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What Shall We Do

After finishing his junior year of high school in Mountain View, where a one-night stand with an older woman got him banished by his aunt and uncle, and then his senior year in Lancaster—a Southern California town where he stayed with an old army buddy of his father’s—Terence arrived at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1965. The Free Speech Movement – which had seen the charismatic student activist Mario Savio standing atop cars, advocating for students’ right to on-campus political expression – had gone down the previous academic year, ultimately winning big concessions from the University’s Board of Regents in an outcome that was significant less for the substance of the dispute’s settlement than for demonstrating that this fort could be taken. Everyone in the state had seen it happen, when Sproul Hall had been occupied by students who went limp but kept on singing their protest songs as officers lifted them off hallway floors and carried them away. The event was a grand disruption, declaring that justice would speak in breach of etiquette. The movement was self-righteous, adrenal, unforeseen.

So Terence came to a Berkeley where students marching against Vietnam met police in stand-offs at the Oakland border, and banners with Sartre quotations (“Socialism will not be transcended until we transcend the conditions which created it”) flapped against the facades of brick buildings. (Thomas Pynchon, who would portray the near-upon-revolution Berkeley in Vineland, and whose novels Terence would revere one day, was making Waldo-like appearances around town—an understated young guy, with a drooping blond mustache and one book to his name, who rolled impeccable joints in lofts with bead curtains). Terence had been accepted to UC Berkeley’s newly founded, highly selective Experimental College, a school within the school that had a faculty of six and a student body of one hundred and fifty, and which stood aloof from the roiling campus, considering the meaning and purpose of political activity.

The founder and academic director of the Experimental College was Joseph Tussman, chair of the philosophy department at Cal and a scholar-reformer who passionately inquired how, and to what ends, education and politics should be practiced. The Experimental College, the capstone to his career’s engagement with these matters, was his great chance to enact an educational course that would instantiate major principles. 

His basic point was the necessity of action. Where fields like science and mathematics aim to describe the world from a hypothetical uninvolved standpoint, the humanities stress the matter of choice, the perspective that life is a challenge to be met. In the technical fields, said Tussman, the primary question is “What is?”; in the fields honoring the individual voice, “What shall we do?” Tussman would guide his students toward the participatory stance of the humanities. For this purpose, he had founded the Experimental College.

It was commonly assumed at the time that the Experimental College was intended as a palliative response to the protests of the previous year. But the plans for it had evolved prior to, and independently of, those developments. Tussman was not entirely supportive of the Free Speech Movement: he was the kind of independent thinker who finds himself siding with different groups as occasions arise. Years earlier, he had fiercely opposed the Board of Regents' policy of requiring faculty members to sign anti-communist oaths. Now he was wryly incredulous that lower-division students would step away from their given position – the logical function of their age – to claim a right to intellectual self-guidance. He wanted them to become intellectually independent only after they had first had a path shown to them. His part was to place his hands upon a protégé’s shoulders and turn him so he stood facing due north.

Terence stood at the convergence of radical and conservative currents: the radicalism of power-seizing students who, having gotten a taste of blood with the success of their earliest protests, had become convinced they could effect changes in policy-making at the national scale, and the conservatism of his new mentor Tussman, who argued for the perennial applicability of ancient wisdom.

The Experimental College’s first-year curriculum surveyed early Hellenistic and Judaic thought, with classes conducted in intimate seminar formats; simultaneously, Tussman exhorted his students to read widely and follow curiosity wherever it might lead.

Terence thought that Tussman bore a strong physical resemblance to his father. (And both men went by Joe). But Tussman, like RJ before him, could reach Terence by arousing his intellectual respect. As a fourteen-year-old in Milwaukee—the son of Jewish émigrés (his mother a poet, his father a cantor and star of the Yiddish theater)—Joe Tussman had read Spinoza’s Ethics while riding the city streetcars. As a student of the educational reformer Alexander Meiklejohn (dean of Brown, president of Amherst), he had witnessed and admired at close hand the quick wit of that distinguished philosopher. He became a wit himself: reflecting on the uphill fights waged in the political arena, he would murmur, “When you look around at the world, it’s a terrible show to be run by angels. But if you think of it as run by monkeys—pretty amazing!”

Terence had been accepted to the College on the basis of a one-on-one interview, at which his rapier intelligence and wide-ranging interest in the world had been plain for Tussman to see. But once he was at the school, he found he could not easily win praise from his new teacher, who held that intelligence was a process rather than a possession and wanted Terence challenged, not to forever feel himself the cleverest guy in the room.

At eighteen and nineteen, Terence already had the power to hold bunches of his brightest peers rapt with his wandering, speculating talk. In the summer of ’67, following Terence’s completion of his sophomore year, Dennis came to visit. Staying at the Telegraph Ave. Victorian-turned-co-op where Terence was living, he watched his brother enthrall a room of student-intellectuals, coming and going in shifts, all of them bearded and in hippie regalia like Terence—whose wild, clause-sprouting eloquence was only enhanced by the fine Afghani hashish he liberally consumed and shared.

Terence would talk about interdimensional travel, about time travel, about Jung’s thinking on UFOs, while fastidiously writing the scientific names of insects on little labels, for his day job at the California Academy of Sciences. He and his cohorts would smoke hash from a metal waterpipe that had a small bowl and curved stem. This piece of paraphernalia was familiar to Dennis from his last visit, the previous Christmas vacation, when he and Terence had spent a week smoking from it and engaging in stoned exchanges—half cold-blooded philosophical analysis and half sci-fi-tinged dream-mapping of the cosmos—that unfolded with the relaxed co-authorship of ping pong rallies. Since that week, Dennis had embarked - largely from the distance of Colorado - on his own course of ingestion (LSD, mescaline, DMT), under his brother’s remote guidance.

Terence had become a full-fledged drug maven, a passion that was facilitated by the wide availability of drugs in sixties Berkeley, but which pre-dated his arrival there. Though his psychedelic education was taking place in parallel to his academic one, it reflected the flipside of Tussman’s division of the disciplines more than it did the immediacy of campus life sweeping Terence into its arms and embracing him as a participant in the uprising when he got out of class.

Tussman's premise was that one was inescapably involved and implicated in human life, including present history, and that non-participation was not a plausible option. 

But Terence loved the sciences and mathematics, and loved to stand in the position of observing non-participant, asking, “What is?” And to investigate this riddle, the nature of reality, he had found no better means than psychedelics. Under their influence, all things would leap forward in sudden significance—thoughts and solid objects endowed, alike, with the flowing quality of change and with a teasing suggestion of having been placed with intendedness, like puzzle pieces.

This was how you asked “What is?,” Terence thought, not by repeatedly running the same contrived experiment and comparing all your results on a chart; no, this was the planting of a decisive foot past the farthest-marked bound of the known, the non-theoretical engagement in the world of the epistemological impulse. This was making good on the challenge his mother had set him when she’d pressed him to read The Art of Seeing – to look out upon the world relying on nothing but an open and ready mind. This was how one could become an explorer even in an age when all lands were said to be long since charted and all countries and their customs denatured of mystery—by conducting field research upon the terra incognita of consciousness itself—by venturing intrepidly forth into the little-known dimension in the mind, Psychonautica.


Terence had had his first encounter with a psychedelic in 1964, when he was a junior at Awalt High School, in Mountain View. The catalyst for the experience was a weekly night course Awalt offered, at which Bay Area scientists lectured on their fields. At one, a man who worked in behavior-modification therapy spoke about psychiatric uses of LSD and mescaline. Terence and the friend he was sitting beside, Patrick “Rick” Watson, sat up straight and raised their hands.

Rick was a beanpole and a kid genius: at seventeen, he was teaching a course in steroid chemistry at the Stanford Research Institute. Lately, he’d been schooling Terence in esoterica—medieval doctrines of magic, quantum physics.

The two boys started peppering the lecturer with questions about what it was like to be on psychedelics. They got him going on about interdimensional travel, about time travel, about Jung’s thinking on UFOs. They hanged on the guy’s every word—what they were hearing was that a rabbit hole to Wonderland actually existed. When they approached the man after his lecture and dropped hints that they were looking to score, he was wary but agreed to speak with them further at his office in Menlo Park.

Table of Contents

Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter Two

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