If the uncanny can be defined as something disturbingly unfamiliar at the heart of the familiar then nothing qualifies on such a frighteningly personal level as the bizarre workings of our own subconscious. Many of us may live our entire lives without cracking the ‘shell of the ego’ as Aldous Huxley puts it, and without any ‘consciousness of the subliminal and physiological othernesses underlying personality’. But when we come face to face with our ‘subconscious not-self’, or rather we brush past it in the confusing worlds of dreams and hallucinations, it is uncanny in the highest degree to realise that these potentially terrifying experiences are nothing other than the product of our own minds. Furthermore I would like to explore the ways in which psychedelics affect language and communication. While under the influence of these extraordinary drugs we are said to ‘read deeply’ into things – what is the nature of this expression and to what extent are our conclusions the result of paranoid misinterpretations or, just maybe, accurate insights into the true nature of things. In fact the ‘truth’, if there is such a thing (there might even be more than one), is always tantalisingly beyond our grasp, and the ways in which dreams and hallucinations blur the line between reality and fantasy ensure that we are in a constant state of uncertainty: as to what we have experienced, as to how we should interpret these experiences, and as to what is real and what is not.
As a detailed account of two dreams, the events in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, can be read as a projection of little Alice’s subconscious, in much the same way as a ‘trip’ blurs the line between the outer world that we perceive and the inner world of our minds. In fact, although first written in 1865, some 73 years before the synthesis of LSD, the books have often been read by future generations as an allegory of a trip or hallucinatory experience. It is not difficult to see why. Alice eats and drinks all sorts of things with powers of transformation, including a mushroom. The phrase ‘down the rabbit hole’ has taken on narcotic connotations, and references to the two books abound in popular counter-culture, often popping up as a theme at nightclub events or music festivals. How intriguing for example that Aldous Huxley wrote a synopsis of Alice in Wonderland, rejected by Walt Disney on the grounds that ‘he could only understand every third word’. Of course the symbiosis is not, as some would have it, because Charles Dodgson liked to dabble, but rather because there are many fascinating similarities between the worlds of dreams and the hallucinatory experience. In fact their definitions are virtually synonymous other than the fact that one occurs during sleep and one doesn’t.
Firstly, both states are outlets for our subconscious. Aldous Huxley wrote that LSD ‘lowers the barrier between conscious and subconscious and permits the patient to look more deeply and understandingly into the recesses of his mind’, while Freud famously called dreams ‘the royal road to the unconscious’. Our subconscious mind manifests itself in our dreams and nightmares, and while under the influence of psychedelics it becomes projected into our perception of the outer world and imbued in our interpretations of events, and even language. Both states are therefore liable to lead to situations where we are confronted with the return of a repressed thought or feeling. When you suddenly recognise that what seems so abhorrent is actually emanating from you then the result is uniquely uncanny. This coincides with Freud’s definition as something ‘which is secretly familiar [heimlich-heimisch], which has undergone repression and then returned from it’. What a shame Freud could never have tried LSD – if he had his fascinating essay ‘The Uncanny’ would have read very differently.
In Alice’s dreams the issues which seem to re-occur most often are exactly the sorts of things that you would expect the mind of a nice young girl in Victorian England to be preoccupied with. For example she is continually concerned with being polite and behaving with decorum. Situations reminiscent of the schoolroom are frequent and she is often asked to remember or recite things: ‘“How the creatures order one about, and make one repeat lessons!” thought Alice. “I might just as well be at school at once.”’. The moments in which she is most distressed inevitably involve a failure in one or more of these respects. For example the following can be read as the subconscious processing of an embarrassing experience at school:
“Why did you call him the Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily. “Really you are very dull!”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself for asking such a simple question,” added the Gryphon; and then they both sat silent and looked at poor Alice, who felt ready to sink into the earth.
Equally her mission in Through the Looking Glass to progress to the eighth square and become a queen can be read as an expression of her subconscious desire to grow up and become a woman. The Cheshire cat, her guide in the dream world, can be interpreted as the subconscious projection of her cat Dinah. Perhaps Freud would argue there is something of an oral fixation in the many references to food and ingestion. No doubt there are countless other ways of interpreting Alice’s dreams, but the point is that everything that happens is the product of her own subconscious. As Nina Auerbach points out ‘Other little girls travelling through fantastic countries, such as George MacDonald’s Princess Irene and L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale ask repeatedly “where am I?” rather than “who am I?” Only Alice turns her eyes inward from the beginning, sensing that the mystery of her surroundings is the mystery of her identity.’
Another example of the curious relationship between drugs, dreams and the subconscious in literature can be found in De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. For De Quincey the ‘pains of opium’, described as an ‘Iliad of woes’, manifested themselves in terrible nightmares. De Quincey is astute enough to connect these nightmares not only with ‘excesses in opium’, but also ‘with my early hardships in London’. He goes on to say that the ‘minutest incidents of childhood, or forgotten scenes of later years, were often revived’ in his dreams, suggesting once more that the experiences encountered in dreams and while under the influence tend to involve the return of repressed traumas. What does it tell us for example that smoking marijuana tends to inhibit our ability to dream, and that breaking a marijuana habit results in a period of particularly vivid and bizarre dreams? Perhaps enough of one outlet can substitute another.
De Quincey also talks of a ‘deap-seated anxiety and funereal melancholy, such as are wholly incommunicable by words’ during this period. This leads me to perhaps the most uncanny aspect of drugs, and particularly psychedelics. Under the influence of hallucinogens our minds make extraordinary connections, and people are able to recall long forgotten pieces of information and slot them into the puzzle. Sometimes this can lead to profound, potentially life changing revelations that can be extraordinarily uplifting; think about the ‘Istigkeit’ in the folds of Huxley’s trousers, or ‘the infinite value and meaningfulness of naked existence’. But this enhanced ability to draw pieces of information together can also be dangerous:
“If you started in the wrong way,” I said in answer to the investigator’s questions, “everything that happened would be a proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.”
“So you think you know where madness lies?”
My answer was a convinced and heartfelt, “Yes.”
“And you couldn’t control it?”
“No I couldn’t control it. If one began with fear and hate as the major premise, one would have to go on to the conclusion.”
Huxley is referring not just to the effects of mescalin but to the nature of schizophrenia. Perhaps there is also something similar in Asperger Syndrome and ‘the need to collect examples and tie them together’. This kind of obsessive thinking, combined with the human desire to find meaning in everything, leads people to find connections where there are none. A paranoid mind will attribute meaning to coincidences so that they seem fated or intended by someone or, depending on the degree of the delusion, even by some kind of cosmic malevolence. Burroughs’ obsession with the number 23 springs to mind:
‘Burroughs started keeping note of coincidences, and found that the number 23 loomed up in many of them: Dutch Schultz, for example, was shot on 23 October. Schultz had earlier had a man named ‘Mad Dog’ Coll murdered, on 23rd Street at the age of 23. Schultz’ own killer was paroled after serving 23 years. It all added up.’
Such coincidences are uncanny because, according to Freud’s conclusion, they seem to ‘confirm the old, discarded beliefs’ about the supernatural. Whereas most of us would recognise this as an odd coincidence, the paranoid or schizophrenic mind becomes so burdened with the weight of evidence that all is needed is the suspicion of ill-will to tip the balance between distinguishing uncanny coincidences from a full blown conspiracy. Taken to its conclusion, as Huxley puts it, and you arrive at Burroughs’ ‘belief that nothing happens until somebody wills it to happen. There are no accidents.’ Examples of the uncanny uncertainties of paranoia abound in Burrough’s works:
Disintoxication Notes. Paranoia of early withdrawal…Everyone looks like a drug addict…I don’t check these citizens…Dope peddlers from Aleppo?…Slunk Traffickers from Buenos Aires? Illegal Diamond buyers from Johannesburg?…Slave traders from Somaliland? Collaborators at the very least.’
What is interesting here, and entirely true about the nature of the phenomenon, is that even though Burroughs is aware that he is paranoid, this knowledge is not enough to keep him from concluding that the people in the hospital are ‘Collaborators at the very least’. He has become stuck in a catch 22: to assuage paranoia he thinks rationally, thinking rationally involves building evidence, building evidence while paranoid forms false connections, which in turn lead to terrifying conclusions which are far from rational. It seems that coincidences, paranoia and the uncanny are inextricably linked in ways that are impossible to unravel rationally.
Paranoia often has to do with thinking that other people know what you are thinking, that somehow you are betraying your thoughts and fears through your words and actions. This feeling is intensely heightened by psychedelic drugs which often create the effect of a ‘telepathic rapport’ between people. This relates to ideas about the psychotic episode in psychiatry such as ‘thought broadcasting’. In this kind of state ‘the gaps between, or beneath, words come to seem more important than the words themselves.’ Have you ever had a conversation, for example, where it seems that the words on the surface have little consequence and are in fact ‘only standing for (revealing and concealing at the same time) some ‘other’ thing’? The effect is uncanny – we find ourselves in the crux between coincidence and paranoia once again – are we talking about the same thing or is the other person just talking, using terms that relate to what I’m thinking about while I construct all the hidden meaning myself? In The House in Paris, Karen experiences exactly this in the ‘unspoken dialogue’ she perceives between her and Ray:
‘Such dialogue, being circular, has no end. Under silences it can be heard by the heart pursuing its round, and, though it goes on deep down, any phrase from it may swim up to cut the surface of talk when you least expect, like a shark’s fin.’
The simile of the shark’s fin is entirely appropriate for describing the shock (Freudian slip?) we experience when we realise that some other hidden dialogue is being carried out, particularly when, as is often the case when we are forced to circumlocute, the dialogue is of a sensitive or unsettling nature.
Karen describes how her secret dialogue is going on ‘deep down’, and this leads me to think about the relationship between secrecy and depth. When we read deeply into things we are discovering hidden meaning, hidden secrets beneath the surface. Equally we speak about ‘falling’ asleep, into a deep sleep, where the mysteries of our subconscious are laid bare, or at least partially uncovered. How appropriate that Alice falls through a rabbit-hole deep into the earth before her adventures begin. Lewis Carroll was, dare I say it, deeply concerned with the secrecies of communication:
‘Alice thought to herself “Then there’s no use in speaking.” The voices didn’t join in, this time, as she hadn’t spoken, but, to her great surprise, they all thought in chorus (I hope you understand what thinking in chorus means – for I must confess that I don’t), “Better say nothing at all. Language is worth a thousand pounds a word!”’
This is such a curious paragraph that I hardly know what to say/think about it – I’m almost tempted just to let it fill your head with ideas rather like ‘Jabberwocky’ did for Alice. Perhaps the preceding discussion about thought broadcasting may shed some light on what thinking in chorus may mean. What we can say for sure is that in Alice’s dreams, and for people under the influence of psychedelic drugs, the line between private thought and speech becomes blurred. Alice often talks to herself out loud and thinks in quotation marks. Perhaps this is why so many of the characters she meets can read her mind:
‘“A cheap sort of present!” thought Alice. “I’m glad people don’t give birthday-presents like that!” But she did not venture to say it out loud.
“Thinking again?” the Duchess asked, with another dig of her sharp little chin.
“I’ve a right to think,” said Alice sharply, for she was beginning to feel a little worried.’
It’s lucky that Alice had a level head or the whole experience might have overwhelmed her.
The result of this confusion between what somebody says and what they are actually experiencing means that our true feelings are often mise-en-abyme, lost in communication. As Huxley puts it ‘Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences but never experiences themselves.’ Psychedelics reveal to us, amongst many other things, the unsuitability of language for the expression of our experiences. They involve an encounter with the incommunicable. When Huxley attempts to explain his revelation under the influence of LSD that love is the ‘primary and fundamental cosmic fact’ he candidly admits that the words ‘have a kind of indecency and must necessarily ring false, seem like twaddle’. Even for a man with extraordinary descriptive powers such as Huxley, the task is too much. This is because the symbol systems we call language have been created for us to survive and describe the world as we perceive it normally, and are entirely inadequate for explaining things as we see them once the doors of perception have been cleansed. We are comfortable to believe that reality is a given and that language can describe it, but this is an illusion. Language is finite, and the finite can never encapsulate the infinite. Man is ‘all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things’.
It seems that thinking about psychedelics and trying to come to rational conclusions about what we call ‘reality’ is rather like trying to define a word using the word itself in the definition. If, in the words of Morpheus, when we talk about reality we are ‘talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.’  If you mess with one then you mess with the other. In other words hallucinogens alter our brain chemistry so that the reality we perceive is fundamentally different. It is incredible to think that every animal perceives the world in a totally different way. Reality for a squirrel is no less ‘real’ than reality for a human, just as reality once the doors of perception have been cleansed is no less real than the reality of everyday life, perhaps even more so Huxley would argue. What a deeply uncanny possibility: ‘Is the heart of the real a realm of madness, hallucination, do we approach most closely to the sense of life when we abandon all hope of understanding or recounting what is going on?’
Let us leave this fairly terrifying notion aside for a moment (lest we lose touch and go spinning out of control) and consider some other ways in which the hallucinatory experience can be uncanny. Psychedelics have the power to transform the outer world – making the familiar unfamiliar – and, even more uncanny, to transform ourselves. The following is an excerpt from Naked Lunch in which Burroughs describes an experience with Ayahuasca (Yage):
‘Notes from Yage state: Images fall slow and silent like snow…
The room takes on an aspect of Near East whorehouse with blue walls and red tasselled lamps…I feel myself turning into a Negress, the black colour slowly invading my flesh…Convulsions of lust…My legs take on a well rounded Polynesian substance…Everything stirs with a writhing furtive life…The room is Near East, Negro South Pacific, in some familiar place I cannot locate…Yage is space-time travel…The room seems to shake and vibrate with motion…The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian races as yet unconceived and unborn, passes through the body’
Only in a dream or a trip could such transformations take place, and it is uncanny to think that though the ‘blood and substance’ of these bodies must feel foreign for Burroughs, they are part of him. The places seem familiar because he is creating them.
The idea of foreign bodies within us is seminal to the uncanny and something that Burroughs was all too familiar with. In 1939 when studying Egyptian hieroglyphics at the University of Chicago he can remember a voice screaming at him ‘YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!’
‘This occasion was my first clear indication of something in my being that was not me, and not under control. I remember a dream from this period…In the dream I am floating up near the ceiling with a feeling of utter death and despair, and looking down I see my body walking out the door with deadly purpose.’
The feelings of ‘utter death and despair’ are appropriate for describing the uncanny sensation of an outer body experience, something that is also possible with psychedelic drugs. Eventually Burroughs, along with Brion Gysin, developed these feelings into the idea which came to haunt his entire life: that he was possessed by an ‘Ugly Spirit’. Highly reminiscent of Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’, Burroughs concluded that it was this malevolent force within him that shot his wife Joan in Mexico City in 1951:
‘I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and manoeuvred me into a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write myself out.’
While we may be sceptical of the ‘Ugly Spirit’ theory as an elaborate way for Burroughs to try and make sense of what happened, it nonetheless reminds us of the uncanny truth that no matter how well we think we know ourselves, the mystery of our subconscious ensures that parts of ourselves remain in the dark. It is only in dreams and while tripping, and perhaps psychotherapy, that the frighteningly alien components of our ‘subconscious not-self’ are exposed.
How to conclude? How to say anything without the (paranoid) fear that a Freudian slip might expose my deepest secrets? Is it possible to think the line from both sides at once, I wonder, ‘in a momentary anxiety about whether, having succumbed to this ‘other’ view, one can ever be brought back’. But then perhaps I’m overthinking things – making connections where there are none. ‘“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”’ How to make sense of anything at all while the doubt lingers in the depths of our minds that we may have no more grip on reality than a squirrel? For my part I rather agree with Alice on the matter:
‘“It’s no use talking about it,” Alice said, looking up at the house and pretending it was arguing with her. “I’m not going in it again yet. I know I should have to get through the Looking-glass again – back into the old room – and there’d be an end of all my adventures!”’
- Aldous Huxley, Moshka: Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience 1931-1963, ed. By Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980)
- Clark, Ronald William, The Huxleys, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968)
- Freud, The Uncanny
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988)
- Nina Auerbach, ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (September 1973)
- De Quincey, Confessions of An English Opium Eater, in De Quincey’s Works Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1878)
- Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, (London: Flamingo, 1994)
- Phil Baker, William S. Burroughs, (London: Reaktion Books, 2010)
- William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (London: John Calder, 1964)
- Essential Psychiatry, ed. Nicholas D.B. Rose (2nd edn, Oxford, 1994)
- Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris, (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd, 1976)
- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988)
- William Burroughs, Queer, (New York, 1985)
 Aldous Huxley, ‘Downward Transcendence’, in Moshka: Writings on Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience 1931-1963, ed. By Michael Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), pp. 22-25 (p. 24)
 Clark, Ronald William, The Huxleys, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968) p. 295.
 Aldous Huxley, ‘Drugs that Shape Men’s Minds’, Moshka, pp. 146-156, (p.154)
 Freud, The Uncanny, Part II
 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988), p. 144
 Ibid p. 130
 Nina Auerbach, ‘Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1 (September 1973), 31-47, (p. 33)
 De Quincey, Confessions of An English Opium Eater, in De Quincey’s Works Vol. I, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1878), p. 231
 De Quincey, p. 259
 Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, (London: Flamingo, 1994), p. 14
 Ibid, p. 38
 David Punter, Literature, Addiction, Secrecy, (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2009), p. 11
 Phil Baker, William S. Burroughs, (London: Reaktion Books, 2010), p. 158
 Freud, ‘The Uncanny’, Part III
 1981 interview, Burroughs Live, p.571; cf. 1984 interview, Burroughs Live, p.610
 William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, (London: John Calder, 1964), p.62-3 (ellipses partly mine partly Burroughs’)
 Aldous Huxley, Letter to J.B. Rhine [Smith 777], 1957, Moshka, p. 132
 Essential Psychiatry, ed. Nicholas D.B. Rose (2nd edn, Oxford, 1994), pp. 9, 59
 Punter, p. 54
 Ibid, p. 38
 Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris, (London: Cox & Wyman Ltd, 1976), p. 216
 Ibid, p. 218
 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, (London: Macmillan Children’s Books, 1988), p. 44
 Ibid, p. 20
 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, p. 125
 Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception, p. 4
 Aldous Huxley, Letter to Dr. Humphry Osmond [Smith 724], 1955, Moshka, p. 81
 Ibid, p. 12
 Character from the 1999 American science fiction film written and directed by Larry and Andy Wachowski. Morpheus famously says to the protagonist Neo ‘You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.’
 Punter, p. 106
 William Burroughs, Naked Lunch, p. 112-3
 William Burroughs, Queer, (New York, 1985), p.16
 William Burroughs, ‘Introduction’ to Queer, p.18
 Aldous Huxley, ‘Downward Transcendence’, in Moshka, p. 24
 Punter, p. 47
 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, p.84
 Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, p. 23