BY HENRIK DAHL
The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments is something of a rare find when it comes to books on psychedelics. Described by its author, former Harvard and UCLA researcher William Leonard Pickard, as a “literary experiment,” his 2016 debut is an intriguing exploration of altered states of consciousness from an esoteric perspective. The book highlights spiritual and altruistic motives for manufacturing LSD, and should be of particular interest to those looking to understand the drug’s continuing presence in our culture.
After four years of writing and editing, an “Advance Reader’s Copy” of the book was finally unveiled in December 2015. Dense like an Art Nouveau painting, The Rose of Paracelsus is a complex work that demands careful reading. In fact, the author himself encourages the reader to approach the material in a slow manner. While psychedelic literature has been blessed with a wide range of literary expressions, few books have been as artistically ambitious as Pickard’s 655 page volume.
The Rose takes the form of a memoir. But observant readers will soon discover that it is an ambiguous work infused with symbolism. Indeed, this is a book where the scientific mingles with the mystic, which lends an alchemical atmosphere to many of its pages. Although clearly not an autobiographical book, those who are familiar with the author’s background will note that real life events are mixed with fictional ones. The narrative is fairly straightforward, and many of its scenes deal with worldly affairs. For example, parts of the book concern the narrator’s days as a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as his many journeys around the world, where he conducts interviews with various drug trafficking organisations. However, as will be discussed shortly, these scenes are expertly contrasted by accounts of altered states. There is also a sensual sentiment to some of the scenes, which sometimes unfolds into erotic passages.
This remarkable substance, Indigo explains, spread from person to person “like a sea of radiance.”
Now 70, Pickard is serving two life sentences for manufacturing LSD. The alleged chemist became widely known in the psychedelic movement after he was arrested in 2000 for his involvement in the “Wamego bust,” which is claimed to be the largest LSD lab seizure made by the DEA. It should be noted, though, that the lab’s production appears to be vastly exaggerated, and Pickard himself denies any involvement in the case. The author is currently serving his sentence in Tucson, Arizona. Writing a book in a high-security prison has obvious limitations. For one, The Rose of Paracelsus was written by pencil, and besides the lack of a word processor, Pickard had no internet access. Incidentally, the author has never seen Facebook or Wikipedia.
In the book’s opening pages, the narrator, whose name, it turns out, is “Pickard,” meets a woman who tells him that he will be contacted by a group of international psychedelic chemists known as the Six. Elusive and mysterious, the group has the rare capacity to synthesise kilograms of LSD. Soon thereafter Pickard meets Crimson, one of the six chemists. A tall, grey-haired man in his late fifties, Crimson is described as a “dedicated psychedelic manufacturer since his first exposure to a classical hallucinogen.” During his encounter with the chemist, the narrator enters an altered state of consciousness. This event is followed by several others where Pickard has similar powerful experiences in the proximity of the Six. Interestingly, the narrator only gets to meet five of the six chemists, and the identity of the sixth is not revealed to the reader. This is obviously a clever narrative move that brings further mystery to the story.
The metaphysical writings of Jorge Luis Borges have been a big influence on Pickard. So much so that he named his book after a parable by the Argentinian writer. In his short story, Borges weaves a fictional narrative around the 16th century philosopher, physician and alchemist Paracelsus. When writing the story, Borges took inspiration from the following quote by English 19th century essayist and pioneering drug writer Thomas De Quincey: “Insolent vaunt of Paracelsus, that he would restore the original rose or violet out of the ashes settling from its combustion…” In case one is not familiar with Borges’ writings, one would find it useful to read his alchemical parable before approaching Pickard’s book. Borges’ The Rose of Paracelsus is included in Collected Fictions, and has also been published on several websites. It is interesting to note that psychedelic chemists are sometimes referred to as “alchemists.” In the fictionalised autobiography PIHKAL by Alexander and Ann Shulgin, to name one example, Alice at one point describes Shura’s lab as “a place for alchemy.”
Voltaire once wrote that “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.” As for Pickard’s The Rose, it could hardly be described as a tell-all book. Instead, the writer has done an excellent job of using both real life events, and myths linked to his name, to create a literary work that is part fiction and part non-fiction. Most of the time, there is no way to know whether we are in the company of real life Pickard or his fictional counterpart. Rather than being an honest (whatever that means) account of his life, the book adds to the enigma of the author and his past activities. Some readers will most likely get frustrated by the interplay of fact and fiction. However, without this ambiguity the book would be an entirely different and probably less interesting work.
In his classic novel The Name of the Rose, Italian writer Umberto Eco wrote that “Books speak of books.” Eco’s assertion is highly applicable to Pickard’s The Rose, which is clearly an intertextual work. In addition to its direct reference to Borges’ eponymous short story, Pickard’s book contains a great deal of quotes, usually placed at the beginning of the book’s chapters, by authors or other well-known figures. These citations can sometimes get in the way of Pickard’s own writing, and the book would probably benefit from leaving some of them out. That said, the book’s intertextuality is an important element, and many of the quotes help tie the story together.
If one looks close enough on the front cover, one will see that it features a liquid spill, which of course could be interpreted as a reference to a most dramatic misadventure that took place one time when the Six were manufacturing a large batch of LSD.
The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments is somewhat challenging to read; the author seems to live by the motto “more is more.” His prose is elaborate and adorned, and has a poetic quality about it. A fan of Victorian literature, Pickard’s writing style is the opposite of much of the language found in today’s literary works, which often has an emphasis on brevity. However, Pickard’s vocabulary turns out to be especially befitting for a volume that contains several detailed descriptions of altered states. For example, in a memorable passage the narrator makes acquaintance with the psychedelic chemist Indigo. At one point, the latter delivers a private lecture on the early history of Hofmann’s potion. This remarkable substance, Indigo explains, spread from person to person “like a sea of radiance.” While in the company of Indigo, the narrator mysteriously enters an altered state:
I glanced about. There were dream trees breathing, and the drifting of dark owls. The ground rotated with intersecting mandalas. Above us was translucent divine machinery; there were great wheels in the sky.
Continuing his lecture, Indigo gives praise to the historic efforts of acid distributors the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, and the legendary chemists Owsley Stanley, Nick Sand and Tim Scully. Obviously, clandestine production continues through the work of unknown individuals and groups, one of which, the reader learns, is a group of international psychedelic chemists: “He finally alluded to the rise of the Six, he among them, and how their identities and movements remained mythopoeic and – as yet – undisturbed,” Pickard concludes.
A characteristic of the book is the inclusion of symbols and hidden meanings. For example, a hexagon is used as a section break throughout the volume. Its six-sided shape is both a reference to chemistry (the hexagonal shape of benzene) and the number of the psychedelic chemists. According to J. C. Cooper, author of An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, six symbolises union of polarity. It also signifies love, health and beauty. These are things that are in line with the spiritual motives of the Six. A hexagon is also seen in the logo of the book’s publisher Sub Rosa Press. In addition to a hexagon, the logo contains two crossed retorts. A device used for distillation of substances by alchemists, the retort is yet another of the book’s references to alchemy. One of the themes of the book is secrecy, which, naturally, is also a prerequisite for illicit manufacturers of psychedelics, and it should be noted that the rose, which is a central symbol of the book, typifies silence and secrecy (sub rosa). As stated by Cooper, the rose is “both Time and Eternity, life and death, fertility and virginity.” Furthermore, if one looks close enough on the front cover, one will see that it features a liquid spill, which of course could be interpreted as a reference to a most dramatic misadventure—a monumental overdose—that took place one time when the Six were manufacturing a large batch of LSD.
Obviously, when making the drug, chemists stand a risk of getting exposed to very high doses. The subject of overdosing is weaved into The Rose in an innovative way, and brings about some interesting thoughts on the nature of psychedelically induced altered states.
Seeing that it is a seldom mentioned subject, there is reason to say a few words about extreme overdoses. While it presumably very rarely takes place, at least among street users accustomed to ingesting blotters, there are some known cases where people, unintentionally, have been subject to very large amounts of LSD.
In The Rose, psychedelic chemist Vermilion talks about the subject with the narrator. “We know of police and addicts insufflating lines of LSD, thinking it was cocaine they had stolen,” Vermilion says. Paracelsus once stated that; “the dose makes the poison.” Naturally, his assertion is also applicable to LSD. However, it is debatable if the drug has ever caused any pharmacological fatalities, and even in cases of extreme overdoses, people have recovered. A 1974 article titled “Coma, Hyperthermia and Bleeding Associated with Massive LSD Overdose,” published in The Western Journal of Medicine, brings some insight into the subject: “Eight patients were seen within 15 minutes of intranasal self-administration of large amounts of pure D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) tartrate powder. Emesis and collapse occurred along with signs of sympathetic overactivity, hyperthermia, coma and respiratory arrest. Mild generalized bleeding occurred in several patients and evidence of platelet dysfunction was present in all.” Although massive LSD overdose in humans is described in the article as a life threatening condition, it is interesting to note that all of the eight patients recovered.
In his 1991 book The Archaic Revival, writer and psychedelic bard Terence McKenna wrote that: “The pro-psychedelic plant position is clearly an antidrug position.” Even though many users of psychedelics are also using non-psychedelic drugs (alcohol being one of them), there is still some truth to McKenna’s assertion. Much of today’s psychedelic science is focusing on using psychedelics for the purpose of obtaining a greater degree of health. Moreover, numerous psychonauts have stated that mind-expanding substances helped them give up tobacco. The “antidrug position” is also shared by the Six: “From the earliest days, our hopes included prevention of the great infections. By these means we try to inoculate against the poisons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and alcohol, providing users and addicts with insight into their psychic vampires, if you will, that drain their life force,” Crimson says.
The Six are united by a shared belief in altruism (which, by the way, is a recurring word in The Rose), and their belief takes the form of a kind of “LSD spirituality.” Interestingly, it seems most people who engage in manufacturing LSD are not in it for the money: “Drug traffickers singularly focus on profit, growing mad with greed. But psychedelic synthesis, with its chronic exposure to the substance, quickly eliminates those who hope to sate such hunger,” Crimson says. While the latter is (presumably) a fictional character, real life examples support the thought that manufacturers of LSD are not driven by greed. For example, former acid chemist Tim Scully said in a 2003 interview with the present writer that, despite considerable costs, a substantial portion, “perhaps 1/3, of the acid I made was given away”.
Pickard’s book contains a great number of references to psychedelic culture, which should make for a heightened reading experience for psychedelicists. For example, in a scene where the narrator drinks tea with Indigo, the reader learns that: “His teapot had a hand-woven cozy, and was fired with the blue trumpets of morning glories, Ipomoea violacea, with its psychoactive amides.” Furthermore, the book’s eight-page Acknowledgements section contains many of the key figures in the history of psychedelic science, and shows the author’s network and influences.
Regrettably, The Rose of Paracelsus does not contain a table of contents. Besides providing an overview of its parts and chapters, a table of contents would of course be of help to those who plan to reread portions of the book. Shortcomings such as the one just described may in fact be adjusted in a new edition. Pickard describes the text as a “living work” that is subject to revision. In fact, the reader is invited to contact the author with comments on the material. This generous offer is a chance for the reader to be an active contributor to Pickard’s expansive literary project. As stated in a note at the end of the book, the current edition of The Rose will be followed by a revised and expanded “First Edition” of 740 pages. This new version will contain a bibliography, notes and sources, and a scientific appendix “pertinent to the narrative”. The plasticity of the text holds great promise for the forthcoming edition, which may turn out to be rather different from the current version.
Although The Rose will probably disappoint some readers who are looking for a revelatory memoir of the alleged “King of LSD,” as he was called in a lengthy 2001 Rolling Stone article, the book might very well find a clique of dedicated readers who feel at home in its mix of entheogenic spirituality and esoteric symbolism. Pickard, who is a victim of the gruesome War on (Some) Drugs, is part of the great number of writers past and present who have written literary works while being incarcerated. Famous examples include Miguel de Cervantes and Marquis de Sade. Presumably, very few works in the prison literature genre deal with psychedelics.
In 2000, Pickard involuntarily made the news as an alleged psychedelic chemist. 15 years later he has reappeared as a writer—an impressive transformation indeed. Destined to be misunderstood by the hasty reader, The Rose is a bold and challenging work for psychedelically inclined lovers of finely crafted literature. Patient readers who are willing to dose themselves with Pickard’s remarkable tome, may soon find themselves mesmerised by its hidden meanings and poetic, mind-altering prose. Soaked in psychedelia, The Rose of Paracelsus is an alluring and thought-provoking work that brings fresh content to psychedelic literature.
By Henrik Dahl
This review was originally published in Psychedelic Press Volume XVI (2016).
Henrik Dahl is a journalist and critic specialising in psychedelic culture and art.
Featured image: A selection of alchemical symbols, some of which are seen on the front and back cover of Pickard’s The Rose of Paracelsus.
1. “Erowid Character Vaults: William Leonard Pickard,” Erowid (2012),
2. Pickard, William Leonard, The Rose of Paracelsus: On Secrets & Sacraments (Sub Rosa Press, 2016), p. 22.
3. Borges, Jorge Luis, Collected Fictions (London: Penguin Books, 1998) p. 565.
4. “The Rose of Paracelsus” was published in The Telegraph in 1998 as “The resurrection of the rose: A late fiction from the master
of the metaphysical,”
5. Shulgin, Alexander, Shulgin, Ann, PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (Berkeley, CA: Transform Press, 2014), p. 185.
6. Eco, Umberto, The Name of the Rose (New York: Mariner Books, 2014) p. 306.
7. Pickard, op.cit., p. 108.
8. Ibid., p. 108.
9. Cooper, J. C., An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978) p. 116.
10. Ibid., p. 141.
11. Pickard, op.cit., p. 133.
12. Klock, John C. et al., “Coma, Hyperthermia and Bleeding Associated with Massive LSD Overdose: A Report of Eight Cases” (The
Western Journal of Medicine, issue 120, March 1974) p. 183.
13. Ibid., p. 183.
14. McKenna, Terence, The Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs,
Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), p. 219.
15. Pickard, op.cit., p. 33.
16. Ibid. , p. 34.
17. Dahl, Henrik, “A Correspondence with Tim Scully,” The Oak Tree Review (2009),
18. Pickard, op.cit., p. 304
19. Ibid., p. 655.