In the December 2013 issue of Anesthesiology Eduardo E. Icaza and George A. Masour had an interesting special article entitled “Altered States: Psychedelics and Anesthetics.”1 They end their article by citing Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s poem Laughing Gas.2
A grey and cold day in January 1983 the train rolled out from Karlstad’s central station toward Oslo, Norway, where work waited.
A rounded, brown bearded man came down the aisle followed by a slender fellow with a guitar case.
- Are these seats free, he asked?
- Sure, please sit down.
I continued reading my newspaper.
- Is there anything about me in that paper?
I lowered the paper surprised by the question and suddenly recognized Allen Ginsberg and his partner and accompanist Steven Taylor.
- No, but in yesterday’s paper there was a very positive review of your performance in Stockholm.
Allen Ginsberg and Steven Taylor were on a recital tour in Northern Europe, now on their way to Oslo.
Small talk, weather, where from, where to. Taylor fell asleep.
- So you’re an Anesthesiologist?!!
I saw the sparkle behind the thick eyeglasses.
- Which is your favorite drug?
- Well, it depends on the operation and the patient and…
- No, no, no which is your personal favorite drug?
I slowly realized the meaning of the question when Steven Taylor opened his eyes and asked about my favorite needle drug.
Ginsberg looked upon me with disbelief when I said I only used alcohol and accidentally Halothane in the ENT theatre. A guy with access to all the drugs but not capacity to use them!
He opened his worn out suitcase and took out a thumbed booklet.
- Here, read this poem. I wrote it in a hotel room in Chicago with a cylinder of nitrous oxide. What do you think?
Not used to reading modern American poetry, I still ascertained him it most likely was written under anesthetic influence. Ginsberg appreciated my expert comment.
- And read this one. Then I had a bottle of ether at home in New York.
- We don’t use ether any more but I believe you. The anesthetic and poetic depth was even greater.
- According to the Greek philosophers ether is the medium that fills the universe.
-Yes, but I don’t think it was medical ether.
- Pythagoras said the planets were moving in the ether at exact distances in perfect harmony. They vibrated and sounded as they rotated.
- Yes, the harmony of the spheres, I said.
- Is it true that hearing is the last sense to disappear when we become unconscious or die?
- Yes, we think so and we always treat our patients as hearing. We also believe that hearing is augmented when we fall asleep and keep quiet during induction.
- Then perhaps the harmony of the spheres will be the last thing we hear when we die.
Allen Ginsberg looked very reassured and comforted by this thought about dying – celestial music instead of earthly howling - and with that, the conversation died.