[Trenchant Edges] Terence Mckenna, Colonialism, and *Lightning Crash* Cultural Appropriation
Confronting history means being honest with people's successes and failures.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes, 40 seconds. Contains 1535 words
Welcome everyone! Today I’m gonna be a bit controversial. Let’s jump right in:
Near the first thing that happens in Terence McKenna's psychedelic memoir True Hallucinations at the end of the first chapter is Terence describes meeting a 93-year-old black man in the Amazon. The man was the son of a freed slave who left the United States in 1883 and traveled to South America. Terence relates that he'd heard of the man, John Brown, in several books about the genocide perpetrated by the benefactors of the Rubber boom against the Witoto people in turn of the 20th century Peru and Columbia.
On one level, this seems a surreal thing for anyone to lead a book about realizing the wildest dreams of alchemists through tryptamine ecstasy to spotlight at the end of their first chapter. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
About The Trenchant Edges
Trenchant as in Trench, as in digging, as in depth. Edges like you find on maps and knives.
This is a reader-supported public research project. Every month or two, subscribers get to pick a research topic for me to plumb the depths of, and I write about it.
We're starting with Terence McKenna because of his popularity, legacy, and because I've meant to tackle his most significant ideas for a while, but little things like avoiding homelessness were more critical. This newsletter allows me to avoid another round of either living on the street or couch surfing and do some fresh writing.
We publish on Sundays for everyone, and subscribers get an additional email on Tuesday and Thursday, all at 10 am. If you want a subscription but can't afford it, please ask me to comp you one. I'm not thrilled by gating content, and getting emails opened and read is more important than a couple of bucks. And feedback is golden.
Anyway, I want to thank all of you for your attention and some of you for your financial support. This is the least gross way I could think of doing it, and I'm happy we've started with a bang.
So back to the important stuff.
An undeniable issue with Terence's writing is his only semi-critical engagement with anthropology's let's be charitable and call it clumsy relationship with indigenous spiritual practices.
A quick primer from memory: In the late 19th century, early ethnographies of Mongolian medicine men popularized the word shaman, which roughly means "One Who Sees At Night," as a catchall for indigenous folk practices of healing and religion. This artificial unified tradition was very 19th century in its assumption and implications.
Where these practices were presented as something of a shared tradition and failed competitor of world religions like Christianity or Buddhism, they universalized what in reality were practices that developed independently. Both were and continue to be very specific to the place and people who practice them.
Some of this baggage comes in the form of contempt borrowed from the Christian Missionary. And some of it takes on the opposite and yet somehow equally dehumanizing stance the various indigenous people who anything that reminded western academics of the Mongolian shaman were mythic miracle workers.
Terence falls into this latter trap. Perhaps too inspired by scholars like Mircea Eliade and the writings of Gordon Wasson.
At last, however, we can bring back the genocide into question.
Why does Terence start with a discussion of the blood in the soil he's walking on?
It's difficult to say at a glance. Still, we know True Hallucinations was written in the early 90s, late enough in the 20th century for the neo-shamanism" of figures like Michael Harner and Carlos Castaneda to be called into real harsh criticism. Terence was a pretty self-aware guy, so I figure he wanted to avoid the trap of mythologizing actual human beings living their damn lives.
But since his story was almost by definition a bit of colonizer adventurism, he could only mildly criticize it from within the tradition of strange encounters with foreigners on a journey in which his experiences belong. He, Dennis, and their friends were mostly white people looking to find and take the secrets of native folk practices and turn them towards their ends.
That those ends were esoteric and not economic doesn't change the dynamic.
To Terence's credit, at least in the retelling, he seems aware that it's fucked up that he's even doing this. But avoiding being the ugly American doesn't mean he avoided all the pitfalls.
I know when I first read True Hallucinations, I was mesmerized by his description of the shaman, " the shaman is not merely a sick man, or a madman; he is a sick man who has healed himself, who is cured, and who must shamanize to remain cured."
As a sick man who has healed himself, I found this version of shamanism immediately appealing. But it's very much an outsider's generalization and not part of a living relationship with a community or culture. And that's kinda the problem with all neo-shamanism. By erasing the relationship to community, people can gain whatever insights and powers one can but while leaving the people who pioneered their methods to their fate.
And if you know anything about how settler-colonial states treat indigenous people, you know that's criminal. Google "Broken treaties" for some background on this subject. Here's a link to get you started.
So while Terence may be a bit ahead of some of his fellows in at least trying to get people to think of indigenous people as having real problems and rich inner lives, that is, as actual human beings. He still ends up reinforcing a lot of stereotypes.
You'll notice I haven't used the scary term "Cultural appropriation" yet. And that's cause it's pretty obvious how it applies. Terence was probably acting in good faith, but still kinda walked into the jungle to take something from the people who lived there. What he got was a lot weirder than that.
He seems to have wanted to do better, but it doesn't seem like there's a way to do the kind globetrotting hunt for real mysteries without falling back on privilege. Avoiding it would require building a stable, long term relationship with a small number of communities and magnifying their voices in the global macroculture. And that ain't really what Terry did.
So in this, we have to consider Terence a cautionary tale. It won't be the first time.
Good intentions are merely the beginning.
Terry vs. Tropes
But we've skipped over a bit worth exploring. A bit where it's hard to tell if Terence was employing a hackneyed literary device or if he just had a hackneyed literary device happen to him.
The latter is undoubtedly a risk of living.
I speak of whether Terence met John Brown, the 93-year-old "living legend," he describes both meeting Brown and reading about him. They spoke of La Chorrera and Ayahauscha and oo-kk-he and the living history the man represented to Terence.
Terence's framing of their meeting is explicitly mythic, terming him a living legend and ending their encounter by describing Brown as a "gatekeeper of the Plutonic realm downriver." This is a longstanding cliche in American literature called The Magical Negro, where some wise and conveniently helpful black person exists in a narrative for the sole purpose of helping the white protagonist get what they want.
So was this a real event? Or did Terence happen to meet a particularly knowledgeable old man who happened to be both black and written about in several sources Terence had read?
I don't know. It doesn't seem likely. The upper Amazon is pretty big. But perhaps it's to be expected that someone with intimate knowledge of the place Terence wanted to go would live along the way to it.
In any case, I've spent a lot more time on pages 10-12 of True Hallucinations than I intended on, lol. But it's such a weird choice. It demanded more attention.
Here's a list of the sources Terence gives: Thomas Whiffen's Explorations of the Upper Amazon, W. E. Hardenburg's The Putumayo: The Devil's Paradise, Roger Casement's report to the Royal High Commission about the atrocity, and Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wildman.
He also lists the Colombian historian John Estacion Rivera as someone who tells the story differently, implicating Brown in the murders. But for some reason, he doesn't mention a specific source.
My google-fu failed finding much in the way from Rivera, but that might be a failing of my not reading Spanish.
What I appreciate about Terence is his life puts a ton of relief on some of the thornier issues any would-be "psychonaut" will have to deal with. Nobody wants to deal with the legacy of colonialism, and that's kind of the problem. But we must confront it head-on.
That's the only way we're going to be able to recognize and work our way out of this awful bloody mess our ancestors have left us.
And I'd be pretty remiss if I wrote this without pointing that I am living on stolen land, and if you live in North America, you probably are too.
That topic requires more attention than we have here, so here's the inevitable Teen Vogue article on the subject.
I hope you enjoyed this discussion, and I'd love to hear your feedback.
How can we thread the needle between repeating colonialist assumptions or power dynamics and engaging with native communities?