A Profile of Terence McKenna
from the Village Voice, 5 April 1992
We were discussing the events of March 1971, the weirdest month of this outlaw scholar's strange life.
The place was La Chorrera, Colombia, a small village in the Upper Amazon chosen as the site of a psychedelic experiment that Terence and his brother Dennis, then 25 and 21 years old respectively, were convinced would change the world as we know it.
The test involved hefty doses of psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca, the local dimethyltryptamine (DMT)-laden hallucinogenic brew.
intuitive theories involving molecule bonding and electron spin
resonances were correct, their thinking went, the conjunction of the
drugs and certain vocal manipulations would summon the philosopher's
stone of Hermetic alchemical lore, recapture paradise, and create an
interface with the "memory bank of galactic history."
When McKenna speaks today of a contemporary
"archaic revival," the term not only connotes the way in which he
sees Freud, surrealism, and even National Socialism as offering
20th-century recuperations of late-neolithic cultural modes; it
also suggests Amazon afternoons spent ruminating upon the
neurobiological foundations of shamanistic psychedelic practices.
He delivered an introductory lecture titled "The Limits of Art and the Edges of Science"; at a midtown church, then conducted a pair of daylong workshops at the Open Center in SoHo: "Mapping the End of History"; and "Exploring the Hermetic Tradition."
Catalog-provisional, these titles suggest the skeleton
of McKenna's speculations, which tend to spiral inward upon
themselves in pursuit of what he terms the "Wholly Other" with the
relentless complexity and eerie beauty of a rhetorical Mandelbrot
His dozens of lecture tapes have
been bootlegged and disseminated like viral spores among the more
theoretically inclined members of the metaphysical community and the
psychedelic underground, whose numbers might be extrapolated from
the more than 100,000 copies of the McKenna brothers' Psilocybin:
Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide that have been sold since its
appearance in 1976.
upcoming autobiographical volume, True Hallucinations, is on the
verge of being optioned for a feature film, British hippie-house
group the Shamen have sampled one of his raps for a summer dance
track ("pure, hard-hitting propaganda," he promises), and
documentary filmmakers Joie Gregory and Bill Rosser plan to mount an
expedition that would return McKenna to the primal scene at La
Chorrera. His multimedia presence suggests a flexible pop-cult brand
of futurist politicking.
The nonprofit organization is dedicated to collecting and propagating medicinal and shamanic plants from the world's tropics, as well as the rapidly disappearing "folkdata" associated with them.
Mostly, however, Terence McKenna's reputation rests on his articulate and perversely unfashionable advocacy of chemical mind-bending.
Like Marx, McKenna offers maps for comprehending the past and techniques for adjusting to a dysfunctional present and increasingly complex future.
On the one hand, he follows feminist historian Riane Eisler (The Chalice and the Blade) in waxing nostalgic for a lost, archeologically evidenced paradise. McKenna finds evidence for such a "partnership" society - that is, matrilinear and nonproprietary - on the Tassili-n-Ajjer Plateau in Southern Algeria, where an abundance of game and psychedelic mushrooms created an Edenlike environment some 14,000 years ago.
In fact, McKenna argues, language and even consciousness itself may have been sparked by the consumption of psilocybin mushrooms by our African ancestors. The bad news, however, is humanity's subsequent subjection to the bad-news "dominator" values of agriculture, materialism, and male domination.
Animated by a certain furtive glee, his listeners
are all but totally white, mainly in their thirties and forties, and
peppered with post-hippies, cybernauts, mycophiles, and New Age
steppers of many persuasions.
After all, he notes,
At lectures such as this he
resembles a virtual idea machine, riffing with laid-back energy on
how humankind is nothing more nor less than an anomalous "chaostrophe"
heading toward a "secular apocalypse consisting of transcendence
without moral retribution."
This date, which coincidentally marks the end of
the calendar devised by Mayan mushroom chompers, marks an Omega
moment he suggests can best be prepared for by judiciously partaking
of "heroic" or "committed" doses of tryptamine-based hallucinogens,
specifically DMT and psilocybin mushrooms. Only the heaviest
psychedelic experiences provide access to the Other, an alien
dimension "just over yonder" that is populated by
"self-transforming, hyperdimensional machine elves" who will meet
and greet the courageous visitor to hyperspace.
Which means we are all permanently bustable.
Since the acid scare of the '60s, it has been illegal to visit crooning DMT elves or tune into the informative alien voice a committed dose of mushrooms (five grams; about five times the typical party portion) elicits. To rectify this state of affairs, McKenna offers a reasoned clarion call for the civil rights of consciousness. Specific drugs are of course sanctioned at any given historical moment for a reason.
caffeine, sugar, and tobacco keep us pumped up at dreary, repetitive
jobs, while alcohol and television prevent us from plumbing the
depths of despair too deeply. Psychedelics, on the other hand, are deconditioners and deconstructors of hierarchical relationships,
consciousness catalysts that suggest time and again, in the words of
McKenna's most frequently articulated mantra, that Life is not only
stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose.
His father was an Irish Catholic traveling salesman, his mother a Welsh Episcopalian housewife.
Barely an adolescent, he subscribed to the Village Voice and Evergreen Review.
At one point, a town meeting was called to discuss whether he should be allowed to read Brave New World.
While making his way through Huxley's novels, however, he came across The Doors of Perception and, you may not be surprised to learn,
Mescaline being not readily available in Colorado, McKenna talked
his parents into packing him off to California, where he spent his
final two years of high school in Stanford.
The Coloradan's guide into the world of pot and Sandoz acid was Barry Melton, lead guitarist of Country Joe and the Fish.
McKenna's first psychedelic experience is no doubt at least as memorable for him as his initial sexual encounter.
Some 150 LSD experiences later, however, McKenna is less enthralled with the synthetic drug.
Bummed out by Berkeley's activist anarchy - "We were not Marxists, we were not anything, we just loved to heave paving stones through bank windows" - McKenna hit the road. After spending time in Israel, he visited the Seychelles before undertaking a brief yet apparently lucrative career as a hash smuggler in India.
There the "psychedelic thing" motivated him to seek out some of the more renowned masters.
Eventually coming under indictment for his smuggling activities, McKenna laid low, continuing his psychedelic research while collecting butterflies in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.
His mother died during his exile, which saddened him deeply, but he eventually negotiated a settlement with the government.
While Terence traveled, however,
Dennis was hatching the notions that would change both their lives
The experiment's goal was to "bind molecules into a human being," so that the collective knowledge of humanity embedded in our DNA could be realized as holographic imagery.
The book begins with Terence's
reflections on the shaman, those members of preliterate tribes who
travel into alien realms and bring the news back home. By means of stropharia cubensis mushrooms and what proved to be relatively low
doses of ayahuasca, the McKennas induced an artificial shamanistic
schizophrenia that evidently drove Dennis mildly psychotic, and
which Terence claimed kept him awake for ten nights of telepathy,
communication with the mushroom spirit, and a UFO visitation.
By quantifying permutations of the book's
hexagram sequence, McKenna arrived at a fractal "map of all
eternity." Although the time wave appears to depend on a subjective
interpretation of what exactly constitutes important historical
changes, McKenna makes a compelling argument for the steamrolling
concrescence of novelty, innovation, and the increasing complexity
of life on earth, an intuition any halfway conscious person's daily
life should easily bear out.
Strangely, not every listener agreed with McKenna's intuition.
Dennis, who will discuss plant-human interaction June 13 and 14 at the Open Center, remains skeptical but understands his brother's appeal.
Sainthood, however, is not on Terence McKenna's agenda. Which isn't to say that his life and work lacks a messianic component.
The La Chorrera mushroom spirit offered Terence not only a personal glimpse, but also an agenda with admittedly biblical overtones.
It wasn't really a rap. It was more images of Dennis addressing roomfuls of people in white coats. He was a nobody at La Chorrera.
Now he's chief of pharmacology and drug strategy at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, he has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and molecular pharmacology, and has become who he assumed he was.
Is the DMT experience as compellingly radical and edifying as McKenna promises?
After five years in therapy, a 20-minute
consultation with hyperspace seems a thoroughly modern alternative.
One of the hindrances to DMT's widespread usage, however, is that in
order to break on through to the other side you must hold in at
least two enormous hits of bitter, plastic- tasting smoke sucked
from a freebase pipe. Anything less than about 40-50 mg (barely a
smidgen of orangeish shmootz), and you'll merely get a case of the "tryptamine
giggles," a brief, not- unpleasant state of psychdelic euphoria.
Ontological warp speed arrived in a startlingly immediate flash as the universe quite literally deconstructed itself in front of my eyes into a complex green and red geometrical grid that artist Alex Grey has rendered as the "Universal Mind Lattice." An impossibly elaborate onrush of candycolored, chaotically presented patterns of pure visual information then ensued as the intergalactic Wagnerian horn section continued to blow a spectacular fanfare.
content was one of genuine awe, a briefly terrifyingly integration
of my neurology into the submolecular fabric of the universe.
Regretfully, there was no encounter with tryptamine Munchkins. But I
did feel recognized, perhaps even initiated, into something bigger
and weirder than my acid dreams ever suggested.
Located somewhere in the cosmos, it seemed as empty as a parking garage. A distinctive elvish giggling could be heard as I glanced around the premises, which drifted apart as I began to come down. After a pleasant three-dimensional stroll through some of Jackson Pollock's finest unpainted works, I returned to my living-room sofa with both a chill of regret at coming down and a renewed fondness for terra firma.
I enjoyed a few minutes of mild
euphoria before my body returned to a nontoxic normality. I had tranced out for about 15 minutes.
So yes: There is a There there, and it is in-fucking-tense. Enter at your own risk.
(Research suggestion: An upcoming Mondo 2000 anthology will
contain the clearest and most practical tryptamine tips to date in
the form of pseudonymous psychonauts "Gracie and Zarkov's Notes From
Underground." Don't visit the Overmind without it.)
Moreover, in DMT's "mini-apocalypse," as McKenna calls it, one indeed catches a glimpse of something infinitely complex at the end of history's tunnel, a value-free vision that make the here-and-now seem that much more precious and worth cultivating. Hence the activist rants that so frequently cap McKenna's talks.
DMT is a trip for sure, but hardly a
match for the utter strangeness of everyday life.