‘“What crabs? Are you mad? What crabs? Ah! Yes. Well, yes… The crabs are men. And so? Where did I get that idea? Real men, good and beautiful, on all the balconies of the centuries. As for me, I was crawling in the yard; I imagined I heard them speaking: ‘Brother, what’s that?’ That was me. Me the Crab…’
– Sartre, The Condemned of Altona
Huxley, Sartre, and Mescaline
In 1954, Aldous Huxley famously detailed his experiences with the psychedelic drug Mescaline in his seminal book The Doors of Perception. Throughout the 60’s, with the increasingly popular use of other psychedelic drugs such as LSD, Huxley’s book became somewhat of a counter-culture bible for many young people at the time. The book was the key influence for Jim Morrsion naming his band The Doors, and Huxley was also featured on the cover art of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
Huxley’s Mescaline experiences in the 50s had led him to describe: ‘the other world to which mescaline admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.’ The great change for him was instead an alteration ‘in the realm of objective fact’. Rather than a visualisation of imaginary objects The Doors of Perception contains a series of beautiful, detailed descriptions of patterns and colours:
there were sumptuous red surfaces swelling and expanding from bright nodes of energy that vibrated with a continuously changing, patterned life. At another time the closing of my eyes revealed a complex of gray structures, within which pale bluish spheres kept emerging into intense solidity and, having emerged, would slide noiselessly upwards, out of sight.
However, 20 years earlier in 1935, while he was attending France’s prestigious École Normale Supérieure, another famous thinker also decided to experiment with mescaline, with startlingly different results. Jean Paul Sartre’s fame was still several years ahead of him; he was then in his late twenties and employed as an unpublished and unknown philosophy teacher. At the time Sartre was writing a book on the imagination and he hoped that the drug would induce hallucinations that would give him a new insight into his research. However, his lifelong companion and fellow philosopher Simone de Beauvoir reported later that the plan may have succeeded all too well…
During the midst of his trip Sartre had received a phone call from de Beauvoir; a phone call that had apparently rescued him from a desperate battle with scrambled lobsters, octopuses and other grimacing sea-life. To Sartre ordinary objects had begun to change their shape grotesquely: umbrellas were deforming into vultures, shoes were turning into skeletons, and faces looked absolutely ‘monstrous’. All the while, behind him, just past the corner of his eye was the constant threat of the terrifying deep water dwellers. Yet, despite these horrible hallucinations (that seem rather uncharacteristic of the mescaline experience), by the following day Sartre had apparently recovered completely, referring to the experience with ‘cheerful detachment.’
However, in a later interview with John Gerassi, Sartre noted that in the days following his Mescaline trip he ended up having a nervous breakdown:
after I took mescaline, I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class. I got used to them. I would wake up in the morning and say, “Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?” I would talk to them all the time. I would say, “O.K., guys, we’re going into class now, so we have to be still and quiet,” and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.
The funny thing about Sartre’s crabs and lobsters was that there were generally only 3 or 4 of them, and he was always totally aware that they were merely figments of his imagination. However after the constant recurrence of the hallucinatory sea creatures Satre mentioned to de Beauvoir ‘I know what the matter with me is. I’m on the verge of a chronic hallucinatory psychosis’. She strongly disagreed, but after he finished his stint at university he decided to go and see a psychiatrist; a young doctor with whom he since became very good friends: Jacques Lacan.
Lacan and the Existential Lobsters
Together, through a course of psychoanalysis, Lacan and Sartre concluded that the hallucinations were brought on by the fear of being alone; the fear of losing camaraderie of the group. In the same interview with John Gerassi Sartre outlines how his life had changed radically from being one of a group, which included ‘both peasants and workers, as well as bourgeois intellectuals’ to his social interactions being limited to just him and Castor (a nickname for de Beauvoir). In fact the Lobsters which had started appearing in 1935 had proved a large influence on his 1938 book Nausea, which is now, of course, regarded as one of the key manifestos of existentialism:
The crabs really began when my adolescence ended. At first, I avoided them by writing about them — in effect, by defining life as nausea — but then as soon as I tried to objectify it, the crabs appeared. And then they appeared whenever I walked somewhere. Not when I was writing, just when I was going someplace. … The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and that I just wouldn’t pay attention to them.
But why crabs and lobsters? The answer would seem to take us back to Sartre’s childhood. He tells us in his autobiography Words that as a child he had seen a picture in the Hachette Almanac that aroused in him a terror of sea creatures, particularly lobsters. So his obsession would seem to be purely private, and, while helping to give his literature the unique flavour that any work of art requires, it seems to have nothing specifically to do with any broad philosophical issue.
Saying that, many of Sartre’s works do have direct references to these sea creatures: Nausea has a number of important references to crabs, and Roquentin, the narrator, mentions that he sees both himself and others as crabs. The Wall also has a number of allusions to them, and Lucien and his friends in The Childhood of a Chief compare crabs to their libidos. The crustacean motif is to be found, in fact, throughout many of Sartre’s novels. But the most obvious example of this fixation is to be found in one of his plays, The Condemned of Altona in which the protagonist Frantz feels intolerably guilty on account of crimes he has committed during the Second World War, and in his deranged mind the men of the future have turned into a race crabs sitting in judgement on the people of the present (see quote at top).
Sartre’s experiences with mescaline seem to have brought about a long lost repressed fear of crabs and lobsters, one which can be traced back to his earliest memories of childhood, combined with his anxieties over loneliness and detachment. However these unpleasant hallucinations, as much as they were an effect of the mescaline, were also an effect of the setting in which he took it:
‘Looking back on the episode many years later, Sartre (1978, pp. 37-38) blamed the psychiatrist who administered the mescaline for causing his initial bad reaction: “Since! I had been experimenting with Lagache, who’s rather saturnine and who said to me, ‘What it does to you is terrible,’ I ended up having all sorts of unpleasant hallucinations.”‘
As with any psychedelic experience the set and setting are of utmost importance. But who knows, maybe without Sartre’s thoroughly unpleasant brief stint into psychosis he may never have had the inspiration to write many of the most important existential works of the 20th century. For any of us who are fans of this great thinker, maybe we should be thankful for Sartre’s experiments with mescaline, and of course for the influence of his existential lobsters!
Beauvoir, Simone De., (1976) The Prime of Life. New York: Harper & Row.
Huxley, Aldous., (2004) The Doors of Perception: and Heaven and Hell. New York: Vintage.
Riedlinger, Thomas J., (1982) Sartre’s Rite of Passage. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, Vol 14(2), 105-123.
Sartre, Jean-Paul., (1978) Sartre by himself. New York: Urizen Books.