By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
TO HELP US MAKE SENSE OF HIS EXPERIENCES, Pinchbeck locates them in the long and vibrant history of writers fascinated by narcotically altered states. This aspect of his book overlaps with and complements Sadie Plant's recent reading of that tradition in Writing on Drugs. But Pinchbeck also assimilates groundbreaking research into the timeless (if now frequently endangered) cultures that have grown up around the substances he ingests. His experiences in the Amazon, for example, lead him to confirm anthropologist Jeremy Narby's hunch that ayahuasca "may be exactly what the shamans say it is: the sentient spirit of nature, the mind of the forest, which directly communicates with human beings through this chemical interface." (The same shamans, incidentally, have a lovely chicken-and-egg explanation of the question with which we began: How did people get to know about this stuff in the first place? The plants told us, they say.)
Another question remains: How effectively can this kind of sacred knowledge be siphoned back into our own culture? At an entheobotanical conference in Palenque, Mexico, Pinchbeck hears the writer Jonathan Ott announce that it is impossible "for anyone in our world to be a shaman. They are the scientists of the preliterate world." Pinchbeck disagrees, believing that since the possibility of shamanic election is dispersed evenly throughout the globe, it is possible for a new breed of modern shaman to emerge in the West. By the end of the book he intuits something of his own calling in this direction. Even in this new, "outrageously mystical" incarnation, however, Pinchbeck harks back almost nostalgically to the husk of his own abandoned cynicism. One of the reasons the book is so persuasive, in fact, is that he is always able to take "McKenna's DMT ravings" with a pinch of, um, salt and is frank about his disappointment at the "leprechaun kitsch" that seems to hold sway at the psychedelic frontier. Nevertheless, exposure to the DMT and DPT (dipropyltryptamine) realms convince him that "Life on Earth has been sculpted into multitudinous forms by higher-dimensional beings for the enjoyment of their own skill and our delight."
Since the book is as gripping as a novel, I don't want to cheat the reader by giving away its climactic revelations. Suffice it to say that psychedelics, for Pinchbeck, provide a portal to the "manifold phalanxes of sentient entities beyond the realm of the sensible." Pinchbeck here lays himself open to the knee-jerk reaction that this means taking leave of your senses and entering the realm of nonsense. We have come, in short, to the double bind that afflicts most testimony of religious conversion. The only way to see if he is right is to take a peek for ourselves. Most people will prefer not to, but perhaps there is more common ground than might be supposed. McKenna wisely counsels, "The real test of psychedelics is what you do when you're not on them." On the evidence of his first book, it is a test that Pinchbeck has passed and will pass again.
Geoff Dyer is the author ofParis Trance andOut of Sheer Rage. His new book,Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, will be published by Pantheon in January.
BREAKING OPEN THE HEAD: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism | By DANIEL PINCHBECK | Broadway Books | 323 pages | $25 hardcover