Let me further explain what I meant in class when I called “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” psychedelic. I’m not talking about hallucinations of shimmering bright colors, although there are arguments to be made that the poem is psychedelic in that sense too (“glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings”).
I’m thinking more about line 9:
“The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the same scheme,”
Tom Bissell’s NYT review of Michael Pollan’s “How to Change Your Mind” describes a similar concept: “Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving.”
Similarly, the poem begins by recognizing “myself disintegrated.” This awareness of the individual in relation to universal oneness is a particularly stereotypical psychedelic thought.
The review continues, “the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.”
This all lines up very well with the poem. Although we certainly have a sense of Whitman’s individuality, he spends much less time talking about himself than he does talking about being awed by the passage of time, the creations of both man and nature, and the strange beauty of everything.
The review goes even further to say that “Near-death experiences, meditation and fasting can get you there [to a psychedelic experience], too.”
This is right in line with Whitman’s experience on the ferry; he wasn’t on psychedelic drugs, but he was overwhelmed with the beauty and interconnection of all things, which is basically what psychedelic drugs make you feel.
As an aside, this feeling is not in conflict with Whitman’s support of the temperance movement. According to Bissell’s review, “LSD showed such promise in treating alcoholism that the A.A. founder Bill Wilson considered including LSD treatment in his program.”
This is a pretty long post, and I still don’t think I’ve convinced anyone of anything. As the book review puts it, psychedelics are “hard to talk about without sounding like an aspiring guru or credulous dolt.” I think I’m coming off pretty strongly in the latter camp.
If you’re at all interested, read the review I keep referencing: