Philosopher Michel Foucault's Death Valley LSD Trip
Editor’s Note: Michel Foucault (born Paul-Michel Foucault in 1926) was one of the central thinkers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Neither a traditional philosopher nor a trained historian, Foucault examined the intersection of truth and history through the specific historical dynamics of power.
In France, Foucault was a major figure in structuralist thinking of the 1960s and in the years that followed. However in the United States, especially in popular culture, Foucault is often thought of as an inciter of the “French theory” movement that swept through American universities in the 1970s and 1980s. Often controversial, Foucault’s analyses of the uses of power in society, as well as his concerns with sexuality, bodies, and norms have been pivotal in the development of contemporary feminist and queer theory.
One early follower of Foucault’s thinking was Simeon Wade, assistant professor of history at Claremont Graduate School. A native of Texas, Wade moved to California in 1972 after earning his Ph.D. in the intellectual history of Western civilization from Harvard in 1970. In 1975, Foucault was invited to California to teach a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley. Following a lecture, Wade and his partner, musician Michael Stoneman, invited Foucault to accompany them on a road trip to Death Valley. After some persuasion, Foucault agreed. The memorable trip occurred two weeks later. This interview was conducted by Heather Dundas on 27 May 2017, and has been edited for length, clarity, and historical accuracy.
Boom: What can you tell us about the above photo?
Simeon Wade: I snapped the above photo with my Leica camera, June 1975. The photograph features the Panamint Mountains, the salt flats of Death Valley, and the frozen dunes at Zabriskie Point. In the foreground, two figures: Michel Foucault, in the white turtleneck, his priestly attire, and Michael Stoneman, who was my life partner.
Boom: How did you end up in Death Valley with Michel Foucault?
Simeon Wade: I was performing an experiment. I wanted to see [how] one of the greatest minds in history would be affected by an experience he had never had before: imbibing a suitable dose of clinical LSD in a desert setting of great magnificence, and then adding to that various kinds of entertainment. We were in Death Valley for two days and one night. And this is one of the spots we visited during this trip.
Boom: What can you say about this photograph? Were Foucault and Stoneman already tripping when it was taken? And wasn’t it incredibly hot, Death Valley in June?
Wade: Yes. We rose to the occasion, as it were, in an area called Artist’s Palette. And yes, it was very hot. But in the evening, it cooled off, and you can see Foucault in his turtleneck in the cool air. We went to Zabriskie Point to see Venus appear. Michael placed speakers all around us, as no one else was there, and we listened to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sing Richard Strauss’s, Four Last Songs. I saw tears in Foucault’s eyes. We went into one of the hollows and laid on our backs, like James Turrell’s volcano, and watched Venus come forth and the stars come out later. We stayed at Zabriskie Point for about ten hours. Michael also played Charles Ives’s, Three Places in New England, and Stockhausen’s Kontakte, along with some Chopin…. Foucault had a deep appreciation of music; one of his friends from college was Pierre Boulez.
Boom: That’s quite a playlist. But why LSD?
Wade: The revelation of St. John on the Isle of Patmos is said by some to have been inspired by the Amanita muscaria mushroom. LSD is a chemical equivalent to the hallucinogenic potency of these mushrooms. So many great inventions that made civilization possible took place in societies that used magic mushrooms in their religious rituals. So I thought, if this is true, if the chemical compound has such power, then what is this going to do to the great mind of Foucault?
Foucault and Michael Stoneman, Death Valley
Boom: But why go so far for this experience? Why drive five hours from Claremont to Death Valley?
Wade: The major reason was that Michael and I had had so many wonderful trips in the desert. Death Valley, many times, and also Mojave, Joshua Tree. If you take clinical LSD and you’re in a place like Death Valley, you can hear harmonic progressions just like in Chopin; it is the most glorious music you’ve ever heard, and it teaches you that there’s more.
Boom: Until recently the very 1970s idea of, as you put it in your manuscript, a “magic elixir” to expand consciousness, was so out of fashion as to be ludicrous. But current research has called this quick dismissal of the psychedelic experience into question.
Wade: And about time! [During these trips] I saw the firmament as it truly is, in all of its glorious colors and forms, and I also heard the echoes from the big bang, which sounds like a chorus of angels, which is what the ancients thought it was.
Boom: So you wanted to give Foucault LSD so he could access this “glorious music”?
Wade: Not only that. It was 1975, of course, and The Order of Things had been published for nearly a decade (published in 1966 in French). The Order of Things treats man’s finitude, his inevitable death, as well as the death of humanity, arguing that the whole humanism of the renaissance is no longer viable. To the point of saying that the face of man has been effaced.
Boom: There’s the famous passage at the end of The Order of Things, postulating a world without the power structures of the Enlightenment: “If those arrangements were to disappear… then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”
Wade: I thought, if I give Foucault clinical LSD, I’m sure he will realize that he is premature in obliterating our humanity and the mind as we know it now, because he’ll see that there are forms of knowledge other than science, and because of the theme of death in his thinking up to that point. The tremendous emphasis of finitude, finitude, finitude reduces our hope.
Boom: So you took Foucault to Death Valley for a kind of rebirth, in a sense?
Wade: Exactly. It was a transcendental experience for Foucault. He wrote us a few months later that it was the greatest experience of his life, and that it profoundly changed his life and his work.
Foucault and Michael Stoneman, Death Valley
Boom: At the time of this trip, Foucault had just published the first volume of his projected six-volume work, History of Sexuality. He’d also published an outline of the rest of the work, and apparently already had finished writing several volumes of it. So when did this post-Death Valley change become evident in his work?
Wade: Immediately. He wrote us that he had thrown volumes two and three of his History of Sexuality into the fire and that he had to start all over again. Whether that was just a way of speaking, I don’t know, but he did destroy at least some version of them and then wrote them again before his premature death in 1984. The titles of these last two books are emblematic of the impact this experience had on him: The Uses of Pleasure and The Care of the Self, with no mention of finitude. Everything after this experience in 1975 is the new Foucault, neo-Foucault. Suddenly he was making statements that shocked the French intelligentsia.
Boom: Such as?
Wade: Statements more confidently out in the open, like that he finally realized who the real Columbus of politics was: Jeremy Bentham. Jeremy Bentham had been up to around this time a very respected figure, and Foucault had begun to find him an intellectual villain. And Foucault denies Marx and Engels, and says we should just look at Marx as an excellent journalist, not a theorist. And all of the things Foucault had been inching toward were bolstered after the Death Valley trip. Foucault from 1975 to 1984 was a new being.
Boom: You’ve mentioned that some people disagreed with your experiment and thought you were reckless with Foucault’s welfare.
Wade: Many academicians were very negative on this point, saying that this was tampering with a great person’s mind. I shouldn’t tamper with his mind. But Foucault was well aware of what was involved, and we were with him the entire time.
Boom: Did you think about the repercussions this experience would have on your career?
Wade: In retrospect, I should have.
Boom: Was this a one-off experience? Did you ever see Foucault again?
Wade: Yes, Foucault visited us again. Shortly after his second visit, which was two weeks after this, where we stayed up in the mountains—it was a mountain experience.
Boom: Also with music and LSD?
Wade: No LSD, but everything else. After he left the second time, I sat down and wrote an account of the experience, called Death Valley Trip. It’s never been published. Foucault read it. We had a robust correspondence. And then we spent a fantastic time with him again in 1981, when he was at a conference at the University of Southern California.
Boom: Did you save Foucault’s letters?
Wade: Yes, about twenty of them. The last one was written in 1984. He asked if he could come live with us in Silverlake, as he was suffering from a terminal illness. I think he wanted to die like Huxley. I said yes, of course. Unfortunately, before he was ready to travel, the trap door of history caught him by surprise.
Simeon Wade and Foucault, Claremont, after the Death Valley experience
§ The Editor (of Boom California) wishes to thank Stuart Elden, Professor of Political Theory and Geography, Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, and author of Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power (Polity Press) for clarifying a number of factual matters in this interview. Thanks also to Jonathan Simon.
 Editor’s note: According to Stuart Elden, “Foucault was much closer to Jean Barraqué, with whom he had a friendship and for a while a relationship. Barraqué was another significant modernist composer and this may be who is meant [here]” (email correspondence, 29 August 2017).
 “…such as the Sumerians, who invented everything, including writing, and the Essenes, who invented Christianity.” Wade’s thinking aligns with John Allegro’s theories presented in The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross (London: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 1970). Most scholars rejected Allegro’s book immediately. However, the book was reissued in 2008 with an addendum by Professor Carl Ruck of Boston University outlining the continuing mushroom controversy.
 Simeon Wade, Michel Foucault in Death Valley, unpublished manuscript.
 The recent explosion of research into LSD and its effects is too vast for this article to document, yet some notable publications include Robin L. Carhart-Harris et al., “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging,” PNAS 113 (2016): 4853-4858; Stephen Ross et al., “Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial,” Journal of Psychopharmacology 30 (2016): 1165–1180; Felix Mueller et al., “Acute effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on amygdala activity during processing of fearful stimuli in healthy subjects,” Translational Psychiatry (April 2017), http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v7/n4/full/tp201754a.html?foxtrotcallback=true.
 Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 387.
 Editor’s note: The actual published vols. 2 and 3 were written to an entirely different plan than the original one, and several years later with completely different material content. So the claim that he destroyed and then rewrote is contestable. Furthermore, the original plan for vol. 2 was a discussion of Christianity, which was rewritten and yet was also reconfigured later down the publishing pipeline to be vol. 4 of the project. According to Stuart Elden, this volume is projected for publication in French in 2018 by Gallimard.
 Foucault discusses the change in his thinking and writing in interviews conducted in 1984, at the very end of his life. See “The Ethics of the Concern for Self,” “An Aesthetics of Existence,” “The Concern for Truth,” and “The Return of Morality,” all reprinted in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews, 1961-1984 (Sylvère Lotringer, ed. Semiotext(e), 1989, 1996). Editor’s note: Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison was published February 1975 in French, and therefore with the Death Valley trip being June 1975 it is impossible for this later event to have influenced Foucault’s reading of Bentham, &c., as the critiques are laid out in Surveiller et punir, the English translation of which, under the title, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, was not published until 1977. The Editor wishes to thank Stuart Elden for clarification on this point.
 Simeon Wade left Claremont Graduate School in 1977. After adjunct teaching as an instructor of history and art history at several universities, he obtained a nursing license and spent the balance of his working life as a psychiatric R.N. at Los Angeles County Psychiatric Hospital and Psychiatric R.N. Supervisor at Ventura County Hospital.
 The novelist Aldous Huxley asked his wife to inject him with LSD as he died on 22 November 1963. http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/03/most-beautiful-death.html
Michel Foucault died in Paris, 25 June 1984 at the age of 57. Simeon Wade and Michael Stoneman remained close until Stoneman’s death in 1998. Wade is now retired and living in Oxnard, California, where he writes and plays the piano.
*Heather Dundas is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. www.heatherdundas.com.