Illustration by Brian Stauffer
ACROSS THE WORLD, FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL, people have worked out that if you peel, scrape, boil or dry certain bits -- leaves, bark, roots -- of particular trees, plants or animals and either smoke, slurp or sniff the resulting concoction, then you will become at the very least intoxicated or, at best, hurled into an extradimensional realm or spirit world. Is there a more thrilling endorsement of human ingenuity and persistence? Especially when you consider the errors of selection and dosage, and the uniformly nauseating taste of the resulting brews. Anyone who has ever sampled magic mushrooms will remember the reflexive urge to gag on them -- and shrooms are at the gourmet end of the visionary cookbook.
When Daniel Pinchbeck, author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, takes iboga, it tastes like "sawdust laced with battery acid"; ayahuasca "is like the distilled essence of forest rot," and Pinchbeck has to put on diapers in case he shits himself after drinking it. So much for the organic stuff. Synthesized dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has the advantage of being smokable; the disadvantage, his friend explained, is that "It's like smoking plastic." After a pause, he decided this was misleading: "No, it's like smoking a plastics factory." In this context, LSD seems as much a hallucinogenic equivalent of convenience food as it is an expression of the revelatory/revolutionary project announced by Timothy Leary in the 1960s.
For Pinchbeck, Leary is "a central villain in the psychedelic saga." Before he started shooting his mouth off, LSD was legal, its usage confined to a small circle of responsible initiates of whom the most famous and articulate was Aldous Huxley. On the grounds that if it weren't for Leary a person like me would never have realized that a trip could involve more than a dismal excursion to the British seaside, I find it hard to entirely condemn the nutty professor's self-appointed mission of incessant psychedelic promulgation. On the other hand, Leary's excesses and the inevitable government clampdown that followed effectively brought an end to serious psychedelic research. Or at least pushed it to the margins of intellectual respectability. One of the many virtues of Pinchbeck's continually enthralling book is that it exhumes this ongoing "underground" project of entheogenic exploration. In the process, figures such as Terence McKenna are brought back from the fringes of academic discourse to a central position in an investigation that, as Paul Devereux puts it in The Long Trip, poses "a deep threat" to the philosophical foundations of our culture.
McKenna went even further, arguing, in 1998 (just two years before his death), that "in terms of human evolution, people not on psychedelics are not fully human." Pinchbeck would tend to agree: Not to visit the DMT realm "at least once or twice" means "denying our heritage of human curiosity." But perhaps this needs to be turned on its head, or at least modified. McKenna points out that the crucible of psychedelic research is the self. Before he began subjecting himself to this research, Pinchbeck was a hedonistic New York intellectual suffering from the familiar symptoms of late-20th-century malaise. He was bored, his life was "unbearable and pointless." One need only have read a little Nietzsche to see that this, together with an entrenched tendency to settle for the familiar and the known, is, for many people, precisely what it means to be human -- all too human.
During his youthful flirtation with mushrooms, Pinchbeck recalls, he sought to alleviate -- or at least enliven -- his torment with a haphazard exploration of psychedelics. At first he was propelled by a combination of curiosity and chance (the "lottery" of magazine assignments took him to Gabon, where he tried iboga); later, as he became more adept at reading the auguries of inner space, he came to see pattern and purpose in the dedicated accumulation of psychedelic exposure. It was not long before he realized that he was engaged in a Nietzschean project of self-overcoming. Inevitably, this was a journey fraught with terror as well as exhilaration. At one stage it became "suddenly obvious that there was such a thing as a soul, it was also clear that I was in danger of losing mine permanently."
Insofar as its effects are known, predictable and well-documented -- take it too often and you will become addicted -- heroin is a relatively safe and thoroughly uninteresting drug. While most psychedelics are non-addictive, they expose you to a different order of risk. As Pinchbeck says of DMT: "Once you have had the experience, you are permanently rewired." Breaking Open the Head is the record of this rewiring, "the story of how my head was broken open, and how I have gingerly tried to put the pieces back together." What we witness in this extraordinarily brave and intelligent book is, in other words, a postmodern parable of spiritual awakening. Few things are more difficult to convey in writing than the epiphanic drug experience or the mystical vision, and it is to Pinchbeck's credit as a writer that he is able to articulate these visions so clearly and memorably.
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.)
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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 of Paris Trance and Out 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