WHEN MICHEL FOUCAULT first visited Southern California in the spring of 1975, he had never taken LSD. Despite his radical politics, the subversive French theorist had somehow made it through the 1960s without sampling the drug. While in France, he had a few opportunities, but he had always declined. All of this would change in the summer of 1975, when Foucault befriended two young Americans: Simeon Wade, a historian at the Claremont Graduate School, and his bearded boyfriend, Michael Stoneman. The details of Foucault’s epic LSD trip in Death Valley and how it came to pass are vividly captured in Wade’s humorous memoir, Foucault in California.

In the mid-1970s, Wade began a correspondence with the French philosopher, hoping to lure him to Claremont for a campus visit. Foucault was not yet world famous, but his academic star was rising as his theoretical works were being translated into English. Wade decided that he needed to use all of his resources to get Foucault’s attention: “I would get him a ‘generous honorarium’ and ‘a bevy of California young men’ [Claremont graduate students] to entertain him […] [and] I would propose taking him to some scenic California locales.” While planning his campaign to attract Foucault, Wade had a “brainstorm”: “I would conduct an experiment. I concocted a formula that I felt might produce an intellectual power approaching the wonders of science fiction, something on the order of Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet, or the Galaxy Being from the first episode of The Outer Limits.”

Wade’s described his planned experiment as “the formula”:

[F]irst, take the world’s greatest intellect, the man who went beyond the nostrum that “knowledge is power” to figure out that power produces knowledge; second, provide this intellect with a heavenly elixir, a digestible philosopher’s stone [i.e., LSD], which has the potential of increasing astronomically the power of the brain; enchantment.

Once Wade had outlined his formula, the LSD plot was on. Through previous correspondence, he realized that the French philosopher was reluctant to schedule too many talks during his first semester of teaching at UC Berkeley. Wade knew that he had to get Foucault to agree to a campus visit. Only after they had met in person would Wade be able to gently introduce the idea of taking LSD together in Death Valley. He realized that bringing up the topic right away might scare away the Frenchman.

Simeon Wade and Michel Foucault in Claremont circa May 1975

Wade’s Foucault in California belongs to a sub-sub-genre of nonfiction: the LSD memoir, which generally consists of a narrator (usually male) describing his encounters with psychedelic drugs. The first trip is inevitably a rite of passage to a new state of consciousness and a new worldview. The experience of “being turned on” signifies a path toward greater enlightenment and the adoption of an alternative lifestyle. The most famous works in this genre are probably Michael Hollingshead’s The Man Who Turned on the World (1973) and especially Timothy Leary’s High Priest (1968), which documents the author’s trips with famous writers and intellectuals of the 1960s — Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Ram Dass), Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Arthur Koestler, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac.

Although Foucault in California belongs in the same genre, it also differs in one crucial respect: its author’s penchant for shameless hero worship. Early on in his memoir, Wade reveals that he is a star-struck fan of the French philosopher: “Michel Foucault was my hero and at last there was the possibility of meeting him. I regarded Michel Foucault as nothing less than the greatest thinker of our time, perhaps all time.” Wade’s fandom knows no bounds, and when he finally encounters Foucault in person, he can’t stop gazing at the philosopher’s bald head: “[T]he bare skull was marked by several extra lobes, which bulged from the apex of the brain stem. One does not have to be a phrenologist to recognize this extraordinary cerebral mutation, something on the order of a supermind, had emerged from the outer limits.” The subtext is clear: What would happen if this amazing bald head was tripping on LSD? Would the “supermind” have an extraordinary visionary experience?

Wade’s prose style can best be described as mock grandiose; he also seems to enjoy being slightly devious. While employing humor to enlist readers to support his LSD plot, Wade is careful to gloss over the issue of consent — did Foucault really want to be “turned on” by two strangers in Death Valley? Instead, Wade convinces himself that he is providing the French philosopher with a formative experience. Yet he also considers the possibility that his aesthetic experiment could somehow misfire: “I knew we were taking a risk. Ingesting the philosopher’s stone in such an enchanted locale might blow the fuses of the master thinker of our era. Or it might have no effect at all.” Meanwhile, Michael Stoneman, his partner, assumes the role of a trickster figure: when Wade grows nervous about his plan, Stoneman grabs the baton and pushes the plot forward. Indeed, the aptly named Stoneman plays a crucial role in the LSD seduction narrative, as Wade recognizes in his “formula”: “Michel Foucault + The Philosopher’s Stone + Death Valley + Michael Stoneman.”

Wade describes the fun-loving and gregarious Stoneman, who had studied music at UCLA, as “a composer, a homosexual, and a smoker.” Wade met him at the Third Street Athletic Club, a gay bathhouse popular in the early 1970s. Stoneman describes their first meeting to Foucault:

We talked for hours in one of the dark cubicles and had sex before we saw each other. We were in a bunk room and we broke the taboo against speaking. Adding insult to injury, we talked about music — Chopin and Rachmaninoff, Pollini and Michelangelli. […] We couldn’t help ourselves. Eventually everyone else in the room crawled out of their dark corners and departed in a huff.

After this first meeting, the two enthusiasts of classical music and psychedelic drugs quickly became inseparable as lovers and partners in mischievous provocations.

Stoneman, who was fluent in French, had no qualms about approaching Foucault in a public setting. When the two attend one of Foucault’s public lectures at UC Irvine, Wade becomes too nervous and star-struck to approach the philosopher in person. Despite the fact that he is surrounded by an entourage of academics and fawning graduate students, Stoneman boldly steps in and addresses Foucault in French. He introduces his lover, who suggests the campus visit. Taken aback at first, the philosopher is reluctant to add another talk to his already busy schedule, but after some coaxing from Stoneman and Wade, he agrees to come to Claremont at the end of May.

I. The Trip

After picking up Foucault at the airport, Wade drives to his house, where the philosopher is treated to Tequila Sunrises and a small bowl of hashish. After a light dinner, Stoneman “sat down at the Yamaha grand and gave us a spirited reading of Scriabin’s Tenth Sonata, a work of pure sorcery.” The evening’s activities break the ice, making the French guest feel at home. After a few hours of slumber, the trio rise at dawn in order to reach the high desert before midday.

Wade, who has not yet mentioned the idea of taking LSD, finally decides to broach the delicate subject during the drive: “[W]e brought a powerful elixir, a kind of philosopher’s stone Michael happened upon. We thought you might enjoy a visionary quest in Death Valley.” Given that Foucault was not fluent in English, it is unclear if he really knew what Wade was talking about. Wade’s account of the events leading up to the trip has the air of a “kiss and tell” memoir, but in this case the act described is not sex with a celebrity but taking psychedelic drugs in an exotic locale. Every moment leading up to the hallucinogenic climax is described in lavish detail.

Stoneman/Foucault at Zabriskie Point

When the trio finally reach Death Valley, they hike down to the Artists’ Palette, an alluvial fan at the base of a canyon. The moment of truth occurs when Stoneman produces the LSD and Foucault uncharacteristically freaks out: “Foucault appeared troubled and with grim countenance […] walked away.” Wade is forced to admit that his elaborate plan might be ruined; the last thing he and Stoneman wanted was a bad trip under the hot Death Valley sun. “We both knew that the potion taken under any kind of duress can discompose the unwilling. We certainly would not wish to force anything upon Michel.” When Foucault finally returns, he declares “with quizzical eyes that he wishe[s] to take only half as much, since this is his first experience with a potion so powerful.”

This was the response that Wade had feared the most: although Foucault had described the effects of LSD in one of his essays, he had never actually taken the drug. [1] Wade and Stoneman were surprised because Foucault was a follower of Nietzsche who had always expressed a keen interest in all things Dionysian. Perhaps to save face, the philosopher, after a lengthy bout of indecision, asks Stoneman about the proper way of ingesting it. Much to Wade’s delight, the LSD plot is on again.

Foucault and Stoneman sitting at Zabriskie Point

While Wade’s prose is often deliberately over-the-top, this exorbitance proves useful when describing the dramatic effects of LSD. As the drug slowly begins to take effect, Foucault starts to feel more at ease with his decision to throw caution to the wind and trip with Wade and Stoneman. The apex of the experience is the unveiling of the ancient lakebeds of Zabriskie Point. The physical setting could not have been more dramatic, as the subterranean indentations seem to mimic the landscape of another planet.

Stoneman has brought portable speakers so that music can be played as the magical elixir kicks in. Wade had carefully prepared a musical program for the early evening: Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs (sung by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), followed by Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England, ending with a few avant-garde pieces by Stockhausen. Wade excels as he describes the enchanting setting:

We fell silent to listen to Stockhausen’s Songs of Youth. Zabriskie Point was filled with the sounds of a kindergarten playground overlaid with electric tonalities. Kontakte followed. Glissandos bounced off the stars, which glowed like incandescent pinballs. Foucault turned to Michael and said this was the first time he really understood what Stockhausen had achieved.

Wade’s impressions convey the climactic moment of illumination:

I lay on my back, looked into the heavens, and felt I was hallucinating. Booming, buzzing, and flashing, the whole sky became a penny arcade. I thought Warhol, Warhol. The stars assumed the shape of enormous Christmas tree ornaments moving in formation slowly and gracefully through the moonless sky. Complete tranquility enveloped me. I knew that the heavenly elixir allowed me to see the total spectra of each star. The lustrous colors radiated outward to form the illusion of solid, luminescent spheres.

When Wade describes his ecstatic vision to Foucault, the philosopher seems to agree. “The sky has exploded,” he says, “and the stars are raining down on me. I know this is not true, but it is the truth.” Foucault adds a carefully chosen literary reference:

At last I understand the meaning of Lowry’s Under the Volcano. […] [T]he Consul’s mescal served as a drug which filtered his perception in a manner similar to a hallucinogen. The only thing I can compare this experience to in my life is sex with a stranger. Contact with a strange body affords an experience of the truth to what I am experiencing.

II. The Aftermath

The rest of Wade’s memoir is dedicated to the afterglow experience. The trio spend the night at a local motel and then return to Claremont for some academic events. Foucault, still beaming from his trip, is obliged to deliver an academic lecture for faculty members and graduate students and then answer a barrage of theoretical questions that seem far removed from his moment of transcendence at Zabriskie Point. Despite the incongruity, he handles the abstruse questions with relative ease. On the following day, a small group hikes to a Taoist commune near Mount Baldy, where Foucault holds court and eagerly chops wood for an audience of graduate students. On the last day of his visit, he dines with Claremont faculty, conversing with a historian of 19th-century American military history. Since she is having some trouble describing her scholarly work, she decides to engage in small talk with the French philosopher: “How was your trip to Death Valley?” she asks. To which Foucault replies, “It was the greatest experience of my life.”

Despite Wade’s fondness for hero worship, Foucault in California is a compelling historical document that offers a mundane side of Foucault that rarely appears in his theoretical work. The philosopher eats at an unremarkable diner in the heart of the Inland Empire, where he enjoys his favorite meal: a club sandwich and Diet Coke. The high point of the memoir, however, is Wade’s poetic rendering of Foucault’s LSD trip, which manages to capture the philosopher’s hesitations and fears but also conveys the spectacle of a towering intellect leveled by the visceral power of the drug experience.

When parts of Wade’s manuscript first appeared in James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, some Foucault scholars were skeptical about the Death Valley trip. [2] In The Lives of Michel Foucault (1993), David Macey expresses doubts about the trip and its overall importance in the trajectory of Foucault’s life and work: “Reports from those who claim that he told them that it changed his life should probably be treated with some skepticism; the insights granted by LSD tend to be short lived and illusory rather than real.” Macey’s comment suggests that some scholars were uncomfortable with Wade’s account, specifically the idea that Foucault would ever have behaved like a tranced-out hippie who had seen “the truth.” With the publication of Foucault in California, the basic authenticity of Wade’s account can no longer be seriously questioned. The photographs included in the volume confirm that the event really happened. Only one question remains for Foucault scholars: how did the LSD trip in Death Valley alter Foucault’s post-1975 oeuvre? The clues can be found in the French philosopher’s later work: The Uses of Pleasure (1986) and The Care of the Self (1986). In both works, Foucault focuses on the primacy of the self and stresses the importance of adopting an aesthetic approach to life.

Although the French theorist frequently mentioned his LSD trip to close friends, he chose never to write about it directly. Apart from a handful of letters he wrote to Wade, there is no record of the philosopher’s impressions on LSD. [3] Perhaps, like many before him, he felt that the experience was essentially ineffable and thus could never be adequately expressed in language. Yet Foucault’s decision is not surprising given how deeply skeptical he always was about the value of autobiographical writing. Clearly, the great theorist preferred historical abstraction to personal expression. A year before his death in June 1984, Foucault told an interviewer that he was planning a book on “the culture of drugs or drugs as culture in the West from the beginning of the nineteenth century.” [4]

Perhaps it is best to consider the trip in Death Valley as an elaborate happening staged for one person. Wade was a master impresario who instinctively anticipated Foucault’s aesthetic sensibility, his taste in classical music and opera. As darkness enveloped the canyon during the apex of the trip, the combination of Stockhausen and the celestial heavens had a powerful effect on the French intellectual. Wade’s curatorial stroke of genius was to stage a nine-hour Gesamtkunstwerk in the high desert: a site-specific happening designed to blow the fuses of the philosopher’s mind.

One of my old friends from graduate school claims to be appalled by the events described in Wade’s memoir. He insists that Wade was an obsessed fan who took advantage of his unsuspecting European guest, dragging him out to the Mojave Desert and using peer pressure to induce him to take LSD. I would counter that Wade’s LSD experiment should be viewed as an act of poetic generosity. One has to admire the author’s singular devotion to his aesthetic vision and his willingness to share it with his like-minded friend. In any case, the LSD plot — whatever one wants to call it — was certainly a success as far as Foucault was concerned, as he expressed in a letter he wrote to Wade a week later.

Reading Wade’s poignant memoir, one gets the sense that his epic trip on that hot day in May 1975 was the apex of the author’s life. After that glorious weekend, Wade endured many hardships, the worst being Stoneman’s untimely death in 1998. When one considers the totality of Wade’s life, especially his poor health during the decade prior to his death in 2017, his fantastic dream of turning on Michel Foucault at Zabriskie Point with Stockhausen playing in the background can be regarded as his intellectual legacy and proudest moment.

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James Penner is the editor of Timothy Leary: The Harvard Years (2014) and the author of Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (2011).

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[1] In an essay on the work of Gilles Deleuze, Foucault describes the effects of LSD in dense theoretical language:

It no sooner sets aside the suzerainty of categories than it uproots the basis for its indifference and nullifies the gloomy grimace of mute animality, and it presents this univocal and acategorical mass not only as variegated, mobile, asymmetrical, decentered, spiraloid, and reverberating, but causes it to rise, at each instant, as a swarming of phantasm-events. (qtd. in Miller)

[2] Didier Eribon may not have been aware of Wade’s manuscript when he published his 1991 biography, Michel Foucault. This work focuses heavily on Foucault’s activities in Europe and devotes less coverage to his experiences in the United States in the 1970s and early 1980s.

[3] Foucault’s 10 letters to Wade are currently housed in the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California. They will be available to the general public in 2020.

[4] Foucault mentioned his unwritten project in an interview with Charles Raus in 1983. The Raus interview appears in the English translation of Foucault’s Death in the Labyrinth (London: Continuum, 2004).