Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges my friends.
We’re a weekday Email Newsletter where we dig through artifacts of fringe culture to see what’s worth keeping.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 0 seconds. Contains 1400 words
Our topic today was going to be the differences between Terence and Dennis McKenna’s 1975 edition of The Invisible Landscape and their 1994 edition.
There are only two problems with that topic.
I only got about a third through the book.
So far there aren’t really much in the way of differences.
I’ve been reading the editions a few paragraphs at a time and trading back and forth to see if there’s any difference and so far I’ve not found anything worth talking about unless you count formatting and the neat timewave line in the 1994 edition.
Instead, we’re just going to talk about the first section of the book.
Mind, Molecules, and Magic
One of the most important things to understand about Terence and Dennis’ experiences in the early 70s is they took place in the direct wake of the death of their mother, which Terence had to be out of the country for because of his, uh, smuggling issues.
You can read about that in our post last year, Terence Mckenna The Criminal.
The book itself is dedicated to her memory.
What I’m saying is the McKenna boys were already primed for extreme experiences through grief. They weren’t seeking a kind of transcendental escape from history by accident.
It is, perhaps, not an accident that in the story of The Experiment at La Chorrera, the members of the expedition least affected by grief were the most skeptical of Dennis’ wild ideas. Extreme thoughts and feelings can push one to extreme edges of consciousness in ways none of us really understand and Dennis’ cosmic voyage over weeks is certainly a head above most drug-induced episodes I’ve heard of in potency.
Anyway, this section of the book is about laying the foundation. In short, it’s about an act of Shamanism, a consciously induced act of extreme consciousness alteration.
Terence starts by sketching a view of the archetype of The Shaman. Now, I’m going to set aside the cultural appropriation/colonialist assumptions built into Terence’s view of the Shaman. I am poorly placed to take that myth apart.
Let’s leave it as understood that European scholars generalized Mongolian folk medicine practices to create a somewhat too big and somewhat too constrained idealized image of a spectacularly variable social role. Local magic for local people isn’t something you can really generalize. Even the magic part.
So, accepting that this is a cartoon used to frame The Experiment in La Chorrera in a way that a materialist skeptic can contextualize the rest of the book, let’s talk about it:
The first two chapters are sketching an image of who the Shaman is and what he does.
TLDR: The Shaman is a sick person who has healed himself and must heal others to remain healed.
The second chapter hands our imagined materialist reader an archetype to compare with The Shaman: The Schizophrenic, which I’m also going to treat as a cartoon because nobody really needs to take 50-year-old ideas about mental illness seriously.
What these cartoons share is an acute sickness focused on internal content rather than the external, phenomenological world. Seeing things others can’t. They differ by social context and integration.
For The Shaman, there are people who recognize the signs of an abrupt initiation and can find an expert to guide them through the trauma and confusion.
Where the schizophrenic only finds hostile materialism accusing them of being crazy.
It’s not hard to see why one might produce more functional people.
To borrow a quote from Mircea Eliade Terence uses to set up the healed-who-must-heal frame:
“Whether they still are or are not subjects to real attacks of epilepsy or hysteria, shamans, sorcerers, and medicine men in general cannot be regarded as merely sick; their psychopathic experience has a theoretical content, for if they have cured themselves and are able to cure others, it is among other things, because they know the mechanism, or rather, the theory of illness.”
Now, Eliade and Joseph Campbell are fairly dubious figures in their own rights and Terence inherits much of Eliade’s mistakes in his own work. Mostly in the reification of a vast range of cultural practices into simplified categories. If anyone wants me to go into those criticisms, we can. Just comment to let me know.
The point of all this is that Dennis, during the experiment, was himself playing a kind of Shamanic role: Blending chemistry and mind to perform magic. Of course, he was doing this enmeshed in deep ignorance about what forces he was working with.
From Archetypes To The Hard Problem of Consciousness
With the connection between the superhuman magic of the Shaman and mind firmly connected in the first two chapters, chapters 3-5 are about laying out the Mind and Molecule connection.
Chapter 3 starts off as a proto philosophy of science critique of past assumptions broadly in line with Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Big networks of interrelated ideas coalesce around research projects and these become harder to change over time. Eventually, enough counter-evidence accrues to force them into a crisis, at which point competing networks fight to explain the subject, and eventually one wins.
Really, it’s just saying, “Hey skeptic, maybe see where this goes before dismissing it?”
The rest of the chapter lays out a synthesis of Alfred North Whitehead’s Process philosophy with the basic foundations of the scientific method. I’m not going to focus on it because, frankly, it’s not very well developed compared to modern ideas along the same lines: re; complexity, chaos, networks, and nonlinear processes.
Chapter 4 posits a rough version of Holographic Brain Theory, which one must admit was very much ahead of its time. This might be the thing Terence got the most right, or at least most interesting.
Sparing you the details of holography (which you should look up because it’s weird and fascinating), the basic principle here is that the whole of a hologram is contained in each of its parts. So if you have a holographic plate, and cut off a section of it, you’ll get the same image as the whole plate just at a lower resolution.
There’s a mess of fields trying to apply the whole-contained-in-parts principle to everything imaginable, from the workings of the brain to the universe itself. I tend to think this sort of thing is probably true but don’t pretend to understand holography well enough to really apply it to anything.
Terence suggests at the end that the brain’s holographic content exists in a fourth physical dimension made up, roughly, of mind. And the brain allows us to seek through this field and focus on what’s relevant.
I actually totally agree with this. Seems like minds are both immense and eventually tie together somehow and a shared dimension of unimaginable scale would explain that pretty well. The prevalence of experiences of telepathy in certain altered states would seem to suggest this, and the scale involved would account for the difficulty of maintaining such connections.
Chapter 5 is the most technical chapter and the one where Terence basically loses me.
He proposes something called Electron Spin Resonance which I aggressively do not understand as the physical mechanism to unite the holographic dimension of mind with the biochemistry of the brain. Every explanation I’ve read of this both from Terence and anyone else just leaves me more confused.
ESR is some kind of magnetic-ish force that can be measured in unpaired electrons. It’s a real thing, but when Terence talks about it I get very muddled. I can’t tell if this is because I’m too ignorant of physics to really get it or if he’s just bullshitting.
This kinda sucks because ESR is the crux of the Experiment at la Chorrera. It’s the mechanism by which Dennis intended to, roughly, bind psilocybin transformed into a superconductor to create an, uh, kind of bioavailable philosopher’s stone.
Might have to talk w/ a couple of friends with a much better grasp of physics than I do to try and understand this stuff rather than just kinda putting it into the black box of things I handwave.
If you’ve got expertise in physics, let me know. I’d love to pick your brain about this stuff.
Anyway, the rest of this section is going through the Experiment at La Chorrera which we’ve discussed at length elsewhere.
We’ll be seeing y’all on Monday.
Take care of yourselves and all that ;-)
Also meant to add: There is a Cervantes-like obsession in the McKenna brothers with the lovingly focused impossible task. Their attempts to execute actual alchemy are both earnest and batshit, and they know that, and like Don Quixote who has flashes of awareness, they keep at the doomed to fail delusional effort because it’s righteous to fail being wrong for the right reasons.
It’s all very baroque performance arty on some level.
Love your writing. It’s always evident that you’re both blisteringly bright and that you have done a lot of work on yourself, now in possession of the Authentic Person’s proper self assessment. It’s a subtle and uncommon pairing.
On the topic at hand, I really keep coming back to McKenna myself a lot because I just can’t make the man. He’s like some kind of bizarre inconsistency heuristic on all levels of his life. It’s abundantly clear he was comfortable working on collapses metaphors making mythos real.