TERENCE MCKENNA - PSYCHEDELICS,
 EVOLUTION & FUN

  by Patrick Lundborg
 

    I first came into contact with Terence McKenna some time around 1990. A friend had returned from San Francisco and brought home the usual stack of underground books, movies, records, information & gossip. All of it was processed and discussed over the course of a few stoned weekends, and our local frame of reference was updated with a sliver of Bay Area buzz.

Among the items up for scrutiny was a commercial video featuring Terence McKenna giving a lecture, augmented by psychedelic graphics. I already knew McKenna's name from somewhere, but this was my first encounter with his trademark monologues, and combined with the inventive acid visuals, the video had us nailed to our stoner sofa for the full duration.
 
Almost 20 years later, I still remember this so clearly that I had no problem identifying the old VHS release via Youtube clips (it turned out to be The Petaluma Experiment). At that time, my main preoccupation was with 1950s and 60s psychedelia, and I filed McKenna's name away for future examination. "Filing away" soon proved to be unwarranted, seeing how McKenna burst out of his California cult status onto the global arena, with special love extended from the European rave scene. Observing this, my internal contrarian -- who sometimes screws things up for me -- told me that interviews with Terence in London's über-hip i-D magazine was a sign for me to stay away, and thus it happened that my real, deep interest in the man and his work didn't come about until the 2000s, when he had already left our planet.

One of the most remarkable things about Terence McKenna is the constancy and internal consistency of his ideas. Thoughts and phrases presented at the height of his fame in the mid-1990s can already be found, sometimes verbatim, in his earliest works from the mid-70s. It seems that what McKenna learned during the fabled sojourn to the deep Amazon in 1971, and in the subsequent years when he and brother Dennis were perfecting the art of home-growing psilocybin mushrooms, opened a mine of concepts and language from which he could draw material for the rest of his career. It is a very rich and varied palette, but as you familiarize yourself with McKenna's catalog, you will discover a distinct set of ideas, criticisms, people and terms, that keep recurring.

The first sign of life from McKenna as a thinker, The Invisible Landscape (1975) which he co-authored with his brother Dennis, is dominated by Dennis' advanced technical ideas about consciousness, hallucinogens, and DNA. Although the book could only have been written and published in the strange and free-spirited mid-70s, it remains an interesting read. Terence's main contribution is the second half, which deals with his numerological re-interpretation of the I-Ching. He claims to have found a previously unknown structure in the ancient Chinese book, which predicts and identifies 'ingressions of novelty into time', on multiple temporal levels. The 'Timewave Zero' theory is essentially a graph, applicable on all human history, as well as on briefer local phenomena. The lowest points of the graph indicate important events and changes, and somewhat ominously it indicates an 'end of history' in 2012 -- a date which McKenna later found was also the end of the ancient Mayan calendar. 
 
The 'end of history' received plenty of mainstream attention in the early 1990s, following Francis Fukuyama's observations on the collapse of all ideologies except liberal democracy. At that time, fans of Terence McKenna had already heard it discussed for at least a decade. Of course, McKenna's perspective concerned humanity and our world in toto, and this eschatology remained one of his central ideas. It is repeatedly invoked as a visualized idea, a metaphysical hallucination, where the End Of The World is an attractor (sometimes called 'the Eschaton') which pulls evolution and human events towards it. Connected to this notion are two other central concepts of McKenna's; space migration from our planet into the stars, and the recent progress of human history as a concresence.

The term concresence comes from the British mathematician-philosopher A N Whitehead, who is most famous for writing Principia Matehematica with Bertrand Russell. Moving from mathematics to philosophy, Whitehead had published a few works which influenced McKenna a great deal. Like many of McKenna's sources, it is somewhat outside the mainstream of current intellectual thought, and even with that in mind, 'concrescence' is hardly a key term in Whitehead. In Process And Reality, Whitehead wrote that  "...the 'production of novel togetherness' is the ultimate notion embodied in the term 'concresence'". What McKenna developed from this is -- once again clearly visualized -- the notion of the era, meaning our era, as the coming-together of ideas and events toward an end-state at its center, like the tightening of a spiral around its axis.

It is not a giant step from eschatology to apocalypsis, and it's interesting to note that McKenna would often settle for leaving the nature of his envisioned end-state open. At other times, the listener finds that the end-state is not nuclear war or the collapse of capitalism, but rather the human race's migration into space. To McKenna, this was the natural evolution of man, "a monkey climbing aboard a spaceship" in his typically compressed metaphor. Yet, the specific contents of this space-travel vision remains one of the least elaborate in the many hundreds of hours of recorded lectures McKenna left behind. At times it even appears as a purely cerebral development, describing an internal state rather than any actual space-flight. In speeches given many years apart, McKenna mentions "the interorization of the body, and the exteriorization of the soul" in connection with these events in mankind's near future.

A reason for McKenna's vagueness on the nature of his eschatology may be that it could be seen to contradict another of his key themes, which is mankind's immediate connection to, and responsibility for, our natural environment. This is an idea where we today find him at his most prescient , and it's also an idea that developed naturally from his great love for plant-life in general and hallucinogenic plants in particular. His brother Dennis is a formally trained botanist, and some of Terence's works reflect an interest in flora that extends far beyond those of the average entheogen aficionado. This brotherly fascination reached its most fruitful expression in the underground classic
Psilocybin, Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide (1976). Originally published under the pseudonyms O. T.  Oss and O. N. Oeric, the slim but information-packed volume has since been reprinted with the proper author names credited. While mainly a technical handbook on how to grow magic mushrooms in your own backyard (rather than in tropical pastures), some passages in the book reflect Terence's metaphysical ideas, and will be revisited farther down.

A more artistic expression of McKenna's love for nature and exotic plant-life can be found in his most ambitious work, the 'talking book' True Hallucinations (1984).

The printed version (1993) of the same title is more commonly seen today, but its original appearance was as a set of 8 cassettes in a custom-designed clam-shell box, with a cover price of  $80 (a lot of money at the time). Original rock music, environmental ambience and psychedelic sound effects expand the spoken word recording into something uniquely memorable; an experience of atmosphere as much as the re-telling of a "ripping good story".

Clocking in at about 9 hours, True Hallucinations describes a trek deep into the Amazon basin in Southern Colombia that McKenna undertook along with his brother Dennis and a few fellow travelers in 1971. It is the most detailed account McKenna ever gave of his life-altering experiences in the tropical rain forest, which seem fuelled as much by personal circumstances and the milieu, as by the mushroom and ayahuasca experiment around which the storyline is built. Much of the work's strength comes from the well-written and arresting descriptions of the natural environment and the co-explorers. Parts of the material seems to come from a book manuscript with literary (not just documentary) aspirations, but given Terence's extraordinary qualities as a spoken word performer, the audio format is the best imaginable presentation of it. Other parts seem ad-libbed before a small circle of listeners, and the mood is occasionally loosened with laughter.

The La Chorrera journey has taken on somewhat legendary proportions over the decades, but a brief summary may be in order. In 1971 Terence McKenna, unpublished and unknown, found himself with a non-descript Berkeley degree in shamanism and no clear prospects for the future. He'd been in on the hippie seeker trail to the East, dabbled in spiritual work in India, collected butterflies in Indonesia, taught English in Japan, and was -- according to a comment made much later -- "wanted by Interpol". A friend's suggestion to go down to the Amazon to look for aboriginal drugs suddenly seemed attractive, and a small travelling party was assembled, including Terence's younger brother Dennis (21 at the time). The McKennas had lost their mother not long before, an event which brings a subtle undertone of melancholy to the
True Hallucinations storyline.

After an ardous journey via plane, river-boat and a 110-mile walk through the Colombian jungle, the destination is reached; a small village/mission deep in the Amazon basin near the Peruvian border, completely cut off from the world. McKenna's obvious rapport with the rain forest helps create a vivid, arresting picture of the environment they pass through, and the often strange characters they meet. The atmosphere is thick, and there is an underlying tension that slowly mounts. Except for an idea to examine a few loose ends in the works of ethnobotanists such as Richard Evans-Schultes, the purpose of the expedition appears to have been a quest for adventure, and this would soon present itself.

The McKenna brothers had come looking for yage (ayahuasca) and the obscure hallucinogenic admixture okojee, but upon arrival at La Chorrera, the focus rapidly shifted. A pasture near the village was full of psilocybe mushrooms, and a steady intake of these powerful agents had a profound effect on the small party of Americans. Dennis McKenna, who is in many ways the main character of
True Hallucinations, was particularly affected. After several days with mushrooms and increasingly odd behavior, he had developed a theory on how the psilocybin, combined with the harmaline in an ayahuasca brew provided by friendly tribesmen, could effect a permanently altered state of consciousness, which would allow for direct readouts from DNA, and change the course of human history. This theory, which also informs the aforementioned The Invisble Landscape, is described in great technical detail on the audio tapes and makes for a somewhat awkward clash with the poetic rainforest descriptions that surrounds it.


Dennis & Terence McKenna, 1975
As tensions within the expedition mount, "the experiment at La Chorrera" is performed, and an increasingly dissociated Dennis McKenna proclaims it a success. Brother Terence is unsure of what exactly has passed, but the following two weeks finds Dennis in a schizophrenia-like state of withdrawal and delphic utterances, while a bewildered but somehow euphoric Terence discovers that he no longer needs any sleep, and spends his days and nights listening to his brother, and thinking. The I-Ching reinterpretation described above emanates during this strange period, as do a lot of other novel ideas that McKenna later would propagate. As the days pass, Dennis McKenna slowly returns to a more conventional frame of mind, and not long after, the group leaves La Chorrera to return to civilisation.

One thing that makes True Hallucinations unusual in McKenna's oeuvre is that it's relatively free from the fringe science speculation that would make him famous. It is mainly a documentary-literary work whose emphasis is on milieus, events and people. The technical and philosophical elements that do occur are connected to the "experiment" and its tangents. Although not presented until 13 years later, this suggests that while McKenna's vast knowledge of esoterica and science was already in bloom, he had not yet found his creative thinker muse. Yet, given the importance that McKenna would assign to the La Chorrera expedition throughout his career, it must have been there that he found his calling as a freewheeling philosopher, a role that would be elaborated and expanded during his mushroom experiments for the rest of the 1970s. Entering the '80s, Terence McKenna's sharp and witty mind was filled to the brim with original ideas, for those who were willing to listen.

A notion already present in Colombia 1971, and given substantial room in
True Hallucinations, is the UFO phenomena. As McKenna would later describe it, his UFO interest was piqued by Carl Jung's Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1959). Jung was interested in the flying saucer reports as a mass psychic phenomena, and their potential connections to his theories about the collective subconscious. McKenna describes personal UFO and alien sightings in both Colombia and Hawaii, yet much like Jung, he seems uninterested or unconvinced of the physical actuality of these visitations. With typical diligence, he scrutinized the UFO literature until he found a writer worth taking seriously, the Frenchman Jacques Vallée. While UFO:s were in vogue in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it is surprising to see how this aspect was made a key element in the presentation of True Hallucinations, highlighted by the cover drawing as well as the concluding chapters. McKenna would return to the UFO issue many times, but like space migration, it's not a topic where he would elaborate much beyond a few specific viewpoints. As the '80s rolled on, public interest in flying saucers declined, which surely affected his orientation. In the Tree Of Knowledge workshop series from Colorado 1992, he refers to "my extraterrestrial phase" as a thing of the past.

Connected to both UFO and space migration is another field in which Terence McKenna's interest never would fade: Evolution. Indeed, cultural and biological evolution became his central themes during the final decade of his career, and they form a cornerstone of his most mainstream work,
Food Of The Gods (1992). This evolutionary theme has proven fruitful with later writers, such as Graham Hancock's best-selling Supernatural, where the debt to McKenna is clearly and generously stated.

An early expression of McKenna's interest in evolution can be found in the
Psilocybin - Magic Mushroom Grower's Book from 1976. An introduction describes McKenna's contact with a mushroom spirit, whose dramatic 'message' contains much of what he would later reiterate and brood upon:

I am old, older than thought in your species, which is itself fifty times older than your history.Though I have been on earth for ages I am from the stars. [...] Since it is not easy for you to recognize other varieties of intelligence around you, your most advanced theories of politics and society have advanced only as far as the notion of collectivism.

But beyond the cohesion of the members of a species into a single social organism there lie richer and even more baroque evolutionary possibilities. Symbosis is one of these. [...] Symbiotic relationships between myself and civilized forms of higher animals have been established many times and in many places throughout the long ages of my development.

These relationships have been mutually useful; within my memory is the knowledge of hyperlight drive ships and how to build them. I will trade this knowledge for a free ticket to new worlds around suns younger and more stable than your own [...].

This speaking voice "in the head" is a phenomena specific to psilocybin, and one reported frequently by mushroom trippers. McKenna referred to it as the Logos, drawing his meaning of that term from the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. The Logos is a friendly, wise, occasionally impatient teacher, with whom McKenna would carry on many conversations over the years. As he himself remarked, contemporary society would deem this a kind of mental illness, while in another age it would be the mark of a saint. A 1996 study showed a remarkable consistency in the characteristics of this mushroom voice, and the phenomena remains unexplained. McKenna did not concern himself with the how and why of the Logos communication, but focused upon the contents of its dialogue.

In terms of evolutionary biology, the Logos' self-declaration above resembles certain theories that have been bandied about in mainstream science. Nobel Prize-winning biologist Francis Crick developed the theory of
directed panspermia , which suggests that the earliest developments of life on earth may have been caused by the distribution of biochemical agents from other parts of the universe. Due to certain unexplained jumps in the development of primitive organisms, this theory and variants continues to be debated among evolutionary biologists. As a sidenote, Francis Crick testified on his deathbed that LSD had helped him visualize the DNA structure, the scientific breakthrough for which he is most famous today.

Although Terence McKenna would often touch upon macro-evolutionary issues, his main interest here was undoubtedly the cultural evolution that the hallucinogenic agents may have caused. During the last decade of his career the "stoned ape" hypothesis rose to become his central idea, and one that he's strongly associated with. The theory suggests, in summary, that the earliest socio-cultural developments of man's ancestors was triggered by the consumtion of psilocybin mushrooms. In prehistoric times in Africa, the emergence of nomadic pastoralism would make available large quantites of these mushrooms, which grow naturally in cattle dung. The evolutionary advantage they bring works on three distinct levels, according to McKenna: 1) small doses increase visual acuity, which is an advantage for hunters; 2) medium doses triggers sexual arousal and lead to uninhibted mating (i e, group sex orgies), which accelerates reproduction; 3) high doses lead to spiritual experiences and glossolalia, which lead to the invention of religion and the invention of language.

In addition to these aspects, McKenna suggested that the group mating created a non-patriarchic, genuinely collective society, as the issue of fathership was unclear and meaningless. In other words, all children were raised by the entire collective, and strong internal bonds came from this. The embryonic religious orientation in this environment McKenna describes as feminine, experience-oriented, and informal. Then, due to climate changes in the African grasslands, the nomadic groups moved north, and somewhere along the way they lost the companionship of the coprophilic psilocybe mushroom. In
Food Of The Gods, this casting out of paradise is discussed in great detail, although the historical-archeological proof that McKenna presents (from Northern Africa and Asia Minor) is sporadic and limited. Occurring some 12.000 years ago, McKenna describes the era before this downfall as "the last sane moment of man-kind". As recorded history began, what is called "dominator" cultures arose, and the pastoral-collective goddess culture of the stoned ape of Africa was lost, and things have been going downhill ever since. According to the theory.


Backtracking some, there are not many cataloged works from Terence McKenna between the mushroom grower's handbook from 1976 and the
True Hallucinations talking book from 1984. During this low-profile period he planted the seeds of what would become his true forte, the spoken word performances. From what I understand, McKenna's bardic eloquence was first heard on late-night radio in California. In the early '80s, he gave his earliest (recorded) lectures, New And Old Maps Of Hyperspace
from 1982 being the first one listed in the most thorough bibliography. There would be hundreds, literally, over the next 17 years.

McKenna's strength as an orator is unique in psychedelic history, or in contemporary pop culture. His books, although highly recommended, are a pale reflection of the inspiration and mental quickness on display in these recordings, and arguably h
is writing is the most effective when it's closest to his speaking voice (as in The Archaic Revival). As a speaker he works best in a semi-informal workshop format, in front of a graspable audience, and at least to my ears, he was most at his forte prior to the breakthrough into the mainstream that occurred in the early 1990s. In formal lecture situations, a certain academic stiffness creeps in that stifles his natural stream of consciousness. In the '90s, as the rave and cyberpunk sub-cultures embraced him, he would occasionally seem to adjust his persona to the scene he was in, which probably was fun for him, but may seem to veer too close to Tim Leary territory on occasion. In any event, most of my favorite McKenna recordings date from the mid-1980s.

One way to approach Terence McKenna's oeuvre is to regard it as play, on an advanced yet reasonably accessible intellectual level, with a distinct set of unorthodox building blocks. The blocks are arranged in different ways and sequences, brought in and out of focus, rotated, tossed in the air and elegantly brought to rest. Using a fishing metaphor, McKenna encouraged psychedelic explorers to search for "medium-sized ideas"; novel notions which are significant, but not big enough to drag you down into the metaphysical depths.

In addition to those colorful idea "blocks" discussed above, one needs to consider classic alchemy, a field from which McKenna drew vast amounts of inspiration. In the La Chorrera experiment of True Hallucinations, the alchemical concept of 'the philosopher's stone' is invoked (at times via the latin 'lapis philosophorum') as a key perspective of the spiritual-cerebral breakthrough outlined by the McKenna brothers. Alchemy was an early love of Terence, and his reading in that esoteric area was deep and wide, even by his own bookish standards.

Additional to the attractive mystique and obscurity of alchemy, there is no doubt that its antithetical status to conventional science raised McKenna's interest. While alchemical terminology and references are downplayed in the later phases of his work (perhaps because their obscurity alienated his audience), the attacks upon science became more pronounced, if anything. This was a timely quest, emerging out of the shadows of doubt that quantum physics, evolutionary biology and chaos theory threw upon the presumed 'facts' of 19th century science; a similar paradigm was popularized via modern works such as Fritjof Capra's The Tao Of Physics. But even with the emergence of New Physics, McKenna would continue to question most ideas cherished by the scientific community, unless they seemed to confirm his own notions in some unexpected way. Science, as it had evolved from Descartes and Newton, was linked by McKenna to 'dominator' culture, and yet another facet of the general descent of the human project into a rationalist, reductionist, materialist, prison of the mind. One might detect a personal undertone to McKenna's attacks on science, which may derive from early career frustrations. Towards the end of True Hallucinations, he describes visiting a highly respected professor of biology to present the theory he and brother Dennis had developed at La Chorrera, and being dismissed in the most unambiguous way. Although littered with interesting notions and phrases, the critique of science is not one of McKenna's most stimulating blocks of play, especially not when coupled with his increasingly pessimistic view of western society in general. Arguably, he came too near the trap of 'too big ideas that drag you into the deep' that he himself had warned about.

As his star was rising, McKenna would be exposed to a number of in-vogue ideas that were more or less connected to his work. Sometimes the fit would be excellent, as in the merger of feminist anthropology (via Riane Eisler's The Chalice And The Blade) with his 'stoned ape' theory, to form the more comprehensive theory presented in Food Of The Gods. On the other hand, McKenna's embracement of virtual reality technology seems trendy and ill-advised in retrospect, although he was certainly not the only big brain to be enthused by the early promises of VR around 1990.

McKenna's ambivalent relationship to DMT falls between these two poles of influence; while he seems to draw vital inspiration from his encounters with the 'jewelled self-dribbling basketballs', his multimedia performances from '90s rave events where DMT is praised do not offer much beyond Learyesque 'turn on, tune in, drop out' cheerleading. His personal, highly specific experiences with the drug would be recounted in detail, even though (as a survey of DMT trip reports shows) the focus on linguistic creativity that he describes was hardly typical.  In smaller forums, he would sometimes suggest that DMT was 'simply too much', at other times it was described as the center of the hallucinogenic mandala. DMT is a rare case where McKenna couldn't find a clearly stated position, which in itself may say something about this extreme psychedelic.

Looking at influences, a few more names need to be discussed. James Joyce was a much-loved companion to Terence McKenna, Finnegans Wake in particular. Joyce first pops up, like so much else, at La Chorrera back in 1971, where brother Dennis proclaimed that a couple of hens strolling around the small village were in fact James and Nora Joyce! Beside the dynamic and unorthodox ideas about language, there is an Irish, bardic connection between the two that Terence would refer to with some delight.  Related to Joyce we also find Marshall McLuhan, who McKenna would laud even though McLuhan had disappeared into foggy memory. When McLuhan was rediscovered in the 1990s, McKenna had already been championing him for a decade. He learned a lot from the Canadian media theorist, both in terms of ideas and terminology. This infatuation with McLuhan is very much McKenna; it's unconcerned with mainstream trends (i e: 'McLuhan is passé'), it's productive, and it's ultimately prescient.

Ethnobotany is a frequently used tool in the Terence McKenna workshop, and one which he applied with effortless delight. His brother Dennis would become a highly respected authority in the field (still active today) and must have been a vital sparring partner over the years.

Terence's ability to rattle off complex taxonomies and molecular structures in spontaneous Q & A situations illuminates one of the unique properties of his public persona, the seemingly limitless and near-photographic memory. Fine points between several types of shamanic plants, exact years and even dates for some obscure event in the Italian renaissance, long verbatim passages from Shakespeare, can all be summoned and presented on the spur of the moment.

Beyond his eloquence, the exceptional memory, and a profound learning in matters both esoteric and exoteric, the most important attribute of Terence McKenna may have been his fearlessness. Lack of prejudice and an openness to new ideas is invigorating, but beneath these qualities was a more profound drive that insisted upon novelty, and demanded change. McKenna was easily bored, and his somewhat controversial dismissal of classic Eastern spiritual paths (as opposed to his own tryptamine shamanism) seems to have come about from impatience as much as a lifelong interest in hallucinogens. Fortunately, boredom wouldn't allow him to cheat on his rational skepticism -- he described himself as the most skeptic member in the La Chorrera expedition -- and even while his fertile creativity was soaring, he kept a steady watch on himself, which is why there is such a consistency and internal logic among his ideas.

This lack of fear also makes him a typical representative of his generation. It's easy today to forget that Terence McKenna was a child of the '60s as much as any elder hallucinogen spokesman out there. When he emerged out of obscurity in the mid-1980s, the self-confidence and iconoclasm of the Baby-boomers was there, but their pomposity and naiveté were not. Looking constantly towards what lay ahead, he rarely spoke of the '60s, or hippies, and he treated the softened 1970s spiritualism with light sarcasm. Due to this, he seamlessly bridged the gap to the jaded, irony-fed indivualists of Generations X and Y, and will probably continue to bridge gaps as the 2000s roll on. In one of the later lectures he summed up his work: "Reason, but a willingness to explore the edges, has been the method".


1. Here is a print collection of Terence lectures, including some of the earliest ones, along with interviews and more.
2. Podcast collection of free lectures
3. The Terence McKenna bibliography
4. Wikipedia entry
5. The 1992 i-D magazine interview mentioned above (click image to read):


 


© Patrick Lundborg, 2008
 


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