William James, The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher
October 11, 2002 12:04 PM   Subscribe

William James, The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher The fascinating history of laughing gas has always included goofy moments and famous users (Samuel Coleridge and Peter Roget among them), but few took the drug as seriously as American philosopher William James. He wrote an 1882 essay about the "intense metaphysical illumination" nitrous provided. Of course, laughing gas has dangers, can kill you if used stupidly, and can also send you to jail. But is hippie crack always bad? Or are there times when it might actually be kind of appropriate? [more inside]
posted by mediareport (21 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

James reports one of his profound insights that explain everything while on NO2, which he happened to write down and was able to read over again when sober:

Hogamus Higamus,
Man is polygamous;
Higamus hogamus,
Woman's monogamous.

Actually, you know I've always thought that does explain pretty much everything, but I never thought you needed nitrous to notice it.
posted by jfuller at 12:21 PM on October 11, 2002

WRONG! T.S. Eliot wrote that, jfuller--James wrote, The universe is permeated with the smell of petroleum or something like that.
posted by y2karl at 12:26 PM on October 11, 2002

No, I WRONG--about James.

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 is pure onsense!
Thought deeper than speech...!
Medical school; divinity school, school! SCHOOL!
Oh my God, oh God; oh God!

posted by y2karl at 12:30 PM on October 11, 2002

and Eliot, too *slinks away, tail between legs*
posted by y2karl at 12:32 PM on October 11, 2002

If you'll excuse the self-link, I'll show you my short short about the horrors of nitrous called "Gas Making You Sick?"
posted by muckster at 12:40 PM on October 11, 2002

"as she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat..."

-T.S. Eliot, From: 'Hysteria'.

perhaps this could explain the "Headpiece filled with straw." :)

great link(s) mediareport. (seems you where more right then imagined Karl. ((have a good weekend you two))
posted by clavdivs at 12:46 PM on October 11, 2002

Let's not overlook that James himself notes the silliness factor in the 1882 essay:

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.

Later, according to the Atlantic article, he summarized his experiences like so:

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.

Makes sense to me. Why wouldn't insights gleaned during various conscious states lose some of their meaning as we return to the state we consider "normal"? *shrugs* James also added that some folks were probably able to access these other forms of consciousness without drugs, which shows pretty sharp insight. And I have to say I love his description of that moment when the contradictions and wordplay just kind of resolve themselves:

...terminating either in a laugh at the ultimate nothingness, or in a mood of vertiginous amazement at a meaningless infinity.

[You too, clavdivs, thanks.]
posted by mediareport at 12:51 PM on October 11, 2002

True story: Once when much younger, I was getting my teeth cleaned, early in the morning by an extremely cute, chipper and, um, well, busty hygienist-- it hurt at times so she asked me if I wanted some nitrous for the pain & I said sure, you bet...

God, it was like being drunk and stoned, going 0-60 in one breath.

Then, she tilted the chair back, spun it around and leaned over me to get at my lower jaw. There I was, for about five minutes, blissed out and dreamy, with my head suddenly cradled between her breasts. Yikes!

Boy, I was shaking on the way out to think that I came THAT CLOSE to making some meant-to-be-witty and totally inappropriate remark...

Upon review--even more than you thought, clavdivs!
posted by y2karl at 12:51 PM on October 11, 2002

> and Eliot, too *slinks away, tail between legs*

Have OFTEN wished for a way to cancel mefi posts as you could/can on Usenet. But you can tell it's not Eliot because it rhymes and scans. Not even the for-children Practical Cats does that (without a lot of silly-putty distortions.)
posted by jfuller at 1:26 PM on October 11, 2002

muckster, that's a great story, and you're not alone. I once read that near-death experiences are why ketamine is no longer commonly used in humans. Just a few is all a doctor would need to see before thinking, "ok, enough of this stuff."
posted by mediareport at 1:36 PM on October 11, 2002

Laughing gas has probably saved my teeth. I was terrified of the dentist before finding one who uses gas, now I don't keep cancelling appointments because they no longer make me nervous.

Drug-assisted dentistry is good, mmmkay?
posted by GaelFC at 1:58 PM on October 11, 2002

Whippit good
posted by euphorb at 2:08 PM on October 11, 2002

Fine front page post--best in a while.
posted by brittney at 2:15 PM on October 11, 2002

According to Robert Anton Wilson anyway, James' revelation was "Overall there is a smell of fried onions."
posted by twitch at 2:52 PM on October 11, 2002

Also, Mimi Smartypants made a post yesterday about how James devised a theory of the self based around breathing and feelings in the throat.
"In a sense, then, it may be truly said that, in one person at least, the 'Self of selves,' when carefully examined, is found to consist mainly of the collection of these peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat."
posted by twitch at 2:55 PM on October 11, 2002

All I can say about nitrous is, one of the most fun parties I ever attended in school involved taping all the doors, windows and HVAC vents over and cracking open NO2 and O2 tanks (we wanted plenty of oxygen so nobody suffered from hypoxia).
posted by alumshubby at 6:42 PM on October 11, 2002

Two deliciously brilliant posts in a row, mediareport! What do you do for an encore?

I'm about half-way through the links, and completely taken with William James. It was interesting to read these reminiscences of James by three of his former students (from the Emory link).

And, muckster, the story by J├╝rgen Fauth was exceptional. Thanks.
posted by taz at 12:12 AM on October 12, 2002

Sorry! The link is here!
posted by taz at 12:46 AM on October 12, 2002

What do you do for an encore?

Make you wait for the next one. :)

I agree about William James; I knew he was a major figure in psychology and philosophy, but hadn't read him at all. Fascinating guy. He even offers MeFi wisdom.
posted by mediareport at 11:27 AM on October 12, 2002

William James is a really neat guy. Suggested reading? The Metaphysical Club. This book talks about James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (The Supreme Court Justice), and Charles Peirce's gatherings in boston to talk about philosophy. This is where pragmatism was born.

What James Took away? He said:

"I think I am going to believe in free will. The first act of free will I shall make is to choose to have free will"

Fascinatin Stuff.
posted by cjoh at 10:18 AM on October 13, 2002

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