Notes from Underground by David Rose

Mushrooms. Russia. History.

This column originally appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of Spores Illustrated, the newsletter of the Connecticut-Westchester Mycological Association (COMA).

            Mushrooms. Russia. History. Topics so vast that one could spend a lifetime studying any one of them. Mushrooms Russia and History. The title of a classic ethnomycological study by Valentina Pavlovna Wasson and Robert Gordon Wasson. Published in 1957, it remains a landmark study of the role of mushrooms in history and culture and continues to be influential in certain mycological circles today. R. Gordon Wasson, an investment banker with the firm of J. P. Morgan, became obsessed with the study of mushrooms after his wife Valentina educated him about their importance in Russian culture. Together they spent twenty years researching and writing this colossal work, thinking first of publishing a cookbook of Russian mushroom recipes and finally producing a grand pastiche of literature and lore about mushrooms, delving into linguistics, ethnography, comparative religion, and more.

I first learned of this book long before I became interested in mycology as a hobby and field of independent study. My anthropological studies had acquainted me with Wasson's Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality. In turn, Mushrooms, Russia, and History (MRH) piqued my curiosity further; there was something about the title's bold definitiveness that implied a grand synthesis of ideas. I assumed one day that I would buy a copy. Growing interested in mycology I began to look for one, only to learn it is out of print. I checked rare and used bookstores and libraries, but it was impossible to locate. Hoping that the New York Botanical Garden library would have a copy, I checked there. Quickly locating its call number, I requested it from the stacks. At last, the two folio volumes were in my hands. Utterly delighted and expectantly thinking of poring over a book whose title had long tantalized me with associations of the panorama of Russian culture and the social history of mushrooms in Europe and the world, I opened it to read a rather dry but significant bit of information: "Of this book there have been made 512 copies of which two are designated A and B and the rest are numbered from 1 through 510. This copy is number 253." And here begins my quarrel with Robert Gordon Wasson.

Let me say that any serious amateur mycologist will be rewarded by tracking down this book and reading, if not all, at least some portion of it. Many mycologists may not be especially taken by ethno-mycology; still, this may be the one book on the subject to know. Despite the enormous territory that MRH covers, its major themes are really a simple few: an exploration of the role of mushrooms in Western literature, art, and history; an etymological analysis of words culturally associated with mushrooms; and an account of Wasson's field trips to Mexico in the 1950s in search of native cultures that use mushrooms for divinatory and religious purposes. Unfortunately devoting only a single chapter to the role of mushrooms in Russia (written by Valentina Wasson), MRH is so bloated with information that its thematic unity collapses under its own load of historical arcana and multiplicity of facts. What holds up best in the book is the account of his meeting Maria Sabina, the Mazatec curandera who initiated Wasson into a sacred mushroom ceremony, called a "velada." Wasson experienced the mind-altering effects of Psilocybe caerulescens while witnessing and studying the ceremony.

Whatever the scholarly merits of MRH, problems of its publication, its philosophic and literary presumptions, and the author's politics remain important issues in ethnomycology. Many have discussed Wasson's predilection to publish his works in very expensive limited editions. Their beauty and craftsmanship may yet delight a bibliophile who can afford $2000 today for an edition of, Mushrooms. Russia. and History. But try finding a copy. Its original price tag of $125 in 1957 was "staggering," as Wasson himself admitted. Even his admirers have lamented that libraries holding his books tend to keep them "in the stacks" or in rare book collections, available only by special request. On publishing MRH Wasson initially attempted to deflect such criticism by citing his simultaneous publication of a Life magazine article (13 May 1957) intended to educate the public about his Mexican field trips. But can a single article correct the extravagance of very limited editions of exclusively-priced books that are important in the field but become quickly unavailable as collector's items?

I believe it's worthwhile to examine Wasson's claim here. Information buried between the buckram covers of pricey volumes in a private collection is surely least available to a person wishing to explore any field of study. But for Wasson to have claimed to be a committed educator on the strength of one article in a popular magazine rings hollow. The Life article was not education, it was advertising. It was advertising for a big, fat book about mushrooms priced for the friends and colleagues of a wealthy banker turned mycologist. Ironically, it was also an important source for the popularization of psychedelic drugs in a youth counter-culture that Wasson repudiated, being totally averse to assume any responsibility for his role in inspiring the youthful search for personal liberation, psychedelic illumination, or - fun! His refusal to give this subcultural exploration any legitimacy was actually a refusal to understand it.

Wasson didn't understand it because he idealized Mazatec culture. Thus, he idealized his own experience of the sacred mushrooms offered him by Maria Sabina, who granted the unique opportunity to observe the Mazatec velada. The Psilocybe experience quickly enveloped Wasson in an ineffable reality that changed his life irreversibly. No one can question the subjective authenticity of Wasson's experience, except perhaps as he has described it. He has portrayed the mystical quality of the experience as the key to understanding the history of religions. This becomes more evident in later works, like Soma: The Wondrous Mushroom, and others. His apprehension of Mazatec culture was heavily tinted by his interpretation of its religion through the single vision of his fungal lens. He stated in MRH that Mexican Indians have "no need for transubstantiation (as in Christian doctrine) because the mushroom speaks for itself. By comparison with the mushrooms, the Christian agape seems pallid." This is an inexcusable statement - it bespeaks both an ignorance of religious syncretism (the blending of aboriginal and monotheistic religions) and of the dialectics of Christian faith. A potent Psilocybe mushroom may seem the fast track to instant enlightenment, but it may teach little or nothing about the mystery of faith, the foundations of morality, and the problems of living from day to day.

Finally, Wasson's idealization of Mazatec culture resided in the political nature of the fieldwork itself. It was political in that he represented a society whose ideology was based on unlimited expansion and the destruction or assimilation of primitive cultures, so to impose upon them the imperatives of "civilization." Anthropologists (and ethnomycologists) can alter the cultures they visit simply by studying them. Wasson presented his studies as benign and even vital to preserving Mazatec ceremony. In the wake of his visits, international tourists and "God-seekers," in their zealous quest for psychedelic experience, literally overran the Mazatecs seeking Psilocybe mushrooms. Maria Sabina concluded that the Mazatecs were ruined, that "the foreigners spoiled ? the saint children" (i.e. the mushrooms) and that she had been mistaken in helping Wasson at all. With the usual aplomb, Wasson regretted her misgivings but insisted that these changes were after all "inevitable." The ideology of the inevitability of history doctrinalized as "Manifest Destiny" in the United States, is a standard rationale for spokespeople of a dominant culture. From the Mazatec point of view they had been irreparably changed and defeated, and Wasson had represented the advance guard of this cataclysm.

Mushrooms Russia and HistoryI have scarcely broached its wealth of information. Despite its provocations and inaccessibility, I strongly recommend locating a library copy to study and enjoy, for it remains an ethnomycological classic. Wasson declined to republish it during his lifetime, but there is a possibility that a revised edition may surface in the future. Another good place to start learning about Wasson is Thomas J. Riedlinger's The Sacred Mushroom Seeker: Tributes to R. Gordon Wasson, published by Park Street Press, which contains a wide range of fine articles about him. Also included is a short reminiscence by Wasson himself, an account of his childhood and a description of his father, written in a simple, direct style. It may be the most touching piece that he ever wrote.


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