Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Entry 2: Elves and Eschatology: Terence Mckenna and 2012 Part 1

"My interest in drugs, magic, and the more obscure backwaters of natural history and theology gave me the interest profile of an eccentric Florentine prince rather than a kid growing up in the heartland of the United States in the late fifties.”
Terence McKenna.

I first encountered the eschatological mystique surrounding 2012 in the late nineties, via a route through which I suspect many others also discovered it. Around that time, I was intrigued by the potential of psychedelic drugs to generate, if not outright enlightenment, then exciting times at the very least. Problematically, I never had a reliable source for actually acquiring these drugs, so most of my psychedelic energies were spent reading books about the phenomenon, and hours of surfing user reports on the now legendary Psychoactive Vaults of Erowid. For the uninitiated, these Vaults are a detailed online library of psychoactive plants and chemicals, designed to encourage informed and responsible drug use, and established by a pair of psychedelic archivists who go by the name of Fire and Earth Erowid. At the time, in the first magical flush of the internet, I assumed that Erowid must have been some kind of all-knowing gnome, a creature connected to the earth via certain mystical mycelial networks, a counterculture Yoda who dispensed wisdom to the elite raver and psychonaut. The more prosaic reality, naturally, was a sweet-looking middle-aged hippie couple from somewhere in both the geographical locus and state of mind of California.

Like most people, I tended to ignore such trifles as the sections which dealt with health and legality issues, and went straight for the site’s raison d’etre: its incredible collection of first hand accounts of hair-raising and hilarious trips to the other side. Those weird slices of life have stayed with me: the Vietnam veteran who, after a long, helter-skelter trip encompassing a brief period of incarceration in a military brig, cradled his young daughter in his arms, and realized he was the most important being in the universe; the college kid who started watching an old Japanese sci-fi movie for laughs, and quickly began to acquire the conviction that it wasn’t simply called Message From Space, but actually WAS a message from space; one particularly horrifying tale in which the tripper experienced a complete meltdown, and woke up in a hospital bed with a catheter…well, in place a catheter had no business being. Anyway, to move the yarn along, it was through this website that I first came across links to Terence McKenna, and his idiosyncratic predictions for 2012.

McKenna was the premier altered statesman of the nineties, and the most important advocate and philosopher of psychoactive chemicals since Timothy Leary exchanged his Harvard laurels for hippie beads in the sixties. Possessing an extraordinary degree of erudition and loquacity, coupled with a hypnotic, nasal sing-song cadence of voice, McKenna brought his strange tales from the fringes of consciousness to university conference rooms and earthy underground raves around the world, becoming in the process an early hero of the nascent and uncensored realm of the internet. The cult American author Tom Robbins, whom I have never read and frequently confuse with the boyish liberal actor of similar name, called McKenna “the most important – and entertaining – visionary scholar in America”, suggesting a kind of lineage with the grand American tradition of free thought and Transcendentalism. The Village Voice said “if only a fraction of what McKenna thinks is true, he will someday be regarded as the Copernicus of consciousness.” Timothy Leary himself, exhibiting the streak of almost Wagnerian egotism which paradoxically accounts for much of his charm, called McKenna “the Timothy Leary of the nineties.” Leary also called him “one of the five most important people in the world”, leaving one to wonder who the other three were.

Expressing itself in a prose which is densely eclectic and dizzyingly verbose, McKenna’s philosophy evokes an almost infinite, multidimensional aspect to consciousness, populated by a melting pot of archetypes culled from both the deepest wellsprings of archaic mythopoeia, and the more distinctly futurist realms of science fiction and spirit/technology interface. Needless to say, it’s a lot to take in at first. In order to fully explicate McKenna’s ideas about 2012, we need to look closely at the development of these ideas, and explore why the nineties provided a zeitgeist which was so oddly receptive to them. First of all, it would be useful to suggest a wider context in which to place McKenna and thinkers of his elk, since they do possess a significance which is greater than the relatively small and hermetic community of psychedelic drug users. McKenna belongs in the frontlines of an ongoing ideological struggle with relates to how we understand human consciousness, and particularly its precise status in relation to what is perhaps the quintessential component of the modern worldview: the wholly objective, non-conscious physical world which is now ours to study and manipulate, but no longer to project anything of the purely internal and subjective characteristics of our psychology onto. McKenna’s philosophy explicitly raises questions about the ontological status of subjective states of consciousness, such as those generated by the imaginative or visionary faculty, those experienced in dreams, and, to refer specially to McKenna’s case, those produced by devouring gargantuan quantities of psychoactive plants. By emphatically rejecting the strict mind/matter dualism so endemic to the modern outlook, and arguing for the primacy of the visionary faculty, McKenna, like virtually all of the psychedelic movement, is the linear descendant of William Blake.

In his own lifetime, Blake claimed both to see and converse with a variety of angels, devils, departed souls, and biblical personages. He asserted the absolute validity of these experiences, and avowed his own idiosyncratic religious system with an almost fundamentalist fervor; as he wrote in a letter: “He who is Not with Me is Against Me. There is no Medium or Middle state; and if a Man is the Enemy of my Spiritual Life while he pretends to be the Friend of my Corporeal, he is a Real Enemy.” All of these assertions represented, quite consciously, a grenade hurled against many of the prevailing ideological currents of Blake’s time, which are in some respects the catalysts of our modern world view: the mechanistic cosmology of Newton and the empiricist doctrines of Bacon and Locke were sources of particular chagrin to Blake.

Blake’s philosophy of Imagination is far too involved and complex to fully expound here, and I haven’t really studied it sufficiently to do so with any real competence. With McKenna and the psychedelic movement, it shares a sense that empiricism and rationalism constitute a kind of overspecialization of mental faculties which is far too limited to really encompass the totality of human experience. As with various currents of thought within the rather motley confluence of ideologies gathered under the New Age banner, both Blake and McKenna look back to a perhaps idealized period of pre-history in which man basked in a greater acquiescence with nature, and a fuller understanding of the indivisibility between consciousness and cosmos.

Believing that modern individuals felt fundamentally alienated in the contingent, utilitarian and entropic world-view of technocratic capitalism, McKenna called for an Archaic Revival in the nineties: “And this is where the future is taking us, because the secret faith of the twentieth century is not modernism, the secret faith of the twentieth century is nostalgia for the archaic, nostalgia for the Paleolithic, and that gives us body piercing, abstract expressionism, surrealism, jazz, rock’n’roll, and catastrophe theory. The 20th century mind is nostalgic for the paradise that once existed on the mushroom dotted plains of Africa, where the plant-human symbiosis occurred that pulled us out of the animal body and into the tool-using, culture-making, imagination-exploring creature that we are.” William Blake’s conversations with angels and Terrence McKenna’s encounters with DMT entities raise a variety of questions which are crucial to an understanding of the deeply divided modern sensibility: they correlate with the skeptical investigation of mainstream psychiatry instigated by Michel Foucault, R.D. Laing, and others, and constitute decisive stances adopted in the increasingly acrimonious argument between post-Enlightenment rationalism, and the whole corpus of archaic worldviews and practices which preceded it. Indeed, if we examine a whole variety of contemporary cultural artifacts, from the New Age revival of shamanism and tribal culture, to the extraordinary popularity of fantasy novels set in a variety of archaic and animistic neverlands, they all seem to bear witness to something of what McKenna is alluding too: a deep-rooted desire to escape modernity. It is with these things in mind that we should approach McKenna’s exotic adventures, and the even stranger ideas they inspired.

McKenna was born on November 16, 1946, and grew up in Paonia, Colorado. Because his parents wanted him to receive the benefit of the then highly vaulted Californian public school system, he moved at age 16 to Los Altos, California, to attend high school and live with family friends. He was introduced to the concept of psychedelics by two Gutenberg-like technologies of the 1960’s: The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, and Village Voice magazine. Later, when he moved to San Francisco to study at U.C. Berkley, he was introduced to cannabis by Barry “the Fish” Melton, co-founder and lead guitarist of another Gutenberg-like technology of the 60’s: Country Joe McDonald and the Fish. After receiving a BS in Ecology and Conservation in 1969, McKenna followed the archetypal trajectory of his way-ward, gnosis-seeking generation, traveling east to study Sanskrit in Nepal, alternately teaching English, trafficking hashish, and collecting butterflies for biological supply companies along the way.

According to Daniel Pinchbeck, Terrence and his younger brother Dennis “dreamed of becoming the psychonautical Wright Brothers of the New Age, making charter flights to new realities, garnering Nobel Prizes for melding science and shamanism.” Fueled by these mercurial and impractical dreams, the brothers decamped with three friends in 1971 to the village of La Chorrera, deep in the Colombian Amazon, in search of a fabled DMT-rich brew called oo-koo-hee. By now well absorbed in a thoroughly strange quest, the would-be Wright Brothers hoped to scientifically verify reports they had read of a “violent or deep blue” magical liquid apparently produced by the body of shamans during deep trance. They found neither oo-koo-hee, nor any bodily excretions worthy of record, but rather stumbled upon fields of plump and potent Stropharia cubensis mushrooms. Like a trope of philosophical drunks wandering to the banks of a stream of whiskey, the expedition drank deep, and quickly plunged into an experience as intense and life-altering as Apocalypse Now or Aquire, Wrath of God, in psychedelic terms.

How one chooses to interpret the visionary phantasmagoria that descended upon La Chorrera in the Stropharia-saturated weeks that followed – as drug induced semi-schizophrenia, or flashes of maya-shattering Gnostic illumination – depends to a large degree on your own perspective or particular world-view; the type of bands you listened to in your formative years may be a determining factor. Regardless, the experience haunted Terrence for the rest of his days, and to some degree the rest of his intellectual life became an attempted exegesis of it. This will immediately evoke for some readers the case of Philip K. Dick, who three years later experienced a comparable, al-be-it somewhat more disorientated, gnostic overload, occupying a similar shadowy hinterland between revelation and mental collapse. As Robert Anton Wilson writes in his introduction to Cosmic Triggers: “I met Phil Dick on two or three occasions and corresponded with him a bit. My impression was that he was worried that his experience was a temporary insanity and was trying to figure out if I was nutty, too. I'm not sure if he ever decided.” Dick, lacking McKenna’s apparent ease in the stranger backwaters of the mind, struggled with similar tenacity to explicable his experience both to himself and the world; it produced his most intense, searching, and important novels, but sadly did little to ease the sea of troubles in his mind. Though Dick died in the early eighties, both his and McKenna’s personal cosmologies would seep subliminally like a spiked cocktail into the bloodstream of nineties popular culture, as we will see later.

In the period of intense exploration that ensued in La Chorrera, strange visions abounded: mysterious lights raced around the jungle floor, clouds morphed into lenticular saucers, and the flowing ripples on the surface of a lake suddenly froze into pristine and eerie status. As their friends became increasingly and understandably concerned, the McKenna’s resolved that they were entering a mode of consciousness whereby tiny, localized ruptures in Newtonian space/time were being activated by their minds. Dennis apparently fell into a temporary state of schizophrenia, while Terrence began a lengthy, nine day communion with a vast, possibly alien or interdimensional intelligence which he often referred to as the Logos.

Continued next Post.

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