When the revelations fade - Daniel Silliman

The man who invented LSD couldn't describe the experience.

As the hallucinogenic drug took hold of his perception, his consciousness altered and warped the world like colors through a bent mirror, but he couldn't capture the vision.

As the drug took hold, Albert Hofmann, who died last week at the age of 102, wrote: "Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh."

And that was it. Then the revelation was gone.

Later, he would promote LSD, endorsing it as "medicine for the soul," suggesting it for psychiatry and as an "aid to revelation."

But that first revelation was hard to describe and then it faded.

In Hofmann's book, where he writes about synthesizing the pharmaceutical, he started by writing about a vision he had as a child, while wandering around in the forest. He was suddenly struck by the glory of it all and the world was transformed into light and joy. He was taken by the idea he was seeing through normal things and into the other side, to the true reality, and then the vision dissipated.

As an adult, Hofmann seemed a little embarrassed by the vision, even though he thought it was a defining moment of his life. He seemed to doubt the whole thing, even though he could point out the exact spot where it happened.

It seemed so real, but the revelation fades.

It always fades. Ecstasy escapes like leaking air. Certainty dissipates. Visions evaporate. Indescribable sensations slowly slip away.

In the Pentecostal prayer meetings of my childhood, the intense presence of God could be felt in the jumpiness of my legs. But then I'd stop, and the feeling would stop, and it would seem like the Holy Ghost was nothing but nervous motion.

Once I dreamed about the apocalypse. It was the sort of dream the Daniel in the Bible would have had, the sort of scene I would have heard described at church as "the End Times." I woke up, though, and all I could remember was red.

As I got older, I decided I would distrust all revelations and all revelators. I distrusted the religious ones and the chemical ones, too. It wasn't a brave move. It wasn't even very bold. It was just like I sat down in the moment of fading, that second where you can't say for sure what you saw and can't say for sure you saw nothing.

I learned to love Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who is called "the doubter." I learned I could talk about God with the obliqueness of old theologians: "God is that which greater than which none can be conceived," "that which I say I love when I say I love my God," "and this is what we call God."

But even these revelations of education evaporate.

I tried to explain the proof of God, the other day, the one worked out by the old English saint, the one about conception and power and goodness and God's proved existence. I was walking around Asheville, N.C., trying to remember how it went, and I ended up talking about a turkey sandwich.

They seemed so secure, these revelations, but now I don't know. Now I try to remember and I just remember the stories, which never just made their point, but always drifted in a lot of different directions. I try to focus and I remember stray lyrics from an old song about the revelations of Saint John -- "Gets them on the battle of Zion. Lord telling the story, rising in glory, cried, 'Lord, don't you love someone?'"

That's all I recall. The tune is gone. The feeling is gone. The certainty and the surety are gone and I keep only snatches of a song and a lot of assorted stories.

I remember being a child in the back seat of a big car, watching a blue balloon float away from a used car lot.

I think I asked where the balloon would go, and my dad said maybe the ocean, or maybe Mexico.

"Why?" I said. And he said, "because it's drifting away."

I didn't know if that was good or bad, but I decided I thought it would be OK.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.