When Jean-Paul Sartre Had a Bad Mescaline Trip and Then Hallucinated That He Was Being Followed by Crabs

Image by Thier­ry Ehrmann via Flickr Com­mons

Some­times when con­front­ed with strange new ideas, peo­ple will exclaim, “you must be on drugs!”—a charge often levied at philoso­phers by those who would rather dis­miss their ideas as hal­lu­ci­na­tions than take them seri­ous­ly. But, then, to be fair, some­times philoso­phers are on drugs. Take Jean-Paul Sartre. “Before Hunter S. Thomp­son was dri­ving around in con­vert­ibles stocked full of acid, cocaine, mesca­line and tequi­la,” notes Crit­i­cal The­o­ry, Sartre almost approached the gonzo journalist’s habit­u­al intake.

Accord­ing to Annie Cohen-Solal, who wrote a biog­ra­phy of Sartre, his dai­ly drug con­sump­tion was thus: two packs of cig­a­rettes, sev­er­al tobac­co pipes, over a quart of alco­hol (wine, beer, vod­ka, whisky etc.), two hun­dred mil­ligrams of amphet­a­mines, fif­teen grams of aspirin, a boat load of bar­bi­tu­rates, some cof­fee, tea, and a few “heavy” meals (what­ev­er those might have been). 

These details should not undu­ly influ­ence our read­ing of Sartre’s work. Like Thomp­son, no mat­ter how phys­i­cal­ly debil­i­tat­ing the booze and drugs might have been for him, they didn’t seem to cramp his pro­duc­tiv­i­ty or intel­lec­tu­al vig­or. But his one and only expe­ri­ence with mesca­line almost sent him careen­ing over the edge, and cer­tain­ly con­tributed to an impor­tant motif in his work after­ward.

While work­ing on a book about the imag­i­na­tion, Sartre sought to have an hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry expe­ri­ence. He got the chance in 1935 when an old friend, Dr. Daniel Lagache, invit­ed him into an exper­i­ment at Sainte-Anne’s hos­pi­tal in Paris, where he was inject­ed with mesca­line and observed under con­trolled con­di­tions. “Sartre does not appear to have had a bad trip in the clas­sic sense of suf­fer­ing a major and pro­longed pan­ic attack,” Gary Cox writes in his Sartre biog­ra­phy. “But it was not a good trip and he did not enjoy it.”

The most ill effects came after­ward: “His visu­al fac­ul­ties remained dis­tort­ed for weeks.” Sartre saw hous­es with “leer­ing faces, all eyes and jaws.” Clock faces took on the fea­tures of owls. He con­fid­ed in his part­ner Simone de Beau­voir that “he feared that one day he would no longer know” whether or not these were hal­lu­ci­na­tions. They were, how­ev­er, not the worst after­ef­fects. As Sartre told polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor John Geras­si in a 1971 inter­view, crabs began to fol­low him around. He described the expe­ri­ence as “a ner­vous break­down.” The crabs fol­lowed him “all the time,” he said, “I mean 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, or I would say, “OK 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.

This went on for a year before Sartre went to see his friend Jacques Lacan for psy­cho­analy­sis. “We con­clud­ed, “ he says, “that it was a fear of becom­ing alone.” While he had pre­vi­ous­ly con­fessed a fear of sea crea­tures, espe­cial­ly crabs, that went back to his child­hood, after the mesca­line trip, crabs fea­tured promi­nent­ly in his work, as Peter Royle shows at Phi­los­o­phy Now.

We find sev­er­al ref­er­ences to crabs in his short sto­ry col­lec­tion The Wall and in his famous essay “Exis­ten­tial­ism is a Human­ism.” Samir Chopra quotes crab pas­sages in Sartre’s first nov­el Nau­sea. (“At first I avoid­ed them by writ­ing about them,” he told Geras­si, “in effect, by defin­ing life as nau­sea.”) “In one of his short sto­ries, ‘Ero­s­tra­tus,’” notes Royle, “Sartre cre­ates a char­ac­ter, Paul Hilbert, who looks down on human beings from a height and sees them as crabs.” The most strik­ing use of the “crab motif” comes from his 1959 play The Con­demned of Altona, in which the pro­tag­o­nist Frantz imag­ines that by the Thir­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry, humans have become crabs sit­ting in judg­ment of the peo­ple of the Twen­ti­eth.

Crab images, Royle argues, “point to impor­tant philo­soph­i­cal ideas,” includ­ing “the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ignominy inher­ent in the con­cept of free­dom itself” and the “rep­re­hen­si­ble ‘crabs’ who decline to assume their free­dom” and thus scut­tle around mind­less­ly in groups. Crus­taceans con­tin­ued to haunt the philoso­pher. While the effects of the mesca­line even­tu­al­ly dis­si­pat­ed, “when he was feel­ing down,” writes Cox, Sartre would get the “recur­rent feel­ing, the delu­sion, that he was being pur­sued by a giant lob­ster, always just out of sight… per­pet­u­al­ly about to arrive.”

One of the “great, dark­ly com­ic fea­tures of Sartre folk­lore,” the huge, invis­i­ble lob­ster invites much spec­u­la­tion about Sartre’s men­tal health. But per­haps it was only the mon­strous embod­i­ment of his own feel­ings of mau­vaise foi, giv­en vivid form by a lin­ger­ing psy­chotrop­ic hang­over and a dai­ly diet of uppers and downers—a reminder of the “anx­i­ety, anguish, dread, appre­hen­sion, fear of pain, fear of death… [and] fun­da­men­tal absur­di­ty of exis­tence.” As Royle writes, Sartre, always fond of puns, “could only have been intrigued” by the French word for lob­ster, homard, which sounds like “homme-ard,” a coinage that might sug­gest some­thing like “a bad man.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Michel Fou­cault Tripped on Acid in Death Val­ley and Called It “The Great­est Expe­ri­ence of My Life” (1975)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Con­cepts of Free­dom & “Exis­ten­tial Choice” Explained in an Ani­mat­ed Video Nar­rat­ed by Stephen Fry

The Draw­ings of Jean-Paul Sartre

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Brian says:

    The arti­cle is very infor­ma­tive and well writ­ten. How­ev­er that title is just awful. I had ro reread it 4 times to get its mean­ing.

    For many years Jean-Paul Sartre Hal­lu­ci­nat­ed That He Was Being Fol­lowed by Crabs, after a Bad Mesca­line Trip

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