the lobsters

Although it has long been known that Sartre experienced visions of lobsters — which he sometimes referred to as crabs — Gerassi’s account offers startling new details of the philosopher’s descent into near-madness as he battled to make sense of what he had come to regard as the intellectual absurdity of his life.

“Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time,” he says in Gerassi’s new book, Talking With Sartre. “They followed me in the streets, into class ... I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’ I would say, ‘Okay guys, we’re going into class now . . . ’ and they would be there, around my desk, absolutely still, until the bell rang.”

Sartre was intrigued by the mind-expanding properties of the peyote cactus. His mescaline experiments started in 1935 and affected his thinking for more than a year. They proved a big influence in the writing of his 1938 novel, Nausea — now regarded as a manifesto of existentialism. Shellfish visions also featured in his 1959 play, The Condemned of Altona, in which a race of crabs sits in judgment on humanity.

In between, Sartre told Gerassi, “I began to think I was going crazy.”

He consulted a young psychiatrist named Jacques Lacan — who later became another of France’s foremost intellectuals — and they attributed Sartre’s crab-infested depression to his fear that he was being pigeon-holed as a teacher.

“That was the worst part, to have to be serious about life,” said Sartre. “The crabs stayed with me until the day I simply decided that they bored me and I wouldn’t pay attention to them.” By then it was the 1940s, France was occupied and Sartre had other things to worry about.

- "Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness" [The Sunday Times]

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