5 April 1992
Omega Man: A Profile of Terence McKenna
"My life is science fiction," Terence McKenna assures me.
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. If Dennis's 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."
The results, although objectively indeterminate, were immensely important to Terence's ensuing career. In retrospect he deems the experiment a qualified success insofar as it catalyzed his research into time, psychedelic self-transformation, and meetings with remarkable mushrooms. 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.
McKenna blew in from the West Coast last month on the snows of yesteryear. 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 set.
The first thing you'd probably notice about the charismatic explorer, raconteur, ethnonaturalist, and metaphysician would be his voice. From this remarkably facile instrument of speculation and droll wit--with its immaculately enunciated consonants, hypnotic cadences, and perfect prankster timing--emerges a mesmerizing skein of arguments, aphorisms, and anecdotes enveloping everything from quantum physics to macromegacosmic concerns. The occasional vaulting segue or question-begging assertion is easily overlooked in the persuasive, inspirational drift. 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.
McKenna's fractal spiels have concresced into a provocative pair of recently published books: Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge (Bantam) and a collection of lectures, interviews, and essays--his greatest hits, as it were--titledThe Archaic Revival: Speculations on Psychedelic Mushrooms, the Amazon, Virtual Reality, UFOs, Evolution, Shamanism, the Rebirth of the Goddess, and the End of History (HarperSanFrancisco). An 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.
When not working the New Age or fringe-science lecture and conference circuits, McKenna divides his time between residences in northern California and on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the 19-acre Botanical Dimensions preserve he co-founded is located. 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. "Eighty-five percent of all prescription and over-the-counter drugs can be traced to natural sources," McKenna says, and today the world risks losing its collective botanical traditions as the children of the tropics mortgage their folklore for motorboats and Madonna.
Mostly, however, Terence McKenna's reputation rests on his articulate and perversely unfashionable advocacy of chemical mind-bending.
"A specter is haunting planetary culture--the specter of drugs," begins Food of the Gods ; and the nod to this century's other great millenarian influence is no accident. 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.
"History is in fact a kind of fall from a state of dynamic completion," McKenna tells a rapt audience of more than 400 at the Community Church. 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.
They are not unlike the man seated onstage, a bearded, conservatively dressed 45-year-old gnome who could be taken for at least five years older. After two decades on McKenna can blow endless permutations on a rap that feels at the same time both old as the hills and as high-tech as tomorrow's computer implants. After all, he notes, "Drugs are becoming more like computers, while computers are becoming more like drugs." 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."
The future McKenna foresees is, if not as blissed-out as the past, still bound to be a gasser. At 6 a.m. on December 21, 2012, he predicts, humanity will confront the "transcendental object at the end of history." 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.
McKenna graphically described the DMT experience during a WBAI interview to be broadcast May 9 in tones not unlike those one might invoke during a dramatic reading of H. P. Lovecraft. "It is as though one had been struck by noetic lightning. The ordinary world is almost instantaneously replaced, not only with a hallucination, but a hallucination whose alien character is its utter alienness. Nothing in this world can prepare one for the impressions that fill your mind when you enter the DMT sensorium.
"The extraordinary brevity of the experience," he continued, "argues that it is incredibly harmless. It virtually disappears from the organism in about ten minutes. The paradox is that DMT is the most powerful yet most harmless of all these things. This is probably because, for reasons which are mysterious to us, DMT occurs in normal brain metabolism [in Serotonin]."
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. Thus 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.
Terence McKenna entered the world in 1946 and was raised in the small cattle-ranching town of Paonia, on the western slope of Colorado. His father was an Irish Catholic traveling salesman, his mother a Welsh Episcopalian housewife. "My mother was an exceptional person and I really don't understand why," McKenna tells me after a day of interviews and flesh pressing at the Bantam offices. "She was not college educated, but she had a large vocabulary and an appreciation for classical music and good literature. I was a very alarming kid. I have a 14-year-old of my own, and I thank God every day that this kid is not as weird as I was.
"The thing that characterized my life is I have always been extraordinarily obsessive about a certain kind of iridescence, a certain quality that can haunt matter, or people, or a painting. My first obsession was minerals. I went from minerals to butterflys, and from butterflys to science fiction, which I definitely consider a psychedelic drug because it empowers the imagination. ["I Understand Philip K. Dick" is the title of his afterward to the late writer's recently published In Pursuit of Valis .]
Barely an adolescent, he subscribed to the Village Voice and Evergreen Review . "It was only because my parents had an ironclad rule that I could read anything that they tolerated them in the house." At one point, a town meeting was called to discuss whether he should be allowed to read Brave New World . "That gave me a real respect for Aldous Huxley," recalls McKenna, "and of course that's a notoriously drug-phobic book." While making his way through Huxley's novels, however, he came across The Doors of Perception and, you may not be surprised to learn, "I got it! I can remember following my mother around the kitchen, reading her passages and saying, 'If 10 percent of this is true, this is the biggest news ever!' From my vantage point now, of course, The Doors of Perception seems an incredibly understated, conservative, and restrained book about psychedelics." 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.
Revelation arrived shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1966. While attending Berkeley as an art-history major, McKenna lived across the hall from "this strange guy who had blacked out his windows, painted all the lightbulbs in his apartment red, and sat around all day long playing the chords to 'Freight Train' on his guitar." 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. "It had qualities that were never repeated," he recalls. "For about an hour I just ricocheted between tears of awe and tears of hilarity." Some 150 LSD experiences later, however, McKenna is less enthralled with the synthetic drug. "I hope this doesn't insult current LSD fans, but the last time I did it, it seemed like a Sopwith camel or something. We were airborne, and below us were the green fields of France, but you could hear the air shrieking over the control surfaces and feel the wind blasting your face. What I had become used to was the cockpit of the space shuttle. Yes, LSD is a psychedelic drug. But it's a psychedelic drug in the same way a fruit fly can fly."
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. "The one thing they never tell you about Indian spirituality is that you don't even talk about it until you've smoked four or five chillums. I found some of the most outrageous shuck and jive there I'd ever heard. I mean, 90 percent of these guys are basically trying to get it up your ass and get their ashrams cleaned."
Eventually coming under indictment for his smuggling activities, McKenna laid low, continuing his psychedelic research while collecting butterflys in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. His mother died during his exile, which saddened him deeply, but he eventually negotiated a settlement with the government. "I've been a model citizen ever since." he says. While Terence traveled, however, Dennis was hatching the notions that would change both their lives forever.
The watershed La Chorrera experiment of 1971 is theoretically justified in the McKenna brothers' difficult yet evocative 1975 book The Invisible Landscape: MInd, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching . 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.
During his visionary vigil, Terence received preliminary instructions regarding a theory of "temporal resonance," which he claim as "my only original idea" and centerpiece of his thought. As he related at the Open Center, the mushroom informed him that "What you call man, we call time," and suggested he take a very close look at the I Ching . 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.
According to McKenna, there's a "rough ride ahead" as we travel time's fractal rollercoaster to the year 2012, when something--maybe something good, maybe something bad--is scheduled to occur. It might take the form of rapture, an interplanetary collision, the invention of time travel, or a manifestation of high gnosticism in which the death of matter sparks a spiritual renewal. Strangely, not every listener agree with McKenna's intuition. "You went to Catholic school. Grow out of it!" complains a frustrated listener during his workshop, and McKenna either doesn't hear or ignores him.
"He has got the gift of blarney," agrees Dennis McKenna, now a San Francisco pharmacologist. "I think his model has serious flaws in it, but I think his vision of where we're headed may be right. It's amazing how many of the farthest-out ideas we put into The Invisible Landscape have held up. For instance, the idea that macromolecules, such as DNA, can under certain instances act like superconductors. This is not such a far-out notion now.
Dennis , who will discuss plant-human interaction June 13 and 14 at the Open Center, remains skeptical but understands his brother's appeal. "I've never seen anyone stand up and give him a run for his money," he notes, "even when he's addressing scientists. Everyone just sits there and says, 'Oh wow.' It's this type of people who are drawn to cults. The last thing they are going to do is criticize the tenets of a saint."
Sainthood, however, is not on Terence McKenna's agenda. Which isn't to say that his life and work lacks a messianic component. "I'm very fatalistic," he admits. "Anyone who'd discovered the timewave would be. It just says, 'You don't have to walk anywhere. You're on the train. So any walking you do is your own choice."
The La Chorrera mushroom spirit offered Terence not only a personal glimpse, but also an agenda with admittedly biblical overtones. "It said [the timewave] theory is right, it will take years to surface, you will meet considerable opposition, and you mustn't be in a hurry--that eventually all things will be delivered unto you. 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. I was penniless and wanted, and now I'm in pretty good shape, all behind just mining the material that was delivered during that three-week period."
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 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.
During my second hit, an invisible horn section mounted a rapid crescendo as my body began to vibrate symphathetically. 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. The emotional 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.
Following this convincing brush with eternity, or something suggesting death, I was transported into an cunningly decorated alien spacecraft of insectoid design, perhaps a gigantic beetle carapace. 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 livingroom 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.
This will probably impress many readers as just another boring dope story (why do we often care so little about the dreams of others?). It seemed substantially surreal to me, however, and without the typical psychoanalytic ooginess of acid or even pot. 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.)
Western culture does not approve of revelations achieved so economically. But for those who find meditation too boring, LSD too time-consuming, and organized religion too self-flagellatory, DMT certainly offers an effective alternative. 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.