Renegade in Babylon|
Terence McKenna and the Descent into Chaos
by James Kent
Forward (written June 1, 1996)
I was a bit taken aback when I first met Terence McKenna. Although I had seen him speak before, he looked quite different close-up and in person. At first glance, he seemed to be (and how does one say this nicely?) an incredibly guant, bug-eyed geek. He seemed weary and malnourished, and looked much like a kindly college professor or museam curator who had been dipping into the heroin a little too much lately.
But he had reason for being weary. He had just been through a divorce. His 16-year marriage to Kathleen Harrison McKenna (which produced, among other things, two very bright and beautiful children) had ended just months previous, and the legal paperwork which officially ended it all was still being passed around. There was much to be sorted out.
I did not know if Kat and Terence were still on regular speaking terms, but since they still both lived in the same small town (she in the house on the North end, he in an apartment on the South end), and since I was only going to be in town for the day, I made arrangements to interview both of them on the same day. I spoke with Kat in the morning, mostly about Botanical Dimensions - a South American ethnobotanical preservaton project started by her and Terence years earlier. She seemed very concerned that I was there to rake muck about her and Terence, and she did not know I was meeting with him that very afternoon.
And when I spoke with Terence in the afternoon, he did not know I had spent the morning speaking with Kat (or, at least, didn't let on that he knew). Nevertheless, there was nothing dubious about my intentions. I did not pester them about the details of their divorce, and did not probe into their personal lives. The only comment Terence made about the divorce was that it was "just punishment for being stupid enough to get married in the first place." He was, of course, being off the cuff, but there was definite residual bitterness and pain.
At one point, when I asked Terence what he did for fun, his response was, "I've just spent the last 8 months going through this divorce. I haven't really been having much fun lately."
The reason for our meeting was an interview. Terence arrived in an mid-70s 4-door sedan (a beat-up, brown Ford Grenada if I remember correctly), the customized California license plate reading "NN DMT" - a very clever inside joke for those of us familiar with his work. When I asked him if many people got the joke, he told me he was once asked in a gas station if he was a laywer. His plate did mean "double indemnity," didn't it?
We spoke for three hours that afternoon, about his career, his experiences, and his theories. The text from that interview has not yet been published. The Whole Life Times had expressed interest in a piece on McKenna, but they were looking for something around 2500 words - hardly enough space to cram the juicy bits of a 3-hour interview into. What wound up in the WLT was my notes from our meeting, plus some sound bytes from a speech he gave a few days later at the 1993 Seeds of Change conference in San Francisco. Look forward to seeing the full McKenna interview (as well as the Kat Harrison interview) right here on Lux Features sometime in the near future.
The Profile (as it originally appeared in the Whole Life Times)
Every culture needs it's doomsayers, but throughout history few have been as dynamic as Terence McKenna. Known primarily for his problematic advocacy of psychedelic plants, McKenna's scorn for modern social and political structures has earned him the reputation of an intellectual malcontent. While his notions are categorically ignored by conventional science and even viewed as "suspect" by some members of the psychedelic community ("He may be doing us more harm than good," says one researcher), McKenna's popularity continues to grow in many circles.
In one sense McKenna is an intellectual prankster, fond of inserting controversial ideas, or memes (the smallest units of an ideology), into the cumulative pool of conventional thought. In theory, the fittest memes, like "peace through disarmament," should replicate themselves throughout human consciousness, stomping out conflicting and obsolete ideologies, such as "peace through strength." According to McKenna, this fray of ideological Darwinism is a constant battle between novelty (new ideas) and habit (traditional thought). Since habit, no matter how injurious, has inertia on it's side, novelty must present itself with magnetism and flamboyance to gain support. Luckily, magnetism and flamboyance are two of McKenna's specialties.
On stage McKenna is a master, utilizing vivid imagery, dagger-edged wit and a daunting vocabulary to hack away at the demon ambiguity. His style is to latch onto a topic and unrelentingly whip at it from every angle until it's worn down to a simple indisputable truth. He credits his charismatic speaking ability to an awkward childhood in a podunk Colorado coal-mining town. As a constant target for bullies, confounding dialogue was the last desperate refuge for the geeky lad. Fittingly, things have changed little over the years. His impassioned advocacy of psychedelic drugs has led him to publicly butt heads with (and talk circles around) mega-bullies like L.A.'s ex-chief-of-police Daryl Gates.
Much to his chagrin, Mckenna's ideas have been generally dumped by modern thought into the ambiguous "New Age" dung-heap. In his own words, McKenna considers himself foremost a rationalist, and has very little patience for the "questionable" claims of "channelers, psychics, crystal gazers, and others of their ilk." Although he doesn't entirely dismiss these techniques, he chooses to focus his attention on phenomena which are quantifiable, repeatable and accessible to the lay-person -- phenomena such as the psychedelic experience.
McKenna's favorite topics of debate are evident in his growing body of published work. Food of the Gods (Bantam,1991) is an exhaustive historical examination of the role psychoactive plants have played (and continue to play) in the evolution of human spirituality, consciousness, and politics. The Archaic Revival (Harper, 1992) is a series of essays and interviews on the nature of language, reality, and time. But inserted into these rational examinations of human ascent lie assertions that are profoundly shocking, and would even be labeled absurd if they weren't so insightful. His psychedelic "rap" is a good way to stir up initial political discourse, but his hidden agenda is really the fate of global human direction.
"People need to recognize that were in a in a dark age," says McKenna pointing to the mounting crisis of environmental degradation, toxic waste buildup, starvation, overpopulation, and the collapse of central authority as his evidence. According to McKenna, the 20th century phenomena of "consumer object fetishism" and rampant materialism are to blame for all of the world's current ills. "The piling up of material goods is the force which is destroying this planet," says McKenna, "not only where it is practiced, but throughout the world where people yearn to practice it. The simple fact of the matter is that there isn't enough glass, metal, and plastic in the near surface of this planet to deliver a middle-class lifestyle to all the millions of third-world people who have now been sold on that particular style."
Frustrated by the lack of environmental concern in politics, McKenna is quick to admonish current global policies. "The environmental issue was postponed for 40 or 50 years while the male dominators of this world played their Capitalism/Communism game. Now all we hear about is trade agreements and free trade. Don't let anybody kid you, free trade is simply a license to peddle crap everywhere. It seems that (our leader's) loyalties are not to the species, or to the planet, but to the bottom line. In a civilized society, putting the bottom line ahead of civilization and planet would be a hanging offense -- but not here."
McKenna also recognizes that Capitalism vs. eco-consciousness is not a fair match. "They have all the money, all the guns, and all the propaganda." In the face of those odds he fights back with the only weapon he has, a "reality-check" meme. "What we have on our side is that if they win, everybody dies." The only problem now is, how do we get people to grasp this before it's too late? McKenna's answer, of course, is through the psychedelic experience.
Years of exploring dark jungles around the world have given McKenna an explicit understanding of traditional visionary practices. It is becoming increasingly obvious to Western science that human beings have been ingesting psychedelic plants for tens of thousands of years in order to form spiritual relationships with the Earth. This is a notion McKenna repeatedly tries to stress - that the vegetable or "Gaian" mind not only exists, but is directly accessible through the ingestion of psychoactive plants -- the foremost being psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca, a South American brew usually containing harmaline and DMT. "This is the single most important discovery of the 20th century," says McKenna, "and it came through anthropology, through a closer examination of societies of people previously dismissed as primitive barbarians. This discovery is as challenging and potentially capable of refashioning our institutions as the discovery of the New World was for Renaissance Europe."
In McKenna's conception of a perfect world, the leaders of this planet would look past crisis management and global damage control to visionary policies that could take us into the 21st century. "I don't mean a plan and I don't mean an agenda," says McKenna, "I mean we need an actual vision, and the vision must come from above. It certainly won't come from committee meetings or data gathered by statistical analysis."
McKenna is certainly no stranger to visions. Years of research with psilocybin and DMT have led him to some very startling conclusions, the most astounding of which may be his assertions about DMT, (N,N-dimethyltryptamine - a chemical which is found in plants and animals around the world, including the human nervous system). McKenna claims that inhaling three lungfulls of vaporized DMT will give you instant access to an unrecognizable dimension inhabited by swarms of self-morphing machine creatures with the personalities of mischievous elves. These tiny visitors are eager to swap ideas and communicate through pun and riddelry, jumping into your chest and singing themselves into three-dimensional shapes of your own thought. But, according to McKenna, the ineffable Toon-Town you've been catapulted into holds more surprises than just a casual confrontation with these oft-fabled 'little people'. At the peak of the DMT "flash", these pesky little tykes produce exquisitely tooled objects, somehow made of language, and hold them before your face for scrutiny. In a moment it becomes obvious that the objects they offer, however beautiful, are simply impossible. They desecrate all logic. As Terence says, "You try to convince yourself that what you're seeing cannot be, but there it is. In the end, the truth of this horrible naked paradox overloads your neural circuitry, leaving you in an incoherent stupor. The whole event lasts less than fifteen minutes, and suddenly you're completely back to normal -- relieved to find yourself back in the safe predictability of the "real" world. "If that doesn't shatter a few paradigms," says McKenna, "I don't know what will."
Although he's not certain who these DMT creatures are or where they come from, McKenna is not the only one who has seen them. Shamen and mystics familiar with the psychedelic experience are fond of the notion that these tykes are "helping spirits" or "ancestors" -- in other words, the benevolent souls of the dearly departed. "Surely this is a mad assertion," says McKenna, "but there's a very simple way to disprove what I'm saying. Take the fifteen minutes and see for yourself."
While these wild DMT stories are the most amusing card in McKenna's deck, there are others which are downright portentous, namely his TimeWave Zero theory. During a 1971 expedition to La Chorrera, a remote mission in the Colombian Amazon, McKenna and younger brother Dennis decided to drastically alter McKenna's body chemistry via Hypercarbolation, a process Dennis had spontaneously discovered during a psilocybin and ayahuasca vision. The procedure was an attempt to fuse psychedelic molecules to Terence's DNA through sonically induced superconductivity. Using only his voice, Dennis amplified a hum of spiraling frequency he felt in his head, transferred it to Terence's body, then all hell broke loose.
Dennis fell into a 21 day psychotic episode. His identity was muscled aside by the size of the universe, leaving him ego-less and adrift. Terence entered into a state of mystical gnosis, his mind in direct contact with the plants, the trees, the Earth, and the transcendental Other. During his prolonged vision quest, the voice of the Other literally spoke to McKenna, urging him to unscramble an ancient code locked deep in the King Wen sequence of the I Ching. Following explicit directions from the Other, McKenna finally produced a linear graph charting the emergence of novelty throughout history - the mystical essence of the TimeWave.
Oddly, McKenna's TimeWave predicts past events of high novelty (such as the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and the Twentieth Century) with striking accuracy. Frighteningly, the wave tops out to infinity (a singularity) on December 21st, 2012 -- a winter soltace and, coincidentally, the end date of the Mayan calendar. Although it seems unlikely to McKenna that the world will come to an abrupt halt in 2012, he cannot ignore the implications, especially when using the current state of global affairs as an indicator. In a sense, McKenna's TimeWave seems to be a two-dimensional mathematical metaphor of the desperate times we have found ourselves in -- a hardcopy of the descent into chaos.
Despite the incredible origins of the TimeWave, McKenna feels its accuracy alone warrants seriously scrutiny. "I've had a chance to study the I Ching more closely over the the past twenty years and I feel I'm on pretty firm ground here," says McKenna. "This is not a mystical doctrine and I don't defend it with mystical arguments. I put it forward as an exotic scientific hypothesis to be tested and overthrown by the usual methods."
Indeed, McKenna is a die-hard rationalist and looks forward to the day someone can find a flaw in his theory. Until that day he will continue to advocate the notion of our spiraling descent in the hopes that people will take action, change their ways, and put an end to our own thoughtless self-destruction.
"I feel that the transformation of the human species is possible, not in the far future, but now," says McKenna, "Somehow we've become imprisoned by our expectations. Change will never happen until our expectations are de-conditioned. The change in thought must proceed the change in reality, and things need to start changing soon -- or we'll be dragged kicking into our own destruction. Then there'll be nothing, we can do, except maybe hang on and try not to scream."
And though McKenna says he is a "shamanologist," not a shaman, I'm not so sure. Speaking with spirits, seeing the past, predicting the future, healing the Earth... these all seem like shaman territory to me.
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