Altered States

Oliver Sacks:

Within a minute or so, my attention was drawn to a sort of commotion on the sleeve of my dressing gown, which hung on the door. I gazed intently at this, and as I did so it resolved itself into a miniature but microscopically detailed battle scene. I could see silken tents of different colors, the largest of which was flying a royal pennant. There were gaily caparisoned horses, soldiers on horseback, their armor glinting in the sun, and men with longbows. I saw pipers with long silver pipes, raising these to their mouths, and then, very faintly, I heard their piping, too. I saw hundreds, thousands of men—two armies, two nations—preparing to do battle. I lost all sense of this being a spot on the sleeve of my dressing gown, or the fact that I was lying in bed, that I was in London, that it was 1965. Before shooting up the morphine, I had been reading Froissart’s “Chronicles” and “Henry V,” and now these became conflated in my hallucination. I realized that I was gazing at Agincourt, late in 1415, and looking down on the serried armies of England and France drawn up to do battle. And in the great pennanted tent, I knew, was Henry V himself. I had no sense that I was imagining or hallucinating any of this; what I saw was actual, real.

After a while, the scene started to fade, and I became dimly conscious, once more, that I was in London, stoned, hallucinating Agincourt on the sleeve of my dressing gown. It had been an enchanting and transporting experience, but now it was over. The drug effect was fading fast; Agincourt was hardly visible now. I glanced at my watch. I had injected the morphine at nine-thirty, and now it was ten. But I had a sense of something odd—it had been dusk when I took the morphine, it should now be darker still. But it was not. It was getting lighter, not darker, outside. It was ten, I now realized, but ten in the morning. I had been gazing, motionless, at my Agincourt for more than twelve hours. This shocked and sobered me, and made me see how one could spend entire days, nights, weeks, even years of one’s life in an opium stupor. I would make sure that my first opium experience was also my last.

If you like good writing, and you like reading about drugs, you’re in luck.