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Terence McKenna

This piece was first published in ‘The Daily Telegraph’

Things are starting to go squirrelly in the Amazon basin. Terence McKenna’s brother Dennis has been eating magic mushrooms and is behaving in a most peculiar way. He has just told Terence that he has rung their mother back in the States. Terence is not impressed. Mother had died the previous year and in the tiny Colombian riverside settlement of La Chorrera there are no phones. Dennis insists. Mother had been watching the World Series on TV and had refused to believe it was Dennis on the phone because, she said, she could see his three year old body, fast asleep, right in front of her eyes. Dennis explains: under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug he has learned how to phone back into the past. Although he had placed the call on March 6, 1971, Mother was actually speaking from 1953.

March is proving to be a testing month for all five of the Americans on the expedition. They had originally met a few years earlier on the campus in Berkeley, becoming firm friends as they shot the rapids of insurrectionary politics and sailed blissfully through the dope haze of the 1968 Summer of Love. Majoring in the psychedelic experience, they had learned that other worlds existed at the periphery of the everyday, worlds that beckoned with such insistence that the graduates determined to force an entry by whatever means proved necessary.

One of Dennis’s more established real world specialities was ethnopharmacology – the study of drugs used by tribal peoples. He knew that some of the strongest hallucinogens in the world were to be found in Colombia, around the upper tributaries of the Rio Putumayo as it snaked along the border with Ecuador and Peru. The old friends regrouped in Vancouver and prepared to fly south.

Like the legendary explorer Colonel Fawcett of Brazil, the McKenna brothers would endure extreme privation and encounter great marvels as they trekked through the jungle. Their story would be the stuff of ripping yarns but with one crucial difference: the interior that the Americans were mapping was not the domain of isolated Amazonian tribes but the exotic landscapes of human consciousness. Their yarn, so they were convinced, was ripping through the fabric of reality itself.

In 1993 Terence McKenna published ‘True Hallucinations – Being an Account of the Author’s Extraordinary Adventures in the Devil’s Paradise.’ As the subtitle suggests, it has much of the charm of a 1920s Boys’ Own tale yet contains an extraordinary treatise on the author’s outrageous assessment of the nature of consciousness, derived from the repeated ingestion of vines and mushrooms that blow you clear out of your tiny, socialised skull into some very strange places indeed.

The book ranges over topics such as the significance of UFOs, the virtues of ‘heroic dosage’, the Theory of Novelty and the assertion that time will end in 2012. These matters also fuel the dense, witty and infuriating presentations that the writer delivers on the lecture circuit, where he now spends much of his time. Now that LSD ambassador Timothy Leary has departed for the great trip in the sky, McKenna has taken up the mantle of consciousness expansion guru for the 90s. His lectures are invariably packed out, drawing crowds from across a spectrum covering eager ravers on the Ecstasy scene and radical physicists picking at wrinkles in the time-space continuum.

At an event called ‘The Incident’, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, McKenna is due to speak on a panel titled ‘The End of Time’. Framed by a window opening onto a view of Big Ben, a few hundred yards down the Mall from where the Queen lives, the Prince of Paradise relaxes before the show with a thirty minute monologue on on all things wild and woolly. The man Her Majesty would not wish to know is a slight, bearded figure in a tweed jacket and jeans. Nearly fifty now, his hair is flecked with grey and his round spectacles add gravitas to the image of the academic that is so thoroughly belied by his psychedelic track record. McKenna’s voice is simultaneously thin, nasal and piercing. He speaks fast and fluently, constructing long, elegant sentences that generate even longer dissertations on ideas that subvert the most fundamental notions of what it is to be human.

“It is the business of philosophy,” McKenna kicks off, “to try and go beyond appearances, beyond cultural value and individual opinion. To try and establish what, if anything, is really there. What this conference raises for me is the issue of the ambiguity of language and the naiveté of people about such things as the giving of evidence, the recollection of past experience and the way in which reality is built out of language but this essential fact about experience is never stressed.”

So far this is pretty respectable stuff, with just a dash of contentiousness emerging in the business about reality and language. It has, nevertheless, its origins in the events of March, 1971, when Dennis McKenna was making phoneless phone calls into the past. A few days prior to this unsettling event the psychedelic explorers had emerged from the jungle into a large pasture containing, incongruously, a herd of white cattle. Scattered about the field were clusters of Stropharia cubensis, a mushroom containing the potent hallucinogen psilocybin. Terence, Dennis, Dave, Vanessa and Ev gathered them eagerly and ate about six each. In his journal Terence recalls that he spent that night “on an enormously rich and alive, yet gentle and elusive trip. I am left with the sense that by penetrating the local psychedelic flora we have taken a giant step toward deeper understanding. Multifaceted and benevolent, as complex as mescaline, as intense as LSD – the mushroom teaches the right way to live.”

Particularly significant for Terence was the fact that the psilocybin mushroom returned him to the land of the elf chemists. These latter were curious little Smurfs – ‘psychoactive Munchkins’ is Terence’s term for them – who popped into the space created by another drug, dimethyltryptamine or DMT. The first time he took it he entered an alien dimension, “a brightly lit, non-three-dimensional, self-contorting” place utterly unlike the destinations provided by other drugs he’d taken. “I found myself in the equivalent of the Pope’s private chapel and there were insect elf machines proffering strange little tablets with strange writing on them.”

The elves were full of wisdom and their mode of communication got Terence thinking about how our normal reality is restricted by the way we describe it. “These self-transforming creatures were speaking in a coloured language which condensed into rotating machines that were like Fabergé eggs but crafted out of luminescent super-conducting ceramics and liquid crystal gels.”

Terence hadn’t had DMT since Berkeley. As far he is concerned, it’s the key. Probably the most powerful mind-altering substance known to mankind, making LSD a mere girl’s blouse by comparison, DMT is smoked as a paste or powder and, within a few seconds of inhalation, deposits the user directly in the lap of God for twenty minutes before dropping him back on Earth with the abiding sensation that he’s just dined on Venus. In the sixties it was known as the ‘business-man’s trip’ because you could effect blast off and re-entry within the space of a lunch hour.

Even Terence, no namby-pamby when it comes to inner space travel, was spooked by the drug. “I was aghast, completely appalled. My entire expectation of the nature of the world was just being shredded in front of me. I’ve never actually gotten over it.”

Back in the Arrivals hall of Planet Earth, subsection Berkeley, Terence was compelled to start making sense. He was onto something but it needed considerable clarification. Perhaps ayahuasca was the answer. This brew made from the roots of a jungle vine called Banisteriopsis caapi was used by South American Indian shamans and tribespeople to induce visions. Its active ingredient was a chemical in the tryptamine family, like DMT and psilocybin.

Thus it was that, after warming up on Amazonian mushrooms, the explorers prepared to knock long and hard at the portals of elf-world. The Witoto Indians of La Chorrera were kind to the gringo interlopers, presenting them with a bundle of ayahuasca vines and cuttings along with instructions on how to make up an infusion. One evening they ate some mushrooms and smoked some joints rolled out of vine shavings. The cocktail was a success, generating delicate and beautiful hallucinations that the group dubbed “vegetable television.” This state of mind prompted the explorers to hypothesize that shamans and medicine-men had been whipping up these sundowners for each other since the late Palaeolithic.

Terence discussed other new ideas with the group. Early man, he surmised, could not have failed to eat the mushrooms that grew out of the cow dung left by the herds that the ape-men followed. In consequence, an epoch-making transformation occurred. The psilocybin catalysed the emergence of spoken language among the nomad groups, elevating them from their pack-hunters’ reliance on grunts and hand signals.

A little later the mushroom, which had the ability to speak to its clients, had a word in Terence’s inner ear. It told him that it was, in fact, not of this world but had been borne across the vastness of space from a far distant alien civilisation. The mushroom was an inter-galactic communication device, used to accelerate evolution on planets that might be receptive to its molecular message.

Perhaps at this point we should talk about our misgivings. Is Terence McKenna a dangerous and deluded man? Is this reflective and erudite writer spreading seeds of subversion in much the same way as the mushroom claims to be doing? Should we believe these mushrooms anyway?

The standard objections to drugs comprise arguments about addiction, madness and the social byproducts of these states. Ayahuasca can only be concocted in rain forest jungles so the possibility of its spreading to our own country need not concern us. These days our own hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD and Ecstasy are, on the whole, valued for their recreational potentials. The tryptamine drugs, however, are dramatically anti-social. The user is so comprehensively prostrated by his dosage that the possibility of, say, crime or dancing is out of the question because he is out of this world.

McKenna believes the tryptamines are chemicals with a mission. They come not to bury us but to help us see the world anew. We are, he believes, on the threshold of profound transformations that will involve mankind becoming able to use language that is seen, not spoken. The drugs are gateway lubricants preparing us for our inevitable flight to the stars. It is entirely conceivable that the young and impressionable would wish to savour such mutant delights. It’s probable that their delight would be short-lived. McKenna says of himself “I am not an abuser. Dread is one of the emotions that I feel as I approach the experience. Psychedelic work is like sailing out onto a dark ocean in a little skiff.”

If, nevertheless, we feel censorious urges arising, we might reflect on the ongoing saga of Dennis in the jungle. After partaking of a particularly large pile of mushrooms, Terence’s brother reported hearing a strange, faint sound. Terence asked him to imitate it. Dennis stiffened and suddenly emitted a loud, dry, machine-like buzz. He became very frightened and cried out “I don’t want to become a giant insect!” When he had calmed down he said that an enormous amount of energy had been unleashed with the sound, convincing him that his own voice was directly affecting the rate at which his body processed the drug.

Dennis felt as if he had tapped into some sort of shamanic power. Over the next few days he became fervently, ecstatically possessed with great insights and revelations. He telepathised Terence more than once with unsettling accuracy, he wrote and declaimed fantastic cosmic theories, he asked Terence or Ev to smoke cigarettes for him on the basis that in his expanded realm all human bodies were continuous and he could absorb what he needed from them, without contact. Memorably, he phoned home in the timeless manner already recounted.

We are bound to say that back in the 70s, Dennis, who recovered after a few weeks and is now a respected research pharmacologist, was way out on a schizophrenic limb. Terence would probably chide us for our narrowness of definition. In some cultures what we in the west call schizophrenia is the valued visionary condition of the shaman. So maybe Dennis, maybe Terence too, was seriously intoxicated throughout March, 1971. Have they, nevertheless, anything useful to tell us?

Perhaps use value is the wrong standard to apply. What the McKennas propose may be outlandish but it is certainly fascinating and becomes increasingly topical as the waves of Pre-Millennial Tension start to lap at our ankles. One idea, for instance, that still exercises Terence derives from his experiments with hypercarbolation. “This is what we had named the process of altering the neural DNA and changing man into a hyperdimensional being.” To cut a complicated story short, Terence picked up on Dennis’ buzzing and elaborated it into the single most grandiose theory he had ever formulated. Tryptamine drugs, amplified by sound wave input, were capable of permanently rewiring the DNA code inside our every cell. This would result in our being able to convert our thoughts into matter. “We thought,” he wrote, “that the field of mind and its will toward the good could be templated onto the genetic engines of life.”

This is the dream of the magicians, that Spirit shall be unified with Matter. It is the stuff of fairy tales, that our wishes will come true. UFOs are instances of the process operating in a hesitant, unacknowledged way. Death will be defeated as humanity moves freely in and out of the museum of eternity. The human project will reach its culmination and we will roam galaxies, free of pain and suffering.

Terence knows he’s outrageous. In his books he frequently admits the possibility that he is a rewired, deluded, pre-Millennial messianic raver. Just as well, really, given that his work is so easy to deride. In conversation this strategic modesty is replaced by a calm, philosophical certainty which, as the sun sets over the Mall, is replaced by his realisation that the End of Time is only five minutes away. He must go to the conference room and defend another of his startling ideas.

Time Wave Zero is Terence’s newest theory. It gives us all another fifteen years on the planet. On December 12th, 2012, for reasons that are frankly baffling, time, which is structured in waves, will stop. The signs are everywhere and the chaos of the late 20th century signifies that the historical process is winding down. Terence has diagrams – they’re quite hard to understand.

Down in the conference room there is a subtle change in his manner. The courteous professor mutates into the guru. He alludes to his psychedelic heroism in a humorous, self-deprecating way reminiscent of the real ale enthusiast bluffly brushing aside reports of last night’s ten pints. His young audience giggles appreciatively and Terence produces another cascade of philosophy that is just beyond their reach – impressive as display but not quite clear enough to grasp.

After the last question from the floor has been taken, Terence has to hurry to Heathrow for the South African leg of the tour. Gathering up his canvas bag he leaves the congregation with two contradictory instructions “All I say is ‘Don’t believe anything anyone tells you and Take Heroic Doses!'” As he strides for the door, the time wave suddenly delivers an image from the 60s. It is Timothy Leary, garlanded, kaftaned and grinning disarming-ly as he instructs us to ‘Turn on, Tune in and Drop Out!’ Is this a wave or is it a cycle?

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