Extreme, Extreme!


On Drugs

The literature of laughing gas.


“This is not the Laughing, but the Hippocrene or Poetic Gas, Sir.” Colored etching by R. Seymour, 1829, via the Wellcome Library.

What’s mistake but a kind of take?
What’s nausea but a kind of -ausea?
Sober, drunk, -unk, astonishment.
Everything can become the subject of criticism—how criticise without something to criticise? Agreement—disagreement!!

These words were set to paper in 1882 by William James, one of the most celebrated proponents of the new science of psychology, and a newly minted assistant professor of philosophy at Harvard. James was in many ways the paragon of an eminent Victorian—his writing tends to summon images of the author ensconced beside a roaring fire in some cozy wood-paneled study in Cambridge. And yet here James comes off as utterly, absurdly stoned.

Because he was.

After huffing a large amount of nitrous oxide, James set out to tackle a prominent bugbear of 1880s intellectual life: Hegelian dialectics. He came up with a stream of consciousness that centered on a kind of ecstatic binary thinking:

Don’t you see the difference, don’t you see the identity?
Constantly opposites united!
The same me telling you to write and not to write!
Extreme—extreme, extreme! Within the extensity that “extreme” contains is contained the “extreme” of intensity
Something, and other than that thing!
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!

James acknowledged to his readers that these ravings were the product of a mental state that, like alcohol intoxication, “seems silly to lookers-on.” But he came away from the experience with a remarkably positive take on nitrous oxide. James had argued that drunkenness produced a kind of “subjective rapture” occasioned by its ability to make “the centre and periphery of things seem to come together.” Nitrous oxide, he believed, produced a similar effect, “only a thousandfold enhanced.” On the gas, his mind was “seized … by logical forceps” and jolted into a new order of consciousness which, he thought, made the logic of Hegelian dialectics perfectly obvious to him.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about James’s experience report is that it didn’t appear in a private diary or letter, but in public, in one of the most eminent psychological journals of his day. What today might be taken for sophomore-dorm drug ramblings was, in the 1880s, novel enough to be cutting-edge science. Nor was James alone in his fascination with recreational drug use. Three years later, a young Sigmund Freud would publish “Über Coca,” usually regarded as the first scientific study of cocaine—but also a paean to the recreational abuse of the drug, which Freud engaged in with considerable gusto.


A young William James looking decidedly anachronistic in Brazil, 1865. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Cocaine, of course, would rise to prominence in the twentieth century. It was immortalized in hit songs; it fueled (fuels?) Hollywood; Woody Allen sneezed in it. There’s no comparable cultural space for nitrous oxide. Today, the drug summons up vague images of wayward fifteen-year-olds huffing cans of Reddi-wip in muddy parking lots.

Things were different once. In a recent article for The Public Domain Review, Mike Jay explores the summer of 1799, when the newly discovered “laughing gas” became a surprise hit among a group of adventurous London aristocrats that included Sir Humphry Davy and Coleridge.

The early reviews were rapturous. “When the bags were exhausted and taken from me,” wrote one early user, “I continued breathing with the same violence, then suddenly starting from the chair, and vociferating with pleasure, I made towards those that were present, as I wished they should participate in my feeling.” Coleridge described “a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame, resembling that which I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room.”

Sir Humphry Davy was the drug’s most ardent proponent. During full moons in the summer of 1799, Jay writes, Davy took to “inhaling the gas under the stars and scribbling snatches of poetry and philosophical insight.” By winter, Davy had progressed to building “an air-tight breathing-box,” which he entered “with a curved thermometer inserted under the arm, and a stop-watch,” and proceeded to pump full of nitrous oxide. Davy proceeded to get ever-more intoxicated: first he felt a warm sensation in his chest, then points of light in his eyes and “a sense of tangible extension highly pleasureable [sic] in every limb.” At length, “as the pleasurable sensations increased,” Davy “lost all connection with external things” and fell into a fugue state. “I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas,” he remembered. “I theorized; I imagined I made discoveries.”

Davy’s takeaway from this experience—“Nothing exists but Thoughts!”—bears a family resemblance to James’s Hegelian ranting of eighty years later. In both cases, eminent scientists engaged in an extreme form of nitrous oxide intoxication and came away from it with what they believed to be a new understanding of epistemological fundamentals. And in both cases, neither of their insights made much sense to sober audiences.

Despite this, James’s experiment seems to have had a real effect on his philosophical thought. In December of 1880, James had written to his friend Charles Renouvier that “my principal amusement this winter has been resisting the inroads of Hegelism in our University,” calling it “fundamentally rotten and charlatanish.” After his 1882 nitrous encounter, James had undergone a shift in thinking. The gas’s “first result,” he wrote, “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.”

Twenty years later, in his most famous work, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1901), James would cite the nitrous experiment as the basis for one of his most celebrated and oft-quoted observations about human consciousness:

I myself made some observations on … nitrous oxide intoxication, and reported them in print. One conclusion was forced upon my mind at that time, and my impression of its truth has ever since remained unshaken. It is that our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different.

Sixty years later, another young professor of psychology at Harvard would argue something similar: his name was Timothy Leary. But there’s something about the reports of James and Davy that make them, for me, at least, far more compelling than the self-indulgence of the 1960s drug writers. They’re not only trippy—they’re exuberant, experimental, playful, funny, honest, and intellectually curious. The literature of laughing gas turns out to be worth a huff or two.

Benjamin Breen is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor-in-chief of The Appendix, a new journal of narrative and experimental history. His writings have appeared in Aeon, The Atlantic, The Public Domain Review, and The Journal of Early Modern History. He is currently writing a book on the origins of the global drug trade and is on Twitter.