Is reality just an illusion? According to Daniel Pinchbeck and Gaspar Noé, it depends what you smoke.
French Enfant terrible Gaspar Noé ‘s latest movie, Enter the Void, is a sumptuous, psychedelic odyssey through the post-death experiences of its drug dealer anti-hero, Oscar. After smoking DMT (Dimethyltryptamine – a naturally occuring, powerfully immersive psychedelic) in the opening moments of the film, Oscar gets himself shot by police during a bust and bleeds out in a filthy Tokyo club toilet.
What follows is by turns sublime, visceral, shocking, darkly humorous and excruciatingly drawn-out. Through a looping and fractured narrative, we follow Oscar’s disincarnate first-person gaze through a post-corporeal reality, shimmering and strobing with recollections of his past and nightmarish projections of the fates befalling his sister and friends.
Produced in the pineal gland and released in a flood through the human brain in its mortal throes, DMT is thought by some to cause near-death experiences. On the eve of Enter the Void being released on DVD, Noé and Pinchbeck compare their experiences of DMT’s reality altering effects.
GASPAR NOÉ: We met before in New York City, do you remember Daniel?
DANIEL PINCHBECK: I do, of course, at our little collective hardware Bowery underground corners.
GN: And since, I’ve seen the documentary you did with Jodorowski, which was fun. Actually the first time I heard of you was when I read your book Breaking Open The Head. Among the description of all the other substances in that book, the description of how ayahuasca or DMT affects your mind was the best description I had ever read. Those visions of cities from above, made of neon lights etc. At one point I tried to rewrite my script according to your descriptions but in the end I didn’t. I thought that it was good to have in mind that I was not the only one to have visions of towers, of strange buildings when I was on DMT.
DP: What for you is beyond the visual aspects of it, what’s the value or philosophical meaning of these psychedelic experiences for you?
GN: The toughest part, or maybe the most essential or useful part, is when you start doubting yourself and your ego. You don’t know what the fuck you are, what the fuck a human is, humankind, history, time and sometimes when you get close to those questions you can faint.
DP: You can faint?
GN: Yeah, I fainted two or three times. Then when you wake up you know that your head went too far. When you come back to reality it takes you some time to understand that you’re on a planet, that you’re a kind of mammal, maybe human, maybe with a name and somewhere in history. But I remember that when it goes that far I see [makes a whooshing noise] flashing lights just before I faint.
DP: Yeah, I have actually grown really fond of that experience. It’s like you get a chance to experience yourself as consciousness without your name and identify and that stuff. It’s like a great vacation.
GN: Yeah but it didn’t happen to me to the point where it happened to you, because in your book the scariest chapter was the one on DPT [Dipropyltryptamine, an artificially produced hallucinogenic drug]. For sure I’ll never try DPT after reading your description. But over time DMT can get close to that experience you describe where everything turns, not evil but everything turns alien, and you feel you’re like possessed by some alien, another form of life. You can get into zones where you almost think like a robot or like an ant, without having any emotional attachment to the people you like the most. It’s weird because you reconsider your life and things that really seem essential to you, you can consider them in the coldest way you could imagine.
DP: In the film there’s an opening onto ideas around reincarnation. Is that something you take seriously, or was it more of a stylistic trope?
GN: No, I believe in the spell of these substances, but I don’t believe in reincarnation at all. Actually in the movie, if you watch closely, the woman giving birth at the end is not Linda, the girl played by Paz, it’s the mother that you see at the beginning of the movie. So actually he’s just going back to the starting point or he’s just remembering his own birth.
DP: So your perspective around say spirituality or the after-death realm, is that really nothing happens? Even though you’ve had these visionary experiences in altered states, you would consider them more as hallucinations?
GN: Err, things happen, but I think your consciousness dies, when you die. It’s weird how people come to see very different things on ayahuasca.
DP: There are obviously all sorts of different stuff people see, but on the other hand there are overarching similarities. There’s a book that an Israeli psychoanalyst, Benny Shanon, wrote on the phenomenology of the ‘ayahuasca experience’, correlating the types of imagery that people saw across thousands and thousands of different sessions. He found a lot of continuity and ended up arguing for the Jungian model of psychic archetypes.
GN: Yeah. What are the visions that come all the time?
DP: Incan pyramids with Mardi Gras futuristic cities, different types of spirits, praying mantises. A lot of people see alien insects, that are often benevolent, but doing psychic surgery on you. I had that experience the last time I worked with ayahuasca a few months ago. All these cosmic alien insects gathered around me and were working on my heart and my organs.
GN: When I was in Peru I had “dark ayahuasca” or “black ayahuasca.” I don’t know if it had Datura inside but it was like a trip to hell. I saw some cartoonish spiders, [shudders] floating towards me as if they were dolphins and then… pfff… everything turned really, really dark. It was a dark trip. Sometimes you see visions of flying saucers from the inside, like at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
DP: When you begin to get into different ayahuasca traditions, the shamen are able to bring in different frequencies through the songs they sing. I just worked with the Sequoyah from Ecuador and they bring a certain level of beings to their ceremonies and that’s a very different experience than the Santo Daime, which is a Christian based religion in Brazil, where you seem to encounter a totally different class of spirit entities. I really feel that there’s a huge amount still to discover and learn with this stuff, that we’re really just at the starting point.
Enter the Void is out on DVD on April 25.
Words: William Alderwick
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #26, April/May 2011