Ben Feinberg, Ph.D.
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Gordon Wasson’s 1957 article in Life Magazine about his mushroom ceremony with the Mazatec curandera María Sabina arrived wrapped in several layers of familiar myth. Another story of a courageous and mobile white man accessing a hidden world and made whole through an immobile native woman, like Cortés and La Malinche, John Smith and Pocahontas, or Jake Sully and the naked blue woman in Avatar, it introduced the United States to a new source of spirituality and self-realization and became a creation myth for an emergent global psychedelic community.

But to fully understand this encounter, we must place it in its proper historical context: the Cold War and American internationalist anti-Communism. The publisher of Life, after all, was Henry Luce—a zealous proponent of the idea that the special, superior U.S. culture could and should transform the world through aggressive intervention. Wasson’s article shares an issue with an article praising the “launchings and landings of the US fleet [as] a convincing show of U.S. military power” in support of Jordan’s King Hussein against Communists and his “volatile people” (“Navy’s ‘Good Drill,’” 1957, p. 34). How did Wasson’s story—which, on the surface, is about learning from a calm, controlled, thoroughly un-volatile native Mexican woman—tie into Luce’s broader agenda and mythology of American-led capitalist modernization?

To explore that question, I must move on to one of Wasson’s other journeys to Huautla in the fall of 1957, just after his Life article exposed the Mazatec sacred mushrooms to the world.

Felicitas García Casimiro, the great granddaughter of María Sabina, with her niece Angela. Hualta de Jiménez, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Ben Feinberg, 2020.

Inept, Ugly, and Unprofessional: An Educated American’s View of Mexico

A few months after Wasson’s article in Life landed in millions of suburban mailboxes, Wasson made another trip to Huautla along with his wife Valentina, their daughter Masha, and two of Masha’s young friends, Joan Ferrante and Oakes Plimpton.

Plimpton came from a distinguished and aristocratic Massachusetts family. His great, great grandfather, Oakes Ames, was a railroad baron and congressman who made a fortune off the Civil War. His great grandfather was a governor, and his grandfather was a Harvard botanist who built one of the world’s largest orchid collections.

Wasson’s engagement with Huautla corresponded with the period where the US was beginning to conceive of the Cold War, not just through the hard power of military intervention, but also through the soft power of cultural influence; promoting jazz and abstract art as examples of the kind of pure aesthetic made possible by the unleashed energy of capitalist individualism.

But his most notable family member was his older brother, George, a writer who, just as Wasson made his first visit to Huautla in 1953, was founding the influential Paris Review with covert financial assistance from the CIA. Wasson’s engagement with Huautla corresponded with the period where the US was beginning to conceive of the Cold War, not just through the hard power of military intervention, but also through the soft power of cultural influence; promoting jazz and abstract art as examples of the kind of pure aesthetic made possible by the unleashed energy of capitalist individualism.

Like these other artistic forms promoted by the CIA, Wasson’s mushrooms represented something outside of history and economics: a pure experience of individual genius impossible under Communism.

After graduating from Amherst, Oakes served two years in the army as a Troop Information and Education NCO, “showing off propaganda movies about communism in Eastern Europe, etcetera” (viii). Now, free from the service, the trip to Mexico sounded like a jolly good adventure. Plimpton kept a detailed journal of his trip, which he later self-published and shared with me.

The journal demonstrates that, while he enjoyed his travels, there were many aspects of life in Mexico and the Sierra Mazateca that he found disappointing. Here are a few samples of his many complaints:

On mole: “an excruciating dish consisting of chicken with a coffee and chocolate sauce, if you can imagine that!” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 75) On Indians’ appearance: “These Indians are very short in stature, and though very cute as children, only a few of the women could be called handsome by our standards.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 75) On the suitability of Indians for military service: Soldiers next to market “were drilling some Indian recruits, who were incapable of the simplest maneuvers.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 79)) On music and death: “Their funerals are lugubrious affairs with a loud, inept band playing indistinguishable music, and apparently great drinking occurs.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 79) On aguardiente: “perfectly foul liquor made from sugar cane.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 83) On local government:  “it is doubtful Maria will ever be corrupted like the local officials were—officials who consider themselves soothsayers and who seem to have a monopoly, though probably most are fakes.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 85) On animal husbandry: “They had killed a pig the day before–and not very professionally.” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 110)

The tone in Plimpton’s writing—of excitement mixed with condescension—demonstrates how even the most open-minded Americans of the mid-twentieth century arrived in Huautla with a casual acceptance of a worldview that framed the “developing world” in terms of backwardness, inferiority, lack of civilization, and the desperate need for outside help to transform passive tradition-bound villagers into modern, individuated laborers and citizens.

The tone in Plimpton’s writing—of excitement mixed with condescension—demonstrates how even the most open-minded Americans of the mid-twentieth century arrived in Huautla with a casual acceptance of a worldview that framed the “developing world” in terms of backwardness, inferiority, lack of civilization, and the desperate need for outside help to transform passive tradition-bound villagers into modern, individuated laborers and citizens. Their liquor, their cuisine, their music, art, and film, and their government and rituals–all of these were corrupted or child-like parodies of superior first-world models.

A cafe in Huautla with murals highlighting the encounters between Maria Sabina and foreigners. Photo by Ben Feinberg, 2018.

From Savagery to Shakespeare to Science: The Modernization of Mushrooms

Under the mushrooms’ effect, Plimpton became “deliriously happy” and lost in his visions of “Byzantium designs in pinks and purples and reds and greens.”

Despite his misgivings about the natives, young Plimpton took part in two mushroom ceremonies with María Sabina a few nights apart. During the second ceremony, he experienced the full power of the sacred mushroom. His group arrived early at María Sabina’s house, high above Huautla, and passed the time chatting with the engaging neighborhood kids. Masha offered them all cigarettes, and Plimpton (2013, p. 88) happily reported that “all the children save the baby had one.” Under the mushrooms’ effect, Plimpton became “deliriously happy” and lost in his visions of “Byzantium designs in pinks and purples and reds and greens.” He described feeling transported to the great fantastical geographies of his own folklore; to Wonderland, to the City of Oz. He felt a connection and kinship with the curandera sitting across from him, despite the great cultural gulf that separated the civilized man from the savage. He wrote that he felt “purged… I was as pure as a saint and one with God (if there is one), And one with the primitive Shaman, who for all her sorcery, earthly spitting, foul aguardiente, was next to Truth and so was I!” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 91)

Finding himself surrounded by Mazatec women, so “other” hours earlier, but now sharing something wondrous, he temporarily elevated them to civilization by stamping upon them the identity of the most iconic exemplar of Western high culture.

The Mazatec women wrapped in their shawls in the eerie candlelight, he wrote, struck him as “looking for all the world like Shakespeare” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 92).

But this promotion to Bard status did not survive a good night’s sleep. The next week, as the travel party relaxed back in the expat haven of Cuernavaca, Wasson and Plimpton debriefed each other between rounds of tennis and swimming and “talking with American businessmen about the sorry state of Mexican justice.” Wasson expounded on his theory that all religion originated with primitive man’s encounter with the hallucinogenic mushroom. The Mazatec, he explained, were contemporary fossilized reenactments of that original, evolutionarily determinative scene. It was as if we could, by hopping just twenty minutes over the mountains in a small plane, revisit the magic moment where the first amphibious fish stepped out of the primordial seas, or the first primitive microorganism crossed the threshold into life out of the ancient ooze—and was frozen there forever.

Religion formed, Wasson speculated, because primitive culture lacked the concepts for scientific understanding; “for without the words drug or hallucinatory in one’s vocabulary, the mushroom would be a great supernatural power—a God speaking and making himself and his power known through the mushroom!” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 94) María Sabina, despite her brilliance and charisma, was merely the most talented specimen of a primitive people outside history and evolution, and was thus doomed to forever play out her part in the reenactment for the benefit of others deemed better equipped to make sense of it.

Rosalia, the granddaughter of Maria Sabina and a curandera herself. Photo by Ben Feinberg, 2020.

Acculturating Mushrooms, Modernizing Mexico: Wasson as an Agent of Cold War Developmentalism

Plimpton’s journal gives us greater insight into the worldview of mid-century Americans—poised to solve the world’s problems through an absolute certainty in their superiority—but his observations also provide some historical understanding of Huautla in the 1950s.

Firstly, although all Huautecos spoke Mazatec, Plimpton described a clear cultural and economic divide between a bilingual class of merchants and teachers, and monolingual campesinos. He described the former group as “acculturated Indian,” (Plimpton, 2013, p. 75) as though this pattern were of recent origin (which is debatable, as other records demonstrate the existence of a bilingual merchant class in the nineteenth century). Mazatecos like Herlinda, one of their teacher hosts, were familiar with national styles, and consciously distanced themselves from what they considered the backward, and perhaps embarrassing, customs of the peasants, such as the belief system around mushrooms.

As Mazatec elites noticed the interest that sophisticated outsiders had in mushrooms, they began to realize that there might be something to this “backward” custom.

But, Plimpton noted, this was changing; Wasson’s article was already having an effect. As Mazatec elites noticed the interest that sophisticated outsiders had in mushrooms, they began to realize that there might be something to this “backward” custom. With the coffee yield declining, one teacher half-joked that mushrooms were poised to become the town’s “second industry.”  Plimpton (2013, pp. 85–86) wrote that “the Life article has acquainted the acculturated Indians such as Herlinda with the mushroom rite, and let them know that their village has something to be proud of, rather than ashamed of.”

Herlinda, for her part, decided to join Plimpton for their second ceremony, as long as it was clearly understood that her motivation aligned her with the progressive values of the Americans, rather than the ignorant culture of her peasant neighbors. She insisted that she was taking them for “scientific” purposes only, not because of any “religious” belief (Plimpton, 2013, p. 87).

Apparently, this scientific motivation did not impress the child saints themselves; as soon as the effect began, they carried her “promptly to hell”—she endured great distress, vomiting repeatedly, insisting that she was about to die, and demanding cup after cup of water (Plimpton, 2013, p. 89).

Herlinda may not have enjoyed the sacred mushrooms, but they were already benefiting her in other ways. Her relative intercultural fluency had already enabled her to become an intermediary who not only hosted outsiders (and was able to serve sufficiently plain meals to guests like Mrs. Wasson who could not stomach tortillas, beans, or chilis), but also to supply 50 kg of mushrooms to send to Smith, Kline & French, the company working to identify the active chemical—an early precursor of the contemporary emergence of a multimillion dollar industry around psychedelic medicine (Plimpton, 2013, p. 75).

While María Sabina became famous, she died poor and her family has struggled to successfully monetize her legacy. Herlinda was among the first of many cultural intermediaries to successfully take advantage of outsiders’ scientific and spiritual interests. Others would follow: entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and a handful of curers, such as Doña Julieta Casimiro, who would acquire international recognition.

But, as one of the first of these fungal intermediaries, Herlinda activated Cold War America’s third-world script, which dominated publications like Luce’s Life and the other monster of internationalizing myth, National Geographic.

But, as one of the first of these fungal intermediaries, Herlinda activated Cold War America’s third-world script, which dominated publications like Luce’s Life and the other monster of internationalizing myth, National Geographic. This script saw beauty in the timeless fossilized practices of backward peoples, but held that it could only be activated through the transformative intervention of benevolent Westerners; young, smart men like the Peace Corps volunteers of the next decade, or scientists like Wasson. These men, the story went, would move local cultures out of their static, passive, feminine stage into the modern world: active, capitalist, and masculine.

Herlinda’s transfer of mushrooms from the realm of tradition to the sphere of business made her, ironically, a symbol of this developmentalist evolution.

Plimpton described one earnest young pioneer, a harbinger of more to come, an American “who spoke not a word of Spanish, accompanied by a cheap Mexican interpreter, who exclaimed that he was interested in all religions, etc.”

Amazingly, by the time of Plimpton’s 1957 visit, outsiders were already an established part of Huautla’s scene. He was startled to find that “a great many scientists and curiosity seekers” had already been attracted to Huautla by Wasson’s article (Plimpton, 2013, p. 85). Plimpton described one earnest young pioneer, a harbinger of more to come, an American “who spoke not a word of Spanish, accompanied by a cheap Mexican interpreter, who exclaimed that he was interested in all religions, etc.” Already, in this observation, we see the powerful lure of Huautla’s mushrooms; we also see how the arrival of outsiders would be cloaked in a discourse obsessed with distinguishing high and low class, authentic purveyors of elusive truths and cheap frauds.

María Sabina may have been a “symbol of wisdom and love,” in the lyrics of the song by the rock group El Tri but, as such, she was denied any role in the future except as a coelacanth, endlessly swimming in circles in the darkness of the ocean depths, waiting to be exposed to the world and given somebody else’s meaning through her discovery.

Art by Mariom Luna.

References

Navy’s ‘Good Drill’ Cools off the Crisis. (1957, June 10). Life Magazine.

Plimpton, O. (2013). 1957 expeditions journal. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.

Wasson, R. G. (1957, June 10). Seeking the magic mushroom. Life Magazine.



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