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Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines  (Chapter Two)

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To Joseph Tussman, a liberal arts education was about preparing the student to become a citizen, having the seriousness and sincerity of intent, and the open-minded skill at inquiry, to participate vitally in the life of a democracy. In 1965, the question “What shall we do?” was being asked by everyone, and Americans were motivated to answer with their actions. Tussman was neither radical nor reactionary: he was a pragmatic idealist, taking our constitutional system of democracy - nothing more revolutionary - as his premise, but presenting a profoundly optimistic plan, in which voters and public servants alike would act under the guidance of principles of disinterested justice. He admired the project of government; he was unabashedly romantic about the career of the reformer.

To Terence, this was an impractically hypothetical idealism, positing a nobler world than the one he was living in. Society was dysfunctional because it magnified confused human thinking and compromised human motives, qualities that would always influence public life, because human frailty would always be abundant in those who had power. Sermonizing about voting and legislating disinterestedly wouldn’t change that. Neither would the application of technocratic or legalistic expertise to problem-solving efforts: problems always proliferate and outpace plans for their solution.

Society would only transform itself following a basic shift in consciousness, with self-interest giving way to a new collective empathy, a widespread turn from identification with the personal fiefdom to identification with a shared ground of being—the kind of revolution in understanding catalyzed by a visionary experience. Terence thought there must be practically applicable, world-impacting lessons to be netted in the psychedelic insight states. Perhaps the respective projects of the technical fields and the humanities would prove not to be so separate: an indefatigable observer of reality asking “What is?,” could see what steps to take in the role of the participant asking, “What shall we do?” Or as he would one day put it in a lecture, “We must find out what is true in order to do what is right.”

Terence secluded himself. Raffish and unshy, happily witty, he had an active social and dating life waiting for him when he wanted it. But for stretches of time, he immersed himself in books, inspired by Tussman’s exhortation to read and open himself intellectually. He knew the forgetting that descends upon the explorer of disciplines who, seeking a course through the branching tributaries of his day’s subject of inquiry, vanishes while navigating The Topics.

He was building a library and – ever stoned on pot or hash – would bend over volumes of Proust or editions of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, over collections of Borges stories or novels of Nabokov (this was the time of his falling hard for literary modernism); or over the works of the phenomenologist philosophers (Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), whom he was reading then, too; or some volume out of the Collected Works of Jung. He was six-foot-two, and as he sat and read in his hunched posture, dark eyes burning, he’d hold a radiograph pen in his right hand: he was a compulsive writer of marginal notes, so that the peripheries of his books’ pages crawled with the very neat and very tiny script he’d learned so he could write the names of insects on very tiny labels for his day job at the California Academy of Sciences.

All he wanted to know was everything. His tendency as a thinker was to zoom out to the ten-thousand-foot view, so that - for instance - the behaviors of a society appeared as patterned, predictable until inevitably violently disrupted, as any other product of nature. It was becoming his ambition, now, to scour the globe for any evidence, any indication, that The Secret of DMT had been known—whether to a mystical order or a spiritual visionary or a raving artist-genius—before 1955, when the molecule (organically present, and ubiquitous, in plants and animals) had first been synthesized in the laboratory, by the Hungarian chemist Stephen Szara.

He burned to solve this riddle of reality (and did not see why he shouldn’t succeed). He would search high and low for a hint, a taste. There was nothing else that announced itself with such portent as DMT. It was the beacon.

The Experimental College’s curriculum lasted two years. In the fall of 1967, instead of beginning his junior year, Terence would take a sabbatical and go on a world tour. He was saving up the money he earned from the California Academy of Sciences.

He would travel to Nepal, where exiled Tibetan lamas might tell him something of how their thangkas (Buddhist iconographic paintings) had come to so resemble the hallucinations he unleashed when he dropped acid and then smoked hash—whether these religious visions were born of deep-meditation experience solely, or of forays into consciousness supplemented by psychoactive plants. He would trek through India, speaking with blunt doubtfulness to spiritual masters. And – though he did not yet know it – he would hopscotch the Indonesian islands, catching butterflies; casting his curious, dispassionate, unconvinced eye upon shamanic ceremonies that did not incorporate psychedelics; drinking gourds of beer, ceremonially presented to him upon his arrival in villages, consisting of chewed-up corn that local old women had spat into bowls and left to ferment overnight.

He would be a lone figure traversing alien landscapes. There was something to be found.

Terence was into the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, whose work addressed a rising feeling that global society was standing on a precipice, as though an invisible but intuitible hive-mind – or Overmind – was taking a long in-breath, to be followed by—whatever came next. Print, McLuhan argued, effectively was already a technology of the past, the spaciousness of written narrative having been supplanted by the instantaneousness of visual communication, horizontal thought having fallen to vertical. If the sixties were careening like a bobsled off its track, it was partly because the very style of human thought was upended and society was seeking a new mental dispensation. It was actually (thought McLuhan and McKenna) a moment in evolution, but expressing itself at the level of the organized community rather than at the level of the biological organism. After the moment had passed, a more enlightened humanity might appear. But a great redemption would not be brought about by idealistic educators whose rational arguments about justice appealed to heads without causing shifts in perception and in hearts.


Perhaps—if he sought a transformative insight with sufficient sincerity and clarity and fearlessness and fervor—perhaps, then, Terence could help to hasten this species-wide metamorphosis.


He would solve the riddle of reality. And he would write a book. It would draw upon McLuhan, Jung, Hinduism, American leftist rhetoric, Pink Floyd lyrics. He would go to some remote island in some lonely archipelago, where it would be possible to truly concentrate and to survey, in his mind’s eye, the country he would have left behind. He would not return to America until he knew something more than he knew now.

Even as he prepared to depart from Berkeley—the country's geographical and cultural antipode to D.C.—he prepared to carry Berkeley with him on his travels, just as he intended to carry something else back when he returned. Society was sick; he sought a remedy. Transcendence and transportation must occur relative to the place where one’s journey begins.

Yet he was less concerned with plans to return stateside in two months or two years, and with thoughts of what he’d do then, than with premonitions of the landscapes (within and without) that he soon would be traversing. “What is?,” Terence asked, and braced himself for any weird or unforeseeable, galvanizing or tenet-capsizing sight or sound or person or idea he might encounter. Sprawled out on his floor, drifting in hashish reveries, he dreamed of the months before him. He would trek where there were no paths. He would rappel down into caverns whose topography was uncertain. He would steer toward gathering breakers, prow plunging into the spray of smashing surf.

twelfth moon

Terence McKenna and the Secret of the Tryptamines

Chapter Two

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