by Jack El-Hai, Wonders & Marvels contributor
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was an American physician of the nineteenth century and a prolific man of letters whose namesake son went on to become a famed U.S. Supreme Court justice.
In his 1879 essay (originally a lecture) titled “Mechanism in Thought and Morals,” Holmes described what he called “certain exalted mental conditions” that could lead to profound thinking, or at least to the illusion of profound thought. He cited dreams of sleep in which the dreamer imagined ideas far better or more beautiful than could be consciously created. Samuel Johnson, for example, “dreamed that he had a contest of wit with an opponent, and got the worst of it: of course he furnished the wit for both,” Holmes observed.
In another instance that Holmes cited, the Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini dreamed that he heard the Devil playing supernaturally enchanting music on the violin, and Tartini wrote it down after he woke up. The music became Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill” Sonata in G Minor, now the composer’s most celebrated work.
Eager to experience some exalted mental conditions of his own, Holmes decided to inhale a full dose of ether (then commonly used as surgical anesthesia) “with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought that I should find uppermost in my mind.”
He breathed the gas and fell into a drugged stupor. “The veil of eternity was lifted,” he remembered. “The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim.”
When somewhat awake and able to move, Holmes dragged himself to a desk and scrawled on paper “the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness.” It was these words:
“A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”
Later Holmes read the words with incredulity and speculated that the ether had briefly made him insane. What a letdown! There was no brilliance or genius here. As Holmes wrote, the experience cast into doubt “the value of our self-estimate, sleeping.”
Holmes, Oliver Wendell Sr. “Mechanism in Thought and Morals.” 1879.
O’Toole, Garson. “Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout.” The Quote Investigator blog, March 31, 2012.