The morning I talked to Daniel Pinchbeck over the phone from his home in New York, much of New England was submerged in floods. A week or two later, researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released the news that a warming planet had increased wildfires fourfold, and one more set of scientists blamed last year’s rash of hurricanes on rising temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. Al Gore’s new movie was heating up the box office, and the temperature in Hollywood, at 10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time, pushed toward 100.
In times like these, it’s hard not to think the world is ending. As Pinchbeck put it early in our conversation, “Changes in the biosphere have crept up on us, and the structures we’ve counted on are going to be hard-pressed to survive.” Which does not mean, he said, that the Rapture will soon be upon us. Just that we’re in for a very big shift.
According to the Maya and Toltec cultures of midmillenial Mesoamerica, the year 2012 marks the end of a 5,125-year “great cycle.” More than one book has been written about the phenomenon, and more than one New Age philosopher has equated it with the Apocalypse foretold in the Book of Revelation. Pinchbeck, author of 2002’s Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey Into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism, writes — and, it seems, thinks — almost exclusively about such matters. As he sees it, the Apocalypse has been building for years. In 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, his part memoir, part anthropological journey through many things spiritual, metaphysical and just plain eerie, Pinchbeck illuminates not the world’s end but the many ways in which our social structures are disintegrating. “What I’m trying to show is that we’re already in a process of accelerated transformation,” he told me. “And I find that a reason to be hopeful.”
2012 begins with the small and personal, with Pinchbeck’s childhood among New York bohemians (his father was a painter; his mother, author Joyce Johnson, was once Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend), and expands to summarize broadly the evidence of what theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the “noosphere,” that enchanted terrain of psychic thought shared by all humanity. He visits crop circles in Glastonbury, indigenous tribespeople in West Africa, and Burning Man, searching for clues to various mysteries. He includes the wrenching difficulties in his personal life, about which he is almost morbidly honest. As a young and celebrated magazine freelancer in the 1980s, the now 40-year-old Pinchbeck aspired to nothing so much as landing a spot on The New Yorker’s roster. But the ephemeral nature of magazine writing left him feeling hollow. He turned first to alcohol to numb his perceptions. Then, through psychedelics, he discovered another layer of consciousness — God, perhaps. There was no turning back.
His is not a simple God, easily summed up in a bumper sticker. Into 2012 Pinchbeck fits Jung, crop circles, Martin Heidegger’s critique of technology, the ecological theories of Rudolf Steiner, the parables of Christ, Jared Diamond’s Collapse and even the confessions of Whitley Strieber, author of 1988’s manifesto on UFO encounters, Communion. I am by nature suspicious of such books, but 2012 was for me both a relief and a box of treasures; I felt validated, the way a stoner feels honored to find out Carl Sagan smoked too.
“I meant for it to be a useful tool,” Pinchbeck offered, “to give a literary and intellectual legitimacy to a lot of things people are thinking about but won’t always talk about. I wanted to show how the Western philosophical tradition integrates with shamanism. When people get it, it connects a lot of dots for them — it’s like a jigsaw puzzle.”
He also meant to draw down the confluence of forces operating worldwide that he believes will shake our dozing Western world apart. If 2012 is a deeply spiritual book, it is also a deeply environmentalist one: Among the powers at work is nature itself, which as Goethe predicted nearly two centuries ago, will rebel against human occupation and abuse. “What has been set up is about to be pulled down,” Pinchbeck told me. “People are going to work in a much more collaborative framework, and give up their collective materialist tendencies.”
From that, maybe you can understand why Pinchbeck’s first publisher, Broadway Books’ Gerald Howard, dumped the book when he realized just how far out into the noosphere 2012 was about to wander. According to Pinchbeck, Howard told him, “I’m not sure that publishing this book is going to be good for our company.”
The same week The New York Times published a snarky review by Anthony Swofford, 2012 nudged its way onto both the Los Angeles Times and Southern California Booksellers Association best-seller lists (although the latter counted it as fiction). Unlike the New York Times best-seller list, which aggregates data from bookstores around the country according to some complicated secret formula, the L.A. Times and SCBA take a regional poll. Southern California, it seems, still has a special place reserved for the mysteries of existence, for what Techgnosis author Erik Davis, in his new survey of California’s “heterodox tradition,” Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, refers to as a Californian obsession with the “wunderkammer of consciousness.” A coffee-table book about the state’s religious structures, Visionary State establishes California’s preeminence in the business of building conduits to God: From the Self-Realization Fellowship to the Crystal Cathedral — the church that began in a drive-in movie theater — Californians have invented more ways to access the spiritual plane than Texans have devised to get at their oil.
It’s a heebie-jeebie history that in some circles has been something to ridicule. We live, as Davis writes, “in the granola state, the land of fruits and nuts, the space-case colony with a moonbeam governor [attorney general?] . . .” More to the point, of the 37,000 or so UFO sightings the National UFO Reporting Center has logged in the last eight years, some 4,600 of them have been seen in California — nearly 1,000 more than in all of Europe, and twice as many as the next most UFO’d state, Washington. We may be able to blame the influence of immigrating Germans for hippiedom and Mexicans for peyote, but the space aliens we brought upon ourselves.
Personally, I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about how well I fit into this state of California, vaguely ashamed of my own interest in the occult, in Jung’s synchronicity, and my hallucinogen-fueled belief in a metaphysical force operating in some unknown realm. It’s as if to be finding the link between Jesus, a mushroom trip and one’s own life is somehow not to be thinking clearly, or at least not thinking about the right stuff. But Pinchbeck has bravely filled 2012 with searing personal accounts not just of his various spiritual quests, some marred by jumbled, drug-addled emotions, but even of self-abnegating encounters with holy men in South American countries and with women. His book repeatedly cycles back to his tortured relationship with his “partner” and their 2-year-old daughter: At one point, the child turns to him and declares, “I don’t like you.”
But just because some people — even your daughter! — might consider you an asshole doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be honest about who you are. “ ‘First thought, best thought’ — that line has excused a lot of mediocrity over the years,” Pinchbeck told me. “I do believe in being ruthless in your own self-examination.”
Still, he admitted, writing the book “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He hopes it’s been worth it, that the work he’s done will help merge ancient spiritual traditions with the new, political left. “There’s a new cultural energy that could be transformative,” he said, “when the kind of countercultural, spiritual and mystical comes together with the new-left progressive compassion. That’s when a new activist culture will emerge.
“And that,” he said, “is when the shift will happen.”
2012: THE RETURN OF QUETZALCOATL | By DANIEL PINCHBECK | Tarcher | 408 pages | $27 hardcover