Although I was present at the launch of this book in 2015 and indeed had my copy signed by its author (‘To Ian – Hope you enjoy this cosmic tale! – Love Ben’) I have to confess that I only managed to get around to reading it in April this year for a number of reasons, mostly personal. Was it worth the wait?
Ben Sessa is a consultant child psychiatrist and senior research fellow at Imperial College, London and one of the very few people “who has ever received MDMA, LSD, DMT, ketamine, and psilocybin within a legal research setting”. Currently he is conducting the world’s first MDMA trials for treating alcohol dependency.
As far as I can recall, the only psychoactive substance available at the book launch was some rather nondescript red and white wine which was almost certainly bought in haste for the occasion. However, the launch went well and Sessa talked about the gestation of the book within the context of his research.
The title of the book is taken from some famous lines of Humphry Fortescue Osmond, an English psychiatrist who, after a spell at St George’s Hospital in London, emigrated to Canada in 1951 and later worked in the United States. He is probably best known for inventing the word ‘psychedelic’ (Greek: ψυχή, ‘mind, soul’, δῆλος, ‘manifest, visible’) and for his patient studies at Weyburn Mental Hospital in Saskatchewan.
Sessa’s novel is an attempt to put his professional skills and knowledge in this area into a fictional work accessible to the wider public. He does so by way of a meticulous study of how Dr Robert Austell, a jaded NHS psychiatrist, slowly discovers the limits of his own conservative instincts as well as the strictures of traditional medical models when he encounters the maverick Dr Joseph Langley.
The main setting of the book is a small farm in Somerset, England. However, it also includes a momentous journey to San Francisco and an equally momentous one to Cardiff! How much Sessa’s novel is autobiographical is difficult to assess. What makes the book surprisingly successful is the considerable skill with which Sessa uses humour and irony, along with a liberal sprinkling of magical realism, to communicate en passant his own interest in and commitment to psychedelically-assisted therapy. Despite the enthusiasm and technical detail, this well-structured volume isn’t in any sense a didactic essay or propaganda tract, but rather a serious attempt to explore in an honest and painstaking way human frailty and self-deception.
It would be tendentious, indeed a tad silly, to describe To Fathom Hell or Soar Angelic as ‘a great novel’, but it is, nevertheless, an extremely clever and engaging one. In short, Ben’s labour of love (let us get personal) is not about drugs or doctors, but about human relationships - both in terms of their infinite potential and their ultimate fragility.