Estimated reading time: 10 minutes, 37 seconds. Contains 2126 words
Welcome to Trenchant Edges, where we take deep dives into fringe culture to see what's worth bringing back. This is the first email so things are a bit wobbly and I overwrote it by about a thousand words.
So, if we're going to discuss Terence Mckenna's work and his impact, we should put it in the context of my experience. How else can you judge my assessment if you don't know where I stand now or how I got here?
I wrote this email at 8pm on June 27th from memory in about 90 minutes and spent about as long editing it for clarity. The only thing I've fact-checked was the date of his trip to the Amazon, which I'd gotten wrong. So if the details are a little wobbly, we'll find out soon enough.
I first tried psychedelics at 26, after years of exploring weird states of consciousness. Meditation, yoga, chaos magic, and dabbling in the occult. In 2008 I dropped out of college to chase my first true love, and we went crazy for a year or two.
By October 2010, we fell apart and I had a spiritual hangover as I left Seattle to return to Pittsburgh, where I grew up. I licked my wounds and tried to figure out what I was going to do now that seeking enlightenment was off the table.
Not knowing what to do with time, I drifted.
After spending a few months living at Occupy Pittsburgh in 2011, I moved into the city. I started walking in the 'burgh's spiritual circles. Soon, I found the local chapter of scumbag Daniel Pinchbeck's Evolver organization. I made some new friends, volunteered at the convergence event, and listened.
I wasn't ever a Terence True Believer. I was familiar with the History Channel mentioning him about 2012, and I dismissed his work with the rest. Even despite his ideas about DMT coming up in the occasional comics I liked. By mid-2012 when more people anticipated December revelations, I fell back on my customer service training. I smiled, listened, asked the occasional question, and gently changed the subject.
But soon I realized I'd have a rare opportunity: I'd get to watch people deal with a failed prophecy up close. Most people didn't disappoint in confronting the nonevent. Some of the gurus, especially Daniel Pinchbeck did. But I'd expected that. Clay feet of would-be prophets and all that.
And in 2013, a friend of a friend introduced me to psilocybin, which was a delight. I realized the weirdness I'd handled and the frustration and alienation from mainstream society I felt weren't about me. It affected more groups than the quasi-spiritual new age milieu I'd run in my crazier days. Denizens of Psychedelia dealt with the same things and more.
So I started to research and learn, and by late 2014 I was binging Terence talk I could find. I read his books, and I joined the Terence Mckenna Experience Facebook group, where I've been a mod since mid-2015.
The Psychedelic Community
What I found was intriguing but lacking. Terry talked a great game, but there were many holes in his theories. Was his spiel on DMT elves so influential that expectations it imposed his trip on the whole field? I marveled at the scope and felt-depth of his timewave ideas and was shocked at how shallow the discussion around them usually was.
Terence, as his closest friends and family say, was quite the psychedelic bard. But there are good reasons why they don't call him an ethnobotanist or a scholar.
Like many of the best thinkers, he was more useful as a source of other thinkers than as a source himself. While his big ideas were mostly held together with tape and string, his smaller ideas were great. Many hold up today. Take it easy, man, but take it. Learn the difference between shit and Shinola. Nature loves courage. Or that Doubting Thomas' skepticism made him the only apostle to touch the resurrection body of Christ. Language creates reality.
And even some of his medium-sized ideas are great. My favorite being the story of another universe made of antimatter that will someday collide with ours. Only the photon, with no antiparticle, will survive. A universe of light, a physics solution to an alchemical promise of yesterday.
Or his support for large, focused doses. Or a dozen other things.
If Terence skimped on the details of his significant ideas, he more than made up for it in scope. He and Robert Anton Wilson got me to take James Joyce seriously for the first time. Alchemy, anthropology, history, pulp literature, and so many other subjects.
And if I go to Terence as a critic now, it's a mark of respect. Few of his ilk, let's call them by the near-Orwellian name of Thought Leader, are worth the time.
So, at last, we must discuss the part of his theories I've avoided. The Timewave. Novelty theory. Two interlocking ideas; an attempt to leverage the ecstasy of tryptamine visions into a new physics, built on solid math. Here to blow the doors off the scientific establishment.
That it didn't quite go that way doesn't diminish the value or ambition of the theory or its beauty as an intellectual art object.
But now I'm indulging in Terry's style of rambling old head jibberish. First, we must make sure everyone is up to speed.
What is the Timewave?
Well, it's a squiggling line Terence claimed described the fractal nature of time. Building off modern particle physics, Terence agreed you can't predict what's going to happen. But he said you could, with the timewave, know how much novelty was coming into being at any moment.
Physics, Terence said, is a novelty-conserving engine. Starting from those first fragmented scraps of time at the beginning, the universe became more complex and interrelated. Expanding and developing new forms. Painfully slowly, the cosmos we recognize today came into being: Stars, galaxies, nebula, black holes, and so on.
A short ten or eleven billion years later in one unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the milky way, something changed.
With it, the scale and speed of complexification kicked up a notch. No more merely playing out the first or second-order consequences of physics, life added a genetic game to the universe. And that game accelerated through geological eras I don't know the names of down to something very peculiar in the last 100,000-200,000 years: An otherwise insignificant ape descendant started behaving funny.
It took a little while to catch on, but by about 36,000 years ago, the change started to take hold. The genetic game had advanced to the point where it produced a new emergent level: The cultural game.
Where the genetic game occurs on the scale of millions of years to stellar development's billions, cultural development advanced at the breakneck pace of thousands of years. Starting to see a pattern?
Terence did too. Armed with Buckminster Fuller and Alvin Toffler, he recognized time was speeding up. But where they saw mere technological side effect, Terence saw the accelerating complexification as the very meaning of creation itself. Not only complexifying, but drifting exponentially closer towards a singularity. Drawn to the strange attractor, the past warped towards the future. Repeating the same shape, again and again, faster and faster.
And what was that fractal shape?
Let's go forward in time a bit to 1971, when Terence, his brother Dennis, and a few of their friends went into the Amazon to seek Yage. The traditional psychoactive medicine we now call Ayahausca. Instead, they found immense quantities of psilocybin-containing mushrooms. Dennis went a little... out there for a month or so. And they came back with some unusual ideas about time and space. Terence wrote this oft-ignored introduction to the fractal shape of time as his second book, The Invisible Landscape.
To skim over many things, Terence asked the Mushroom for something he'd be able to take to scientists to prove it was an intelligence. It told him to look at the King Wen sequences of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination tool.
He soon recognized the King Wen sequence had unusual characteristics: Among them, at no point is there a pair of characters with five differences between their hexagrams. He then extrapolated this into what Dennis Mckenna now describes as an embedded lunar calendar. I've forgotten some of the details of how he does this.
So Terence read and thought and concluded that the Chinese sages who developed the I Ching Oracle were as obsessed with time as modern scholars are with energy. And they developed similar levels of sophistication, as you don't need giant atom smashers to understand what kind of time it is. This view lead him to consider the Oracle a map of the types of time, 64 in total. I wonder if that conflicts with more traditional knowledge about the I Ching, but I'm utterly ignorant there.
What does all this have to do with the timewave?
Terence used the King Wen sequence's orders of difference to create the timewave, something we'll get into the nuts and bolts of in the article.
The long and the short of it is the timewave predicts an eventual endpoint of infinite novelty. Terence tweaked the endpoint a few places, eventually settling at the end of the last Mayan Long Count Calendar Baktun.
From there, you know the story. Much hope was put on that day, the same millenarian expectation Terence and his friends felt back in the Amazon in 1971.
And the same disappointment the world didn't hit anything approaching infinite novelty, staying closer to the merely accelerating curves of Fuller and Toffler.
Terence usually held these ideas to be scientific and mathematically precise. And so while his theory's big prediction apparently failed, the more significant failure was the psychedelic community.
The community, save a few holdouts, has dropped the timewave and novelty theory except as a curiosity. Absent a community of discourse to discover what went wrong and correct it; the timewave stands as just another pile of pseudoscience. Another reason for professional academics to roll their eyes when passionate amateurs try and contribute.
And that's sad. I mourn the loss of the promise of this silly idea.
But that's also why we should take the time to do what, as far as I can tell, none has yet dared to do: Perform a proper autopsy on this singular piece of intellectual art.
Even if they didn't fly, those pre-wright brothers flying machines sure were rad, right?
That's our objective here. To remove the parts of this machine so we can understand its mystique and the way Terence connected it all from the birth of the universe to its very end.
You may notice if you're a devout fan of Terence or the timewave that I've given a pretty loose account, perhaps missing whole parts. I never really explain why infinite novelty will be happening or what that even means or hell, I've not defined novelty or habit.
Well, the purpose of this far too long email is for me to unpack my biases, feelings, half-rememberings about Terence. Hence, we all have a frame of reference for the final product.
I don't think this is too shabby for an hour and a half of work. Most of these emails will be far, far shorter. But because this is our first real moment together, I wanted to dig deep into the subject. Having discussed Terry's successes and failures as often as I have, it's easy to assume I've got a comprehensive knowledge base.
But aside from whatever errors, which we will ferret out, remain I made a couple little mistakes like thinking Terence went to the Amazon in 1970 instead of 1971. And who the hell knows if my cosmological account is anything right. I'm a history nerd and copywriter, not a milkman Jim.
In any case, if you've made it this far, I want to welcome you again. I appreciate your joining me in this little ride and especially to those of you who have become subscribers.
I've wanted to purge this topic from my system for a year or two now, and your contributions have made it possible for me to really do it.
Alright. That's what I've got.
I hope to see you all next Sunday, and I'll see my subscribers (who now include my mom, lol, hi mom) on Tuesday. I probably should have spent more time setting expecations and elaborating on a plan or something here, but oh well. All is imperfect and so on.
-SF, Trenchant Edges
P.S. If you like the email and have a couple bucks to spare, I’d appreciate it if you could pitch in. Every bit helps and I’ve had a blast writing it so I want to be able to continue without stalling my plans to move into my own place. If you can’t but want to, please reach out. I’m looking for some folks to donate subscriptions to the community.