It’s not often that Soviet literature and psychedelic science overlap, but when they do, you can be sure that I’ll be among the first to catch it.
That being said, even I was caught by surprise by the parallels between a strange substance mentioned in Andrei Platonov’s novel “Happy Moscow” and the entheogenic substance N,N-dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT.
In the tradition of Russian cosmists like Nikolai Fyodorov, Platonov explored the concepts of death and immortality, in particular, how to conquer the former and achieve the latter. He did so through a character by the name of Dr. Sambikin, a young man who became interested in these grim, yet perennial, matters while digging around in some corpses. He noticed an unknown secretion that possessed a “pungent energy of life, even though it was to be found only inside the dead.” This discovery drove him to further investigate its possible role in consciousness and the existence of a higher soul.
Now, on its own this statement did not immediately cause me to associate the substance with DMT, but as Platonov (via Sambikin) continued to describe the substance, its similarity to the psychedelic compound became clearer and clearer.
When it comes to DMT, there’s a lot of (mis)information out there on the internet, and so the only major, investigative work on the substance that I tend to consider an authoritative source is Dr. Rick Strassman’s classic book “DMT: The Spirit Molecule” because of its largely scientific approach to studying both the biological and psychological aspects of the drug.
Strassman notes how medical interest in DMT began when — unlike other popular psychedelics at the time — it was found to exist naturally within mice brains. It was later isolated in human blood, urine, and cerebrospinal fluid, which fascinated researchers, as they could not conceive of a reason for the endogenous presence of DMT. Dr. Strassman was one of the first to run extensive scientific experiments with the drugs in a clinical setting, which has since brought greater interest and legitimacy to the possibility of a substance akin to that which was theorized by Platonov/Sambikin.
Like DMT, Sambikin’s mystery substance is endogenous, and pretty much only possible to isolate in very particular circumstances: birth, near-death, death, and mystical states, or as Sambikin put it, “in illness, in unhappiness, in love, in a terrible dream, at any moment, in fact, that’s far removed from the normal.” The fact that Platonov was able to predict in the 1930’s that there may exist a mysterious, endogenous substance that is only released during major life events is uncanny. But the descriptions of this fictional substance only continue to reflect what we know about the very-real substance DMT nowadays.
For example, Strassman speculated that DMT could help explain the phenomenon of near-death experiences given the parallels in how the two are often described. Likewise, Sambikin theorized that “At the moment of death there opens in the human body a last sluice… Behind that sluice, in some dark ravine of the organism, a last charge of life is faithfully and miserly preserved. Nothing but death can open up that spring, that reservoir… that cistern of immortality.”
However, Sambikin would run into a problem when he attempted to conclusively prove that this strange substance of his was the culprit in the phenomena of consciousness and the human soul: it would metabolize and disappear by the time he got the bodies. As he put it, “Nature guards her procedures carefully!” Modern researchers face a similar problem insofar as it is ethically and practically difficult to test for the presence of DMT in any number of the body’s systems while someone is actively dying.
Sambikin was not only intrigued by this substance out of strict medical interest, but out of a philosophical one as well. He hoped that this substance could “transform the dead into a force that would nourish the longevity and health of the living…. [be an] infantile moisture that bathes a person’s insides… added to someone alive but wilting, able to render that person upright, steadfast, and happy.” This application of the substance as a cyclical, driving force behind death and rebirth, destruction and reconstruction, is one echoed by observations made by Strassman.
In particular, this reflects the relationship between DMT, the pineal gland, and reincarnation myths. There are remarkable similarities between the stages of fetal development and the stages of reincarnation outlined in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, in which the soul of the recently-deceased takes 49 days to reincarnate and be reborn into a new physical manifestation. Strassman noticed that 49 days is precisely the same time at which two landmark events occur in the biological development of human embryos: the formation of the pineal gland within the brain (although the tissue actually forms from the roof of the mouth, which could symbolically link it to logos as well), and the differentiation of gender through the development of sexual organs. The significance of this correlation as it relates to DMT’s possible role in transferring energy from the dead to the living is that the pineal gland is one location in which it is theorized DMT may be endogenously formed.
When it comes to the idea that there may be some sort of anatomical “antenna” linking the body and material world to a transcendent soul, Sambikin and Strassman are both preceded by Descartes. Indeed, Descartes made direct reference to the pineal gland. Because he believed that introspection was self-evident proof that it was only possible to think one thought at a time, Descartes concluded that the only unpaired part of the brain, the pineal gland, must be responsible for generating thought (and therefore, generating our relationship with the Divine). Descartes proposed that this “seat of the soul” was the intermediary between man’s spiritual self and his physical self.
Sambikin also must have been a student of Descartes, as he hypothesized that “the secret of life lies in man’s dual consciousness… coordinating two thoughts… uniting in a single impulse one thought that rises from out of the earth itself, from the depths of the bones, and another that descends from the height of the skull… That’s the mystery of human evolution, that’s why man has left all the other animals behind!” Reminiscent of the Stoned Ape Theory, no?
Unfortunately, Dr. Sambikin was not the main character of “Happy Moscow” and as such, there is not an emphasis on this line of philosophical (and strangely-accurate biological) thinking. Moreover, the novel was never finished by Platonov himself, leaving us readers to ponder whether there was more to Sambikin’s story, more to his mystery substance, then we got.
Nevertheless, it is fascinating that Platonov may have been so intuitively correct in his description of Sambikin’s spirit molecule when one considers what we know about DMT today. And our academic interest in the existence of a substance that bridges the liminal divide between matter and spirit should not fade merely because it may seem hokey to some.
It is critical to question whether there exists a connection between the biological and the Divine. If Sambikin is correct in his hypothesis that there exists such a bridging substance, one which can invigorate the living, yet is most prominent in the dying, that is universal in its presence, yet enigmatic in its function, and one that is capable of completely revolutionizing our understanding of human beings and our place in the Universe, it seems as though there is scientific credibility in proposing this substance to be none other than N,N Dimethyltryptamine.