When I'm rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus' Son ...

Lou Reed, "Heroin" At the end of "Jesus' Son," the drug-addicted narrator of Denis Johnson's set of linked short stories seems almost happy. Recovering from his heroin habit, he has taken a job in a home for the severely (and even grotesquely) handicapped. "I was in a little better physical shape every day," he says, "I was getting my looks back, and my spirits were rising, and this was all in all a happy time for me." But the fragile happy ending to Johnson's 1992 book, recently made into a movie with Billy Crudup in the role of the addict, is tempered in the reader's mind by all that has gone before. We know that when and if the narrator completes his recovery--if he manages to cross over for good into normal American society--he won't be able to forget his memories of those peak moments when he felt like Jesus' Son, and who he was then. Anyone who has dipped into Johnson's book knows that "Jesus' Son" doesn't romanticize addiction, and I certainly don't want to here. Every assertion one risks on this subject requires a phalanx of qualifications: I am not a drug user, much less a pusher. I don't recommend that anyone take drugs. But seeing the film made from Johnson's blindingly beautiful book put me in mind again of that book's effect on me. It frightened me, the way walking down the street in a tough neighborhood frightens me. It talked about real dangers, not the kind you run into in an Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie. It didn't make me--and won't make anybody else--want to cruise back alleys looking for a dealer.

On the other hand, the movie does show how little American society and, in particular, American religion have asked about the chemical alteration of the mind.

Why is anyone drawn to use a mind-altering drug? Of course drugs have medicinal uses, and some of the most addictive are given for pain relief. But neither narcosis nor intoxication nor psychedelia--the words describe slightly different experiences--provides anything we need for our corporeal selves. None of these states satisfies any pre-existing physical desire. Sex, by way of contrast, is an instinctual desire, since the urge comes before the experience begins. People don't get hooked on sex because they tried it once, and virgins have the same appetite for it that everyone else has.

Mind alteration is neither instinctual nor universal. People try drugs because they want to be released from the world they are living in. This world need not be a place of immediately obvious turmoil; the desire for release comes from within. In Gus Van Sant's 1989 movie, "Drugstore Cowboy," the addict Bob tells us drugs work for people "to relieve the pressures of everyday life--like tying their shoelaces." They open an escape route out of awareness of one's surroundings or out of oneself.

Those trapped in such psychic pain have an obvious and understandable motive to seek this release. Yet even those who are comfortable with themselves, those on friendly terms with the world they live in, may sometimes feel suddenly and disturbingly estranged from it. The appeal of a mind-altering drug may be its ability to repeat or intensify that estrangement, that alienating yet alluring sense of being somebody else or somewhere else.

Spirituality can produce the same effect. Mystical experience is a rush that reveals to the mystic that the known world is not the real world. Mysticism humbles ordinary knowledge and ordinary social adjustments. Better put, an openness to seeing the world humbled, reduced in the mind's perceptions, is a precondition for mysticism. (Could this be why mystical understanding comes a little easier to those life has already humbled?) The same openness, then, is also a condition for religion, since behind every religious tradition there stands a mystical moment.

Indeed, the intuition that this world is not our true home, and that we ourselves are not what we seem, is cherished and cultivated in many religious traditions. This intuition is behind the American folk hymn "Poor Wayfaring Stranger": I'm just a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world of woe,
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright world to which I go. A 1999 Steve Earle song, on the CD "The Mountain," expresses the same intuition and, for that matter, comes out of the same musical tradition as well: I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys.
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys.
I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys.
This ain't never been my home. A worldly man is, by definition, one who feels at home in this world, who finds it a good world and not a "world of woe." But the religious traditions of the world typically see things differently. They have developed an array of mystical and ascetical techniques for awakening the worldly man from what they see as his socially induced anesthesia and for teaching him that he too is ultimately homeless.
Aldous Huxley discussed the connection between the age-old paths to mind alteration and the chemically induced mind alteration of our own day in two once-influential books entitled "The Doors of Perception" and "Heaven and Hell." As the author of the prophetic "Brave New World," with its dark vision of a society destroyed by drug addiction, Huxley could not be accused of naiveté about addiction. But he dared to imagine the controlled cultivation of an exceptional, chemically assisted experience that--as remembered rather than compulsively repeated--could color the whole of a life if only by making its mental limits visible.

There is more to be said about mind-altering drugs, in short, than that addiction to them is destructive, and writers and artists like Johnson are finding ways to reopen a prematurely closed discussion.

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