Julian Palmer : A review of a review of “Food of the Gods”
I first came across this review of Terence McKenna’s book “Food of the Gods”, in a brief flick through Will Self’s book “Junk Mail”, a collection of his literary criticism and essays; much of these writings related to the subject of drugs.
Will Self, as far as I can ascertain, is a reformed and improbably elder (but still almost reigning?), enfant terrible of the English literary scene. He is perhaps most infamously known for shocking the press gallery by shooting up heroin on Tony Blair’s jet.
He can still commonly be observed writing what my red blooded Australian literary radar can only interpret as prissy little consolational pieces for most of the lefty English newspapers about nothing terribly consequential.
I first thought his review of Food of the Gods from “Pills-au-Go-Go” (a zine I think!) was a bit of a throwaway oddity not to be taken too seriously. Yet, actually people do take these sorts of things seriously…well maybe some English people do at least… sort of!
And then I happened across the full text of the review at deoxy.org, where they deemed his review of Terence’s book to be negative…
The front cover of the issue apparently says “Terence McKenna gets a new asshole.”And so then I thought a reply to all this contumely pablum was in order…
I thought the opening paragraph was classic:
Aldous Huxley, that veteran psychedelic experimenter, once said of his younger and more turbulent acolyte, Timothy Leary, ‘If only Tim weren’t such a silly ass…’ This could serve as a blanket condemnation for most of the philosophically inclined figures who owe their mind-set to the cultural revolutions of the sixties.
Isn’t that interesting… does Terence I wonder really “owe” his mind-set from the sixties? I think anyone who is astutely aware of Terence’s life work would consider that line to be quite obviously specious.
Notice the words “blanket condemnation”; as if being a silly ass was automatically grounds for blanket condemnation. Surely this must indicate some kind of a cultural relic of response, whereby any ass-like behavior must rouse deep bleats and bellowings of disapproval from the House of Lords within!
Of course, Aldous Huxley never bared his ass! He was too much of an English gentlemen in his parlorous, intellectually contained investigations of the refined corners of the psychedelic intoxication. Compared to Huxley’s priestly function, then of course Tim must be considered his lowly, foolish and “turbulent” acolyte!
I doubt Tim Leary would ever like to be cast as one of Aldous Huxley’s acolytes – history distinctly remembers them more as friends and co-conspirators of very different versions of psychedelic revolution. Aldous Huxley’s version maintained that psychedelics were only suitable for the “elite”; whereas Tim Leary’s model, which he essentially inspired into the history of the 60’s, contended that psychedelics, namely LSD, should be made available to all people!
The unsaid presumption would seem to be that Aldous is “one of our boys”; a strayed boy, but still one of ours, and that Tim was always just a stray. (certainly from that moment he was kicked out of Harvard I believe!)
Certainly Terence McKenna is a silly ass.
Of course, he is an American as well, although this would be too gauche and correspondingly obvious to mention.
The English have always referred to American’s in a somewhat pallid, supercilious, “say no more!” tone of voice; a tone that implies a blanket condemnation of all of those who are almost always, the eternally infelicitous…
Yet, Tim Leary’s gleefully ass like approach was likely a necessary embrace of perhaps more comprehensively Irish values (of which stock he was derived), rather than English values. These are gesticular and ironic values which has allowed the likes of Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Lord Byron, James Joyce; even Bono, to shamelessly and seriously playfully explore the nature of existential folly.
Terence McKenna, who at times resembled some kind of hyper cerebral leprechaun, was also of Irish blood. Could a being such a Terence McKenna, expansive in philosophy and free to verbally play… and not afraid to explore – ever exist within the stiff lipped civilization of the English?
And this apparent “foolishness”, perhaps somewhat innate within the field of new fields of existential exploration, is not necessarily a foolishness in which one is the victim to one’s own idiocy or ignorance, or subject to one’s embarrassment, or that of others! That type of foolishness is a particularly English phenomena, said to occur when repression and restraint are not observed! When “the rules” are not followed.
Of course, psychedelics will often give rise to a peculiar form of foolishness (which could even be deemed to be a form of psychosis) in those who choose to ingest such compounds; because the consequent states will often take a person out of their knowns, their boundaries, their certainties, their various mental accoutrement into a different order and balance of being… into which there usually must come at some point, an existential exploration – which in a mature sense, endeavors to gain a new and different perspective.
To the English social field, collectively recognized mental accoutrements are the prima facie base of correct being-ness, and to subvert their pole position is to incur condemnation for the occurrence of simply unacceptable behavior: that which threatens the often delicate social structures which determine how reality is collectively perceived and conjoined within a certain field of agreed intent and meaning.
Observing the psychedelic state in another person (and we’re talking of that most rare psychedelic experience these days – a fully potent dose!), you will often see a foolish person – foolish, because they no longer recognize the social structures of consensus reality, and they will often act as if such structures were non-existent.
Such a psychedelically intoxicated person is embedded within a field of being which often does not include any co-ordinates of understanding in which to deal with that state. This is because the incoming data is often entirely new, and there is often not a known way that one can actually deal with what is occurring in a way that one has known to deal with what has previously occurred!
Within the depths of the psychedelic state, ordinary prudence and common social navigational tools may no longer co-ordinate in any useful way the fresh data one is often experiencing. And the whole point of this state in what IT appears to impart in itself, is that it often requires an active dismembering of the status quo of acting and being in order to re-member and forge a unique and accurate living truthfulness with the manifestation of consciousness the psychedelic compound is evoking.
The first card in the tarot deck is represented by the fool beginning his grand journey by walking off a cliff. The fool must leave behind the rules of the old, he must indeed die to the old and risk everything in order to die to his past, in order to live, to traverse the journey through the arcane; which is in actual fact, the archetypal meat and meaning of the hero’s consequent path.
This cliff represents the unknown, and it also represents a deliberate step over the edge, into a let go, into the new – taken with complete trust and understanding, with the forsaking of traditional beliefs, ideas and rules which would impede a fresh apprehension of reality.
From “The Complete Book of Tarot” by Juliet Sharman-Burke:
The Fool seeks the truth, and turns his attention towards the spirit in search of truth. His madness or foolishness links him to the divine, for originally the word “silly” meant “blessed.” The fool is simple, trusting, innocent and ignorant of the trials that await him, yet he is prepared to abandon his old ways and take that leap into the unknown.
The English will often ordinarily avoid that first step into the unknown, they will very commonly hold back, and rarely admit that they don’t know what they are doing (even when it is clear they most blatantly don’t) and will often never take the journey through the ever shifting and morphous, possibly “turbulent” and dark truth of the mind, body, feelings… often perhaps preferring the serene film of life upon the calm cliff of mindful certainty, rather than risk a fall to the bottom of the gorge – where one may land on one’s ass and make an embarrassing fool of oneself! (where how much forgiveness will be found?)
How is one going to be a man my son! (if you are always losing your head in wonderland?) How are you going to dream and not make dreams your master, when they are coming alive in front of you?
The values of Rudyard Kipling’s aspirational “If” man are turned on their head in the psychedelic space. The extraordinary spacious vacuum of emotional and existential possibility in the psychedelic space, very suddenly mocks the rather limited value system of “keeping it altogether and not making a big deal, nor fuss about any of it!”
Any psychedelic explorer can tell you, yes, keeping it all together is one part of the equation, but actually it is often within the embrace of the wild imaginative initiative of exploration, that the most fruits are borne from this state. And part of this necessary play requires the deliberate embrace of the shadow, an embrace of the emotions and an embrace of the overall divine play itself – rather than maintaining the fearfully indirect framework of a “perverse obliqueness” that constitutes a major part of the English social disease! (very accurately described and diagnosed in Kate Fox’s brilliant popular anthropological book “Watching The English”)
Within Mr Self’s review, there is quite obviously an ever so slightly subterranean glee in finding a victim he can calmly sodomise with words as he brisquey foists them from a thesaurus, and critiques another just as surely HE is generally critiqued (which is apparently quite often) for being a silly ass! (just as I am critiquing him!)
And I think he knows well that nobody (at least within his known “scene!”) will contest him regarding these persuasions – because they too, will generally concur with these deflections against any ass-exposing imposter who would conjecture other-wise-dom to the assumated post-Oxforded literary orthodoxy!
Regardless, “psychedelic drugs” are seemingly already long since considered passe and declasse, and so then the “correct” attitude to take is one of mock, disdainful dissection of any impudent onspurt of that milieu… long since debunked as acid fried hippie idealism, naivity and delusion.
from Self’s review:
His theories are challenging and germane, the trouble is that McKenna develops it with a series of arguments that can be characterized as “T-Shirt Syllogisms.” One such is: “Agriculture brings with it the potential for overproduction, which leads to excess wealth, hoarding and trade. Trade leads to cities; cities isolate their inhabitants from the natural world.” This sounds uncomfortably like: “If I drink, I get drunk. If I get drunk I fallover. If I fall over…” etc.
Terence is not necessarily making a series of arguments, nor is his way of communicating based upon deduction, induction or reason as we know it. Typical Terencian “logic” IS often based upon a series of simple or complex observations, upon which he draws out a series of observational understandings or conclusions.
The listener or reader, is then able to draw upon their own perceptions to come to a place of understanding. Much of Terence’s work is provocative, and is multi-dimensionally challenging, because the heart of its inspiration arises from the multi-dimensionally challenging psychedelic space. Thus, for people who are aware of this multi-dimensionality, his words are quite validly arational – even transrational.
Terence’s words are in some sense, the word of a fool, a fool who has already thrown out the old ways and continually leaps into the unknown of the psychedelic state. To comprehend his thinking, as consisting only of syllogisms, is to seriously misinterpret and I think very much erroneously misunderstands Terence McKenna’s way of thinking, and of course it also discredits his status as a serious and rational thinker. Surely, to Self, the serious and rational thinker is the only one we should take rationally and seriously. But how do we,or how can we take the playful and arational thinker?
Terence McKenna always had something of a foot in both worlds, and himself appears sometimes a bit schizophrenic in terms of what he valued – and yet he was always trying to integrate these two worlds (rational/arational). You often had this feeling of someone who was trying to fit or make sense of the multi-dimensionally challenging, into a format which made sense to the logical western mind.
My common experience of listening to Terence McKenna’s talk is like hearing a tuning fork, and resonating with a thinker very much in tune with so many different aspects of the cosmos. Yet, Terence could also be out of tune I think, his dissertations often seem strangely blinkered at times, his thoughts trickle down into manic, kooky and stagnant backwaters, which I am not sure are often “germane” or “challenging”. But generally, the fountain and stream of consciousness upon which he is able to draw, is inspiring and refreshing to The Fool (as opposed to the rigid intellectual or scientist, who often seem to find his work confounding and irritating)
There is an element of reductionism in Terence’s communication… yet to reduce complex problems into their smaller parts is often part of the art of the communicator.
One can’t help but feel Self’s disdain for Terrence’s loosely worn T-Shirted outwardness, after-all, Terrence McKenna IS an American.
Clive James, an Australian media commentator based in London, once wrote, “In America, […] everyone thinks that a heart worn on one’s sleeve must be more sincere instead of less”
Terence cannot be accused of not being sincere, but to be TOO sincere within the English milieu, is to be the butt of undermining jokes, which is a peculiarly English cultural tendency, perhaps designed to get that heart back inside the mind, then covered back up by the formal, buttoned down garments of cultural accoutrementality.
And in this lies one of the admirable aspects of McKenna’s work: he is not a man who is afraid to join in the debate on drugs at a level, which implies giving positive account of the social and spiritual value of intoxication. Most contemporary writers fall foul of this, precisely because of their fear of being tarred with the Leary brush.
The fear of being tarred with assorted unwanted brushes is what typically makes the variously intellectual worlds go round! (in circles)
Yes, it is very clear that Self is not so keen to be tarred with the brush of the sorts who use incorrect sort of syllogisms for making “arguments”, and so then Terrence could never ever be taken “seriously” within what has already supposedly been established as the superior realm of what is what!
It seems to me that within the English literary scene, that this review is somehow considered Self’s territory… perhaps one that others would not even think of touching, when actually, Will Self may not really know what Terrence is talking of due a complete lack of experience or even enough background reading and understanding of psychedelics.
Self’s so-called tribe, the English literary scene, may well assume that he SHOULD implicitly know about all drugs, even psychedelic ones! Yet, as an ex-druggy, who then almost must be a denier of all “drugs”, how could Self give any credence whatsoever to Terence’s, indole tryptamine alkaloids as saviour story? Especially, when he can seemingly only relegate the value of all drugs “to the social and spiritual value of intoxication.” ?
This area seems far beyond his knowledge or understanding, and he is very far from the humility to admit this in the review, which only further makes him look foolish for pretending to be able to actually comprehend what Terence is saying at all!
McKenna doesn’t seem to see that his refusal to acknowledge the wholly reciprocal relation between human consciousness and drug “effect” (Leary’s concept of “set” and “setting,” which he quotes with approval), leads to a biological reductionism that smacks suspiciously of the kind of Scientism he is keenest to refute.
Such sentences, upon close inspection, just read as some kind of high brow blown gibberdy, designed to impress and cuttingly refute, but actually, upon closer inspection, are clearly, completely fallacious.
Nowhere is it clear that McKenna does not acknowledge a reciprocal relation between the drug “effect” and “human consciousness”… what kind of “biological reductionism” and “Scientism” Self is accusing Terrence of here, we cannot even really begin to guess. What “drug effect” has to do with Leary’s “set” and “setting”, we can never say, since his swift abbrevity has removed any sense of any actual focused meaning here.
Yes, the English will pretend to know even when they don’t… and then try to convince others of their false sense of knowing! In this case, it seems to me, that inbuilt mechanism of the reader will almost skip over the gibberdy, and pretend to know, even when THEY don’t, in order to not feel left out of Self’s superficially superior rampage of sagaciousness.
Self exploits perhaps that he can FOOL most of his readers into thinking he is more intelligent than they are or that even he knows what he is talking about – perhaps even the one’s who know what “set and setting” are, and even those who feel they should know what a reciprocal relation between human consciousness and drug “effect” is, or what it is not… and why that would or would not represent scientism and biological reductionsim.
And so now we are dragged into the realm of Alice in Wonderland illogic… no, the reader does not want to follow Self’s decoy rabbit down the hole in order to deconstruct or discredit Self, because that in itself looks foolish.
Indeed, that great Oxford scholar, Charles Dodgson, accurately described the first step of the fools journey as the fall down into the rabbit hole, famously including intoxicating beverages into the arch logical equation of what a journey beyond the known mind may actually entail!
On a more prosaic level, it is by no means certain that the plant alkaloids McKenna so reveres, “play an active part in the plant organisms they occur within.” This would be crucial to his Plant/God theories McKenna is promoting.
Well, actually I don’t believe that this theory is at all crucial to his “plant/God theories”…(frankly I have no idea what they could be!) The truth is we really don’t know why many plants contain psychoactive alkaloids or what they are actually doing in those plants. But I cannot see how whether psychoactive plant alkaloids having an active role in the plants or not, could be crucial to the legitimacy of Terrence’s theories. Generally, the plant alkaloids are impressive enough in their effect on the humans, that perhaps it doesn’t essentially really matter why they are in the plants, no matter what your theories are on the resultant state of consciousness. What this has to do with “God” is anyone’s guess…
It could well be that DMT for example, is only in plants to repel insects and stop them from eating the plant. However, many plants, such as the Acacia species, seem to protect themselves from ants and other threats very well without any alkaloids present in their bark or phyllodes – DMT or not! However, there are quite a few Acacia species that contain DMT…why some Acacias produce DMT and why it is there is usually considered a mystery.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation, considering the nature of the molecule and its effect on the human organism, is that the DMT has an active function or purpose in the natural makeup in the plant. If the DMT is something like “junk DNA”, which has no purpose or function at all… then the plant is expending a lot of its resources creating something for which it has no purpose or reason to produce.
But I digress, Self is right, it is by no means certain that the alkaloids play an active role in the plant, but this is a very esoteric topic, one that very people in the world have actually explored to any significant degree. And I think it is a very quibbling, minor and obscure critique, if indeed we can even see exactly what Self is trying to critique here, and in this case, it is not at all clear what that could be!
In “Food of the Gods”, McKenna argues persuasively for a freeing of the market in drugs, remarking pithily at one point that, “any society that can tolerate the use of a drug such as alcohol, can cope with just about anything.” But it’s a shame his monomania for shrooms didn’t allow him to recall that Bwitiists, the Fang adherents to the only extant psychedelic religious ritual in the Old World, hold that the “ecstasies” they achieve through chanting and drumming are superior to those induced by ibogaine, one of McKenna’s precious harmaline alkaloids.
Self’s slenderly veiled venom is clearly misplaced… Ibogaine is not a harmaline alkaloid! Harmaline is in fact an alkaloid specifically called “harmaline” and not a class of alkaloids. Nor are harmaline alkaloids more precious to him than tryptamine alkaloids, which are clearly valued more highly by Terence than any other alkaloids. And neither is Ibogaine afforded a particularly high status in Terence McKenna’s theology- in fact, I doubt that Terrence even took Ibogaine in his lifetime, or at least, I am not aware he ever mentions the experience firsthand. When mentioning Ibogaine in talks he would be somewhat dismissive of it as I recall!
Again, the reviewer only understands drugs from the perspectives of “ecstasy”… or some other route of (semi) deviant escape. Anyone who has done research with Ibogaine, or has taken it (not all that many people in the west!), knows it is not AT ALL a compound that delivers ecstasy onto the person who takes it – at any dose, high or low. Ibogaine is a compound that brings a deep, genetic and obviously spiritual investigation into the self.
I wonder what Will Self would get out of taking Ibogaine?
He is after-all, perpetutally described as a recovering hard drug addict.
Anyone who has read Food of the Gods” knows that every drug and plant Terence talks of previously, leads up to the pivotal triumphant “answer” of all of humanities conundrums: tryptamine consciousness!
Considering that ibogaine has been used in the west primarily for digging up the roots of drug addiction out of the users past, and is probably the most effective drug addiction treatment, synthetic or natural, known to man – It seems rather ironic here, that Self has singled out ibogaine to make points against McKenna which are actually completely unfounded.
Drugs like ibogaine should not be made legal because they bring ecstasy, or nor should any drug be made legal because it brings about ecstasy, but because they allow us to see and know ourselves, and to engage in an active process of engaging into psychic, emotional and bodily wholeness and health.
Perhaps Mr Self should consider that people commonly take psychedelic drugs for other reasons than to escape themselves or achieve a false sense of poisonous bliss commonly called “intoxification.”
McKenna is an active guru. His ideas chime in with the lifestyles of the growing numbers of New Agers, or “Archaic Revivalists” as he would term them. And for that reason it is depressing to conclude that if — as one of McKenna’s source thinkers, Marshall McLuhan, opined — the medium is the message, then we have a steadily lengthening, ever-billowing cosmic clothesline of McKenna’s T-shirt syllogisms to look forward to.
These types of unsubtle, sanctimonious, and somewhat sneaky forms of pseudo humorous emotional associations are a bit too transparent to me at least, and come across to me as pathetic, lazy, overtly disassociated negative typecasting…
Clearly, Self does not know even one and half percent of the thinking of Terence McKenna. It is unfortunate that Terence never truly published his thoughts, only his more grand theories into the written form. His thoughts are readily discovered on many hundreds hours of his recorded talks and video and perhaps his ideas are best digested in these media.
And of his ideas, of “DMT as savior”, 2012, timewave zero, the hyper-dimensional art object at the end of the time, and so on, to me, pale, compared to the sheer insight and brilliant thinking demonstrated in his talks.
Terrence though, is only really perhaps getting back some of his own medicine here. In talks he would quite regularly completely dismiss those whom almost none now would ever own up to being – the ever rose quartzed and crystallized as corny and stoopid New Ager!
I am sure many readers, as appalled as they are by that most unrigorous bunch of absurdly foolish featherbrained believers,(New Agers) that you would not want to be tarred into becoming one of “them”. Surely this specific form of stereotyping is one of the oldest one-upmanship tricks in the books published since 1975!
The medium and the message, in this case, Terrence innately proposes as the mushroom (or other tryptamine bearing plant)… a fact self avoids by facetiously interpreting Terence’s schtick as an infinite drying laundry of conceptual misinformation, arising from the mere weavings of the verbal mind.
The mushrooms in fact deconstruct the verbal mind and then build it back into a new form. This process of always returning to an unknown beginning, may in fact be threatening to the known verbal mind and its associations. This threat seems so evident in this case, that the reviewer is seemingly only able relegate McKenna to the cute and comforting status of intellectual misadventurer, rather than actually addressing the very valid medium that McKenna is asking us to investigate – tryptamine consciousness.
After closely scanning this review, it seems clear to me that the writer hides his lack of direct experience within clever supercilious devices in order to avoid direct confrontation with true cultural and ontological insecurity. And what’s worse, he cajoles his readers into his evidently false sense of erudite invulnerability.
He exploits his readers unwillingness to delve into his gibberish disguised as an almost seductive quippogous superiority, when in fact his most evidently confused arguments are mostly shallow and spurious. And moreover, there is a snide edge of negligence present in this review, perhaps because it is deemed that nobody will see or care…
It’s all nips and tucks and dips and ducks or other literary review tactics already hard won by others perhaps… yet a review and evaluation of the actual meat of an actual book written by Terence McKenna work is almost completely absent here. And we would hope that is the least we could expect as a review of one of the most original thinkers in known human history.
In the face of Terence McKenna’s thoughts, and his encouragement to discover the truth within the field of consciousness afforded by the plants, to discover the living truth for ourselves… who are Plato?, Aristotle? Voltaire? Nietzsche? Wilber? They are maybe only merely artifacts of the askew nature of the male western mind divorced from the living and direct crucible of Gaian intelligence.
In Self’s review we only really have this internally divorced series of propositions removed from a selectively chopped up content, from which the writer has already decided from the outset it seems, that “this sort of thing aint my bag, baby!” And the sad thing is, that many of his readers have then already decided that for themselves too.