Saturday, March 08, 2008

Under the Influence

The news this past week told about an Israeli scholar, Benny Shannon, who claims that Moses must have been under a hallucinogenic substance when he saw God in a burning bush and when he received the Ten Commandments. This, of course, is not a new theory, nor are many researchers even sure that the person of Moses ever existed. What makes this interesting is that the likely substance (ayahuasca) was named and that this all comes from the Holy Land itself. Local anthropologists in Israel have for a long time also claimed that events described in the Hebrew Bible could not have happened in the order they are presented. New towns and cities were built on top of old ruins, not the other way around. Had this all been published by Western scholars in Europe or especially in the United States, the religious right and Ultra-Orthodox Jews would have been crying blasphemy, reacting the same way Muslims have done to the Danish drawings depicting the image of Mohammed.

Many religious experiences and visions have long been linked to the use of psychedelic substances. Even in our country the Native People are allowed to use mescaline in their ceremonies. Spiritual leaders or shamans of people of Lapland and other Arctic areas have used mildly toxic fly mushrooms for ages. I remember having an Indo-Chinese mushroom dinner in Amsterdam the night before a recital at the Concertgebow and spending most of the night on the ceiling of the hotel room, looking down at my body. Unfortunately, that also made me physically ill and it was hard playing after throwing up all day. The concert still went fine. And remembering that this was Amsterdam, I shouldn't have been shocked.

Many now strictly illegal drugs were commonplace just a century ago, so it is hard to know how great a role they played not only in the world of heavenly visions, but also in artistic ones. Wine was often spiked with cocaine or Bayer Pharmaceutical's main product, heroin. Knowing how many artists, performing and creative alike, use these now forbidden substances and cannabis regularly, in the past it must have been much more widespread. There was no stigma attached to it then as there is none today to alcohol or nicotine, although drinking during the short-lived prohibition of course was a criminal activity. It also lead to the Mafia's rise to immense power in America. In Germany, Bayer had to decide whether to invest in Aspirin or Heroin, in both of which it held patents, and chose the latter as it showed more promise in relieving pain and suffering, not to mention women's "hysteria".

Musicians and other performing artists often self-medicate to counter the fear of being in front of other people, or to counter the terror a sadistic boss spreads around him. I know great instrumentalists and colleagues who reek of marijuana every time they play and the odor is still lingering in almost any workplace that isn't well ventilated, such as an orchestra pit. If it helps the artists do better, I don't have a problem with it, in spite of cannabis being labeled as a Schedule I illegal substance. Others take pills for their nerves, Valium or other such calmatives, or resort to a drink, an old and trusted method. Doing my "Arbeit Macht Frei" years I would often carry a flask and take a sip before a potentially unpleasant situation. The medical alternative of pills would make me too sleepy, and driving a car while the drugs were in my system would have been dangerous. The alcohol in a small drink of Finlandia would be out of my system well before the service was over, unlike Valium which would slow down my reflexes even eight hours later. Of course, there is such a thing as an alcoholic, but then we are talking about a serious illness. However, some of them have done well in the world of arts, as conductors or composers (my countryman Sibelius was supposedly capable of drinking anyone else under the table).

In a totally different category is a rather pit-iful conductor taking pills for another condition, perhaps in order to be able to please a girlfriend or a critic. Often I wonder if the "Maestro Viagra" or "Sir Cialis" is just trying to transform himself, in his own mind, from impotent to omnipotent.

"Burning Bush" © Ted Larson
"Sibelius Finlandia"
© Ilkka Talvi