucinogen (the others being psychedelics and deliriants) characterized by antagonism of NMDA receptors. Drugs of this family include: ketamine, dextromethorphan, PCP, and nitrous. Their effects on humans include but are not limited to: a sense of confusion, lack of balance/proprioception, distortions of time and space, increased appreciation of music, closed eye visuals (including geometries as well as roving eye landscapes and immersive dramatic scenes). One has remarked that they feel like “it’s 72 degrees in your head all the time”. Dissos also are known to lack hangovers and instead supply afterglows and antidepressant properties. At higher doses they can induce “k-holes” or “holes” wherein one can lose one’s sense of place and have surreal ego death-like experiences.

The importance of these substances to the arts is perhaps not obvious immediately due to the dissociative family seeming relatively recent as far as drugs go, as well as seemingly never occurring naturally. This would make one think the disso is relegated to the niche, to being a weird class of “designer drugs”. We must remember, however, that LSD was a designer drug at one point.

The figure who looms largest over this legacy is undeniably John C Lilly, the scientist most famous for his development of the sensory deprivation tank and for his experiments on dolphin intelligence. After the illegalization of LSD, Lilly began experimenting with ketamine and later PCP. His work navigated everything from science to philosophy and spirituality and was often inspired by his entheogenic experiments. Tributes to Lilly can be found everywhere from the cult film, Altered States, to Serial Experiments Lain to Ecco the Dolphin.

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