Straight Trippin’: Sartre, Mescaline, Nausea, Crabs

In a previous post, I had wondered whether Jean-Paul Sartre‘s description of Roquentin’s ‘vision in the park’ in Nausea was an indication of psychedelic experiences in Sartre’s past:

Was Antoine Roquentin tripping? Alternatively, did Sartre ever do psychedelics and incorporate some of those visions and experiences into his writing of Nausea?

This question should seem eminently reasonable to anyone who has either experienced psychedelics himself or read about the visions and experiences of those who have ingested psychedelics. For it is all here in Roquentin’s reports: the sheer, stark, apparently unmediated access to reality and being and existence, the sheer particularity and uniqueness of things, and yet at the same time, the dawning realization that reality and appearance are woven together, that–to use Dewey‘s words, “thought is intrinsic to experience,” that consciousness is constructive and constitutive. Like those who set out on psychedelic trips, Roquentin is overpowered and awed by his noticing, as if for the first time, his and the world’s being and existence.

In response reader Ariel Valdez left the following comment:

I can’t find the exact source, but apparently Sartre experimented with mescaline in the 1930s.

But that wasn’t all. By email, Valdez pointed me to an article in The New York Times titled ‘When Sartre Talked to Crabs (It Was Mescaline)‘ (NYT, 14 November 2009), which includes the following exchange:

Sartre: … I ended up having a nervous breakdown.

Gerassi: You mean the crabs?

Sartre: Yeah, after I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “O.K., guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang
Gerassi: A lot of them?

Sartre: Actually, no, just three or four.

Grassi: But you knew they were imaginary?

Sartre: Oh, yes. But after I finished school, I began to think I was going crazy, so I went to see a shrink, a young guy then with whom I have been good friends ever since, Jacques Lacan. We concluded that it was fear of being alone, fear of losing the camaraderie of the group. You know, my life changed radically from my being one of a group….The crabs really began when my adolescence ended. At first, I avoided them by writing about them — in effect, by defining life as nausea —. [emphasis added]

Valdez then pointed me to the following passage in Nausea (pp. 9-10):

When I was eight years old and used to play in the Luxembourg gardens there was a man who came and sat in a sentry-box, against the iron fence which runs along the Rue Auguste-Comte. He did not speak but from time to time stretched out his leg and looked at his foot fearfully. The foot was encased in a boot, but the other one was in a slipper. The guard told my uncle that the man was a former proctor. They retired him because he used to come, dressed up as an academician, to read the school term marks. We had a horrible fear of him because we sensed he was alone. One day he smiled at Robert, holding out his arms to him from a distance: Robert almost fainted. It wasn’t this creature’s poverty-stricken look which frightened us, nor the tumour he had on his neck that rubbed against the edge of his collar: but we felt that he was shaping thoughts of crab or lobster in his head. And that terrified us, the fact that one could conjure thoughts of lobsters on the sentry-box, on our hoops, on the bushes.

And reminded me, “Throughout the book he makes numerous references of crabs, almost all of them involving some kind of madness.”

One such instance can be found on page 98:

I exist. It’s sweet, so sweet, so slow. And light: you’d think it floated all by itself. It stirs. It brushes by me, melts and vanishes. Gently, gently. There is bubbling water in my mouth. I swallow. It slides down my throat, it caresses me—and now it comes up again into my mouth. For ever I shall have a little pool of whitish water in my mouth—lying low—grazing my tongue. And this pool is still me. And the tongue. And the throat is me. I see my hand spread out on the table. It lives—it is me. It opens, the fingers open and point. It is lying on its back. It shows me its fat belly. It looks like an animal turned upside down. The fingers are the paws. I amuse myself by moving them very rapidly, like the claws of a crab which has fallen on its back. The crab is dead: the claws draw up and close over the belly of my hand. I see the nails—the only part of me that doesn’t live. And once more. My hand turns over, spreads out flat on its stomach, offers me the sight of its back. A silvery back, shining a little—like a fish except for the red hairs on the knuckles. I feel my hand. I am these two beasts struggling at the end of my arms. My hand scratches one of its paws with the nail of the other paw; I feel its weight on the table which is not me. It’s long, long, this impression of weight, it doesn’t pass. There is no reason for it to pass. It becomes intolerable.

Case closed.

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